Video #5 and a few China stats

Whilst hiding from the monsoon rain in Hanoi we put together a video from our 3 months in China. But first, to celebrate finishing our biggest country so far, here are a few China stats:

  • Distance cycled – 5,130km (Kazakh border to Vietnamese border)
  • Time taken – 90 days (58 spent cycling, 32 spent doing panda impressions)
  • Shortest Day – 17th May, 25km (ridiculous headwind)
  • Longest Day – 18th May, 196km (ridiculous tailwind)
  • Highest altitude – 3,150 metres above sea level
  • Lowest altitude – 155 metres below sea level
  • Best bit – crawling up the huge sand dunes at Dunhuang
  • Worst bit – battling the headwinds in the Gobi desert

Click here if the embedded video above hasn’t worked.

China part #3 – Wild China

We left Lanzhou having finished our mostly eastwards path since England – now we head south all the way to Perth, Australia! The land had also changed significantly, the desert of north-west China finally overcome by green mountains and hills.

Back in the desert, thousands of kilometres of land were empty and dead. Now pretty much every available inch is used for growing crops. Tiers are cut into hills to create a flat surface for rice or corn, and water from the streams and rivers feeds the fields through carefully cut irrigation channels. In this part of China water appears plentiful – every field and river is full of it, and the mountainsides sparkle with waterfalls. As a result, the landscape is full of noisy wildlife and extravagant colour, but China as a whole faces a water crisis that may lead to other areas being unable to irrigate their fields.

All work is performed by hand and every day we cycle past thousands of villagers – men and women, young and old – tending to their crops. We’ve seen no mechanised farming equipment at all in China, although we’ve seen a few water buffalo helping out with some ploughing.

As to be expected in such fertile land, villages are everywhere. They vary in wealth quite significantly, to the untrained eye at least. The poorest we saw in south Gansu were made from mud, covered in rubbish, no running water and complete with an appalling smell thanks to the lack of plumbing and the fact that anywhere passes for a toilet. Further south the nicer villages have brick houses, taps with running water, cleaner streets and maybe a few cafes serving up noodles or fried rice.

The intensive use of land makes camping more of a challenge – in Kazakhstan we could literally stop where we pleased, with empty grassy plains everywhere. Now we have to be a bit more cunning and search out a quiet spot big enough for a tent. However there does always seem to be a spot somewhere and we’ve had a few great ones, sometimes with the holy grail of a freshwater stream to wash in.

We’re still finding towns most days and we’re still enjoying being able to spend evenings in towns and eating most of our meals at cafes (definitely more interesting and much more tasty than cooking up some slurry on our campstove). Our eating technique has evolved too: our heads have lowered steadily towards our bowls over the last two months, and chopsticks are used to shovel the noodles or rice into our mouths (Bex is particularly good at this). If we don’t fancy camping, every town has a guesthouse (cheapest yet has been £3), with the bigger towns often having really nice hotels for around £10-15, which isn’t too bad if there’s two of you to share a room. Although we’ve camped a bit between towns, it would be possible to travel light and cycle around China without camping equipment, with the exception of the desert stretches in Xinjiang.

The language barrier remains impenetrable for the most part, despite our efforts with the phrasebook. The sounds are subtle and completely alien to us, and each word has multiple meanings depending on the intonation used. I’d love to see some of our ‘conversations’ played back with subtitles – most of the time neither side has a clue what the other is on about. However, we have met some English speakers in a few of the cities, and have been taken out for dinner and beers and introduced to friends, all excited to meet an Englishman. Foreigners are rare in all but the major tourist cities – an English teacher we met in one city of half a million people had only previously seen one foreigner, 10 years before. It’s not surprising that we’re constantly stared at everywhere we go – especially in the smaller towns and villages, we may be the first foreigners that some people have seen.

Recently we’ve been faced with a choice between roads – the ‘old’ road, or the new expressway. The amount of infrastructure construction in China is incredible, with a brand new expressway and highspeed railway built (or being built) alongside most of our route all the way from Kazakhstan. These new routes take no notice of the hills in the south, bridges and tunnels both kilometres long flatten out the ups and downs. The cost of these projects must be enormous – the roads are thousands of kilometres long and nearly always on a bridge or in a tunnel – and they strike an uncomfortable contrast as the new roads slice through villages that have no water or sanitation facilities.

