l am now back in the UK, having abandoned the trip in lieu of disappearing funds. After some long thought and much staring at my bank account figures, I deduced that continuing to North America for the end of my trip would be pretty untenable (the right choice, I regret to say).
It has been a long time since I last uploaded a blog post – shoddy internet, and the pending return to the UK being a drain on enthusiasm.
Following on from my last blog, I went from Lanzhou to Xi’an, cheating the last couple of hundred kilometres by train due to a few mechanical problems on the bike. The riding was pretty good, though I had some grizzly weather. From Lanzhou a dull 70km of urban sprawl took me east into a series of Mudstone mountains, terraced to the extreme by fervent Chinese farmers – I guess the malleability of the geology lends itself to bring terraced. Squeezed along the narrow gorge-like valleys were small settlements of traditional single storey bungalows, with typically flaring gable roofs ornamented with oriental designs. Throughout the landscape hilltop forts of mudstone embankments (essentially hillforts), known locally as Buzi forts, proliferate. The forts primarily date to the tone of the Qin Dynasty (or c.200 BC). At one point roadworks blocked the way I was following, which had largely disintegrated into mud by this point at any rate, so I snuck up an embankment and onto the ‘highway’; a normal seeming two-lane road. Surface water and runoff mud from beside the road, combined with big trucks and no mud guards, soon had me soaked and extremely muddy, but I made good time, descending a couple of days later into Tianshui. There I had hoped for a hotel and shower, but as Lonely Planet’s cheap suggestion turned into a no go, I continued on to camp in a not so great spot opposite some roadworks on the road up to Maijishan.
Maijishan is a cliff-side cave complex containing thousands of Buddhist sculptures and murals created over several centuries, beginning in the 5th century AD (or Later Qin era – not to be confused with the earlier Qin Dynasty). In order to render the caves visitable for modern-day tourists a series of concrete walkways were affixed to the cliff front – prior to that access would have been a far more enervating experience.
With the bike complaining bitterly about the change in weather, and needing to reach Xi’an in time to meet a friend, I opted to hop on the train from Maijishan to Xi’an. Some kind police officers assisted me with the slightly mindboggling experience, and helped me ship my bike (as they’re not allowed on normal trains). Stupidly, not realising that the bike would arrive the following day, I left all my clothing on the bike.
The train ride was otherwise painless – once the airport-like security to the platform had confiscated my alcohol fuel and water bottles (luckily my knife was with the bike). I arrived into Xi’an around 7pm, and headed for a hostel where I planned to meet my old friend Bridget and her boyfriend Vincent. Bridget is an Australian with whom I worked after one of my earliest bike tours when, aged nineteen, I cycled to Rome, ran out of money, and got a job on the ‘Roma City Pub-crawl’ along with a motley international crowd.
I had a few days off in Xi’an, fixing the bike, sorting gear, crunching numbers, and making an obligatory visit to the Terracotta Warriors. The warriors amount a part of an amassed clay-based army of thousands, constructed to fight for the First Emperor Qin over 2000 years ago. The mausoleum, tomb, and terracotta brigade began construction when the Emperor was only 13 – and likely involved stone 700,000 labourers. Nearer to the actual tomb (an unexcavated hillside a few kilometres to the west) acrobats, court officials, and servants, also of ceramic, were discovered. The scale of the place and its sheer audacity is incredible, though the museum is unfortunately overpriced, and doesn’t quite convey the literal city that was made for the dead emperor.
That done, and having seen Bridget and Vincent off on their way north to Beijing, I set out once more eastwards towards my next stop – Wudangshan.
I had no expectations of the road I would follow, though it turned out to be an incredibly beautiful mountain road, wending between sheer white-grey limestone cliffs beset with brightly coloured autumnal trees, and curious goats. After a long climb a long tunnel took me downwards, and into a differing geological landscape – still mountainous, though of a finer sedimentary rock. Here, amongst autumnal wooded valleys, were dotted old cottages and hamlets, porches and balconies adorned with drying corn, and trees festooned with bright and ripe orange persimmon. Fire crackers and fire works were being intermittently set off as I rode along.
The next couple of days were of a similar fair, though with the road running along a widening river beneath some steep cave-riddled cliffs at times, eventually opening out to a large reservoir before reading Wudangshan City where I checked into a hostel. I had some fun with my mapping, which clearly can’t keep up with Chinese road development, reaching Wudangshan and had to do a fair amount of guesstimating. It all worked out fine though.
The next day was far from restful, and, five days later, I was still feeling its impact. Getting up moderately early I headed for Wudangshan – a series of stunning Taoist temples amidst the sheer mountains a few kilometres south of the city. An expensive (£28) ticket, not including the two most impressive temples within the complex, gets you onto the compulsory bus up the mountain, stopping at a few of the lower temples along the way. At the 12th-century Purple Cloud Monastery – a large elaborate series of structures, complete with taichi practitioners in action – I alighted, visiting the complex, before mounting the first of several thousand stairs, first to the base of the main staging area, then on up to the golden summit. The 14th-century Golden Hall (a temple of beaten bronze within a circuitously walled fortification of impressive construction) sits atop the summit. The final ascent climbed via the older Ming Dynasty route through the three ‘heavenly’ gates – a route that I am convinced was fabricated purely to punish the curious, with viciously steep ascents, followed by mean descents, zigzagging up and around the mountain. From the top I returned to the upper bus stop via the far easier and newer path, saving my legs a whole load of further grief.
