Beyond the jet black hillside looming overhead an orange glow filled the sky as if the land beyond had been devoured by some huge fire. The map on my phone showed a snaking road slithering up and over the darkness. It was closing in on midnight, hill climbs weren’t a sensible option at this hour! We cycled up the motorway slip road and merged with the petrol driven peloton. Dicing with death in a tunnel won out as a better option than a several hour midnight climb into oblivion and down the other side. We burst out from the other end, followed by barking horns, and were blinded by the brilliant lights of Chongqing, a fast paced, hustling bustling economic powerhouse, home to almost thirty million people and the spiciest food in China! Our 200km epic had finally come to an end, both very tired, Nick shivering and shaking through complete exhaustion, a rest day was severely needed!
In Chongqing we slept our way back to full health (as full as is possible these days) and then set about the city to discover the sights and sounds of the expansive metropolis. Food attracted most of our attention, hotpot in particular, and we spent a well deserved restful evening fishing meat and vegetables out of the volcanically hot and pungent fire-red broth. We strolled through the oddly juxtaposed old and new Chongqing, glimmering skyscrapers and sparkling shop fronts looked out over ramshackled dwellings and dilapidated alleyways. The central protruding peninsula overlooked the Yangtze on one side and the Jialing on the other. Over more food we planned the next stage of the journey. Chongqing had been a fixed target. What was to come next was only a rough sketch.
Guizhou was to be our next province, China’s poorest but most demographically diverse province. Almost two-fifths of the population belong to ethnic minority groups, a fifth of China’s 55 minority groups are represented and over half of the province is designated as autonomous regions for ethnic minorities. ‘Only 3% of Guizhou is flat’, we were later told. As we created elevation maps for our route we soon found that it wasn’t going to be easy riding, a roller coaster of hills and valleys awaited us south of the urban sprawl. There is a local Guizhou saying that there are ‘never three days of sun in a row, never three acres of flat land and never three people with any money.’ Our romantic vision of a cultural tour through the heartland of China’s minorities looked like it might turn into a boot camp nightmare.
As we powered our way southwards away from the ‘Capital of Spice’ we soon met with the first of our roller coaster ride climbs. The hills rose up in all directions, roads and paths wound their ways into the greenery, disappearing and reappearing with every bend. We huffed and puffed on the up slopes and tried to re-energise on the down; onlookers smiled radiantly, giving vigorous thumbs up and cheering us on. Progress was slow, and despite beautiful scenery frustration set in. We had set ourselves a deadline for arriving in Guiyang, the provincial capital – Nick’s birthday. Snail pace climbs were certainly going to make the next few days very long indeed. As we meandered our way up another hillside we looked over at the valley below. High above the valley bottom, carried on gigantic stilts, stood the motorway. A flat roadway that ignored the ups and downs on which we struggled, a sky road: a faster route!
We decided that the only feasible way of reaching our goal in time was to take the shortest and most direct route, leaving our alpine route behind. As is the case in most countries, bicycles are not allowed on the motorway in China. This minor technicality was not going to stop us. We had spent most of the Northern Silk Route on the motorway as it had been the only available road for much of the time, and no authority was ever too worried there. At the next available junction therefore, we made for the toll booth, aiming to sneak by unnoticed. The lady on the booth saw us and shouted after us but in vain, we weren’t going to be climbing mountains all day! We whizzed past and up onto the highway in the sky. The going wasn’t as fast as we’d hoped due to a consistent incline, but at least it was more direct and less steep. The woman who had seen us, however, had clearly raised the alarm. As we tunnelled through the first mountain the loudspeaker crackled into life. Big Brother’s booming voice echoed menacingly, ‘Bicycles are not allowed on the highway, please get off.’ The command reverberated almost incoherently, but we knew who it was aimed at. Leaving the tunnel we smiled for the cameras looking down at us, part of the inescapable net of surveillance that watches over every road in the country. If you want to escape in China, certainly don’t do it on tarmac. A Highway Patrol car soon enough pulled up alongside and beckoned us to stop. We feigned ignorance and suddenly became hapless travellers with no Chinese language skills. Translators, or more likely friends who knew one or two words more than ‘hello’, were called up after some hilarious sign language conversation. We apologised for the confusion and agreed to get off at the next exit. Highway Patrol thus fired up the sirens and flashing lights, following a few metres behind, and escorted us to the exit. Game over for today.
