The Long(er) Way Round


There are two roads to Xi’an from Ankang. 


The new motorway or gausu lu runs due north from the city, reaching the town of Zhen’an in 125km and forging straight ahead busting right through, over or under whatever landscape lies in its way, arriving in Xi’an just over 100km further on.  This was built only 2 years ago.  It is four lanes of immaculate tarmac.  It carries almost no traffic.


The second road was superseded by the gausu lu.  Until 2008, it was the main route north.  This road tracks due east for nearly 70km from Ankang to the town of Xunyang, before turning north and tracing the Xun river for another 110km when it at last reaches Zhen’an.  From Zhen’an it continues north, snaking in massive loops underneath the elevated motorway, curling round the hills and valley kinks that the motorway simply punches straight through.  Finally the roads part company again, the old road breaking west to go around the massive Zhong Shan and up and over the ridge to its west.  Meanwhile the gausu lu drills along nearly 20km underground to emerge onto the flat plain of Xi’an’s outlying fruit crops, which fan out from the city right up to the feet of the Qin Ling Shan


The gausu lu is a two day ride.  The old road will take four days and adds another 150km to the distance.  My objective is simply to get there so if it was in any way possible I wanted to use the gausu lu.  Now common sense would tell you that bicycles are not allowed on a motorway in any country.  I was fairly sure the same was true in China.  But I was, by this stage, so set on simply reaching Xi’an I thought it worth seeing whether I would get away with taking the straighter way. 


So on a misty morning I set out from my hotel with the route out of the city towards the beginning of the motorway memorised. 


At least that was the idea.  In fact my memory failed rather quickly and before too long I was asking passers-by for directions to the “big road”, “G70” “G65” “road to Zhen’an” and any other variation that didn’t actually use the word for a motorway (since I didn’t know it just then). 


Despite the emphatic reassurance that I was going in the wrong direction by one man, and that bicycles are not allowed on a motorway by another, I was determined to get onto the road unless I was physically turned back by someone (probably no one less than a policeman).  The second man assured me that the police would indeed do just that.


As I pedalled off from one helpful pedestrian whose advice I had declined to take, he called after me in English, “You are wrong.  You will be back!”


A few more minutes down the road, I finally came by a road sign that said “Xi’an” (in Chinese characters).  This was the very first time I had seen it on any sign.  This word made my heart leap!  Finally I was within striking distance.  With some excitement, I glanced at my distance meter and turned onto the impeccable and empty slip road that led downhill to the tollgates at the entrance to the motorway.  As I came to within 100m of the gates, there was a policeman at the roadside.  Then his patrol car.  Then another policeman.  And more police cars.


It took them some seconds to respond to the sight of a multi-coloured cyclist pressing brightly on to the north (and of course on to his destiny).  Optimistically taking their momentary hesitation as tacit acquiescence that all was well, I gave them a cheerful wave and began filtering into a lane to pass round the toll gate. 


Finally the shouts and whistles began and more police emerged.  I came to a halt and was quickly surrounded by around 8 or 9 officers.  Adopting the innocent look that my face so easily wears, I listened as they asked what I thought I was doing.  “I’m going north.  To Xi’an.  Today I go to Zhen’an.”


An uncomprehending “Eh?” was more or less their collective response. 


“You know, Xi’an.  That way.  I want to go north.”  


Amidst a general shaking of heads, one officer said “No, no, no.  You can’t go that way.  You can’t ride a bicycle on the motorway.  Not allowed.  Bu yong, bu yong.” 


“Which way then?” I asked, knowing full well what the answer was.  One of them duly traced a finger across my map, following the dog-leg eastward to the town of Xunyang and then north.


“Ohhh!” I said.  “So I can’t go on the (lovely and empty and straight and flat) gausu lu then?”






“Right – thank you thank you – sorry, I didn’t know” etc. etc. as I wheeled my bike around.


OK.  So that didn’t work.  The long way round it is.  Two more days on the road.  That meant it would be 7 days’ cycling in a row from Wuxi to reach Xi’an – the longest continuous period without a rest of the whole trip. 


It only took seconds to adjust my expectations.  This is one thing I have learnt on the road.  I try to make things happen as I want them to until it becomes very clear that an option is closed to me.  Once that is clear, there is no point dwelling on it or getting annoyed.  Instead I simply make contingent plans and carry on.


As it was, the distance to Xunyang was not huge, only 60km.  The road to the east of Ankang follows the expansive Han river and the way is generally not too much of a struggle.  The railway follows this route as well, the first time I have seen a railroad since the Yangtze.  The frequency of passenger and cargo trains thundering along the track reinforced the sense that – round here at least – all roads (of whatever kind) lead to Xi’an. 


The Han river has opened out a wide valley with steep sides.  Few settlements of any kind seem to populate the south bank.  On the north side, the road weaves along the flank of the hills that rise up from the river’s edge, leading through a thinly spread but almost constant chain of small hamlets and little villages.  Peering over the edge of the road to where the foot of the hills meet the river, you see huge barges dredging out sand and sieving gravel, with elevators whirring and large dumper trucks waiting to be filled nearby to begin the journey transporting the sand to make concrete for a multitude of new buildings or engineering projects going up throughout the region and perhaps further afield.  What the Chinese don’t know about civil engineering probably isn’t worth knowing; and many of the new roads, tunnels, bridges or dams that are transforming China’s infrastructure have their humble beginnings in the beds of China’s vast network of rivers. 


