Beijing Bound: The final stretch

I’ve arrived in Beijing. Hard to believe I’ve cycled from Dublin all the way to the far side of China. I won’t delve into that right now but will cover the final 1000km from Jingbian to Beijing where I passed through three provinces, a load of pollution, the ancient city of Pingyao and made a stop at a brothel. I’ll write another “reflections” post before I leave. WiFi isn’t great in the hotel so it has been a challenge to get this post up!

I left Jingbian after a day resting my sore achilles tendons. The rest was successful for my left leg, but sadly not my right. I don’t think I was quite upfront about how tough I’d found the previous week mentally – I was in a bad place and really hadn’t been enjoying myself at all and the sore achilles made things that bit worse. That’s how it goes, I know, I’ve been through it many times before, but at the time I felt particularly down. Anyway, the day off in Jingbian gave the aul brain a bit of rest too and I felt much the better for it. That’s long distance cycle touring for you: At least 50% mental, if not more!

I was destined for Suide, about 180km away on the secondary road, or about 160 on the highway. The choice was obvious. A guy chased me onto the highway and tried to get me off but I managed to get away. The highway was bliss compared to the previous couple of days: Peace and quiet. Little traffic and no one blaring their f*cking horns at me endlessly. That really fed into me being so down the previous week. I can’t describe how much the Chinese honk. Those bloody trucks. I was so happy on the highway. Admittedly, it was as dull a day’s cycling as you get but I was thrilled with the silence.

This happens me a quite a lot in China: Take a photo with my baby. Enda Kenny eat your heart out!

This happens me a quite a lot in China: Take a photo with my baby. Enda Kenny eat your heart out!

After about 100km the highway patrol lads showed up and I charmed them into leaving me be by taking photos with them, shaking their hands and giving a big smile. A big smile goes a lonnnngggg way in in China. It really does. At the 122km mark the cops showed up with a pickup truck. Four lads got out of the car, wanted me off the highway and were not taking no for an answer! I stood my ground, smiled like a moron and didn’t step off the bike. Chinese people are very proud and I explained I would “lose all respect at home” if I put the bike in the pickup. It was only 6km to the exit and I was being a bit of a brat to be honest. I kicked up such a fuss over a tiny distance but I was enjoying the argument! After about 20 minutes they relented, threw on the sirens and gave me an escort off the highway and into the town. They’d been threatening me with “punishment” at the side of the road, but then were taking photos, exchanging emails and even riding the bike (which he subsequently punctured, the cock!).

The cops who gave me an escort into the city. The chick in the middle worked on the toll booth and spoke English. Pretty cute too!

The cops who escorted me into the city. The chick in the middle worked on the toll booth and spoke English. Pretty cute too!

One of the cops who gave me an escort into town. He punctured my bike, the cock!

One of the cops who gave me an escort into town. He punctured my bike, the cock!

After the delay with the cops and fixing the puncture it was 6:30pm and I had 30km to go to Suide so I decided to pack it in and stay the night in Zizhou. Another day, another nondescript hotel. I missed the pipes under the road. Well, maybe not that much!

There was no chance of me getting back on the highway and it was probably for the best as the next section was made up of lots of long tunnels (a few km long in most cases) so I took the secondary road. What a great road! Firstly, it wasn’t too busy for the first 90km or so. I cycled through this tremendous valley passing people living in caves, actual cavemen! About 40m people in China live in caves, but some have satellite dishes, electricity and even UPVC windows! Mad looking! It was a tough day with a good bit of climbing but I really don’t mind going over mountains – what you put in going up, you usually get back going down and in the middle you get some great views, so I was a happy cyclist on a quiet country road. Great stuff!

Cave homes! These ones aren't very fancy but some have satelite dishes and UPVC windows!

Cave homes! These ones aren’t very fancy but some have satelite dishes and UPVC windows!

After 90km the traffic returned, and sadly, the bloody pollution. The road had a layer of black coal dust and the smog was thick. I arrived in Lvliang and after checking into the hotel I saw my face was black with soot. Yuk.

My leg was so sore getting onto the bike in Lvliang. I’d only 2 doses of Ibuprofen left, which I’d been rationing for a week as I couldn’t find more anywhere. I ended up using my last strip of duct tape (thank you Ailbhe!) as improvised athletic tape and took a massive dose of suck it up. Pingyao was 120km away and I felt every kilometre. The pollution died off after Lvliang and I climbed up gently to 1700m. The road was wedged with trucks crawling up at 5kph and to ease the load on my leg I’d grab onto a truck, take a quick tow for 50m then spring off it and up to the next. I did this the whole way up getting thumbs up and waves from the friendly truck drivers. This is the truck driver paradox: They absolutely ruin the ride with their constant honking and I curse and spit and throw the bird at them, but then when I get close to them they’re all smiles and waves and just lovely guys. Since Turkey, truck drivers have been a constant source of smiles, waves and sometimes company in desolate places. I just wish they wouldn’t honk those feckin’ horns so much.

Improvised strapping for my achilles tendon. It was somewhat successful!

Improvised strapping for my achilles tendon. It was somewhat successful!

I hopped between trucks on the climb, grabbing onto each for a few seconds then shooting up to the next one. Leap frog!

I hopped between trucks on the climb, grabbing onto each for a few seconds then shooting up to the next one. Leap frog!

Anyway, I got to the top, whacked on the helmet, then zipped down the other side taking the racing line and carving my way through the trucks, whose brakes were smoking with the load of braking into the hairpins. Not the fastest descent at about 65kph but the hairpins were great fun. Mountains are by far the best form of cycling – you get great views and adrenaline pumping descents in return for a tough slog to the top. Absolutely worth it, unless it’s raining!

The view at the top of the climb. Nice.

The view at the top of the climb. Nice.

About halfway down two trucks had collided in a bad way. It didn’t look good. The cabs were destroyed and at those speeds it’s hard to see anyone surviving. I felt genuinely sad – as I said before, as much as the truckers drive me bonkers with their horns, they’re a universally friendly bunch who add to the journey overall. Just a couple of lads out earning a wage. Tragic.

The two trucks after they crashed

The two trucks after they crashed

The one nearest seemed the better off. Behind it you can't see much of the cab of the other because it wasn't there. Looked nasty.

The one nearest seemed the better off. Behind it you can’t see much of the cab of the other because it wasn’t there. Looked nasty.

I arrived in Pingyao after battling a headwind for the final 45km and headed straight for the top rated guesthouse in the Lonely Planet and wasn’t disappointed. Mr. Deng spoke perfect English, welcomed me in, immediately giving me a glass of water and insisting on me sitting and resting. He was fully booked but saw I was wrecked, covered in soot and found a room for me. I couldn’t help but notice the stares of the westerners as I dragged the bike through the courtyard and Mr. Deng asked me where I’d cycled from. I felt ever so slightly smug replying “Ireland”, loud enough to be heard. I’m a humble person, honestly! In all seriousness though, I was really proud to have Dublin2Beijing on the frame of my bike having cycled here solo and on my own penny.

The walls of ancient Pingyao. I was happy to see them - shelter from the wind!

The walls of ancient Pingyao. I was happy to see them – shelter from the wind!

Pingyao didn’t disappoint. I’d been on the cheap food-wise lately and splurged on a couple of burgers and several overpriced beers in a bar almost exclusively catering to Westerners. The city itself is an ancient walled city wedged with Chinese tourists, every sort of knock off souvenir tat and of course plenty of sights within. I’m not great when it comes to visiting historical sights – I tend to forget them as soon as I leave so I was glad to make use of my old student card and got the city ticket for half price. The sights weren’t anything special for me, but after blazing across this huge country seeing little I was quite content to be a “normal” tourist for once, blending into the crowd and only occasionally being pointed at and photographed. My hair seems to be a source of intrigue, so wearing a cap reduces my novelty ten fold.

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Pingyao was really the type of Chinese city you’d expect to see in a movie about ancient China and to be honest, it was the first place I’d seen with any character. It had tonnes of it! I really liked the place.

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Artsy fartsy Pagoda on the walls to the north of Pingyao.

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You never have to walk far in China to find someone sleeping.

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I found this really tranquil and peaceful garden away from the tourist trail in Pingyao. It’s hard to find a quiet spot in China, particularly as you go East.

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I just enjoyed wandering the streets in Pingyao. No cars, no honking, no pollution. Still noisy, but in a nicer and not “honk again and I’m going to pull that horn of your f*cking truck” way!

I found a supply of nurofen and some athletic tape to tend to my achilles so Pingyao as a final stop before Beijing had me feeling fattened up and ready to roll. The bike, on the other hand, was in its own state of disrepair. Just 600km to go, I figured I’d be okay!

From Pingyao it was the home straight. Nothing to see between there and Beijing. I powered out 150km, hitting a lightning storm at the top of my final mountain. It was blue skies in every direction except for the raging storm directly above me, lightning forking all over the place and me on a steel framed bike. Then there were the marble sized hailstones – in 30 degree heat! Weird stuff. After that I was repairing a puncture at the side of the road and the oddest thing happened: A 60 year old Western guy jogged past like it was the most normal thing in the world. In the middle of the Chinese countryside where no one from the West goes, I’m there fixing a puncture, he jogs by, nods and doesn’t skip a beat. I just stared at him like the locals do me. Then I checked into a brothel.

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A nice rainbow came out after the lightning storm. 🙂

So I roll up to this town after 150km, tired and dying for a bed. Any bed. I check into a hotel and it’s weird, but I don’t care. There’s a lot of blue neon lighting and nude paintings on the walls. Whatever. I’m in my room boiling the kettle for some much needed noodles and there’s a knock at the door. A foxy little Chinese girl is there and says “Can I help you with anything?”. No thank you. “Can I help you?”. No, no, I’m all good thanks. “Can I help you?”, No thanks – close the door. Then I notice the banquet of condoms on the table (how I missed them I don’t know). Then I remember the room is a “by the hour” rate, and the aul penny drops.

Moments later another knock at the door. The sexy chick is replaced by a bloke telling me I can’t stay there and I have to move hotel and 15 minutes later I’m in much nicer diggs 500m down the street, much to my relief!

450km to go, and looking at the elevation profile I was due an easy day of descending to sea level from 1200m. Not so! I was forced onto this god awful secondary road and the pollution. Oh the pollution. Words can’t describe it. I’ll let the pictures do the talking. At one point I had to go through a tunnel and I honestly thought I’d taken a wrong turn and was going into a coal mine. Words just don’t do the pollution on that road justice. Between the broken road and the filth I arrived in the capital of Hebei province absolutely shattered. The water in the shower ran black as I once again scrubbed the layer of grime off my skin. 300km to go.

