Cycling across China solo as a woman. Sound awful? Amazing? Terrifying? It’s all of those.
Dingxi to Longnan
定西市 – 陇南
415km // 10 days
The idyllic autumn roads soon led me down into one of China’s countless provincial cities, this one called Dingxi. A quick search on my hotel booking app suggested this was another place with only one huge hotel I could stay in. Irritated, I decided to test my bargaining skills at one that ostensibly didn’t accept foreigners. If those that said they would accept me rejected me, maybe the reverse would be true.
Instead of calling ahead, I waltzed into reception and asked for a room, presenting my passport and busying myself with my phone.
To my amazement, it worked. After a few hushed conversations with the manager, my receptionist produced a bizarre paper form I had never seen before for me to fill in, and then I was free to go up to my room. They even let me roll the very muddy Jacky up with me. Briefly, I felt like I was in the Truman Show. Is the entirety of China conspiring to keep me guessing?
Soon I was too content to care. This was my favourite type of hotel, big enough that all the appliances worked but small enough to be friendly and unimposing. I saved its location, knowing that I was probably never going to come back.
The next days provided glorious weather and more lush hillside scenery. My heart soared, and I made the connection that I only ever felt this precious euphoria, which was the reason I fell in love with cycling, when there were few to no vehicles around. Is that it? I’ve solved the mystery of happiness. Cycling on a road with no cars.
Villages perched on rounded hilltops around me, the distinctive shape of their roof tiles curving into the sky. The sound of dogs or cows broke through the quiet occasionally, and I was again reminded of Essex.
Should I cut the day short and camp here to catch the surely breathtaking sunrise? Or continue 50km to the next city and a hotel bed? It was pretty much all downhill. I consulted some satellite maps, reasoning that the next few hundred kilometres probably looked like this, and I decided to continue, feeling the dull, persistent depression of Lan Lan’s loss fade as I got genuinely excited about the future.
I put on a piano playlist and sped along the empty mountain road. Several times I turned a corner to have my mouth fall open at the beauty of the valley scene ahead – terraced hills as far as the eye could see in golden afternoon light, looking like the shadows of ripples frozen in time on a giant sea. Houses were so scarce that I wondered who tended all these vertically stacked fields. It would take hours to just walk the length of the strips of one hillside, let alone plough them.
A Matter of National Security
Things became decidedly less idyllic the moment I got to the next provincial town, Longxi.
After a long day of hill cycling, I was pleased to have found a hotel that looked high quality and had an underground car park where I could lock Lan Lan safely. I was muddy and tired and my calves were tight from 7 hours of riding, and I stretched them out while I waited for the receptionist to make the usual phone calls to check what the protocol was for foreigners.
“Where have you come from?” The receptionist called over, one hand on the phone.
I just told you. “I cycled over from Dingxi. You can see all the places I’ve been recently on my green code.”
“No, I mean where is your ID from?”
“The UK.” You have it right in front of you.
“She’s from the UK,” I heard the receptionist say into the phone, listening with a confused look on her face before the person on the other end evidently said something funny. She giggled, motioning for me to come over and placing the phone on the counter on speaker. A man’s voice, brash and businesslike, shouted out from it.
“Where are you from, then?”
Really? Third time’s a charm. “The UK.”
“What! You speak Chinese better than a Chinese person! How’d your Chinese get so good?” he barked.
“I’ve been here for a long time.”
“Huh. Well, good on you. Amazing. The UK. ” The voice started speaking in dialect again, and the receptionist took the phone back.
“Ok, ok. Yep, bye.” She hung up and straightened her jacket. “I’m sorry, miss, but because of the pandemic, you can’t stay here,” she said with a smile. “It’s against our policy.”
“What?” I was surprised. After all that? “Your webpage says you accept foreigners.”
“We just can’t. Maybe you could try a smaller hotel. Where the regulations won’t be as strict.”
“Foreigners can’t stay at the smaller hotels. That’s why I booked here. What regulations do you mean? Can you not accept my passport?”
“Anti-pandemic regulations. We need to ensure everybody is completely safe. Do you have a COVID-19 test to prove you’re negative?”
“No,” I said, starting to get angry. “Why do I need one? I haven’t come from abroad. I’ve shown you all the places I’ve been. I have a green code listing my location for the past 6 weeks.”
“If you don’t have a negative test result, I’m afraid you’ll have to go somewhere else.” Her expression froze in a tight-lipped smile. She looked after my shoulder as she spoke. “Another hotel might take you.” It was already dark outside.
“Right. So you’re telling me that everyone in this hotel has presented a negative COVID-19 test?”
She looked sideways at her colleagues, who stared intently at their notebooks. “No. Only people who’ve come from far away–”
“I haven’t come from far away. I’ve told you three times now, and you can see from my passport, I live in China, and I’ve just come over from Dingxi less than a hundred kilometres away. I haven’t been out of the country since March.” I was aware that my voice was getting louder. A man who was checking in next to me, who appeared to be slightly drunk, started staring. “If you don’t let me stay here, there’s nowhere else for me to go. I’ll have to sleep on the street.”
