The (Panda) Bear Went Over The Mountain

By Stephen Ewashkiw | October 25, 2013

6,736 km so far.

Our day began with the owner of our guesthouse giving us handful of kiwi fruits for our ride.

As this is kiwi country, and they are in season, kiwis are in abundance here right now. Yesterday we must have ridden past a million of them: in boxes on the side of the road, in huge piles at warehouse, stacked neatly at market stalls, and boxed up and piled high on the back of scooters, three-wheeled vehicles, and flat-bed trucks.

We stashed our gift away safely, knowing we would enjoy them greatly later in the day.

Making breakfast in our humble room, Mazhaozhen.

Making breakfast in our humble room, Mazhaozhen.

Up And At ‘Em

And so, the real work of our Xi’an to Chengdu bike ride was set to begin.

Early morning workers, Mazhaozhen.

Early morning workers, Mazhaozhen.

We were both a bit nervous about today’s ride. We haven’t ridden in proper mountains since we crossed the Tatras into Poland back in June. We knew the first 10 km of our ride would be tough, taking us up and over a mountain, but the only way to get this over with was to start.

So, we did. One pedal stroke after another, we began to climb. And we just kept climbing. We had set off early this morning and it was still quite cold out, so we were layered up.

Pagoda in the mountains near Banfangzi.

Pagoda in the mountains near Banfangzi.

Before long we had to stop and get rid of our extra shirts and long pants. Climbing a mountain on a fully loaded touring bike really generates heat.

The first town we came to had a sign posted, warning of the killer wasps we have read about. We knew we were in killer wasp territory, but to see a warning sign about it really drove it home. I sincerely hope we don’t meet any of them.

Spoiler alert, we met a killer wasp, Qinling Mountains.

Spoiler alert, we met a killer wasp, Qinling Mountains.

Our route continues to follow the G108 today (and for the next week until we reach Chengdu). There is another, newer freeway, the G5, that cuts the journey time, and the elevation change, for motorised vehicles, but bicycles are not allowed on it. With traffic diverted to the more direct road, the G108 was almost empty, save for a few vehicles bringing rocks down from the mountains. We even saw another cyclist, going the other direction, and gave each other big hellos (actually ni haos).

The Air Up There

It made such a refreshing change to be in the mountains. The air started to clear, there were birds singing, and it was quiet. For the first time since we have been in China there wasn’t constant noise. And the sky blue sky returned! It was so clear I even saw a little fluffy cloud float by.

misty qinling mountains in china

View of the Qinling Mountains, Shaanxi Province.

There was a devastating earthquake in this region in 2008 and floods not long after, so the road has been almost entirely rebuilt since then. This means the road surface was smooth riding, apart from the few spots with hairpin turns, where instead of speed bumps there are baseball-sized rocks embedded in the surface, which in theory forces cars to slow down. It wasn’t the best thing to ride over, but even these speed bumps were much better than some roads we have been on.

Much of the ride today was through the Qinling National Forest, which is home to wild panda bears. No shit. Wild freaking panda bears.

Panda bears in 36km!

Panda bears in 36km!

It also marks the North-South divide in a China. We didn’t realise either of these facts until we came upon the forest’s Tourist Office, which also had a restaurant where we broke for lunch.

Gifted Again

There was only one other table of guests in the restaurant: four Chinese men having a massive lunch of several plates of food, interspersed with cigarettes (despite the clear no smoking sign, which is just the way in China), and shots of something like vodka.

We have seen many people drinking this clear spirit, which comes in fancy bottles packaged in even fancier boxes, but hadn’t sampled it yet. Not long into our meal one of the men held the bottle up for us to see, clearly offering us shots. Our second gift of the day!

He had the waitress bring over a couple of shot glasses, then had his picture taken with each of us as we cheersed him, and enjoyed the moment. The alcohol was delicious, and warmed our tired muscles. I love Chinese hospitality.

We rode on after lunch and after about another 20 km found ourselves in Banfangzixiang.

farmhouse in qinling mountains

A tidy farmhouse along the G108 near Banfangzixiang.

There we met another traveller. I wish I could remember his name. I do know he is a Buddhist and a Mongolian national who now lives in China. He has been travelling on a scooter for the past month, and has covered 5,500 km. He told us the nearest hotel after Banfangzixiang wasn’t for another 50 km, in Foping, and that the route involved a lot of steep hills.

We were both tired so decided to find somewhere to stay in town. Since the town consisted of a cluster of houses along the G108, it wasn’t too hard to find a place. Our new friend took me to the town’s two guesthouses to check out their accommodation, and to act as our translator. It was very helpful and so kind. Again, it just is another example of the wonderful, kind spirit of the people here.

Cherries, Jubilee

The guesthouse we chose is run by a young woman who is also drying a sweet red fruit called Cornelian cherries (Shan-zhu-yu in Chinese). These fruits have medicinal properties, including help with erectile dysfunction. There was even a layer of berries drying on the balcony in front of our room, which she swept up so we could get inside (but not before we all – including her little white dog – walked over them a few times). We could have bought a kilogram for $3.00, which even in China is much less expensive than Viagra.

cornelian cherries drying in the sun

Cornelian cherries in a pile outside our room in Banfangzixiang.

The guesthouse was actually four rooms on the top floor of the woman’s home. Our room had four single beds in it, one of two fluorescent lights working, and mattresses as hard as concrete. We were the only guests, and the room cost USD6.50 for both of us.

guesthouse in banfangzi china

The guesthouse we stayed in in Banfangzixiang.

The squat toilet is down underneath the outside stairs, and has an opening directly out to the alley behind the house. To get washed, we used an outside sink at the top of the stairs, which we think pumps water directly from the river.

Jane’s note: Despite its shortcomings, the place was noticeably nicer than last night’s accommodation. It was well cared for and clean, and the young woman running things had obviously taken care in selecting the sheets and pillows for the rooms. The toilet could have used a good scrub though.

The family lived downstairs in what can best be described as a farmhouse. Our bikes were kept in the entrance hall cum garage, which had a motorbike parked inside and double barn-like doors that opened onto the road. There was a small room off to one side where she sleeps with her baby son and husband, a small kitchen, and a larger sitting/eating area on the other side. It was simple, but quite homey.

The proprietress was hard at work all day preparing the Cornelian cherries for sale, renting beds when she could, caring for her baby, and presumably preparing meals for her family. We felt lucky to be able to step into her life for half a day, and if it wouldn’t have been completely offensive we would have given her ten times what she was asking for the room.

Soundtrack: Wilco, Wilco (the album) | Friska Viljor, Remember Our Name | Calexico, Carried To Dust  

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  1. Comment by Roxy

    Roxy October 28, 2013 at 7:39 am

    Please, please cuddle a baby Panda bear, Jane. And take lots of pictures and say whether the baby bear made cute little noises!!

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