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15) October 15th, Henan, China - from brown to green to grey. Kaifeng

Dramatic scenery has gradually given way to colourful scenes of rural village life, more lively and prosperous than the north west. Fruit stalls by the road, small businesses, restaurants and of course acres and acres of farmland mean that I'm never alone and - with the rain and the mud - me and my bike are never clean. Misty autumn mornings are unfortunately giving way to a smog-filled air, and the same dots on my map which used to indicate a dusty village now indicate a large bustling town, and the towns in-between are too many to mention. The isolation of ther desert seems so very far away.

In the last few days, the mountains have faded out and it looks like a flat run to Shanghai. But the days are getting much shorter. Two weeks to Shanghai ? We'll see...


29/30th september, Thu/Fri - rest days in Lanzhou: I'm beginning to realise the real attraction of Chinese cities: night-time. And I don't just mean the constant calls to your hotel room offering late-night "massage" services, but the night-market, with it's long endless lane of shops and stalls, selling anything from shoes & clothes to peking duck and juicy sheep skulls (at least I thought they were sheep...). Hundreds of hole-in-the-wall restaurants, shops and supermarkets, the soft pink light of the brothels - and a dynamic swarm of people, pedicabs and bicycles. Minimum public saftey standards, the traffic lights for decoration more than anything, and mechanics casually welding things in the middle of the pavement. Exhilarating!

1st october, Sat: A long time leaving the clutter of a big city, through semi-rural villages and towns. It was dark clouds and rain ala day, and my fingers & toes were absolutely freezing. After Lanzhou the road climbed steadily through beautiful misty terraced hillsides and tree-lined roads. If it wasn't for the cold and damp, and the time spent warming up in a roadside restaurant, it would have been a good day.
Distance: 95km. Overnight in Chankou (Ninxia prov, China).

2nd october, Sun: A drizzly start to the day but a wonderful climb over two passes, far away from any industry, past small mudbrick rural villages (some built into the hillside, Bilbo Baggins style) - and all through stunning terraced hillsides rising hundreds of metres up, as far as the eye could see. Beautiful! The work gone into creating this is unimaginable.

The friendliness of the local people was marred by only one town - Huining - where kids glaring from the side of the road just wouldn't give up the chorous of "Oi, you, foreigner" and when I asked directions in a shop, I was completely ignored. But this was the exception, and the smiling faces and odd greeting brightened up the miserable cloudy day.

There are stone distance markers placed at one km intervals along the roadside giving the distance to Shanghai. These finally dropped below 2000 km today! At 2006, I posed for a possible New Years card, through the 1980s I sang abysmal but catchy pop-songs to myself, and at 1966 I paused to reflect on the latter day fortunes of the England football team. Towards the end of the Second World war (the 1945 km marker) I arrived in Jieshipu. A one street muddy laned town, but what a welcome!
Three high-school students led me to the "hotel" - a small coutyard house and a sweet old couple who take in the occasional stray traveller. One of the students had actually offered me a place in his "house", a small brick hut in the middle of a muddy field. But it was the size of my shoe, and things would be a little too cosy. So I stayed with the old couple, sleeping next to the husband, for a mere 5 yuan (25 pence).

After sorting out the sleeping arrangements I was immediately whisked off by the local English teacher to the town school. I was put infront of fifty students studying for their university entrance examinations, and asked to give an English lesson. Great fun, actually, the boys & girls very excited, very giggly, but also very keen and interactive. And they laughed at all my jokes! After the class I spent nearly an hour signing everyone's notebook with a "message of encouragement". Dozens of pupils pressing around, notebooks thrust at me from every direction. I felt like a rock-star! Well, apart from my modest lodgings, and the fact that I was going home to sleep next to an 85 year old bloke.

Distance: 126km. Overnight in Jieshipu (Ningxia prov, China).

3rd october, Mon: I dreamt last night about 6 months in the future, back in a normal job and a normal life. I woke up miserable.

