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  • Jamie Shannon

Sichuan, China. Epic scenery and curious but friendly locals

I left bright and early as I knew I had a huge day ahead of me. After about 10km’s, and having stopped for a whopping great big bowl of porridge, banana and a huge splattering of honey, I began. I cycled through these quaint little villages with lots of traditional architecture gracing many of the facades. I got a few thumbs up from the locals here too, which in my view at least, is never a good sign. It usually means something meaty is about to rear its head.

And so it began

Switchback after gruelling switchback. A road that just never seemed to flatten out and one that, when I looked up, always seemed to carry on gaining altitude.

It was a hard morning.

Posts categories - mountain passes - The Apennines - The Alps - The Pamirs

Switchbacks in China
Once I had climbed the switchbacks, I had beautiful views across the valley

When at noon, and after almost five hours in the saddle, I was presented with an obelisk of sorts and a road now descending on the other side, I felt a huge amount of relief and thought I had done rather well. Little did I know that this was but a brief respite. After just one kilometre, the road again began to climb ever higher into the clouds and it just got harder and harder. The weather shifted considerably for the worse and the mountains became ever more thickly clad in a boisterous covering of foliage. The landscape was changing before my eyes.

Cycle touring through China

Then the dogs began their assault. Not since Turkey have I had this much trouble from dogs. Every time I see one, I have to get off my bike and walk by it slowly whilst I shout things in a thick German accent. At one point, there stood a huge growling guard dog on the road outside its domain and I hesitated before seeing a truck coming up from behind me. I then put my hand out to tell them I was using them as a barrier and then ran in front of the truck as it turned to climb around the bend. It seemed to work and the dog stayed where it belonged. I waved to the man in the truck to thank him and he gave me the customary beep as he disappeared up the next hill or perhaps there was just a blind corner coming up.

I stopped for breaks more times than I care to mention and by 4 pm, I had finally made it to the top. Wow, now that was a climb.

Highway in China

I came to a village where rolled over to a shop to see what my options were with regards to the cookie situation. Three shops stood side by side all selling the same stuff but under different brands and so I wandered in all three looking for the right brand at the right price. I ended up choosing wisely because at the end of my transaction I was gifted a 1.5 litre bottle of Sprite for free. I took a picture of the man and in it he looks a bit rough around the edges but was a genuinely nice guy. His wife was a dish too I noted.

I found my place to pitch my tent without too much difficulty and with it still being fairly high up, there was fresh water running from high above the cliffs and so my thirst was quenched as well. It was a successful but painfully slow day but I was content that was for sure.

I continued along the next river the following day having woken up early in order to push myself a little more. My journey through this vast country was proving even more difficult than I had imagined what with the endless climbing and I was way behind schedule. At this rate, my two month visa will have expired before I even get to the border with Laos.

Thankfully the day turned out to be relatively flat and I was soon in the city of Wenxian where I stopped to buy some more food at the supermarket and where I was followed around the store by the ever inquisitive shop assistants. Next I headed to the market to pick up some more vegetables. I do love these places. Everyone it seems grows their own vegetables and then sells whatever they think they won’t need personally down in the town or village centre. When I say all the land is used for something, I really mean it. I often see the smallest patches of earth in the most unlikely of places being used for the growing of crops, for example a one squared metre patch of earth right in the middle of a hairpin bend on a steep and winding road. It’s quite crazy really.

As I sat there eating at a roadside stall later, more and more people turned up on scooters and these kind of small carts on the backs of motorbikes. They watched me intently as I chowed down the noodles impressed perhaps by my chop stick abilities.

After I had paid, and just as I was about to leave, I turned round quickly to take their picture but everyone dived out of the way or turned their backs quickly. What?! I gestured that it was alright for them to watch every mouthful of food entering my mouth but I couldn’t take a photo? Pft. I even ran after one woman with my camera but she was too fast for me.

I rode past beautiful and immaculate patchworks of differing crops later. It’s strange to think that from a people who seem to shit and gob everywhere and where rubbish litters the country, they could be so ordered and disciplined when it comes to tended to their crops.

Cycle touring, China

The rest of the day, I followed a river as it twisted through an endless stream of natural beauty. One minute I would be not ten metres above the river and yet the next moment I would be 200 metres above it. It was another thoroughly gruelling day on the bike. Up and down all day long and with more dog chases than you could shake a stick at.

I found a cheap – ish hotel and booked in for the night relieved that I could at last get some privacy.

The next day followed the same pattern as the one before. I climbed and climbed only to find myself flying down the next steep road only to have to do it all over again. The entire day this went on for.

