After reading my previous post everyone probably barely refrained themselves from messaging me: “Why? How? What happened? Dear God!!” Hold your horses, I’ll elaborate. On a quick note – if someone hasn’t done their homework and read the previous post, do it! Anyway, it came to a close with “we ended up sleeping on the street in the center of the city”.
It all began when we decided that we have enough of sitting in the train in China. But as Laos was still too far to get to with bicycles in the Chinese visa timeframe we had. That leads to the only logical choice here – we need to hitchhike! So we started to train holding our arms up for prolonged periods of time but on one of our training sessions, my arm hit a hard metallic object. Oh, that’s the bicycle! What are we going to do with them? A simple solution – we’ll send them via the China Railway Express freight shipping like the previous time, with the difference that we will not go by train ourselves. (If someone makes the decision to ship theirs stuff like this in China based on our successful experience, be warned – we have also heard of things getting lost on the way. Luckily for us, both of the times on the other end we received all that we had sent off.)
So, in the afternoon June 26th we found ourselves in the heart of Chengdu, and we were pedestrians not cyclists anymore. Sometimes we don’t really take everything in equation when planning our next move. And sometimes we are just plain ignorant about our odds to achieve something. This was one of those times. Have you tried hitchhiking out of a big city? Not the best thing to do. Especially not if you are in a huge Chinese city like Chengdu. Looking at this in retrospect I really don’t understand, what were we thinking. Our naïve intent was to get near a ramp that goes on to the motorway and to stop some car around there. But the ramps turned out not as expected and we ended up trying our luck in a bus stop. A very busy bus/taxi stop in the middle of the city. Not much luck there, as expected. Then we tried climbing the staircase up to the place on motorway where the toll booths are. Our efforts to win over the hearts of motorway employees were fruitless.
The evening was upon us, we were tired from all the walking around and doom and gloom, it was time to retreat to the nearest long-distance bus station. You know, if hitchhiking fails, there’s always the option to spend some money and catch a bus. Or not – we were told that there will be no more busses to Panzhihua that day. Reluctantly, we started making our way back to the railway station – it looked like we will not be able to avoid another train ride after all. Or not – in the station we were confronted by the fact that there are still some trains but no tickets left. Take counsel with your pillow, they say; well the saying does not provide any comfort when you know that there will be no pillow tonight.
Eventually we found another bus station and decided we are gonna take the first bus in the morning from there. But we still have to spend the night somewhere, somehow. Luckily, in China, sleeping on street sides, in city squares and basically everywhere is quite widespread, so we didn’t feel as weird hobos when we took a little nap right on the pavement on front of the train station. There were tons of people doing just the same. Surprisingly, it wasn’t very comfortable way how to spend the night. We walked around, got a beer, walked around with that, then we finally found a place where to sleep for a couple of hours – a little patch of grass in front of the bus station. But the cream of the night was taking delight in a couple of baozi, when we felt hungry in the middle of the night and stumbled in a random food-place. Those were the best baozi we had in our entire journey, at least I remember them that way. And we had them quite a few times during our further cycling in China, as well as in Thailand and Malaysia.
Couchsurfing in a Buddhist temple
What followed our sleep deprived night was a 650km long bus ride. We slept most of it, and the only impression I remember from it was the horrific toilets at the stop in the middle of the ride.
We successfully retrieved all our belongings and bikes after reaching Panzhihua and proceeded to a meet-up with our next Couchsurfing host Yong Wang. We met him at a restaurant where he treated us with a number of plates with various local foods. Whilst eating he was enthusiastically telling us something about a beautiful temple. Well, he tried to tell us at least. We talked mostly through Baidu Translate (Chinese alternative to the forbidden Google fruit). We tried to tell that we are tired and that it would be nicer to go to see the temple next day. We didn’t really have it in us to hop on our cycles and follow his car to the temple that is located who-knows how far. We just wanted to get to his home, couch, floor, garage or whatever.
Eventually, we came to an agreement that he will take us to the temple with his car and that we will leave our cycles in the restaurant meanwhile. Still, we were not really sure what is happening exactly. Well, we got to the temple. And all became clear when Yong showed us our quarters – turned out that our couchsurfing house for the night was the Buddhist temple itself! And it was great. Temple was located in the mountains high up above the city. The air felt so fresh that we started to think if we crashed on the way and have died and delivered to Paradise instead. The only place in China on our way with drinkable tap water! And I slept so well in the simple bed that I didn’t even hear the daily sounding of the gong at 4AM. Well, that might as well account to the fact that the previous night was spent on the streets of Chengdu.
Fun fact of the day: Cycas panzhihuaensis is a rare and endangered species of cycad known in the wild only from Sichuan and Yunnan provinces in China.
