I spent a quiet Christmas in Xi’an. I ate an expensive dinner (accidentally), packed my bike, and at about 2 a.m. on the 26th I called my Mom to wish here a Happy Christmas morning. I wanted to call a lot of other people, but I was exhausted and needed to get in some cycling in the morning. I felt a bit tainted from the trains and had spent too long off the bike for no good reason, as far as I was concerned, but visas must be in order I suppose.
I set off, excited to cycle for the first time in a very, very long time. I enjoy cycling, the exercise and open air are nourishing and the change of scenery at a proper pace is excellent, but it loses its magic charm sometimes when you’re at it for almost a year. Now, however, I had a new appreciation, I loved my freedom!
The day was sunny and not too cold. I had to focus on hitting all the turns in order to escape the city, whipping my tablet out frequently to check the map, but it went smoothly. I stopped at an office on the edge of town and picked up a new hose for my water filter from a very friendly and helpful woman, and I am glad to have a complete filtration system again! Boy was I frustrated when I lost that hose…
I cleared town and really soaked in the day. I stopped at a little village after about 80k and found a reasonably priced hotel. Tomorrow, the mountains waited. I was excited to get through these: in my mind they were the last set of cold mountains I had to get through, period. There are many more climbs ahead of me, but the temperature should be much higher. I am also ready to see a new part of China, a green part!
Snow was in the forecast, but it could be nothing compared to the cold we went through to get to Xi’an. It was snowing the next morning as I left and I had to put my sunglasses on to keep it out of my eyes, but I was in a good mood. I tried to take a bridge that wasn’t rebuilt yet, but other than that it was a swell start. I reached the foot of the climb and had some lunch, loading up on calories for the push.
As I headed out I was confronted with a barrier in the road, but the traffic ignored it, so I did too. I climbed a set of steep switchbacks and was glad I had a smaller set of rings on the bike now. I passed a pagoda and another gate that was part of an unmanned checkpoint. These barriers did not escape my interest, but they could mean anything in China, it is not uncommon to see these thrown out just to slow traffic. I kept climbing without incident for almost two hours, but suddenly I rounded a corner and a man in high visibility gear flagged me down. He was an employee for the highway commission, and he informed me that the road was closed ahead. I kept seeing cars go up the road though, and wondered what was up. We talked via translator for a good half hour: I was attempting to get information and was a bit confused by what he was telling me. I asked if there was a landslide, which was the worst case scenario, but it didn’t translate well. He said something about a mountain path and acknowledged that I could get through, but I would have to walk my bike. He said he would take me for 300 yen, which is about 40 dollars, and tested the weight of my bike (it has gotten heavier). This annoyed me. That is an incredible amount of money in China for helping a guy walk around some construction. That’s like charging 200-250 dollars to someone in the States.
I was not sure if he was going to let me ride up the road to have a look, but I told him I would like to and that I couldn’t give him any money. He shrugged, totally unconcerned, and bid me ride ahead. I rode on, remarking to myself that all the Chinese think about is how to bleed a guy, always hustling.
I rounded a corner and saw some cars lined up. I rolled by them and made to pass through an open gate, but I was shouted down. I thought they were going to tell me the same thing I was told a moment ago, but they just pointed at a sign, which had an aerial photograph of a massive landslide on it. The whole face of the hill had fallen a few hundred meters down to the river, road and all. It was nothing but a steep, muddy, cliff, totally impassable: the worst case scenario. They pointed at my bike, then pointed up the hillside. I looked, and found a steep set of stairs dwindling up the hillside into the forest. These guys had built a stairway around the backside of the hill, over the saddle, and down the other side. It was steep as a ladder, and at least two kilometers long. They indicated that a certain man would carry my bike over top for 100 yen. I looked at this stairway to heaven, the steps covered in water and snow, and looked at my bike. I knew the price would go up when they weighed it. Even with two of us carrying it, the climb would be laborious, painful, dangerous, and a few hours long. I found I had absolutely no desire to even help someone carry my stuff up this hill, and changed my opinion of the first fellow I spoke to: 300 yen wasn’t enough. This route, for me, was as impassable as the road. I would charge two hundred dollars to carry my bike up that hill, and even then I would be hesitant to do it at all because of the back injury involved. I shook my head, convinced that this was an ill-advised endeavor. I sighed, looked at the stairs, and pedalled back down the hill. I know when I’m licked.
