Hitting The Highway

By Jane Mountain | October 18, 2013

6,589 km so far.

Back to the train station first thing this morning, fingers and toes crossed that we’ll find our bikes there, in good shape and ready to ride.

Clueless Foreigners

At the baggage office we handed our receipt to the woman behind the glass. She took a look at it and handed it over to another woman standing nearby. That woman, who we took to be a supervisor, examined the receipt for a few minutes and then proceeded to speak to us at length in Chinese. We gave her our by now customary blank stares and shoulder shrugs – the universal look of a clueless foreigner.

Then, all the women behind the counter embarked on a long discussion. Whether it was about us, stupid tourists in general, our bikes, what they were doing for lunch, or golden elephants, we know not.

A golden elephant must be a sign of good luck.

A golden elephant must be a sign of good luck.

After a few minutes, the lady with our receipt walked out of the office – with our receipt.

A minute later she came around to our side of the counter and beckoned us to follow.

We walked the length of the train station, winding our way through crowds of people getting ready to travel. We wondered aloud if we were going to get our bikes, or if this was just some new delay. At the other end of the station, we arrived at an office very similar to the one where we’d dropped off our bikes originally. This was starting to look promising.

The woman disappeared into the office with our receipt, and a few minutes later she returned with two Surly Long Haul Truckers. Our two Surly Long Haul Truckers at that. Result!

It felt so good to hop on and race through the streets, speeding back to the hostel so we could pack our bags and embark on our first full-day’s ride in China.

Mean Streets

It was another day of heavy, thick smog. It’s hard to believe how dense the air is here; it’s like emerging from a steam room, but instead of breathing fresh water vapour, you’re breathing cancer-causing particulates. As we rode through the city streets of Taiyuan, we could barely see the high rises in the distance, because they were shrouded in the filthiest-looking mist you’ve ever seen.

High rises in the mist. The dirty dirty mist.

High rises in the mist. The dirty dirty mist.

We donned our face masks right away, and all day long I was thankful that we had them and hoped fervently that they were doing some good.

If not effective, at least the face mask is attractive.

If not effective, at least the face mask is attractive.

Riding out of the city along the 208, there was a generous bike path to ease our progress. Kind of.

We spent what was left of the morning dodging scooters, cars coming at us from the wrong direction, pedestrians, construction detritus, and general chaos. It might sound a little miserable, but it’s actually rather fun. We never feel in danger, because there are so many unconventional vehicles that drivers are hyper-aware of what’s going on around them.

As long as you keep your wits about you, all is good.

Having said that, we did see a motorbike collide with a loaded three-wheeler in the middle of a large intersection today. Both drivers got up looking a little dazed, but unharmed. There was no shouting or honking. Everyone just waited patiently as the drivers moved their mess out of the way. It was one of the quietest transactions we’ve ever witnessed in China.

Face, Meet Food

Nearing the edge of town, I spotted a row of small restaurants and decided we’d better stop while the stopping was good. Stephen walked the row of hole-in-the-wall eateries and picked out one that was crowded with local workers and had a big picture menu on the wall.

We sat down and showed the waiter our “no meat” card. He nodded and pointed out the items on the menu we could eat. Here, there is no sign of surprise or dismay when we say we don’t eat meat. We assume it’s reasonably common, as 20% of the population are Buddhist. Whatever the reason, it’s absolutely no problem, and this is by far the easiest time we’ve had being vegan since we left LA.

Lunch was a huge bowl of thick spaghetti-like noodles that were being made in the back of the restaurant. It was topped with some fried shredded potatoes, green chillis, and a light sauce. As we ate, we watched the other patrons in the restaurant. It’s safe to say that most Chinese people eat a lot and eat it really really quickly, at least when they are on their lunch break. The boys in front of me polished off the same meal we had in half the time, sucking up impossibly large mouthfuls of noodles.

I wondered if maybe they don’t chew, just letting a long strand of noodles snake down their throats and into their stomachs.

There were garlic bulbs on every table, and people were peeling them and nibbling chunks in between bites. The table next to us finished a whole bulb between the three of them.

When we were almost finished our meal, the waiter brought us small bowls of clear steaming liquid. We weren’t sure if this was something to drink, or something to wash our hands in. Waiting until we saw what others were doing with their bowls showed us that it was to drink.

Turns out it was a bowl of starchy water that our noodles had been cooked in. It did not appeal to us, so we left it mostly untouched.

