Cycling across China solo as a woman. Sound awful? Amazing? Terrifying? It’s all of those.
Xining to Lanzhou
西宁 – 兰州
220km // 3 days
I set off from Xining as soon as I woke up, aiming to ride as far as I could towards Lanzhou in a day. The total distance was 220km, and my map told me the majority of it would be blissfully downhill. Maybe I could make it in two days’ hard riding.
The single road that led there – the G109 – did indeed snake mostly downhill, alongside a gushing rust-coloured river and steep, attractive mountains, threading through village after village in one long line.
Instead of the smooth helter-skelter ride I had imagined, however, it was a frustrating mixture of paved road and dirt track and rotated between the two with a bizarre regularity.
Like clockwork, 200 metres of smooth tarmac would be followed by a cheerful yellow sign telling me to “proceed slowly, roadworks ahead”, and then the road would turn into 200 metres of uneven mud.
I passed through this cycle dozens of times, trying to thank my lucky stars that it was at least downhill as I stood up on the pedals to save my sore backside from the worst of the bounces. Aren’t G roads supposed to be one step down from a highway? How on earth had this end result of semi-road been reached? Had some administrative cockup led to only half of the necessary materials being delivered, leaving a decision between a checkerboard road or no road at all?
The sorry state of the tarmac didn’t stop freight trucks and – unbelievably – public buses from thundering by. They bounced past, engines roaring, crunching mud and rocks under heavy wheels and caking themselves and everything in a three meter radius in thick dust. What the hell were they doing here, making life difficult for everybody?
I peered in at one of the drivers of the public buses, catching sight of a tired, frustrated face, tensed with the effort of trying to control the wheel.
There must be no other road.
My annoyance evaporated, replaced with empathy and gratitude for China’s work-around attitude to roadworks. In the UK, an unfinished road would be completely closed without question. Marginally safer, perhaps, but if they closed this road, everyone here would have to find a potentially far longer and certainly mountainous route around. In this light, the bounces suddenly didn’t seem so unbearable.
Occasionally the sound of something like bagpipes or an oboe floated through the air, which a roadside apple seller told me was a traditional instrument called a shēng. He seemed less impressed by it than I was.
“They never shut up,” he grumbled. “Here, you don’t have to pay me for those apples. One or two is nothing. You’re a foreign friend after all.” He eyed the sky. “What are you going to do if it rains?”
“Get wet,” I grinned. “It’s not too far to Lanzhou, anyway.”
I rode for 90 kilometres, through tiny villages with simple names like Garlic Village and Ginger Bankside. My fingernails collected grime, turning the same dirty orange colour as the Yellow River tributary that ran swiftly in the gorge on my left, running parallel to the road.
Dust was a defining characteristic of the landscape, thrown into the air by traffic and rural metal ore mines. Everything was coloured like a mellow late summer palette: the earth, the river, the road, people’s clothes and skin.
Along one stretch of dirt track, a relatively new-looking petrol station perched impossibly on the edge of the gorge. How on earth could they have built that using this road? I wondered briefly, before reasoning that the tarmac’s current state was most likely a very recent phenomenon.
It’s normal for entire roads in Chinese cities to be torn up and resurfaced in a matter of days. Maybe this was one of the ways the local government had tried to keep construction companies occupied, dishing out projects and tearing up towns like a child playing with Lego.
The sky got darker and darker, and my left knee was beginning to hurt with every turn of the pedals, even going downhill. This is how people get repetitive strain injury. I started casting around for a discreet place to camp, wary of the wide eyes that followed me through each small cluster of village houses.
Each group of houses melted into another, without quite enough space between to set up a tent without being seen. I started to get frustrated. Is this whole road just one endless village? I cycled for miles, anxiously watching the sky as the rain crept closer.
I had thought it was too early for nightfall, and I was right: the darkness was a huge storm coming over the horizon.
Just as thunder started to sound and the first drops started to fall – or perhaps because of it – I finally spotted a deserted track that led up a small hillside. Bingo. Let’s hope this is a nice secluded little field.
A Dark Doorway
What I found instead was what looked like an abandoned mine.
The road led up to a collection of small, shoddy buildings, and behind them a roofed enclosure home to three or four old metal silos and random piles of bricks and planks.
I sheltered under this covered outdoor area as the rain worsened, pattering insistently on the corrugated iron roof with the sound of someone shaking a spoon around in a metal pan.
Close by were the padlocked doors of what must have been the mine worker’s living quarters. Some of the windows were smashed, and a couple of padlocks broken, leaving the doors hanging slightly ajar. The rooms beyond them were pitch black. Apart from the loud tapping of the rain on the roof, it was silent.
The wind was picking up, and it was biting against my thin, sweat-dampened cycling jersey. I glanced again at the doors. No wind in there.