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Coal dust is everywhere at the border of Shanxi and Hebei provinces. It covers everything.

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The culprits! Coal transport seems to be the main use of the roads in this area. 95% of the traffic is dumper trucks like these guys.

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Even the trees weep pollution.

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I saw this moth/butterfly looking thing and it reminded me of the Peppered Moth which I’d seen on a documentary. Essentially the Peppered Moth evolved from light grey to almost black during the Industrial Revolution in England. I wondered if the same thing happened these lads. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peppered_moth_evolution

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The entrance to the tunnel of doom and dust.

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The tunnel of doom and dust. Terrifying stuff – trucks couldn’t see me and I was convinced I’d made a wrong turn and was entering a mine such was the coal dust. Awful stuff.

Says it all really.

Says it all really.

The previous day my parents and extended family had held a very successful coffee morning raising €1150 for me so I set off in good spirits. The traffic soon put an end to that and I started contemplating trying to cycle all the way to Beijing that day (300km) just to finish sharing the roads with the worst drivers of the trip. At 145km the allure of a shower and a soft bed was too strong and those thoughts were swept aside. The only highlight of the day was listening to Jarlath Regan interviewing Ken Doherty on my current favourite podcast “An Irishman Abroad”, something I ration out to one or two episodes a day and I really love listening to it! Always inspires me.

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Another day, and more pollution. F*ck sake.

I was into a swanky business hotel in Baoding and just wanted to get to Beijing. I set off to do 120km to a small city on the outskirts of Beijing with a plan to do just 40km into the city so I’d be fresh arriving. When I got to the 120km point China threw up the usual bollox one has to deal with here and I couldn’t find a hotel to take a foreigner. Frustrated and eager to finish I set off like a scalded cat and hammered out another 40km and was in Tianemen Square by 7pm. With my Irish flag at the ready I went to get my photo in front of Mao’s portrait but the cops were having none of it and moved me on before I could even take a photo. All my photos are blurry because they kept me moving! F*ckers!

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Beijing Boundary. I’d done it, I’d cycled to Beijing (province at least, 60km to the centre!)

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It was nice for the Chinese to gather in such numbers to welcome me to Tian An Men square!

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Sadly the cops kept moving me on so I literally had time to grab one rubbish selfie after a 14000km cycle across 21 countries taking 7.5 months. I tried explaining this to the police. In return I was pushed away. Good aul China.

My good friends from Google had booked me a swanky 5 star hotel for the 6 nights I was to be in Beijing, but I was a day early. At the hotel they jacked up the room rate and I couldn’t afford to stay (especially checking in at 8pm! One must get their money’s worth!). More “no foreigner” bullshit in the chain hotels and my phone died so I couldn’t look up where to stay. I eventually found an affordable business hotel a couple of km from where I am now.

I was in Beijing. I’d done it. I’d cycled to Beijing from Dublin! A pint was in order, so I grabbed a cab over to Paddy O’Shea’s for some beer and pub grub for I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and had done 165km! As I walked in an old Irish guy was holding up the bar and I couldn’t escape. He was so odd. He kept talking to me in Irish and was talking pure nonsense. Then he did the strangest thing: He licked his thumb and rubbed it on my neck!!! WTF?! Thankfully a German lad showed up and I spent most of the night talking to him. I enjoyed a superb club sandwich, the likes of which I haven’t seen since Europe, but after 4 beers I was done.

The next morning I arrived at the swanky 5* hotel to be greeted by the bell boy who was expecting me and the bike! The manager came out to greet me in person and before I knew it I was in an absolutely beautiful room in one of the nicest hotels I’ve ever been in. Serious gratitude to the fantastic guys from Google. True friends.

My uber fancy 5* room in the Kingrand in Beijing. Thanks to my great friends in Google, without whom I wouldn't have the fantastic bike that took me here. Then they paid for me to finish in style. Great guys, great friends.

My uber fancy 5* room in the Kingrand in Beijing. Thanks to my great friends in Google, without whom I wouldn’t have the fantastic bike that took me here. Then they paid for me to finish in style. Great guys, great friends.

That covers the nuts and bolts of the final 1000km. I’ll do a final “reflections” post later this week if I can get a stronger WiFi signal as this has taken 5 days to get uploaded! I’m not quite done with the cycling though. I’m flying back to London where I’ll meet my brother, Anthony, and together we’re to cycle back to Dublin along the route I originally took from Wales. Since I took a train from Shrewsbury to London I’d like to cover that distance, and have a rake of beers with my brother! Also, the road in Wales was a b*stard in those storms, I’d like to vanquish that particular stretch and roll into Dublin the way I left!

I’ve done it. I’m in Beijing. If you’ve enjoyed following my posts, or even if you haven’t enjoyed them, you’ve read this far. I’ve been raising money for Crumlin Children’s Hospital, a truly worthy cause and the response has been tremendous. Maybe you’ll add to the pot. All funds go to the hospital and aren’t lost in admin bollox. Thanks to all the outstanding supporters and donors to the cause so far. The wind in my sails.

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Nearly There….

I expected to just have one more post on the route to Beijing, but an unplanned day off has given me time to write about the latest 600km.

After seven days trying to get our visas extended, James and I were finally on our way from Lanzhou, heading in the wrong direction! We’d taken a bus Eastwards from Wuwei to Lanzhou in a desperate bid to extend the visas, we were both determined to cycle every inch of this vast country so it was back to Wuwei.

We’d spent three frustrating hours in the visa office that morning. After racing to the bus station for the 12:00pm bus, barging through the X-ray scanners and finally at the bus we hit a brick wall in the form of a rather nasty bus driver refusing to take the bikes unless we paid him 100 Yuan. The tickets only cost 64 Yuan, so we were having none of it. He met a grumpy pair of Westerners who were unwilling to budge. In fact, things got quite heated! This is one of those Chinese oddities. After we’d haggled aggressively and agreed on 50 Yuan he was all smiles. Certainly not something I’m used to.

After the five hour bus journey it was too late to start cycling so we headed back to the hotel we’d spent three nights in before only to be refused!  We argued that we’d been there last week, had fresh visas etc… and they examined the visas closely. Then they managed to tell us “we are full”. GGRRRR!!!! Communication breakdown! It was third time lucky and into a cheap place with WiFi. Starving and dehydrated from the bus journey it was off to KFC for the last supper for James and I were to go our separate ways the next day.

James and I were sad to be parting on such a low. The visa extension was a costly example of what the bureaucracy in the countries I’ve gone through can be like. For a select few it’s plain sailing, but I’m yet to meet anyone since crossing Turkey that hasn’t a visa story to tell. Anyway we had a last man hug and wished each other the best. It turns out we’d both need it for the weather had taken a serious turn for the worse – it was bucketing down rain and the wind was once again against me.

Happy to have the visa sorted, not happy to be facing some awful awful weather!

Happy to have the visa sorted, not happy to be facing some awful awful weather!

Mr. Finnerty, looking ridiculous!

Mr. Finnerty, looking ridiculous!

40km out of Wuwei I stopped for noodles and sausage and was shivering inside the petrol station looking out the window with despair. I pressed on and wound up on a new road of perfect tarmac and no traffic. Checked the map and sure enough I was on some new highway that hadn’t opened. A couple of guys in a small lorry/pickup thing stopped and offered to put the bike on the back such was the bad weather. I refused and they gave me a melon, nice guys. After 40km on the fancy new road it, eh, stopped! Literally in the middle of nowhere. No roadworks, no people, no town. Nothing. Just a 40km stretch of perfect tarmac and nothing. Uh oh. The two lads were there having fallen foul of this mysterious road just as I had.

The weather was utterly nasty. I hadn’t felt so cold and wet since Bulgaria. To make matters worse, my raincoat is no longer water proof so I was soaked through. As if that wasn’t bad enough, being the genius that I am, I posted home my rain bottoms and shoe covers from Urumqi since I hadn’t used them in 3 months and was facing just desert until Beijing. What a stupid stupid move that was. I’ve regretted few decisions more than that particular error of judgement.

So the two lads were insisting on me putting the bike on the back of their little van and I was still refusing. There was no hope of finding shelter from this weather. The pipes under the road were all flooded, and there wasn’t a town for 80km. I was shaking so much with the cold my arms were locking up. I pressed on a few km only to find the lads further down the road and they literally wouldn’t let me go! I relented. Despite my desire to cycle every inch of this country I was really in a pickle and really needed help. This weather couldn’t have happened in a worse area – from the next city onwards there were towns every 50-80km, just bad luck I guess.

The van was an adventure in itself. There was only space for two small people up front and three of us were wedged in there. The guy in the middle had to put his legs around the gear stick so the other guy could change gears. With no common language they used Baidu (Chinese search engine) Translate to tell me I’m great and then they took a million photos of me. Then they brought me for dinner, paid for it and on we went. They drove past where I wanted to stay but I couldn’t quite communicate that I wanted to get out. I think one of them was insisting I stayed with him, so I said feck it, let’s see where this goes.

The two lads that saved me from the weather

The two lads that saved me from the weather

And the fantastic dinner they shared with me

And the fantastic dinner they shared with me

On and on they drove, but they didn’t seem to know where they were going and stopped to ask for directions a couple of times. In China there are cameras every few km on the road and every time we approached one they’d do all they could to avoid being captured on tape. All sorts of tactics of going off road, driving on the wrong side of the road, slowing to a crawl etc… and in the van they’d turn their heads to avoid their faces being captured. I was wondering if maybe I’d set myself up with the wrong people – why were they hiding their faces?! On and on they drove, then turned South (I’m supposed to be heading East) and miles from the road I needed to be following.

After 2 hours we arrived in a city and they pulled in pointed to a building and said “Binguain” (Hotel). I didn’t ask them to take me there, but sure enough I was outside a hotel. I thanked them, they took a load more photos and off they went.

Then began the saga of trying to find a hotel in Jingtai. Jay-sus. I’ve been rejected less in Coppers on a Saturday night after 14 pints than this city. Every hotel I’d tried said no. I’d walk in and you’d swear I was infected with the plague the way the hands went up signifying a unanimous “NO”. I’d be sent back to places I tried before, then someone would come with me to try somewhere foreigners are supposed to be allowed. No joy. I tried 8 places and (I just realised the hotel was called “Super 8”, and 8 is a lucky number in China, what a coincidence!) got into a great room with WiFi and breakfast for only €13. I have never been so happy to be in a hotel. I was soaked to the bone, exhausted from both the cycling and the crazy journey in the van. This was just the first day of the final stretch to Beijing! If this continued for the next 1500km I’d be wrecked, not to mention unable to write about it all!

