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  • Jamie Shannon

The road through China from Mianyang. Lost in Luzhou

The road from Mianyang

With me not wanting to get caught up in the melee that was Chengdu, I decided I would take a different route which would unfortunately take me south east through the polluted lowlands of the region.

The downside of this was that there was almost nowhere where people were not present which consequently made camping very difficult and every small town I arrived at would in fact turn out to be a huge city by any other countries definition. I would thus constantly end up getting lost.

I have now realised that you must ask a very specific person for directions and in my opinion (at least in China) the right person is almost exclusively a male aged between 25 and 40. Any other age or gender and you may as well forget it.

After following a pickup truck in the city of Suining for 5 km’s, I exited the city and was very happy to have left the large roads behind. The climbing began in earnest but the scenery more than made up for it. Lush vegetation dripped from every cliff face and the types of crops were now quite different from what I had seen further north with bamboo becoming ever more present.

As much as I would have liked to wander around the small towns and villages that littered the route, I would garner so much attention with so many people asking me things in Chinese that I often zoomed straight through.

The next day saw me climbing and ascending China’s ever present mountainous topography but this was also the first time I saw the sun for a prolonged period of time and so my spirits were lifted immensely. I cannot say how much this can affect your mood when cycling for six to eight hours per day.

Although I was finally making some headway and the sun was out, the hills were just relentless. Much more annoying though was the fact that I was still in a relatively built up area of the region and whenever I stopped to take a break, someone would stop to take a look at me which would inevitably lead to someone else stopping in order to see what the first person was so interested in. Pretty soon I would have five people stood around me asking me questions in Chinese. Communication via language, hand signals and even facial expressions it seems is just nigh on impossible and so every break I had from the physical exertion simply became mentally tiresome too.

After the city of Neijiang, the highway swept its way south east again. Pretty soon, I entered a very hilly section which could only be described as Sichuan’s dumping ground of unwanted commodities. For 25km's, the road was lined with village after village that had, over time, merged together. The only way I was able to decipher when I was in the next village would be that it would be the host to a different assortment of junk in great piles lining the road. If one village had huge piles of children’s toys stacked up in three metre piles, then the next village would be the same but covered in scrap metal or car tyres or something. The whole area just felt dirty.

Almost to add insult to injury, I wheeled my bike down a slope at the side of the road to eat something at one point and noticed I was sat not one metre away from a pile of human excrement.

By this point, what with the constant air and horn pollution, staring, spitting and the general littering and burning of rubbish, it’s safe to say China was beginning to take its toll on me.

From the looks of my map however, I would be back in the mountains and away from all of this in about 100 km’s and so I tried not to get too annoyed. I didn’t particularly want to cycle over endless mountains again, but if it took me out of industrialized and polluted China, it was something I was prepared to do.

I was away super early the following morning which actually helped my sanity enormously as it meant an hour with no trucks blasting their sordid horns in my ear. It was turning out to be a glorious morning too with a beautiful sunrise accompanying my heavy grunts over the hills.

Stopping in the market area of a small town to pick up some vegetables, I once again had a small crowd gather around me and so I decided to humour them a little. I had no idea what I was being asked of me but I showed them various things that I thought might quench their curious appetites. I showed them why on earth a guy on a bicycle needed to buy vegetables by revealing my stove and having one of them sniff the canister of petrol I carried. I showed them where I slept and the note I sometimes showed people in order to do so. I even delivered a couple of barks in their direction whilst pointing at the big stick I carry. “ahhhhhh”, was the reply I got as if they knew the dogs were a nuisance.

Arriving in the town/large town/huge city (I don’t even know any more) of Longchang, I once again became confused with the street signs that only ever seemed to point to motorways. It’s no easy task trying to navigate whilst dodging the insane traffic that envelopes you in a tight space and so I went and asked a man for directions who turned out to be incredibly helpful.

Cityscape of Luzhou, China
Approaching Luzhou

Or at least he tried to be. With no common tongue and every word getting lost in translation on his smartphone, I gave up after ten minutes and instead asked him if he knew of a hotel in the city. I didn’t even want a hotel if I’m honest. I was just trying to make conversation but he insisted I followed him in his car.

With his shop left completely unattended, we drove/cycled down the street and around the corner where he negotiated a fairly decent price for me at a hotel but where I was later told I would not be permitted to stay on account of my complete lack of Chinese heritage. The problem was resolved however with my new friend using his Identity card in order to check me in. Job done.

