Zhengzhou – Gongyi – Luoyang – Lingbao – Mianche – Sanmenxia – Lingbao – Tonguan – Weinan – Xian
After an immensely humbling experience in Zhengzhou we were back on the road with the target of Xian, 548km due west. It has been a week of change in many ways, the weather going from torrential rain to blazing sunshine; our electronics going from flawless to argh #!*$#~; from small bowls of rice to deep bowls of noodles; from Miss China to wonderful toothless grins.
It felt good to be back on the bikes. Our bodies felt rested and “battle ready”, with all the niggles from the first few weeks fully repaired. We agreed that we would try to avoid main roads to have a less polluted and more pleasant cycling experience. Furthermore, looking at the map it seemed that the off-piste road was in fact more direct to our next destination.
Lesson #1: if locals say a road is not good, they probably have reason to say so.
Lesson #2: one road may be shorter than another but if there is a large mountain in the middle it will likely take you considerably longer to get to your destination.
Lesson #3: the best clue to help achieve successful stealth camping lies in the first word. Do not try to stealth camp in the garden of a farmer that has never seen torch lights before, let alone a white face, who also happens to own a pack of dogs.
We ended up crawling into Gongyi Town at 9.30pm after three hours night riding, our pride somewhat dented after our first Bear-Grylls-moment had ended so pathetically, but our spirits remaining high with Monty Python’s “Always look on the bright side of life” blaring from the speakers.
Two days out of Zhengzhou we arrived in Luoyang, one of the original capitals of China. It appeared luck was on our side as the manager of our hotel told us it was the weekend of the famed Peony festival. We received this news with a very convincing “Zhende ma? Jingren! Hao yun!” (Really! Amazing! Such luck!”), whilst not having the foggiest idea what they were talking about. So now, after many years living in China, we can say with confidence that we know what China’s national flower looks like after visiting its place of origin.
After almost a month on the road we are now very much into a routine. DouJiang (hot, sweet soy milk) starts the day – a truly magnificent drink that replaces the usual builder’s brew and un espresso at the morning Road of Smiles executive board meeting. It then takes around 45 minutes to pack up the bikes, sun cream and saddle lube up before we hit the road. We have found that we are averaging about 15km/h which, with photo opportunities, Snickers breaks and sometimes lunch time thrown in, means we cover between 70-95km per day.
The shortest day so far was leaving Luoyang, waking up to a heavy downpour we set off proudly wearing our sponsored North Face gear for the first time. That great feeling of wearing new clothes for the first time was quickly dampened by our second attempt at a short-cut which led us to roads that were running with mud and coal dropped from the mine trucks that fill most of the roads in western Henan. The good news is we stayed dry; the bad news is our sparkling new outfits are now somewhat less pristine but we have accepted that this is an expedition not a fashion parade and therefore a good thing still.
As we entered Shaanxi Province (not to be confused with the neighbouring Shanxi) we were met with sunshine, a distinct change of food being served up at lunch and much to our surprise, a plethora of Chinese on touring bikes. After living in Shanghai, where for the average resident the idea of the great outdoors means a walk to Starbucks, it has been great to see and talk with young adventurers along the way. We met a University student from Jinan, Shandong Province, on his way to Xian; a guy from Chengdu on a three month expedition back the way we had come and south to Yunnan Province; and have been greeted by many more local bikers on day rides.
We now have three days rest and recuperation in Xian, famous for terra-cotta warriors and as the gateway to the west. It feels great to look at the map and finally feel like we have made a dent in this incredible journey.