China Part 4: Most Wanted in Chengdu (Langmusi to Chengdu 19/12/15-02/01/16)

Langmusi was geared towards tourists, but clearly not receiving any at this time of year. There were a whole bunch of hostels in the village but every single one was closed. I haggled an open hotel room for less than a quarter of their ‘rack rate’ but it still wasn’t as a cheap as a dorm bed would have been.

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Langmusi to Chengdu

The shops and restaurants had English signs on them, and one of the horse trekking excursion offices had a ‘recommended by Lonely Planet’ banner hanging from the balcony. It was unlike anything I’d seen in China and it was especially strange as there were no tourists around. Shutters were drawn down over all the shops.

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Looking over Langmusi

In reality it felt like I was in any small Tibetan town, even if it was a little more ‘polished round the edges’. People were slipping on the ice in their long robes and scraping clean yak skins on the snow.

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Some Tibetan women shoe shopping

I took a day off – it had snowed during the night and I didn’t think the roads would be safe. Besides, Langmusi was a good place for a break.

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Gansu Monastery
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Young monks on their way home

I went for a stroll around Gansu monastery. The ticket office was closed – a bonus of coming at the ‘wrong’ time of year.

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Icicles were hanging of every roof. Slightly impossible to forget the cold but if you do they’re there to remind you!

At the far end of town I wandered through a small gorge where a stream lead into the mountains.

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Shrine outside one of the grottos
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The beginning of the gorge trail

Before long I was completely on my own, hiking along this tiny path. It was incredibly peaceful. It occurred to how little tranquillity I find in this country but now only the gentle crunching of snow under my boots broke the silence.

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After a while of walking the gorge suddenly opened up into this meadow – revealing this rather lonely shepherd’s tent. You’re never alone in this country!

I left Gansu province and began my ride into Sichuan. The roads were stunning – everything glistened in the snow and even the permanent ‘ice-beard’ couldn’t dampen my mood.

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The ice-beard continues to be a daily nuisance
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Tibetan village

I mentioned in the last blog how the English speakers have started appearing again. The Tibetans seem to value it higher than the Chinese. A young guy asked me if I needed help finding a room and took me to a woman’s house where I could stay for £3 – the kind of place I’d never have found on my own.

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This is what I imagine Antarctica to look like (minus the road running straight through everything!)
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And when there’s nothing around you’ll always find a stack of prayer flags flapping in the wind…

It was a pleasant town but my evening walk was cut short by the cold. Even with all my layers on the chill was too much. I retreated to my room for another freezing night.

That’s the problem with these budget places – they don’t have heaters. You often get an electric blanket but that’s not much help when you’re not under the sheets. I forgot to put my water bottles under the blanket and they’d frozen by the morning.

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That scarf around his neck says ‘LONDON’ in bold letters. I wonder if, on the other side of the world, there’s a Londoner proudly rocking a Tibetan ‘chuba’?
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Arriving (/sliding) into Zoige

The ride from Zoige was the stretch I was nervous about. It was 140km until the next civilisation. There wasn’t a chance I could make that in a day – not in these snowy mountains.

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This what the cheapest rooms look like. No matter what the price is you almost always get a TV. There won’t be running water available, but you will get a big thermos flask and a bowl to wash your face with (or your cooking gear, in my case). Hope you won’t need a wee in the night – it will be a frozen squatter outside somewhere in the cold!
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Welcome to Tibet – even the yak come for some high street window shopping at the weekend!
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Stunning roads – and ice free!

Finding somewhere to camp? No problem. The temperature was the issue. It had been hitting -20C at night and now I was about to climb up to around 3,800m. If it’s hard to imagine sleeping in such cold, just think: you probably have your freezer tuned to about -18C. I’d rather avoid that.

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Found a solution to the ‘ice-beard’ issue. The best part is nipping into the shop with the balaclava on…

In the morning there were people around – Tibetan shepherds with tents pitched on the plateau and a couple of tiny villages. I would have been happy to knock on a door/tent sheet to find a place to sleep or sneak into an abandoned hut but as I climbed above the snowline life slowly disappeared. No yak could graze up here and no yak = no people.

