The curse of the watermelon

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China: Part 2

Panzhihua to Miyi

We had anticipated that finding our way out of the city would be a lot more difficult than it was, but it was a pleasant surprise. We also bought face masks to avoid choking on the dust from the mining trucks, but today the road was quiet (except a repetitive call from the occasional loudspeaker) and we didn’t feel like we needed them, which was also a pleasant surprise.

We cycled next to the river, and as we approached a hydroelectric dam (whether it was coincidence or not), a 4WD truck passed us and then drove in front us incredibly slowly. It stayed at our pace for a while, awkwardly lingering ahead of us. It wasn’t until we had cycled well past the dam that our escort found his accelerator and drove off. We were pretty tempted to get out the camera and start snapping pictures of the dam to see what the mystery person would do – maybe they thought we were spies sent on heavy bicycles to collect intelligence about their hydroelectric prowess.

Will wasn’t feeling all that great, with a cold brewing into a flu, and after an incident where he managed to cycle into the gutter at the edge of the road after losing concentration, we decided a rest was in order. Once reaching the top of a hill and stopping in the shade, a lovely lady soon came over and handed us some bottles of water. Later that day, it was my test of concentration when a dog running at full speed tried to cross the road directly ahead of us; at the time, I didn’t see it was chained up to a tree, and had it’s chain not snapped it back at the last minute, I would also have been in the gutter.

So far in China, we’ve been pretty impressed by the quality of the rooms at the budget hotels we’ve stayed in. However, today, as I waited outside of a potential guesthouse holding the bikes, Will went in to take a look. He came back out quite swiftly, grabbed his bike helmet and put it back on instantly: this meant we definitely would not be staying here. Disgusted, he told me that this place wasn’t for us and when walking past the dark, dingy, smelly communal toilets, he couldn’t help but spot a massive poo on the toilet floor. Big fat poo meant big fat no.

Going out for dinner that night was also quite amusing. We realised that this little town probably didn’t get that many Western visitors when the majority of the locals did double-takes when they saw us, peered from around walls to look at us, and even follow us. Two young boys – one wearing a yellow builder’s helmet as a fashion statement – ended up following us around town. We stopped at a shop, there they were. We cycled to the market and after buying some grapes, there they were.

We cycled on to spot a place for dinner and as we were sitting in a little cafe having noodles, they both reappeared, and while one of them couldn’t stop smiling, the one in the builder’s helmet stared wide-eyed and straight-faced. All we could do was laugh at the Chinese Bob the Builder.

Panzhihua to Panlian (Miyi) cycle route Strava
Panzhihua to Panlian (Miyi) cycle route – 83.2km

 

Panlian to Dechang

Today was a lovely cycle out, the hills and green backdrop keeping us smiling. Cycling through little villages with big happy chirpy chickens and wonderfully chirpy people was great. We arrived at a bustling market where buying corn fritters amused the locals.

After being followed for some time by a goat bleating at us to take care of him, a climb took us up to a viewpoint where we could overlook the route we’d just cycled, during which some loud electronic-techno music kept us entertained. It seemed bizarre to hear the music after the serenity of the hills and feeling in the middle of nowhere. When we reached the top, we realised it was coming from a huge waterpark; in the heat, we were pretty jealous of the kids splashing around in the pool.

While cruising down the other side of the hill, I got my first puncture. It was a good excuse to have a break, and the weather suddenly became cooler as the wind picked up and the flashes and grumbles of a storm started in a lone grey cloud set against the blue sky.

Panlian (Miyi) to Dechang cycle route Strava
Panlian (Miyi) to Dechang cycle route – 92.2km

 

Dechang to Anning

The weather was cool, the road was fast and flat, and wind turbines were dotted around us for most of the journey to Qionghai Lake. Set up for tourism, it was a pretty wetland area with a nice bicycle path around one edge.

Will found his favourite: steamed dumplings some with pork and spring onion, some with carrot and sweet potato; and I found my favourite: dehydrated sweet potato chewies. We also found a really nice hotel room, except for the flooding bathroom.

Dechang to Anning cycle route Strava
Dechang to Anning cycle route – 77.2km

 

Anning to Chengxiang

We’ve started to noticed how much the locals differ across the different areas: the faces change and the traditional dress is so different. It’s a wonderful mix and interesting to see.

The road we had decided to follow today didn’t link up on our map, but we crossed our fingers and hoped for the best. Fortunately, China’s road building didn’t let us down. We also decided to push on and cycle to an area on the map where no hotels were listed. Fortunately again, after trying to figure out the Chinese symbols for ‘hotel’ and ‘guesthouse’, we managed to find a place to stay. The best thing about today, however, was getting some cherries. They were little drops of juicy deliciousness and the best I’ve ever tasted.

Anning to Chengxiang cycle route Strava
Anning to Chengxiang cycle route – 80.5km

 

Chengxiang to Miancheng

Will was feeling pretty rubbish today after a couple of nights of no sleep along with being ill. So the big 50km continuous climb to start the day was not enticing. But with no breakfast and no energy, my brave soldier pushed his pedals round and round while I sang a song to spur him on:

Pedalling, pedalling west

Because pedalling is the best

Pedalling…all day long

It keeps you happy and strong

when you get the days that are really tough

and you feel like you’ve just had enough

Pick yourself up and look right ahead

Because we’re pedalling home, we’re pedalling west

Just to really dig the claws in, we also had a headwind after the climb. We surprised a group of Chinese kids with lovely Tibetan faces on their walk to school, and they were full of smiles as they ran alongside us. This really kept our motivation high for the rest of the afternoon, while we admired the amazing bridges criss-crossing above us as we cycled down through deep gorges. How do they build these huge highways in the sky?!

