Back in the Game


It wasn’t the warmest of days to welcome me back onto the road but it had at least stopped raining.  Enshi in sunshine is moderately pleasant – Enshi in unceasing drizzle is enough to dampen the rosiest of spirits.


My ankle was all taped up to support the tendon as much as possible.  Since no one else in this town wanted the job, I did it myself.  It actually ended up being surprisingly effective.  In order to minimise the pain when I would finally have to remove this surgical tape I had shaved the bottom half of my left shin and calf.  This gave my leg the curious appearance that I was wearing a very tight flesh coloured sock.  Since no one was around who might comment on this, I didn’t spare that a second thought. 


As I set out, I was still undecided about where I would spend that night.  All would depend on how the ankle felt.  Had I been completely healthy I was aiming for a small town called Xinglong just over the boundary into the province of Chongqing.  I say just over – there was the small matter of a pass that rose up to over 2,500m that I had to overcome.  Aside from this town, there was nothing on my map, but I figured I would be able to find somewhere if necessary.


Cycling without my shoes locked into the pedal clips, I took it very slow and steady from the outset.  Every tweak or twinge I felt, I was aware of, and I thought of little else other than exactly how my Achilles was responding to each turn of the crank, each change in gradient, or changes in pressure from my legs.  It still felt very stiff but there was no actual pain.  I decided to stop every 10km, get off and stretch both calf muscles and tendons thoroughly.  Each time I did this, it was clear that this was helping, and very slowly it seemed to grow in strength. 


The route itself was uneventful.  I was heading along a reasonably main road towards the north-east.  I was to turn off this road in a village (the name of which I forget) onto a smaller road that would head due north over a series of mountain ridges and into Chongqing, from where it continues north, dropping all the time until it hits the Yangtze River about 100km later. 


As I approached the town, the voice of wisdom (and caution) told me 45km and two or three hours on my tendon was surely enough for one day.  100km to Xinglong was out of the question.  So I started looking around for a hotel but didn’t notice one.  As I came to the turn off, I stopped and asked a woman standing waddling her baby around in front of a little shop.  Sure, she said, there’s a hotel a couple of kilometres up that road.


This sounded ideal.  I thanked her and on I went. 


I should take this opportunity to describe something I have noticed common to all the various places I have been.  Chinese babies and toddlers do not wear nappies.  Instead they wear trousers that are split to reveal their rosy bottoms to the elements, evidently to facilitate things when nature calls.  One would imagine that this is a bit cold for the little blighters, but their mothers seem to get round this by padding the trousers leggings as much as possible.  This gives the babies the appearance of bow-legged teddy bears dressed in chaps.  So the final impression is one of a bizarre combination of Buffalo Bill, Big Ted and the cowboy from YMCA.  I suppose the thinking behind this is to minimise the washing workload.  Perhaps we have something to learn from the Chinese about green efficiency after all.  I know my sister-in-law Christina is very passionate about finding ways to reduce unnecessary consumption of the world’s resources, but I do struggle to imagine her making the change to “crackless chaps” for Naomi, however sustainable this approach might be.    I also think it is a high risk strategy – unless these little ones are house-trained pretty early, they will just do their business wherever they choose – and they do.  It was this thought that made me wonder whether that is why you see so many women with their babies sitting outside the front of their house, rather than inside, even on a cold day.


Anyway, on the map, the road to Chongqing is all wiggles.  This means either going up very steeply, or going down very steeply.  In this case, it was up.  But sure enough, maybe 3 or 4 km up this road, I came to a house and a lady sweeping the road in front of it.  “Excuse me, is this a hotel?” I asked, hesitantly.  “Yes indeed it is” she was happy to tell me. 


She told me to leave my things and she and her friends would make me lunch first.  As they prepared it, I sat in cycling gear (getting a little cold) drinking tea on their rather attractive wooden balcony that looked out over the valley out of which I had just started to climb.  As I was warming my hands around the tiny plastic cup of green tea she had given me, a car pulled up and two men got out.  They had to pass me to go inside and they said hello.  They asked me what I was doing, so I told them.  One of them in particular was delighted by the idea that I had cycled all the way there from Hong Kong and he came to shake my hand. 


