Biking Across China, Episode 7: Problems, Problems

Cycling across China solo as a woman. Sound awful? Amazing? Terrifying? It’s all of those.

Lanzhou – Longxi
陇西县

203km // 14 days

Camping in a meadow

I woke up in a field on the outskirts of Lanzhou feeling damp.

The meadow of purple flowers and tall grass I had chosen to camp in had filled with copious amounts of dew overnight, which gathered heavily on the roof of my tent and had seeped in slightly under my sleeping bag. Making a mental note to cut a groundsheet from some tarp once I got to central Lanzhou, though choosing not to think about where I would find space for it in my bags, I forced my limbs into my damp cycling clothes, eager to get moving.

Lan Lan’s patched tyre had leaked a significant amount of air overnight, and I decided to change the inner tube rather than pump the tyre up again and hope the patch would hold until I got to the city centre. Working on the roadside in the drizzle that had just started, I attracted the concerned attention of several passers by.

“Where are you from?” An elderly woman picking litter leaned in close over my shoulder to get a look at my face.

“Brazil,” I said, tilting my head away slightly to gain back some semblance of personal space.

“Is your bike broken?”

“It’s alright, I have the things to fix it.”

“Oh. Wow, you really know what you’re doing. Aren’t you cold? It’s raining!”

To my irritation, I found that the only inner tube I had was slightly too small for my tyre, and I prayed it wouldn’t explode as I pumped air into it. The driver of an enormous truck stopped and hopped down to see if I needed any help.

“It’s still a bit soft,” he said, prodding the tyre I was gingerly inflating. “Give it some more.”

“The inner tube is too small. I’m a bit worried it’ll burst.”

“Ah, I see. You don’t have any bigger ones?”

Obviously not.

“No, unfortunately. This one isn’t ideal but it should last until Lanzhou. How far is it to the city?” I asked.

“You’re basically there. About 20 kilometres.”

With slow going, the tyre held. By the time I got to the hotel I had booked in the city I was ready to collapse, but filled with pride; I had completed the first 1000km of my journey.

A local troupe performs an opera in Lanzhou

Gao bu liao

After a day spent horizontal with a pack of frozen peas on my knee, I headed to the bike shops to get Lan Lan’s fork problem fixed. The metal that held the front wheel in place had been bent backwards by the impact, meaning the wheel now sat an inch or two further back than it should and caught on the pedals if I made a sharp turn in either direction.

I had thought it would be a simple matter of someone bashing things back into place with a hammer, but evidently I was wrong.

The first shop said they could fix it, but on trying, failed to change much; the next refused to try, looking at me as if I’d asked them to build me a rocket ship and repeating the phrase ‘gao bu liao’ (“we can’t do it”). Calls to my bike’s manufacturer in the UK for advice wouldn’t connect.

After a few days of feeling defeated and half-heartedly training at a local “boxing” gym – where they had punchbags and pads, but mainly served personal training clients which meant nobody wanted to spar. I couldn’t shake the feeling that nobody wanted me there, and I spent a lot of time holed up in my hotel, washing my clothes and icing my fatigued knees, feeling very alone.

Finally, I had a breakthrough. I replaced Lan Lan’s large pedals with smaller ones that reduced the catching, and one brilliant bike shop managed to press the forks back enough to make the problem almost nonexistent. The bike was rideable, and at the very least, her condition would do until I received the new set of forks that my family had helped me order in the UK.

My sour mood lifted, and I couldn’t wait to be on the road again.

Feeling very alone

What Desk?

I was eager to leave early the next day, but was still waiting for the correctly sized inner tubes I had ordered online to arrive. Classically, China’s typically breakneck kuaidi (delivery) service was taking forever this time.

Perching in a coffee shop – which I thought was a chain branch of a fantastic one I had found in Zhangye, but that turned to just be a local copycat stealing their logo and decor – I pored over different map apps, trying to cross-reference the most scenic, least mountainous route to my next large destination, the famous historical city of Xi’an.

