“To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.” – Freya Stark
I have mentioned the contrast between the busy, prosperous cities and the seemingly forgotten countryside and villages. On this day I had a ride into the past, where some of China’s 300 million poor live on less than $2 a day. Cars and trucks were few, except for dump trucks with dirt or coal. The ubiquitous three-wheeled motorcycle/trucks were in abundance, carrying all kinds of agricultural stuff. Donkey carts, and the occasional oxcart, we’re working hard in this harvest season. Threshing and winnowing by hand was taking place on the best surface available, the paved road. The road also served as a surface to dry crops such as peanuts, corn, onions and garlic. Habitations were primitive, power lines were few, and water was carried in buckets. Everyone who wore eyeglasses had the exact same style: perfectly round lenses in black plastic frames. Old men and women carried extremely large loads of sticks or cornstalks, and small motorcycles carried whole families, three generations, in addition to big cargos. Bicycles were sometimes modern, but often they would not have looked out of place in 1900. Now and then, through this landscape of peasant toil, drove a Chinese couple in a Lexus or SUV. We were only an hour’s drive from luxury and opulence.
The town I reached, Chahar Youi Qianqi, an agricultural center with a population of perhaps 10,000, was a third-world village with one foot in the modern world. The four-story hotel was the largest structure, and my room looked out on main street, bustling with pedestrians, bicycles and motor scooters on this rainy weekday evening. I stood watching at the window a good long while before venturing out to find dinner (rice, garlic scapes, and a steamed fish with the head still on it). If I was a curiosity in the city, I was a phenomenon in Chahar Youi Qianqi. The restaurant filled up with spectators, and eventually a young English-speaking man was sent for. When he told the crowd I bicycled there from London, a murmur filled the room like the sound of bees in a hive. When I finished eating, my interpreter told me the meal was paid for. I proceeded to shake hands for half an hour, and stole a few kisses from women young and old, to the noisy delight of the townspeople. A round of picture taking followed.
Next on my itinerary was the city of Datong, at 1.7 million the most populous so far. Center of a coal mining district said to be the one of China’s most polluted areas, it looked to me, as I approached it from the northern hills on a clear, windy afternoon, like a huge, gleaming metropolis on a twisting, shining river. Before I reached it, however, I had an unfortunate experience. Either I lost the main road, or the main road itself deteriorated into a rutted, puddled, pothole-filled nightmare of black mud and slime. Coal dust mixed to a sticky batter by recent rains and traffic stuck to my bike, panniers, shoes and legs. Sloshing through puddles of black, oily slime, with truck traffic suddenly grown dense, I had to my left and right only smoke-belching factories, awful looking truck repair yards, industrial detritus and urban decay. My face was spotted with my own splash and the spray from passing trucks and motorcycles. I have never been so thoroughly filthy. It seemed to go on forever, five kilometers or more of hellish punishment for my many sins.
Then suddenly a traffic circle, a right turn, and I was cruising down a wide graceful boulevard with a separate bicycle lane separated from the auto traffic by shrubs and flowers. Rows of artistically designed street lamps disappeared into distance, and the road was lined with new, modern and very tall apartment buildings, all identical, with a handsome brick-red and bone-white treatment. Well-dressed mothers pushed expensive strollers on the wide sidewalks or cruised on electric motor scooters with toddlers on board. Amid this urban elegance, I was still a filthy mess.
The city was a beehive of activity. At one point I counted forty cranes from a single vantage point. All streets were busy, all sidewalks crowded. Even the byways and seedy neighborhoods were full of life and bustle. The fall harvest holiday, a national week of celebration second only to New Years’, meant that moon cakes and flags were for sale everywhere, and oversized fireworks were on display every night. There were four major displays that night, in addition to smaller “wedding” displays, and almost constant neighborhood firecracker competitions starting in early morning and going all day and night.
At the center of downtown were three or four thirty-story hotels, a Crown Plaza among them. I checked it out; only $90 for the standard single, up to $1200 for the “Presidential Suite”. An elegantly uniformed traffic policeman directed me to more reasonable accommodations nearby. It was still a fancy place with uniformed doormen; I secured a room for $30. The staff provided me with rags and basins of water at the curb, and in half an hour I was clean enough to enter. I spent the evening cleaning my panniers and clothes, and decided to stay two nights, my first layover since Ulaanbaatar. In the morning I had a thorough, two-hour massage, then set out to find a bike shop. I had worn out another chain and cog set, and they were now so dirty and worn that they weren’t worth cleaning. After a long and entertaining search, I found a small pro shop that had the goods. It was hidden in plain sight, ironically, within view of my tenth-floor hotel room window. I left the bike overnight with the excited owner and had dinner before retiring.
