Last Days on the Road to My New Home

 

Generally, if I can, I want to know what I am facing each day.  Carefully following the route from Xunyang to Zhen’an on a map online showed me that, despite the mountainous terrain all around me, the road followed the river Xun the whole way.  This meant no mountain passes, which meant relative respite from brutal climbs.

 

It turned out to be one of the best days’ riding I have yet enjoyed. 

 

Despite my wonderful bed, I am having terrible trouble sleeping.  Or at least sleeping late.  In the past, this has been because of anxiety or depression or sadness or anticipation of some kind.  Rarely have I experienced this problem because of a prolonged period of excitement.  I am simply too excited to remain asleep.  It is a pleasure to be able to report – I suppose after a long(ish) of being a miserable so and so – that I cannot contain my excitement at getting up and living each day.  When my eyes open at 5am, and I look at my watch, I think, “Great!  That’ll do – let’s get up and see what’s in store today, shall we?”  I guess it is a healthy way to exist.  I get tired and go to bed slightly earlier, but each day is well lived.

 

So with my “Elite Class” breakfast warming my belly, I was trundling away along the riverside road out of town just before the clock struck 8. 

 

The morning was filled with passing a considerable amount of industrial activity.  Factories on either side of the road and river were a regular feature, and the railway that tracked the far-side of the river seemed to be a positively pulsating vein of commercial activity.  Train after train of cargo trucks chugged along in both directions, interspersed with passenger trains that always looked full.  I then would pass railway depots with rows of wagons waiting patiently to be loaded up and shuttled away to the north or the south. 

 

The road and the railroad seemed almost to dance with one another, flirtatiously intertwined in their journey to the north.  Now close together, then drifting apart, the road now weaving playfully under the legs of a high-standing railway bridge, before the track disappears for a time into the side of a mountain, only to appear again minutes later with the screeching and joyful whistle of another train – they never left one another for long.

 

After about 50km the motorway joined in the dance, appearing all of a sudden out of a hillside below the minor road in its pig-headed blundering route north.  Nothing would stop it.  Straight, straight, straight, while the road I was on picked its way more delicately and respectfully around the landscape.  My road was completely empty as well.  Whatever traffic there is takes the motorway.  I had the road all to myself.

 

Despite following the river upstream, somehow the road was often falling very slightly so I went along at a good speed.  My legs seemed to be full of strength and wanted to push on faster and faster.  Xi’an appeared on the road signs.  The first one said 275km.  More than I made it, but I didn’t care.  This seemed like the home straight and my body was responding accordingly. 

 

Again, I was too set on getting the distance done to want to waste time with lunch.  I had a short break next to a quiet part of the river and ate some of the snacks and fruit I had bought in Xunyang. 

 

I was joined by the tiniest and frailest looking puppy you ever saw.  A pathetic little creature, he sat a little distance off from me up a track, trying to look like he didn’t really care whether I gave him any food.  I flung him broken pieces of bread which at first he wouldn’t approach unless I was facing the other way or was on the other side of the road.  Eventually he became a little braver but not too much.  He took the bread, and then some dry biscuits.  By the time I left he’d had a good feed.

 

The pace I was going slowly began to have an effect.  Within the last 15km into Zhen’an, the road lifted very slightly and for a short time to get over a couple of shoulders in the river valley – my legs suddenly felt leaden and I slowed to a nice easy pace as I rolled into the outskirts of Zhen’an. 

 

Within minutes I was going through the motions of checking into a local hotel.  No luxury treats this time – a cold but practical room, whose carpet had probably not been hoovered in over six months.  Rather annoyingly, I had carried all my bags and bicycle up four flights of stairs before one of the receptionists mentioned there was a lift around the corner down the corridor. 

 

Zhen’an I found dull.  The hotel dull, the streets dull and the food I managed to find dull.  Of course, I had been pampered the night before so perhaps this feeling was inevitable.  But this just gave me added impetus to get out of there as early as possible in the morning.

