One Month in China

Our time in Beijing turned out to be a bit of a waiting game. We arrived in the city right at the start of a national holiday, which meant that many businesses were closed or had limited hours. This made purchasing a new phone (to replace the one we lost in Kyrgyzstan), getting a SIM card, and getting a new rim for Joel’s rear wheel, all more complicated and time consuming than expected. However this also meant that we got to spend plenty of time hanging out with Jon and experiencing the culture and food (so much food) of Beijing. We also got to visit The Great Wall and Tianemen Square, neither of which we had anticipated seeing when this trip began. However, by the time we finally got our SIM card, which was the last of the items we needed to continue our journey, we were ready to ride. Staying in one place too long doesn’t sit well with us anymore.

Our first night camping in China just so happened to be the first night of rain we had experienced since before crossing the Caspian Sea, so we neglected to find a sheltered place to set up our tent. We woke up to wet bikes, bags, and a grey smog-filled sky. Most of the riding in the first few days was smoggy and we mostly rode through populated areas, taking roads dominated by semi-trucks and electric bikes. The combination of smog and diesel left us covered in a thin layer of black grime and we remained that way for days at a time.

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Waking up in a muddy field after a rainy night is not that fun.

A few days out of Beijing we entered our first mountain pass in China, a 2,000 metre climb over 120 kilometres. As we started the climb we weaved between a line-up of semi’s that were at a standstill due to road construction that would haunt us for much of the pass. As I followed Brad through a scandalous gap between two trucks I heard a ripping sound from the rear of my bike. I turned to see my waterproof covering for the sleeping bags fluttering behind me. Somehow only the waterproof layer and the garbage bag beneath it were ripped and the sleeping bag stuff sacks and bags themselves were untouched.

After spending a frustrating half day on a rocky, muddy road, which wound its way through the mountain pass below the smooth and aggravatingly straight Superhighway, we decided to spend a night in a cheap hotel in the next town so that we could wake up clean and in real beds on my birthday. This turned out to be a great decision because it poured that night and much of the next day. For my birthday we had bought a small cake and a few other treats that we had been avoiding as a means of saving money on for the long haul ahead. I also treated myself to two new pairs of socks, as I had been rotating between the same three pairs since the journey began in June.

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Apparently we were pretty entertaining to the locals.

At this point we were still at quite a high elevation and it rained often, so morning riding required jackets and even gloves. We got in a habit of taking breaks in gas stations because nearly all of them sold instant noodles and had hot water on site so we could relax and eat a warm meal without having to search to find enough dry wood to cook for ourselves. Gas station attendants were almost always excited to see us and were incredibly accommodating. Besides instant noodles, our diet consisted of pretty much just Oreos, Snickers, and the odd fruit juice. It was a rough time for us.

One night, as we were approaching sunset in a populated area, with very little hope of finding a place to sleep anytime soon, we stumbled across an abandoned gas station. After exploring the grounds, we found a broken section of a wall that gave us access to a courtyard behind the facility. We had a sheltered, quiet place to sleep, and it even had a basketball court and a real, non-functional toilet, which is still an upgrade from what we usually get.

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Camping in the courtyard of an abandoned gas station.

After a few more days and a night spent sleeping on a cliff overlooking an expanse of marshland, we completed our first 1000 kilometres in China and arrived in Xi’an, ready for a much needed three day break. With the dropping temperature we decided to invest in hoodies and spent our days scouring the markets for the best deals, and enjoying real food in large portions. Chinese hamburgers and a beef noodle dish proved to be favourites for both of us.

When we left Xi’an we were anticipating a nearly 900 kilometre stretch to Chengdu, with a couple rest days to slow us down (by this point we were easily clearing 120 clicks a day, even with some late starts and extended breaks). We approached our first mountain pass out of Xi’an with optimism. The weather was good, the roads were smooth, and the mountains looked stunning. We were making great time on the initial ascent with luscious green forest to our left and a steep drop into a mountain lake to our right. We were feeling good. Unfortunately that didn’t last long. Red and blue flashing lights and a swarm of police officers ahead of us signalled the end of our journey through that particular pass. Through a conversation made possible with a translation app, we learned that we had entered military territory and would have to return the way we came immediately. We were shown an alternate route on our navigation app and headed back down the mountain.