There was an entrance to the expressway that looked lovely and flat and I went down to the toll booth to see if I could get on it but alas I wasn’t allowed. Back to the hills then.

At one house, two huge dogs jumped up as soon as they heard me coming and began block my way. It was here where I took to carrying a huge stick again which I strapped to the back of the bike and I felt much safer with I have to say. It’s like Romania all over again.

The scenery was a bit of alright though. Sichuan really is incredibly beautiful.

I got a puncture a little later. I couldn’t complain though as this was the first one I had received since somewhere in Tajikistan. Obviously I had a crowd of onlookers to see to it that I was doing everything right and this had the added benefit of speeding up my repairs.

Cycling through China

The following morning, I was already awake when I heard the sound of someone gathering up wood not two metres away from my tent in the morning. It was still pitch black but I could see it was the face of an old lady with a wicker basket on her back. I wonder what she thought when she saw this strange foreigner camping out in the woods?

After returning to the river a little later, I crossed a bridge and began yet another long climb into the surrounding mountains. It was another unforgiving day on the bike. Just relentless the hills were and they reminded me very much of my ride along the coast all the way back in Turkey. Would it ever end?

Stopped off in a village at noon to pick up yet more vegetables and some potatoes. I couldn’t be doing with another dose of noodles or rice in the evening and so I intended to concoct a Western dish with whatever the Chinese customs had seen fit to leave me with – namely some mustard and some dried basil.

I got chased from shop to shop here by a dog that just wouldn’t leave me alone – much to the delight of the locals.

Eventually I left the beautiful gorge I had been travelling through for the last couple of days and entered a wide valley dotted with small towns. A wide road now carried me through the worsening smog another twenty km’s to the unappealing city of……nope…..I couldn’t tell you the name. Written in Chinese characters it was.

The G213 ended here and after a heated debate between myself, my map and my compass, In found my way to the G108 that would take me all the way into Chengdu which was still some way off.

I do like cycling through the cities here though. There is a whole array of obstacles to look out for. You just never know which way to look for the next impediment. It’s a lot of fun I tell you and I haven’t managed to crash yet on this entire trip. Well apart from the snow in Tajikistan and that little jolt into the back of a car some days earlier.

I thought I was doing pretty well.

It was a mostly uneventful ride to the town of Jiange 15 km’s further. The road was again busy and with some roadworks blocking the way, the beeps were getting even more frequent. They were annoying me beyond what any words here could ever describe.

Even though it was now raining ever so slightly, I was in good spirits as I was cycling straight through the city of Jiange hoping to make it to somewhere a little less urbanised before nightfall.

Why you shouldn't carry expensive camera equipment in your handlebar bag!

On the main stretch through the centre however, I hit one almighty pot hole in the road and at which point my camera came bouncing out of my handlebar bag. It came to rest by the side of the road but the lens, which was held on by some trusty duct tape, flew off in another direction right into a deep puddle. I was in shock. It certainly hadn’t been the first time this had happened but it was the first time it had landed in water and wasn’t looking forward to the damage that would have inevitably been caused.

As I picked them up, cursing out loud whilst doing it, someone from behind shouted hello and so I turned hoping to see a good Samaritan. Nope it was just another couple of guys with selfie sticks recording my hapless meanderings. I swore under my breath and rode off to somewhere more secluded where I could assess the damage.

I pulled up at the side of the road only to have someone else walk over to have a gawp. I was in no mood for pleasantries at this point and I vowed to hock up a big ball of phlegm in his direction if he annoyed me.

I couldn’t tell if the camera was broken or not as the battery wasn’t there. Fuck, it must have fell out too. Feeling frustrated like you wouldn’t believe, I growled at the man recording me and cycled off furiously to where I had dropped the camera.

It was nowhere to be seen……..until……until I saw it perched precariously atop one of the large boulders that lined the road. It must have been the selfie stick guys. Must have been. Maybe they were good Samaritans after all – good Samaritans with fu**ing selfie sticks.

Unbelievably the camera and lens still worked. I was back in business.

I woke up the next morning to a world shrouded in mist – something which I did expect in this area of China. I pushed my bike back from the mud towards the road and made my way through the well-lit tunnel without the presence of any vehicles to beep at me.

Even though I climbed throughout the morning, there were no real steep gradients to speak of as I passed through tunnel after tunnel and over a few bridges too. I couldn’t have been any happier really.

When I saw a restaurant by the side of the road, I went over to see if I could grab some water from them but decided instead to eat some breakfast. I didn’t know what I would be served and upon enquiring of the price became increasingly frustrated with their attempts to tell me. They kept on telling me in Chinese and then using these finger combinations to indicate a price this was all alien to me. I kept on pointing to the big shiny calculator on the table but they kept on giving me these random hand gestures instead along with babbling on in Chinese. “There is a lovely calculator right there – use it!” They wrote down the number six in the end and I agreed this was a fair price for breakfast.