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Yak hunting for vegetation/practising their ice skating
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Finding a snow-free rock = lunch time!

Just as I’d given up on finding a place to sleep I spotted what looked like a building in the distance. I went over to see if there was anyone inside but when I pushed the metal door two dogs inside started going mental. As I started to backtrack the door opened from inside. A guy with blood all over his hands appeared at the gate with a red-stained cigarette to his lips. The two dogs were barking their heads off behind him pacing as far as they could towards me until the chain around their necks snapped them back.

A couple of posts ago I wrote how all the dogs in China are small and cute. That’s not the case up in the mountains. Outside all the houses massive Tibetan Mastiffs like these are tied up. I assume they’re guard dogs for the yak. Against wolves? People? I’m not sure.

The other day a loose one chased me in a village. It was the size of my bike! I’m never scared of the dogs that chase me but this one genuinely looked like it would eat me. I had to hide behind the bicycle.

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The colourful flags stand out for miles against the vast spread of white snow

The bloke with blood all over had been busy skinning a lamb and I was invited to stay. I couldn’t quite work out what the building was – it looked like some kind of road maintenance place. An empty meeting room was unlocked for me and I made myself at home.

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My (not so) cosy room for the night. Better than outside though!

I felt sorry for the guys here. The Tibetans choose to hang out high in the mountains but these guys had been positioned in the middle of nowhere for work. They huddled around an oven whilst juggling bowls of water trying to defrost everything that had frozen solid during the day.

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The worker who invited me to have dinner with him

One of the guys invited me to eat with him. He procured a bottle of baiju (the lethal Chinese spirit) and was very impressed when I whipped out my hip flask full of the stuff. He poured us a generous shot and once we cheersed I necked it in one while he took a small sip. He looked even more impressed. Everyone I drank vodka with in the former Soviet countries looked at me with disgust if I didn’t finish a glass in one… now I was in a country of responsible drinkers!

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My hip flask of 62% baiju. Tastes foul but perfect for those cold nights – I need the extra hairs on my chest these days!

I haven’t figured out the drinking culture in China. The don’t stumble around the streets with vodka bottles in hand like they do in Central Asia. But they do drink – I think it’s just done more behind closed doors.

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I’ve honestly never seen a landscape like this before – riding through it is an absolute pleasure!

It snowed overnight and I was thankful not to have been in my tent. The roads were in lethal condition. It was way below zero and everything had frozen into a sheet of ice.

I saw the first victim of the roads within half an hour – a truck tipped over into the snow. The driver was out in a huge coat stacking up the boxes he’d been carrying while waiting for help.

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First crash of the day

I was finally at the high point for this chapter – 3,840m. Climbing was easy in these conditions, it was getting down that was hard…

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Highest point in China so far – 3,840m

The road was a death trap. The ice was impossible to cycle on. I squeezed my brakes and kept my speed below 10km/h but it wasn’t enough. I fell. 5 minutes later I fell again. Then I slipped as I tried to lift my bike up.

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Finally descending from the plateau…

It was a stressful morning. There was no way I could ride down the mountain. It would have been one of the best descents of my trip but I’d break my neck if I tried to ride it. I considered hitching a ride, but I would have been just as stressed sitting in a car getting down this road.

And so I started walking. It was hard enough trying not to slip just walking the bike downhill. Unbelievably frustrating.

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Heavily loaded bicycle + narrow tyres + frozen roads. A great combo…

Eventually I’d descended enough that the ice began to melt in the sun. The trucks had stopped to remove their winter chains and I could relax a little and enjoy the ride.

I wasn’t stupid enough to ‘let rip’ (I could’ve free-wheeled at 70km/h downhill on some sections), but I was stupid enough to let myself roll at 30/40km/h. An outcrop of the mountain had kept a few meters of the road in shade (the sun doesn’t get very high in the sky these short days) and I missed a sheet of black ice layered across the road.

Three strikes and you’re out. I slipped and lost control of the bike. This time I was going fast enough to do some serious damage but somehow I limped back up with only a few scrapes. I straightened my handlebars out and hobbled on. Walking – needless to say. I felt like a real idiot. A very lucky idiot at that.

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I’m so sick of ice!

