The first day we spent getting out of Guiyang. The national highway was closed because of building works and some of the alternative routes prohibited bicycles. We took then anyway as there didn’t seem to be another way.
Finally we left the city but the scenery didn’t improve much as we passed a succession of satellite towns strung along the valley. We stayed in an industrial town dominated by the calcium carbonate processing factory across the valley which was belching smoke over the town. Calcium carbonate is the major component of cement manufacturing and China uses a lot of cement. Wherever you are in China you’re not far from someone pouring some cement from the couple of old dudes laying a path, through the massive apartment blocks sprouting up in every small town to the huge pillars of the bridges for roads and railways that are sweeping across the country. China produces and consumes almost half of the world’s cement. In fact China used more concrete in the last 3 years than the USA used in the whole of the 20th century. And that’s a lot of cement. China is committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions from the manufacture of concrete but it will be tricky. Cement manufacturing produces carbon dioxide not only through the energy used but also during the manufacturing process itself and a greenhouse gas free process has yet to be found. Ultimately if China wants to reduce its emissions from cement it will have to stop building things and that will be a challenge in a country where progress is measured by the ability to bulldoze things that are sometimes only a decade or two old themselves and build shiny new things in their place.
Next day the scenery improved markedly. There was a long descent into a deep valley with a decent sized river flowing through it with a series a bridges bisecting the valley which must have used up a fair few tonnes of the concrete mentioned above then a couple of reasonable climbs. Then we hit a new wide road with a gentle incline just at the same time as the wind changed direction into a pretty serious tailwind and we were blown all the way into Zunyi.
Zunyi is famous as the place were Mao took control of the Communist Party and changed its tactics during a meeting of the central committee whilst undertaking the Long March. We went straight past the site of the meeting as there were no signs in English. Zunyi is just like any other city large by most countries standards but small by Chinese. Endless rows of apartment blocks, lots of shopping malls and lots of cars. Except Zunyi takes the adoration of the motor car to another level by banning bikes from many of its streets during the day. Which is totally crazy. I’m not sure the reasoning behind it but other cities in China who have done the same have done so in the name of safety. But pedestrians make up the majority of road traffic accident fatalities so if you follow that logic to its conclusion you would ban people too. Only allow them to scuttle from the parking lot into the shopping malls. Actually it’s the cars that kill people not the bikes or pedestrians. So actually it makes far more sense to ban cars. All the other bikers were ignoring the no bikes signs so did we.
The next couple of days involved some serious climbing. Not so much of the ups and downs we had been experiencing just lots of up up and more up. Although the views more than made up for the effort expended. They were absolutely stunning, probably the most beautiful scenery of the trip so far and that’s saying something. Although we missed out on the most stunning apparently. We got to the top of the climb and there was a sign in Chinese and lots of people walking up the hill. We discussed whether we should check it out but there was nowhere obvious to leave the bikes, you no doubt had to pay and it probably wasn’t anything special. When we got to the town below and checked into a hotel there was a picture of an absolutely stunning stereotypical Chinese landscape. Lots of limestone peaks poking through the mist. Kim asked where it was and it turned out to be the place we hadn’t bothered going to. Such is the cost of travelling without a guidebook and planning the route by looking at the map and working out the shortest route that looks interesting.
The woman in the guest house we stayed in was lovely though. Giving us one of the free rooms to lock our bikes in securely. I don’t think she was licenced to take foreigners though as she scanned her own ID card so the computer system would accept the booking. In China your ID card gets logged for everything. You need to swipe it at the hotel, when you book a train or bus ticket , before you get on the train when you get off even to go to the museum. I thought it was bad that Facebook and Google pass whatever I choose to share with them to the government but in China the government logs every minor detail of your life. You probably even have to swipe before you have sex. And there is no way to opt out.
The next day involved another couple of big climbs. The first one was long enough but the second just seemed to go on forever. The only good thing was that the bridge in the valley below was closed for repairs allowing only motorbikes and cyclists over so there was almost no traffic . The heat had returned too and Kim was seriously flagging. We stopped for plenty of rests and I helped to push her bike for some sections and eventually we made it to the top. To rewarded with this view.
Unfortunately this as with all the downhills in the past few days was rather disappointing. The road surface was too bad and there were too many switchbacks and hairpin bends so you had to work hard on the brakes and you couldn’t really enjoy the descent. Finally exhausted we rolled into a small village next to a motorway interchange with a line of restaurants and guest houses and found a spot for the night.