I couldn’t eat it though. I was broth some kind of balls of flour that were swimming in a milky broth and when I went to slice one open, it looked like it contained a gooey substance of fish eggs or something. I really couldn’t eat it and I apologized frantically for my idiocy but offered to pay nonetheless. I insisted I was a vegetarian but I really felt quite bad. They were lovely people and in the end I spent about an hour there talking with them and entertaining the oldest kid too.

By midday, I had arrived in a town called something like Pu – after having raced down a long and twisty road that descended for something like twenty kilometres.

Still hungry, I stopped for some lovely dumplings before stopping again on the way out at a garage to see if I could use their internet to cancel my room in Chengdu for a second time. What I thought would take me ten days would actually take me nearly two weeks. This was hard work.

With this done and after some incredibly funny translations from google, I was again on my way south west to begin another hellish road that undulated in dramatic fashion.

Fighting my way up hill after hill, I remembered thinking if I would I ever make it to Laos and perhaps some flat land in the south of that country. These days were so very difficult that getting in 60 – 70 km’s was an arduous task.

Cycling through beautiful forest, China

I found myself cycling along a kind of ridge with the valley spread out on my right and a National Park on my left. It was really quite beautiful but incredibly difficult riding. I would find myself climbing up for nearly two hours but would then find myself cruising all the way back down on the beautifully paved winding roads under a huge canopy of trees. Despite how tough it was physically, It really was a joy to be there.

Having reached the valley floor by 4 pm, I decided to tackle the last big climb before the day was up as I knew after this, the road flattened out as it neared the town of Zitong.

The gradients on the last stretch were simply unbelievable and when I did reach the top, I couldn’t cycle any further despite the fact that it was downhill. I was spent.

Difficult to find somewhere to camp that night as there was activity everywhere. I somehow managed to find a break in the crash barrier however which led to a steep track down into the cliffs.

Camping in China

I was away bright and early the next morning and was very happy to find myself cycling away from the mountains. Everything was going great but as I changed gears, the cable to the rear derailleur snapped. I guess this was always going to happen at some point what with the endless mountains I had been climbing over and to be honest wasn’t even unhappy with the fact that I had this new problem to fix. I liked the challenge and was happy that I had spares with me. It was about time I used them.

Finally arriving in the city of Miyanyang - break time!

I arrived in Mianyang at about two making my through the congested streets where I was able to locate a neighbourhood in order to get a few supplies for the road ahead.

I was now 140 km’s from Chengdu and hoped to make it there by the end of the next day. After enquiring about a hotel in the city, I was directed across the road from the mini-market where I was and found a hotel willing to settle on a price of 70 Yuan after getting them down from 88. My haggling skills were really improving now. I couldn’t resist the lure of a warm bed and a hot shower but I decided at that moment that I wasn’t going to head to Chengdu at all.

Sure I wanted to see some pandas and to spend some time in a hostel with some other English speakers but at the same time I couldn’t deal with the thought of cycling in and out of a city of fifteen million people. Cycling into Mianyang, a city of 5 million, was difficult enough and so my decision was made.

I woke the next morning feeling decidedly groggy and thought I might spend another day here since I wasn’t going to be wasting time in Chengdu. On the off chance however, I looked on the internet to see if there were any hostels in the city and to my great surprise and relief there was. It was only 25 Yuan and located not 3 kilometres from where I now found myself. Great result.

With my things packed up, I headed on other there but after wandering around the streets of that district for some time found a restaurant where they allowed me to use their wi fi. I couldn’t believe it when I showed the man there the hostels name in Chinese that it was in fact located another 5 kilometres south. Bloody and their inaccurate maps.

With some new directions, I headed off to find the hostel but again came up with nothing thanks to the fact that I was smartphone-less and had no idea how to read Chinese. I was helped by a young man however who actually walked with me all the way to the hostel, the nice chap that he was.

So I have spent another two nights here. At 3 quid a night I really couldn’t say no and have been busying myself with the many things that I needed to get done including getting this blog back up to date. I went and exchanged enough money into US Dollars too for my visas for South Est Asia and for my first month of expected expenses too. Yes it’s getting close!

I’m setting off tomorrow morning and hoping to be crossing the border into Laos in twenty days’ time. The next 1800 km’s are going to be tough but I’m very much looking forward to whatever China decides to throw my way!

I’ll be back in a few weeks.

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