Higher Than We’ve Ever Been Before

By Jane Mountain | October 26, 2013

6,787 km so far.

Yesterday we had expected a killer climb, and we did go up quite a bit, but the roads are properly engineered here, no doubt so they are passable to three-wheeled farm trucks and the like, so we hardly noticed the elevation gains.

There was so much flat and downhill mixed in with the gentle climbs that I got to wondering if our maps were just plain wrong. Perhaps they had smoothed out the bumps while rebuilding this road after the earthquake that devastated this area in 2008.

We knew we still had 600 m to go up today, and that it would happen over the first 15 km, so once again we got prepared for a tough ride.

Made For Mountains

This high in the mountains, it is bitterly cold, and the thick cloud cover was not letting in any warmth from the sun, so we were more than happy to have a climb ahead of us.

It wasn’t long before the burning of our muscles pushed away the chill morning air. For the first hour, we road along in near-silence, both enjoying the novelty of not hearing any shouts, honking horns, or construction racket. The only sounds were the calls of exotic birds we’d never heard before and the crunch of our tires rolling over crisp autumn leaves.

Peace on the road at last, in the Qinling Mountains.

Peace on the road at last, in the Qinling Mountains.

It is fall here, and the hillsides are awash in the golds, rusts, and reds of leaves changing colour. We have seen so many pine forests on this trip, it’s refreshing to be in amongst such varied and colourful trees.

Fall colours paint the hillsides, Qinling Mountains.

Fall colours paint the hillsides, Qinling Mountains.

With the mist (fog, smog, whatever) draping itself across the mountaintops, each view looks just like the black and white Chinese paintings that my grandmother used to have hanging in her home.

Traditional Chinese painting of the mountains, just like our view today.

Traditional Chinese painting of the mountains, just like our view today.

Perhaps now is a good time to for an aside about my family history. My grandmother, who was Russian, lived in China when she was a young woman. There, she married my grandfather (Austrian), and had two daughters, my Mom and my Aunt Susan. They grew up in Hong Kong, living in a home on Victoria Peak until my grandfather died. My grandma then moved to Toronto, Canada, with her two young daughters in tow, and started a very different life from the one they had led until then.

That’s the short version of a fascinating story, but the result is that our family has always felt a connection to China, and I’ve been particularly fascinated with the culture, the art, and the history here for as long as I can remember.

It also means we have a new hilarious trip catch phrase. Every time I understand a Chinese word or character before Stephen, or if I am better at using chopsticks, he says “That’s because your mom is Chinese.” Well, it’s hilarious to us anyway.

Cars were a rare sighting today, but it doesn’t feel isolated. Scattered along the way, tidy farmhouses hug the road and often we’d see a cabin high up on the mountainside, in a seemingly impossible location. People were outside tending their gardens, drying their berries, or doing other work on their properties. There were also quite a few dogs, but the aggressive ones were all tied up, while those on the loose were gentle and friendly.

Peaceful spot for a farm, Qinling Mountains.

Peaceful spot for a farm, Qinling Mountains.

Every few kilometres or so, a long wooden suspension bridge hangs off the side of the road, reaching high across the river to grasp at the far bank. Some of these bridges are in good shape, but most are missing planks and show signs of slow disintegration. A few were little better than that bridge Indiana Jones cuts in half in The Temple Of Doom.

All of them showed signs of recent use, with small dirt paths or roads leading up the mountain from their far ends. At one, I saw a woman just stepping off the bridge, her back laden with a huge basket full of items she needed at her home, high on the hill somewhere.

It looks like a tough life, but the quality of life of the working people here seems much better than that of their peers in the cities. If I had to choose (if I had the luxury of choice), I would definitely make a go of it out here, away from the urban chaos. For many people here there is no choice. Where you live, like many things, is regulated by the government.

Despite the elevation gain, the morning’s ride really wasn’t that tough. The hills are not crazy steep like they were in Italy, nor are there endless killer ups and downs, like in Croatia. They are gentle rises, alternating with short flat sections where we can catch our breath and rest our legs. Even on the switchbacks that led us up to our final elevation of 1728 m, there were plenty of spots to rest.