I'm now passing through the Hui Autonomous region of Ningxia, and today was a fantastic cycling day. The sun made lots of apearances, each time shining a spotlight of warmth on me, and beautifully lighting up the wide terraced valleys and lake. Passing villages, small groups of old men would be sat on their haunches, playing "majong" or a round of cards under the shade of the trees. It's a poor area, but the shy people are warm and friendly. Curious stares turn into a wide smile and words of encouragement whenever I nod my head and say hello. The truck drivers wave and give the thumbs-up. The bus drivers, however, continue to try and run me off the road.

I've noticed that the women keep themselves dressed well - perhaps a pastel coloured or a light pink jacket - and whether they're labouring in the fields, mixing concrete or working on the roads they all, curiously, remain clean! I only have to adjust my saddle and I'm suddenly covered, mysteriously, from head to foot in oil. How do they do it ?! Some nice climbs and descents today, ending at Pingliang.

Distance: 126km. Overnight in Pingliang (Ningxia prov, China).

4th october, Tue: Bloody hell, I'm knackered. This morning I went to see Kongtong Shan mountain, a famous Dao mountain, with 38 temples perched high on precipitous misty cliffs amongst the clouds. I'd planned to cycle up it on my fully loaded bike and after smirking "no problem" to the attendants at the bottom of the road and slapping my thighs with the "thumbs-up" signal I set off up the ramp-way. Two corners later I realised I'd made a serious error of judegment, pushed my lungs back into my chest and sheepishly reappeared at the bottom of the road, the attendants with a definite "smartarse, eh?" look about them. So instead, not realising that there was a bus to the top included in the ticket price, I climbed the bloody thing, through forest trails and hundreds & hundreds of slippery steps in my cycling shoes. And this was only the start. All the temples are perched on various peaks of the mountain, requiring more climbing up steep steps. Oh, and it was the middle of the Chinese "golden week" holiday, one of the busiest times of the year, and I was definitely not alone.

Too misty to really see much, and the peacefulness of the mountain retreat slightly compromised by the sounds of continuous car-horns and monkey noise impersonations, I descended (almost as bad as going up..), got on my bike and moved on.

Distance: 97km. Overnight in Jingchuan (Shaanxi prov, China).

5th october, Wed: A foggy, very foggy morning, as I climbed a pass and made my way across a plateau. Difficult to tell if I was in a village or the countryside as you couldn't see anything further than the side of the road. Captivating - reminded me of my childhood and a local field that was also prone to fog, where we would hit each other and run off blindly into the white glare, hiding. Of course, if I were to run about blindly now the trucks would make very short work of me.
Occasionally I'd faintly see a group of people huddled by the side of the road, or an old bloke crouched over, smoking a long wood & metal pipe. Shocked, I once heard a sudden squealing ahead of me. It was a pigglet strapped to the back of a boy's bicycle.

The mist never fully cleared all day. Later on I passed a group of caves carved into a cliff face, with Buddist carvings still visible within and a tall Budda in the main cave. Steps cut into the rock face led to another slightly elevated cave. Exploring further I spotted a brown shape within. A statue, I wondered... then it moved! It was a bearded, wild-eyed man, bent over chewing a strip of blue plastic. He smiled at me.

Towards Bin Xian, seemingly a disco spot for trucks, the "fog" was back - but this time it was a haze of diesel and pollution. I could taste the toxic air and it stung my eyes. The road climbed up for a long long way through green hills - it would have been nice if it wasn't for the trucks and diesel belching two-stroke engined three-wheeled trucks that are popular here. I was now covered in a thin film of dust.
Is this all I've now got to look forward to, right through to Shanghai ??

Distance: 130km. Overnight in Yongshou (Shaanxi prov, China).


6th october, Thu: A very wet & muddy day. The lack of a front mudguard on my bike of course meant that all the water, mud and shit from the road was sprayed onto my face, and the relentless trucks and cars meant that it was all I could do to stay on the road. Several ancient tombs on the way, which I'd planned to see, were dropped from my schedule when I saw the muddy trench that passed for a "secondary road". I pressed onto Xi'an, and further into a true sprawling metropolis.

