After one more day in Xi’an – during which we explored the vibrant Muslim quarter and tried to cycle round the city walls but didn’t because the miserable jobsworths’ at the entrance wouldn’t let us take our own bikes up there, only bikes rented there – we headed off in the direction of Cheng’du, approximately 1000km to the southwest – and included an interesting moment when we were cycling along a main road and took the wrong turning at a roundabout, only to find ourselves on a half-built bit of road being used as a driving school. What with 20 odd cars being driven around by novice drivers, we got out of there quickly! Navigating out the city was not helped by the fact that most of the signs are only in Chinese, and most people that we stopped to ask insisted that they had no idea what we were asking (honestly, how many ways are there to say Cheng’du?) and laughed our request for help off. It must be said that the lack of signs that we can understand and the consistent view by Chinese people that they are not going to be able to understand a word we say, so why even bother trying to understand when you can laugh and walk away instead, has proved to be a bane when trying to navigate throughout China.
Eventually we found our way to the G108, the road we were looking for, and after 80 flat kilometres the road turned and headed uphill into the Heihe national park. Very quickly the scenery became quite spectacular, with the road winding along forested steep hills rising out of a wide river. It was quite foggy, but we found that added to the atmosphere. The road was very quiet and Pete found amusement for a while by shouting rude words and listening to the long echoes in the still air! We spent the night in basic accommodation, comfortable enough and a bargain 4 pounds. The following day was quite arduous, as the first 80km were solid uphill, albeit mostly not too steep. Again the road was quiet and we were delighted to see and hear monkeys in the trees as we got higher. Apparently the area is a good place to see pandas in the wild, but as we are planning on seeing them at the Cheng’du giant panda research base we decided to push on. The weather had not been in our favour – although the persistent drizzle did give us a chance to test out our new ponchos – but the next day it improved significantly and we had a great day cycling through beautiful hilly countryside. We encountered a large group of friendly motorcyclists who were out for a ride to enjoy the National Day holiday, a week-long bank holiday (why can’t we have these at home?!) that had just started. The day was marred, however, when just before lunch Christine’s bike fell over (she had put it on its stand while she bought a drink from a shop), and our camera fell out and broke. Not only that, about 5 minutes after we cycled off, Christine was stung in the mouth by a wasp sitting on the lip of her water bottle. The sting was on the inside of her lip so wasn’t dangerous, but it swelled up a lot so she looked like she had a fat lip for the rest of the day!
We didn’t quite make it to our hoped-for destination, the city of Hanzhong, as our map was not quite accurate and it was further than we expected. Instead we stopped in a small town about 30km short, and planned to cycle the remaining distance the next day, before taking the rest of the day off. It was in this town that we had our first experience of late-night visits from the police, who banged loudly on our hotel room door at 9.30pm (embarrassingly, we were already in bed as we were tired!). They just wanted to check our passports and get us to fill in a form, and were perfectly polite and friendly. To be honest we think they were more nosy than anything else! After much faff while they struggled to understand our passports and fill in their forms, they left us in peace. We have subsequently had at least one more visit from the police while in our hotel room, and no doubt will have more, but at least they always seem friendly and polite.
We experienced further bureaucracy upon arriving into Hanzhong, where we had great trouble finding a hotel that would take us – hotels in larger towns need a special license to take foreigners. After being rebuffed by 8 hotels, it transpired that the only hotel that would take us was the most expensive in town, at three times the usual cost of a hotel. We got so fed up of this ‘you’re not welcome’ attitude that after spending a couple of hours buying a new camera, we continued on to the smaller town of Mian Xian, where we were easily able to find an affordable hotel.
It took us two and a half more days of cycling to reach the ancient town of Langzhong, which we decided to divert to as it is reputed to have a very pretty, well-preserved old town. Indeed it does, but unfortunately it is also rather twee and touristy. Still, it was a beautiful (but very hill!) ride to get there, and it was certainly a pleasant place to spend a well-earned rest day. From Langzhong we had 3 more days of cycling to reach the large city of Chengdu. As before the riding was great as we had lovely scenery and quiet roads, even better the hills evened out a little so it was more undulating than hilly (even so, we honestly wonder whether Chinese road builders have something against flat roads – you hardly ever get a flat stretch!). Unfortunately the weather took a turn for the worse and the second and third days were a little rainy, resulting in our bikes and panniers (and to some extent us) getting covered in mud as we were riding on country roads that tend to be a little muddy.
We were pleased to reach Chengdu as it is a bit of a milestone in our journey across China. The last ten days have proved to us that we can cover a good distance when we want to – from Xi’an we have cycled 1150km in 9 days, over some big hills, without too much difficulty. It seems that all the hard work earlier in the trip is paying off and we now feel cycling fit and ready to take on some more distance. That is a good thing as we have 2500km to the Vietnamese border alone, with some mountains in the way! Pete’s sister Sarah has just booked a flight to come out and see us in Malaysia in January, which will be great, but means we have a definite deadline to work to now, and lots of pedalling to do to get there!