Lanzhou is the capital of Gansu province. It is a massive place. The hillside behind our hotel was riddled with temples and a system of shops built in traditional Chinese style. There are numerous bridges crossing the Yellow River and sky scrapers on both sides. We did not do much in Lanzhou, which is exactly what we needed. I bought a Columbia thermal baselayer, enquired about extending my visa, and that’s about it. No word from Molo, the Chinese cycle tourist. He took an even higher pass through the mountains to Xining, where he stayed for ten days. I imagine he has only just arrived in Lanzhou himself as I write this en route to Hong Kong.
After three days we continued Eastward. We didn’t make it very far the first day, leaving late, partly due to another flat tire!
It took awhile to escape the city, running another toll to get on the G30, getting pulled over and arguing with two young cops almost to the point of arrest before being kicked back onto the G312, which was actually very pleasant and in total contrast to the intel we had received from another cycle tourist, which was the reason for our heated argument with the police in the first place. The route was very hilly and we allowed ourselves an early rest once we realized our progress was not going to be what we hoped. The next day we passed Dinxi in the late afternoon. I was inclined to stop there, of course, but held my tongue, aware that we needed to make a bit more distance.
I had a little incident passing through the madness of Dinxi.
Traffic in cities consists of lorries, taxis, cars, scooters, buses, pedestrians and bicycles. Only the lorries stay off the little frontage roads, which are populated, intermittently, by the rest of us. Cody likes to speed through the traffic whereas I am more conservative, if you have not yet gathered this. At one point a bus cut us off and Cody lurched around it, merging fearlessly into traffic. Unthinking, I decided to go around on the right, which had plenty of room. I was going at a fair speed when a beautiful young woman hopped out of the back door of the bus right into my path. It is a curious sensation to watch something happen that you have no power to prevent. I imagine the feeling is similar when falling from a good height. I have felt this feeling twice before, from behind the wheel of a car, though I have never actually been in an accident. I have since thought about this peculiar sensation quite often and consider how many times and in how many situations one is confronted with this sense of powerlessness and inevitability. I slammed my breaks and slowly watched as I approached this young woman with too much speed. She saw me coming, and did a very casual side step and put her arm out to… stop me? I had slowed enough that when I made contact and kept going, she had time to hop back further, absolutely shocked that I would run into her. Now fully stopped, she came around side of me, her eyes wide. Myself shaken and horrified, I reached out to her and made my apology, “dui butsi,” unable to offer her anything else in her native tongue. She evaded my sympathetic arm and stared. Once I realized she was alright, I tore out of there. I am not sure what shocked her more: the fact that she had received a good bump or the surprise of what hit her, but I felt really bad and was glad she was uninjured. Whoops. To err is human…
Cody still loves to plan, and stick to his plan, regardless of external factors. It has taken us across China with relative speed, but it makes for unnecessary trials, and tonight was another. I knew he wouldn’t stop in Dinxi, but hoped he would be tempted into stopping off at the next hotel, hopefully before the hefty climb we had ahead of us as the light waned. I brought this up once we had left Dinxi behind, and though he wasn’t enthused by the idea we did not have an opportunity to be tempted. The land emptied of population and we reached our climb. Up, up up we went, for over an hour. The hill was steep and 15 kilometers long, which mae for a slog. As we neared the top, we could see the terraced hills accentuated by snow and I wished we could have seen it in the daylight just for the pictures, but alas. Neither of us had charged our lights in Lanzhou, as it were, and soon our front lights died. Cody’s headlamp was broken, and mine had slipped off and hidden in some spot I could not divine in the blackness of night, so we continued the climb in the dark. This was all well and good, until we got to the descent. It was pitch black, the road was rutted, and the ditches dangerous. At some point there were neat little cliffs down which one might carome into to the darkness, and of course, the ever-present snow and ice. We went slowly, able to make out the shiny ruts made by years of traffic, greatful for any truck that happened to shed a little light ahead of us for a moment. Our luck turned when we caught up to a heavy-laden lorry heading down the hill at a similar pace to ours. We tucked into his wake and followed him all the way down the hill.
We found ourselves in the little town of Tong’anyi, of which we knew nothing. At this point in our planning, we would just aim for a town with a few streets on the map and hope there was a hotel down one of them. We stopped in at a shop where a few men were circled around a table drinking liquor and asked after a hotel, come to find we were standing in one. It was another cheap affair, with rock hard beds and no heat, but it had electric blankets, and we figured it would be better than camping. The owner was a bit drunk and tried to charge us the price of a luxury hotel, 200 yen. We laughed, told him “no,” and countered by cutting the price in half. He immediately agreed. It always pisses me off when people try to swindle us, but we have come to anticipate it and are at least prepared for it when it comes. Puts a bad taste in my mouth, it does.
Another night, another day. From here it got warm. The morning was cold, yes, but we were steadily dropping a little South and a little closer to sea level. We passed through lovely little villages as we coursed through canyonlands riddled with caves of unknown ages inbetween farms and fields. Towards the end of the day we popped out into a valley after a good little climb and a nice descent. Every single hillside was terraced. We had seen this with increasing regularity over the last few days, but now there was not a bit of hillside that had not been hacked up into stairsteps. It is strange and ugly thing. The soil is no longer arable, by the looks of it, and now the mountains are scarred forever.