The descent was cold. I was annoyed that no one had stopped me earlier, or that the signs weren’t clearer, though they probably said something like “ROAD CLOSED: LANDSLIDE” to the trained eye. Of course the Chinese would still have dozens of cars passing up this dead-end road to hike over a mountain to the other side.
What took me a couple hours to climb didn’t take long to descend through, and soon I was stopped where I had eaten and figuring out a new route. It was cold, the weather was bad, and it was already late afternoon, so I popped up to the road that would take me further West to the next pass.
My spirit was lifted on the way by a man floating in the air. Well, he wasn’t floating, it was more as if he were trapped on the high end of a teeter-totter, which was pretty much true: the man was sitting at the wheel of a three-wheeled scooter that had a little truck bed on the back. This bed was filled with tree limbs, piled high. Apparently, as the man drove up the slight incline he was parked on, the weight in the back had cantilevered and now he was stuck a few feet up in the air. He was yelling for help and no one else was around, so I set my bike down and gave him a hand. I pulled him down, which was good, but he had to start the engine again, which necessitated taking his foot off the brake. Every time he went to kick start the thing, he began rolling backwards. I grabbed the front again, and in a squat position held the scooter down and also in place on the hill, a human brake. I decided it was best to keep with him til he was clear of the ramp, and then he was good to go, off with a wave.
The situation was funny because it totally bridged the cultural and language barriers; we had a project between us, and all of our focus was logistical. By the time the task was complete, he was already off. There was something implied by the exchange, an ode to the simple aspects of existence, one creature helping another creature. If a problem is urgent, all else is put aside. It’s like a fire breaking out or a boat taking in water- doesn’t matter who does it, something needs done, and all differences are put aside: when there’s no time to think, there are no differences. Well isn’t that interesting.
I found a hotel not far from the one I stayed at the previous night, but wasn’t worried; one cannot account for natural disasters and I made the best of it.
When I came down for breakfast the next morning, the roads were trashed. It must have snowed all night, and now a mess of brown slush and ice covered everything. My first thought was, “This is no day to be riding a bike,” but I knew from experience that the roads would probably clear by afternoon, and if I took a rest day I would be kicking myself come one o’clock, so I headed out, carefully navigating the muck. It was incredibly sketchy. I was slipping and sliding all over the place, having to put my feet down to walk stretches and the cars were all driving like jerks as usual, especially the lorries. I didn’t make it 2 kilometers before I regretted leaving the hotel. I stopped and looked at the map, marking the nearest hotels to me, pretty certain I was going to call it an early day. None of them were particularly convenient though, and I slowly coaxed myself along, telling myself to get to the one in 20 kilometers, then thinking I could get 50k in today and still be in early. Well, the roads got better and before I knew it I was making a good run of it. I wasn’t going to make it all the way to Baoji, but I would get close. That was where the next road through the mountains split off, or so I thought. I stopped for lunch and noticed a road on the map that could save me 40 kilometers and even get me into the hills a bit today, and went for it. Another 15k and I was in a hotel, having put in an admirable 75k given the road conditions, and now poised to hit it hard the next day.
It seemed to work out too, as it wasn’t going to snow for the next week and now I could cross without dealing with the weather. Up I went, once more into the hills. The roads were awful. More slush, lots of rutted ice and no shoulder had me walking on pins and needles trying to keep the bike up. The day before had been the same all morning, and the temperature was such that there was water on the road that, when it hit my bike, froze in the wind and locked my shifter cables in place. So, pretty much every time I wanted to shift I had to chip ice off the bike with my Swiss Army knife, taking care not to scratch the frame or damage anything. Observe:
I passed about fifty lorries parked and lined up in the right lane, and began to grow worried that this road was also closed. I stopped and asked a gas station attendant, who assured me the road was open. Thank goodness! I was on my way. It was slow going, but the sun came out and I was only 25 kilometers from the junction with the S210, the road that runs from Baoji to Hanzhou, when the police pulled me over. They informed me that I was not allowed on this road, and I, a bit surprised, explained to them that it was the only road I could take. They asked me to accompany them to the station, which I did, confident that we could clear this up.