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Finding out that we can’t go any further through a translation app conversation.

The next morning we made our way to a small town that marked the beginning of the next pass. As we entered the town we were again pulled aside by police. This route also turned out to be military land. I was very frustrated and snapped at an officer who had started taking pictures of us and even Brad and I had an argument over whether or not we should even let the officers see our passports. The pent of disappointment and irritation of the last few days was getting to us. Eventually we followed the cops to the station where they offered us a place to sit and water to drink while they looked over our documents. When we left the station we were on good terms with all of them and, although they wouldn’t let us through the pass, they allowed us access to a restricted road so that we could get to the next one as quickly as possible.

We had lunch in a small restaurant, which became a usual practice for us as the meals were incredibly cheap and more filling and tasty than anything we could get at gas stations, and then carried on to the third pass. As we approached a police check point a few kilometres into the pass our hopes sank, but the officer on duty smiled and waved and let us through without any trouble. However, until we reached the peak of the pass, I got really nervous every time a cop car drove by.

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Looking back at the city we left just an hour before.

It was tough, but beautiful riding for a few days and really started to change our image of China. We were a two day ride from our final rest stop before Chengdu when our route took us off the highway and onto a small, paved mountain road that weaved between picturesque rural villages. I was amazed by the strength and joy of the people we came across on this stretch. Elderly men and women hauled carts and bamboo backpacks up the roads that we were struggling to bike up in our easiest gears. Young children laughed and waved as we went past and the general feeling was one of contentment and unity amongst the members of the small mountain communities. It was beautiful to see.

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We saw many locals hauling heavy carts and sacks up hills we struggled to tide down.

Over the course of just a few hundred metres, the road degenerated into a muddy, bumpy path that had us and our bikes covered in mud within minutes. The next day was no better as we experienced the worst downpour of the entire trip, while dealing with bike issues all morning.

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In Guangyaun we took two nights to rest and were treated to a ton much local food by the generous young man who ran the hostel we stayed at. It was rainy and dark the whole time were there and the forecast looked brutal for our final few days to Chengdu. However, when we woke up on our last morning in the hostel the sun was out and the good weather persisted all the way to our final stop in China. We had a fair amount of climbing to do, but it all took place in a national park, which had stunning views and smooth roads nearly the entire way. It was a strange feeling setting up camp just outside of the city, knowing that it was our last night in the tent for a couple of weeks.

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In the morning we rode to outer hostel, which was run by an amazing couple who made us feel so at home. We really loved Chengdu and are thankful for the rest and refocusing we were able to do there.

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The wonderful family that made our time in Chengdu so relaxed and enjoyable.

For our final night before our flight to Nepal, we booked a hotel near the airport so we could take a shuttle bus there at six the next morning, but when we tried to load our bikes onto the bus the driver waved us angrily away and we were left to find our own way to the terminal. Upon arrival at the airport, we were informed that there were no bike boxes available, despite the fact that we had been assured over the phone that there would be. We ended up paying $60 a piece to have our bikes wrapped in small cardboard boxes by two enthusiastic airport employees (they were actually great). Brad’s bike was overweight, but not enough for them to charge extra, but when we put mine on the scale it was 5 kilograms heavy. I pretty much begged the airline representative to waive the $80 fee, but we was unable to. He did, however, get me scissors so that I could cut into the packaging and pull out unneeded weight. Midway through this hack job, a young lady interrupted us and told us that if we checked in at her desk there would no extra charge for additional weight. We were blown away. We got the boxes checked, grabbed our tickets and headed for security, who held us up even longer, and made it to our gate five minutes before departure.

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Ready for Nepal with our makeshift bike boxes.

We are now descending into Kathmandu, grateful for everything we experienced in China, and very excited to be moving on to what is next. I leave amazed by the kindness and the patience of the Chinese people and feel challenged to display love the way they so selflessly showed it to us. I also want to say thank you to everyone back home who showed us love and support in this crazy month!

With much love and great anticipation,

Joel

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