All the day we had been talking. It was spurred by my comment about how enjoyable it was to ride reasonable distances, settling in before darkness set, through a warm and stimulating landscape. This revived our discussion of suffering, its various types, the nature of cycle touring and of life. It had been an innocent comment on my part, but now we were back talking about my concept of “unnecessary suffering,” perhaps better defined as “avoidable suffering.” Of course, challenge is indispensable to any type of development, physical, mental, or spiritual. My argument was that life provided more than enough trial and that evading some of it was desirable. Cody brought this back around to too much love of comfort. Again, there is hardly anyone on the planet who can seriously breach this subject with me any longer, I just happen to be riding with one of the people who can. I am in fact far easier to please than he knows, capable not only of extreme physical duress without harming my mood, but I do not need a mattress, a shower, electricity or plumbing in order to live well. Provided I can dunk in a lake or a stream every once in awhile and have enough books, I am quite content.
I hate being cold though. I assure you, my threshold for the cold is high; it was admirable before this trip and now it is higher than it ought to be, in my opinion. I just hate it. I hate feeling my extremities start to die. I hate knowing that I have to keep my body heat up or I will be in trouble. Everybody has their limits. I pointed out to Cody his distaste for large climbs and bad wind. Whenever it is windy the fellow can be found drafting me as tight as he can. He is a good climber too- we all are, after the Pamir mountains- but it is sensible to avoid hills if possible. I myself have been infected with an insane and perverse love of mountainous climbs and refuse to allow wind to deter me, I’ll push all day. It was a good conversation and I respect Cody’s viewpoint, but there is something in it that I perceive as a denial of reality, an optimistic cover-up that is largely imagined. I told him that he talks the talk but doesn’t always walk the walk, but that I figured faking it til you make is just fine, giving voice to what I had been mulling over the last few days. I don’t so much mind being a curmudgeon, although I am trying to appreciate life in a way grumps seem unable to do, and am glad in the knowledge that on the inside I am actually a positive person. On the outside, however, I can complain a bit and actually draw strength from my own frustration sometimes. When stuff isn’t ideal (especially when I think it could have easily been otherwise) I acknowledge it as such and try to be proactive, but I allow myself a grumble when a grumble is due- my philosophy has its flaws, I know. We have different personalities, but I am interested to see what happens to my friend’s perspective in a few years. We also talked about the need of youths to prove themselves, first to others, and then to themselves. As I have gotten older, I worry less about what other people think and have also slowly convinced myself of my own strength and self-worth. I’m getting to the point at which don’t need to prove anything anymore. This can be dangerous, because it is important to be open to other people’s ideas and to be reasonably critical of your own self, but for myself, I know I have what it takes, and I reserve my strength when it is necessary. I am a guy you would want to have around when things get bad, I’m an Unsinkable Molly in a jam. Having tested my character sufficiently, I now save that energy for when I need it. Again, there is always the danger of going soft, but at the moment I think I am safe from this.
Cody pointed out to me that I was surely proving something to myself by taking this trip, which is somewhat true, in the sense that I had quite a few things to prove when I set out. Now, however, I have little left to prove to anyone. Almost a year on the bike is enough to satisfy any question of my strength and perseverance, though two years, eight years, twenty years (as I have heard of and encountered) is a different story altogether. I do want to enjoy the trip, and I want to exercise what little control I have to avoid… well, mostly being cold. It was, after all, my insistence on riding the whole way and my desire to see Kyrgyzstan that led me into Northern China in early winter. It was also my desire for companionship that drives me to go along in a way that is somewhat unnatural to me. It is thus entirely my fault to be suffering due to two parts of myself being in conflict.
This led into a conversation about the accomplishment of riding the whole way, of setting and meeting goals, and what it means to us, why we do it. Cody is extremely critical of anyone who hitchhikes or takes a train or flight here and there whereas I don’t care at all. They’re still seeing the world, travelling long term, exploring by bicycle, camping, playing, enjoying. It is not the accomplishment, but the experience, the journey, that matters. Sure, if you take too many flights I think you lose out a bit, but if someone wants to say they cycled the world with a few flights and a train or two tacked on here and there, I would be more enthusiastic than not. I’m the sort who might listen to such a story and never mention that I, too, have cycled across a good chunk of the globe. I am more worried about what people will assume of me when I get back, hoping they do not think my journey is an egotistical one. I will not come home lording a portfolio of pictures and a book full of stamps, I am here for myself, and I intend to return a better, humbler person, not a shittier one. I wondered this day though, why I was so adamant about riding, because I was suffering. The trip had become extreme, trying, and a bit dire after it became infeasable to sleep outside. We wouldn’t die in our sleeping bags, but we would suffer significantly, and no sleep is to be had in such conditions. It had all gotten serious and I took a good look at my life for the umpteenth time. Maybe it was yet another case in which I throw myself in a situation I am not quite prepared for and flounder for a bit, fighting my own weaknesses, before persevering once more. Perhaps I should be more incremental, kinder to myself, but I seem to be inclined to bite off more than I can chew and leave it to my future self to figure it out.