Chengxiang to Miancheng cycle route Strava
Chengxiang to Miancheng cycle route – 96.7km

 

Miancheng to Jiuxiang

As the sun rose the next morning, there were lots of people around in the parks, including the ladies doing their elegant morning dance class. We cycled up around the hills through gorges and steep valleys, and bought some more delicious fresh cherries.

The day was hot and humid and we decided that a watermelon would be the perfect afternoon treat. With it securely on the back of Will’s bike, we pedalled on to find a hotel nearby. We found a small guesthouse and couldn’t wait to tuck into the watermelon. They had rooms available and we could stay. Hurrah!…

However, the lady at the guesthouse was on the phone for a long time and we suspected that she may be confirming with the police that we were allowed. Foreign (or “alien”) guests need to be registered in hotels in China. She gestured for us to wait. We could only look on longingly at our watermelon. We waited and she popped in and out of the shop as if someone was coming. We tried to use a translator on the phone, but they would only offer Chinese symbols. Confused, we waited. The lady then took Will to another hotel to have a chat with the lady there. When they returned, a boy turned up and told us to follow him in his car. Wearily, we did – would he be taking us to the police? To a hotel? To a big fancy expensive hotel? We arrived at the big fancy hotel where he worked. However, to our amazement, they offered a super duper room for the same price as the small guesthouse we were perfectly happy with. We couldn’t believe our luck and devoured our watermelon as soon as we unpacked, though not before ten million selfies with the million little children staying at the same hotel.

Miancheng to Jiuxiang cycle route Strava
Miancheng to Jiuxiang cycle route – 73.4km

 

Jiuxiang to Yangao

A big storm in the night meant the climb out of the city was less humid. We zig-zagged our way up the mountain, passing a mountain biker who was also cycling up to the top. He passed us, we passed him, then he passed us and gestured for us to stop. After lots of map pointing and showing each other photos, we learned he was a mountain biker who was going to take the off-road route back down the mountain. He was a really sweet boy and we gave him our phone number – we’ve been in contact (via iTranslate) since.

When reaching the top, we had a glorious view over the dense forest. After all of our effort climbing, the much-anticipated descent was a bit disappointing with a terribly bumpy road and harsh switchbacks; though it did mean we were going slow so we could be on the lookout for pandas!

Jiuxiang to Yandao cycle route Strava
Jiuxiang to Yandao cycle route – 82.4km

 

Yangao to Qionglai

We felt like we were cycling in the tropics today, surrounded by fields of tea plantations and a damp humidity to dampen our energy. We reached 100km and the final push just seemed endless with no shelter from the sun. Once we had found a hotel, we popped out to get some reserves – watermelon and grapes – and, relieved we had made it, unloaded our bikes.

But then, the hotel lady gestured that we follow her. We rightly assumed it was to take us across the road so we could register with the police. Foreigners (aliens) have to register at the hotel they are staying in, but usually the hotel inputs our details into their system. We followed anyway; our watermelon would have to wait. After some discussion, the police instructed we change hotel and insisted we follow them.

Sigh.

We returned wearily, bags back on bikes and cycled behind a police car. Not that we needed to draw any more attention to ourselves! We passed several guesthouses but the police escorted us to the fanciest hotel in town. Of course, it was beyond what we normally pay and tried to explain this to the police. We realised, however, that we were lost in translation: we thought we were being forced to stay here, and I think they wanted to take us to a nice, impressive hotel. When we offered that we will find another one by ourselves, they seemed relieved that they were off the hook in trying to find where we could stay and shook our hands in farewell, saying, “If you have any problems, you come back to us.”

It’s always difficult to decipher the Chinese writing, and in our tired state, we stopped to ask in what we thought was a guesthouse further down the street. As Will dragged his feet up the stairs, I looked a little closer at the Chinese symbols on the building, and then at the poster in the window. I burst out laughing and nearly dropped his bike in exhaustion when I realised I had sent Will up the stairs to a Lady Care Foot Massage parlour.

Yongren to Panzhihua cycle route Strava
Yongren to Panzhihua cycle route – 87.7km

 

Qionglai to Chengdu

We did eventually manage to find a perfectly nice cheap place to stay, where a big storm cut the electricity and plunged us into darkness. It was pretty exciting though, where we were kept entertained by the explosions of thunder and fork lightning cutting up the sky and colouring it pink and purple.

Today was a fast and flat cycle into a big city called Chengdu. We explored the outdoor shops and Tibetan Avenue, called “Little Lhasa”, and stayed for a couple of days to visit the Giant and red pandas and eat wontons and hot pots.

Marking our longest stint of cycling (13 days, no rest), we managed to sneak in a couple of Strava July challenges: over 8000 metres climbing and over 1250 miles in distance.

Qionglai to Chengdu cycle route Strava
Qionglai to Chengdu cycle route – 88.8km

 

Chengdu to Leshan for visa extension

So that we could continue our adventures in China, we cycled down to Leshan to see Mount Emishan and the Giant Buddha, where getting our visa extensions was a breeze.

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