As I walked towards one tunnel I stopped to take a photo to try and show how hard it is to spot the ice in certain places. As I did so a truck was driving at snail’s pace into the darkness. Just as I snapped my shot I heard a crash from in front – the truck’s front section had lost grip and slipped into the wall! If you look at the picture you can see the front at an angle to the right, but the tunnel actually bends to the left.

I carefully walked passed the truck and stopped on the other side to see the damage. It was still moving but the front was pretty smashed up.

This is getting crazy. Imagine where I might have been if I hadn’t have stopped to take this photo? In fact, let’s not imagine… Let’s just get down the hell away from here!

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The moment a truck lost control and slipped into the tunnel wall.

I was glad to be descending. The roads simply aren’t safe up here. I’ve fallen half a dozen times over the last week and I can’t tempt fate forever. I’m sick of the cold too. Tired of pulling icicles from my beard, tired of being thirsty trying to catch drops of water from my frozen bottles, tired of my GPS battery dying in 5 minutes, tired of wearing so many layers all the time. I’ve loved it up in the mountains, but I also love the idea of warming up. I have the pleasure of descending more than 3,000m over the next few days of cycling and I can’t wait.

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Looking over Songpan
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Local cobbler

I reached Songpan bruised and exhausted. Fortunately a hostel was open and I could sleep in a cheap dorm bed. I had the room to myself, of course.

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Dried yak meat for sale
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Songpan Old Town

There were even some other tourists around! I met an English/Aussie couple who were the first ‘native speakers’ I’d met in more than a month.

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Walking around the Old Town wall

I enjoyed the tourist friendly comforts. A proper coffee (can’t remember when I last had one of those) and a burger with chips (yak meat – but close enough!)

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Hui Muslim bloke having a kip

I continued to follow the road south. In one village everyone had these monster white yak that looked unlike anything I’d ever seen before. I think they were used for something tourist-related but (as ever in China) I couldn’t really figure out what it was about.

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Surely that can’t be comfortable? If someone yanked my nose ring I wouldn’t look so un-fazed!
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Another pic to show how big those animals are – it’s nearly the size of that house!

The villages are all beautiful and different. The people are changing too – there’s a new ethnic minority around called Qiang. They dress in traditional clothes like the Tibetans but the women’s gowns are noticeably floral. Slowly the Han-Chinese are becoming the dominant group again.

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Another crazy set of switchbacks
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Passing a picturesque village

I’d dropped far enough to camp again and so I stuck my tent up across the river from a small village. It felt good to be in my tent again – I was fed up with having to pay to sleep in dives. It was chilly in the evening – but I doubt it dropped much below -5 in the night.

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Christmas Eve. Happy to be in my tent but I’d rather be in the pub back home…

It was Christmas. Definitely the least ‘Christmassy’ one I’ve ever had. In the days running up to it I’d been worried that I might feel homesick on the day – but the whole occasion felt so detached that it didn’t feel like Christmas at all. Had I been in Europe but away from my family I might have felt lonely thanks to the omnipresent Christmas reminders – songs filling the streets, Xmas lights hanging of lamp posts and big adverts stuck up in all the shop windows everywhere. But there was none of that here. Christmas felt like it was taking place in a different universe.

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First time I’ve had tofu for Christmas lunch!
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Cafe owner. Not as good as my Dad’s roast dinner but decent enough to ride on…

I stopped in a small town called Weizhou and searched for a room with WiFi so I could Skype my family. The only ‘Western’ food I could find for my Christmas dinner was a fried chicken place. Not quite roast Turkey – but better than tofu.

My meal was interrupted a couple of times by some teenage girls who wanted to take selfies with me. I’m hairy and dirty and yet this is the coolest I’ve ever been, apparently. You’re still quite the novelty if you’re white around here.

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Passing a castle on the way to Weizhou. Considered a visit but the entrance fee was extortionate (just like all these tourist attractions in China)
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I love watching the dancers out in the evenings in these towns. It’s not dissimilar to what I’d get up to on a Friday night – meeting up with friends and going out for a boogie, and yet there’s something a tiny bit creepy abut the uniformity in it here…
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Starting to look pretty different from the Tibetan Plateau, isn’t it?
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My bike crammed into the hotel toilet. I’m sure she doesn’t mind – better than outside!