Drying out my wallet and its contents in the hotel. EVERYTHING was soaked through. The girl in the hotel put my payment out to dry for a while. Ridiculous.

Drying out my wallet and its contents in the hotel. EVERYTHING was soaked through. The girl in the hotel put my payment out to dry for a while. Ridiculous.

The next day I was tired but happy the rain had died off and hit the road heading for Zhongwei, 130km away. Just 20km into the day my front gear cable tore through the housing making shifting gear impossible. I changed my shifters in Bishkek for something more comfortable and had kept my old ones in case something broke. What good foresight! Without more cable housing I couldn’t fix the shifter but managed to bodge on my old shifter to the down tube and got it working again. Great success! After that it was more cycling uphill along a seriously dull road into the “Great Wind of China” as I now call it. After 100km I was descending and came across the Yellow River, which was a fairly cool thing to see. It certainly perked me up.

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My wonderful Brooks saddle looking horrific after being out in the rain on the back of the van for a few hours. They should NOT look like this.

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My gear cable sheared through the outer housing so it couldn’t hold the gear in place. Disaster!

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Luckily I was able to improvise this nifty solution and it works quite well, although rather ugly and not too convenient for shifting. It works, that’s all that matters!

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The long, dull and grey road to Zhongwei. Slightly uphill into the wind and weather.

As I came into Zhongwei the effect of the rain was visible as much of the road was flooded and the water was being pumped into the river. At points it was a couple of feet deep – a few feet of rain fell in one day. Mad stuff. The decision to accept the lads’ help was verified and I felt better about it. Trying to camp in the bivi bag in that weather would’ve been too dangerous. Good stuff!

Not looking overly happy in the dull weather, but at least it stopped raining!

Not looking overly happy in the dull weather, but at least it stopped raining!

After the peak of the climb the scenery improved as the sun slowly crept through the clouds.

After the peak of the climb the scenery improved as the sun slowly crept through the clouds.

The Yellow River appeared. Photo time!

The Yellow River appeared. Photo time!

Smiling at least! Doing my pineapple hair thing again.

Smiling at least! Doing my pineapple hair thing again.

The lads pumping the flood waters back into the river near Zhongwei

The lads pumping the flood waters back into the river near Zhongwei

I loved the signs advertising a cycle race clearly using some stock racing photography. Not a Chinese face in the bunch!

I loved the signs advertising a cycle race clearly using some stock racing photography. Not a Chinese face in the bunch!

After the hassle of trying to find a hotel in Jingtai I was in no mood to repeat the experience and consulting the Lonely Planet guide was informed that only two hotels in Zhongwei accept foreigners, and the “nice” one was about €30 a night. Great! I didn’t care though and checked in after haggling a bit on price. It was a lovely hotel to be fair! There’s a massive Qing Dynasty temple in Zhongwei so I did some express tourism that night running around the temple taking some photos and having a million photos taken of me. Clearly few foreigners go to Zhongwei as I witnessed some serious jaw dropping.  “What is it?” “I don’t know Jim, but it scares me” kinda looks.

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These guys were playing a kind of hacky sack outside Gao Temple in Zhongwei. It looked like good craic.

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Gao Temple in Zhongwei. Sadly I arrived after it closed but it was impressive even from outside.

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Gao Temple is set in some nice gardens.

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Gao Temple in Zhongwei and a woman who just wouldn’t get out of the shot! “Ooooohhhh look at the funny creature with the camera”

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Gao Temple, Zhongwei

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Aaaaannnndddd like any good Chinese tourist attraction/temple, it must have a feckin amusement park. Ugh.

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The Pagoda in the centre of Zhongwei.

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This was interesting – I thought fireworks were going off but it turned out it was about 100 guys smacking these spinning tops with ropes on the end of stick. They make a serious bang and about 100 people were doing it on a square. This guy was the best at it – some power in his whipping!

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Aaaannnndddd of course, group dancing on the street!

Day 3 was fairly dull except for me stopping in a petrol station and doing my celebrity act whilst trying to eat noodles and processed sausage. I was reading The Hobbit and at times I feel a bit like Bilbo Baggins when someone doesn’t know what a Hobbit is – when I enter towns I get soooo many strange looks of “what is this interesting creature? how does it cycle a bike? Why are its eyes such a strange colour? And its hair, so odd”.  When I took out my tablet to read in the petrol station the look of amazement on the attendants faces was unreal. “This odd creature can read…and it owns a tablet…what sorcery is this?!”. Honestly, I think E.T. could saunter through some of these cities and arouse less interest.

Trying to occupy myself on the dull road. Long breaks in the hard shoulder reading and eating lunch.

Trying to occupy myself on the dull road. Long breaks in the hard shoulder reading and eating lunch.

I pulled into Hongsibu and into a brand spanking new hotel. So new in fact that I was their first ever customer! I’d intended on going further that day but both my Achilles tendons were quite sore and I wanted to rest. Hongsibu is one of these new cities with no one around and nothing going on. I walked around and found nothing of interest except for a child visibly gasping when he saw me. In the morning the hotel was having its grand opening and the whole extended family was there in their Sunday best as I came downstairs in my lycra to pay and get the bike. The look of bewilderment on the old guys’ faces was priceless. Wish I’d taken a photo!

That would be green mould from the bottom of my water bottle. Tip: Clean your water bottles once in a while! Yuk.

That would be green mould from the bottom of my water bottle. Tip: Clean your water bottles once in a while! Yuk.

The Grand Opening! I was their first customer! In fact, I'd say I was the first Westerner to come to Hongsibu. What a strange little place.

The Grand Opening! I was their first customer! In fact, I’d say I was the first Westerner to come to Hongsibu. What a strange little place.

From Hongsibu I pushed out a big 165km to Dingbian. 165km is a long long day. I try all sorts of mental tricks to get the distance done. Focus on getting to 50km, have a good break and read. Then do another 50. Then it’s just 3x20km stints. Anything really to pass the time. During one of the breaks I was reading whilst leaning against the barrier of the hard shoulder on the highway and the highway patrol stopped to tell me to get off it. I just stared at him blankly, played the dumb foreigner and offered him a cake. He gave up in despair! Hehehe. Actually getting onto the highway is one of the, shall I say, more interesting parts of the day lately – I try all sorts of tactics of hiding behind trucks/coaches as they go through the toll booths. Sometimes I’m caught, other times I get through with no problem. When they do see me I don’t look at them, and just cycle like a mad man and hope they won’t give chase! The highway is far safer than the secondary road so I prefer to be on it, despite it being the most boring form of cycling you could imagine.

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I really don’t know.

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A funny sign. What’s not funny – the smell from the toilet on the right. It’s about 50m from the road and you can smell it from about 500m away. Lovely!

About 30km from Dingbian a family had stopped in the hard shoulder to eat water melon and they pulled me over to give me some – a well appreciated treat and they were really nice. Probably the first people I’ve had a substantial encounter with who didn’t ask for 20 photos with me. It was quite nice! Then Dingbian was insanely busy. Holy crap! it’s a small city on the map but incredibly busy. Just one hotel rejected me and I was in bed early enough, quite tired after the long day. My achilles tendon was really hurting and I contemplated a day off but decided against it.

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The family who gave me water melon at the side of the road. Nice guys.

From Dingbian it was a 125km stretch of more petrol station breaks, reading and mental games. The legs were very heavy and sore, not to mention the achilles tendon. The 8 days off renewing the visas had allowed my fitness to drop off quite a lot and the heavy mileage was taking its toll. Also, returning to solo cycling after 2 months with James was quite tough too (miss you buddy!). I was starting to lose the rag with people when they were pestering me during breaks. When I was fixing my improvised gear shifter a kid pulled up and started do the Chinese thing of shouting Chinese at me despite me clearly not understanding. He was spitting pumpkin seed shells on the ground beside me, harping on in Chinese in my ear and I lost the plot and started screaming at him. I’m not proud of it, but I realised it was time for a day off!

Yer man Mao, in the lobby of the hotel in Dingbian.

Yer man Mao, in the lobby of the hotel in Dingbian.

I arrived in Jingbian and into a budget chain hotel, checking in for two nights. Jingbian is another huge city with nothing going on. It’s absolutely dead. That’s fine by me to be honest – I just wanted some downtime and to rest my mind and legs.

The road from Dingbian to Jingbian was honey country. Full of bee hives and sometimes I was surrounded by swarms of bees. No stings thankfully!

The road from Dingbian to Jingbian was honey country. Full of bee hives and sometimes I was surrounded by swarms of bees. No stings thankfully!

It’s now 1000km to Beijing. About 8 days of cycling. This recent stretch has been incredibly boring except for the little adventure on the first day. Incredibly boring, and surprisingly difficult mentally. I guess I’m in wind down mode at this point, despite my best efforts to avoid that. 1000km is no small feat, particularly after the bones of 13000km!

I was planning on doing the entire 1600km from Wuwei in one go but I’ve changed my mind and I’m taking a detour to Pingyao in 3 days’ time to see the ancient city there. I’d like to be able to say I’ve seen something between Wuwei and Beijing, so Pingyao is it! I suppose the only slightly interesting part of the past week has been passing from Gansu province, through Ninxia and into Shaanxi. Ninxia is Muslim and home to the Hui people. For the first time since Kyrgyzstan I heard the call to prayer in the morning in Ninxia. Then when I crossed into Shaanxi I noticed Catholic churches appearing and what’s more, bells ringing on the hour. It’s funny the things you notice!

So, I enter my final week of cycling. 1000km is no small task, so I’m expecting to arrive in Beijing on Tuesday the 19th, depending on how the legs go. I have a day off in 3 days’ time and I’m looking forward to it already!

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Lanzhou Limbo

I’m currently in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province. The past week has been unexpected to say the least. I’ll cover the short bit of cycling and then explain the visa situation. I’ve gone from my saddle being a pain in the backside to China’s bureaucracy!

We left Zhangye last Saturday morning with a beefy 170km to do until the next town with a hotel. We usually do a bit of research about the terrain before a section to, you know, check if we’ve to go over any mountains and what not. Well, we kinda forgot! So after about 90km of battling at 12kph into a headwind we looked behind us and noticed we were going uphill. Hmmmmm……let’s check the elevation profile. Oh right, we’ve to go up to 2500m! A minor oversight. We set off at about 1400m, so 1100m of climbing into a headwind is not what one wants in the middle of a 170km day! What’s more, since we didn’t know about this little inconvenience, we didn’t eat enough at lunch! D’oh! After 200 days on the road, I’m still learning. We got over the top and had a reasonable descent into the wind and to literally the first hotel off the highway. Dirt cheap but perfect for our needs. We’d set off at 8:30am and finished at 8:45pm, so it was a long long day.

