Out Of The Smog And Into The Fire

By Jane Mountain | October 28, 2013

6,975 km so far.

Having been in the quiet of the mountains for a couple of days, the noise and bustle of Chenggu (not to be confused with Chengdu) hit us hard when we arrived last night. Today, knowing we’d be riding through a highly populated, smoggy, dusty area, we prepared ourselves as best as we could.

Agents Of Shield

We put on our long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and hats, to brace against the cold and the road dirt. To this we added our ever-present sturdy hiking shoes, bike helmets, and full-fingered gloves. We each have a pair of yellow safety glasses with UV protection (around $3 from safetyglassesUSA.com, fact fans), to block out the sun and keep any nasty debris from our eyes.

In China, we’ve been adding smog masks to the armour, to protect us from the endless air-borne nasties.

Stephen’s note: Shout out to RZ Mask for my Spitfire-emblazoned neoprene, carbon filter mask which also works to keep me warm on cold mountainous descents.

Today, we went one step further, and plugged our ears with headphones and music, to drown out the drone of heavy trucks, the clatter of three-wheeled farm vehicles, and the incessant shrill blast of honking horns.

That’s right. We did our best to shield ourselves from the country that we came to experience. On a long journey like ours, sometimes you just need to hide inside your shell and pretend you’re not where you are. I would happily eat a (veggie) burger and fries today if I could find them, too.

A Nation At Work

We pedalled fast and furious(ly) today, knowing we only had 70 km to the next viable town for overnighting, Mianxian. When we slowed down enough to look around, we saw more of the industrious and industrial China we experienced outside Xi’an.

There are construction sites everywhere, yet oddly we rarely see a building that appears new and completed. Make-work projects are everywhere, in a way FDR would relish.

I would love to know what these construction projects will look like in a year’s time. Will they still be building sites? Will they simply be high rises pushing up out of the surrounding farmland? Or will they resemble the colourful billboards used to decorate the fences around the sites?

I can’t really picture the latter, since the billboards tend to show posh condominiums overlooking pristine ponds or golf courses, places that would be far more at home in Phoenix, Arizona than central China.

Along the road, we encountered more villages filled with people all working on a common activity.

There was a stretch of road lined with wooden chair builders and sellers. It would make lovely furniture for your cottage, but I’m not sure people have cottages in China.

In another area, every flat surface – sidewalks, parking lots, large sections of highway – was covered with thin sheets of pine, set out to dry. Impressive piles of it sat on three-wheeled trucks everywhere we looked, ready for transport.

Ready to deliver some really thin wood, near Chenggu.

Ready to deliver some really thin wood, near Chenggu.

Yet another stretch was all about recycling. In front of one building was a mountain of black plastic backs from old TVs. There were piles and piles of broken glass bottles, separated into brown, green, and clear, in front of a long row of buildings. Cresting the top of an overpass, we looked down to see a huge recycling depot where thousands upon thousands of green bottles were stacked neatly.

Recycling depot on the side of the G108, near Chenggu.

Recycling depot on the side of the G108, near Chenggu.

There were so many, I half wondered if the bottles we recycled while in Europe will end up here.

This Bed Is Too Soft, This One Is Too Hard

We arrived in Mianxian shortly after lunch, and began our search for a hotel. When we lived in the US, I took Yelp for granted, and in Europe we could usually rely on Trip Advisor for good advice.

Here, we ride around the streets, peering at every business, trying to distinguish the hotels from the many other businesses that look similar. Then, we play charades with the staff until they understand that we need a room and want to look at it. Finally, we have to negotiate the price, which often leads to a baffling exchange with the owner, as he or she writes down various seemingly random prices and we have to guess what each price represents.

The workers always talk a steady stream at us, and when we don’t understand, they will often write what they have said in Chinese. I guess this works for Chinese tourists who can’t understand the local dialect, but it’s not so helpful for us.

Today, it took us four of these energy-sucking encounters to get it right. The first hotel didn’t have WiFi (yes, we’ve discovered we can afford to be picky about WiFi in most cities), the second was too grotty, the third was “tai gui” (too expensive for the smelly room they showed me), and the fourth was just right.

This bed is just right, hotel in Mianxian.

This bed is just right, hotel in Mianxian.

After the better part of an hour and a half, we were finally shown to our room.

Into The Volcano

We’ve been wondering why it is that in a country where there are shiny shopping malls, trendy boutique shops, and well-appointed hotels, there are no cute cafes or tidy eateries to be found (at least outside of the biggest cities). Instead, you can choose either a huge open-plan restaurant, that looks like the stereotypical Chinese restaurant back home, or a tiny hole-in-the-wall, with garbage on the floors and stained paintwork, proudly displaying their ‘C’ health code rating (on a scale of A to C).

Don’t get me wrong, we love eating in these little dingy places, and have had plenty of great meals from them. It’s just tough to tell by looking which ones will be good and which ones will end in bad news for your belly. Food adventures are part of the thrill of travelling, but every once in a while it would be nice to know what we’re getting (without having to resort to McDonalds or Subway).

If, say, Panera Bread opened a chain over here, they’d probably make a killing.

In Mianxian, happily, we actually found a few places that were a step up from the usual, with matching furniture in pleasing colours and fresh paint on the walls.

For dinner, we found one such place where all the tables were full of customers. We’ve found that having to wait for a table is a reliable indicator that the food will be great. You never have to wait long. It only took a few seconds tonight for the waitress to clear us a spot and get us seated.

Every table was kitted out with four little alcohol stoves, very similar in construction to our Trangia camping stove.

The alcohol stove in our hot pot restaurant, Mianxian.

The alcohol stove in our hot pot restaurant, Mianxian.

There was a cooler at the end of the restaurant, and we each took a tray and loaded it with raw vegetables, noodles, and tofu. A waiter came around to light our stove and placed a pot on the fire. It was full of bright red broth, and as it started to boil, it looked like a pool of lava, boiling up out of a volcano.

making hot pot in china

Checking my noodles in Mianxian.

We placed our raw foods in the broth one by one, and in a few minutes they were fully cooked, imbued with the flavours of hot red peppers and mouth-numbing Chinese peppercorns.

Want to feel like you just went to the dentist? Eat a Chinese peppercorn or two.

Want to feel like you just went to the dentist? Eat a Chinese peppercorn or two.

In English, this dish is called hot pot, varieties of which are common in many areas of China. This version, with the spicy broth, is the regional speciality, originating in the not-to-distant Chongqing, Sichuan.

The meal sent our mouths on a fiery journey, but it was delicious, and so nice to have something new, just when we were starting to get sick of good old rice and stir-fried veggies.

Soundtrack: Icona Pop, This Is… | Nick Buzz, A Quiet Evening At Home | The New Pornographers, Electric Version | Benji Hughes, A Love Extreme | Elliott Smith, XO  

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1 comment

  1. Comment by Mauricio

    Mauricio November 1, 2013 at 9:04 pm


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