 

It was still just dark as I set out.  The air was bitingly cold and my fingers and toes were painful even as I wheeled my bike away from the hotel. 

 

It was one of only a very few number of days on this journey when I did not know where I would end up.  Between Zhen’an and Xi’an there is no obvious town to stop in, so my plan was to do 100km and then find a suitable place to stay. 

 

By 9am I had already done over 40km.  Despite the rising sun I was still very cold and now hungry.  I came to a halt in the smaller town of Zhashui and had a strange breakfast – of boiled eggs, dumplings and I think lentil soup (or some brownish liquid like it). 

 

Still very cold, I set out again with the words of a shopkeeper in my ear – “you hen gao shan” – there’s a very tall mountain – after I told her I was cycling to Xi’an.

 

At last the day was heating up, and with the sun on my back I followed the last few kilometres where the old and new roads together shared the valley.  Shortly after a squat little milestone that reads “44”, the old road peels off to the left - to the west. 

 

Very slowly, the gradient increases but it is not a climb as such yet.  The road continues on in the sunlight passing occasional villages, and along tree-lined avenues and under short tunnels.  At points, it weaves between rocky hillsides that close up around the road only to emerge quickly on the flatter cultivated valley bottom that is slowly lifting me higher and higher. 

 

I am tired.  This is the sixth day in a row.  I’ve done 70km already today and though the gradient is shallow, it is always up.  Each kilometre seems to require more and more effort.  With 25km to go before this road joins a more major road that will carry me to the final run-in to Xi’an, I grind to a halt. 

 

I sit in the sun, eat, drink, put on some dry clothes, and wonder whether every inch of that 25km is going to be uphill.  I have no idea. 

 

When I set out again, the climb increases again in intensity.  There are no more villages – the road is now heading up for the pass.  My speed is pathetic and I’ve been on the road for 7 hours now.  Trees adorned with gorgeous golden leaves flank the roadside and the sun beams splinter through the branches.  There is no other traffic.  I am alone in this autumnal mountain beauty, which is slowly turning into a cyclist’s hell. 

 

The switchbacks start and the road gets steeper again.  Psychologically I have to turn the screw again.  19km, then 18km.  I start talking to myself.  A mantra that has encouraged my legs before, “You-can-do-it, you-can-do-it” in time with each downward push of my legs.  It may sound ridiculous but it helps!

 

Then, as I turn a corner and the gradient increases again, I stop talking to myself and start talking to the road.  The road is my adversary right now. 

 

“Is that all you got?” I laugh mockingly, like some 21st century Errol Flynn.  “Come on, I can go steeper than this.  17km?  That’s nothing.  In 17km you’re gonna come to an end, but I’ll still be here.  You won’t beat me.  You’re not gonna stop me.  You’re gonna run out before I will.”

 

As if in response, as I turn another corner a headwind has picked up and slows me even more.  “Ha haaa – nice try! You can blow all you want, I’m gonna get up this bloody hill!  Even if you make me climb every last inch, I know you stop in 16km but I’m not gonna stop!”

 

Such is the strange psychological place my physical efforts had brought me too.  I was reduced to a very basic and unswerving stubbornness that superseded every other thought in my brain – and all my poor legs could do was obey. 

 

Just as I was telling the road how pathetic it was, and demanding whether it couldn’t come up with something harder for me to do, I noticed a gravel turning circle up ahead, some benches and a little stone wall forming a lookout point down the valley.  In the middle of the gravel is a small Buddhist temple.  Or it could be a bus stop, I am not sure.  Whatever it is, it means I have reached the top. 

 

“Alright then,” I say mockingly to the road, “if that’s all you got, that’s all you got!”

 

I stop and look down the valley I have just scaled.  A crinkled line zigzagging off into the hazy blue distance traces where I’ve just been.  I am elated.  To me, this means breaking the back of this landscape.  To me, this represents reaching Xi’an, even though I’ve still got 100km to go. 