The roads present a bit of a dilemma for us as well: do we stick to the old road (quieter traffic, more shops, much more interesting, more miles and up and down every hill) or sneak onto the expressway (bikes not officially allowed, nice wide hard shoulder, flatter road blasting through the hills, no shops and much more boring)? It’s far quicker on the expressway but even if travelling through the exact same landscape, when on the expressway surrounded by crash barriers we feel bored and disconnected, whilst on the narrow winding old road, often with a lethal drop on one side, everything suddenly seems much more interesting!

To occupy my brain one day on the expressway I listened to a Tour de France podcast as we cycled, daydreaming about team time trials and solo breakaways. The end of the podcast jolted me back to reality and I found myself on a solo breakaway of my own, dripping with sweat, panting hard and cranking the pedals, with Bex nowhere in sight. Whoops!

We’ve taken a couple of shortcuts on smaller roads, hoping to slice hundreds of kilometres off our route whilst exploring some really quiet rural areas. The first one turned out to be a mud track over a 2,200 metre mountain pass, and the unsurfaced road had become almost un-rideable after it rained. Even downhill we were forced to drag our bikes through ankle-deep mud and it took us 3 days to cover the 120km until we rejoined tarmac!

Whichever road we choose, mountains and hills are unavoidable in this part of the world. Generally the road weaves through a valley, following a river or a gorge. But once every couple of days, the road bends up and over a 3,000 metre high pass. On the old roads the grand finale of these already challenging climbs is a savage switchback road snaking the final few miles up to the peak, followed by superb views and an exhilarating winding decent. The difference in temperature at the top and bottom of these climbs is hard to believe. In Chengdu, down at 500 metres, I couldn’t leave our air conditioned room without breaking into an instant sweat . A few hundred miles further south, and I was digging out my long-forgotten coat and gloves at the top of a pass, preparing for a chilly descent.

We stayed in a backpacker’s hostel in Chengdu, and after being stared at 24/7 for the last few months it was nice to be able to slip into anonymity, surrounded by other ‘aliens’, burgers and cold beer. I had a grin like a Cheshire cat on that first evening – the novelty of western food and home comforts like the hostel’s 500-strong DVD collection was too much to take in. The burgers must have been good as Bex managed to put away 4 of them during our 5 night stay. My first English breakfast since leaving home also slipped down a treat. We indulged without a shred of guilt about ignoring Chinese culture for a few days – after we finish our 3 months in the country we’ll have had enough noodles for a lifetime!

Whilst in Chengdu we took the obligatory trip to see the pandas. You go in the morning to see them eat, as apparently they spend the rest of the day sleeping. The pandas were weirdly human-like, lying on their backs and reaching up to grab bamboo branches, all in slow motion. Bex had obviously been taking notes as she used the afternoon to perform a very realistic panda impression of her own, spending the afternoon lying on her back in bed, covered in food.

It’s time for another toilet update – unfortunately they’ve been getting steadily worse the further east we’ve travelled. If the current trend continues I’m not looking forward to New Zealand. The norm in China is a communal trench, there’s nothing like the fear of falling backwards into the pool of slurry and a grunting Chinese man squatting two foot to your left to focus your mind. After using a petrol station’s facilities recently I actually commented to Bex that they were pretty good – they were still communal squatters, but had separate holes, metre-high dividing walls and flushes! It appears my standards have dropped to previously unimaginable lows.

We’re now in Kunming in south China, with just 400km left until the Vietnamese border (and having passed the 15,000km marker a few days ago!). China has felt enormous at times and we’ve both occasionally struggled with the motivation to get back on the bikes for another day of pedalling, knowing it’ll be largely the same as yesterday. But just as we begin to feel sorry for ourselves, something happens – the road twists through some incredible scenery, or we spend an evening eating and drinking with some new friends mentioned above – and we give ourselves a kick and remember how lucky we are to be living the dream.

China part #2 – half way to New Zealand!