He then asked me whether I wanted to join them for lunch.  Sure, why not?  That’s very kind, I said.  So he beckoned me inside, as more of his friends arrived, and we all sat around a hot stove that doubles as a table.   (This is a common feature of households in the mountains I discovered.)   He and his friends were more or less shooting the breeze and I was joining in where I could.  Don’t ask me their names, because I am afraid they still go in one ear and out the other.  But it was all rather cosy and festive warming our hands at the stove, and obviously in amongst a group of good friends.


When it was declared that lunch was ready we moved through into the dining area of the hotel (basically a cold white room with a few round tables and dirty plastic stools for chairs).  All the food was served up together – maybe 8 or 9 different dishes, most of which were delicious in different ways and of course way more interesting than the food I manage to order for myself.  But as well as the food, came the “baijiu”.  I mentioned this stuff before.  A dictionary will translate this as Chinese liqueur.  But it really needs to come with a health warning.  It is hideous stuff.  And time after time, a glass is raised and the whole table gives a rousing “ganbei” and away it goes.  Or else, there will come a lull in the conversation, and Joe two to my left will decide it would be rude not to try to get the bearded white fella drunk, so he catches my eye – “ganbei” and away it goes again.  After about four of these, I felt no social remorse whatsoever in telling whoever it was to get stuffed.  (Or the more passive-aggressive way of doing this, which is to let the foul liquid wet your lips and no more). 


Meanwhile more of these little glass bottles arrive – they are seen away – and more and more.  I casually ask my neighbour if they were all working today. Oh Yes! Of course, he cried.  It’s a weekday, what do you think?  My follow-up question was going to be “which one of you is driving?” but I thought perhaps it’s none of my business.  As the session advanced, I noticed another feature I believe to be somewhat unique to the Chinese.  At different points, each of their phones would go off.  One fella in particular had obviously not had it explained to him that the purpose of the mobile phone is that two people can communicate freely by speaking normally while not actually being in the same place.  Instead, if his wife was standing in the next county, he was doing his best to make sure she could hear him, phone or no phone.  And they all did this – a phone would go and suddenly the speaker’s voice would double in volume. 


Then the eyes started getting bleary, the cigarettes came out, one friend would lean on the other and tell him what a right good bloke he was, and chortle away at his own jokes.  It was all great fun to watch.  Towards the end of the meal, the waitress (a dumpy little middle-aged women with a perfectly round face) approached the table and deposited six more of these bottles of firewater.  I just shook my head in disbelief.  But there was at least one head (the youngest) that still retained some shred of reason, and he sent a modest four of the bottles back. 


As they all staggered out to their cars, I thanked God I wasn’t cycling up that particular road just then as they were about to go down it, and then thanked them for their kindness (for they had just bought me lunch).  They were all lopsided smiles and off they went.


I settled into my freezing cold room, had a kind of scrub down with a bucketful of boiled water instead of a shower and then sat down on the balcony to do some writing.  By this time, a late afternoon sun had come out and lit up the valley in front of me which was really quite a lovely view.  I was just enjoying a beer and trying to recollect various goings on from much earlier in the trip, when traipsing up the road comes a tubby little boy of about 9 or 10 years old.  He looks bored and he’s kicking a twig or a stone in the road as he passes below the balcony, when he glances up and stops in mid-step.  His jaw drops and he actually exclaims “whaaaaaa???” and a look a shock, surprise and delight pass over his face one after the other.  You’d think he’d caught Santa coming down the chimney, he was so delighted.  He ran around the decking and up the steps and right up to me.  Just staring at me with a goofy grin on his face.  I actually thought he might reach out and touch my face, so fascinated did he seem to be by this visitor in his front yard. 


I’m quite glad he didn’t, because that would have been awkward.  Instead I said “Ni hao ma?”  Very slowly, he says “hao” and then turns and trots inside, no doubt to ask his mum whether they could keep me as a pet in the coalshed. 


The rest of the day passed quickly, and in fact I was tucked up, wearing ALL of my non-cycling clothes under the heaviest blanket I’d ever slept under, no later than 8pm.  My aim was to be gone as early as I could to give my recovering ankle as good a chance as possible to get me the 60km over the mountain to Xinglong.

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