“Please don’t get angry, ma’am. I’m sorry for the inconvenience,” her mouth maintained the same false semi-smile, but her eyes narrowed slightly with irritation. “It’s just the regulations.”
“What regulations? Why are there different rules now to what it says online?”
“Regulations from the National Security bureau,” she replied. I snorted. Liar.
“I’ve been in hotels for the past 6 weeks and not one has ever mentioned anything about a national security law.”
“I’m so very sorry for the inconvenience.” She repeated, folding her hands in front of her on her desk and staring at the wall behind me.
“I’ve paid for my hotel room already.” I was nearly shouting, and realised that I hadn’t cried, really cried, at all since Lan Lan had been stolen. I felt all the anger and frustration of the last few days brimming over, compounded by the thought of having to gather everything I owned and wheel Jacky out of her warm spot in the basement to go searching for a hotel deemed low quality enough to accept me. And this condescending, ignorant woman was telling me she was sorry for the inconvenience? As if I just had to cross the street for my favourite brand of coffee, instead of possibly being homeless and unwashed for another night because she and her idiotic boss thought white people were a health risk, I thought bitterly. You have no idea what it’s like.
The scene attracted the attention of ten or more passersby, all of whom gathered around reception to stare. The drunk man, whose check-in process had long ago been completed, mused: “We should be welcoming to Americans.” And then to me, in heavily accented English: “I like, American.”
“I’m not American,” I said in exasperation, wanting to say more but not wanting to sob in front of so many people. Instead, I pulled out my phone and pressed record, speaking rapidly to the camera in English and making it obvious that I was recording the name of the hotel and faces and name tags of staff, hoping to give the impression that I was planning on reporting names and actions to somewhere important.
This was finally enough to garner the attention of an alarmed-looking floor manager, who made a frenzied, whispered call to someone I can only assume to have been higher up the command chain.
I was given a room key shortly after. It didn’t feel like a victory.
The whole thing left a nasty taste in my mouth. I kept thinking about the man’s voice on speakerphone and his completely arbitrary treatment of the situation. He must have deliberated for a few minutes, then told the receptionist to get rid of me, as if I were a dog that might soil the carpet, not a person who needed a place to stay.
The room was, ironically, one of the nicest I had stayed in, but I was unable to relax, half expecting the police to turn up at any minute. The phone rang twice and doorbell once; each time, it was the floor manager, enquiring about passport details and apologizing profusely for the difficulty. I felt awful. I had become a Karen.
I wanted to shrivel into a ball with embarrassment; but the racism had been so blatant, so unfair, and the lies so obvious, that it just lit the fuse of latant rage I had been carrying around since last week. I took two baths, using up all of the hotel’s lotions and pettily taking their entire pad of bedside notepaper to burn in my next campfire. That’ll show em.
I was eager to leave Longxi, and perhaps due in part to this, I especially relished the next few days of open road, relieved to be alone in the air again with no-one to register with or pointless rules to abide by.
In the cold remoteness of the mountains, I passed village after village left behind in time. Between one cluster of three villages, overlooking a clear, wide and swift-flowing stream, a temple was carved into the mountainside, within which you could make out the slanted eyes of an enormous golden Buddha.
I leant the bike against a tree and walked up a long, narrow flight of stone steps to the surprisingly humble shrine, a hundred feet or so up. It was peaceful, and I lit one of the provided incense sticks, kneeling down with a puff of dust on the patterned floor cushion. I closed my eyes, not to pray exactly,but try to exhale the negativity of the past two weeks, and fill myself with compassion and gratitude rather than frustration.
When I left, a small crowd of villagers had gathered by the road, and I asked to take their photo. Three schoolboys, around 7 or 8 years old, evidently knew the drill, and whipped instantly into a practiced pose.
For hundreds of kilometres over the mountains, I felt like I had found an easy rhythm. The going was steep,averaging more than 1000m of climbing per day,and 60 kilometres of distance was plenty. I stopped for food and water in tiny, dusty towns, laughing at myself for developing a fondness for baijiu, Chinese rice liquor that I had hated until I discovered its ability to keep me warm in my tent. I had refused to drink baijiu at so many dinners over the years since I first moved here, and vowed never to enjoy it. Oh, how I had changed.
I became pleased with my new ability to build stable campfires. I particularly liked when I managed to find a remote abandoned building to camp in, as these provided not only protection from the wind and rain, meaning the tent stayed dry, but also protection from the wind for my fire. One of my best camp spots was found by following an overgrown grassy path up a small hill, to what looked like a disused backyard pig farm.
