There’s Cold In Them Thar Hills

By Stephen Ewashkiw | October 29, 2013

7,055 km so far.

Our hotel in Mianyang provided our first free breakfast outside of Beijing. Green beans with chillies, some sort of nutty bean with garlic, a noodle and seaweed salad, a selection of runny bland porridges, delicious almond and sesame seed cookies, and sunflower seed bread. There were lots of dumplings to choose from but we couldn’t be bothered asking if they were vegetarian.

As we were leaving the room we noticed what we think was an ad for 24-hour escort service in our room. It sure would explain all the late night, early morning doorbell ringing we heard. If you can read Chinese, head over to my Instagram page, read the info, and leave a translation of the card for us in the comments please.

And I Feel Heavy Metal

We had checked the weather so we knew it was going to be a rainy day. Unlike in Italy, here the weather forecast is correct, at least so far. It is our first rain in more than two weeks in China, so we can’t complain. However, we are heading up into yet more mountains, where the forecast is for single digit (Celsius, thankfully) temperatures. Also, I lived through the acid rain of the 80s and can only imagine what Chinese rain is bringing down upon us.

But onward, ho.

We headed into the mountains right after passing the Wuhou temple on the way out of town, which of course had us singing Blur’s Song 2. The Fu River runs alongside us today, and unlike the more famous Han River that we saw outside Chenggu, the Fu is actually wide and mighty.

As we started up the mountains, there was a disturbing billboard that showed brown muddy floodwater rushing over farmland. It seemed to be saying, “Watch out for flash floods during rainstorms.” Great. Thanks.

Next Stop: All The Eights

After an hour of riding we passed our next milestone, or more accurately kilometrestone: 7,000 km cycled! In China they don’t use the same hand gestures as we do for numbers. They can count to ten on only one hand, so here is the Chinese way of showing seven:

man and woman in bicycle helmets

7,000 km milestone, shown in the Chinese way.

With 8 being the most auspicious number in China, I am now hoping we are still here when we get to 8,888 km.

The Hills Are Alive

We rode through an absolutely beautiful mountain range today. Hillsides climbed out of the mist and peaks jutted up into the clouds. They were coloured deep green and autumnal red, with wisps of cloud clinging to their sides. It was stunningly beautiful, so much so that I really didn’t mind the rain.

Tunnel in the rain, near Ningqiang, Shaanxi Province.

Tunnel in the rain, near Ningqiang, Shaanxi Province.

We saw innumerable things today that reminded us we are in China.

A man on a raft using a long bamboo pole to push his way across the Han; another on his bicycle with a back basket and two bags hanging off his handlebars stuffed with live chickens; dozens of elderly people walking along the road to market wearing woven wide-brimmed hats covered in plastic bags and carrying multi-coloured umbrellas; countless terraces of rice fields; tent after tent after tent filled with shiitake logs; a man walking back from market with his bag of pig parts for dinner; picturesque villages that could have stepped out of a photo from 1950; corn, chilis, and soy drying (sadly now in the rain); a pastel coloured mosque; and countless people tending to their plots of land.

People on their way to market, near Ningqiang, Shaanxi Province.

People on their way to market, near Ningqiang, Shaanxi Province.

What we didn’t see was a restaurant. On this cold, rainy day, we could not find a single place to have lunch. We had to make do with taking shelter under the awning of a closed shop and eating some of the emergency snacks we had with us. Not ideal, as we really could have done with the chance to go inside and have a warm bowl of noodles, but such is the life of a bike tourist in rural China.

As we climbed, each mountain got progressively higher and the weather got progressively colder. We were working so hard on each climb that inside my jacket I had sweat dripping down my chest. But each ascent was soon followed by a descent. And that’s when our hands got numb and our feet turned to blocks of ice. This happened three times today.

This billboard showed us the road we'd just gone up. Would have been nice to have it at the other end.

This billboard showed us the road we’d just gone up. Would have been nice to have it at the other end.

Our final mountain had a long slow ascent climbing above 1,200 m, followed by 10 km of brisk downhill.

Cold Blooded Old Times

Then, cold, wet, and ready for a hot shower, we made it to the town of Ningqiang. We have decided to try for a hotel with WiFi when we can, but today this proved difficult. After a few attempts we found a building which clearly said ‘Hotel’ in English on the sign and had an open WiFi network. The staff, however, seemed befuddled by my request for a room.

I got out the iPad and opened the Google Translate app, which can translate spoken words. I asked the woman at the desk to speak, so I could understand what she was trying to say.

“You are a pig you”, is what came back. I laughed, hoping this was a mistake. Eventually, through charades, I discovered they were not a hotel at all, but a restaurant. Hence their confusion. This offered us no explanation for the hotel sign, however, and we wonder if maybe she just didn’t like the look of me in my muddy cycling clothes.