At the station they informed me that foreigners were not permitted in this area. I had seen a lot of signs for touristic stuff on the way in, so I asked them about this, and also asked whether natives were permitted to travel the road, which they could. So, cleaning up on my infallible logic, I assured them there was no reason I couldn’t go, as there was nothing for me to see that a normal citizen couldn’t see. As I was typing this, he held out his phone, which simply said: “Military Zone.”
Well son of a gun- worst case scenario.
I knew there was no chance of an American slinking past a Chinese military zone, but I was having a difficult time accepting that I would have to turn around again, after putting in a lot more effort to get here. I asked the police if they could escort me. Nope. I asked if they could blindfold me and transport me in the trunk. Nope. These police weren’t feeling creative today. I then asked if they could arrange a ride back to Baoji for me and explained to them how much time and effort it took to get here, but they would not even do this- in fact, they were beginning to get angry. I recognized that I wasn’t going to get anywhere, but still wasn’t willing to see the reality. They actually apologized as I suited up, and gave me some apples- a terrible consolation prize- before escorting me back to the road. Oh, I looked back to see whether they were watching me leave, and saw that they were not, which is normally a mistake, but I knew I was at risk of some heavy interrogation if I tried to sneak back that way.
A head wind was blowing up the valley that sucked all the warmth out of me as I mechanically pedalled and probed the situation for any loopholes, finding none. This side of the road was less travelled and thus full of ice and slush. Freezing and imbalanced, I set out on the most dangerous stretch of road to date. An endless line of lorries, nose to tail, was charging up the road, at least two hundred of them, no exaggeration. I have no idea where they were going ( aside from passing freely through a military zone) but they were constantly overtaking each other and this left me very little room to ride. I was driven off the road a number of times and, like a tightrope walker between two buildings, I knew that if I slipped I was probably going to die. I made it though.
I was trying not to be frustrated by this. Initially I thought I handled it pretty well, but it was not long before I was infected with hateful thoughts about governments, armies and police, particularly the Chinese government, military and police. I don’t care what evil machines of murder they’re hoarding up there, and I doubt they trust their own citizens enough to have anything telling on display. I’ve never liked cops (sorry cops, nothing personal), especially when they enforce senseless laws. I also think China is the most openly racist country I have ever been to. Special hotels, special checkpoints, special roads… the State is paranoid, defensive and violent. Just ask the Uyghurs, who are being repressed and “re-educated,” or the practitioners of Falun gong, hundreds of thousands of whom have been murdered (and their organs harvested, they were very healthy people, a great life practice) or the thousands of intellectuals Mao Tse Tung had murdered when he took power, the protesters at Tiananmen Square. Life is hard enough for you if you are not Han Chinese (ask the Tibetans), but their real race is the Communist Party, and if you are not them, if you do not worship their leadership, you are not free. Nationalism is simply racism. There is nothing wrong with celebrating each other’s unique heritages, and we all have a special love for our own tribes, but this is getting old. Makes me want to burn my passport, but doing so would hamper my freedom quite a bit. I still believe all this as I write, but I was keyed up by the time I got to the bottom and I remembered that this was the same feeling I had before I got in a fight at school as a kid: I was having a bad day and it only took one last straw to break me wide open… At the bottom of the hill I was ready for a confrontation, however irrational the thought process. Thankfully no one had any straws that day.
Why was I hung up about turning back anyways? I’m a cycle tourist, I can roam as I please, who cares where I’m going, it’s about the journey, yeah?
Well, I’m not quite that enlightened yet.
I made it back to the road that would take me further West, back the way I came. After three days, over 200 kilometers of cycling, and a thousand meters of climbing, I was 64 kilometers from where I started. This point happened to be a stone’s throw from where Cody and I had stayed 2 weeks ago. And it was cold. All I want is to escape winter, and these mountains are my last obstacle. I am being denied.
I had to backtrack into a town I had passed the day before to find a hotel. My bank account was a gaping wound, gushing money as I paid for night after night without much to show for it. I dragged my icy bike around back, ate some dinner and had me a hot shower. Hours after I made it inside my feet and hands throbbed. I was having nerve pain in the hands from the handlebars as well as the cold and my feet hurt bad under the hot water of the shower- I am doing some long term damage to my circulation for sure. My feet felt strange for a long time even after the shower and under the covers.