A day's worth of fluids in the pannier bag.

A day’s worth of fluids in the pannier bag.

This is how I dry hotel room laundry.

This is how I dry hotel room laundry.

Getting there!

Getting there!

James, looking slightly depressed during yet another break under a bridge to hide from the scorching sun

James, looking slightly depressed during yet another break under a bridge to hide from the scorching sun

The odd bit of nice scenery cropped up.

The odd bit of nice scenery cropped up.

After a 12 hour day the sunset was pretty fantastic behind us

After a 12 hour day the sunset was pretty fantastic behind us

Oh, and I almost forgot – we were cycling alongside the Great Wall of China for most of the day. As you do.

The Great Wall. Not so great in these parts, but cycling alongside it all the same!

The Great Wall. Not so great in these parts, but cycling alongside it all the same!

The big day lead to a short hop to Wuwei of just 75km. Poor James continued to have medical woes and we headed to the hospital to get him seen to. Here’s a tip for anyone needing to be seen in a hospital in China: Walk into any room in the hospital with staff in it, point to your groin and then proceed to undo your trousers. You’ll be seen to in 3 minutes and be on your way with a prescription for free! I watched to great amusement! He’d picked up a rather sore looking boil on his thigh and that’s not something you want to mess with in this heat and cycling all day. It was a funny experience all the same. On my part, I’m surprisingly injury free at the moment, dare I say it! I’ve healed up from my crash, and even my agonising saddle sores have relented lately. I’ve still got numb fingers, but otherwise I can safely say I’m doing okay, for once!

To extend the visa we found the Public Security Bureau office (the lads that kick you out of hotels sort visa extensions also) and spoke with a lovely lady. Some back and forth to different offices, officers and a photo shop around the corner and we were eventually told to come back in two days. Sweet!

With another day to kill we decided to go on the beer. We’d been busting our chops getting across this huge country since the minute we arrived and really haven’t had much downtime. We headed to an outdoor food market where they serve massive chilled beer jugs and started lashing back the pints. When I say “lashing back the pints”, I mean about 4 each. My tolerance for alcohol has hit a record low thanks to the cycling. Anyway, it was great to have the visas sorted and finally enjoy a night without the burden of a big day in the saddle to follow. Some local lads asked to join us and they were hammered! Their enthusiasm was infectious and before we knew it were equally hammered as we all played their drinking game: Lowest card downs a large measure of beer. Poor James drew lowest about 6 times in a row and was looking the worse for it!

We went to this place to go on the lash

We went to this place to go on the lash

Looking sober. Things changed quickly

Looking sober. Things changed quickly

Chiang (beside James) and his two mates. We were fairly hammered shortly after, hence the lack of photos!

Chiang (beside James) and his two mates. We were fairly hammered shortly after, hence the lack of photos!

I then got the idea to go to a nightclub. Why not (it was Monday night by the way)?! I asked the lads and sure enough we were in a taxi moments later. We were very drunk, having an absolute ball, and had no idea where we were going or where our hotel was, but simply didn’t care! The nightclub didn’t materialise but a karaoke bar did! One of the lads was minted. He kept taking out a wad of 100 Yuan notes an inch thick. 100 Yuan is about €12, so we’re talking thousands of Euro. He was a young guy, maybe 20 years old. I’ve no idea where the money came from, but I was happy enough to drink it! He got us into a private booth and the singing began. I say singing, well, those who know me will know what that sounds like! Their wasn’t much variety and I settled for a beautiful rendition of Take That, Back for Good. The locals stopped boozing at this point and started ordering…wait for it… ice creams, at 1am! Then they started butchering Justin Bieber and Avril Lavigne. After a few too many assaults on my ear drums I’d had enough and we got a taxi back to the hotel. Hammered and giggling like little girls about the night, I’m sure we woke up half the hotel.

The next day was as expected: Painful! The hangover was brutal. We were in bed feeling sorry for ourselves when the phone rang: It was the PSB. Our extensions can’t be done. Something about the “new system”, but it was unclear. With the hangover this was just awful news. We lost two full days to this, and would now have to take a bus to Lanzhou the next place we can extend to get there before our visas expire.

Bright and early the next morning (Wednesday) we headed off to the bus station. Quite straightforward to get a ticket, but then we were asked for money to put the bikes on. Trying to rip off two of the grumpiest f*ckers in China at that moment wasn’t a good call. We literally shouted “NO!” at them and barged past with the bikes. The lads followed us to the bus and persisted. Our haggling skills have improved immensely in China and it goes like this: Guy suggests price, we say “NO”. Repeat until we’re happy. I actually find a bit of fun in these situations at this point. Bus ride was a sweaty 4.5 hours, raising my respect for backpackers in this part of the world. I much prefer the bike!

Lanzhou is a big aul city and a significant shift from what we were used to. The traffic was far more intense and I resolved to start wearing my helmet again as we darted through the mayhem trying in vain to find a cheap hotel. The hotel search took up nearly two hours so we were quite late getting to the PSB. Unfortunately you can’t apply for an extension until you’re in a registered hotel. Bureaucracy again. Fun!

In the PSB the guy was cold to us at first. After all we only had less than 36 hours on our visas. We explained the situation in Wuwei and when he went to start the process we saw the expression we were dreading – yes, the system is down and he was unsure when we’d be sorted. Come back in two days, on Friday at 4pm. He warmed to us significantly by then and seemed genuinely sorry for the problems we’re having.

A bit pissed off with the past few days we headed out for some Western indulgence in the form of Pizza Hut and something I’ve craved for a while – a glass of wine! We had a romantic dinner and discussed our options. When we left, the manager came after us giving us back our tip saying “your money, your money”. Another Chinese oddity.

Lanzhou is a major city. Walking around it feels quite western overall.

Lanzhou is a major city. Walking around it feels quite western overall.

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Dancing in the street. See a lot of this in China.

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Golden Mao. Some man.

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Night market in Lanzhou.

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Street food in Lanzhou – Chips!

Come Friday the PSB had “bad news”, no visas, come back Monday. Balls. Another two days in limbo. My timeline is now ruined. The plan was to race across the first 60% of the distance in less than half the time, extend the visa and be more relaxed on the way to Beijing and still have enough time to savour the end. James and I were to press on another 650km together to Xi’an and split there.

Now, assuming we get the visas on Monday we will take the bus back to Wuwei, the last place we cycled to, and split there. James is going to head into the mountains, use up the second visa and do a visa run to Hong Kong, return and actually enjoy his time in China. For me, I’m going to cut out Xi’an, and sadly the Terracotta Army, cutting across the north on a direct route to Beijing in order to have 4 or 5 days there and then fly home.

Sadly, between delays from the wind and the short visa I’ve missed pretty much all I wanted to see in China: Dunhuang, Xiahe, the Terracotta Army and going over a 4000m pass in the mountains. I’m gutted, but my head is high. By backtracking to Wuwei I will cycle all of China. It’s important to me to cycle every inch possible. I’ve made up for the trains in Uzbekistan, which I could not avoid. By backtracking I at least get to say I cycled across the entire country.

The home stretch - This is my modified route. I figured it's hard to understand exactly where I am in China as the names of cities mean feck all to people!

The home stretch – This is my modified route. I figured it’s hard to understand exactly where I am in China as the names of cities mean feck all to people! 

You can view my full route here.

For you guys, you’ll get to enjoy reading more saddle sore related misery! In order to make it to Beijing I now have to do about 15 days straight, most of them 130km. There’s one city I want to see on the way, and I’m hopeful I can take a half day there, or even push it enough to take the day off.

Up next, the final section. The road to Beijing. The end of this incredibly interesting 8 months of my life. I’m positive, I’m upbeat. My legs are strong, the bike is in good nick. I’ll do my best to update the blog on the road, but it may be Beijing when you hear from me again.

Cross your fingers and spare a thought for my sore ass. Maybe chuck a few quid to CMRF in my name! On that note, and I’ll finish here: I keep asking for donations, and feel I’ve probably exhausted my network of friends, family, former colleagues and many readers. If you’ve donated, please accept my gratitude for your kindness. If you can’t donate that’s cool. It would be really great if you could share my blog or Facebook page with your friends, family and colleagues. Widening the net for fundraising could really boost the donations, and at the end of the day that’s why I’m so determined to cycle every inch possible.

See you in Beijing!

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Halfway across China

I’m now about halfway through China! We’ve seriously put in the miles early on to get to this point so quickly but it hasn’t been easy! Having survived the misery of a few days of horrendous headwinds, it was a short 80km day (80km is short now. How things have changed!) to Guazhou. I really enjoyed the rest and felt refreshed mentally to go back into the desert. As it transpired, I’d need it…

After savaging the hotel’s buffet breakfast we were on the road at 9am to do 135km to Yumen. I also finally ran out of GrRANA Energy tonic – I was sent off with a 6 month supply prior to leaving and have taken them every cycling day to get started. I’ll do a review of them later when I’ve time, but in short, I found them pretty good! The cycling was the same as before: Desert, trucks, wind turbines, petrol station and pot noodles for lunch. But the wind. Oh the wind. It wasn’t as bad as the 3 days before, but it was pretty bad. A 7.5 hour slog got us to Yumen, but not all hours on the bike are created equal. They were long, tough hours, broken down into chunks of 5km mentally to grind it out with the wind. Early in the day we drafted off each other for 40km but as the road changed direction the wind became a cross/headwind making drafting useless.

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2600km to Beijing, inch by inch, km by km

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This section was particularly windy and home to 100s and 100s of wind turbines. Literally 200km of them along the road!

When we arrived in Yumen the second hotel we tried allowed us to stay. On the computer she translated we’re not allowed stay there legally and we needed to be discrete otherwise the Public Security Bureau would kick us out. I’ve heard about this before, and foreigners do get moved into “Tourist Hotels” by the PSB in the middle of the night. This was a 2* hotel, and tourist hotels are 3* or above, so more expensive. I guess the Chinese government only want tourists seeing the nicest hotels. Who knows? It’s a pain in the ass getting a hotel here sometimes, and when they won’t let you stay, the Chinese have this really irritating habit of writing instructions in Chinese and look flummoxed when you don’t understand it!

Despite the cycling being a bit shite we went out for some food and probably had the best meal of the trip! We’d read about Chinese “hot pot”, where you go to a restaurant with a hotplate in the middle of the table and a large pot of broth in the middle. The price is set (about €6) and you dump in whatever you like. Chicken, pork, beef, seafood, vegetables, whatever! We lashed in a load of plates of this stuff and it was absolutely delicious! Sadly, we didn’t know how much it cost, or that it was all you could eat so limited ourselves to just a generous dinner, not going too overboard. Rest assured, we won’t make that mistake again!

