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  • Jamie Shannon

Gansu province, China. Freezing nights and lost in translation with locals

Leaving Lanzhou

Having somehow found my through the midday traffic of Lanzhou, getting lost numerous times beneath the flyovers and twelve lane roads in the process, I faced exactly what I had been led to believe – an endless uphill slog that went on for the rest of the day but which culminated in a long tunnel at the top of the pass.

Cycling out of Lanzhou, China
Leaving Lanzhou
Overturned truck, China

It felt strange to be traveling through China, a nation so thoroughly populated and bustling with activity as to make the previous months seem almost mundane in comparison. Indeed the road I travelled (the G212) just seemed like an endless stream of human activity for its entire length and the pollution that comes with that didn’t get me excited one bit.

After a few hours though, and having climbed ever higher into the surrounding peaks, the villages gave way to fields and rice terraces and the smog parted to reveal tantalising glimpses of blue sky. The scenery grew ever more stunning and by the end of day one, things were indeed looking up.

Through the mountains south of Lanzhou
Through the mountains south of Lanzhou

Now where to camp? I had originally been fretting about this somewhat beforehand. I couldn’t afford a hotel every night and with every inch (and I mean every inch) of available flat land being used for something, I just knew that finding a stealthy place to sleep would be extremely difficult. For this reason I had Brian, my new contact in China, write me up a note in Chinese asking if it would be okay for me to camp on a person’s land. In the end though I didn’t even need that. Having seen absolutely nowhere to pitch a tent all day long, I pulled my bicycle off the road up a steep track the at ran up the mountainside and was amazed to see the most perfect little place for my tent, nestled in amongst some trees and far enough from the constant horns as to get a good night’s sleep.

Stealth camping in China

Day two brought more busy roads and more industrial and urban squalor in the form of filthy small towns and villages where litter poked out of every conceivable nook and cranny. The flip side of this endless stream of civilisation was there was a shop or restaurant or food stand every few metres it seemed. Yes in China, I would not go hungry. I was in Central Asia no more and to my delight the food was even cheaper than it had been in Kashgar and Lanzhou. I just had to be careful what I ordered. I unknowingly tried pigs ear in Lanzhou and it was not to my taste.

It was the horns that really began to grind me down at this point however. Every car, truck and bus that passed pressed their horn, once when they were behind me, again when they overtook me and once again afterwards. It was demoralising – the trucks especially. I cannot convey how loud these truck horns are, and when they happen to do it one meter behind you, well it nearly throws you off the seat through sheer jumpiness. It’s insane.

As the day passed by, I found a smaller road where I was able to enjoy the scenery a little more without all the traffic converging around me and once again began to pass through stunning scenery dotted with fields of crops and small handsome villages.

I screeched to a halt outside one shop when I saw it sold freshly baked cakes and was immediately ushered into the back where the family lived to enjoy several rounds of tea around their hot stove. More and more people turned up and I think they were just curious and surprised to see this strange foreigner. They were all very friendly though but after several photos I had to say goodbye.

Farmland in China

As I climbed higher and higher and as the day came to a close, I once again began to wonder where I would sleep for the night.

What I could not have foreseen was the sight just around the corner, up a huge hill and down a track. The most wonderful and spacious area to camp, wide out In the open and surrounded by lovely alpine like trees and mountains.

Wild camping in China

That night was the coldest I have experienced since Tajikistan. The temperature dropped to minus 5 and it was a chilling reminder that I had made the right decision to catch a train. There would have been no way I’d be able to do this ride in 1.5 months that’s for sure. From here on out, I’m only going south and towards the tropics. I just want to sleep without wearing gloves again.

Cycling through China along the highway

Being low on water, I stopped when I saw some people outside a house by the side of the road and requested some help. Thankfully the whole world understands my hand acrobatics for water – even the Chinese. The man came back out and handed me back my bottle upon which I nearly burnt my tongue when I went to take a sip. It was bleeding hot.

I spent the remainder of the morning climbing which was to become the norm when cycling through this huge country. Needless to say the views were incredible all the way up and the switchbacks on the otherside were something to behold. I must admit I must look a bit of a prat what with my big furry Russian hat and my helmet strapped atop my head. Who cares? When will I ever see these people again?

2951 metre pass in China
The summit has been reached!

I stopped half an hour later at a shop in order to buy some veggies and cookies for the day, an unexpected thing happened.

Hungry tramp: (looking around shop) Do you have vegetables?

Lady: .........................

Hungry tramp: Hmm, this is going to be difficult. You know, food. Not cookies, or noodles or drinks. (does eating action with hands and mouth)

Lady:..................... Points to some candy and then to some noodles.