My bike was not only ready in the morning; it was spotlessly clean. The coal dust and mud, and the tar from my misadventure in Mongolia, were gone, and the bike gleamed and shined like new. Someone had spent hours on the project. The bill was for parts only, no labor. I rode out of Datong feeling much better than when I rode in.
Leaving town I had navigating difficulties, as I would have at the edges of many cities, due to road construction. They don’t close off construction areas here as they do elsewhere. Instead of flagmen, the workers control traffic by simply making speed bumps out of dirt or gravel, a common sense approach I have to admire. Cars wind in and out among the bulldozers and dump trucks, and where it’s too rough for cars, bicycles and motorcycles still go through. Construction workers lay down their shovels and help push motorcycles and bicycles up steep banks or over deep ditches. When this kind of highway construction spreads over a large area, with no signs, it is not easy to emerge on the proper route. It is time consuming. After an hour I was back on track, but still only five kilometers from Datong.
The following week varied some. Pedaling through mostly flat agricultural countryside with light traffic (with the exception of one mountain pass marked by large coal mining operations), I stayed in a series of hotels, some nice and some not, in a series of cities, some large and some small, and ate at a series of big city restaurants, roadside noodle shops, and neighborhood vendor’s carts.
The weather slowly changed from cool and clear to warm and hazy, until finally a temperature inversion engulfed the region in a thick, yellow, sulphuric smog. Normally many Chinese wear face masks; now everyone clutched them to their faces and peered anxiously through half-closed, watering eyes. My own eyes hurt and became bloodshot, headaches accompanied a loss of appetite, and for four days I breathed through a bandana. Through Taiyuan, Taigu, Jeixiu, and Huozhuo it worsened, and each night I washed black filth from my bandana, my clothes and myself.
The sunrise viewed from my hotel window in Huozhuo showed that man’s pollution sometimes creates beautiful effects: a dimly glowing orange disc in a pale yellow sky. I skipped breakfast and cruised over to the train station, where a chaotic scene was taking place due to the ending of the fall holiday. I pushed my bike into the cavernous ticket hall so I could keep one eye on it as it rested against the far wall, and joined one of the six long lines of chattering passengers, mostly masked against the smog. In a stroke of good luck, the woman in front of me was a university student in a “Business English” course. She was terribly shy, and confessed that I was the first western person she had ever spoken to. Without her help it is unlikely that I would have, in the course of the next hour, placed my bicycle and gear in the baggage car, and my self in a train seat, bound for Xi’an, 500 kilometers southward. Because the huge city of Xi’an has several train stations, some of which do not handle freight, there was much confusion regarding my bike and kit. This resulted in a last minute scramble with railroad policemen escorting me through hallways and stairways at a run, and through crowds at a snail’s pace, onto a forty-car train so packed with travelers as to defy description. From newborns to ancients, we were four to a pair of seats, sitting on the little tables, and crammed standing up in the aisles until not another skinny kid could have fit in. The next six hours were quite stressful for all of us, made bearable by the good cheer of the passengers and the heroics of the China Rail staff. Food and drinks, normally served from carts in the aisles, as on an airplane, were passed from hand to hand, and payment passed back. Trash was removed the same way, and the emergency windows were opened to provide air; smelly as it was, the maneuver provided great relief. Children (and some adults) peed in cups, which were passed to the window and dumped. Somehow, by piling several people on the laps of others, elderly women gained access to the car’s toilet. I, standing pressed between a beauty and a beast, ate but a few cookies and peed not. A few people got off at one station, and it seemed to make breathing easier.
In Xi’an I got off at the right station, but my bike and kit didn’t. The staff couldnt have been more helpful. After taking my paperwork and giving me a comfortable seat, two agents worked the phones until my stuff was found at the main downtown station. An English-speaking customer was found to convey the news. With just a shoulder bag and mandolin, I took a taxi to the main station, arriving just after the freight offices had closed for the night. At least the air was better.
I spent the morning in the lobby sipping coffee and writing e-mails. Then I went to the train station and retrieved my goods with a minimum of fuss and a lot of help from the China Rail folks. Then I was rolling again. I wandered aimlessly through Xi’an without map or plan for the entire afternoon. It’s too big to say I saw most of it, but what I saw was different from my travels so far.
