Bicycle Tourists Once Again

By Jane Mountain | October 24, 2013

6,674 km so far.

Today we left behind the shopping centres, the traffic, and the crowds of people who inhabit Xi’an. We are so happy to be venturing out of the city and into the countryside of China! Oh, I love how that sounds.

Actually, this morning we agreed that we are both excited but also a little trepidatious about the days to come. This really is the great unknown for us. We don’t know where we’ll be staying or what our accommodations will be like, or even how to recognise a hotel when we see one, since only the really posh ones have a “hotel” sign in English.

We are also heading into the mountains the day after tomorrow, and the numbers we’re looking at for elevation gains are a little terrifying. Much higher and much steeper than we’ve ever done before.

The couple of blogs we could find about this route make it sound like no big deal, but we can’t see how this is possible, unless the maps are totally wrong. We have already made an agreement that, should a truck driver offer us a ride up any of the steep bits, we will not hesitate to say yes.

Get Out Of Cities

As I was attaching some safety flags to our bikes this morning in the hostel, I discovered that my lock cable was missing from where it usually sits coiled around my seat post. A quick check of the bikes showed that nothing else was missing, including our pump and my bike lights, all of which are worth many times more than my cheap cable lock, so I was a little shocked someone had chosen to steal that.

Seven months into the trip, and that’s the first thing stolen, so I call that pretty good luck overall.

Though we only had to take a single road, escaping Xi’an was a slightly tricky business.

Stephen checking the map on the way out of Xi'an.

Stephen checking the map on the way out of Xi’an.

The bike lane and the bus lane were pretty much one and the same this morning. Consequently, every few minutes a bus would pull up in front of us and stop to let people on and off.

The bus passengers spilled out into the bike lane, which of course is a much better place to walk than on the wide empty sidewalk mere steps away. Millions of scooters, all vying for a little space and honking their little horns enthusiastically, just added to the general chaos.

Murky Haze

It was another day thick with smog. We are wrapped up tight against it, with our smog masks firmly in place, but we’re not kidding ourselves that they are very effective. At the very least, they filter out the constant clouds of dust that seem to hang suspended in the air. Maybe the masks also remove a few of the more harmful particulates floating around. No matter how ineffective, we’re glad we have them and can’t imagine riding here without them.

A rare pretty sight, just across from a massive construction zone, Shaanxi Province.

A rare pretty sight, just across from a massive construction zone, Shaanxi Province.

Then again, I have seen other people’s pictures of this region with bright blue skies overhead, so it’s not like this ALL the time. We keep hoping the sky will peep through again one of these days.

If not pretty, the ride was a least fascinating. It wasn’t long before we got out into rural China, and started seeing a different way of life than we’ve witnessed so far. There is an incredible array of vehicles on the road here, and today there seemed to be many more human-powered varieties.

Bicycles and other peddled contraptions are far more common away from the city. One bike, ridden by a man of very advanced age, even had a couple of panniers strapped to the back. Of course, his panniers were giant woven baskets, held on by two thick pieces of tree trunk. They looked like they weighed a ton, even empty.

Several people were walking along pulling large two-wheeled wooden carts, filled with everything from yams to hay to big piles of dirt. The strength required to haul your goods in this way is unimaginable, yet very average-looking people seemed unperturbed to be doing so.

We passed through village after village of utilitarian buildings, and everywhere we looked people were diligently working – mostly on building things, cleaning things, or making things. You don’t see anyone sitting around idle, unless they are at the mah-jong table. Actually, we also see a lot of people playing a game that was new to us before this trip. We’ve learned that it is Xiangqi or Chinese Chess.

Each village seems to have a single purpose here. There is a village where everyone makes cement (white dust thickened the air even more here). Right down the road is the brick-making village, which was next to the roof tile village, and the corrugated metal roofing village.

There are also several towns centred around farming: the corn village, the apple village, and so on. We even passed through one town where every truck was loaded with crates of kiwi fruit! If you’ve ever eaten a Chinese kiwi, it probably came from here.

Noodles drying in the noodle village, Shaanxi Province.

Noodles drying in the noodle village, Shaanxi Province.

My favourite was the car wash town, where several small shops provided buckets and hoses for patrons to clean the dust from their cars.

In one town, my eyes started to sting and a headache darkened my vision. The air was thick, and we could see a plant nearby, filling the already dense air with even more fumes. We pedalled through it as quickly as possible, wondering if the people who live there have gotten used to it, or if they wish they had the means to move to the city like so many people do.

Bad Bargaining

At our destination, the small city of Mazhaozhen (in case you care to try and find it on a map), we realised we’d have to come up with a strategy for finding a place to sleep. We asked at the gas station if there was a binguan (guesthouse) in the town. They pointed us down the road and, a few minutes later, not having seen anything likely, we stopped and asked some people on the side of the road. They pointed in the direction we were going, so we kept on riding.

orange seller in china

Get your oranges (and pinks) , in Mazhaozhen, Shaanxi Province.

At the end of town, we still hadn’t spotted anything that looked to us like a guesthouse. We had memorised the Chinese characters for binguan, but didn’t see them anywhere. Luckily, a police car was passing by and Stephen flagged it down. The officer inside spoke enough English to tell Stephen the guesthouse was 500 m behind us.

We retraced our steps and asked at a likely looking restaurant. The proprietress nodded and took me through the restaurant to the back, where a courtyard led to a small hotel. She passed me off to a surly young woman who showed me the room. This is the first person we’ve met here who seemed anything less than ecstatic at making our acquaintance.

The room she showed me was decent, so I handed her my phone so she could use it to show me the price. ¥98 seemed a little steep to me, considering we’d had a really lovely place last night for only ¥120. Having read that it is expected that you bargain on hotel prices, I offered her ¥60. She took me downstairs to another room, which was much smaller, and much darker, given that the lights weren’t working.

Still, from what I could see, it was clean (enough) and had all the necessaries. I went to get Stephen and we took the room for ¥68.

I’m not sure if you can call it effective bargaining when I brought the price down but also managed to get us a much crappier room, but at least we’re not breaking our budget, and every few Yuan we save means more time on the road.

About an hour after we arrived, the power came on, so we even have lights and electricity.

Not bad for our first real night on the road in China.

Soundtrack: Madrugada, Grit (original version)  

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