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Hot Pot and the stuff we threw in. Yum

Also, there have been reports about an outbreak of the plague in Yumen and that the city has been closed off. There wasn’t a sign of anything like this when I was there. It was business as usual. As far as I know, one chap ate a Marmot, which tend to carry the disease. He died and they quarantined everyone he knew. That’s about it!

We left Yumen in the hope that we weren’t going to turn into plague riddled zombies with Jiayuguan just 135km away and a day off there. More of the same: Highway, trucks, pot noodles and listening to podcasts to kill time. By the way, I’ve been listening to Jarlath Regan’s “An Irishman Abroad” and really love them. If you’re into podcasts, have a listen, very well done, and I love hearing Irish accents when on the dull dull highway in the desert! Anyway, Jiayuguan was another typical Chinese city: Nothing for ages on the highway and then this huge bustling city that’s practically brand new and spotlessly clean.

We checked into another hotel for two nights and headed out for some food. As we passed a row of shop fronts we noticed some familiar beer labels: European beer! Belgian, French, German and of course the Black Stuff! In we went and I spotted a rather large assortment of spirits and there it was, a bottle of Jameson! James settled for a Belgian beer (which is really good by the way) and I asked for a single Jameson, only to be poured a triple for about €4. Then the guy working there poured us complementary triple whiskeys (I think it was a Chinese whiskey, it wasn’t bad) and with empty stomachs after a 135km day, well, another round was inevitable! We wobbled out of the place and with our food budget well and truly blown settled for yet another round of instant noodles and processed sausage. Worth it in my mind. Maybe not the next morning though!

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Belgian beer and Jameson. Fan feckin tastic!

With a day off we headed to the ancient fort in Jiayuguan. This marks the start of the former Chinese Empire, and from a cycling perspective, that means civilisation for us. The western gate to the fort was where exiles were kicked out of the empire. I can certainly related to how they might have felt – there is literally nothing west of Jiayuguan, except for the towns popping up every 130km or so. I can only imagine how desolate the desert was in older times. From Jiayuguan onwards towns start to crop up more frequently, although not so frequent until we hit Lanzhou next week, but enough to make life that bit easier.

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Inside the ancient fort in Jiayuguan

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The western gate, beyond this there was nothing. The end of the Chinese Empire!

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Pagoda at Ancient Fort, Jiayuguan

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Aaaannnddd…..Chinese tourism. Camel riding, shooting and bull riding at the Ancient Fort.

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Visiting an ancient site in China? Sure go for a bull ride or do some shooting. Sure why not?!

After the fort it was back to the hotel to veg. It’s funny how despite being able to cycle up to 185km in a single day, I have absolutely no other fitness. Walking around the fort left me absolutely knackered! It was the same in Urumqi and Bishkek. This trip has given me one form of fitness: Cycling long long distances slowly. I can’t even walk up stairs without getting tired!

The next morning outside the hotel the staff from the bank next door were doing a group warm up of stretches and other exercises in the street. Funny stuff. This is China! With fresh legs we set off to do 165km to the next town with hotels, Gaotai.  Another dull enough day on the G30, although we did have about an hour of fighter jets doing manoeuvres above us, soaring up into the air vertically, then zipping down and looping around again. Cool to watch! Otherwise the road was as barren as before. Luckily there was a tiny village off the road after 80km for some more, you guessed it, instant noodles and processed sausage! In Gaotai we checked into a quite lovely hotel with lovely staff and a big room. 30 minutes in the room and there was a knock on the door. Four lads were standing there with a piece of paper with “can’t stay” on it. This is what I was talking about above – tourists can’t stay in certain hotels. We packed up, got our money back and set off in search of a hotel that could take us, settling in a supposedly 4* down the street that was nowhere near as nice as the other place, but half the price. I was just relieved to be in a place we were guaranteed not to be kicked out of after the long hot day and already being moved once.

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One of the fighter jets in the sky above us. Not easy to capture on my camera!

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Lavender fields near Yumen.

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Wind turbine blades in transit

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Another day, another cheap hotel. I can’t remember where this was, they all look the same! Not too shabby for €9!

We found a fantastic street full of food vendors and had an assortment of lamb, pork and chicken skewers cooked in front of us with some veg and bread. It came in at about €2.50 each, an absolute bargain for the amount of food. Simply delicious! Lots of locals walking by pointing at us and some lads even asked us to come for breakfast the next day, but we declined as they were just looking to practice their English. I had a great time getting giggles from groups of girls pointing at us and waving at them like a madman shouting “NIHAO!!!” (hello).

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Street food in Gaotai

I really love the Chinese cities so far. Gaotai was another fine example of smiley people and the odd things one sees here. This time it was groups of old women doing a group dance in the street. Just there, dancing away (albeit slowly). I’ve seen this a couple of times now, always makes me smile. I read a quite famous book called “Wild Swans” by Jung Chang while I was in Bishkek. If you haven’t heard of it, I recommend it. Fabulously written and gives great insight into the past 100 years in China. Having read that, I find myself astounded at how modern and cool these cities are and just 40 years ago Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” was destroying the place. I try not to delve too much into the history of places I visit on the blog as I’ll do an awful job of it and if people want to read about it, there’s plenty online. Nevertheless, I can’t ignore just how far this country has come. I really like China, shame the cycling is bloody boring though!

Another day in the saddle had us doing just 85km to Zhangye and another day off. This week we have 2 days off scheduled as we’re now entering civilisation again. We put in the long hours earlier in China as there was literally nothing, and are now reaping the rewards as we head east to more developed areas. Despite it being just 85km, James had an awful awful time, the poor fecker. 3 punctures and heat exhaustion (it was a scorcher, even 1500m up). Every time I looked over my shoulder he’d gone missing to either fix a puncture or collapse from the heat. When we arrived in Zhangye he just passed out in the hotel and I went off to find some food.

Today, with James recovered from his heat exhaustion we set out to see the main attraction in Zhangye: The Big Buddha. A huge Buddha in an ancient temple, lying on its side. It’s definitely one of the highlights of the trip to date. As I said, everything in China is new and modern, so seeing something old and original is quite cool. The fort in Jiayuguan was a bit overly touristy and tacky, despite being ancient also. The Buddha in Zhangye was much better and I really enjoyed it. After that, some street food and the never ending pursuit of inner tubes for James’ bike continued without success.

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FINALLY! I’ve been craving Sweet & Sour Chicken since I got to China – I finally got it in Zhangye. Woohoo!

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Pagoda in centre of Zhangye

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Entrance to Buddha Temple, Zhangye

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The Big Buddha, Zhangye

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Reclining Buddha, Zhangye. One of the coolest things I’ve seen on the trip so far!

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The Chinese used it before the Nazis!

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The Buddha Temples in Zhangye rank highly on the cool stuff list from the trip

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1000s of gold Buddhas in Zhangye

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Tomorrow we hit the road for four days to Lanzhou, where we’ll stay 4 days to extend our visas and visit a Tibetan town in the mountains. We’d hoped to cycle up to it but time isn’t on our side. I booked my flight from Beijing the other day, and it’s official now, I have to be in Beijing before the 24th of August, but I’m aiming for the 20th. I’ll fly out on the 25th. That’s one calendar month from today – madness!

As we make our way east and the desert starts to be replaced by civilisation again I’m optimistic once more. There was a long and very difficult stretch there between Urumqi and Guazhou, but thankfully it’s done. Every day brings me closer to home, and I’m really looking forward to seeing my family, friends and Aoibhinn again and wrapping up this adventure. Still 2200km to go though, so I’ve plenty to do before then!

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Desert and the Devil’s Breath

Since Urumqi, I’ve cycled 1100km. Quite a long way without a blog update, but due to the tight visa schedule and lack of decent WiFi once again I’ve had to cram it all into this mega blog. Grab a cup of tea, this is a long one!

We intended on staying in Urumqi for just one day, but after waking with absolutely dead legs and still completely shattered it took 5 seconds of deliberation to decide on staying another day. That was spent napping and eating kung pow chicken from a local take away. A bargain at about €1.50 for a massive portion delivered to the hostel!

After two days resting we hit the road aiming to get to Hami about 630km East of Urumqi in five days. We took the northern route to avoid the Turpan basin, which is about 200m below sea level and the second hottest place in China. A cyclist we met in Urumqi told us how he’d cycled at night to avoid the 46 degree heat during the day there. No thank you! The route we took would keep us above 1500m for 3 days, so much cooler but more hills and a 2800m pass on the last day. I’ve spent far too much time cycling through scorching deserts so any respite from the heat is most welcome.

Leaving Urumqi we were back on the expressway sharing it with three or four lanes either side, absolutely packed with traffic. Lovely! After a while the traffic thinned out, but sadly we quickly started to see many of China’s coal powered electricity stations and the pollution was RIDICULOUS! At one point I could see a greenish-yellow cloud coming from one of the plants. Out in the countryside and the air was thick with a smell and taste of what can only be described as melting plastic. We noticed that my face in particular was covered in black soot, as was my beard, arms and legs. Disgusting stuff. When we stopped in a petrol station after 110km I managed to wash some of it off in the toilet but it was futile. I was covered again in no time.

Pollution: Nasty clouds of fumes were coming from the endless power plants.

Pollution: Nasty clouds of fumes were coming from the endless power plants.

And this is the result. Lovely.

And this is the result. Lovely.

I passed the 10,000km mark at Urumqi

I passed the 10,000km mark at Urumqi

The only saving grace of the day was the beautiful mountains on our right and a last minute decision to try to find a hotel instead of camping. We’d met a Swiss cyclist in Kazakhstan and when we asked her about camping in China she said “I don’t know why you’d camp in China, hotels are so cheap!”. A quick check on the map and there were a bunch of hotels listed for the town nearest us so off we went. The first one we tried got us in a lovely and clean room with air conditioning (I can’t express how lovely that is after a day on the bike in the heat) and a hot shower (after the day of soot, you can imagine how good that was!). It even had WiFi, all for just €4.50! What a result.

We tried boiling these horrendous eggs in the kettle in the hotel room. This was the result!

We tried boiling these horrendous eggs in the kettle in the hotel room. This was the result!

Typical petrol station stop for pot noodles and processed sausage. Yum.

Typical petrol station stop for pot noodles and processed sausage. Yum.