We have been following the route of motorways or expressways as they are known in China for almost the whole of our journey in China which makes for great cycling as there is very little traffic on the old National Roads which run alongside them. Although the motorways do rather spoil the views and of course they’re not so good for the environment. China now has the longest motorway network in the world with over 7,000 km being constructed last year alone. And with the roads have come the cars. China as of the end of 2014 had 154 million cars and 259 licenced drivers and it shows. Congestion is a serious problem and China is the holder of the title for longest lasting traffic jam in the world. Which stretched for 100km around Beijing and lasted for nearly 2 weeks. Some people only managing to travel 2 miles per day!!!! And the congestion inside the cities is even worse with cities already taking measures to reduce car usage. Whilst only 7% of Chinas greenhouse gas emissions are produced from transport 7% of a lot is still a lot if China wants a viable future it needs to take serious measures to move away from the motorcar.
Next day I could see Kim’s heart wasn’t in it. She was struggling almost as soon as we started so we decided to take a rest day at the next town. It was tiny and there really wasn’t much to do except walk down the only street and be stared at by pretty much the whole population. I don’t think they get many foreigners visiting and they were very curious. As were the local police who paid us a visit that evening probably wondering why we had only managed to ride 10km that day.
Next day some guy bought us breakfast. He said he was also a visitor to the town and hoped we enjoyed our meal. It wasn’t to be the only act of kindness we experienced that day. First off we had a bit of a hill to climb. All 10km of it. It was probably a good idea that we took day off as it was a bit of a slog and as luck would have it some nice soul had left a chair up the top so I could enjoy the view. And then came the downhill. And this one was perfect. A nice surface, not too steep, but steep enough and gentle curves you could sweep around hardly having to apply the brakes at all. And best of all it went on for 8km. Downhill heaven. All was going swimmingly until Kim’s chain broke just before lunch. I had some magic links but no chain breaker with which to attach them. We asked at a roadside shop where we could get them fixed and they said there wasn’t anywhere for the next 9 km and nor was their anywhere for lunch Rather despondently we continued pushing and round the corner found a café for lunch and the owner directed across the road to the motorbike mechanic. He was out on a job but within half an hour he’d returned and a few minutes later had the chain fixed and ready to go. He refused to accept any money and when we asked where we could buy water his wife filled our bottles from their own supply of bottled water and also wouldn’t let us pay for that either. So we ended up actually costing them money.
That evening quite by accident we ended up staying in one of the fake old towns that have become so popular in China over the past few years. Most of Chinese history, it’s old buildings etc. have been destroyed. First during the cultural revolution and then more completely during the past 30 years of rapacious development. And that’s perfectly understandable who’d want a cold, dirty, unsanitary draughty hovel when your can have a nice shiny new apartment with a gleaming car outside in which you can crawl along the smooth new 6 lane highway to the bright new shopping mall alongside thousands of other people who are also looking for a better life.
Now in order to give the new middle class somewhere to go in their new found leisure time they have started rebuilding their history in the form of “ancient towns”. These places have a few old buildings but the majority have been constructed recently, a few years after the shiny apartments and bright malls in fact. There are lots of then in Guizhou and we passed a bigger banner on the highway with a picture of all the shiny new buildings. It proudly proclaimed that the town was a thousand years old despite many of the buildings in the foreground of the picture still having scaffolding around them as they were being constructed.
Dongxi was no exception. Nearly all the buildings were new but built to look old with lots of wood and grey bricks. Although the air-conditioning units built into the wall were a bit of a giveaway that they weren’t actually ancient monuments. Well that and the fact that they were 5 storey blocks of flats.
The town was pleasant enough. We walked down the “walking Street” to the river and then followed it down into a deep tree lined ravine. It was lovely. The bright green spring foliage gleamed emerald in the evening light. At the bottom there was an old Bridge. The sign said it was built in 1370 although it looked in suspiciously good nick to have survived 800 turbulent years of Chinese history. Anyway it was a beautiful bridge nestled among the trees with the sandstone cliffs rising behind it. There was a lovely stone flagged path running through the trees past some actually old buildings that were sagging with decay. There was a small hydroelectric power station at the point where the 2 rivets met. It must have been over 50 years old, but still seemed to be generating. We climbed a steep set of stone steps back into town for dinner.