As Nick mentioned in the previous blog, regulations and how they’re enforced in China seem to vary from province to province. Another thing we’ve noticed is that provinces don’t seem to know what their neighbours are up to and information seems not to be shared between them. A friend once told me that if you commit a traffic-offence in Shanghai but your car is registered in another province, then as soon as you leave the city, the Shanghai authorities can no longer catch you. We decided to put this theory to the test. We had just crossed out of Chongqing and into Guizhou and so once more opted for the motorway. Perched on a hilltop we looked down upon the mighty engineering feat that cut its way through nature in the most direct fashion. If it wasn’t high up on stilts, the motorway cut straight into the hillside. We surveyed the toll booth and slip roads below and on our mobiles we pored over blueprints showing the one-way arrows, planning our attack, and most importantly making sure that in the excitement and at speed we didn’t take a wrong turn and end up going back to Chongqing! High on adrenalin and feeling like we were planning our own Ocean’s Eleven raid we began our approach. Passing the booths we heard no shouts this time, had we gotten away without being seen? We maintained full speed ahead until we were safely through the first tunnel – we reasoned that we couldn’t be sent back once through a tunnel as there is no hard shoulder inside, something that gets the heart pumping as a fifty tonne truck comes flying up behind (nor are all tunnels lit!). However we knew that sooner or later Big Brother’s evil eye would spot us and the game would be up. In the meantime we ploughed on, every exit we passed a little victory, a few more yards gained before being thrown off. Night had already fallen by the time the red and blues filled our rear view mirrors. The ‘Super Expressway’ was too dangerous for us, we were told. No explanation that having our own hard shoulder lane was safer than cycling on the mountain roads, fighting for road space with buses and trucks, was going to tell them otherwise. After multiple sign language explanations that we couldn’t put our bikes on their pickup because we had to cycle every kilometre from London to Hong Kong, they agreed to escort us to the next exit. The next exit however was twenty kilometres away and uphill all the way. After the first hour they started talking to us on the loudspeaker as we cycled ahead, saying we must be tired and to just get in the car. We forged on. They found the whole situation rather amusing, a welcome break from their usual work. Each time we came to a tunnel they would turn the sirens on, deafening both of us as the ear-piercingly shrill tones ricocheted round and round. Halfway through the second hour of what we dubbed ‘China’s Slowest Police Chase’ another authoritative car pulled up. Public Security outrank Highway Patrol and they were having none of us cycling on. After more signed explanations, they were eventually persuaded too and so joined the escort. We now had flashing lights in front and behind, and a total of eight law enforcers taking us to the next exit. Upon finally arriving we thanked them profusely for ensuring our safety and helping us find our way. And so they felt they’d done their good deed for the day, helping the lost foreigners, rather than punishing the wrongdoers.
Drizzle had accompanied us since Chongqing and was certainly doing its best to dampen our spirits. However, for us, every junction on the motorway meant fewer hours night riding and every tunnel meant one less climb. As we sped through ‘The Metropolis of the Future’ (an empty wasteland with pictures of a future city) the sun erupted out through the mist and guided us into Guiyang, ready for Nick’s birthday celebrations. Dumping our bags and bikes with a girl we’d met on the Tibetan Plateau we were straight online and calling round five star hotels in the city. We aimed to have a repeat of our New Year’s buffet in Kashgar, except this time we had cycled all day and hadn’t eaten anything. The Kempinski was the only hotel in our price range that offered free-flow drinks with the buffet. No time for showers! We grabbed a taxi and arrived in style – cycling shorts exchanged for trousers, a spray of deodorant was as much time as we could waste getting ready. Starved of quality cuts of meat for months we took down plate after plate of the stuff. Sushi, oysters and crabs legs were drowned in glass after glass of fine red wine, explaining to the waitress that she didn’t have to ask to keep refilling. By the time we met with dessert we were close to bursting. The last men standing, actually slumped, half lying in our chairs, we stumbled out in a meat and wine haze, Nick falling asleep mid-conversation as we saw in his big day. A day in the spa, some more food (best fish and chips in China!) and a night in a very Chinese club was a welcome break from our saddles! More Guizhou hills were on the horizon…
Making our way into the hilly outskirts of Guiyang we battled with dirt track that claimed to be a national highway, mud flying everywhere as we ploughed headlong into misty rain. We knew Guizhou was one of the poorest provinces in China, its only real source of income being Moutai Baijiu – number one nationwide – but that money was obviously not going into road maintenance! We were directed off the mud road to a new highway that was under construction, not open yet, but which ‘should be okay for bikes’. A very helpful man who patiently drove us the whole way to the turning and gifted us with a book of the area’s scenic beauty – indeed probably very beautiful if you could see it through the mist! The highway was in most parts a dream, but coming across a half-built tunnel that was blocked off we doubted the man’s knowledge of the full length of the road. Unloading the bikes, however, we managed to climb our way into the tunnel and made our way through the pitch black, hoping they’d at least finished the floor!