Pop Culture

The ride today was not what you’d call pretty. As we neared the edge of town, our large well-maintained road was lined by construction sites and half-finished high rises. Some were just empty shells, while others had been completed on the exterior, often in a pretty stylish way, but were clearly not inhabited. There were signs of people living (probably squatting) in the unfinished buildings. Many more buildings were going up all around us.

Once in while, we’d pass a complex of modern, Western-style buildings, with guards on the gates and clear signs that the buildings were in use. We had no idea what purpose these buildings served, but they looked completely alien in the midst of dusty building sites and empty apartment blocks.

After we’d left the city proper, still riding along the busy four-lane highway, we passed kilometre after kilometre of industrial villages. The road was lined with low rectangular brick buildings, some sided with tall thin tiles, or plastered in dark grey. Most had garage-style metal doors, many closed up, many open for whatever business it was they were conducting. Without reading the language, it’s hard to tell.

Each building had a large parking area, sometimes sporting rough pavement, but usually just the dusty bare ground, which showed signs of having been a mud bath not too long ago.

Everything in the area is incredibly dusty and dry – this area is China’s answer to the dustbowl. We crossed several rivers which showed signs of having been recently wet, but were now just trickles of water down the centre of a wide river bed filled with brown waist-high grasses.

Flat, straight, and endless, Shanxi Province.

Flat, straight, and endless, Shanxi Province.

Just like the midwest in America, the country here is used for soy and corn production. Unlike the US, here there are countless piles of corn cobs in every village, and farmers drive by with their three-wheel trucks piled high with the dried remainder of the corn plants. We saw people all along the route shucking the dried corn by hand, and picking the kernels off by hand. In one village, corn kernels and soy beans were spread out on the sidewalks and bike paths to dry.

I’ve never seen so much popping corn in my life.

Making Time

We took a little break at the big tourist attraction in the area, the Qiao Family Compound, a Qing dynasty family residence. We were contemplating going inside until we saw that the entrance fee was ¥72! We are wary of overpriced tourist attractions, and we decided that we’d rather afford two more nights accommodation than see the inside.

Qing family compound, from outside the gates.

Qiao family compound, from outside the gates.

As we were leaving, we spotted a big group in red cycling clothes and carrying cycle helmets.

They beckoned us over but, not having a shared language, we don’t know what they were up to, though we have since learned they were part of a cycling club from Hubei province.

We did manage to communicate that we were riding all over China. They were thrilled at the idea and we posed for picture after picture in different configurations until I finally signalled to Stephen that we should make a break for it. In China a photo session with a big group could easily last all day!

A Hubei province cycling club and yours truly.

A Hubei province cycling club and yours truly.

They sent us on our way with smiles, waves, and many wishes for a safe trip (we think).

Safety Is Subjective

Our ride got a little quieter when we turned off the main road onto a two-lane highway, which still had a large shoulder for the small vehicles to use.

Hundreds of giant red trucks passed, all blaring their horns to let us (and everyone else) know they were coming.

Giant red trucks on the small highway, near Pingyao.

Giant red trucks on the small highway, near Pingyao.

We learned that a horn blast can mean one of two things:

  1. I am about to drive by, don’t do anything crazy.
  2. I am about to do something crazy, so watch out!

“Something crazy” includes but is not limited to: merging onto the highway without stopping or even slowing down much; driving straight through rows of traffic without slowing; driving the wrong way down the divided highway to enter a parking lot; and passing cars on the right using the shoulder / bike lane.

It sounds nutty, and it is, but it all works somehow.

It’s really very safe, Mom! Really it is!

People’s No. 1 Carbon Company

Not long before we got to Pingyao we rode through a town with several coal mines on its outskirts. The air got thicker, darker, and the buildings were covered in soot. I saw three men sitting on a stoop whose faces were covered in black dust. There were several factories right in the heart of the village, and the air was acrid.

Life expectancy in this part of the province is around 63 years of age – several years lower than the provincial average.

Our legs were tiring as we neared Pingyao, this being the longest day we’ve ridden in more than six weeks. Still, the reduction in weight from sending our camping equipment home, combined with the flat straight roads, had us making excellent time. When road conditions are good, we hope we’ll be able to cover more ground daily than we did in Europe. We know we’ll have lots of rough road ahead though.

Pingyao is an impressive ancient walled city, and has paid the price for its impressiveness by becoming a tourist haven.

lanterns pingyao china

Red lanterns, Pingyao.

Still, it seems like it will be a pleasant place to pass the day tomorrow and recover from our ride.  

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