I wanted to reach Chengdu in a day. If I could get onto the motorway that had been drilled through the mountains that would be possible in 120 downhill kilometres. At the first toll gate I slipped through without being spotted. It wasn’t much fun bombing down the highway’s long tunnels (a couple longer than 5km) with all the other traffic but there was a wide hard-shoulder on the open sections and the tunnels were well ventilated and lit. In many ways I felt safer than on the small road and the best part? No incessant beeping. Hurray!

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All over China there are these ’emergency shelter’ signs. God knows what for. This was the first time I’d seen one outside a city…
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The motorway I wanted to be cycling along

Before the last big tunnel the guards caught me and made me exit. The old road snaked around the valley and up over a small pass adding an exhausting 35km to the day. There was no chance I’d reach Chengdu so I pitched my tent at the end of a switchback on a neglected footpath leading up the mountain.

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The trees around me are starting to really change – including the stuff growing on them!

The scenery had been changing dramatically. Just a few days ago I’d been covered in snow up on the Tibetan Plateau. I’d descended through Alpine-like landscapes as the frozen streams began to flow and trees began to grow greener. Now everything was becoming slightly tropical. As I set up my tent I realised I was sweating a little in the humidity. Gigantic palm leaves were hanging over my camp and the flora had a Jungly density. I’d landed in a new world and that put a very big smile on my face.

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Is this my first jungle campsite?
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I’m so glad I’m not sharing any more of those same old desert camp sites – time for something new!

I dropped down the last hill in the morning and found myself riding through 50km of built up urban areas on the way into the provincial capital. On the way in I bumped into a couple of very professional looking cyclists in matching outfits. They invited me to their office in a couple of days for an interview, to which I happily agreed despite not being sure if I’d understood them properly. 

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Making friends on the way into Chengdu

Chengdu – at last! Sarah and Scott (the Long Rode Home Aussie’s I cycled with across Kazakhstan and into China with) had gotten English teaching jobs and settled down for a year in town. They were the first familiar faces I’ve been able to visit for about 10 months. I could be a slob in their flat for a few days before my flight to Hong Kong – perfect!

They hadn’t planned on stopping in Chengdu but the opportunity was too good to refuse. There are loads of English teaching jobs and the demand for native speakers is huge. I could probably have a job within a few days here if I wanted to. Salary of about £1,200 a month and I could rent a flat for about a tenth of that. I could stop cycling and have a better quality of life working in China than I could in London. A salary ten times my rent (and for a whole flat?) Dream on. Maybe a quarter the price for a room…

I don’t have any teaching experience but is that a problem? Nope. Nor is the fact that you need two years experience working in your area before you can apply for a working visa. The whole thing is a sham here and some of the companies even fake the documents for you. 

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Just look at that smog – ew!

The first morning I looked out the window of their 30th floor apartment living in Chengdu suddenly seemed less appealing. A thick blanket of smog was hanging over the city. I’ve never seen anything like it – visibility wasn’t more than a few hundred meters. Totally grim. Apparently it was a one of the worst weeks of pollution they’d had for a while (about 5 times the pollution rating of a normal London day at points). I couldn’t live somewhere like that.

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The bleak view from Sarah & Scott’s 30th floor apartment

I met up with my new cycling friends at their office. Another guy spoke good English and a bunch of things were clarified for me. The company is a not-for-profit organization that helps Chinese cyclists on the road from Chengdu to Lhasa. I’d heard this road was popular for Chinese cyclists (not foreigners though – the road into Tibet is closed for us) but I had no idea it was such a big deal – apparently more than 100,000 people cycled it last year! They offer support for those pedalling up to the Tibetan Plateau – emergency cars along the road, training on road safety and most importantly advice and medicine for staying safe at high altitude (the road goes just over 5,000m).

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Me and the crew

They were very impressed with my story – especially the fact that I’d still been going strong up in the mountains in winter. We chatted for a while and some guy wrote notes before taking some photos from my hard-drive. I was whisked off to a cafe and plonked down next to a translator, with a spot-light on and a microphone hanging over our heads. Cameras were set up on tripods and filming started for their ‘documentary’ on me. Very strange…

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Playing celebrity for the day!