I had originally planned to go to Sichuan’s capital city, Chengdu, from here, but that was almost a thousand kilometres away, and the route there passed over endless, dauntingly snow-capped peaks. Xi’an was closer, the terrain was flatter, and most importantly, one of my best friends was going to be there for the upcoming National Week holiday. Depressed from long weeks alone on the road without any other foreigners to talk to and aware that this depression was being reflected in my interactions with strangers, I felt badly in need of some therapeutic company.

Settled on my plan, I decided to do some writing to kill time, and went to order a coffee.

“An Americano with milk, please.”

The server looked confused. “Americanos don’t have any milk. That’s a latte.”

“A latte has a little too much milk for me. I only want a tiny bit. Like this much.” I made a centimetre gap with my fingers, aware of how irritating I was being, but equally not wanting a stomach overloaded with diary for a long distance bike ride.

“It’s really easy to do. You have fresh milk, right? It’s exactly the same as an Americano, just add a tiny bit of milk after. I can do it for you if you want.” God, I’m such a Karen.

“Fine,” the cashier sighed. “Do you want two? It’s buy one get one free.”

After several back and forths explaining to a confused barista exactly how much milk I wanted in my coffee, I carried my two enormous cups back to my table, resigning myself to either staying another night, or having to ride in the dark this evening to get out of the city.

By the time it got to 6pm, I had finished my tepid coffees, and was hungry and annoyed. It was a long way to Xi’an, and I didn’t want to stay in this congested, unfriendly city any longer. How could it take my delivery driver this long to transport a package 5 kilometres from his marked location to mine? In every other city in China, delivery drivers normally zoom through red lights and crowds of pedestrians alike with reckless abandon. Had mine suddenly grown a road-safety conscience?

Not wanting to be irritating but not knowing what else to do, I called the delivery helpline, asking whether my package would be delivered today.

“What? Yes, it’s there. Go in and ask at the desk.” The desk? What desk? 

“What desk? I can only see these smart lockers.”

“Behind those. There should be a little office? Ask the woman in there.”

The “office” was a nondescript shoebox room the size of a large utility cupboard, tucked away with the lights off. It looked like the room where you would store recycling bins, but there as indeed a woman there, impossibly perched amongst piles of paper and debris. She found my package for me in about 30 seconds flat. Should I ask? Dare I ask?

“Excuse me. What time did this package get here?” The shoebox controller checked a notepad in front of her.

“With the morning deliveries. About 9am.”

Of course it did. I traipsed back to my hotel, inner tubes in hand. At least I could laugh.

Floating Freeways of Lanzhou

Traffic wardens yelled at the ceaseless spew of cars

As soon as I woke up, I practically ran out of the door of my hotel, excited to finally get back out on the road. A correctly fitting inner tube and new pedals made the ride feel beautifully smooth, and I was elated as I prepared to navigate out of the traffic-filled city centre.

The entirety of Lanzhou is built on the banks of the Yellow River as it snakes through a deep valley. Buildings can’t go far away from the riverbank without having to climb into the mountains, and as a result, the city is long and thin in shape, with districts lined up next to one another like sausages on a string and highways on stilts running between them.

Observing the city from the windows of a car or apartment, this wouldn’t bother me.  I would probably even admire the views; mountains in the background, floating freeways in the fore. On a bike, however, on the first day of China’s second-biggest national holiday, the layout’s aethetics strengths were lost on me. Climbing through hilly urban roads flanked by National Week traffic was hell.

People lined the sides of the busy roads with suitcases, presumably waiting for rides home for one of the only opportunities they got to see their family every year. Stressed traffic wardens yelled at the ceaseless spew of cars, many of whom were pointlessly switching lanes and honking at nothing, every driver clambering for a minuscule chance to shorten their own journey. Cars with single passengers were rare, and buses were stuffed to the brim.

Presumably waiting for rides home

Bullied onto the sidewalk by the mass of cars, I laboured slowly upwards. Men walking by poked their friends and jerked their heads in my direction. “Russian,” they whispered knowingly.  