Unscathed we made it through and were now entering a very rural landscape, the home of the Miao minority. With a population of about ten million, the Miao are one of China’s largest minority groups. Bright red and blue clothing contrasted with the green stepped paddy fields and simple wooden houses. Smiles greeted us in every hamlet. Water buffalo dotted the fields, some had wandered onto the road, unconcerned at the chaos they could cause. In every direction fields were being tilled by men, women and their beasts. The usual slogans about building a glorious nation whilst maintaining safety and stability were added to with signs calling for population control through reduced offspring. One-off prizes were advertised for families who only had one child. As well as written propaganda, cartoons explained that boys and girls were of equal value. One young girl told us that in her culture newborn babies are meant to be washed in a small stone font next to the well. Neither her nor her sister had been washed, but their younger brother had. ‘Boys are valued more highly than girls’, she told us. ‘It’s not fair, but then the world is an unfair place’. Thought-provoking and deep words from an eight-year-old! In recent times, aborting female babies has been an issue in the countryside where boys are valued greatly, this in turn causes a gender imbalance which the government is trying to resolve.
Turning south we moved from the Miao and into the Shui region. The Shui number fewer than half a million in total, ninety percent of whom live in Guizhou, and fifty percent in one town. The Shui, or ‘Water People’, live along the banks of the Duliu River, villages of wooden houses connected by small boats which run along ropes stretched across the river, the boatmen pulling the little ferries hand over hand to the other side. The Shui generally dress in green with blue edging to their attire, the traditional costume finished off with a white cloth wraparound headpiece. Throughout China, the modern trend appears to be that it’s the minority women who continue to wear traditional clothing, while the men have opted to wear modern dress. Again we were warmly welcomed into their homeland, becoming the talk of the town wherever we went. Little markets lined the main thoroughfare of several villages, a welcome distraction for us from saddle pains, which increased on every up and down, up and down. Cars and lorries were less interested in the wares on offer and honked their way through raucously.
Winter had lasted so long that we had forgotten what it was like not to wear layer upon layer of clothing, the feeling of warmth a long lost memory. Moving into southern China, despite the oppressive humidity, was a welcome chance to shed some layers. We believe we’ve now cycled on every surface possible, from snow to sand and from mud to rubble. We’ve cycled in +40°C and -40°C. Fortunately we’d had almost no rain along the way. But as we moved into Guangxi we met with Southeast Asian humidity, heat and rainfall. The hills and stepped rice terraces were a brilliant green; but only because it always rained! Fortunately the rain was warm, so we continued cycling and just waited to dry out, when possible. The landscape, the people, the spoken dialects and the food couldn’t have made us feel further from Xinjiang and the Tibetan Plateau.
The world-renowned tourist destination of Guilin was now very much in sight. We wove our way between hills along the river, dodging the coaches going to-and-fro. We passed through Dong and Zhuang minority villages, each with their own individuality and way of life. On our final day before Guilin we hiked through Red Yao villages at the Longji (Dragon Backbone) Rice Terraces. A four hour hike tested muscles that had remained unused for several months. Although rather touristy, the area retains much of its original character. The Yao women have become famous for their long hair, which they never cut. One lady boasted 1.5m of hair, but it was going to cost to see it and take a photo. Leaving Longji we rode through the night, Guilin bound.
The famous karst peaks greeted us from afar as we cycled into the city. Guilin is no old town though, and high-rises compete alongside the natural towers. It is one of the must-see destinations for domestic tourists as well as for foreigners. We’d both already been, so descended along the Li River, following it southwards, flanked by karst landscape, in the direction of Yangshuo. We planned to take a short rest here to explore the local area (of course by bike!) unimpeded by heavy panniers. A last rest stop before heading to Guangdong, our final Chinese province.