Another day followed on the bike over undulating terrain where the weather was cold and misty and where exploding fireworks greeted my arrival in every town or village I passed through it seemed. Must have been something going on but for the life of me I had no idea.

Getting completely and utterly lost in the city of Luzhou

I encountered my biggest obstacle in my migration south since crossing the endless mountains of the north in the form of the sprawling metropolis of Luzhou in the early afternoon. I came to a sign where I could turn left, right or go straight on. The next place I was aiming for indicated that I simply needed to carry on ahead but when the lights went green I cycled over the small crest in the road and straight into a quarry of sorts.

Posts which show my adeptness at getting lost

This is another problem with China. Perhaps in a year or so there may very well be a road here but as yet it was still just a large area of dug over land. So why put a bloody road sign up for it then!

Thus I was forced to turn right which brought me back into the melee of populated China. By this point, I actually thought I had already passed Luzhou but oh no, no, no I hadn’t even got close.

After five km’s I began to see large buildings and after ten km’s I was completely surrounded by them. I knew it was going to be difficult to navigate out of here as, apart from the enormity of the city, it looked like a lot of highways converged here too. Add to this the fact that it crossed the Yangtze and I knew I was in for a terrible time. I got carried along by the flow of traffic all around me by diversion after diversion because of roadworks and before I knew it I had no idea which way to turn.

I think I must have walked into three shops and asked about five people on the street for the direction of my next city but it was again a thankless task. A barber whom I asked, when I revealed to him that I did not speak Mandarin, decided to write down a complicated set of directions on paper in Mandarin. Why they think I would be able to read it if I cannot speak it is beyond me.

In the end I did what I always did and just followed my compass south until I could not go south any longer. I turned right instead but after one kilometre, I gave up and went over to a security guards office to ask for directions. Again I got them in Chinese and once again I was becoming frustrated by how difficult this all was. It had been over two hours since I cycled off the large expressway I had been using in the morning and my patience was wearing thin. I bought a coke at the shop next door and took a seat, trying to regain my composure.

It was nearly half past four now and I still needed to get out of here and find somewhere to camp beyond the city.

I decided to get visual with the three men now with me and so I took out a pen and paper.

I drew a picture of the Yangtze and adorned it with some waves for a more authentic representation.

But I got nothing.

I wrote down the name of the G road I wanted to take.

But I got only fingers pointing to the motorways.

I then drew a picture of a bridge across the river and then I got something.

A man pulled out his smartphone and showed me where I was in relation to the river and it seemed like I just needed to backtrack for a couple of km’s at which point I would see a bridge across the river.

I couldn’t thank them enough.

By this time it was rush hour and I was about to cross a four lane bridge in China. This wasn’t where I wanted to be. I waved nonchalantly and sarcastically to a person taking my picture (ask before you do that dickhead) before setting off over the bridge.

I really beep did try to beep peddle as fast as I beep could but the beeeeeeeep bridge was huge and the traffic insane and so beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep I had to be careful. To make matters worse, the hill afterwards was huge and every car, scooter, bus and tuk tuk kept beeping in my ears! Arrrrahhhhh it was driving me insane!! Peddling furiously uphill with all of this going one whilst no one obeyed traffic rules caused chaos in my fragile mind. I just knew that I needed to get out of the city before it grew dark and so I pushed on and on and on.

Another ten minutes passed by and I found my G road. I thanked allah and pushed on further. Come on Jamie keep going. You can do it son. Just ignore everything and concentrate on getting out of here. Actually better not ignore that traffic.

With thoughts of sleep already in my mind I eventually pulled over to a garage to pick up some water. Here, a Chinese lady tried to steal my hat.

As luck would have it, there seemed to be an area of wasteland either side of the road and when I saw my opportunity, I pushed my bike onto the pavement and walked over to check it out. Seemed perfect to me. I just had to push my bike down a track where there were trees and bushes galore to hide in. Best of all, it seemed pretty peaceful too and this I needed. I set up my tent in a secluded spot and sat down in order to reflect on the chaos I had just been through and to relax in some peaceful surroundings but in doing so I heard a noise.

I climbed a small ridge.

Looks like I would be sleeping next to a quarry full of trucks again. Beeeeeep.

The next morning, my road made a beeline straight south and so my frustrations were entirely focused on the endless succession of trucks and suicide bus drivers that forever drove by far too close for comfort and were forever cutting me up.