The road was mostly uphill. I had set off at 8am; by midday, I was still in the squalid outskirts of the city. Cars honked incessantly, darting without warning onto the hard shoulder where I was cycling in attempts to overtake each other and gain a few metres of road. The going was slow, stressful and dangerous; tensions ran high, and in 35 short kilometres, I was bumped by several cars. 

The traffic wardens were deployed for a reason, I thought, feeling sad for a moment as I wondered how many people died in the crush of these migrations every year. National Week had only just started. It would be like this the whole way to Xi’an.

A family making their way across town in the traffic

I stopped in a small roadside canteen to refuel and collect my thoughts. I felt like I was going to have a heart attack every few minutes, and the only reason I was even on this road was to see a friend and relax in Xi’an for the holiday. To catch her, I would have to cover 100km a day, which wasn’t possible to do safely in this traffic, and was exactly the kind of intense, tunnel-vision cycling I had told myself I wouldn’t do on this trip.

I made up my mind to lock up the bike and get on a train to Xi’an. I would continue biking once the National Week crush was over. 

Yuzhong

The nearest station was Yuzhong, in the middle of nowhere. It was a newly developed area, blissfully deserted. I could practically feel my blood pressure decreasing as the chaos of the highway faded away.

I had planned to find an apartment block and park Lan Lan safely amongst a family of ebikes, warm and dry. Problem was, there were no apartment blocks. China designs their enormous train stations like airports, in remote districts where their noise won’t disturb people. I couldn’t even see any buildings nearby.

The station park wasn’t busy, but it was very open and I was extremely reluctant to leave an expensive bike there for several days. I made my way to the station to ask the guards their advice. The clipped response of the guard I spoke to was that the CCTV didn’t always work and nobody watched it.

“And there’s no paid storage available at the station,” she added, sounding final. Apparently she had had this conversation before.

“Well, do you have any suggestions for where I can store it?” I asked, irked.

“I can’t give you any suggestions that will guarantee it’s safe,” she said robotically, turning her head in a show of seeming busy, despite there being less than five people around.

Great. Very helpful.

There were so few people around that I decided the best course of action would be to hide her nearby. I would lock her up far out of sight, and remove her axels to render her unrideable.

Wandering to the end of the unfinished station road, I found a tiny path that led up to some kind of dump site, home to trees and piles of building site leftovers. Climbing up a hill around the corner from the station, I knew I looked pretty suspicious. I was aware of a lone man parked nearby – arguably equally suspiciously but probably just waiting for someone to arrive on a train – who could see me as I clambered up out of sight. I’m not a terrorist, I tried to convey with my walk. 

A few minutes later, a police car turned up and stopped close by. F*ck. I hid out of his eyeline behind a bush from my raised platform. Was he walking over? 

I peeked around to see him stood by the road in an unmistakeable stance, and I sighed. Once he was finished with the call of nature, I heard him drive off.

Lan Lan looked forlorn with her wheels and axles removed, locked to a tree far behind piles of bricks and broken glass. I put her axels in my pocket and waved goodbye, promising to be back soon.

On the train to Xi’an, a feeling of defeat hung over me. I was desperate to socialise in English and excited to see the historic city, but leaving the bike in such a lonely place pulled at my heartstrings. I thought of her in the rain, without the shelter of my tent to keep her dry. She would think I had abandoned her.

Was I being weak? Wasn’t I supposed to be OK with being on my own? 

Yeah, but it’s not an exercise in masochism. You always planned to take a couple of city breaks.

National Week crowds clogged the 8-hour train. I marveled briefly at how distance perception changes between countries of different sizes. Eight hours on a train would take you from the tip to the toe of the UK. Here, I was just hopping between cities.

A Much Needed Break

I stepped onto the platform of Xi’an North at 8:30am with a sore back. 

China’s long distance train carriages were organised in rows of triple bunks, and I had slept uncomfortably, curled up with my bag and shoes next to me on the cramped middle bunk, listening to a grandmother loudly telling her toddler to be quiet. 