You know that feeling: you’re freewheeling down a hill or cycling in the sunshine, and you feel invincible! Well I get that feeling every single day. Sometimes it only lasts a few minutes, sometimes when everything is perfect it can last 9 hours. I’m not crazy – obviously I regularly dread getting back on the saddle, perhaps the night before, when I wake up, as I’m loading up the panniers or sometimes right up until the second I start turning the pedals. But as soon as my legs are spinning, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I just love it – wind, rain, hills, sunshine – whatever is out there it can be wonderful (even if only for short while). The good thing about cycling is you don’t need to be Lance Armstrong to FEEL like Lance Armstrong… the other day coming down through a gorge I went flying past old men on rickety bikes, school children and mopeds overflowing with cargo. I tucked low into the time trial position – take that! Ha! It doesn’t matter who I’m overtaking, it’s always brilliant. That is the wonderful thing about riding a bicycle – anyone can do it, anyone can afford it – and you can’t help but love it when you get THAT feeling:-)

I was having one of those glorious moments described above when out of nowhere a fist flew towards me from behind, there was a massive crack, and someone had punched me in the side of the head!! What the hell!?!! I spun around, head reeling, to face my attacker. What did I see? A terrified and guilty looking Ryan. He had been eagerly trying to beat up my shadow, stretched out long in the early evening sun – a game he thinks is hilarious – but had misjudged the situation and smacked me in the side of the face. Not feeling in the mood for a fight, I let it go, but Ryan be warned an icy pint is coming your way!!

So cycling in China…we have got into the habit of cycling for longer hours, covering bigger distances (more than a few times we’ve racked up over 150km in a day) and are doing big hard leaps from city to city, where we then stop for a few days for a break. My Mum says she feels like she is holding her breath between jumps and then has a big sigh of relief once she knows I am safe and at the next town. I’m not really sure what she is expecting might happen; attacked by a Yeti, being left on the side of the road dying of thirst perhaps – but Mum, we finished the desert section so you can relax!

The longer breaks have given us time and energy to do a lot more “proper” sightseeing. Some tourist flashpacker days in between the grind has been great to keep spirits up and I have been absolutely loving our lifestyle of late. We really have had a wonderful few weeks and seen some breathtaking sights. In Dunhuang, an oasis city, we climbed Lawrence of Arabia sand dunes and watched the sunset over a beautiful crescent moon lake. Perched high on the dunes looking down on busy ant-like tourists we were pleased with our intimate spot and felt it was worthwhile skirting the fence and hiking into the dunes for some solitude (and avoiding the extortionate entrance fee).

We also had time off the saddle to visit 30 metre high giant Buddhas, sit in cafes drinking milkshakes and visit the Great Wall of China at Jiayuguan. Although we’ve been cycling next to old sections of the Great Wall for some time, it was kind of nice to go to the famous spots where we could see some of the old forts and everything was a bit more like the brochure. Most of the untouched original wall we see alongside the road is magnificent in its size but a bit pathetic in appearance otherwise, being crumbly and insignificant next to petrol stations or uninterested villages. It is pretty awesome to be cycling alongside it everyday, when I remind myself to appreciate it, but it was fun to see the wall renovated to its original grandeur. The fort and section of the Wall we saw at Jiayuguan (the far western edge of old China) is famous because Chinese people banished from their country were ordered to leave through the gates of the Fort for the west, never to return, and I can vouch that it is not nice being out there!

There is one problem with having a longer break, and it is getting back in the right frame of mind to actually cover any distance during the first day back on the saddle. Cycling out of Jiayuguan we hadn’t even got out of the city when we decided it was really rather hot so we better get an ice cream, then Ryan was “starving” so we stopped to get some sweet and sour pork, then 5 km further we saw a petrol station and feeling parched we had a cold coke (well who knew when the next one would be??) and after that it was the hottest past of the day so we thought we better just have a snooze in the shade…before we knew it the day was gone and we had covered a very meagre 60km despite being out for 12 hours.

