Biking Across China, Episode 1: Western Gansu

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a heavy bag 

Leaving Home

I stood panting and sweaty by gate 13B of the station, trying to ignore the schoolboy staring at me and poking his grandfather to see if he had noticed there was a foreigner standing nearby. 

My shoulder burned from bearing the weight of my heavy touring biycle and it’s two panniers in the 30 degree heat, and I evidently looked ridiculous, judging from the number of “xingli hao da” (that’s a huge bag) comments I heard as I had lumbered across the station. In 30 minutes, I would start my 24 hour train journey to Dunhuang, a desert town in the far west of China, and then my 7500km ride back the other way. I wondered whether I was making a huge mistake.

Saying goodbye to a city, an apartment, a job, and a host of friends, boxing coaches and sparring partners felt like the voluntary shedding of a stage of life that I wasn’t quite ready to leave.

Not quite ready to leave

There’s no such thing as ready, I told myself, leaning heavily on experiences that had given me these nervous butterflies in the past: moving to China for the first time; booking a one way ticket to Hong Kong that summer, with no job waiting at the other side; stepping into the boxing ring to spar. None of them had turned out too badly.

“Why Would You Want To Do That?”

The idea for cycling across China had first bubbled up in my mind when I was – shock! – on a bike, rocketing at full speed down a rural road on my year abroad in China. I remember thinking, this is it; this is happiness.

I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since. Graduating university, I felt keenly aware that I was probably at my life’s peak of freedom and energy, and that once I boarded the carousel of working life, it would be difficult to get off. So I decided that before the start of my Grown Up Life, this would be my mission.

It sounded much sexier than I felt now, dragging 30 kilos of crap through a crowded train station. 

Still, once seated, I stared fixatedly out of the window as cities turned to fields, fields to mountains, and then mountains to the blank, desolate deserts that I had dreamed about for a year, with a rusty orange sun hanging low over the parched horizon. I was entranced.

The blank, desolate deserts I had dreamed about for a year

Dunhuang

Dunhuang sits about as far west as you can go along the “Gansu corridor”, an affectionate and accurate nickname given to the 1000km-long, slim province sandwiched between the Gobi desert to the north and Qinghai-Tibetan plateau to the south.

Dunhuang is famous as the site of the Mogao grottos, ancient caves decorated with intricate Buddhist illustrations and carvings that date back as far as AD 366, but also as a domestic tourist destination where you can experience the Gobi desert for an afternoon or two on camelback. 

Wikipedia Commons map of Gansu, modified labelling Dunhuang and surrounding countries

Hotels, restaurants and stuffed camels abound, and I noted with surprise that a lively night market had sprung up in the three years since I had last visited, bustling with vendors selling market wares: dried fruits, scarves, painted bottles, and distinctive circular wood carvings I wish I had asked more about. 

The busiest section by far was the food market, evidently newly built and full of people queueing and shouting out for egg waffles, meat kebabs, craft beer. I could’ve eaten, but the constant eyes and whispers following me were exhausting, so I pulled up my scarf and walked off to find a quieter noodle shop instead.

A girl looks at a wall of colorful wooden carvings at Dunhuang Night Market

“Lanzhou noodles” are a staple in any city throughout China, and the authentic version in Gansu province (Lanzhou is Gansu’s capital city) does not disappoint: no matter where I bought them, noodles here were fresh, springy, not too oily and beautifully spiced. I went to sleep full and happy, aware that the next night I would not have as comfortable a bed.

I bought some grapes and apples for breakfast and snacked on them while I prepared to leave. I needed more space in my bags for water and food, and ummed and ahhed over which things to take out – the folding chair, my beloved hoodie (both too big), my camera bag, my favourite green tank top. After lengthy consideration, I decided to keep my cooking pot and camping stove, reasoning that I could always use China’s amazingly efficient kuaidi (“speedy delivery”) services to send them to my friend and constant saviour Claire if they were too troublesome. I would later be extremely glad I kept them.

I posted the last rejects in the morning before I set off, to the slight annoyance of the post office manager, who I had assured that yesterday’s package was ‘the last’. A slim woman with a reserved smile, she set about cutting a cardboard box into the right shape for my haphazard collection of things. 

“Do they require you to do that?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “Less empty space just means your things won’t shake around and break.” I thanked her, wishing I had the vocabulary to ask more about her daughter, who had been there yesterday. 

While she was wrapping the box in far more layers of tape than it required, a man came in with a young boy. The older man’s eyes bulged out of his head when he saw me. 

“Say hello to the foreigner!” he urged his little boy, who said nothing. “Where’s she from, then?” He demanded of the woman wrapping my package. “She’s a teacher, right? Must be. Good work, as an English teacher. Huh. A laowai in Dunhuang.”

The woman was embarrassed for me, knowing I understood every word. 

“You should call her laoshi (teacher)not laowai,” she tried to reprimand him. I kept my head down and waited for him to leave, rather than reveal I spoke Mandarin and ignite the inevitable conversation whose predictable structure I could recite in my sleep. You can speak Chinese! How long have you been here? Where are you from? How did your Chinese get so good? Where do you live? Have you married a Chinese husband?