We then went back to the Hanyuan Pearl, one of the hotels at which we had already made inquiries. This, we thought, would put us in a bad position for bargaining. Apparently not so.

Many, many staff tried to help us. They took us through the main hotel entrance to an entirely different, larger, even grander hotel behind it. Here more staff started helping. A group of men, who are valets cum bell hops, insisted on carrying our panniers AND bringing our muddy, greasy bikes into their ornate, marble-floored lobby.

One of the receptionists took pity on our cold state and got us cups of hot water to drink, which was very nice, and very much appreciated.

Five Star Service

It proved difficult to explain that I wanted to see a room before we booked it, but finally I was shown to a gorgeous room with a massive, super comfy bed, a Dell computer on the desk, lots of space for relaxing, and a large bathroom with proper full-sized shower. Sadly it was out of our price range, but they did have a smaller room, in the first building, that was closer to what we wanted to pay.

So, I walked back across the courtyard with one of the receptionists, while Jane sipped hot water in the lobby. This building has just been redone to match the brand new hotel we had just been in. However, it isn’t quite finished.

The room did have a computer, but the internet isn’t up and running. It does have central air, but this isn’t connected yet. And, compared to the first room, the bed is about a third smaller, while the bathroom is a third of the size. Whatever. It’s still the nicest room we’ve seen in China.

I managed to bargain and get a reasonable deal for the room ($20). Then we had to go back across the courtyard so I could confirm it all with Jane. She agreed. Then we had to go back, yet again, across the courtyard, this time with our coterie of helpers, some carrying bags, some helmets, some with our bikes, so they could bring it all up to our room for us – except the bikes which we all agreed should not go into our clean room. They were whisked away to the staff room for safe (we hope) storage.

The staff brought us an extra duvet since we were clearly frozen, and then we set about showering, climbing into bed to warm up and watched an episode of Breaking Bad while eating Oreos and drinking coffee and tea.

We wandered out a bit later to find dinner and ended up having a delicious bowl of rice, tofu, chillies and few veggies in a sizzling cast iron dish. For $3.50 (total) we ate an incredible meal.

So good we went back again the next night.

So good we went back again the next night.

We have become quite adept at spotting the restaurants that are busy, run by women, and relatively clean.

We then bought a set of shoe warmers for $3 so that we can dry Jane’s once-waterproof shoes out before we head out into the rain for another 80 km of riding tomorrow.

Soundtrack: Calexico, Carried To Dust | Jane’s iTunes on shuffle | Loose Fur, Born Again In The USA | Atoms For Peace, AMOK | Gord Downie And The Country Of Miracles, The Grand Bounce | Graham Coxon, The Spinning Top  

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  1. Comment by stone

    stone November 16, 2013 at 11:43 pm

    Congrats on your kilometerstone. You guys are close with your Chinese seven. You have the fingers correctly positioned but oriented incorrectly. Seven is actually fingers pointed up.

    • Comment by stone

      stone November 16, 2013 at 11:47 pm

      …that’s what my wife says. To me it looks like you did it right but what do I know I’m a stupid American.

    • Comment by Stephen

      Stephen November 17, 2013 at 4:32 pm

      Thanks for the tip. Let us know how we do on our eights – should be there any minute now…

  2. Comment by Taina

    Taina November 2, 2013 at 4:13 pm

    Congratulations you guys – 7,000 is incredible! Can’t wait to read all about your next 7,000!

    • Comment by Stephen

      Stephen November 2, 2013 at 11:47 pm

      Thanks Taina. Looking forward to your new adventures too!

  3. Comment by Kimberly

    Kimberly November 2, 2013 at 9:25 am

    Congratulations on 7000!!! What an amazing ride it has been and continued thanks for the descriptive posts that have taken me to all those great places thru your eyes.

    • Comment by Stephen

      Stephen November 2, 2013 at 11:47 pm

      Thanks for sticking with us Kimberly! I posted some panda videos from today on my Instagram page (find them from the link in this post).

  4. Comment by Diane

    Diane November 2, 2013 at 7:20 am

    Congratulations on 7000 kms. I know how to count in Chinese but can’t write it. A great post Stephen and wonderful to read about the “real” China.

    • Comment by Stephen

      Stephen November 2, 2013 at 11:46 pm

      Thanks Diane. This day, despite the rain, was incredible. Seeing China this was is by far preferable to just city hopping.

  5. Comment by Mauricio

    Mauricio November 1, 2013 at 9:06 pm

    Burrrrrr. Hey, your next post will be 23 in China, which ties Hungary ;-)

    • Comment by Stephen

      Stephen November 2, 2013 at 3:12 am

      Really? Wow. Well, we will be in China for longer than any country on the trip yet, by far! We are allowed to be here for two sets of 90 days, with Hong Kong inbetween, so who knows how long we will last…

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