A Big Landmark


After my eventful evening in Xinglong, I was back into my early starts which this time had to be done in complete darkness.  Evidently they didn’t feel the need to turn on the heating or the electricity until well after I was on my way.


It was one of those misty mornings to relish – when one can sense the sun is going to burn off the mist to reveal a gorgeous day.  If my reading of the map was correct, this wasn’t going to be a particularly hard day.  And today was the day I would reach the Yangtze River – also called the Chang Jiang in Chinese which just means the great river.  I honestly don’t know why we bother complicating place names in English – or at least in England.  The Chinese approach is much more practical.  Within a few days I was to be cycling along a river called the Da Leng He which means Big Cold River.  It was certainly big, I suspect it is also cold.  Yet reaching the Yangtze was to be a big landmark for me, and a very encouraging point to have reached, so I was looking forward to the ride.


Setting out from Xinglong on a road of almost flawless surface (one notices these things) it climbed just long enough for me to break into a sweat before commencing a descent which must have continued for a good 40km.  I was coming out of one set of mountains into an area called the Tian Kong Carst Depression.  On such a glorious morning I could not have had a better view.  I suggest you take a look at the photos of this section as it was a remarkable sight. 


The road weaved one way and then the other more or less following a contour along one side of this enormous valley – or one side of the depression.  The entire valley was really a sort of collapsed landscape.  The road descended fairly gently but it did descend nonetheless.  It got so cold with the wind chill against my body that I had to stop and put on my puffa jacket, which made life considerably more enjoyable. 


The gradient increased now, steeper and steeper till the road was switching back and forth and all I could do was to fall back on whatever motorbiking skills I possessed to pick the best lines on the road.  I must have been going up to 65kph at times – this with a more than fully-laden load on board, so the brake pads got some good work.  I was not complaining though.  After the climb the day before I’d take any free mileage I could get. 


The road eventually rounded out at the valley bottom and followed a fairly broad mountain river that was broken up by many rock-falls and natural weirs.  The going was extremely easy but I knew there was at least one more climb, according to the map, before I reached the Great River Yangtze.  This made me a little nervous, knowing what a swine the climb that day before had been. 


Nevertheless, as the sun rose higher, the air got warmer and warmer.  I stopped to strip down and ate more chocolate.  Two things I have learnt to love on the road – coffee and chocolate.  Perhaps it’s just because no one else consumes these two things in this country and they are hard to come by but on the long hard days, these are meat and drink to me (one during the day, the other at the end of it).  Happily (and perhaps unsurprisingly) cycling 2,000km across fairly mountainous terrain is great for losing a bit of weight, and seeing as every night as I seem thinner than the night before, I figure it’s not a problem to eat the massive quantities of sweets that I have on the road. 


And one can always get more teeth.


The river soon flowed out from between two tall valley shoulders into some kind of lake system.  I was a bit confused as to which direction the water then flowed.  The road crossed another bridge and then began a gentle climb up into some shallow hills, pale brown and bare in the noon sunlight.


OK – here we go, I thought.  I made it about 40km to go.  However hard this climb was going to be, I was still making good time.  But maybe 20 minutes into this climb the road levelled out and disappeared into a tunnel.  I am always happy to see a tunnel, so I passed the sign saying this one was 4km long feeling very positive. 


After about 150m I stopped.  I realised as the last car passed me that I couldn’t see a thing in front of me.  There was no lighting, just a wall of darkness ahead.  Digging around for a few minutes in my bag, I eventually found a torch which would serve as my headlight, and set off. 


4km is not far in a car.  But on a bicycle it takes just under 10 minutes to pedal on the flat.  It was quite an unusual sensation to feel so far buried under the roots of this mountain.  There were remarkably few cars on the road so I had quite long periods pedalling along in the pitch darkness.  I didn’t stop and turn off my light which was a missed opportunity, but I did keep glancing over my shoulder at the pursuing shadow that seemed like a black wave about to crash on my head.  An uncanny feeling.  I think next time I will stop and explore this some more. 