The willowy streets of Dunhuang

The Cycling Begins

Dunhuang to Guazhou

115km

It took me an hour or two to put together my beloved bike, who I call Xiao Lan or Lan Lan (“little blue”) and personify as a tough, enduring but easily annoyed woman, who I find myself apologising constantly to. I wasn’t sure I had put things together quite right, and sure enough, as soon as I got outside, it became clear that my chain was getting stuck.

I struggled with it for fifteen minutes, dumping my panniers on the side of the road and starting to get cold in the breeze, before I admitted defeat and asked one of the gathering crowd of observers if they could point me toward a repair shop. It was a while before I found it, because I was looking for an actual shop, rather than the man sitting half-asleep on a street corner with a tricycle piled high with spare tyres. 

His dialect was a mash of sounds that I couldn’t understand at all. Nodding helplessly, I explained the problem in Mandarin, which he seemed to understand; though as he approached my expensive bike with a pair of pliers, I had to hold my breath. It turned out all it took was a bit of brute force to bend a piece of metal back into shape and Lan Lan was once more right as rain. The man held up five fingers to indicate his fee – 5 yuan, the price of a bottle of coke – which I paid with a grin before cycling off. 

My first destination was Guazhou, 115km away.

The farmland around Dunhuang

Day 1: Thursday 08.27

In the mid-morning, I headed east out of town, cycling a modest 50 or so kilometres into the parched farmland around Dunhuang. The roads were flat and quiet, lined on both sides with what looked like silver birch trees, behind which were fields holding wheat, melons and grapes. 

A girl stopped her truck ahead of me on a deserted road and ran back holding a Hami melon to give me, which I accepted with surprise. She ran off again before I had a chance to ask her much about it. It was my first night camping and, having been warned of the dangers of leaving it too late to find a camping spot, I stopped cycling in the afternoon, pitching my tent in a field close by to her melon farm.

Melons piled by the roadside

I revelled in the warmth of the evening and the blissful silence of the fields, so different to the urban China I had come from where it was hard to find an apartment unbothered by the sound of construction. The night passed quietly, punctuated only by the sound of the wind and the occasional bleats of grazing goats.

Day 2: Friday 08.28

It was a much worse road than I anticipated that spanned the desert between Dunhuang and Guazhou. 

The 70km route along a single path had looked passable from Google Earth, but on the ground the road quality gradually worsened the further I went into the desert, becoming unrideable at the extremely annoying point of about 35km (or exactly halfway) in. What should have taken 5 hours had already stretched into the best part of the day, and things went from bad to worse as I realised I was running low on water, and not a single car or person had passed me since I had started on this road.

I laughed dryly at how I had dreamed of the same remoteness not 72 hours ago.

The remoteness I had dreamed about

As I rationed out my remaining litre of water, limiting myself to one mouthful every 15 minutes to moisturise my cracked and painful lips, I calculated that if I had to continue walking, I had another 6 hours or more to go. Would it be wiser to push on walking through the night, or make camp, rest, and try to cycle in the morning?

By 4 or 5pm and I was half cycling, half walking, counting every kilometre and pep-talking Lan Lan that we had seen worse than this (we hadn’t). When my water ran out, there was still around 30km to go. I decided I would just keep walking until I arrived. I could survive another six hours, surely, I told myself, devouring the only liquid I had left – four energy gel packs – one after another.

There must be water here somewhere

One of the reasons that Gansu can still support vegetation despite being a desert landscape with very little rainfall is it’s underground water reserves. I knew this nominally from a TV program I had seen years ago, and now found myself clinging to this “knowledge”, scanning the ditches I saw nearby for traces of streams.

An hour of pushing the bike later, I yelped for joy as I saw a ditch brimming with lush green plants – surely this meant water! Lan Lan flopped to the ground and I ran toward the ditch, finding to my delight a tiny pool of almost-clear water. 

I filled three bottles, filtering the biggest pieces of dirt out through a sock and boiling it in my pan, which I had so nearly not taken. Boiled and “filtered”, it still looked and smelled disgusting; but at least I wasn’t going to die.

I stuffed the water in my bag and set off again, half walking, half cycling dry-lipped and desperate for another 15km. Finally, around 6pm, the desert road turned into tarmac once more, and 5km later I found a convenience store, drinking a litre of the best tasting iced tea I have ever drunk.

A group of kids on bikes watched me from a distance as I guzzled the icy liquid, daring each other to talk. “Hello! What’s your name?” They shouted. “My name’s Ellie,” I replied. They paused, then erupted into laughter. Sha yisi? (What does that mean?) they asked each other, giggling. I asked to take the photo of two of the girls, who said yes; the boys were too shy, running off squealing.

“We’re not sisters. We go to school together. I’m a month older than her.”

As it started to get dark, I made my way into the town of Guazhou. My hotel – the second one that is, since the first wasn’t accepting foreigners under alleged order of the local government – had an unbelievably soft bed, and though I had to cross the street to ask the merry karaoke singers across the street to close their window, since my own wasn’t thick enough to block out their drunken crooning, once that extra barrier was in place I slept like a baby. 

I would never pack “just enough” water for a desert ride again.

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