It was a relief to finally see a friend. I practically fell into her arms, and for two days, I basked in the protective bubble of having someone to roam the streets with, sharing food and laughing at the same things.

I felt like I was thawing, allowing emotions to run through me again rather than hardening myself to the relentless stares and whispers of the last month.

The weekend passed, and it dawned on me that I couldn’t go straight back to Yuzhong. I’d arranged several weeks previously to meet a friend when he was in Chengdu on the 5th, and that date was now in two days time.

There wasn’t enough time to take an overnight train there and back, and even if there was, what would I do with the bike once I got there? It would be the exact same situation. I worried slightly, but the spot I had found for her was so hidden away. I had walked nearly fifteen minutes from the station over piles of trash and rocks to get to it, and the station itself was hardly a bustling location. Apart from the rain, Lan Lan would be fine.

Gansu isn’t the busiest of places

As soon as I arrived in Chengdu, I called ahead to the hotel I was about to book to double check they wouldn’t turn a foreigner away at the door. It was as though I’d asked if a leper could stay at their hotel. 

“No, we can’t take anyone that’s come from abroad.”

“What? I haven’t come from abroad, I’ve come from Xi’an. I stayed in this chain of hotel in Lanzhou a few weeks ago and a passport was fine.”

“How long has she been in China?” She? I smiled to myself. She thinks I’m Chinese.

“I haven’t left for 7 months. I live in Hangzhou.”

“Hmmm… no, I don’t think we can take a foreigner.”

“Why not? It says on your website you can take foreigners. I have a green code and all the documents you need.”

“But she comes from abroad, right?” 

I closed my eyes and rubbed my forehead, frustrated with the difficulty many Chinese have with separating someone’s daily life from their country of origin.

“No, she hasn’t come from abroad. She lives in Hangzhou. She has not left the country in 7 months.”

There was a paused. “Can she book online? If she can book online through the app and pass all of those requirements, then she can stay.” 

“It’s already booked.” I lied. This is like pulling teeth. 

“Oh, that should be fine then.”

“Great, thank you. I’ll come and check in later tonight.”

Dinner with my close friend in Chengdu felt like a similar exodus of all the negativity I had built up over the past 5 weeks. It was a relief to speak English, and to have the protective shell of company; instantly, I didn’t feel so defenselessly alone.

It turned into a long night of drinking and, eventually, dancing. The vibrancy of Chengdu’s nightlife amazed me. People everywhere wore baggy, effortlessly cool clothes and sported artsy tattoos as they danced in small groups under red club lights, and for once, nobody stared. A group of six or seven of us hopped from club to club for hours, and I finished my night at 3am, sitting outside eating spicy flatbread with two Moroccan girls who lived in the city. We had become friends instantly, the way you only can when you’re intoxicated, and with an openness that would evaporate with the sunrise, we discussed our lives, loves and heartbreaks. 

They went on to another club, but I was already tired and busy with a puppy that had come to sit on my lap. My habit of rarely being in one place for long means that I’m unlikely to ever get a dog of my own, and it has become something of a policy to always give maximum attention to friendly strays that come my way. I sat on the floor playing aimlessly with the friendly, furry bundle of warmth I had found for almost an hour before I finally called a cab home.

A Foreigner With a Fever

The following day, I paid for all the fun I’d had. 

When I woke up, my back, which had been hurting on and off since the train journey to Xi’an three days ago, was agonisingly painful. I could hardly walk, and taking a deep breath resulted in a stab of acute pain at the point in myback where I assumed I had pulled an intercostal muscle. The debilitating pain was also accompanied by two new friends: a cough and a slight fever. I remembered hearing somewhere that alcohol was terrible for injury recovery. Nice one. 

Three quarters annoyed and one quarter amused at the ridiculously damaging effect one night of partying now had on my aged body, I downed a mixture of paracetomol and ibuprofen and settled down to watch Netflix, trying not to think about my defenseless abandoned bike.

I could hardly walk, and I knew carrying my heavy bags to the train station and riding for 8 hours would be extremely painful, if it was possible at all – plus, the chances of a foreigner with a fever being allowed into a crowded train station were slim.