Ran into Taiichi for the first time since Lanzhou and we continued on together. In the suburbs, the outer lane of the road had long stretches entirely submerged in water. It was thrilling, because you knew that underneath this huge puddle there was at least one ot two major potholes waiting, invisibly, to buckle your wheels. Enter and hope...

But we got there, through the tumult and up to the West Gate - the end of the Silk Road. From Erzurum in Turkey through to Xi'an in China... about 8000km by my route, and this city marks the second major point for me (the first being Jiyuguan) in China. A good feeling. Next stop - Shanghai...

Distance: 97km. Overnight in Xi'an (Shaanxi prov, China).

7/8th october, Fri/Sat - rest days in Xi'an: Xi'an had the first MacDonalds I've seen since Baku in Azerbaijan... unable to resist, I cracked and against my principles entered the evil place to order a milk-shake. They didn't have any - I almost cried.

This is a real city, modern and clean. Lots of large flashy buildings, many overdone in that ornate gaudy style that only the Chinese can really pull off. Expensive designer shops, mega supermarkets, loads of clothes shops, prestigious hotels - and despite the chockablock traffic, strangely quiet... it took me a while to figure out why... no horns! It must be a city regulation and it was oh so nice. I cycled slowly in front of as many buses as possible, pretending not to notice they were behind me. But I think I could hear the driver swear...

And the women are getting much more attractive, a definite divide between city and countryside. Oh yeeeess. Spent a day looking for a good bicycle shop, and replaced my chain, cassettes & chainrings with some nice new ones. The shop (Giant) had a Shimano outlet inside, and the mechanic could speak english. Decent prices and they also cleaned the mud off my bike, re-aligned the wheels, etc, etc for free. Managed to fit in one "sight" - the Grand Mosque. A peaceful place (despite the tourists like me) and interesting - the architecture is Chinese and resembles a temple, not a mosque at all.

9th october, Sun: A sunny day - grand. Took a while to escape the city and find the road to the Terracotta Army. But pretty obvious really - you just have to follow the line of stone-masens by the roadside, with lifesize copies of a Terracotta soldier for sale, their heads missing, presumably ready to be completed with a likeness of the customer upon purchase. Tasteful.

I was in a bad mood by the time I entered the complex - the guards wouldn't let me leave my bike with them and the crap pottery hawkers were all over it, pulling levers and opening bags. Some fat woman was trying to unzip my front bag, while another bloke was asking for a ridiculous amount of money to "look after" it. Eventually, once inside, I was surprized by the number of American tourists (where have they been hiding?!) and the long way to the "pits" housing the statues. I guess the long walk, the spacious grounds and the marble plated buildings are there to encourage you to think you got your money's worth. But after all the hype it was a bit of an anticlimax. Sure, each soldier is meant to have a different face and expression, but to be honest, if you've seen one 2200 year old terracotta warrior with a goatee, you've pretty much seen them all.

After the three "pits" of warriors, the finale was a huge shiny building with an ornate staircase, requiring the largest hole yet to be punched out of my ticket. "Oooh yeah", I thought, my interest rising, "This has got to be good". And it certainly was - it housed a lifesize bronze figarine of ... a duck. Or maybe it was a goose.

Thankfully, when about to leave on my bike, a friendly tour guide and group of taxi-drivers came along to chat with me. And with the general smiles and friendliness of the people I passed once back on the road, my spirits were lifted up again. But I wonder what the average tourist makes of the Chinese, if most of whom they meet are the ones trying to flog them something at the sightseeing spots ?

Found myself on a B-road, winding up and down through green-terraced valleys. It felt like a late summer's day, crickets chirping around me, people leisurely working the fields in the orange light - a wonderful road. Initially, anyway. Before long it turned into a broken, muddy mess and I was swearing again. Found a basic room in a small friendly village (a garage, a shop, a restaurant) just as it got dark. Cutting it closer and closer...