Finally, the light at the end of the tunnel broke into the darkness as a far off pinpoint and then grew and grew.  My speed was picking up at the same time, which meant I was now descending.  When I finally emerged into the sunlight I was flying along and the road swayed this way and that towards a large area of water.  This looked like the confluence of two or three different waterways.  Since I hadn’t expected it, I pulled up to take a couple of photos and to try to figure out where I was on the map.  I calculated I had about 30km still to go to get to Fengjie – the city of the northern bank of the Yangtze that I was headed for. 


As I stopped and looked at the mass of water, and then the town on the far side, and then looked further to the east I saw a familiar looking bridge, it suddenly occurred to me that this was indeed the Yangtze and I had arrived 30km early (but not a moment too soon). 


This is a phenomenon of road travel in China.  One pours over maps, and plans routes, and looks up topography online, and each day one usually has a pretty clear idea of what to expect.  But on this day, Chinese civil engineering was one step ahead of all my other sources of information.  The tunnel I had just come through had slashed my journey (and made it considerably easier) by puncturing straight under the mountain, rather than toiling all the way over the top. 


Delighted at my good fortune, I cycled a little further on, and stopped again to take in the sheer size of this mighty river.  I had joined it at the head of the so-called Three Gorges (San Xia) – an area that has recently been flooded following the construction of the Three Gorges dam, near the city of Yicheng further east.  This is China’s greatest recent feat of civil engineering. 


As a testament to their engineering prowess, it is unanswerable.  However, it is also rather controversial.  It has brought the benefit of reducing the risk of flooding to large areas of the Yangtze flood plain (a massive area downstream to the east) and will provide huge quantities of additional electric power that is needed to sustain the rapid pace of economic expansion in these areas. 


But at the same time, there are some concerns about its safety.  You may remember the terrible earthquake in Sichuan province in 2008.  Some people query whether the dam could stand up to a natural event like that, and should the dam break, the results would make the many natural disasters that have befallen the Chinese people in the past look like a minor inconvenience.  Some people are also concerned about the environmental impact of flooding the massive area of land upstream from the dam (not to mention the displacement of people), and that the river flow is poorly managed.  So that, with everything that is discharged into the river upstream as industry continues to grow apace, there is the real possibility of this river system turning into “the world’s largest toilet bowl”.  (Others’ words not mine!)  I guess time will tell.


From my perspective, things were considerably simpler.  I was just very happy to be there and be crossing the bridge over the Yangtze.  I seemed to have arrived early in the afternoon on a day that would have suited summertime in the Mediterranean.  And to give you some idea of the scale of this river, the bridge was 900m across – this at a point with several thousand kilometres still to run. 


My time in Fengjie was pretty unremarkable.  The town is built on the shoulder of a butt of land flanked on one side by the Yangtze and on the other by a smaller river that flows into it.  Consequently, wherever you are in the city you have some quite clear and precipitous views of the Yangtze valley below, and right in the heart of the city are a couple of bridges that are suspended two or three hundred feet in the air. 


Aside from this, my usual trick of asking for directions to a hotel and taking whatever I got meant I ended up in quite a smart hotel this time.  Of course, everything is relative.  But with a good clean up, and then venturing out for yet another very large meal, I was feeling very positive and excited to have made it to the Yangtze.  Looking at my map, my conservative estimate was that it would be another 6 days to Xi’an.  I knew there were more mountains ahead – the Daba Shan and the Qing Ling Shan – but I was ready to take them on.  Had I known then the scale of the landscape that still lay between me and Xi’an, I think I would have been considerably less sanguine as I sat munching my breakfast in Fengjie.

Comments (1)

alastair wilson
Said this on 12-5-2010 At 07:50 am

We are thinking of you daily and more people are becoming involved. Are you well? it sounds as if the physical is being overtaken by the enormity of the project!  Always know that I am here to help if necessary...

Onwards and upwards?


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