The original plan had been to ride to Lanzhou and then extend our visas because it was the most direct route across China. But the prospect of spending a week in one of the most polluted cities in China wasn’t exactly filling me with joy. Both Kim and I were keen to visit Xian so since we were going to take the bus anyway we thought we may as well take it somewhere interesting.
I like Xian a lot more than the other cities we had visited. Although that wouldn’t be hard. Firstly there are lots of bicycles and decent bike infrastructure. There are bike paths everywhere so it feels much safer getting around. Yes there are problems. Cars park on the pavements so pedestrians are forced to use the bike lanes and some of the lanes shared with buses and are only just wide enough for a bus to pass. Xian was also one of the first cities in China to get a bike sharing scheme which seems to be very popular judging by how many of the bright orange bikes you see riding around.
The other attractive feature of Xian is the city wall which provides a break from the ubiquitous shiny shopping malls and tower blocks. Harking back to the time when the city was capital during the most glorious and outward phase of the Chinese Empire. China was united for the first time and trade flourished along the silk road. Of course the wall is fake having been extensively restored (read rebuilt) over the past 30 years but it’s still an impressive monument and as part of the rebuilding attractive parks and public have been built along its length. Naturally befitting its status as a 4 star tourist attraction and the largest complete city wall remaining in China a 10 lane road has been constructed right next to it. This proves to be almost as effective a barrier as the ancient moat in preventing visitors getting up close to it. Short of breaching the fences with a siege engine you are once again forced underground through a series of tunnels before eventually emerging into the fog of traffic fumes that wreath the cities former defences. So sad that even the city’s most important landmark is not immune from the fetishisation of the motor car.
Xian’s history is also reflected in other areas of the city. The streets around the mosque which are bustling with life and filled with the smells of exotic spices and roasting meat a testament to the role played by the city in linking East and West. A link which is also reflected in the cities unique and very delicious cuisine which marries Chinese ingredients with flavours more commonly associated with the middle east. Hearty lamb stew with hunks of flat bread dipped in. Noodles flavoured with cumin and paprika. Delicious. And of course no trip to Xian would be complete without a visit to the Terracotta army. Only the second time we have paid an entrance fee for an attraction during our trip and successfully blowing an entire days budget in 2 tickets. But we couldn’t miss one of the wonders of the world. An army of clay figures thousands strong each one unique set to guard Emperor Qin Shi Huang in death.
Also helping to make our stay so memorable were the couple of warmshowers hosts we stayed at. For those of you thinking that we got involved in some unusual fetish you can remove your mind from the gutter. Warmshowers is a coushsurfing style site solely for bicycle touring where cyclists can find the things they need most after a long day in the saddle – namely a bed for the night and a warm shower!! This was the first time we’d used warmshowers as there haven’t been many hosts in the places we have passed through but we’ll use it more as we move west and the hosts grow more plentiful. We stayed with two hosts one Chinese and the other from the UK and it was great to be staying in a home after so long spent in hotels.
Of course the prime reason for our visit was to extend our visas for another 30 days. There are other places which are quicker and easier to extend but they weren’t on our route. So sadly we would had to wait 7 days and it wasn’t quite as straightforward as I expected. The staff were pleasant and helpful and asked a few questions about our trip and told us to return in a weeks time. Then Kim got a phone call from the police requesting she come in from an interview. They wanted to know why 30 days wasn’t long enough to visit China? When she told them we were riding bicycles they were more sympathetic. Of course I wasn’t required to have an interview. Another illustration of the difficulties Vietnamese face in obtaining visas.
Seven days later we loaded up the bikes and headed into town to pick up our passports and our hopefully extended visas. Although I was concerned that they might not be ready as I’d read of people having to wait longer than a week in Xian and given the difficulties we’d experienced already I feared the worst. I needn’t have worried. Our passports were there waiting for us and there wasn’t even a queue. Sometimes it’s worth having a lie in.
The route out of town was simple with a bicycle lane the whole way as we set off along the route of the silk road to Lanzhou. The conurbation stretched for miles. With a string of new towns along the road and frenetic development. Finally after lunch we reached countryside and it was easy to see why Xian was chosen as capital for such a vast country. It was flat and fertile worth fields of wheat and fruit trees lining the road. The road was wide, dual carriageway the whole way and although not especially busy busier than we were used to. So definitely not the most memorable days riding but it was fast and we’d rattled off more than 80 km by 4:30 despite the late start. As we rolled into town a young petrol pump attendant spotted us and came over for a chat. He’d recently ridden to Lhasa himself but was incredulous that we were riding all the way to Paris and gave us a couple of bottles of juice to help quench our thirst.
Next day the road continued as before but the flat plain gave way to incline as soon as we left town and continued for most of the day. It was gradual but certainly slowed our progress compared to the day before. After lunch the road narrowed to two lanes and got steeper. The smog that had been present since we arrived in Xian persisted. I thought it might clear up as we got to the countryside but it didn’t. It was bright enough to reveal the blue skies but you couldn’t see further than a kilometer. It was kind of beautiful, like mist on a winter’s morning. Until you thought about what it actually was. Although at least it was clear enough to see the sky. Some children in the most polluted parts of China have never seen blue sky or clouds.