Poor Lan Lan. I hoped Gansu’s arid climate had held while I was away, and she hadn’t been rained on. Or worse.

I’ll be back for you soon, sweetheart. Hang in there.

By Friday, I finally felt mobile enough to move again, and booked a train for 8pm, wanting to go to the boxing gym one last time first during the day. My back wasn’t fully recovered, but high quality gyms are rare and provided valuable opportunities to train, even when injured. The “light” sparring session against a professional female boxer 10 kilos lighter than me was a challenge, but an extremely enjoyable one. I couldn’t remember the last time I had had a good female sparring partner.

Chengdu station was one of the only old-looking stations I’d been in in China. The rail system has been modernised so aggressively that anything that isn’t new seems out of place. Laden down with panniers, I decided to sit in the empty priority section to scoff the food I had bought in preparation for the 11 hour journey. A sign told me the area was reserved for the elderly and military personnel, but nobody was there. I’ll just tell people I can’t read the characters.

I went to buy water, and the server gushed, “Your chinese is amazing! Even better than Chinese people’s.” 

“Oh, that’s not true. I’ve just been here a long time.” 

“China’s great, right?”

“Yep, I certainly like it here.”

“Yes. China’s a wonderful country.” 

“Mmm.” I thanked her for my water, remembering an observation my friend and I had agreed upon in Xi’an, that the number of brainwashed comments like this we heard had gone up significantly in recent years. 

China is so safe. China is wonderful. China is beautiful. China is a world leader. China isn’t like those western countries that can’t control the virus. 

It was like a robotic chant, printed in the state newspapers and repeated on the radio, in films and songs, on billboards and magazine covers until saying it became as unremarkable as telling you to look both ways before you cross the road.

Fierce patriotism is normal in China

The train back to Lanzhou was an overnight one, one of the dying breed of enormous dark green slow trains that go at less than half the speed of the futuristic gaotie and cost half the price. They are far more reminiscent of the old China, with squat toilets lacking toilet paper and inter-carriage doorways which permit smoking, which is probably why they’re disappearing so fast. It’s as if the presence of anything old must be scrubbed away for the new to take centre stage unsullied. 

I was momentarily sad at this disappearing remnant of the very developing country I had known in my youth when I visited family in Beijing, then wondered if I was being selfish. Was it reasonable to resist progress for the sake of nostalgia and aesthetics? Every other country loses pieces of its rustic soul as it develops, trading quirky flaws for higher-functioningmodernity. Why shouldn’t China be able to do the same?

The crowd around me now was less cosmopolitan than the urbanites with expensive coats and handbags that lounged in the large seats of the high-speed gaotie trainsMost of my fellow passengers were of the older generation, chattering loudly to one another in dialect, reminding me of the elderly couple who let me shelter from a typhoon in their chicken-filled garage,months ago in the countryside of Zhejiang. 

The chicken-filled garage

I wondered what these people would do once there were no green slow trains left. Cheaper tickets are the lifeline that transports poorer citizens cross-country at lunar new year. Like so many things in China, they wouldn’t have a choice; they’d just have to pay more or go without. It seemed unfair. Pricier tickets would eat into worker’s savings, which was the only reason many went to work in faraway cities in the first place.

Acutely aware of my own position of privilege, I settled down to sleep, praying I wouldn’t throw out my back again. 

I woke up sore, but still able to move, and I lumbered out of the train station, hailing a taxi to take me back to where I had left the bike in Yuzhong district. My driver was a small, talkative man with bright eyes, not much taller than me, who moved quickly and easily through the traffic. I snoozed in the warmth of the front seat.

The driver seemed nervous when I told him I was picking up my bike here, which in turn made me nervous. I tried to calm myself as I limped over to the hiding place I had found. The taxi driver followed behind me, somewhat to my annoyance. She’d be here. Who would come all the way out to this trash heap?

I stepped over the same piles of bricks and shattered glass, walking with certainty through the trees. Then my heart stopped.

Lan Lan was gone.

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