 

If I had a medal to give myself – I would have been very tempted to hand it over just then with a warm handshake.  But now that I had got over this pass, I knew 16km of great delight awaited me (downhill), and then every kilometre I got on the clock this afternoon was one less tomorrow – the final day.  And I still needed to find a place to stay.  So on I must go.

 

Buttoning up tight, I crested the cut through the banks of earth that marked the summit and my speed picked up.  Down, down, down.  Even the yellow signs on the road helpfully tell me I can expect more and more down.  The view out across the western valley (when I dare to take my eyes off the speeding road ahead) is a glory of green ridges and peaks, receding under the blue infinity of the afternoon sky.  “I’ve done it, I’ve done it,” I keep thinking.

 

Er, kind of – and meanwhile I’m getting very cold. 

 

Within a few minutes, I am very cold and just concentrating on getting down out of the steep turns of this descent without running over the edge, and down to the junction of this road with the A road that cuts once more to the north. 

 

The junction came soon enough in a small village. 

 

Quite why I had led myself to believe that there was only one big pass to overcome on this road to Xi’an, I don’t rightly know.  But as soon as I joined the new road and looked ahead, I saw the tarmac heading upwards once more, disappearing into the familiar backdrop of a steep-sided rocky gorge, and ahead of this lay only more and more peaks.

 

Riiiiight.  OK – so 80km to go to Xi’an.  Please…..pleeeeaaase don’t say it is all uphill.  My legs briefly wilted. 

 

I crawl up the road that slithers between the cracks in the faces of rock.  At moments my legs just stop, and therefore so must I.  I’ve almost run out of water, and I have very little food left. 

 

The question enters my mind whether it would sensible to go back down the hill to the village and find a room there.  The answer is emphatic – I will die before I go backwards!  NO.

 

So on I go.  The sun is falling now.  The gorge opens out a bit and the road rises out of the shadows into the flatter valley upland where I climb past one or two small hamlets.  There are more of the yellow signs.  This time they have a little picture of a slope with the arrow going up.  “shang, shang….always shang.” 

 

I had told myself I would stop at 4.30 by the latest.  It is 4.45pm and I have been on the road for 9 and a half hours.  The sun is falling slowly behind me but the lie of the valley means the sun will continue to shine all the way up to the valley-head late into the evening.  I have time.

 

What I don’t have is energy.  I still have no idea when I am going to stop.  Looking about me, I think, of all the places I might stop to camp, this valley could be a lot worse.  There is plenty of space, and open patches of grass amongst sparse woodland.  But it’s very cold and I have almost no food and almost no water.  I have to go on till I find somewhere. 

 

This is when the dogged, bloody-minded stubbornness that forms an undeniable streak in me takes over. 

 

Again, I experience that strange internal division between ……what…..is it body and spirit?  One voice saying, “Come on, we can do it!” (who’s the “we”?)  And then my legs simply stop moving.  The spirit offers them encouragement, “Just keep going, keep going.  You can do it.”  Like an obliging dog responding to a kindly pat on its head, slowly the legs begin to turn the crank again.

 

Meanwhile, the sun shines brilliantly as the evening progresses and I pass an elegant sweep in the road that creates a flat area of comfortable looking grass.  Is this the benevolent smile of a loving Father in heaven saying, “Here is a good spot.  Rest and take strength and go on tomorrow.”?

 

If it is, on this occasion, I cannot accept it.  I refuse, “I cannot give up.  I will not.”  My pride and pig-headedness won’t allow it.

 

I stop again and eat my final scraps of food and drink the last drops of water and climb back on my bike.  A few hundred metres later, I spot for the first time what I think must be the top of this pass. 

 

It is a still a long way but there it is in view. 

 

The last of the food – some horribly synthetic form of Chinese twinkie – has at least given me some kind of energy.  A couple of cars pass, and then a bus.  I watch them appear up at the bend that I think is the top.  I didn’t take them long.  It can’t be that far.

 

At this point, my entire existence reduces itself to a single phrase which I repeat over and over in time with the rhythm of my legs – “Not giving up – not giving up – not giving up.”