There were a couple of stiff climbs indicated on the cycleroute.org elevation profile but when we got there we found that someone had kindly dug a tunnel. Ignoring the no bicycles sign we put on our lights and headed in through. The first one was very short we could see the end from the start and there was hardly any traffic as the road was being repaired and the through traffic was being diverted via the expressway but the second one was altogether more serious. Over a kilometre and lots of trucks thundering through. The tunnel amplified the noise so it sounded like there was a flock of dragons thundering up behind you. Not the safest but we had our lights on and our bikes and panniers have lots of reflective stuff on so we were lit up like Christmas trees. Still it was a relief to emerge back out into the light and a pleasant coast into town.
The first place we went to offered us a dingy little room with a shared toilet and no shower for $10. For $1.80 more the next place gave us a spacious room with en-suite a view over the town and the best service we had experienced in China. They found a special room for our bikes and carried all our luggage to the room. Then when we went to check out our bikes were brought out to the lobby for us.
That night after dinner I went to explore the town. The wind had switched direction and was now blowing from the northwest and there was a noticeable chill in the air which sent Kim scurrying back to the room. I found the big public square they have in every Chinese city. Wide open space where everyone gathers in the evenings and at the weekend usually in front if the “peoples” government building just to remind you who is in charge. This one was pleasant. The centrepiece was an old looking tower that seemed to marry East and west Asian styles. It was surrounded by groups playing music and dancing. There were groups playing traditional Chinese music and another from western China. Others were ballroom dancing, including a group of young men in white suits, loafers and quiffs. There was even a group of teenage boys pulling some moves. There must have been a pagoda on the hillside behind because they had built a huge flight of steps rising up the steep slope. They had put lights along reach row of steps to display a lightshow. A big waste of energy but it was beautiful. The steps flashing on and off in the dark was a bit disconcerting when trying to walk up and down.
I felt a few spots of rain as I walked back to the room and next day it was raining in earnest. I checked the weather forecast which said it would clear up in the afternoon so we went back to bed for a couple of hours. It was still raining when we loaded up the bikes and a chill wind was blowing. By the time we’d finished breakfast it had stopped raining. This is coal country though and the rain had turned the dust spilled from coal trucks into a black sludge which sprayed all over our bikes, all over our bags and all over us. Just before we reached the first coal mine there was a pagoda built into the walls of a cliff in a series of caves that had been carved into the stone. In fact we’d seen lots of caves over the past few days. I guess as a consequence of the soft rock and severe climate. Freezing in winter and sweltering in summer so living underground helps to regulate the temperature.
There was a stiff climb out of town, up above the houses over a bridge and then up onto a broad plateaux. It was apple county and we rode all day past row upon row of trees with the last of the blossom hanging on to the boughs. Workers were spread out through the orchards pruning and doing the stuff that apple farmers do in the spring. One old woman was balanced precariously in the upper branches of a tall tree. She looked like she was going to fall at any minute but she’d clearly spent a lifetime clambering around trees so she didn’t.
It hardly felt like we were climbing with the wind behind us. Yet climbing we were, because the downhill was awesome. Flying for 15 minutes into the valley below.
Google lied. There was no hotel in the small village where we’d intended to stay so we had to press on to the next town. Luckily it was all downhill and didn’t take too long and we found a place to stay pretty easily. It was more expensive than usual but we didn’t think anything of it. It was only the next day that I remembered it was the May day holiday. One of the busiest travel times of the year and the occasion for some serious price gouging. Which we were to experience first-hand that evening. After an unspectacular ride through a pretty apple tree filled valley we arrived into an industrial town whose only attraction of note was a pagoda on a hill top. We then spent the next two hours trying to find a reasonably priced room. Even a grotty room with no bathroom was double what we’d paid for the nice room a couple of days previously. Eventually we gave up and took an expensive but nice room.
Next up was our biggest climb of the trip so far. We’d spent all morning and early afternoon getting there riding up a river valley so it wasn’t particularly taxing. At around 3 we reached the foot of Mount Liu Pan. It rose like a brute ahead of us bringing the sunny valley to an abrupt halt. For the first section we followed the main road curving up the hillside. It was busy as the motorway through the mountain was still being constructed so all the traffic was being funnelled past us. About a third of the way up the main road continued straight ahead to a 2.5 km tunnel through the mountain. We turned off to follow the old Road to the top of the mountain. A big mound of earth had been piled across the road to block access, but cars were still crossing at one corner so we did too. It was a slog to the top. It took us nearly 3 hours to climb the 1,000 m to the 2,700 m summit. But it was beautiful. You can watch a short video of our assent here. As we had moved West it was getting more arid. The first part of the climb looked over burnished brown terraces and the dry slopes of the hills opposite. But as we climbed higher the slopes became more forested and the vegetation thicker. Finally we reached the top. There was a large glass building at the summit built to commemorate the Long March which had crossed the summit some 85 years ago. A metal barrier was across the road and the guard hurried over to sell us a ticket to the site. I was ahead of Kim so indicated in my best sign language that we didn’t want to go inside but wanted to continue down the other side of the mountain. He replied with one of the few Chinese phrases I know. mayo which means cannot. He must have seen the pained expression on my Exhausted looking face because he quickly relented and was soon helping me lift my bike over the barrier. However when Kim arrived he was insistent that we visited the Long March memorial. It was getting late and in any case our budget is so tight that it doesn’t allow us to shell out for visitor attractions.
