Première Etape – from Xi’an to Lanzhou
- Categorized in: April 2011
Timing is everything – and so far it’s looking like my departure date happened to be timed just right.
After the long wait for spring to arrive, when she comes she barges in like an over-imposing mother-in-law (not that I’d know) – and before you know it temperatures are soaring to what - for a Brit - would be a blistering hot summer day.
Springtime in Xi'an
I rolled away from International House language school at precisely 1247 (Central China Time) on Tuesday April 5th 2011. Happily this fell on a national holiday which meant a handful of my friends could accompany me to the city limits (and a little way beyond). It wasn’t the warmest of departures so I appreciated that they were prepared to brave the cold to see me off.
The leaving party makes ready outside International House, Xi'an
Before parting company we stopped off for a big bowl of paomo – a kind of bread and meat stew – and couple of photos with a misty backdrop of the Qin Ling Mountains, and then I was away. As I pedalled off into the grey afternoon, I had a bit of a lump in my throat after saying goodbye to my good friends and to Xi’an. It’s a great city and I’ve met some great people there. I’m sure one day I’ll return to see how the place is doing.
The final farewell (sniff sniff!)
But for me, it was good to be getting down to the job in hand. The first day was simple enough. I reached the little town of Huxian in a couple of hours, rolling past vineyards, then healthy looking wheat fields and acres and acres of apple orchards – all in the northern ley of the Qin Ling Mountains. Once I arrived I had a squabble with an “innkeeper” who wouldn’t let me stay without first producing a Chinese ID card. After explaining several times that foreigners don’t have these, we came to the happy conclusion that, in that case, foreigners were not allowed to stay at her guesthouse.
Instead I trundled down the road to the more expensive hotel, found a room and collapsed on my bed. I’d been sleeping terribly in preparation for my departure as dozens of odd-jobs churned around my head, so I took advantage of the comfortable bed and had the best 12 hours of sleep I’d managed in weeks.
The following day I carried on the road passing similar landscapes. If you cut out the mountains to my left, the land could easily have passed for farmland in Norfolk – my home county in England. Poplar trees, wide ditches and wheat fields, deep green and lush, broken up by more apple orchards in pink and yellow blossom, as the road led away west, straight as an arrow for mile after mile.
Around lunchtime I stopped to eat some food and was joined by a wanderer on the road. He looked a bit down on his luck and was walking off to the next town to look for work. I didn’t have much but gave him half of the fruit I had leaving me with nothing much for the rest of the ride after my snack.
Although I’d covered almost exactly 100km, I arrived in a slightly bigger county town called MeiXian in the mid-afternoon, and wandered around to have a look about the place. There were the usual market stalls selling food at the most interesting of which was a man selling live chickens. You could buy one for 60RMB (£6) and he would then boil it alive for you (to kill it), and pluck and gut it then and there if you wanted. Watching the bubbling pots, it didn’t seem a particularly pleasant way to go.
Eventually sitting myself down in front of a noodle kitchen, I was joined on the long trestle table by two men. They started chatting with each other and I was surprised when one of them starting humming the tune to Silent Night. Interrupting him, I asked him how he knew that tune. He made the sign of the Cross and looked up to heaven. So we fell into a (sort of) conversation in which we struggled our way through something about Catholics in China and Europe, and the Protestant faith and the various fortunes of each in England. He turned out to be a Catholic priest and he led a church in the local area – but not in that town.
Sun Chong Yu (the Catholic priest - on the right) and his pal
After we’d all eaten, I wandered around the town a bit more with them, stopping by a big new white church that was being built for the local Catholic congregation. It was quite an unusual sight – one usually associates building work and churches with the conversion of old disused churches into new housing or some other function. I can’t ever remember seeing a new church being built in Europe. So to see this openly done in China was unexpected.
Church interior - not quite finished
The following day was only a short ride but a noisy, dirty and frustrating one. The road to Baoji was crammed with lorries and trucks, blaring their horns, splashing thick mud everywhere despite being a dry day, while the road surface kept breaking up into bone-shaking rubble. This was made worse because my chain kept slipping which worried me (until I fixed it later in the day), and my mind was occupied with trying to figure out some visa issues I was having.
