Path Out of the Mountains


As I surveyed my map, it was impossible to think about the ride for the next three days without a good deal of trepidation and necessary resolve.  The distances were long, the vertical climb huge and decent sized towns along the way were very few in number. 


However, I did find an alternative route that I hadn’t noticed before that would avoid the road of 120km over the largest mountain between Wuxi and a city called Ankang, some 250km to the north.  For about five seconds, a voice in my head suggested this might be bottling out.  To which the quite reasonable answer was, I think I’ve done more than enough mountains to give myself a break if one was available.  (And there were still many more to come.)


So setting out after the entertainment of the previous evening, I began following along the road heading north next to the Da Leng He.  For some reason, and despite much stretching, my Achilles tendon was not feeling so good that morning, so I took it a little easy.  The road was relatively flat and the first 40-odd km passed quickly between the sheer faces of the towering gorge.  The river would split and break off into different valleys as I traced it upstream, but the road carried on steadily until it led to a small town.


The main street was busy with market activity – clothes, fruit, meat, electrical goods, hairdressers, garages - all seemed to be doing good trade.  I stopped and bought some fruit that came with some information.  40km to my destination of Zhenping (pronounced “Jun-ping”).  I actually knew this estimate to be well short but I was reassured that the townsfolk didn’t gasp in anticipation at a cyclist trying to get over the pass into the province of Shaanxi. 


As I was pedalling out of the town, a shop was celebrating its opening with the customary eruption of pao – fireworks – on the street in front of the store.  You will see and hear this all over China.  For all manner of occasions – any occasion it seems – copious arsenals of fireworks are simply laid out on the road and set off.  Usually I would hear this, or see the little fire bursts in the sky off in the distance, or come across the debris of exploded red paper spread across the road telling of a wedding or a birthday or festival.  And sometimes, I was unfortunate to arrive just in time to plunge into the midst of a maelstrom of explosions. 


I suppose I was reassured by the fact that the traffic ahead and other motorcyclists and cyclists ploughed on into the smoke regardless, but that didn’t stop me jumping in my seat at each explosion and wondering very sincerely how often one of these fireworks took off horizontally instead of vertically as they were supposed to. 


Leaving the town behind me, the inevitable caught up with me, and the road started rising ahead.  I stopped to eat some food to give me some energy for the climb.  The town sat at the foot of a valley where two ridges collided around the small river at their base.  From my point, the valley sides grew and grew in green and brown folds to the east and west and stretched further and further apart – revealing a vast gap that was the gateway into Shaanxi province.  The road climbed the eastern ridge.  High and far off in the distance I could see a distinctive metal barrier curling round the last visible shoulder that betrayed the track of the road. 


Oh-kay.  Better get going. 


My tendon was more or less feeling better, it was early(ish) in the day and I had plenty of food and energy so this climb actually proved quite enjoyable and satisfying.  The road was amazingly circuitous in the way it climbed up the valley but it was made much easier when a local pointed out that the white milestones by the roadside marked the distance to the pass at the top. 


The many hours (days, months even?) I have spent on the detestable rowing machines of my past serve extremely well for this kind of situation.  My mind is in familiar territory as it is filled with calculations as the distance slowly but steadily is eaten up.  There goes another 500m, that’s 9km to go, only 3 times the distance I’ve done from my last break which took me 20 minutes, so another 60-odd minutes in the climb, etc. etc.  There is a limitless number of mathematical ways to fill the time between the present and the sweet moment when the top is reached. 


But soon enough I was counting down 100m at a time the last two kilometres where the road clung tightly under overhanging cliffs at the valley head.  The road rounds out to pass under a big decorative yellow gateway welcoming me into the province of Shaanxi - the last province I will pass through on this first leg of the trip. 


Feeling that mixture of triumph and relief at overcoming something that had proved much easier than I had anticipated, I pulled out some dry clothes, wrapped up good and warm ready for the descent. 


As far as I could work out, it was all downhill to the town of Zhenping.  This proved to be the case, and it was relatively straight forward, despite a brief heart-stopping moment when two construction lorries passing each other on the road immediately ahead of me nearly collided, slewing and skidding as they braked on the muddy surface. 


It is always interesting to cross from one province into the other.  Generally, each province is defined geographically – as in this case by the mountains – and so the communities on each side of the divide represent the most remote and agrarian regions in each province.  They usually have a very different feel to one another, and I normally have to adjust (however slightly) to the atmosphere of the new place.  My immediate impression of these Shaanxi villages was that they seemed rather bland compared to the pseudo-Alpine impression of Chongqing’s final mountain hamlets, but then the weather was a little colder and cloudier.  Everything looked dull in the flat light.