The wind was sort of taken out of my sails. I woke up for breakfast, which was served too early, and dragged myself down there. After breakfast I returned to my room and crawled back into bed. I was surprised by how exhausted I was, I felt dead. It was clear that I had no desire to move from that bed all day, but check out was not until two, so I allowed myself to rest.
A few voices nagged at me, for I was seriously considering staying another night. My wallet complained, a hypermasculine part of my ego grumbled, my desire to get South weakly groaned. My body wasn’t having it. I sent a message to Washington and asked my cousin for permission to be weak that day. She granted it and told me I deserved a rest. Thanks Elizabeth. I followed her orders and did nothing all day: After a brief outing to extend my stay and grab some snacks I returned to that bed and didn’t leave for hours. It was one of the best rest days I have ever had. I just let my body feel heavy, and cozed like a cat in the warm sheets, absolutely content to watch the day pass by without me in it. I got a lot of writing done too, mostly inspired by my desire to write about this, as I had two posts to get out of the way before I could share my latest trials!
Come evening I was ready to cycle again. After a deep sleep, I was still extremely tired in the morning, but I got up, inspired by the free breakfast, and once roused I felt better. By ten o’clock I was on the road. I had already ridden the first 13k of the day 2 days prior, but after that it was all new- aside from the fact that I had been just on the other side of the river a few weeks before. Point is, I enjoyed myself. So I’m backtracking a little, what of it? My worries are miniscule, and every moment is new. I contentedly rode along, singing, and found myself reliving a particular contentment I had felt somewhere in Europe, probably the last time I had been alone and possessed of sustained cheer… somewhere along the beautiful Adriatic, probably (I hit a bit of a despondent patch after that…).
I found the turn-off into the mountains and I got excited; I was finally on my way, heading the right direction again! I rode a few kilometers up and stopped to eat some cookies. Two women in hiking gear were coming down the road- trekking poles, gaiters, backpack covers, the whole nine- and we exchanged amiable smiles. I was leaning there on the railing, content, when a car slowed to a stop and a nice looking man and his kids popped their heads out. I was thinking he wanted to know where I was from, or allow his son to practice English, or was wondering if I was alright. He was curious about where I was going, and when I pointed South, he indicated in the negative. I asked him if the road was open, and he said yes, but he struggled to get his point across. Finally he found his translator and held it out.
It said: “Military zone.”
By now prepared for disappointment and still safe within the delusion of disbelief, I thanked him and he drove away. I was annoyed, because I had asked the police if I could take this road, and they assured me I could, but just like all Chinese cops, they don’t know anything outside of their jurisdiction. I trusted this fellow, and I was glad he had taken the time to stop and inform me of the situation before I got too far up the road, but now I was a little bit at a loss, and stared at the map in disbelief: there was no other good way to get South. What was I going to do?
I saw that, had I been prescient, I would have taken a small road, the G210, directly South of Xi’an. Chengdu is quite a bit West of Xi’an however, and it made sense to angle towards it. My initial choice seemed the most benevolent path through a large and rugged set of mountains as well. The first road West of Xi’an is the G5, which is off limits to bikes, as it is an expressway. This didn’t bother me, but the 15 kilometers of near continuous tunnels did. The next road is missing a piece that was washed out by a landslide. The next two after that are off-limits to foreigners. Maybe I should have hired a couple porters and hiked over the mountain after all, it would have been cost and time effective at this point. Hindsight. (Even now, the process of doing so is unpalatable.) So, all I can do now is try the next one over.
As I write this, I am sitting about 175k West of Xi’an and have been turned out of the mountains three times. I left seven days ago, and had I been able to cross the first road I tried, I would be a day outside of Chengdu, which is currently 650 kilometers away. I am only 50 kilometers closer to Chengdu than I was a week ago. Now, the road I have to take is definitely “the long way around.” So much for celebrating my birthday in Hanoi. There are not any hotels marked on my map for this road either, so I am a bit worried, but I am going to hit it full force tomorrow and hope for the best. Things have pretty much been catastrophic since I split with Cody, I’ve noticed, but my spirits are relatively high. What use worrying over the unforeseeable and the unavoidable? I will admit that I even considered taking a train today. Three times I have failed now; how many days, how many aborted attempts will it take? It will irk me in the future if I take a train now, this is part of the accomplishment of cycling the whole way, dealing with bad luck. For now, try to send me a little good luck: fourth time’s the charm…