Worse still, the old demons of discouragement and disappointment had taken hold of my thoughts. It seems that when you step out in a venture like this one, the first voice that has its say is the one to try to knock you off your stride. Some of the things that passed through my mind were quite incredible in their viciousness. About things from the past, doubts about this journey, why I am doing it and where my life is going.
But all this I had at least expected.
Even so, I arrived in Baoji badly out of sorts. I did at least find a very comfortable place to stay quite quickly and I was soon out wandering round the lakes and parkland in the middle of this little city.
Baoji Central Lake
Still trying to muddle through my visa problems which had arisen because my application for a second passport in the UK was rejected, I had tried to submit an application for an Iranian visa – which would have involved having to fly back to Beijing from somewhere down the road and spending some days picking it up. This seemed a very complicated way of getting round the problem of finding a route through Central Asia and the Caucasus to Ukraine. In the end, I found out it should be possible to get a Russian visa in Tashkent, which means I’ll take the northern route around the Caspian Sea. Undoubtedly the toughest ride of the three possibilities because of the long, utterly desolate tracts of land to cross, it will at least lead me into Russia – a country and language I am more familiar with than for example Iran or Azerbaijan. At any rate, it seems I have little choice. So finally figuring this through gave me quite a confidence boost. I now had a clear plan – obtaining a Kazakh visa in the city of Urumqi, and then the Russian one in Uzbekistan.
Feeling a good deal happier, I had an early supper and went to bed, ready for a long day in the saddle the following day.
The distance from Baoji to Tianshui is 175km. When I set out I had no real intention of doing all this in one day. But once I got going, and I passed the first marker that said 150km to go, I was feeling strong and thought I’d at least give it a try.
The more fertile looking countryside started to drop behind now. There were still wheat fields, but the landscape was now dry and increasingly dusty and empty. The hills and cliffs that rose and fell as the road weaved along were entirely made of loess – the pale brown dust that blows in from the deserts to the west, and slowly buries everything in sometimes hundreds of metres of sedimentary layers. Alongside the road gaping holes and caverns appear scraped out of the loess cuts, where the poorest peasants had once made their homes. These dwellings are abandoned now, but even the villages I passed through used this pale mud, baked as hard a concrete in the sun, for walls and huts and houses.
Even so, all this weary dust was often broken up by an orchard in full pink blossom, its scent mixed with the heat in the air, smelling sweet on the breeze.
Although I stopped for a pretty full lunch, the day wore on and on and the distance started to tell. It was after 4pm when I still had 70km to go and I was beginning to feel it. A head wind had picked up and the road kept rising little by little which slowed me right down.
Again I was struggling to silence the discouraging thoughts running round my head – and I just gritted my teeth and thought I’ll just keep turning the crank until the sun falls and see where I get to.
About 40km short of Tianshui, a car passed me and then pulled up in front of me. 3 people hopped out and the man waved his hands about enthusiastically, obviously keen for me to stop. I’m glad that I did.
Curious travellers on the road to Tianshui
The man was driving home with his wife, having given his mother a day out. They were very interested to hear about what I was doing and asked whether I would come to dinner with them that evening. I said even if I made it to Tianshui, I’d be far too exhausted that night, but would willingly come the next day. They were happy with this and gave me their number.
Despite some agonising minutes overcoming one final big hill to break into the valley in which the city of Tianshui spreads out, I did finally kick over that rise and hammered my way through the last 10 or 15km into the district of Beidao – part of the city area of Tianshui. Although exhausted, I was pretty amazed I’d managed to get there in one day. All my bags are pretty heavy and 175km is not a short distance! In the end, it had taken a pretty solid 10 ½ hours riding to get there.
Remembering my previous mistakes of failing to eat and replenish my energy I stopped at the first hotel I came to, wolfed down a couple of bowls of noodles and fell asleep still munching on peanuts.