 

I have to defer to the master of the idée fixée here – the one who has taught me more than any other of a determination of will that will brook no dissuasion from a single and relentless thought.  I refer of course to my 5 year old nephew Luka.  When Luka wants to go on my shoulders, or refuse to eat, or not go to bed, or have a story, no amount of time, no threat of force, no honeyed words will deter him from his objective.  If he has to repeat, “I want to go on your shoulders!” five thousand times – he will do so, and he will not rest until he is there.

 

I think I must have repeated my own particular delirious mantra for a good 20 minutes without ceasing when I eventually found myself rounding the final bend that would take me through the cut and down into the last – and it was the last – valley of my 2,800km journey from Hong Kong to Xi’an. 

 

Too tired to be jubilant, I slid from my bike and hauled off my soaking cycling tops.  I put on the only dry top I had and my cycling jacket.  These felt warm in the sunlight but as soon as I passed out of the sun into the shadow I was freezing. 

 

Physically a wreck by now, I saw snow on the ground for the first time – albeit only a small amount.  “I have to stop as soon as I can,” I thought.  I was worried I would crash, with fatigue, with the ice on the road and with my shivering body and numb hands.

 

About two kilometres down the hill I came to a village.  A woman was sweeping the gravel outside a small one-story house. 

 

“Is there a hotel near here?”

 

She looked a bit incredulous that I should ask such a stupid question.  Of course there was no hotel for miles.

 

Hmmm…… “How about a room then?”

 

“Oh yes, we have a room.  Just put your bike inside.”  (I guess it’s all about asking the right question.)

 

A man came out and held open the door to let me in.  I leant my bike against a pile of things in the wide hallway and he opened one of the side doors.  I peered inside.  There were three beds inside and the floor was covered by dried beans.  Evidently when house guests weren’t staying, the spare room would do just as well as a crop store and why not? 

 

The house was exactly the same temperature as the air outside.  I said the room was fine and he left me to get changed.  No hot water in this place!  I pulled off my cycling gear and put on any clothes I had that weren’t wet. 

 

Not quite knowing what was expected of me, when I was dressed I went outside and gingerly appeared in their kitchen doorway. 

 

“Can I eat something?” I asked. 

 

For a Chinese person, there is no more relevant question.  “Yes, yes.  Come in, come in.”

 

A further door opened and heat radiated out at me.  As it hit me, it felt like something that I just needed to stand still and savour, so cold was I.  But the wife of the household bustled me in, and within seconds I was seated next to a big stove, with a little plastic cup of scalding hot tea in my hand, being told that food was on its way. 

 

The little room was already quite full with three or four other men, and the grandmother of the household perched silently on the bed that took up one side of the room, looking like a worn old rag-cloth doll.  It turned out the other men were fellow guests, one of whom was a truck driver from Beijing who was passing through, and the other two were casual labourers of some kind. 

 

I spoke a little to the Beijinger until the food arrived which was basic but at least hot and plentiful.  The main staple of the meal was a gruel-like dish I think made from sweetcorn, together with a stodgy kind of dumpling that was to be dipped in the gruel.  Finally there were some shredded potatoes. 

 

This may not sound the most exciting meal, but I really didn’t care.  I just wanted to sleep.  Or at least to lie down.  Before I excused myself, I asked our host how far to Xi’an. 

 

“To the Bell Tower [in the centre of the old city] it is 62km.” 

 

“Up or down?”

 

“Down.  All down. Dou xia.

 

Hallelujah.

 

At approximately 7.05pm, I crawled under the heavy blankets which I had piled up from all three of the beds in my room, still wearing all my clothes, my woolly hat and two pairs of socks for good measure. 

 

Although I woke continually through the night, I did get some rest, but my dreams were a swirl of bicycles, hotels, mountains, biscuits, and travel phrases in Mandarin repeated over and over in my ear, as if someone was trying to drive me slowly insane.

 

As soon as I could I got up from this jumbled mess of thoughts.  “OK, my friend.  60km all down, eh? We’ll see if you’re right.”