Frozen Brains

The top of the ride was a good 400 m higher than we’ve ever been on our bikes before, but we didn’t get a chance to celebrate at the peak.

Around 1650 m, it got so cold that even the exertion of the climb couldn’t keep us warm, and we were both shivering when we reached the tunnel that marked the summit. There were dozens of workmen rebuilding the tunnel and its adjacent buildings, and they all stopped to watch as we bundled up for the downhill.

In retrospect, I wish I’d put a bit more effort into the bundling up.

Even before we were halfway through the kilometre-long tunnel, I was shivering. I thought it was just the cold tunnel air, but when we emerged on the other side, a brisk mountain wind was whipping around us.

Any joy we might have felt descending was drained from us by that wind. Minutes in, our fingers were numb, and not long after, my feet became solid, immovable blocks. The wind bit right through my jacket, sweater, and t-shirt; it felt as though it passed right through my skin to chill me from the inside out. My teeth were chattering and my whole body shook as we flew down kilometre after kilometre of mountainside.

Just when I thought I could take it no more, we spotted a brand new bright white building, shaped something like a marshmallow that’s been in the microwave. We soon realised it was a panda centre. Of course we stopped to check it out.

Both our brains were numb, and we stood around shivering, one alternately asking the other “Should we go in, or keep going?” After a while, I decided to see if I could get a little more information, so we went to talk to the cashier, who actually spoke English, a rarity in these parts. This made things a little easier, but she was quite adamant that our bikes would have to go across the street in the parking lot, even after we explained that we really couldn’t risk them being stolen.

Finally, not really being able to comprehend going and enjoying a panda park while we were so cold and hungry, we decided to press on.

The only pandas we saw today, in Foping.

The only pandas we saw today, in Foping.

After about 10 km of icy descent, I was kicking myself. We could be seeing pandas right now, and instead we’re freezing on this never-ending downhill.

Stephen’s note: As I write this we are 200 km away and I am still kicking myself. If you are in China, and happen upon a panda preserve, do not hesitate. Go. Or you will regret it. The only consolation is the Chengdu preserve we are heading to is the best in the world.

At long last we came to Foping, where, after our fingers and toes had come back to life, and we’d had a good meal of rice and stir fried veggies, we decided to call it a day.

Another Bargaining Failure

The first hotel we went into had a big “hotel” sign in English, so at least we knew we were in the right place. But, after seeing the room and offering what I thought it was worth, the woman wouldn’t come down to our price, so we decided to look elsewhere. Just up the street we found a place that we thought maybe had the Chinese characters for binguan on the sign.

I went in and after a small struggle, determined that this was indeed a hotel and they did have rooms. Even more miming and using our language app got me up to see a room. Finally, it came time to bargain for the price. Confusingly, the prices suggested by the man in charge kept fluctuating from ¥100 to ¥60 to ¥80. I couldn’t tell quite what was going on, so finally agreed to ¥80. After loading our bikes and bags inside the lobby, he took me up to a room that was not the room I’d seen.

It was much less nice, with a bathroom down the hall instead of ensuite. After last night’s squat pot under the stairs, and the night before’s leaky toilet, where anything you put in just ran out the bottom, I really wanted a half-decent bathroom. Through more miming I managed to communicate that I wanted the good room that I had seen. He managed to communicate that the good room was ¥100.

Back to square one, and rapidly losing patience in my muddled half-frozen state, I discussed the options with Stephen. We decided to get the room. The man took us upstairs, and after opening and closing a number of doors, we found a room that was similar, if not quite the same, as the one I’d first been shown.

Tasteful colour-changing lighted bridge, Foping.

Tasteful colour-changing lighted bridge, Foping.

I love experiencing a new culture, and I love challenging myself with 1700 m climbs, but these everyday negotiations, which should be simple, are going to be my undoing.  

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  1. Comment by Cassie

    Cassie November 1, 2013 at 7:39 am

    Thanks for sharing a bit of family history! I had found myself wondering if either of you had a past connection to China somehow. Stay warm!

    • Comment by Stephen

      Stephen November 2, 2013 at 3:15 am

      We are hoping as we head south the weather will warm-up. We will be sub-tropics before too long…

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