Despite it only being a short ride, this is my fourth day on the road and I give myself a long break for lunch as my legs are feeling heavy and slow.  It is not long after lunch that I notice the Chinese characters for Xunyang passing over my head on an old blue sign, telling me I am entering the city.


At first, it doesn’t seem like much, and I am a little surprised that a place so small is given such prominence on the map.  I stop at a junction and ask a couple of female policemen (policewomen?) if they know any hotels.  They willingly give me some instructions, and indicate I have to pass through the short tunnel to my left to reach the main town.


Emerging on the other side, the city makes a lot more sense.  Probably 90% of the city lies on the northern side of this spur of land, where the smaller Xun river flows into the Han river which keeps going eastward to the huge urban sprawl of Wuhan.


I pedal vaguely along taking in the new surroundings.  It is early in the afternoon, and the white buildings of the city are bright in the warm sunshine. 


Following the policewomen’s instructions, I go straight along and stop in front of a grand looking building that is obviously a hotel.  As I wheel my bike into the lobby I feel distinctly under-dressed.  Without doubt, my peculiar garb and dusty (and by now quite straggly-looking hair) have lowered the tone. 


I notice a sign describing the place as Xunyang’s Elite Business Hotel.  When I ask how much a room is for the night, I am told 200 yuan (roughly £20).  That is a lot for China, but I think you would struggle to find a hotel anywhere in England for that price.  Debating with myself for about 3 seconds whether I should save myself a fiver and find a cheaper hotel, the lure of being able to unload all my stuff then and there was too great, and I succumbed to the luxuries that this “Elite” hotel had to offer. 


When I saw the room, I felt even more acutely that any reputation I might cultivate as an intrepid traveller of the Orient was being severely compromised by staying in this place.  Nevertheless, like St Paul before me, I have learnt to be content in times of plenty and in times of scarcity – so I took this one on the chin.


After basking in luxuriant splendour for a couple of hours, I was dressed and ready to have a wander.  There was still plenty of sun left in the day, and I had a very gentle and enjoyable walk along the river bank, over the suspension bridge to the other side, and then back into the busier town centre as the sun set slowly over the hills to the west. 


Of the many cities I have passed through, I rate Xunyang among the best.  It has a friendly atmosphere – people were continually saying hello to me in both English and Chinese – and its public spaces are well planned and quite attractive.  I wandered along stopping to buy fresh bread snacks from street vendors, and peering in the smart but cheap clothes stores which thrive all over China and clothe its young people. 


A little further on I found a restaurant in amongst the evening food markets, where racks and racks of different meats, or fruit, vegetables and other street snacks stood with their grinning owners inviting me to buy some of their goods. 


I sat down and asked the waitress for whatever she recommended.  She seemed pleased and relieved at this request and pressed me to have what turned out to be quite a tasty bowl of stew and noodles.  I noticed that every single customer that sat down in that restaurant had the same meal as me, so either they couldn’t be bothered to make anything else or it genuinely was the best dish they had to offer. 


As I walked back to my hotel, it was already dark, but the big square at the centre of the town on which my hotel stood was filled with people hanging out with each other, passing the time doing nothing much at all, all lit up by the flashing lights of a towering advertising screen that dominated the square. 


A small group of children were standing around playing with their yo-yo’s.  One of them – a bright little girl of about 9 years old in a yellow coat – demanded to know who I was and what I was doing there.  I told her my name and where I was from and asked her’s.  She introduced herself and her little brother who, she seemed slightly ashamed to acknowledge, was already taller than her.  They also had a tubby friend with them, whose hands never stopped flicking and spinning his yo-yo, and then a couple of smaller children of 5 years or so, who were incessantly clamouring for their turn on the yo-yo’s (as was only fair), and were naturally ignored by the older children (as was only proper). 


A long time ago, in the early days of my prep school life in deepest darkest Suffolk, I made some pretence to being quite skilful with a yo-yo, so I asked them for a turn.  Happily, this time I could string together a few moves I remembered – “walking the dog”, “round the world”, “the cat’s cradle”.  They weren’t exactly impressed with this, but it did at least gain me some kind of acceptance into the group.  So we stood there, shooting the breeze (in a basic sort of way) finding out each other’s ages, about our families, where I was going to and coming from and other rudimentary “chat” that I can manage, while the bright plastic yo-yo’s were absent-mindedly flung about our heads. 


Eventually some grown-ups joined us and took over the conversation, which didn’t last much longer as they reached the limits of my vocabulary. 


At this point, I began to excuse myself, though the little girl wanted to know whether they could all come up to see the room in the hotel.  Not convinced the hotel management would appreciate my return, like the Pied Piper, with half a dozen kids in tow I felt a bit of a spoilsport to turn her down.  And they, naturally enough, lost interest in me as soon as I did.


With little else to accomplish that evening, I returned to my presidential suite and spread myself as widely as I could across my triple king size bed – undoubtedly the most comfortable bed I’ve been in for over a year. 


As I begin to drift into a dreamless sleep, I can’t help singing under my breath, “This is livin’… this is style… this is elegance byyy the miiiiiiiile.” 


Yes, the posh posh travelling life ain’t half bad when it comes to that! 

Comments (1)

Melissa Ilg
Said this on 12-14-2010 At 07:59 pm

Really incredible Theo! Love reading your stories and wishing you a Happy Holiday Season in China.

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