A Chapter of My Unpublished Book : 18 The Terrain We Passed Through

The far west of Xinjiang is up there with the most beautiful places in the world

The distance between Zhuhai in the south of Guangdong and the Hunan border is only a few hundred kilometres. The geography of the two areas is quite different, southern Guangdong has the sea and the north has a range of mountains needing to be crossed.

A daunting task ahead if you’re on a bike — you just hope the road curves around some of them and not over the top of any of them

While they may not be big mountains, they are certainly steep. We found it was hard to ride in the last 200 kilometres of Guangdong because the hills, unlike the long sweeping curved roads of Gansu and Shaanxi, were short and steep. Those other places where we climbed had much bigger mountains and more of them. They were, in general, longer and higher but significantly easier to climb than the hills of northern Guangdong.

Many people think of Guangdong, they think of the “world’s factory” and while it’s true that the industrial output of the Pearl River Delta (PRD) is a large proportion of the entire world many people don’t realise that the Delta is only a small part of the province. It took us only three days of slow riding to leave industrial China behind and enter a region called Qingyuan.

There is a city called Qingyuan and it’s quite large but, despite being very close to Guangzhou it has been left behind in terms of industry, per capita income and development. Travelling from one place to the other it’s obvious that this is starting to change, we left Huadu in the North of Guangdong and set out to travel the 47 kilometres to Qingyuan. We were stymied every step of the way by road works, construction sites and the fact that we weren’t allowed to enter the main road, the G107 Guangqing expressway between the two cities, we had to take a 40 kilometre diversion. The road works will improve this situation and the construction sites were for the new very fast train being installed between the two places. Currently, the per capita income of Qingyuan is about half that of Guangzhou and only two thirds of Shenzhen. Land is cheaper and labour costs are cheaper too. So much so that many foreign invested organisations are now looking to places like Qingyuan as an option to relocating from the PRD to places like Bangladesh, India and Vietnam. The GDP of Qingyuan is growing the fastest in all of Guangdong due to investment by mainly Chinese companies creating factories with jobs for many. Hence the investment in roads and transportation to and from there and all our problems with construction sites, road works and diversions getting in and out of there. (note, This was written in 2014, in 2018, we now find that Qingyuan is a very expensive area to live and has easily taken over some areas such as Zhongshan and Jiangmen, further south).

But, Qingyuan city is not to be mistaken for Qingyuan County, which is huge. The urban city is relatively small, it has a registered population of about 3.7 million, quite small by local standards and the county has a population of about 4 million. In the north, there are many hills, lots of farms and many small villages, the region all the way to the Hunan border increases in elevation as you move away from the sea. The city of Qingyuan itself is only 15 metres above sea level, the town of Lianzhou in the North and very close to the Hunan border is 84 metres above sea level. There are many steep hills and climbs to get from one to the other. Amazingly, you never leave the administrative area of the city but you travel over 180 kilometres from one end to the other to get to the Hunan border. Until we travelled into the sparsely populated region of Western Gansu, I don’t think we passed through a larger city area.

I would say that the Qingyuan region is probably the prettiest area we travelled through in the first half of the journey. It was in Hubei where we were next able to say a place looked good and riding through it was an enjoyable experience.

We travelled through Hunan and wished we hadn’t. There is no other way to travel north from Guangdong unless we were to take long diversions so Hunan was necessary, throughout this story I’ve made comment about the weather in Hunan before, it was cold, wet and miserable. If I was asked to use one word to describe Hunan, it would be “bleak” coal yards made for dirty roads, the weather made for uncomfortable riding and the cold made it a place to hurry through. Our last day in Hunan, however, changed that opinion a little. The sun shone through and we got off the main road in order to find a ferry to take us across the Yangtze River. We knew we wouldn’t be able to take the bridge. As we left the main road we travelled through a couple of villages and some beautiful farming areas, we couldn’t help but wonder, if we had left the road before and taken more time to travel the back roads, the journey through Hunan might have been a much more pleasant experience. I guess the best thing we can say about Hunan, is that it’s not all bad and there were very few hills. And, as mentioned in the chapter about Chairman Mao, Hunan has very beautiful places and is highly recommended as an undiscovered tourist spot. Just stay off the main North / South route and enjoy the scenery.

The popularity of Mao cannot be understated, he is revered as almost a god, certainly in his hometown the level of pride in his leadership can be seen everywhere

We were riding from the Southern province border where we entered and had our first rest day on day 8 of the journey in a city called Chenzhou, then three days later we had another rest day in Xiangtan, having two rest days so close together may seem strange but it was due to the fact that Xiangtan, specifically a smaller town called Shaoshan there, is the birthplace of Chairman Mao and we wanted to visit his home. We then travelled north through Changsha, the provincial capital and into Yiyang and Changde before crossing the Yangtze River and entering Hubei.