Whilst cycling in China we have seen our first cycle tourers and I cannot tell you how exciting it is. Two little dots appearing on the horizon, growing bigger and growing wheels is one of the best sights on the road – and if they have western bikes loaded with panniers we know we have hit the jackpot and they are a long hauler and most likely English speaking. At almost precisely our halfway point (yes we think we are officially halfway there!!!) Jacqui and Aaron rolled into view, who are cycling from Australia to Ireland following almost the same route as us in reverse. We were pretty over excited to see them and leaped across the highway. They were far more cool, but I think equally happy to share stories of what lay ahead for the other.

We are now in Lanzhou, which we have been talking about getting to for the last 3 weeks. We went over a 3000 metre high mountain pass to get here, and the scenery has finally evolved from bleak desert to green hills and fields which is a welcome change. I have most definitely had enough of deserts (and sleeping in tunnels) for a lifetime…

So technically we are on the home straight – and Ryan promises it is downhill all the way to NZ. We had a celebratory night out on our arrival in Lanzhou and went to a fancy restaurant. It is always hideous trying to order food, but on this night we found ourselves in a Mongolian hot-pot restaurant where pointing at sweet and sour pork in the phrase book wouldn’t suffice and we displayed an exceptional level of incompetence as a result. An expanding number of Chinese people talking loudly at us resulted in our table being laid with a cauldron of boiling oil laced with wild mushrooms and bowls of unknown meats and miscellaneous ingredients orbiting around it. A kind waitress seeing our bewilderment helped us to eat piece by piece and prepared our next mouthful in the oil with chopsticks and loaded up our little bowls. The other customers who were all capable of eating their meals without assistance continued to stare at the Aliens (official word for foreigners, seen on signs in hotels) for the rest of this performance until, finally, we were declared competent to feed ourselves and the waitress took a step back and supervised the remainder of our meal from a distance. Not quite the romantic dinner I had in mind…

Overall, China has been very surprising and really quite brilliant so far. The hotels, restaurants and treats are so cheap that our standard of living has exponentially increased since the ‘Stans and the road surface on the most part is decent enough for some fast riding. Yes we have had really difficult times here, especially the blasted wind storms in the desert, but I am really happy with the way the cycling here has turned out and I am loving everything about the adventures we are having in China – whether good or bad they are certainly always interesting.

China part #1 – the first thousand miles

Leaving Almaty after our last blog was very tough – we’d got way too comfy during our week relaxing there, enjoying an amazing house, proper food, and a western-style city. The prospect of dusting off the bikes and tents for a 3 month stint across China was not too appealing, to say the least. We did eventually manage it (I promise we’re not secretly blogging from Almaty), and knocked off the 250 miles that remained before the Chinese border.

Sometimes border crossings mean an instant change of landscape and culture, sometimes the change is more gradual. The crossing to China from Kazakhstan felt like the former and the two border towns prove the point. ‘Khorgos’, on the Kazakh side, seemed a typical Kazak village. Potholed roads, bare-shelved village shops, surrounded by open green land for sheep and cows to graze. Getting into Kazakh customs control was a pushing and shoving match with about 50 other people. On the Chinese side, ‘Khorgas’ had high-rise buildings, a perfectly smooth highway, shops bursting with weird and wonderful food and drink (shrink-wrapped hardboiled egg anyone?) and was surrounded by intensively cultivated fields. Before entering Chinese customs control we were made to stand in a line by a uniformed officer, like school children.

We’re currently about 1,000 miles into China and the landscape has changed dramatically already within the country – we’ve cycled up/through/past mountains, deserts, switchback climbs, frozen lakes and sweltering oasis towns. We’d expected West China to be the emptiest stretch of our journey so far, but the first 600 miles were reasonable busy: a mixture of large developed cities (with hotels, supermarkets and department stores) and small truck-stop villages (full of dirty roadside cafes and no running water). Toddlers run free in the road with clever/insane trousers that have a massive split around the arse. No need for nappies – if they need the loo they just squat on the street, the split magically opens and away they go. I’m considering getting Bex a pair to help speed things along.

China has been completely different to anywhere else we’ve been. Food, mannerisms, language – it’s all very bizarre to us. Sign posts are written in Chinese characters, as expected, but helpfully they’ve also included Farsi for those that can’t read Chinese. The most common food appears to be noodles from little cafes, and unless you request otherwise, is served with 4 to 5 whole chillies chopped up and mixed in. The other day in a cafe we saw someone munching on a raw onion as if it were an apple, whilst chatting to his mate who was popping garlic cloves into his mouth as if they were sweets.