The next day was a rest day. I trundled another 15km down the road to the “other part” of Tianshui – the city exists essentially in two parts, and found a different place to stay right on the main square of the old town. It was a pretty lively place, which troops of marketing reps (girls/students – I have no idea) armed with megaphones and sound systems blasting out their messages on the square. Food and drink sellers everywhere and buses and shoppers tearing along in every direction.
Look-out from Maiji Shan rock face
Tianshui is recognised as the first proper way-station on the Silk Road. It’s about 400km from Xi’an and still bears the atmosphere of a busy trading entrepôt. However, up in the hills to the south-east of the city is a remarkable site called Maiji Shan – which means the Wheat Loaf Mountain – evidently so-called because it does bear a remarkable resemblance to a loaf of bread. But this place has been one of the handful of Buddhist retreats par excellence dotted throughout China. Whilst contemplating the mysteries of existence, visiting Buddhists seem to have whiled away the time creating an amazing array of sculpture and artwork, spanning well over 2,000 years – from the period of the Qin dynasty around the 2nd century BC all the way up to the Qing dynasty of the early 20th century. This artwork was done by hollowing out little grottoes in the soft rock of the cliff-face on Maiji Shan, and out of the grottoes carving hundreds and hundreds of statues and representations of the Buddha and his attending Bodhisattvas. The styles and artistic expressions change with each dynastic period, but all stay faithful to this basic theme.
One of the more lively Buddhist statues adorning Maiji Shan
I took a bus out to see this, and it was well worth doing.
Happily, despite mooning around this sight in a slightly wistful mood, things in my mind had begun to shift. After a useful phone conversation with a friend in Xi’an, and an email exchange with another friend in England, I started to overcome the voices of discouragement that continued to chatter in my head.
And that evening, I met up with the couple from the road – Tang Yun (the man) and Chen Ling (his wife) and their 13 year old daughter. Despite some initial confusion at the start of the meal arising from Tang’s conviction that I was Brazilian and not English – not sure where he got that idea from – we managed to enjoy an entire evening of (more or less) “stimulating” conversation in Mandarin. I found this to be very encouraging and – in my view – a positive vindication of the whole point of staying in Xi’an all that time after all.
So with assurances that I would definitely return some day to Tianshui (apparently with a wife next time) hanging in the warm evening air, they wished me a safe journey onward to my home in Brazil…..I mean England.
The next two days proved to be great riding. Dusty and dry, it is not hard to imagine caravans of traders plodding their way through this tired looking landscape. Despite an apparent lack of rain, there is a remarkable amount of agriculture going on. More wheat fields, more orchards but also very many greenhouse arrangements growing cabbages and beans, and elaborate systems of gulley-ways running alongside the road and between the little fields, which the farmers can divert off into their fields by opening up small improvised sluice gates at different points. I was told the water that one often saw running down these gulleys was drawn up from wells that had been dug which were dotted around the valleys. Wherever it came from, the water table must remain very low since every river valley I saw was bone dry.
On the road towards Lanzhou from Tianshui
With two stop-overs – one in a town called Wushan and then another in the bigger town of Dingxi, by the time I’d scaled the final climb above Dingxi and whizzed down a 20km descent into the town, I felt free of all the old complaints in my mind, and filled with enthusiasm and confidence (and joy!) for the road and journey ahead.
Rounding out the crown of the hill before the long and fast
descent into the town of Dingxi, Gansu province
As it says in the Old Book:
Those who sow in tears
shall reap will shouts of joy!
He who goes out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
bringing his sheaves with him.
The final ride into the big ole bad city of Lanzhou – reputed to be the most polluted city in China (not exactly an auspicious claim) – was another wonderful day, despite sharing the road with the rowdiest traffic I’ve yet experienced in China.
I’ll save a slightly more extended description of my stop in the city of Lanzhou in the next update.
It’s enough to say that I now feel firmly back in the saddle, very happy and ready to take on all that lies ahead.
Bye for now!
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