Despite the distance of 30km from the top it felt like I was  approaching Zhenping almost within minutes.  The town was long and thin and squeezed in between the mountains on one side and a river on the other.  The town centre opened out a little so that it flanked both river banks but it was very small.  I found the main hotel in town pretty quickly.  It sat on the main town square which later than night was filled with the womenfolk of the town performing their musical exercises in characteristic Chinese unity. 


The main street was strewn with cheap clothes stores, mobile phone outlets and small food markets.  There weren’t many restaurants and where I did eventually sit down, I was served a hugely overpriced and under-appreciated meal. 


Zhenping may well be the least memorable of all the towns I have stayed in so I won’t dwell on it.


The following day was again following the river downstream on a stunningly bright morning.  This road was even less used than the other mountain routes I had been passing along.  There was almost no traffic at all for much of the morning.  The river cut down and down into the valley until the small stream had become a wide and hustling river, rushing over the broken boulders that filled the valley bottom.  Meanwhile, the road stayed high up the valley shoulder and I passed from one village to the next.  As the miles ticked by I allowed myself the creeping sensation that here I was, making my escape from the mountains. 


As I approached another village, there was the shredded paper and broken cardboard pieces of another box of fireworks, still smouldering by the roadside.  Noticing the smoke, I cautiously hoped all the rockets had gone off.  It felt almost comic when, at the exact moment I passed the box, one final bang went off right next to me.  I nearly jumped out of my skin – and then laughed myself silly at the fright I had taken as the adrenalin buzzed around my body. 


The road eventually left that river and broke off to the north-west, this time climbing alongside another stream.  Although it was another 30km up, it was not steep, so the going was fine. 


In one village I was overtaken by a little merchant on his tricycle scooter which had one wonky wheel and looked like the bolts might fly off at any moment.  He had one of these recorded announcements blaring out of crackly old speakers that one sometimes hears.  “I’ve got chillies, I’ve got pots, I’ve got pans…”.  He was only remarkable because we kept overtaking one another all the way up the valley and then down the other side.  He would stop to sell some of his goods, I would stop for a break or slow down uphill.  But after the first couple of times, I’d give him a friendly wave as I passed, and he’d give me a beep and a grin as he passed me.


We happened to reach the pass over the top at the same time and we stopped together.  He told me he lived in the town I was headed to, but he did this route every day.  “All down now, all down!” he assured me.  He evidently understood that this would be good news to me. 


And he was right.  In the bright November sunlight I ploughed down the valley at a good speed.  I started noticing more industry by the roadside, and smarter houses, even little holiday hut resorts which looked oddly misplaced.  All of which betrayed the approach to a bigger town as I moved from the outer circles of the provincial hinterland slowly but steadily towards the heart of Shaanxi, towards my goal of the ancient city of Xi’an.


That night I stayed in the small town of Pingli.  There wasn’t much to this town, but I did manage to get picked up by a man who was the friend of the hotel owner.  I needed ibuprofen for my tendon and he offered to walk me to a chemist.  His name was Liu (pronounced like Leo) and he was about 45.  It turned out he worked for Amway International of all companies.  I did wonder how triangular selling must take off in a population as massive as China’s but we couldn’t speak in detail about it.


Instead I suggested we grab a bite and we walked across one of the two ornamental bridges to the big town square that was dominated by a huge pagoda that stood in its centre – and had done for 500 years I was told.  We ambled along and he led me to a Muslim restaurant where he ordered me a couple of characteristic dishes that proved pretty tasty, but far too much food.  My attempts to limit each to a half-portion apparently fell on deaf ears. 


I tried to make some conversation with him but he had obviously decided he had a better idea.  He approached a group of young teenage girls who were just coming into the restaurant and evidently managed to recruit the two best English speakers to come and talk with me.  Although they were very shy at first, I did my best to encourage them and they soon got over this and we had some kind of conversation about families, study, what they wanted to do in the future – the basics.  I guess it’s true that we probably did better than I would have managed with Liu.  As I left, I told them they must tell their English teacher that they get an A* for their English speaking from a real Englishman.  They seemed pleased by this.


The following day was a ride of much shorter distance to the city of Ankang.  This was the county city of that region, straddling the wide river Han that eventually flows into the Yangtze, but the town itself was utterly bland.  It was only 60km from Pingli and it was nice to have a relatively easy ride there.  By the last 5 or 10km the road had led me well out of the mountains – the beauty and the majesty of the Daba Shan lay behind me now.  Ahead seemed to lie only the bland, pale landscape that surrounded Ankang. 


I didn’t care.  Ankang is only 250km from Xi’an.  That is two days’ riding at a push.  So as I rolled along the dusty main route into the city, I was content to think the toughest was all behind me.  More or less, I thought, I’ve made it.  I looked forward to the rest.


I was certainly going to make it.  But few things worth doing ever come easy.  And the final days to Xi’an would only prove this.

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