Historically significant sites are thronged by vacationing Chinese and a very few Westerners. Within the city these include the 1300’s era wall and moat that enclosed the original city, now in Xi’an’s center; important Buddhist pagodas; and the site where Chiang Kai-shek was held for nearly a year by Maoist forces during the Chinese Civil war and war with Japan. The city is home to many Hui people, a predominately Muslim ethnic group, easy to spot because of the white scarves worn by women and distinctive white hat worn by men. I found myself in their quarter at lunchtime and enjoyed some of their distinctive cuisine,
But Westerners mostly assiciate Xi’an with the Terra Cotta Army, located a few kilometers west of the city. There nearly ten thousand life-sized terra cotta soldiers, cavalry, horses, chariots and other figures were buried along with the most elaborate tomb in the world (larger than a football stadium). It is the afterlife home of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, and was discovered by farmers digging a well in 1974. The Emperor ordered work to start on it in 269BC when he assumed the throne at age 13. The reason it remained undiscovered throughout history is because the estimated 700,000 artisans, workers, engineers, artists and soldiers who built it were buried alive along with the Emperor, and the soldiers who sealed the chambers and concealed the entries were executed as well. They didn’t mess around with half-measures back then. Some weapons were excavated from the site and found to be in pristine condition, with chromium dioxide plating, a process that Europeans first developed in the eighteenth century.
I was lucky enough to visit the site in 1983 when it was an archeological dig with a few small buildings and only a small portion of the grounds excavated. I actually got down in the pits and touched a few pieces. Today a huge climate-controlled hangar encloses the site, and the tourist infrastructure is said to be the size of a small city. After hearing how costly and crowded the site has become, I decided against a second visit.
At the desk of a small hotel near Xi’an’s center I met the first westerners I had seen since Ulaanbaatar. Jan and Mike, young engineers from Germany, were on an excellent adventure. They are both bicyclists and motorcyclists, seasoned two-wheel travelers already. For this month-long tour of China they chose to fly in and buy two cheap bicycles. After seeing Beijing and the Great Wall, they sold the bikes and bought a motorcycle. $450 bought them a brand-new 100cc Chinese moto, with dated engineering, pitiful performance, and loud horns. They put a couple of thousand kilometers on it and were in the process of selling it in Xi’an (it was pretty much used up, and they weren’t asking much for it). They are continuing their tour by plane, train, bus and riverboat before flying back to Germany. We had dinner at a sidewalk place with tiny stools and tables like pre-school furniture. The food was great, various meats roasted on skewers over a charcoal fire, crayfish (crawdads) and other good stuff. We also went out looking for a club or disco or bar, an excursion that found us in some pretty loud, expensive, crowded and disorienting places where we never did find a beer. But we had a good time and were back to the hotel by a reasonable hour, drinking beer from the store. Good guys; I hope to visit them in Germany some day.
I left Xi’an and had some navigation difficulty. The route I had chosen turned out to be an expressway and a toll road, no bicycles allowed. I took a paralell road that, after some kilometers, ended with a box canyon in front, a river to the left, and a tall ridge to the right, so tall I had to lift my chin to see the top. My map showed a small, squiggly line going over the ridge from the last village back, so I tried it. A narrow road, some concrete and some gravel, led through cherry and persimmon orchards clinging to the side of a very steep ridge. The road was as steep as any I have ridden, and it took two hours to reach the top. There I found a long narrow plateau with cornfields and a couple of villages, and a confusing network of roads, one of which finally brought me down to a highway on the right side of the ridge, and onward to my target city, a small one with a nice old hotel.
The very next day I was faced with two routes leading to my destination, both about the same length. I am so happy that I chose the mountain route. Five hours of low-gear climbing brought me through the most spectacular rocky, steep, pointed-top mountains; massive light brown and tan rocks clad with green trees and shrubs, with a rushing river sharing the impossibly narrow canyons with the highway. After an hour, back among these giants, I was shocked to find villages clinging to the rocks and cliffs, and little plots of cultivated land here and there between rocks where the river had deposited some gravel. These mountain people looked tough, carrying sticks for firewood and buckets of water up the steep road. Their front doors were sometimes inches from the travelled lane. At one point a woman suddenly came out of a door and into my path. We climbed the hill side by side chattering in our respective languages for a while. She pulled two moon cakes out of a bag and handed them to me, and I ate them while we strolled along.
Most of the side canyons had a little rushing stream, but several had terraced fields, none larger than a half acre, rising back up into the mist. One canyon had a concrete dam, with a little village at the foot of it, and a couple of acres of corn and cabbage along the river. Near the top a Buddhist shrine with a footbridge across the river far below tempted me over, and to my surprise I found a little restaurant there, and rooms. I ate lunch but since it was still early, I resisted the urge to stay overnight. I was invited into the kitchen, where small wood fires in brick stoves kept big woks hot and chased my chill away.
Because the mountain pass had slowed me down (two hours of zooming does not make up for five hours of crawling), I was still quite far from the next city when I rejoined the main highway. I was wet, it was getting dark, and a steady cold rain looked to be staying that way. I turned on my lights, pulled my wet hat on tighter, and put my head down for three more hours. I reached the huge, luxurious (and cheap!) International Hotel in Shangluo (another surprisingly large city) at 8:00PM. That’s how I came to make a bath, a dinner and two beers seem like heaven on earth.