The translator was an incredibly sweet girl who I chatted to loads throughout the day (happy to have found someone who spoke perfect English). She was a Christian and we talked a lot about her faith and church (there aren’t many Christians around here), her marriage, their Christmas and she showed me pictures of the charity work she’d been doing with poor minorities in Yunnan province.

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Autograph, anyone?

It’s always the smallest things that make the biggest impressions on me when I’m travelling. This passing comment was such a brief moment but it was all I could think about while I was being interviewed about my life on two wheels:

She’d been to the US a couple of times and we were talking about the country. Barack Obama came up in conversation and she said she didn’t like him. That surprised me a little – to me he seems like one of the few Americans with a full set of braincells (you’re not that bad guys, I’ve just had a little too much Trump on the news recently) and I asked her why she thought that. She replied something along these lines: ‘because of his campaigning for gay rights’. I had to double take to check the words a had really come out her mouth – this sweet, intelligent, caring girl had just slipped out a homophobic line so casually.

I opened my mouth to tell her that I was gay (thinking it would be fun to see her reaction) but I decided against making the situation so awkward and let it slip. I wasn’t offended her being against homosexuality – if someone disagrees with it because of their religion that’s fine, as long as they don’t act upon that view. Keep it to yourself. What did offend me was that she would say something like that in front of me – how could she know that I’m not gay or that I have a gay family member or that I have gay friends (which I do). It just seemed unnecessarily provocative. She’d blown my stereotype of the regular homophobe out the window. I barely blinked when those Central Asian Muslims who thought they were the next Genghis Kahn produced a comment like that, but her? That really threw me.

 

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My feature in the daily newspaper

The next day they gave me a copy of the daily newspaper with yours truly featured. Here’s a quick translation of the rather amusing second paragraph (a few words put in my mouth):

On 16 January this year, Jonathan hopped on his bike, starting off from London. He didn’t fool around in places he went to, but for now, he will stay for a few days in Chengdu. “Nice!” This was Jonathan’s first impression arriving Chengdu. Eating a few buns and a dry hot pot, he felt those were the most delicious food he had on his way. He is skilful in getting food with his chopsticks. He is not a picky eater, eating fried dish, dry hot pot, and simmered dish, besides rice. “There are a lot of Chinese restaurants in the UK, so using chopsticks is no big deal’.

Typical China – my thoughts on the food more important than the last year of cycling!

If your a Chinese speaker you can also check out this feature  they wrote and maybe while you’re at it you can tell me what the website actually is! I guess the film footage will materialise somewhere eventually too…

I was pleased to have company for New Year’s Eve after my lonely Christmas. It was quite the cyclist affair – seven of us cycling around the world. Myself, Sarah & Scott, Niko & Gokben (a French/Turkish couple who also paused their ride in Chengdu to earn some money [Frogs on Wheels]) and Eric & Charlotte (a French couple who’d taken a long break in town [Plus Loin Qu’Ailleurs]).

At about 2am Niko, Scott and myself caught a cab into town to meet some of Niko’s mates. The next series of events turned the night into one of the strangest of my life…

Somewhere in the centre we were heckling some of the other cars on the road, having a laugh about how useless the drivers are here. We weren’t doing anything bad, just drunk and being a bit silly. Windows were up and we were just entertaining ourselves (although I’m sure the taxi driver thought we were mugs).Scott took the joke a tad too far and stuck his middle finger up at a sports car overtaking us – that was probably a bad move.

We stopped at a traffic light and the two guys in the sports car jumped out and came over to our taxi. It all happened a bit quickly. One of the guys started talking to the taxi driver who then started telling us we had to get out while the other guy started shouting at Scott (I think he was even reaching through the window to grab him). I’m not sure why the taxi driver didn’t just drive off but it seemed he was more scared of these guys than us. Next thing I know Scott had risen to the bait and got out the car. Here we go…

The last thing I wanted to do was get into a fight on NYE. But these guys looked desperate for one and now Scott was out the car. I couldn’t exactly just sit there watching my mate getting into a fight so I got out and joined the ‘party’. Nothing got too nasty initially – just a bit scrappy. One minute I was trying to pull Scott away and the next I was stopping one of the Chinese blokes from trying to land another high kick at him. (What’s with all the kicking? Is that how they fight here? Too many martial arts movies I think).