South from Wudangshan a beautiful and tough mountain road took me steadily back above 2000mASL, with richly wooded slopes, narrow gorges and ravines, and perfectly clear streams. At times the road I followed cut through the mountainsides via long echoing tunnels (thankfully with little traffic). Here my mapping failed me once more, being unaware the main road even existed. Within this twisting and beautiful landscape, the Wildman of Shennongjia, a local legend, is rumoured to roam.
I descended into warmer climbs down to the Yangtze River, and into the city of Yichang – an unremarkable typical Chinese metropolis of 4 million, and home to the Three Gorges Dam.
Following a rest day, I rode on, first east-south-east along the Yangtze – a not so pleasant experience through a heavily polluted industrial landscape. The air had such a caustic flavour that I opted to wear a facemask. Not nice. In later removing the mask I lost my Tin Pot cap. I was not the happiest bunny.
From there I crossed the river and headed south along some busy roads towards the Wulingyuan Scenic Area (more commonly known as Zhangjiajie, or Zhangjiajie National Forestry Park) in Hunan Province. The national park was first protected in 1982, and designated by UNESCO in 1992, later becoming a UNESCO Global Geopark in 2004. The park is comprised of monumental sandstone towers, as epitomised in traditional Chinese paintings, and bought to fame in much of the west by the Avatar films (2010). Indeed, one of the many kilometre high towers was renamed as ‘Avatar Hallelujah Mountain’, pertaining to the movie. The park is most definitely one of the most inspiring and outright jaw-dropping landscapes I encountered on the trip, despite the crowds and amassed tourist infrastructure. As with Wudangshan, the Chinese fetish for stairs abounded (though lifts and cable car alternatives did exist), and I got my sweat on, weaving through the incredible environs, and avoiding overly ambitious quasi-wild monkeys.
After leaving the park and descending to Zhangjiajie City, situated beneath the inspiring edifice of Tianman Shan, I met three Dutch cyclists – Everhard, Albert, and Elma. Everhard, or Eeb, has cycled through from Holland, while the other two had flown out for six weeks to join him. Both Eeb and Elma are fellow archaeologists. The three were also headed south to Guilin, before continuing to Hanoi, Vietnam. Keen for some company after the last few weeks cycling solo, I latched myself to the group for the next few days. The ride south took us through some extremely scenic and pleasant historic towns (Furong, Jishou, and Hongjiang) rolling countryside, and saw me staying several nights in cheap hotels with the others (luxury).
A little over 100km before we reached Guilin we were stopped by police, having unwittingly rolled into a massive military zone, with restricted access along all road in the region (excepting the highway). After being stopped the first time, we convinced the officers to let us continue. The second time we were stopped, by a big black unmarked pickup, continuing was not an option. The police took us to a police station, questioned us, and told us in no uncertain terms that we must go back the way we had come. In order to cycle to Guilin we would have to take a detour, back north, then 200km east, then back south – a total detour amounting to almost 600km. We didn’t fancy that, so we got the police to give us a lift back to where we had started the day, 60km north at Hongjiang. There we took a coach further back on our trail to Huaihua (a big ugly city, and the home to one of China’s fleet of intercontinental ballistic missiles), stayed a night, and took a further coach back south again, and on to Guilin.
In Guilin I parted with the Dutch, and once again met up with Frank and Patrick – the Germans I had cycled with in northern Turkey. I wasted no time in Guilin, and pushed on to Yangshuo where I would spend the following ten days exploring and climbing (I hoped).
Yangshuo and Guilin were amongst the first areas in China to be opened up to foreign visitors, and the landscape in the area, comprising a forest of Karst peaks, rice fields, and winding waterways, is considered amongst the most beautiful in China (the karst peaks appear on the back of twenty yuan notes). Reaching Yangshuo I lucked out in a big way, meeting two Australian climbers (Matylda and Dan) in my hostel room. Not only were they a friendly duo, but, by luck, Matylda had bought her husband’s shoes and harness (the self-same husband would be arriving after I had left) with her – they kindly lent me the gear (which fit perfectly) and allowed me to join them. Through the climbing we managed to explore much of the surrounding area, including some beautiful and otherworldly cave complexes, forested karst hillsides, and many small tucked-away hamlets and villages. The climbing also gave me a chance to improve on my sport climbing (as I typically boulder – that is climb at low height without a rope), improving my mental game and confidence climbing on lead.
At the end of my time in Yangshuo, a truly torrential two and a half days of rain, mud, and pedalling bought me towards the end of my trip in Guangzhou. Unfortunately, with little over a day left to go, my rear tyre split from its beading, bursting dramatically a few seconds later. Continuing wasn’t viable, and fortunately I was only a few kilometres past the fair-sized town of Huaiji, so a pushed my bike to the coach station, and rode the rest of my way to Guangzhou in a warm dry bus. Reaching Guangzhou I felt a somewhat sad sense of anti-climax – riding a coach to the finishing line, and finding myself alone in a quiet hostel, in a big city, with no one to celebrate with was, I guess, rather undramatic and underwhelming, particularly following the wonderful, exciting, and adventurous months preceding the moment. I guess my finale epitomised that much spewed quote “it’s the journey, not the destination that matters”.
Now back in the UK, and attempting to return to normality, and looking to the next challenge, I am still in the act of processing the last few months. In all I cycled some 14,000 – 16,000 kilometres (or around 10,000 miles). My bike and I are tired, and enthused. Lessons were learnt, languages gabbled, cultures absorbed, and friends made. In all I took over 7,000 photographs, listened to several weeks’ worth of audiobooks, and ate enough sugar to give half the world diabetes.
Thank you to everyone who has helped me, supported me, fed me, or just generally put up with me, before, during, and now after this trip. And thanks to the world for being there.