Distance: 68km. Overnight in a one-horse town (Shaanxi prov, China).

10th october, Mon: The morning was cool & misty, with the round orange bowl of the sun climbing over the barely dsicernable sillouette of the mountains. It was a ride of shallow ups & downs, ending 45km later at the foot of Hua Shan - another Dao mountain. This time, there wasn't even a road to the top, just a long steep trecherous path, or an expensive cablecar. I got out my wallet.

On Hau Shan, like Kongtong Shan, the local tourists like to break that annoying silence and peacefulness by shouting and howling from the clifftops. Beautiful weather though, so the steps were not as slippery as Kongtong Shan. And fantastic scenery - sheer while granite cliffs with foilage bursting out here and there, mountains below and as far as the eye can see in the distance...

Back on the road, the "State Highway 310", the local farmers had their crops out to dry in the middle of the road, and were threshing (?) them with pitchfork, spade or shovel to seperate the husk from the rind (??). It amazes me that all this work is still carried out by hand. And it has surprized me that the people doing this work are not peasants wrapped in sack-cloth with a touch of the plague, but regular folks seemingly on a family outing of strawberry picking, the men in shirt & slacks, the women well-dressed, and everyone with a mobile phone.

The final hours of today were similar to yesterday - some short hard climbs and descents through terraced valleys, the setting sun throwing a wonderful orange glow over this pictureque scene.

Distance: 68km. Overnight in Tongguan (Shaanxi prov, China).

11th october, Tue: A misty day, later turning into miserable rain. A lot of ups and downs, and I'd already decided to push myself to make sure I got to Sanmenxia well before dark, leaving me fairly well knackered. Arriving 4pm, it took almost an hour of wandering around this surprizingly big city in the rain to find the type of lodgings I want. Sure there were a few "fandian" and "binguan" with their multiple stories and large sparkling reception areas, but now I know to look for "ju-su" - a small, often only ground-floor lodging house, basic (often shared) rooms, usually no shower, questionable toilet - but dirt cheap (between 50 pence and a pound), down-to-earth friendliness, and no problem with wheeling the bike into my room. What - with the big hotels, guesthouses, hostels, restaurants, camping and even a yurt, I think I've sampled most forms of accomodation types in this country.

Distance: 131km. Overnight in Sanmenxia (Henan prov, China).

12th october, Wed: It was a misty start to the day - and it unusually lasted through to evening. Some stiff climbs, but the scenes of daily rural life kept my eyes occupied. I've noticed that while a few lucky farmers have tractors or motorbikes rigged with a trailer (or a combination thereof), many just pull their carts along, rope around chest, by hand. Not even any horses to do the work for them. And today I saw a team of five well-dressed workers pulling a plough through a muddy field.

After sucessfully overcoming a crisis of temptation when a truck driver offered me a lift to Shanghai, I found myself in Luoyang. And I was impressed. With it's wide boulevards lined with trees it had a touch of a Central Asian city about it. And with wide cycle lanes either side of the road it was quite pleasant cycling.

Someone slammed me hard on the back, passing me on a boneshaker of a bicycle, looking back at me and jabbering excitedly. This was the Dynamic Mr Lu Song Tao, and after maps on the pavement, jabs to my shoulder and a crowd of onlookers and participants, I ended staying the night with his family - he is not the kind of person you can refuse! He took me home via various nightmarkets - one for duck, another for vegetables, etc - down streets and back-alleys I would never find alone. Weaving in and out of cars, motorbikes and hundreds of other bicycles in the dimly-lit streets, past hole-in-the-wall shops, stalls, and the light of the markets, under the eaves of weeping willow trees lining the street, I reflected that this is really the only way to tour a chinese city. Magical.

Arriving at his house, he gestured me to wash my face. I saw why - it was completely black. I looked like a coal-miner after a 12 hour shift. This was no ordinary "mist" I'd been cycling through all day.