“How many weeks ago did we last take a shower?” or The Hottest Ride to Laos in My Life
When planning a bicycle tour around Southern China or anywhere in Southeast Asia for that matter, one should definitely take into account in which months of the year the climate is the most tolerable, and plan to go at that time accordingly. It’s hot all year round, and at the equator, “winter” is just a word, just like “Christmas” in New Zealand, in my book. But, hell, planning has never been our strong point, so we just thought to check which are the hottest and most humid months around here a few days before starting to cycle. June, July and August they are. OK, cool, hey, what’s the date today by the way? Crap, it’s 29th June.
We entered China on 14th, visa lasts for 30 days, so 13th July would be the last day when to leave the country. From Panzhihua to Laos border crossing Mohan/Boten we planned to cycle about 1450km, a routhe that would include the Tiger Leaping Gorge or the so called Grand Canyon of China. We had 15 days left to do it, meaning that we have to ride about 100km a day and that would be it – easy! Or not that easy. We still hadn’t learned to take a realistic look at our intended plans. The equation 15*100 ≥ 1450 looks good on paper but was hard to keep up with in reality.
The road from Panzhihua took us upstream along the Yangtze River valley, and we learned soon enough that 100km a day in this climate, in mountainous areas could not be an easy trick to pull. Temperature is always +25 to +30 degrees, the hills keep getting in our way and making the road go up and down, up and down, but mostly up. And we have to spend a considerable amount of time every day just to filter all the water we need to drink. We needed quite a lot in this weather and the only places to find drinkable water is either in Buddhist temples up in the mountains or plastic bottles on the shelfs in shops. Buying water every day was definitely out of our budget so we were left with filtering – at least we finally put our Lifesaver Bottle to good use.
In circumstances when all you can think is how much more sweat will you excrete cycling up yet another cascade of hills or about reaching the next shade to put another layer of sunscreen on, it becomes hard to keep the detour to Tiger Jumping Gorge in our minds, let it be the most stunning canyon in the world.
The first couple of days showed that we simply cannot afford detours in our 15-day plan – we squeezed mere 65km in the first day, 60km in second – nowhere near 100km. Total ascent both of the days was about 1000m. Highest mountain pass we cycled over in China was about 2226m asl., nowhere near as impressive as Dizin Pass in Iran that was a whole kilometer higher. But the difference was made by the way mountains were laid out here – this was not a single line of mountains to cross, here the mountains covered everywhere, and we just kept riding uphill-downhill, uphill-downhill.
Hey, everyone reading my posts is surely very curious and likes to look up places I mention on the map, so I can hear somebody from the auditorium raising his voice – “You said you were cycling along Yangtze River but the maps say it is ‘Jinsha River’. Who you tryin to fool here by claiming that you were cycling along the biggest river in Eurasia? Liar, liar, pants on fire!”
As we all know from our primary school geography class, Yangtze is the longest river in (Eur)Asia and the third-longest in the world. The river is also the longest in the world to flow entirely within one country, take that! But another peculiar thing about Yangtze is its many names. It is known as the Yangtze River in the English speaking world, but in China as the Cháng Jiāng or the Yángzǐ Jiāng. Because the source of the Yangtze was not ascertained until modern times, the Chinese have given different names to lower and upstream sections of the river. “Yangtze” was actually the name of Chang Jiang (“Long River”) for the lower part. The upper part, along which we were cycling for a bit is called Jinsha Jiang (“Gold Sands River”). Chinese called the river differently in different provinces, explorers called the river in yet other names. It’s also called “The Blue River” although the part we were going along looked quite yellow to our eyes. But, right, the name “Yellow River” is already taken.
Sometimes I don’t understand myself, am I writing posts about my and my beautiful friends travels and adventures or educational satiric paper about various countries and geographical objects. I guess it is both. To enlighten people using the omniscient Wikipedia as my trusty torch is one of the missions of my life.
We reached Laos in the end, it took us 14 days instead of 15 and our total distance was about 1120km, meaning we managed to somehow achieve the average of 80kms a day. Good effort, taking into account that one of the days I was quite unwell of heat sickness and we did only 39km.
Fortunately, none of us is a germ freak because taking a proper shower was not on our schedule up until Vientiane – the capital of Laos. Two weeks in China and after that one more in Laos – time that we spent camping out and few times rinsing ourselves in some rivers. Rivers tend to be quite polluted though. We found a waterfall once where the water seemed almost as clean to be drinkable. But after a little tasting session we decided that it would still be a good idea to filter it. But showering in the waterfall was excellent! However, that was only the second day of cycling and further on there were no waterfall showers anymore.
In these conditions it becomes apparent that there is no use to change your clothes, that’s why I just cycled these three weeks in the same T-shirt. If the opportunity came, I just soaked it in some water, wrung it out and left to dry out during the night. Well, except that in this humidity nothing really dries and the next morning you are putting on a wet rag. Eventually the shirt dries out because of your radiation body heat and then it gets soaked again, from your body sweat.
Some more observations, realizations, and crappy advice from the road follows in the next article.