Back on the road again with 130km to go to Mori, the next decent sized town with hotels on the map and the last town before the tougher mountainous stretch started, we were hit with a hefty headwind. The only way to overcome it was to cycle in single file, drafting off each other and switching every 2km to share the work of breaking the wind. This worked pretty well but we severely under estimated the toll on us and by 90km we were both knackered. With nowhere to stop for a hit of sugar and nothing in the food bags we laboured on. On and on for another 40km. It was agony to be honest, and the worst I’d felt on the bike since Azerbaijan when I had a stomach bug and laboured out some big days feeling similarly. We stopped in the first hotel we saw, haggled a bit on the room and landed in a decent sized twin room similar to before.

After a quick shower and washing the soot out of our clothes (hotel room laundry is now a standard part of our day) we went to the restaurant next door and gorged on a massive serving of beef and peppers with rice. Not quite knowing what we’d ordered nor how much it cost we were surprised with how utterly fantastic the food was and also the price. €9 each for the meal was wayyyy over budget, but we were still learning what the cheapest meals are here.

When we returned to our room we realised one of the keys didn’t work but then noticed it was numbered for the room next door. We checked that it worked but after a brief attempt at trying for a refund without success decided it was a mistake. Then we had a fairly funny problem after locking ourselves out of the toilet in the room with all of our gear drying inside so the hotel staff had to come up twice to try to unlock it. In the morning they tried to charge us for the two rooms but our original receipt was only for one. We weren’t sure if it was a scam or genuine mistake but we eventually got a refund for the second room – they’d taken for it out of our key deposit.

Knackered and having one of those days where my head really wasn’t in it, we headed off loaded with water and supplies as we weren’t sure what lay ahead food-wise. The scenery was quite spectacular with some beautiful mountains to cycle through. At 1500m for most of the day, undulating up and down, the going was tough but luckily not too hot at that altitude. Mid 30s mostly. I wasn’t in a good place in my head and had to shake myself out of it a few times reminding myself of how far I’ve come, I’ve been in this situation before and it’s just a case of getting the head down and doing the miles.

Camels with 2 humps!

Camels with 2 humps!

Saw this lunatic with a sheep on the back of his motorbike.

Saw this lunatic with a sheep on the back of his motorbike.

The clouds and mountains made for some nice scenery.

The clouds and mountains made for some nice scenery.

Nice clouds, nice scenery

Nice clouds, nice scenery

But long flat roads. At least the tarmac was good!

But long flat roads. At least the tarmac was good!

The only eventful part of the day was when I was on a dirt track where the road is being rebuilt and these guys in a 4×4 took the unbuilt part of the road alongside me to get a look at the foreigner. This section was blocked off, so as the car and I approached the road block I sniggered to myself “well lads, looks like you’re in a spot of bother here but me and my nimble Long Haul Trucker will have no trouble navigating this…..” SMASH! The front wheel went sliding off the edge of the unpaved road with me clipped in sending me flying onto some rubble. I nicely banged up my arm and knee, not to mention the damage to my handlebars. The lads in the car had the last laugh. I picked myself up and flew off embarrassed. That’s what I get for being an arrogant c*ck.

This was the gravel road where I had my embarrassing crash.

This was the gravel road where I had my embarrassing crash.

We made the 130km mark and the town we were aiming for, but sadly no hotel or guesthouse. James was wrecked and I wasn’t far behind him. Despite a massive dinner of potato and spicy beef stew neither of us felt the desire to camp, but with no choice we plodded on just 2km out of town to a 2 star tunnel and into the bivvy bags. Looking at the map we could see a developed city 120km away with lots of hotels listed, so that raised our spirits for the next day. A dog paid a us a visit during the night and just sat at the bottom of the tunnel!

So off we went with 120km to go. Nothing too eventful, just a climb up to 2200m, and passing 4 Taiwanese cycle tourists on the way. There are a lot of cycle tourists here, we see them practically every day. What made these guys different was their ages – 2 kids with their parents. They were about 10 years old and we’d seen them early the day before. 10 year old kids had been keeping pace with us for two days and here I am whining on about how tough it is! It is tough! They’re on steroids, there, I said it, it’s the only explanation. Cycling is rotten to the core, even 10 year old cycle tourists are doping. Anyway, after the climb it was a nice enough descent to the town of Barkol where we got into the tourist hotel after a bit of haggling on the price. Haggling seems to be a way of life here and you don’t get any respect if you don’t haggle on everything. The hotel room wasn’t bad, the shower was cold, but we were out of the heat and feeling much better for it.

This was a shop, believe it or not.

This was a shop, believe it or not.

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We stayed in Barkol. Mad that there's a lake out here in the desert. A true oasis.

We stayed in Barkol. Mad that there’s a lake out here in the desert. A true oasis.

From Barkol we were now on our final day into Hami. Just 10km outside the town and there they were, the juicers. After passing them by we stopped in a petrol station for some food and water. As I turned into the station the front wheel went from under me on the dusty road and I went flying across the ground. I hit hard and bashed up my left knee, hip, elbow and shoulder. I was very sore after and quite p*ssed at the locals who just stared at me. No offer of assistance, nothing. I was angry because so often we show up in these places and we’re asked to pose in 100 photos, but as soon as the foreigner smashes himself into the ground they just stared at me. Anyway, with no time to sit about licking my wounds we headed off to do another pass at 2200m (we expected 2800m but it never materialised). I was very sore, and to make matters worse one of my saddle sores had burst and I now had a searing pain in my ass (literally) every stroke of the pedals. Fan-bloody-tastic.

After the pass we descended through a lush green and rocky valley on an insanely bumpy road. So bumpy in fact that both James and I broke panniers. My front right and James’ rear left. His was reparable, mine not. As a result I can’t use just one on the front now as the bike would be off balance, so that left me no choice but to bin a load of gear and cram everything into the rear bags. Not an ideal situation – the extra weight over the rear wheel could lead to damage, but we have no time for fixing such things and so I’ll have to make do with what I have. The upshot is that I binned the broken bag and its counterpart, along with my front rack and mudguard. Why carry the weight?! I’ve gotten my money’s worth at this stage.

After my second crash I made a mess of myself.

After my second crash I made a mess of myself.

I was pretty banged up all over.

I was pretty banged up all over.

And my shorts and jersey were torn.

And my shorts and jersey were torn.

After we cleared the valley it was like entering another world. As I mentioned above, we’d taken the northern route along the mountains to stay above 1500m to stay cool. Once we passed out of the valley, lush and green as it was, we hit 1000m and boom! The heat! Back to barren, dry, empty desert and a hot headwind. With only 25km to do downhill we couldn’t take the heat and had to hide from the sun in a petrol station for a while! We arrived in Hami after five days on the road we were ready for a day off, so we checked into a hotel for two nights.

The valley connecting the north and south routes. lovely

The valley connecting the north and south routes. lovely

One of the rare stretches of flat road on the way to Hami

One of the rare stretches of flat road on the way to Hami

Road to Hami

Road to Hami

James in action

James in action

No more front panniers

No more front panniers

I had to mount everything on the back.

I had to mount everything on the back.

And back into desert!

And back into desert!

I’m sorry to say the day off was uneventful, much like Urumqi. We were just too knackered! I love China so far. The food, the people, the cities. Everything about the country is great except for the poxy visa. If it was just 10 or 15 days longer we’d have the time to go a little slower and not be so exhausted when we stop. Instead we’re racing to write blogs, send emails, wash clothes, repair bikes, eat, rest and then hit the road again. It’s intense! Nevertheless, I’m still having great craic spotting people pointing us out to their friends and then waving like a madman at them “HOWIYE FOLKS!!!!! YES, I AM A FOREIGNER. YES, I DO HAVE BLOND HAIR!!!”. I’m not joking – I do this at least 20 times a day in cities. The locals love it though – they’re quite reserved and shy, always trying to catch a glimpse of us without getting caught. Then when they do get caught and I give a huge wave they love it and give a big cheery wave back. Makes me laugh every time.

The tan lines of a seasoned cycle tourist.

The tan lines of a seasoned cycle tourist.

So after a day of resting, blog writing, emailing, repairing, and healing up my wounds we were back on the road again, this time crossing the Hami desert heading towards Zhangye, about 900km away. I loathe deserts. I really do. They’re just hot, boring places to cycle and this stretch is no exception. What’s more is the services are really far apart. 130km in some spots. So our first day out of Hami was, well, dull. Desert, straight road, trucks, desert, straight road, sun, rinse, repeat. We stopped for a siesta in a pipe and when we emerged the wind had turned into a howling beast of a cross/headwind. To make it worse, this was “Devil’s Breath” – hot headwind. This was the worst wind I’d faced on the entire trip. Worse than Kazakhstan, worse than Wales. We crawled on for 3 hours into the night at 9kph and found a 0 star pipe under the road filled with human shite, rubbish and sand. Eugh.

Back on the road out of Hami. The view rarely changed.

Back on the road out of Hami. The view rarely changed.

Innovative trucker!

Innovative trucker!

The never changing view

The never changing view

It was so hot this guy put cardboard over his tyres to stop them melting!

It was so hot this guy put cardboard over his tyres to stop them melting!

There was a dead horse outside our pipe for lunch. Or what was left of a dead horse.

There was a dead horse outside our pipe for lunch. Or what was left of a dead horse.

The grim pipe we stayed in on the first night of the wind.

The grim pipe we stayed in on the first night of the wind.

The wind was so bad howling through the pipe that neither of us slept all night and the wind was worse in the morning. Normally we’d have started at 5am to get ahead of the wind but without sleep it wasn’t happening. We pushed on for 3 hours in the morning at 7kph and stopped in a dive of a truckstop where we were point blank refused service. To make things worse, the juicer kids were outside. WTF?! How did they get this far?! In that wind?! We got talking to them and it turns out they hitch hike some of the way so that explains how they were ahead of us each morning despite us overtaking them early in the day. Maybe not juicers after all!

Wind turbine blades on the road

Wind turbine blades on the road

This guy stopped for a chat while we rested from the wind.

This guy stopped for a chat while we rested from the wind.

2900km to Beijing

2900km to Beijing

Nothing to see here. Desert. Fun.

Nothing to see here. Desert. Fun.

We left the terrible truck stop after getting some pot noodles and supplies but after 8km the wind got the better of us and we bailed into a pipe under the road. It wasn’t much good as the wind was as bad in there, if not worse. We just needed to be out of the sun. To kill time and find some motivation I watched Rocky on my laptop.