Cody tried to get me back on the G30, but I managed to convince him to climb a hill, incredibly, and we kept on the quiet road (it helped that there was a policeman standing there waiting for the likes of us to try anything). The land became green, in the form of forests, as we wound through majestic canyons lined with massive monoliths of stone. Little villages swept past and temples set in the rock walls watched over the river of life that bustles in these valleys. We stopped off in a tiny motel and continued on towards Xi’an the next day. More villages, more valleys, delicious food. Old fortresses began cropping up on hillsides, fortified towns with rich heritages. The landscape was medieval and brilliant.
The sun had us cooked down to our shirts for the first time in months and life was easy. Towards the end of the day we stopped outside of Daonan and agreed to continue for another 14 or 20k to the next town. We entered the city and the hustle began: Cody weaved and dashed through the hectic streets and I followed. I got jammed up behind a slow scooter passing inbetween two cars and dodged around a car parked inconsiderately in the middle of the scooter lane. As I passed, with good speed, the back door popped open, and I smashed right into it. A crunching sound and I was over the handle bars. I knocked over some boxes of fruit and hit the ground before I knew what happened. I made to get up, thought better of it, and laid there a moment. By now the occupants of the car were outside and a crowd was gathering. I sat up, righted the boxes of fruit, and stood up. I was banged up, but okay. I picked the bike up and my left front pannier fell off, the last good hook completely destroyed. A woman sincerely and fearfully apologized as I hung the pannier on my rack by one broken hook, a bit dazed. I mumbled an “It’s okay” and made off before they got around to inspecting the door. I hit it hard and didn’t feel like dealing with a police report, but the hinges hadn’t buckled, so I figured it would be okay. As I rode off, my swinging pannier incesantly spoke, in wobbly arcs, of its need to be addressed. Though the pannier was trashed, I must have dodged enough that my wheel didn’t hit, which is good. I stopped and swapped the destroyed hook for a less damaged one I had, and noted that I no longer had a single pannier that did not need to be strapped to the bike, 4 out of 4. My hand and wrist ached pretty good, but nothing to worry about.
I found myself at a big split in the road. Insane traffic continued past an onramp that led onto a bridge and across the river. I checked the map, as Cody was nowhere to be seen, and decided he must have crossed the bridge. I crossed the bridge. No sign of Cody. I waited around for a while, checked a hotel nearby, as had planned to do. No sign. I went to the next intersection. No sign. I rode out of town to where we were to take a turn and continue East. Nothing. I stood there for a good ten minutes, then turned back the way I came. I was a little shaken up with the crash and then the immediate loss of my partner. It also dawnef on me that we had no way of contacting each other, and despite being only a few blocks or a few kilometers apart, we may as well have been on different planets. I stopped in at a hotel and asked about price. It was an acceptable price for two, spendy for one, about 28 dollars. I informed the receptionist that I had lost my friend and hopped on the wifi to look for him. I tried to send a message on WeChat, but his number was linked to my tablet. He couldn’t access email, facebook or Whatsapp on his phone. All was lost. I went ahead and checked in, rueing the price, but the nights were still very cold. They actually led me, bike and all, into my room on the third floor, which was strange! Big elevator.
On the way up, I remembered an offhand comment Cody once made about being able to contact his parents on another application that worked in China, and decided to shoot his mother a message on Whatsapp (Cody had called her a few times from my tablet). I’ll be darned if Cody and I weren’t reunited by a dispatch from the United Kingdom.
Within a half hour, Cody rolled up to the hotel. I had assumed he had checked in at another place already. He had not crossed the river, but in his frenzy, bombed right past the bridge and, to our good fortune, the hotel he parked at after waiting for me for twenty minutes was exorbitantly expensive. Excellent. We went out for dinner and I became aware of a pain in my thigh coming from a nicely good swollen spot where I think I rammed my own handlebars. It is still a bit sore a week later, in fact. Aside from some pain the next day and waking up the next two days with a sore shoulder, I was fine.
The next two days were peaceful. It felt warm, but things were still a bit frozen, observe the super cool ice waterfalls below:
From here we had (almost) no more incidents, only idyllic days, short, lovely, warm and altogether pleasant. We popped onto a bike path at some point, well lit and devoid of traffic. We stayed at a hotel along the river and continued. The highlights of the day were lunch in a strange little farm village and… Cody’s crash!
Observe the flat, open bike lane. We were chatting side by side, when all of a sudden, he smashed up the curb, bouncing for a few feet in the bushes before crashing down into the bike path. Shocked as I watched the entire inexplicable process, I asked him what happened.
“I was trying to headbutt a leaf.”
I died! I had never experienced such a beautiful absurdity and the laughter crippled me. God bless Cody for that.
We made a final push into Xi’an on the riverside bike path and tacked on another big day, but we were in Xi’an at last! What was once an inconceivable point on the map was now our location: we had succeeded in crossing the greater part of the gargantuan nation of China.