Yongning river, China
Yongning river, China

The road narrowed to two lanes and began its meandering path through the mountains south. With an expressway taking away most of the heavy traffic, it was a joy to be back on quiet roads again.

It would again be another overcast and thoroughly depressing day - weather wise.

But I could not fault the views.

The road wound its way through a gorge before eventually following a beautiful blue river that just goes to show that not everything is polluted in China, yet. Bamboo grew everywhere too and was often to be found wilting over the road from both sides enveloping it quite snugly.

It didn’t stop drizzling with rain all morning but when it came time for lunch, I actually managed to find an abandoned house that looked over the river by the side of the road. I got out my tent in a fruitless attempt to dry it but what with the humidity, it was a pointless task.

Drying my tent in China
Sunshine to dry my tent was in scarce supply

With the day drawing to a close, my legs aching from the endless hills and with the city of Xuyong surely not far ahead, I asked some construction workers if it was possible to sleep in the area where they were building a new highway. They pointed me over to a safe part of the site and even brought me a large polystyrene board to put under my tent for added comfort. They seemed mightily impressed as they watched me make dinner and one of them exclaimed as I mixed everything together, “ahhhh chow mein!” English chow mein I replied.

The next morning brought yet more rain and mud which covered every part of my bike and lower part of my body. Make no mistake – by this point I was filthy. I really needed some sunlight now.

Coming out of Xuyong, I had a guy on a scooter following me and watching my every move. This isn’t unusual by any means but when he does it for three kilometres, it does begin to get on your nerves. In order to lose him, I pulled over at a garage to get some water but he also backtracked and stopped too.

I’m not joking when I say he must have taken about fifty photos at various angles on his phone. It was completely ridiculous. Usually I get a free beverage out of these encounters but he just thanked me and sped off. I felt a little used.

It’s a strange and foreboding thing travelling with just a couple of maps and a compass as you just never know what, topographically speaking, is ahead.

As I continued on my way, thinking it would just be another day of long and steep ascents, I was a little annoyed by the fact that I just kept on climbing, higher and higher into the surrounding hills. It seemed never-ending. It’s not so bad when the sun is out as you can cycle without a jacket but when its pissing down with rain too, you just get soaked inside and out. It was quite miserable really. I couldn’t fault the views however.

Motorway in China
Immense landscape in China

By the next day, I was so tired of the wet weather and overcast day’s the only thing I could think about was a beach in South East Asia and so I had to push on in order to get there as quickly as possible. The problem was that China was just massive.

My original plan was to head south west in the direction of Kunming and then onto Laos but a few days before, I had decided to head to Vietnam instead. I needed an easier country and if Vietnam was closer, Vietnam it was.

As I crossed into my second to last province in the early afternoon, the road flattened out somewhat as it joined a river. The sun actually began to peek through the clouds too which in turn warmed things up a little. It was the first time I had cycled in a t shirt since I set off from Mianyang and it felt great to do so. The mountains were hard but I was slowly chipping away at the road on my map, millimetre by millimetre. Things could only improve.

Almost every house by the side of the road had stalls set up tempting passing drivers and myself over with their huge buckets of oranges on offer. Orange trees were everywhere and I did think about just grabbing a few for myself but I thought I had better pay the owners instead. They were pretty cheap I must say.

The dogs were out in force today. I don’t know if it was my lovely sweaty scent that aroused their interest or just the squeaking of my bicycle but every one of them came for me and my large bamboo stick came in quite handy here.

A little later, my road turned away from the river which meant another huge and snaking climb over the mountains. Although it was difficult, the sun was out and so I could at least cycle without a jacket which made things a lot more pleasurable.

Steep ascents in China
Another tough day in the mountains

By half three the road began to flatten out and it brought me to a huge lake nestled in amongst the surrounding hills. It was a lovely sight.

Finding an amazing place to camp for the evening - a true treat

I decided to get off my bike and walk down the hillside in order to take a picture. What I found however astounded me; flat pieces of land not being used whatsoever. This is such a rare sight in China that I decided there and then that I would camp. I was tired of having to sleep in amongst bushes and weeds that I just couldn’t say no. Although it was still early, I really did need to sort the bike out. It had been squeaking like mad lately and really did need a clean after all the mud I had gone through and this was the perfect opportunity to do a little spring cleaning.

It was a lovely and warm evening and the views across the lake made it a memorable spot indeed. Finding a great place to sleep really is the best medicine after a tough day.

Camping in China
Great camping spot above a lake

China however was going to get a whole lot tougher before things improved though.

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