General western manners are irrelevant in the truck-stop cafes of rural China. Spitting is the norm, whether it’s on the streets or on the floor inside cafes and restaurants. Chopsticks are used to eat every meal, and I’d assumed that the locals would have some seriously slick chopstick skills. However the standard technique is to lower mouth to within an inch of bowl, stab chopsticks into noodles, lever one end of a massive bundle of noodles into mouth, then suck & slurp the remainder of the bundle up into your mouth as loudly as possible. It has to be seen to be believed!

Urumqi is the largest city in Xinjiang, and is the most remote city from any sea in the world. It felt huge as we cycled in, neon lights and people everywhere, much like I’d imagined a large Chinese city to be like. Urumqi lies at 800 metres above sea level and our next stop was Turpan, just 120 miles away but 150 metres below sea level. We anticipated a glorious day of freewheeling but unfortunately the wind had other ideas and blew strongly in our faces for the full two days that it took to get there. Devastating.

When we did eventually descend into the Turpan basin the heat rose noticeably – Turpan is officially the hottest place in China with a face-melting record temperature of 49 degrees Celsius. Fortunately it was only a balmy 36 degrees when we were there, although that’s still much too hot for me. We spent a day in this old town on the Silk Road’s northern route eating fruit and nuts (the region is famous for grapes and raisins). The old bazar was suitably smelly complete with the usual horrors of the meat section.

After leaving Turpan the farmland and towns gave way to desert. There’s only one road to take if you want to travel to the east and it’s extremely bleak: to the north lies emptiness and the southern edge of the Gobi desert, whilst to the south lies more emptiness and the northern edge of the Taklamakan desert. This is the first time that we’ve really had to be careful how much water we’re carrying. It’s usually about 200 miles (3 or 4 days by bike, depending on the wind) between towns, and although there is the occasional petrol station plonked out in the middle of nowhere, it’s impossible to find out for sure exactly where these are. As team sherpa, I’ve been carrying the water and food required for wild camping throughout the trip, but for Princess Bex the weight of an additional 10kg waterbag on her bike must’ve been a real shock to the system.

During one of these empty sections between Turpan and Hami we passed through an area notorious for strong winds – apparently a train had been blown off the tracks recently. We loaded up with water and food and set off. On day one, the heat was unbearable – even the wind was hot and we found ourselves leapfrogging from tunnel to tunnel to escape from the heat of the sun for a while. Despite all the extra water we carried, it’s impossible to quench our thirst when the temperatures rise in the desert. The heat seems to radiate up from the ground as well as down from the sun, and our water turns luke warm in minutes and loses all appeal. I keep day dreaming about ice-cold drinks from fridges, which is torture when you know there’s no chance of getting one for the next few days.

On day two we set the alarm for sunrise in an attempt to beat the increasing wind, so after evicting a scorpion from our tent (who’d crawled in whilst we were outside having breakfast!) we began what was to be one of the worst days of our journey to date. A savage cross-headwind was blowing, getting stronger by the minute, and before long we couldn’t ride our bikes as the gusts blew us sideways off the road. Bex looked terrified as she leaned into the wind (and traffic!) trying to keep her bike upright. Each time a lorry goes past it creates a wind shadow, sucking us in towards the wheels and then spitting us furiously back out the other way. The gusts pick up any loose surface sand and grit and fires it sideways into our faces. It didn’t feel like we had anywhere to escape to, the barren landscape offered no shelter and the angle of the wind meant our trusty tunnels under the road just acted as funnels, so we just had to keep going.

After battling the elements for a miserable 15 miles, a truckers’ cafe appeared from nowhere, so we ditched the bikes and dived inside. We huddled inside that cafe all day, feeling sorry for ourselves as the wind buffeted the corrugated iron building. The walls shook and the roof creaked as a nearby weather station recorded wind speeds of up to 97kph! We got worried as the cafe owner kept glancing nervously at his roof, which started to come away from the walls. The wind sent gusts of grit and dust past the window at incredible speed – I’ve never seen or felt anything like it before. Tables and chairs were pushed against the walls to stop them collapsing and all we could do was sit and wait. Cycling onwards or camping outdoors was obviously a recipe for doom, few trucks were still driving in the wind, and the forecast for the following day was for more strong winds. We considered our options over another plate of greasy noodles:

A) Find a lorry still willing to travel in the winds, hitch a lift back to the previous town 80 miles back down the road, wait out the storm for a few days, before hitching a lift back and trying again.