Hungry tramp: No, no, no. (walks outside and points at the vegetables growing in front of the shop) Those. To eat. I’m very hungry. (rubs belly)

Lady: Looks across the road to another woman who starts laughing.

Hungry tramp: My god. How do I get my message across? I look in my kindle at the language page of the lonely planet book of China but to my dismay it’s utter shite. The only words I can find are for grapes and bananas.

Hungry tramp: Look – something like this?

Lady: ........................................... Points to some nuts in a large sack.

Hungry tramp: God help me. I try more eating actions with my hands but accompany said hand actions with some live audio this time. Slurp. Slurp.

Lady: Do you speak English?

Hungry tramp: What!? Yes! I’m from England. Yinguoa. Do you speak English?

Lady: silence. She gets out her phone and translates a sentence. It says she wants to cook for me.

Hungry tramp: Hallelujah.

I’m beckoned into a small side room where four men are playing cards. Food is served and Chinese rice wine is poured. So in the end I left without any vegetables but with a full belly. What thoroughly nice people they were.

I returned to the road which continued downhill for some time until I came to a junction at the bottom where I took a right. I felt a little hard done by at this point as this led me on another loooooong slog uphill once again and this continued for the remainder of the day.

Interesting architecture in China

I reached the top of the pass the following morning but was saved from climbing to the very top this time as there was a lovely tunnel for me to dart through. Feeling thoroughly pleased with myself, I stopped at the top to enjoy a second coffee and to make videos of the tuck drivers whom were staring at me.

I exited the other side a little later and wham! On my ass I went. And right outside a police checkpoint too. I hope they enjoyed it. There was ice everywhere. Luckily nothing was damaged that wasn’t already damaged and so I began to walk on down until the ice disappeared and I would be able to enjoy the fruits of my labour.

For twenty kilometres I screamed down the other side. My face and hands were so numb and my nose dribbling with so much icy snot that I took a road off the highway into the first village I came across to see if I could find a nice warm restaurant.

There didn’t seem to be anything open, just houses and the odd shop selling more instant noodles. I asked in one shop if there was something to eat close by but when they saw me shivering, they instead seated me in the back and began to plough me with endless cups of tea and bread. I just wish I spoke the language. The lady of the shop even tried to give me a new coat as a parting gift but I eventually got the message across that I had a second one stuffed inside my bag. I just hadn’t expected it to be so cold.

I rode on and came to a small town which I cannot for the life of me remember the name of. On the off chance, I popped my head into a small hotel that had a resident dog that obviously hated me. It was 65 yuan per night. I was freezing and needed to push on but I succumbed to the low price and the promise of a warm bed.

I want to convey the utter awkwardness of being a white man in such a small town in a distant part of China. I walked outside to have a stroll through town but EVERY pair of eyes looked at me, stared openly through me like I was some kind of creature from out of space. Girls would giggle. Teenagers would point to their friends to look when they had seen me. Old people just stared openly, mouth ajar. My sun glasses didn’t once leave my face and I quickly returned to the hotel where the resident dog wouldn’t let me in presumably because I was a foreigner. I had hoped to enjoy some delicious food out that night but the mere thought of sitting in a restaurant with people watching me eat made me nauseous and so I dined on instant noodles and bread back at the hotel. For shame Jamie. For shame.

I following a river for another fifteen kilometres on a very busy road until I came to the huge city of Min Xian which is actually where I thought I was the night before. Turns out I slept in the wrong bloody city! Well if they will insist on using Chinese characters on the road signs. I did have a map of the province in Chinese but I lost it in the mayhem that was my exit from Lanzhou on day number one. Now I have only a map in English which I may as well use to wipe my ass.

Now I like to think I’m a savvy traveller/tramp/vagobond but I guess we all get our asses kicked sometimes.

This happened to me when I pulled up at a little restaurant by the side of the road later on and did my usual thing and pointed to the food three men were clearly enjoying. When I asked how much, the lady clenched one of her fists together which I knew referred to the number five – yes they even have strange ways of representing numbers. Perhaps we’re irrational though – whose to say? Anyway I thought I’ll have some of that.

When the dish arrived, I found it to be huge and it was actually three dishes, not one. Okay perhaps she meant fifteen. I’ll give her twenty because I’m in a good mood and I thought that was a fair price.

When I gave her twenty later on, she again clenched her fist tightly and then pointed to the fifty in my other hand. What!? Six quid? You are having a laugh. But no, it was six quid. She pointed to the menu and it turned out to be the most expensive dish on the menu. I vowed to self-cater for the next five days in order to get back my money. The food was delicious if I may add though.

The weather was certainly improving and I tried to put what had just happened at the back of my mind and tried to focus my energy on trying not to shout “fu**ing IDIOT”! at every truck that beeped his horn in my ear as I made my way up and over yet another steep and formidable pass.