As much as I enjoyed the movie, the motivation was lacking. The excitement of China has been wearing off, and although I’ve been able to dig deep so many times to get through the rough times, this time I hit bedrock. The tank was empty of positive thoughts, my head was down and I’d just had enough. On Facebook someone asked if it was worse than Wales. I’d say yes. Why? Well, in Wales I knew Winter had to pass. In Kazakhstan the desert was new and I knew it had an end point 500km away. With this I knew the area is prone to horrendous headwinds that last for weeks at a time and take many cyclists off the road and into trucks, or worse, they go home. I’ve heard of two separate cyclists doing so recently. With 1000km of desert remaining I was just filled with dread. Having been through this type of weather before several times, knowing how awful it is made things all the worse. The visa is tight, really tight. The headwind was blowing us off the road and there was little I could say to myself to get my head sorted.

During a break at the side of the road I checked my fundraising page and saw over €400 in new donations that day. They really couldn’t have come at a better time! I’m not saying these were the magic spark that reignited my engine, but I was reminded why I’m doing this: To raise money for CMRF. If it was easy, there wouldn’t be any donations. It’s the hard times that make this special. The hardest of times inspire people to donate to CMRF on my behalf. To those who donated that day, and to all who have donated, thank you. When the tank of positive thoughts is empty, I have the donations as backup. Thank you.

We bailed into another tunnel that night, got the head down and hoped things would improve when we woke. They didn’t. That f*cking wind was howling as strong as ever. What could we do? We’d only covered 63km in 7 hours the previous day. The schedule was f*cked now, so there was little point in hoping to recoup the lost distance. There was a town on the map 35km away so we just said feck it, we’ll grab a hotel there and hope the wind dies down overnight.

Desert. Pipe. Wind. Repeat.

Desert. Pipe. Wind. Repeat.

Only 5km up the road we met a Chinese cycle tourist on his own, battling into the wind. “Howza” (best attempt at spelling his name) was going the same was as us so we battled on together, covering the 35km in 4 hours. Eugh. We got food in the town and then. Then it happened. The whistling stopped. The flags stopped fluttering. The wind eased down! The town was an absolute dive, so we decided we’d prefer a pipe than paying for a room there. Howza was onboard so we headed off as a merry trio, not really sure how far we’d get. We managed to hammer out 100km in the afternoon, poor Howza on his mountain bike with fat tyres struggling to keep up, and into a hotel in the next town! A day behind schedule, but delighted to have made progress.

James' anti-wind setup

James’ anti-wind setup

Howza

Howza

Typical truckstop. Bleak.

Typical truckstop. Bleak.

Gansu! A new province!

Gansu! A new province!

A cute puppy I met at a truckstop

A cute puppy I met at a truckstop

Howza, farting I presume!

Howza, farting I presume!

One of the benefits of having a local with you: Checking into a hotel is easy! He got us into a tiny triple room for €6 each (the shower was electrified! We got shocks turning it on and off!!!), then reappeared with 9 beers between us. There’s no way I’d have 3 beers normally but he was such a nice guy and so happy to have foreigners for company we couldn’t refuse. That day we crossed from Xinjiang province into Gansu. Howza has never left Xinjiang in his life, so this was a big day for him. We exchanged photos and email addresses, listened to music and had a good laugh. He was a funny guy and after the misery of the previous couple of days he did a lot to lift my spirits. As Bruce Springsteen said: “Hard times come, hard times go”. I’ve banked this one away to get me out of the next low.

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The view rarely changes

The view rarely changes

But the kms go by

But the kms go by

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A rare chance to practice with no hands (and no helmet!)

A rare chance to practice with no hands (and no helmet!)

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The juicer kids were staying in our hotel, again! Arrrghhh!

The juicer kids were staying in our hotel, again! Arrrghhh!

Howza hit the road early in the morning heading for Dunhuang, whilst James and I, now a day behind schedule took an easy run of it doing only 80km to Guazhou. We’re skipping a planned rest day this week to make up for lost time and get back on track. We checked into a hotel and explored the town, and for the first time had the energy to enjoy seeing the place. Our previous 10 meals in a row (yes 10) were pot noodles with processed sausage, so we indulged ourselves with some local street food, it was fantastic! My long hair and beard have been too hot in the desert, so for the second time on the trip I got a haircut and shaved my beard. The experience in the barbers was quite funny. He didn’t quite understand what I wanted so I just let him cut away. The result wasn’t too bad!

Howza and our cozy room

Howza and our cozy room

Getting there!

Getting there!

Seen enough desert?!

Seen enough desert?!

Guazhou local

Guazhou local

Guazhou moped

Guazhou moped

Guazhou

Guazhou

Guazhou crazy local

Guazhou crazy local

Pre haircut

Pre haircut

Post haircut

Post haircut

So that brings me up to date. 1100km of highs and serious lows, steroid pumping kids, crashes, broken equipment, more sleeping in pipes than I care to remember, horrendous headwinds, new encounters and a load more money in the pot for CMRF. Sure what else could a cycle tourist ask for?!

I’ve about 2700km left. My aim is to be in Beijing on the 20th of August. If you’ve found my story interesting, inspiring, funny, depressing, boring, anything really, you’ve gotten this far. Maybe you’ll go a little further and donate to CMRF on my behalf. There are sick kids in that hospital who have it much much worse than I’ll ever have it on this trip. Spare them a few quid – 4 pints is €20. G’wan, you’ll feel better after donating than after those 4 pints 🙂

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I’ve Cycled to China

Apologies, this update is a bit late as I’ve had no decent WiFi for the past week. I actually wrote this in Urumqi, but couldn’t get the photos to upload. Another post to follow shortly on the past week.

I’ve cycled to China. Wow. That’s a sentence I’ve been thinking about for years. I have cycled to China. Daydreaming about saying it for the past six months. Wow. 10,000km cycled since I started, I made it to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province and the farthest city from any ocean on the planet. A bustling metropolis of 3.3m people. I have cycled to feckin’ China!!!

Enough of that…as I said before, I’m under time pressure with the Chinese visa. Nothing new there! Since Turkey I’ve been chasing one visa deadline after another, so I guess I’m used to it now. With just 30 days on the visa and the possibility to extend and get about 55 days in total (it’s complicated, I won’t explain here), James and I have been cycling our asses off, literally, since we crossed the border five days ago to gain as much time as possible early on.

The border itself was a two hour affair, with the Kazakh side being rather confusing and a bit manic. James and I just did as the locals did and barged our way through the crowd using our bikes as effective battering rams. After being stamped out of Kazakhstan we then cycled a 7km stretch of no-man’s land on some beautiful tarmac. The rumours appeared to be true: Chinese roads are smooth as butter!

The Chinese border was just great. The guys spoke some English, took photos with us and stamped us through in no time. We stopped for some money and food, had more photos taken by locals and were on our way. We’d already cycled 30km that morning to the border and had a climb to 2100m to do, so we knew the day would be tough. We’d been on the road five days at that stage so were tired enough. Luckily the climb was gentle and dare I say, easy! We ate loads and got to the top in good time. On the way we stopped at a petrol station to fill the stove up and I had great craic with the attendants who spoke a little English. Then further up the road a couple of guys who’d passed on their motorbike stopped us to have a beer with them. They were utterly hammered, but the beer was deliciously refreshing given the heat. We camped in a small enough pipe under the road. I’d give it 2 stars out of 5. I’ve started to rate the pipes we sleep in on a star system at this point. We had a couple of 4 star jobbies in Kazakhstan so expectations in China were high!

Chinese petrol station attentands

The petrol station attendants. These guys were so lovely. I had great craic with them and they spoke a little English.

Wild canabis plants

Canabis plants. These grow wild everywhere from Kyrgyzstan to China. Huge bushes of them beside the road.

Smashed Uigher lads

Our drunken friends. These guys gave us a beer. They were absolutely smashed drunk. Nice tshirt!

After a windy night in the pipe we descended 65km in a couple of hours, enjoying the speed and views, passing endless emergency gravel traps for trucks whose brakes had failed. I’ve never seen such things, but there was one every kilometer or so, and some had clearly been used several times. We stopped for a break in a petrol station and I had my first experience of being mobbed by Chinese people. Two tour buses loaded with domestic tourists pulled up and they just stood around us and stared. I’ve no problem with it really, and to be honest I’m just making good craic out of everything now. I just say out loud to them “howiye lads? All good?” and watch their bemused faces for a response. I rarely get one – just confusion at the white man with a ginger beard, blond hair and dressed in lycra.

First climb China in Xinjiang

At 2100m and 100km into China. I’d made it. I cycled to China!

Surly Long Haul Trucker

I cycled to China on this. My trusty steed. I’ll never forget the kindness of my former colleagues who chipped in to buy it for me. Thanks guys!

2200m Bridge China

This was the top of the 2100m climb. We had to cycle over that bridge. The Civil Engineer in me enjoyed it. Concrete 🙂

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2100m climb

2200m lake China

We passed this lake at 2100m and then camped nearby. Great view to finish off the first day in China. Tired though after 130km and the 2 hour border crossing.

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The view from above our pipe under the road

4067km to Beijing

4067km to Beijing on the main road. Sadly I’ll be leaving it several times and coming back to it so can’t watch all the kilometers tip by. Probably for the best!

The road was flat. Flat flat flat. So we made good progress, and after 160km (100 miles) we decided a 200km day was on the cards so pressed on, but after 180km the wind turned against us and it was getting dark so we bailed into another 2 star tunnel. Sadly we were eaten alive by mosquitoes.

G30 in Xingjiang, China

The view from the bottom of the descent. James and the bikes give you an idea of the scale of the place

Siesta pipe

A 5 Star tunnel for our lunchtime siesta. We spent 3 hours here waiting out the worst of the sun!

Mr Brown Cappuccino Drink

I’ve developed a bit of an addiction to these cans of cold “Cappuccino” drinks. They fuel our big days in the saddle!

Filtering water in petrol station toilets

Since we have no time for dodgy stomachs we filter every drop of water we drink. Sadly we have to get it from the toilets in petrol stations!

Squat toilet in petrol station China

And this is what the toilets look like! Delightful! Actually, these are good ones -sometimes there are not only no doors, but no cubicles! Just a row of holes in the ground and lads squatting beside you. I say “howiye lads!”. They don’t reply in kind.

Late night cycling

The view from the road. Beautiful at night

Surly Long Haul Trucker

And our trusty steeds that have taken us over 10000km

Road worker huts

When we ran out of water these guys gave us some. Believe it or not this is a camp for road workers! They live out here building the road. Mad stuff

Grim tunnel under the road.