Of all the places we saw in Hunan, Nanyue, in Xiangtan and the northern most parts of the province around Changde were the best looking, unfortunately for us we didn’t have the time to explore the Northwest of the Province where places like Zhangjiajie and Wulingyuan can be found, these are some of the most beautiful places in China and have been World Heritage or UNESCO listed.

On entering Hubei and all through Henan we didn’t encounter any serious problems with weather or terrain. The land was undulating and scenic most of the time. There were of course some cities but nothing too big or unmanageable. The one and only day we actually got lost on the entire trip was in Hubei and it was a wonderful experience riding along a smooth concrete strip between the farms and rivers. We couldn’t actually call it a road but it was perfectly flat and smooth, an absolute pleasure to ride and one of the best day’s riding in the entire journey.

Entering Shaanxi, was a little harder, the weather had warmed up and we were mostly dry by now. There was very little industry in the places we were passing through although there were a couple of places where the coal yards started again in the mountains and strangely enough, as we passed through them it rained again — it seems coal yards anywhere attract rain and therefore we end up dirty and wet as we pass them. Apart from a couple of short spells of that kind of weather, the rest of Shaanxi was quite beautiful. We travelled through mountains but not so high, we passed many temples and stopped to take some pictures. One of the most beautiful and friendly places we visited was the town of Shangluo, just about 100 kilometres before Xi’an, the provincial capital. It was a modern town with many wide-open roads and one of the cleanest towns we have seen. Leaving there was a hard slog up nearly 50 kilometres of mountain before entering one of the longest tunnels I’ve ever been into in order to get through the mountain but coming down the other side was an absolute joy.

It took four hours to go up, it took 40 minutes to go down, we descended the longest continuous descent of our entire journey, which was over 35 kilometres through the most beautiful mountain scenery we had seen up to that point. And an interesting comment was that the village we passed through, going very fast so no pictures of it, it was the only place in our entire journey where we saw clean water and no litter. Sadly it didn’t last very long because 50 kilometres later we were entering the outer suburbs of Xi’an and it was back to normal chaos, crazy traffic and lots of rubbish. Funnily enough, Xi’an is a walled city dating back to before what we would call medieval days and we had a hell of a job finding it, it’s hard to imagine how one could lose a medieval walled city but we managed to misplace it for an hour or so on our approach.

Now seems a good place to talk about the tunnels. The tunnels… let me say, if you’ve ever ridden a bike blindfolded into a wind tunnel at speed then you might have experienced something close to the tunnels we experienced from this point and all the way through Gansu and Ningxia. Some are long, some are not so long. Our longest was 4.7 kilometres. Rarely will you find a light that works although some did have one or two dotted along their length. The darkness is total and a front light on the bike hardly penetrates. The problem of riding is compounded by the fact that they have a 45cm high kerb on both sides. Meaning if you just stray into the kerb, your pedal will hit it and send you flying into the middle of the road. The road is wide enough for two 50-ton trucks to pass each other side by side with over a metre to spare. Sadly, that metre was mostly taken up by our bikes and our panniers so, apart from the fearful noise as they bear down upon you, then the blast from an air horn as they let you know you are just about to be passed the only real problem is the blast of hot wind as they pass you which throws you sharply to your right and creates the danger of you hitting the kerb. That and the fact that most of the trucks are passing so close that you could, if you were adventurous enough, attempt to grab one of the tethering ropes and get yourself pulled along. To say they are dangerous would be an understatement, to say they are scary would be grossly understating, they are terrifying! Our approach to tunnels was to stop when we were at the entrance, check everything was fastened tightly, get our lights on the front and back of the bikes working properly and then wait until we could see nothing coming either in front or behind us. Then ride like crazy as fast as we could to get into, through and out the other side, hopefully before anything could come along and scare the bejeezus out of us.

Think about nearly 2km in the dark, travelling as fast as you can is still going to take 5–6 minutes and you’ve got to hope two trucks don’t pass each other when you are in their way
Successfully navigated

Leaving Xi’an was both the hardest part of the journey and the easiest. Let me explain that: hard because my wife joined us there for two days break and saying goodbye before tackling the next 2,500 kilometres and more than 30 days of hard riding wasn’t easy at all, but the riding for the first 46 kilometres out of town was flat and fast, it was cool with no wind and we just rode for the next two and a half hours in relative silence while I got over the trauma of leaving a loved one behind. After a late breakfast though, we started to climb again and came across the only Christian church I think we saw on the entire journey.

Looking like an Orthodox Christian Church, something we didn’t expect to see on the Silk Road

This part of the journey was when the scenery really started to become different, we were climbing high into mountains and looking down at villages, we could see cave houses and mud houses made from the loess plateau. The entire region is over 1,000 metres elevation and is very arid, but that didn’t stop us from getting rained on again.