How to defrost a bicycle when the gear system is frozen solid - take a leak

It was another uncomfortable night again. When I looked outside, everything was frozen, including the mud on my tyres. I needed to get south pronto. Can’t be doing with this. I had to spend twenty minutes chipping off the mud before I could get going again and I used a trick learned from Brecht, the guy from Belgium and ended up having a leak on my rear derailleur as that was frozen solid too.

I followed a large river through a beautiful gorge for the rest of the day. The daytime temperature was increasing, the condition of the roads were superb and the people were lovely. I was really beginning to like China. Things were going great. Apart from the constant blaring of the horns. Yes that was driving me into fits of despair. Luckily, Metallica on full volume helps.

At one point during the day when the road passed through a small village, it narrowed to a single lane and simply became gridlocked. For whatever reason, two vehicles had both decided simultaneously that they were far too important to let the other one pass through. After that, the entire village for about one kilometre became equally chaotic and gridlocked. No one seemed to grasp the situation and thus how to resolve it. I cycled through that mess weaving between the cars and trucks and bystanders fairly quickly and with a small hint of a smile on my face. I’m not ashamed to admit to the fact that I actually let out a few loud and annoying beeps of my own as I barged through the passengers standing around the parked cars. It was most satisfying.

Eventually I came to a rare town that was printed on my map where I stopped for some supplies, mainly water and cookies. I was soon swamped by people and had no idea what any of them was saying. The only things I could muster in response were the Chinese words for England and Chengdu, both pronounced incorrectly in all probability. They must have thought I was simple.

Wild camping in China

I had a small problem though some time later and it concerned an intimate date with another Chinese hole in the ground - namely a toilet. I couldn’t do it at the side of the road even though I’m sure the Chinese probably wouldn’t mind and so I tried to find somebody to ask if they had a hole I could use.

I came to a quarry of sorts with lots of cabins where the workers lived. I again tried my best to indicate what I needed but I just got blank faces and confused looks. Come on guys. “psss, pssssss”, pointing to my groin. One guy then left. Goodness knows what I’ve asked for. When he came back, I saw he was holding a very large bicycle pump. No, no, no. I’m sorry. I think I’ll have to add a more suitable audio track thus I did some things with my mouth and squatted ever so slightly. Now they got it! Dear lord. I was thus relieved……of my dignity.

As it happens the bicycle pump came in handy. It got my tyres rock hard. Much better than a hand pump if you ask me.

After Longnan, the scenery was simply stunning and the road was almost completely devoid of traffic – so much so that I found I had to stop later on in the day in order to confirm I was indeed on the correct road. It was a wonderful day and the temperature was perfect for cycling too – cold enough to not get sweaty but warm enough to ride in a t shirt which hadn’t happened in a long time.

Highway of Gansu, China

I knew that once the road turned away from the river it had been following, that’s when the real mountains would begin and so my aim for the day was just to get as close to the beginning of the climb as possible. I knew it was a huge climb ahead and so I would need every available ounce of energy for that.

One thing stands out out this day and had to be seeing first-hand what happens when two vehicles meet at speed.

Every day now I had seen numerous people overtaking on blind corners. They simply think that if they beep their horn just before they arrive at the bend in the wrong lane, then that’s enough for them to be allowed safe passage through. Too many times I have had to almost dive off the road at the last minute when a huge bus suddenly bears down on me.

Bearing witness to a horrible road traffic accident - it wasn't pleasant

Thus when I saw what happened ahead of me now, I wasn’t at all surprised considering the crash was situated on a bend. I first saw a few cars tentatively making their way around some debris on the road and when as I got closer, I saw a jeep parked up with a huge wound in its left side. As I made my way around the debris I noticed a trashed motorbike on the side of the road and then to my horror, a person lay crumpled up by the side of the road in the weeds – his guts spilled out onto the road around him. He was obviously dead. There wasn’t anything I could do as seeing as there was a group of people already stood around with phones and so I continued on my way. That really shook me up though.

It just made me realise again how short and precarious life can be. Who knows when our time is up? You really have to stop spending 100% of your time worrying about the future and instead focus at least some of your energy on the present as this is living – in the now. You don’t take that bank balance with you in the grave.

As the day was drawing to an end, I again used my magic piece of paper gifted to me by Brian and found myself a nice spot on a small plot of land by the side of the river. The man and woman were very nice as I showed them how I lived. They kept giving me incredulous and surprised looks as I set up my tent and other things. I think they were especially impressed by my air mattress. The man even had a ride on my bike too.

Camping in China
Being helped with a spot for the night by the locals


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