One of the guys kept shouting ‘mother-fucker!’ which only reminded me of that Chinese character in The Hangover (I doubt that was the ‘look’ he was going for) and ‘this is China!’ in a ‘this is Sparta‘ voice. It wasn’t so funny when one of them found a glass bottle, smashed it and then started running towards Scott. Again I found myself wishing I could just turn around and walk off (it wasn’t my fight!) but I really didn’t fancy seeing anyone get stabbed so I grabbed him and pulled him away hoping that he wouldn’t decide I was the enemy while he had a broken bottle in his hand.

It was only Scott they were after and eventually he was smart enough to leg it. One of them was on the phone and the last thing you want is to still be around when all their mates turn up. Niko had been with Scott at the other end of the road while I’d been with the other chap (who’d fortunately dropped the bottle now), but now I wasn’t sure where he was either. We saw Scott’s silhouette sprinting away on the far side of the river and instead of running after him my new ‘mate’ put a firm arm over my shoulder and grabbed my coat collar saying something in broken English about how he had to to ‘come back’. I really didn’t want a fight with this bloke but when I tried to push him off he held on even tighter. I decided that even I landed a good punch to his face I could leg it to the busy street round the corner – but by the time I’d come to that conclusion another guy had turned up. I wondered what my chances were of out-running two of them but suddenly a few more guys had turned up and I figured I should just play it calm.

They walked me round a corner and sat me down on a ledge. The one guy still had his hand tightly around my coat collar – when I went to stand up he pulled me down again. The other guys had turned up in two other super fancy sports cars… who were these guys? They called themselves ‘gangsters’ to me but I wasn’t very scared of them – the two guys who’d started it all looked really pissed but the other guys didn’t look like thugs. They were well dressed and a couple of them spoke OK English.

They said they wanted Scott to come back and apologise to them. I pointed out that he already had, but had when he did he’d been met with a karate kick to the chest. That suggestion pissed them off even more so I decide to be as polite as possible instead. They asked me to call Scott but he didn’t have a phone with him. ‘Of course he does’ they said and insisted I gave them his number. Then they didn’t believe me when I said I didn’t have it (the truth). They also asked me where he lived, which I obviously didn’t answer.

At one point they said I would pay if he didn’t come back, they threatened to take my phone and said they wanted money from me. But despite this I didn’t think they had it in them, especially if I didn’t give them anything willingly (which I had no intention of). I’m being held here against my will, while they demand something in return for letting me go… I guess this means I’m being held hostage?

I was pretty relieved when Niko turned up. There was 6/7 of them so the odds hadn’t been particularly in my favour. They said they would wait all night for Scott which we said was fine – we couldn’t get hold of him and we were in no rush to get anywhere. In these situations time is your best friend – especially when people are drunk and high on testosterone. When people are seeing red before their eyes it’s only time that will calm things down.

After a short while they gave up and said we could go. Phew. That was a slightly pathetic kidnapping – no fingers chopped off or ransom notes delivered… The movie ones are better!

My mind was calm but I could hear my heartbeat in ears and my veins were tingling from the adrenaline pumped through them. I sobered up completely so we went to bar nearby and got in touch with Scott – he was fine and back home.

We’d gone to the bar because Niko said we’d be able to get a free drink because we were foreign. That’s really how it works here – so many places just want foreigners in their bar or restaurant that they’ll give you stuff for free just for your skin colour. It’s very strange.

The other night we’d gone to a club where we’d been given free drinks all night. The only thing we had to do for it was be present at the centre table. I couldn’t help think that this kind of positive discrimination was incredibly uncomfortable but when the waitress delivered a second bottle of Remy Martin to our table I decided that my morals aren’t that concrete…

It had been the weirdest New Year’s Eve of my life. A strange way to end what has been a pretty strange year. My visa extension was about to expire and it was time to jump on a flight to Hong Kong to find away back into China.

More on that next time!

 

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