The descent was wonderful. In a little over 10 minutes we’d reached the valley floor. We re-joined the main road to find traffic chaos. The road was busy with people returning home from the holiday and a queue had built up going through the tunnel. A car had tried to jump the queue blocking the path of a truck. As we went down the hill more and more drivers had taken advantage of the clear road to try and get ahead so now the road was completely blocked. It was even hard for bicycles to get past. There was no way a car could. I rode past laughing at the selfishness and the stupidity of the drivers who it looked like would be stuck there for some time.
We were still quite high so it was noticeably chillier when the sun went down. Kim hurried to get back to the room once we’d finished dinner. Next day was supposed to be a rest day. Only 40 km the majority of which was downhill. But once again it took over 2 hours to find somewhere to stay. Either they were total dives, and/or didn’t take foreigners or were too expensive. Finally on the way out of town we found a place that fitted the bill.
As we moved further West the land got drier and drier. The floors of the valleys were irrigated and green with plenty of trees but the sides were dry and dusty. In many places people had switched to growing trees on the terraces. I’m not sure if this is part of the Great Green Wall but it’s certainly impressive. The Green Wall is a plan to plant over 100 billion trees in a 4500 km belt to try and contain the Gobi desert which has been spreading relentlessly across Northern China and to prevent the dust storms which are devastating agricultural areas. Each year up 2,000 km2 of soil is blown away creating dust storms in Beijing and travelling as far away as South Korea. It appears to be working too. A recent study has shown that the vegetation has increased whilst dust storms in the area have decreased. In fact China has planted so many trees that they have replenished 80% of the biomass lost to deforestation in the tropical rainforest. But the project is not without its problems. Trees are very thirsty and require a lot of water and their long roots could potentially cause the water table to drop. They could also die if they are not watered regularly. Critics have suggested that using shrubs and grasses would be a better solution as they are native species which are much more drought tolerant and are often more effective at preventing erosion.
There were a few hills but nothing like we’d experienced in Guizhou. Now we were heading West we were following the grain of the country, going the same way the rivers were flowing and going along the valleys. We were following the route of the silk road and every so often on strategic hillsides overlooking the road we spotted fort like structures made from rammed earth now weathered and crumbling. It was beautiful but couldn’t quite match the beauty of Guizhou.
The road however was terrible. They were resurfacing it over a distance of nearly 200km. Rather than do it in small sections they had done it all at once and ripped off the old surface for the whole length. So you were essentially riding on dirt road. The dust was terrible. Whenever a truck went past it stirred up great clouds of it. And it got everywhere all over your clothes and into the bags. So in an effort to reduce the dust they periodically sprayed the road with water. Which turned it to mud which sprayed all over your legs and bikes and bags. There was a sweet point when it wasn’t really muddy anymore but hadn’t quite turned to dust again but that didn’t seem to last long.
And then we were rolling into Lanzhou. Although one of the most polluted cities in China I didn’t actually find it too bad. Maybe because it was industrial and poorer it looked older and more earthy and it wasn’t so sterilely shiny. There was also a lovely riverside park along the banks of the yellow river and it’s surrounded on all sides by mountains. This may be a blessing aesthetically but it serves as a trap for pollution. There are a series of coal power stations within the city itself and industrial areas up the river which fill the valley with smoke. A haze of smog hung over the city and I could feel a scratching in my throat the whole I was there. You could see the sky though which was an improvement from the last time I was there. I passed through on the train three years ago. Suddenly we went from bright blue skies into a thick smog and you couldn’t see more than a kilometer in front of you. A few minutes after leaving the city we were back into blue skies. I’m not sure what was different this time. Maybe some of the old industry has closed down or maybe they’ve made efforts to reduce the pollution or perhaps we were just lucky or perhaps it’s a combination of the three. We got some bits and bobs for the bikes and then went to the station to find out how to send them across the desert. It turned out to be much easier than I expected. I was told you had to take your bikes apart and get them boxed up, but each station in China is different. At Lanzhou we just had to take off all removable parts such as lights and water bottles and that was it. One poor Chinese guy spent half an hour dismantling his bike only to be told to put it all back together again. And so we bade our faithful companions farewell and went off to explore the city before having an early night in preparation for our long train journey the next day.