Sunday, 21 April 2013

112. Over the mountains to Lanzhou

We rode out of Chengdu in a convoy of three, with our companion Mark setting the pace for the first day that ensured we blew off the cobwebs from our month long layover. We almost reached Mianyang before taking a room on the roadside. Like some of the newer hotels we have lodged in before, our shared bedroom came with a clear glass screened shower and squat toilet, so those wishing to spectate can do so if they please.  Mark was bound for Songpan and we said goodbye the next morning before we rode through a soggy Mianyang. One of Sichuan's main cities and with a population equivalent to Ireland, the city was close to the epicentre of the 2008 earthquake that had caused particularly severe damage to schools and left an estimated 7000 pupils dead in the city alone. 

The G108 became quieter on the third day after Zitong as it wound up into the cypress covered hillside around Qiqushan temple. We have met a lot of local cyclists out touring over the past couple of weeks which is great to see. One fellow from Guangzhou had already clocked up 12000 km on a tour around China. One day we passed a trio on roller blades.

We ended up in Sichuan's northern city of Guangyuan after five days and almost chose a longer route via Xian as there was still some concern that there was no diagnosis over my guts and it might be better to stay closer to bigger towns than the more remote route over the mountains. That evening though I got the good news that the tests done in Hong Kong had finally proven amoebic colitis caused by an infection I had picked up along the road and which I had been treated for. So with this news we doubled back 20 km on the G108 and joined the 212 that would take us almost 800 km over the mountains to Gansu's provincial capital in Lanzhou. We had been evicted from our standard cheap hotel in Guangyuan as the city is the site of a nuclear facility and the authorities are more jittery than normal about the presence of hairy big-noses so we found ourselves confined to the posh international hotel where we had to fork out 25 euros for a fancy room - about five times are normal rate in China. For the first and hopefully last time on the trip a bemused bell boy loaded our mud spattered panniers onto the trolley and up to our quarters on the umpteenth floor. 

Across the provincial border in Gansu we entered one of China's poorest provinces although the construction continued even in these isolated mountains as the pillar foundations and tunnels for an elevated highway and a high speed train were being put in. Few foreigners make it this way and curiosity increased among the locals and the authorities. Most evenings the police would have heard about the cycling laowais in town and turn up with and bilingual registration forms for the legal aliens. I don't know where a this paper work ends up or if there's a central system charting our progress. 

The further north we went the landscape shrivelled up and desiccated hillsides through dust clouds in the air when gusts of wind blew. The harsh landscape was also etched into the faces of those who survive here. Those old enough may have experienced the horrors of the famine as a result of Mao's misguided policies in the late 1950s. Gansu and Sichuan were two of the worst affected areas in the country. This land is the cultural crossroads of China. The red-cheeked highlanders mix with Han and the Muslim Hui. The latter appearing to have cornered much of the market with their fresh noodles that closely resemble pasta. Mosques are another feature that lets Islamic Central Asia presence feel much closer now.

For the past few days we've been staying with Kevin, a Peace Corps volunteer who works at a university here in Lanzhou. We've spent time with several of the volunteers and Kevin asked us to give a talk to his students about the trip which was attended by about forty enthusiastic faces who were very engaged and curious. Life for most of the students here is quite strict and for the duration of their degree they share eight bed dormitories and have evening curfews. For many it's their first step of independence and can be quite a challenge for them to learn how to fend for themselves. Real freedom doesn't really commence until they graduate and begin working but social expectations that marriage should follow quite quickly puts pressure on young people to settle down before too long.

Lanzhou is also the point at which we join the historical trading routes that established the Silk Road. Lying on the upper reaches of the Yellow River, Lanzhou has long been an important outpost of the Middle Kingdom. The farthest reaches of the Great Wall lay just to the north of here, between the southern fringe of the Gobi desert and the Qilian Shan range where we will push north through Gansu's narrow waist, known as the Hexi corridor, in the coming fortnight.

Lanzhou, Gansu, PRC
Pedalled: 69,419 km

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