The next couple of days were pretty easy. The hardest part being trying to find a room. We followed the river in the steep ravine. There were a few ups and downs but nothing to serious. It was very pleasant, quiet and tree lined. The only downer being the pillaging of the river that was going on. The whole length of which was filled with machines digging out gravel and rock. The sections that were too rocky to exploit the water was full of sediment so it’s likely that there was very little life along the length of it. It was more like a 100 metre wide ditch than a river.
With no hills to contend with and Kim still not wanting to push herself too hard we soon rattled off the 55 km to Qijiang. And then set off to find a room. Which was no easy task it turned out. The first few places we tried were on the second floor and had nowhere to keep the bikes. Then we found somewhere with a ground floor, after a few phone calls with the police it was determined that we couldn’t stay there. The police advised us to go somewhere more expensive even though this was already the most expensive room we had tried to stay in for weeks. We tried a few other places and it was the same story. So we went to an expensive place. Of course we could stay and there was a place to park the bikes under the hotel. But the car park had no security guard and the entrance was a dingy unlit road by the river. It was effectively like leaving the bikes on the Street and the staff didn’t seem interested in finding an alternative parking place. We were just about to give up and head of to the next town when we stumbled upon one of the nicer places we had stayed in in China and for the cheapest price we had been quoted all day. It was huge, a living room with a very comfortable sofa an adjoined the bedroom. There was even a gambling den with mah-jong table. It was so comfortable that we only went out when hunger got the better of us. We had already seen pretty much all of the town while we were looking for somewhere to stay and it wasn’t anything special.
Next day the road continued as before gently undulating with only one climb of any note and even that was pretty small. The road was quiet and lined with trees and groves of bamboo. All in all enjoyable cycling and we made good progress. After around 55 km the road widened to 6 lanes and we spotted the first concrete pillars of the light rail system rising above the road. Kim was very pleased to hear that we had reached Chongqing our destination for the day. Although rather less pleased to learn that it was still another 30 km to the city centre.
As you can guess Chongqing is huge. It’s the largest city in western China. And for me was even worse than Guiyang. Again massive roads everywhere and again no cycling provision at all. I didn’t see a single cycle lane and only saw a couple of cyclists brave enough to negotiate the traffic. And they were the hard-core cyclist type. The sort who wear the full lycra outfits that match their bikes. The lack of cyclists is no doubt partially due to the lack of infrastructure but also down to the terrain.
The city is built on a series of hills. Some of them pretty steep. This means that the roads are on different levels so there is a complex system of flyovers and bridges connecting them. So it feels rather like you are inside a massive motorway interchange. Which in effect you are. There are 6 motorways that converge on the city and 2 that run straight through.
The city is utterly devoted to cars. There is an extensive light rail system but it’s stuck up in the air so as not to inconvenience the drivers sitting in traffic jams. There are almost as few pedestrians as cyclists and we found out why later when we tried to take a walk down the Yangtze river which runs through the heart of the city and is indeed the reason for its very existence. First we had to negotiate a series of busy highways through crumbling underpasses and then cut through some old apartments in the process of being demolished. Finally we cut down another side road walking on the street and we reached the river bank. Given that it is one of the great rivers of the world, passing through one of the great cities of China I was expecting a nice tree lined riverside promenade with couples walking arm in arm enjoying the expansive views of the city but no. There was yet another unfriendly 8 lane highway snarling with traffic. Which is a shame because when we actually got to the other side the views were great. The huge broad river and then the fantastic city scape across the other side all lit up and reflected in the water. There may have been other well designed open spaces within the city taking full advantage of the riverscape but I never saw them. I think it is a sad indictment of a city that cars are considered more important than the people who have to live there. That was illustrated even further for me when we came to try and get home after dinner. Essentially the only way to do it was by taxi because all the roads forbid pedestrian access but me being stubborn when it comes to these things persisted in finding a way to walk which ended up climbing dark and dingy stairways and through back alleys that were filled with trucks disgorging the latest consumer goods into the shopping malls behind them. Finally we made it back to our street but were still miles away and very tired so we jumped on the metro to take us home. Which was fast and efficient although it would have been much quicker if we hadn’t of had to go underground to get out of the way of the cars. We made it back to the hostel and I’d had just about my fill of Chongqing and was glad to be leaving in the morning less than 24 hours after we arrived.