Mr Lu was no ordinary bloke - 23 years previous he had quit his factory job and spent 16 months cycling around China, including Tibet and the far north west. Hence the excitement of seeing my laden bicycle - as last, someone who could appreciate his experience! Of course, things were less complicated in those days - his old black & white photographs showed a one-speed Chinese bike with a couple of bags tied to the handlebars and a young Mr Lu wearing a Chinese great-coat against the snow...
He had then gone on to make his fortune, starting with supplying feed for chickens and now the owner of a modern factory producing machine parts.

We had a great meal with his wife, son & daughter and he then roped in a local university student to interpret for us... of course, he couldn't refuse Mr Lu. A tiring, but thoroughly enjoyable evening. These bloody cycle tourists - they're everywhere...

Distance: 129km. Overnight in Luoyang (Henan prov, China).

13th october, Thu: This morning Mr Lu took me to the Longman Grottos, by bike cycling at a frantic pace through rush-hour traffic of every kind (my mum would have a fit if she saw how I overtook motobikes, skimmed between lorries and cut up buses, just to keep up...). Mr Lu was a man on a mission and it was only when we got to the new suburbs that I could pull alongside him. Dozens of skyscraper apartment blocks under construction, wide clean roads devoid of any traffic, and a policeman at every intersection directing imaginary vehicles. Meanwhile, only a couple miles away, the traffic lights are out, the roads are gridlocked in absolute chaos and there's not a traffic cop to be seen! Crazy. Reminded me a little of Ashgabat, capital of Turkmenistan...

Mr Lu showed me around and then took me to the grottos. Not cheap, and he treated me to everything - he got angry at my suggestion that I pay for something! The Grottos were a surprize - they were absolutely amazing. A river running through a valley that had been chiselled out and widened by hand, and hundreds of caves containing thousands of amazing Buddist carvings and statues running a mile along the valley and hundreds of feet above. It had taken 400 years to complete and I was mesmerized. For the tourist like myself, I found it far more satifying than the Mogao grottos near Dunhuang, where only a few dimly lit caves are open to the public. At Longman, almost everything was visible, and the vista of caves dotted over the cliffside was incredible.

Anyway, all was seen in a flash - Mr Lu led me round at a frantic pace. It was my fault really, as I'd told him that I wanted to be back on the road at noon, to make my next town in time. Sure to his word, after wishing me a prosperous future, treating me once again to lunch and thrusting a bag of goodies in my hands, I was on my way shortly after twelve o'clock. We had no language in common, but yet again, we'd managed to communicate somehow. A amazing man - thanks Mr Lu!

The rest of the day was a bit of a haze really - literally. That evening, I had another coalminer face.

Distance: 138km. Overnight in Xingyang (Henan prov, China).

14th october, Fri: Took a long time to get through Zhenzhou, the capital of Henan province, but after it, the road to Kaifeng was straight, flat and even had some nice stretches lined by trees. Kaifeng was big - much more so than expected. Checked into a cheap & cheerful basic hotel in the centre and then... spent an hour looking for a supermarket. Hundreds of restaurants, clothes and accessory shops but no bloody place to buy any food!

In the evening I had my first Spoilt Brat Experience for quite a while. At the restaurant, the owner's 8-year old son had been bothering me throughout my meal - saying "OK! OK!" repeatedly and laughing manically, while his mother and other customers just chuckled and looked at him endearingly. Upon paying, his mother gave him the change to give to me and the little bastard pocketed 2 yuan for himself. I told him to give it to me, while he just slapped my hand. I appealed to his mother and she seemed to say "Oh don't me so mean, it's a tip for the little dear". Meanwhile the mini tyrant was showing his arse at me and making surprizing gestures with his crotch. Antics which only got an approving laugh from his parents. That little git needs a good dose of the belt. As does his parents.
The fault of a problematic One-Child policy, maybe ? Damm right. I'm all for a Zero-Child policy.

Distance: 101km. Overnight in Kaifeng (Henan prov, China).

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