A grim, 2 star tunnel under the road. You can see James trying to stay away from the bugs by pulling his sleeping bag liner over his head! We were savaged by mostquitos down here. Grrr…

The next day we started early to beat the weather, but luckily it was overcast and cool, even raining at times, which was a welcome change. We’d spotted a town 140km away and it had a hotel marked on the map. It had been 7 days since Almaty and a shower was desperately wanted. What’s more, we wanted air conditioning. Every hotel we’ve stayed in since Uzbekistan has been a sweat box at night and sleeping outdoors, although cooler, has the mozzie problem. With this target in mind we set off to get there as quickly as possible and rest up. The weather had other plans and we ground out the last 50km into a fierce headwind. Normally I’d have suggested bailing into another tunnel, but the prospect of a shower and a bed was too motivating to do that!

Just 3900km to Beijing

The kilometer markers for Beijing were flying by!

Crazy China construction

The scale of construction in China is unreal. They’re building blocks of apartments like these everywhere!

We arrived in Kuytun at 4pm Beijing time (2 hours ahead of Central Asia, 8 hours ahead of Dublin) and found ourselves in the lavish 4* Orient International Hotel, for the princely sum of €9 each for the night, including breakfast. During the battle with the headwind I was dreaming of white cotton sheets, a warm shower, air conditioning and a soft mattress. I knew not to expect much. But then. Then we opened the door to the room. White sheets! Soft towels! Air Con! Two big beds! Oh joy! I can’t put into words how well I slept that night. It was one of the best nights’ sleep I’ve had on the trip and with the early finish, despite doing 320km in two days, I felt refreshed the next day, particularly after savaging the buffet breakfast!

Tourist hotel China

Our plush 4* hotel for €9 each! Result!

Pork liver dinner

Pork liver dinner. Very very spicy!

Pig intestines dinner

Some lovely pig intestines. Yum. They weren’t bad actually!

Chinese food

Just look at that variety! Variety in food! Not just bread and meat! I’m loving the food in China!

With renewed vigor we headed off to do another 160km and be within 100km of Urumqi by the end of the day. The only problem was the mosquitoes. They were now biting me as I cycled (could be other bugs, who knows) and I had 20 odd bites on my back, and another 20 on my legs. Itchy feckers. The prospect of another night in a tunnel wasn’t too appealing and we spotted a town 15km past our planned end point bringing our tally to 175km for the day. I didn’t take much convincing and we set off like scalded cats as daylight was fading and we didn’t know what to expect in the town. Once again we found ourselves in a 4* International Hotel, and once again in an amazing room with white cotton sheets and a hot shower, this time for €19. Not as cheap but we didn’t care. We headed out for some street food and a beer to celebrate. We also danced the YMCA with some locals in the street. It was only later that I realised I was drunk after one beer due to the relentless cycling lately. I’m a cheap date at this point 🙂

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Pig trucks pass all the time. The absolute stink from them is unreal. You can still smell them for kilometers up the road!

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Just 3700km to Beijing on the main road! About 4000km for me though as I’ve a detour to take.

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Our second hotel in China – not too shabby!

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Lots of street food in the town we stayed in. Great atmosphere.

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Standard Ronaldinho hat. Don’t think this lad knows who Ronaldinho is though.

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With our savage mileage across China, our appetites were equally savage. The food here was great, and cheap!

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This lad showed up with a beer for us. He was polluted drunk!

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A happy man with food!

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Anti Riot Gear – this is EVERYWHERE in Xinjiang province! Hotels, shops, petrol stations. Paranoid androids!

Another monstrous buffet breakfast and we hit the road towards Urumqi with just 80km to go. The fatigue caught up with us both and the 80km was a struggle. We’d cycled 700km in 4.5 days with 400km from Almaty to the border too, and it was showing. We finally got to the hostel as recommended by some guys we met in Bishkek (thanks Jared and Katie, hope the Pamirs went well!) and were thoroughly knackered. Any plans to do anything with the remainder of the day were quickly swept aside. We met an English guy named Simon and shared a few beers with him in the hostel. The beer really went to my head. I was just so exhausted! So early enough I was in bed, sleeping soundly until….roadworks started outside our room at, wait for it, 3am! Thankfully I had some earplugs and enjoyed another 7 hours of a cycling/beer induced coma.

On our first day off we did the compulsory trip to the bike shops, outdoor shop (for mosquito repellent!) and the Xinjiang museum. After blog admin and writing some postcards it was off to bed for the next day we were supposed to start our next blitz from Urumqi to Kumul (Hami). There was no chance though. We woke up still exhausted and as we were ahead of schedule decided to stay anther day and veg out, which we did in style!

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Urumqi! I never believed I’d make it this far. What a feeling.

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I can honestly say I’ve had a smile plastered across my face since crossing the border. I’ve cycled to China. A dream come true! The people here are so friendly. Granted the scenery hasn’t been mind blowing, but that’s not why I’m here. Everyone is so friendly, so polite. The food is great, the tarmac smooth. The cycling is very intense, but with a little luck the early exertion will reap rewards later when we get to the more interesting sections.

With just 4000km to go, Urumqi is the equivalent of Istanbul on the other end of the trip, so I now relate all distances to places I’ve been before. I’ve cycled 10,000km from Dublin to Urumqi. What a marvelous feeling!

So…I’ve cycled to China, as promised. Throw a few quid to CMRF in my name!

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Reflections on Six Months on the Road

Well, it’s the 5th of July. I left Dublin on the 5th of January. In that time I’ve cycled 9700km, through 21 countries, eaten a couple of hundred snickers bars, drank 100s of litres of Pepsi, Chai, and Coffee, had 3 punctures, one broken wheel, slept in many random places and met so so many cool people. What a trip! And I’ve only just started in China! I’ll have so many stories to tell when I finish in two months’ time!

I remember when I wrote my first “reflections” post when I arrived in Istanbul. Istanbul was a big milestone for me. I’d cycled across Europe. A continent. Wow. I really really found that leg of this whole thing very difficult. Maybe I was complacent, arrogant, or even ignorant before I started. I certainly realise now that I didn’t have a clue about what I was getting myself into when I set off 6 months ago.

Do I have a clue about it now? I’d say a definite yes. There’s little chance of me being nominated for “Adventure Cyclist of the Year”, but I’ve really come a long way, literally and figuratively! In Europe, I was an awful, awful “traveller”. I had to plan out every section, never “winged it”, never camped, mingled very little with the locals and basically just cycled hard, slept, ate and moved on. Part of that was that I was just surviving this thing, definitely not enjoying it.

As I crossed Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan I really changed from the guy who cycled across Europe. I learned to be a better “traveller”, much of which I can attribute to the kindness of the Turks and meeting Will, my cycling chum in Georgia who helped me learn to enjoy camping a lot more.

When I crossed the Caspian Sea on a cargo ship I hit the 4 month mark and wrote reflections again, noting how much more confident I was and there was a clear change in my attitude towards the whole thing: I was no longer simply surviving, I was enjoying myself, relishing the never ending challenges. The cycling had become, dare I say, easy (by comparison to how it was before!), and the “other stuff” (visas, ferry tickets etc…) were the real challenges.

But as soon as I was feeling confident in the cycling, I had the sh*te  knocked out of me by the Kazakh desert, an experience I talk about regularly and to be honest, it’s a great travel story now! I think the Stephen that cycled across Europe wouldn’t have survived the Kazakh Steppe and finish feeling so jovial about the whole thing. I then tackled the deserts in Uzbekistan and really had the sh*te knocked out of me. I was a broken man rolling into Bukhara, but felt proud of my achievement, delighted to have risen to the challenge and conquered it with all of my might.

Sadly, after all the desert cycling, I had to do the unthinkable: Take a train. In fact I had to take three! This was due to the visa restrictions in Uzbekistan. Although I didn’t write too much about it at the time, this took a huge toll on me mentally. I was furious with the people who’d let me down in sourcing parts to fix my rear wheel, which delayed me two full weeks in Georgia, a delay that meant I really had no choice but to take the trains in Uzbekistan. Crossing the country in time was practically impossible. For weeks I toiled in my head about the delay, fixating on it and what it had cost me, and was only satisfied again when I made up those miles later on in Kyrgyzstan.

But even the trains showed a shift in my “traveller” spirit – before I’d have stressed and worried about the practicalities of getting the bike onboard. It was always a bit of a pain as no one working on the train wants the hassle, but in Uzbekistan I saw it as a game really. I’d ask myself “How many times will he say no, and I’ll say yes, before I get the bike on board?”. As it turned out, the answer was 6 times! “Nyet…Da….Nyet…Da….Nyet…Da” (No…Yes…No…Yes etc…).

I really loved Uzbekistan. The people were incredibly friendly and welcoming. Even the police, who are EVERYWHERE were lovely. A genuinely great country to visit and I recommend it to all. Then came Kyrgyzstan and the incredible mountains. What a stunning part of the world. The extra miles there were to make up for my trains in Uzbekistan, but I still feel like I’m cheating a bit because they were beautiful, beautiful miles! Wow. Incredible. Take your bike and cycle in Kyrgyzstan, you will not regret it!

Sadly, with Kyrgyzstan came the corrupt cops. Such a shame. But again, the shift in me as a traveller shined through. The Stephen of Europe would have cowered away, probably cried or whatever, but I wasn’t overly phased by any of the experiences there either.

Then in Kazakhstan for the second time, the better traveller in me just relaxed, did the miles and enjoyed the ride despite the oppressive heat. I’ll admit, being asked “Atkuda!?!??!!?” 100 times a day still drove me nuts, but I did genuinely love meeting the people here, shaking hands and getting a hearty “Salam Alaikum” from the locals.

So, 6 months in. Am I a hardened cycle tourist warrior? Probably not. Have I changed? Yes, and for the better. Aside from trying to raise a bucket load of money for CMRF (thank you to every last one of you for your generous support), one of my main aims of doing this was to broaden my mind and “detox” from my cushy life back home. The Stephen who cycled Europe was still in that cushy bubble, nervous and afraid of the world, despite what I thought before I left, and how the blogs came across. I had to be positive! I’ve truly broken away from that and feel stronger, know a lot more about the world, and couldn’t be happier to have taken this thing on. I know that the road ahead in China is extremely difficult. I won’t delve into that here, I’m sure my next blog post will have plenty about it! But despite the difficulties I’m bubbling with excitement. My only fear is that I’ve opened a can of worms and this is only the beginning! I don’t think I’ll ever take on quite as big a trip again, but I have found travelling infectious and want to learn more and more about the world. It seems like a much smaller place now, and I want to see a hell of a lot more of it!

9700km later. 5000km to go!

9700km later. 5000km to go!

If this has come across as a philosophical load of garbage and makes you want to vomit, please accept my apologies! After 9700km, I’ve had a lot of time to think! I shall return to regaling you with tales of my broken ass, sleeping in strange places and the general misery I know everyone enjoys in the next post!

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