I stood there shivering, unsure what to do.
On the one hand, it seemed ridiculous to pitch my tent outdoors in a storm when there was custom built shelter right next to me. On the other, this looked like a horror movie set. An abandoned building and a girl on her own, complete with a storm? Was I asking to be murdered?
Don’t be ridiculous. This wouldn’t be scary if it was floodlit, I told myself. Rats and bugs won’t hurt you. And are there really going to be any squatters here? Everyone knows everyone in Chinese villages. Homeless people are a city thing.
The only danger is if anyone saw you come in here.
I was pretty sure nobody had. That didn’t stop my heart from beating wildly as I walked over to one of the two un-padlocked doors. I listened for any sound of life, then took a deep breath and shoved it open.
Beyond it was a room covered in a layer of grey dust half an inch thick. Seeing that it was most definitely empty, and had been for some time, I exhaled with relief – and promptly nearly screamed as my eyes fell on a huge crack on the wall, big enough to see through to the next room. I thought I had seen a pair of eyes, but the flash of colour was just a pile of empty paint tins.
I moved closer to make sure. Nothing.
I pushed Lan Lan into the room and closed the door, balancing my head torch on the corner of the overturned table on the floor. It looked as if the room had been left in a hurry, with only valuable or portable things being taken. A ripped sweater hung on a nail on the wall, and a tattered pair of dust-covered overalls was flung over one of the wooden board bed frames. Cigarette butts littered the floor.
Having Lan Lan leaning against the table was comforting, as were the clear signs that other humans had once made this their home. A fire would be cosy.
I had avoided making campfires until now for fear of attracting unwanted attention in the open, and the thought of finally being able to make a campfire cheered me up. The walls meant light from the flames would be safely secluded.
They also mean nobody would hear you scream.
Oh, shut up, I thought, pulling out my phone to research how to build a fire indoors.
“Do not build a fire in an enclosed space. Lack of ventilation around a campfire poses a fatal risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.”
So much for that idea.
I set about trying to make a bed instead. Miraculously, there was a pile of white sack-like material cut into squares on one of the beds, and beneath the filthy top square, most of them were dust free.
Laying them out on top of the other wooden bed frame to create a base layer for under my sleeping bag, I thought of the many homeless people I’d seen sleeping – living – like this. The dirt must be one of the worst things about it. I had slept in a hotel last night, and already I felt sticky with grime.
With nothing else to do, I lodged a heavy stone against the door and wriggled into my sleeping bag, praying that the hours would pass quickly until morning.
They didn’t. I woke several times through the night, stiff with fear at the sound of rustles and creaks outside.
Here Comes The Sun
When dawn finally broke, things looked far less threatening, as I had known they would.
Eager to put the place behind me, I made some coffee on my camping stove, which in the given surroundings had the feeling of cooking in a basement meth lab.
After a couple of rounds of shadow boxing under the corrugated iron roof, I set off again on the G109, followed by the eyes of two villagers standing motionless by the side of the road, hands behind their backs in the quintessential pose of the middle aged Chinese man. Were they waiting for the bus? Roosters cawed, meaning there must be people living close by despite the apparent silence. A rooster wouldn’t roam around in the wild here for long.
The houses I continued to pass were all dilapidated. I remembered a Chinese friend telling me once that his parents had built their house in the countryside with their own hands, and I wondered if his, thousands of miles away from here, looked like this: a single storey hodgepodge of bricks and wooden beams, with small doors adorned with paper blessings and square windows shuttered with thin, flowery pieces of material.
When he had said it, he had seemed both proud of his parents, and painfully aware of his status as a have-not in China’s brutally unequal society. I looked again at the houses. Lot better than anything I could build.
The road was cold in the morning sun, and quiet.
Taking advantage of my solitude to blast a “summer barbecue” playlist on my speakers, I felt on top of the world, speeding downhill alongside the enormous Yellow River which was flowing fast next to me. This was one of the moments that made me plan this trip in the first place: pure, unadulterated happiness as I went from A to B on two wheels in the sunshine.
Tunnels dotted the road at intervals, and soon I came to one which was completely unlit. Had the floods a few weeks ago damaged the electrics? Or was this a typical case of “chabuduo” (“more or less”) mentality, when building projects facing time pressure just upped and left without tying off loose ends, because they were “more or less” done?
Either way, I was slightly terrified. It was a narrow tunnel, and my dark bike would be practically invisible to oncoming trucks, who struggled to slow down at short notice.
It would take a while to dig out my lights from my bag and attach them, and it felt unwise to do so much manoeuvring at the entrance of a pitch black tunnel, so I strapped my phone light to the handlebars and started to push the bike along the rickety pavement instead. I’d just walk it. How long could the tunnel possibly be?
