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 Рand 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.