B) Persuade the cafe owner to let us pitch the tent inside the cafe, hope that the wind drops overnight and try to battle on the following day.

Neither sounded particularly appealing. We both agreed that whatever happened we had to cycle this section, even if we had to hitch a lift back to safety and attempt it again in a few days – but the thought of going back on ourselves after so much misery was awful.

We sat around helplessly for hours, trapped in the tiny tin box and not really sure what to do. What if the wind is strong tomorrow? But if we go back now it will mean lots of extra money spent and what if we could’ve cycled?! Each day we lose is precious as our visa ticks by regardless, and China doesn’t get any smaller. Eventually we’d been messing around for so long  that it became too late to get back to the previous town: my motto held true once again (ignore a problem, and it will go away) and our decision was made. The cafe owner kindly said we could pitch our tent on the floor after his customers had finished drinking beer, slurping and spitting on the floor at approximately 2am.

After propping my eyes open in a corner of the cafe, finally the last of the boozers retired to their trucks for the night and we whipped the tent up for a 6 hour kip, earplugs essential to drown out the sodding wind. We woke feeling ‘refreshed’ at 8am to find a strong but hopefully not lethal wind, and so jumped on the bikes. We battled a ‘steady’ 50kph crosshead wind for 5 hours, whilst going up endless hills. We were over one hundred miles from the nearest town and camping out in these conditions would be a challenge. Morale was off the scale. Fortunately, everything changed extremely quickly.

We reached the top of the mountains as the road bent 45 degrees to the right, transforming the crosshead wind into a once-in-a-lifetime tailwind! YEEEEHAAAA! After a terrible morning we now cycled at warp speed, smashed out 196km for the day (a record that will not be broken!) and arrived in Hami days earlier than expected. It hammered home how gutting the wind can be – we pedaled at maximum effort all morning and covered 50 kilometres, and then free-wheeled for most of the afternoon but covered 140 kilometres!

The desert after Hami has been nearly as unforgiving as the part before and the wind has been relentless. It seems like we spend every day at the moment flogging ourselves across a barren landscape, battling headwinds, sandstorms and trucks. Our options for camping are determined by the wind – either in a tunnel under the road (noisy, but sheltered) or a few hundred metres off to the side of the road out in the desert (quiet, but exposed to the elements).

On the first day after leaving Hami the wind forced us to camp in a tunnel under the road, but unfortunately the wind shifted direction just after we went to bed and our sheltered underpass was quickly transformed into a very sandy wind tunnel. We lay there, sticky and dirty from a day’s cycling, trucks racing past 6 feet above our heads, tent flapping manically in the wind. Sand quickly began leaking through the mesh door and filling up my side of the tent. We soon had sand in every orifice and unfortunately we were still four days of cycling and camping from the nearest town. It was definitely one of those moments when you wonder how the hell you’ve ended up here – and we’ve had a few of those recently!

This was easily the dirtiest I’d ever been, and when we finally reached the next town the highly anticipated shower was world class – the build up of road grime turned the water black and blocked the plug!

We’re now in a tiny town called Liuyuan, getting ready for what is hopefully the last desert stretch. Any romantic notions of cycling across huge empty landscapes have been completely lost on me now, and I can’t wait to see the back of them. Although China has been pretty tough at times, I’m definitely still enjoying being here overall – some of the scenery has been spectacular, the change in culture is interesting and fun, and the food is generally tasty (if you remember to shout ‘no chilli’ when ordering). I’m looking forward to seeing the country change as we move east and south over the next few weeks.

If you would like slightly more regular updates than these blogs, you can check our current location over on the route page (updated every week or so), or take a look at our micro-updates on Twitter (you don’t need to be a member to view the page).