A couple of days at this elevation and it was time to come down again, coming down was just inside of Gansu, and surprisingly, we passed through a sub tropical rainforest, I was under the impression that Gansu would be all deserts and mountains, this was different to our expectations. There wasn’t much traffic and when we stopped to admire the scenery, the only sound was from birds. If it wasn’t so mountainous, we thought we might have stopped and camped for the night but leaving the road would have taken us off the edge and straight down. Camping wasn’t going to be possible in these mountains.

On reaching the bottom of the hills, there was 70 kilometres of very boring roads through irrigated farms. We had mountains on both sides of the road but they were off in the distance. It was probably one of the few times in the ride where the weather was uncomfortable because it was a little warm, perhaps 28 or maybe up to 30 degrees. There weren’t many places to stop and rest but when we did we certainly attracted attention as everyone wanted to talk with us.

Then it was through to Ningxia, our original intention had been to travel all the way northwest inside of Gansu but the hills changed our mind. Had we travelled through Lanzhou the capital we would have needed to go up to about 3,000 metres and maybe more in some places, the city itself is over 2,500m. So we decided to travel straight north into Ningxia and then turn left and miss the worst of the hills. It didn’t mean we didn’t do a lot of climbing at this point, it just meant that climbing was all under 3,000 metres and so altitude sickness wouldn’t be an issue. As it was, getting up above 2,500m was a very hard thing to do, suddenly we started to check our tyres to see if there was a puncture and check our brakes to see if they were rubbing, it seemed the bike got heavier or the climbing got harder when we were there.

One of the greatest things I will always remember about Ningxia is the mosques. Every town, every city and every village was dominated by a mosque, even very small villages with just a few houses the biggest building was always the mosque. I always knew there was a large Muslim population in Western China, I had no idea it was so dominant. Almost every business and every person we saw was, or appeared to be Muslim. Almost every person we met was very friendly and accommodating, we got lots of help from people in Ningxia. Both the Han and the Hui Muslim people, with the exception of one hotel owner who was not a helpful, nice or accommodating person and is described elsewhere here.

In every town, at least one, sometimes more Mosques, and always looking modern, clean and well cared for

Moving out of Ningxia and back into the western parts of Gansu, we were definitely in the arid zones, it stopped raining almost every day. We were still climbing mountains more than we were coming down them and still struggling from time to time with breathing and lugging heavy loads but our fitness was good. Phil even managed on a day off to go wandering into the desert on his own in Ningxia, it was 40 kilometres each way out of the town of Zhongwei. He really enjoyed himself, probably spending some time away from me was a good thing but more importantly, he loves the desert and it was here that he found it. He found sand dunes, wild horses and solitude, while I found a nice place in town for some noodles and a cold beer!

There isn’t much better about cycling than rounding a bend and finding this in front of you

One of the most interesting phenomena about riding bikes is how much climbing we seem to do. I commented on this in earlier rides and blogs, every time we thought the ride home would be easier because it seemed mostly uphill on the ride there, we found that it seemed just as hard. It’s not brain surgery, it’s simple, we climbed a hill for 30 kilometres and it took maybe three hours to do so, then we went down a hill for about 30 kilometres and it took 25 minutes to do so before starting on the next climb. It’s not hard to see why it seems like riders are always climbing, we spend up to 10 times the amount of time going up as we do going down the same distance.

It was this region that we both enjoyed the most. The rides through the dry regions where, for sure, there were climbs but there were also some descents. It’s just hard to remember many of the descents because the climbs dominated.

Getting into Western Gansu and then Xinjiang many of the roads were long exposed and very windy. It was this part of the ride that we couldn’t have envisaged and couldn’t have prepared for. I remember thinking one day as we were riding along at 45 degree angle to the wind that if the wind comes from the front we won’t be able to ride any more and sure enough there were some times when it did. We were very lucky, one day we sat in a service station in Xinjiang for over three hours waiting for the wind to either change or at least ease, finally it eased and then changed, we got going again but only to find ourselves battling against it a couple of hours later. The worst part about that time was that we were on a 22 kilometre downhill slope that we should have really enjoyed but unfortunately, it was a slog just to go downhill. Halfway down, we found a place to stop and camped for the night. We had a wonderful campsite and thoroughly enjoyed our evening and the night’s sleep, but that was a very hard day.

During this, the latter part of our ride, we experienced the best day’s riding out of Bo Le and into the town of Wenquan, but we also experienced some of the worst. My daily notes towards the end of the ride as we got through Gansu and into Xinjiang have a common theme to them, they all report the conditions and the terrain as being hard, or even, on one particularly bad day, brutal. This may have been something to do with how we were feeling, getting to the end of a long ride and maybe our mental reserves were low, our energy levels were low but I know it was also due in a big part to the weather and the terrain causing us so much pain and no small inconvenience. I can’t help thinking if we had come the other way, starting at the border with Kazakhstan, it would have been a much easier ride. Obviously, I was delirious!

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Jerry Grey

I’m British born Australian living in Guangdong and have an MA in Cross Cultural Change Management. I write mostly positively about my China experiences