 

As soon as it was light, I paid the owner and piled all my kit onto my bike, I hoped for the last time in a while. 

 

As the wheels started turning, immediately the road plummeted.  Whereas all the signs said up yesterday, on this day they all said down.  My feet were like blocks of ice, my fingers throbbed with the cold, my nose streamed and my eyes stung with the rush of air.

 

But I did not care a scrap.  I just watched the dial clicking up and up on my distance metre.  10km, then 20km, then 25km.  Broken only once by the shortest of climbs, this descent went on for 32km.

 

Without paying a whole lot of attention, I had carved through the northern half of the Qin Ling Shan with barely a cursory glance at my surroundings, beautiful as they were. 

 

Of course it was all spectacular scenery, but this was not what had gripped my mind. 

 

All the while, I was just thinking, “I’m there, I’m there……woohoo!!”

 

With 30km to go, the road sweeps out of the mountains onto the plain of Xi’an.  The mountains rise in a sheer wall behind me but I barely give this splendid sight a backward glance.   I will not even spare the time to take a photo, so driven am I to reach my goal.

 

I am here! I am here! I am here!

 

25km…20km.  It is all flat as a pancake now, and in the morning mist, I can see fruit orchards and seedling nursery buildings off to the left and right. 

 

Xi’an, baby, Xi’an!  (I never imagined I’d be saying that.)

 

As I rolled past the outlying suburbs, heading straight, straight for the heart of the old walled city, I doubt there was a person alive in Xi’an that day who was happier to be there than I. 

 

Amidst the imaginary cheers and tumultuous fantastical applause in my head, I suddenly reach a junction where the light has gone red.  Out of the morning mist diagonally across the junction rise the dark grey brick walls of the old city of Chang’an, as Xi’an used to be called – the city of Perpetual Peace.  

 

So this really is it.  This is where I will be staying for the winter, until it is warm enough to set out to the West in the Spring.  This is the eastern end of the ancient Silk Road – the network of trade routes that stretched all the way from here to the mighty capital of Rome in its imperial heyday.  Xi’an - the terminus where a multitude of goods and peoples and languages and religions arrived in China to penetrate the mysterious Middle Kingdom and carry back to far-off lands its treasures, its silk, its wisdom and genius inventions.

 

I follow the traffic through one of the gateways through the southern wall into the old city, happy just to trundle along, gawping, with a glorious levity in my heart, at everything I saw.  Big shopping malls, red Chinese lanterns hanging off gaudy restaurants, tree-lined avenues of four lanes of traffic, the brash frontage of huge hotels, and then of course interspersed are the distinctive shapes of the ancient buildings, their red roofing casting characteristic silhouettes against the blue sky, the dark wood and stone echoing an older time of imperial glory – this is the historical heart and legacy of the three thousand year old Chinese civilization. 

 

I pass the massive Drum Tower with its lines of tight white drum-skins adorned with elaborate Chinese characters stretched tightly across huge red drums.  A short distance further on I climb off my bike when I reach the absolute heart of the old city – the Bell Tower that rises up in splendid isolation amidst a sea of traffic that scuttles around its base – Xi’an’s answer to the Place de l’Etoile and just as chaotic. 

 

So here I am.  The first leg is complete.  My distance meter reads 2,809.31km.  It has taken me 46 days to reach this city since leaving Hong Kong.  31 days of actual riding.  An average of 90km per day in the saddle.

 

The feeling of accomplishment is completely satisfying.  There is absolutely no sense of anti-climax.   I am delighted and I stand, for a short time, feeling like the new owner of this old city.

 

This is the end of my account of the first part of my journey across Eurasia.  Thank you so much for taking an interest in what I am doing and I hope some of my accounts have entertained you along the way! 

 

If it has been exhausting to read, believe me, it has been more exhausting to ride.  And my journey is very far from over.

 

Indeed, as an Englishman, perhaps an appropriate note to end on would be the words of one of England’s finest, our dear old Winston:

 

“This is not the end.  It is not even the beginning of the end.  But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

 

Praise the Lord!


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