10 kilometres, like the one next to your apartment back home, the annoying voice in my head said.
I hoped it wouldn’t be.
The paving stones of the rickety sidewalk, (evidently only meant for emergencies because who would be crazy enough to walk on it otherwise?) were mostly stable but some wobbled under my feet. Others had huge cracks, exposing a half metre drop below.
An alarm sounded in the distance, and I tried not to panic at the thought it was a landslide alarm. I turned off my music. Blasting “Here Comes The Sun” into the ominous darkness felt ironic enough to tempt fate.
The road continued for a couple of miles; half an hour of nervous steps. It was the only time I’d been genuinely happy to hear a freight truck thundering behind me; their bright lights floodlit the tunnel, making it seem less threatening.
A Loud Bang
The weather was beautiful as I neared the province border and the G109 melted into a highway.
I stopped in a small town to buy a late breakfast of baozi dumplings and rose bread, an oily, lightly spiced thick bread made in Qinghai that is very effective fuel for cycling, being savoury, calorifically dense and also light. A small crowd gathered as I bought my food, asking the usual questions.
“Do you want to try a cup of Qinghai liquor?”
What? That wasn’t one of the usual questions. I looked around to find a man standing next to the woman I had been absentmindedly talking to. He wore loose, robe-like clothes and had a friendly smile. He motioned to his shop. “We make qingkejiu here, it’s a special kind of local drink.”
I thought for a minute. “Ok, sure.” Why the hell not. I followed him into his shop, where he poured a tiny glass of white spirit into a cup and agreed to let me take photos.
Getting a better look at him through the lens, I saw how puffy his face was and how his eyes seemed bloodshot. The upsides of brewing your own alcohol.
I later found out that the drink is generally called Chhaang, and is popular in western China, Nepal and Tibet, though the version I was drinking was clear rather than the milky colour of pictures I later found on the internet.
Warm from the half shot I had taken and wary of drinking any more, I cycled on.
That must have been one of the last towns in Qinghai, as a few minutes later, the road I was following turned into a bridge which sailed down from the mountains into the depths of the Yellow River valley. I had to squeeze my brakes to stop myself from rocketing too fast down the incline.
The river and the valley scooping around it was impressively huge, and I stopped by the water to eat the bread I had stashed, enjoying the view and thinking of lectures at university that had told me about how the constant flooding of this river had repeatedly altered the course of China’s history.
“China’s sorrow”, the professor had said it was called. Looking at it, there was a menace visible in the speed and sheer volume of its orange water. It certainly looked powerful enough to wreck any towns in its path.
I got up to ride again, though it hardly felt like riding when I was going so fast downhill. Speeding along the highway, Lan Lan felt as excited as me for the final leg into Lanzhou to be over. We had made great time. We’d probably arrive by the end of the day, or at least be close enough to be there for a late breakfast tomorrow.
Then I looked ahead, and screamed.
For a second after the impact, I was too winded to react.
A heavy electric trike had stopped suddenly in front of me, and my brakes hadn’t done enough to stop me on the steep incline. I had rammed into the metal back of it, causing a large bang to accompany my scream. Panniers went flying and after a few seconds, pain started to sear through my left shin and right thigh.
I started to swear, mainly into thin air to relieve the pain, but also at the terrified-looking driver of the trike, who hobbled over to support my arm. Fat lot that’s going to do. “Why would you stop like that in the middle of the road?!” I yelled, exasperated. “Are you insane?”
“I was turning into my house,” he said, eyes wide. I followed his gesture and saw that a house was, indeed, built with a driveway leading directly onto the highway. Angry as I was, it was clear that it wasn’t completely his fault.
Pacing off the pain for a few minutes, I told him he didn’t need to stay.
“I’ll be fine. I won’t report anything to the police.” What was I going to do, anyway? Call the feds and get this poor guy to pay for my ice pack and bike repairs?
Looking relieved, he made off.
At least I’m alright, I told myself as I inspected the bike for damage. The impact had bent the front forks slightly out of place, impairing steering slightly, and the hooks on one pannier had snapped off completely, but apart from that, Lan Lan was fine.
I velcroed the back pannier on again and we continued slowly for another 20 kilometres before a punctured tyre persuaded me to settle down for the night in the nearest field, much as I wished I could have a shower instead.
Doing my best to clean the blood on my legs with antiseptic wipes, I leaned the forlorn looking Lan Lan against a tree, covered in mud and slightly bent out of shape. I vowed that I would take my time to personally give her a loving, soapy wash and proper repairs once we got to Lanzhou.
“You’ll be right as rain again before you know it,” I told her quietly. “No need to be sad.”
It took me a few days to realise I had also been comforting myself.