Aside from the hefty population of spiders, it was perfect: there was dead wood everywhere to burn, a roof over my head, walls to keep out the wind, and a loud single gate which would make it impossible for anyone to creep up on me.
The best spot, without question, however, was the shell of a house I found in the mountains. One of the more spectacular of China’s infinite sea of uncompleted building projects, this structure looked like it was going to be a magnificent holiday home with enormous windows, with commanding views over tree-covered mountain peaks.
I saw it from a distance as I laboured uphill, and couldn’t believe my luck when I found it completely unoccupied, and what’s more – full of loose, clean bricks that I could use to stabilise my tent and protect my fire from the wind.
That night, I sat sipping rice liquor until my bedtime at just after sunset, listening to Fleetwood Mac, amused by the depths to which my standards for happiness had dropped.
In an inevitable trade-off, however, my mansion’s enormous windows meant less protection from the mountaintop wind during the night, and as always when it was cold, I woke several times, wriggling my toes to keep them warm and willing the hours to pass until sunrise.
The mornings had a peculiar way of making me feel like an animal, reluctant to move and risk losing the minuscule amount of comfort and protection from the cold I had in my current position. I had a newfound dislike for dew, which wet my tent and always managed to seep through somehow, and also a newfound worship of heat. Most nights, I went to bed looking forward to the hot drink I would have in the morning; and I formed a strong emotional attachment to the hot water bottles that warmed my feet and stomach.
I also developed a fervent adoration for the brand of oat-flavoured milk tea I had every morning for breakfast. It was a powdered drink that was sickly sweet and almost certainly full of cancerous additives, and I would never drink it in a city; but on a cold, damp morning, it provided a reliable hit of instant, delicious warmth and the energy needed to coax me out of my sleeping bag.
Despite the discomforts, I enjoyed the simplicity and remoteness that as a foreigner, only camping – or asking for board in a village home – can give you access to. In one or two small towns, I managed to persuade a guesthouse to let me stay, but for the most part, I was alone in the middle of nowhere.
It showed in the gawking index, or the percentage of people that stare at you as you go by. In Shanghai, it’s zero. In other big cities, maybe 50%.
Here, in every town, it was between 95 and 100%. The style of stare did vary, though: some were hilarious, like when I looked up to see the faces of six or seven policemen leaning over each other out of a window to get a look at me with huge grins on their faces. They scattered with shouts of embarrassed laughter when I spotted them, like schoolboys caught peeking over a neighbours fence.
Others were more unsettling, like the cars that would slow down to a crawl next to me as I rode up a hill, or the tall, severe-looking man in a long black overcoat who followed me for ten minutes around a supermarket.
As I made my way across the province, it became evident that there was still an enormous number of people living not in towns, but in the endless tiny villages that branched out from them. There were few adults younger than 50 in sight; only grandparents, and children too young to go to city middle schools. Everyone who could was working in the cities, enduring long hours in dimly lit offices for poor wages that still outstripped anything they could dream of making in these parts.
It was strange to see the “drained countryside” effect that I had read about so clearly with my own eyes. Many of those I had met in cities – shop assistants, masseuses, construction workers, estate agents – had told me they came from neighbouring provinces. No small number of them must be from places just like this. The difference between the quality of life they grew up in and in the cities they now lived in was immense. No wonder even in cities, conservative and ignorant attitudes remained. China’s cities are, externally, impressively modernised, but much of the population that fills them haven’t had chance to catch up.
Every three or four villages there would be a primary school, where the sharpest eyed of the kids would usually shout “a foreigner!” and the entire playground would run over, yelling. I heard the phrase said so many times that I learned what it sounded like in each place’s local dialect, and couldn’t help laughing and repeating it back.
All the buildings in these mountainous areas seemed shrunken, as if they belonged to another age. Rickety brick walls with tiny doors built into them reminded me of Cambridge in the UK with their ancient secrecy and smallness, designed for shorter, less well nourished people. Sometimes as I cycled past, a door would open for a grandmother and her chubby baby, revealing a slice of the slim brick corridors that made up a poor man’s courtyard house. There were invariably more people inside.
It seemed that whenever I made a distance target for the day, something would happen to make it impossible. This type of travel is an exercise in grit, I thought. You want a shower tonight? Tough luck – unless you want to cycle in the dark for 3 hours.
Despite the steep gradients and dirt under my fingernails, the landscape was stunning. At higher altitudes, I was among steep, protected hillsides that were covered with grass, cows, brightly coloured trees, and mountain streams with water clean enough to drink. Lower down, the roads were cut into the sheer sides of dramatic river gorges.
The only people I shared the tarmac with were a rare car and walkers, either stooped adults carrying heavy baskets of firewood or grubby children who looked far too young to be walking long distances alone, some as young as three or four years old. Probably safer than riding a motorbike along mountain roads with grandma.
I was amazed by how few houses there were – until I realised this was earthquake country.
Rocks littered the road, mostly small, but occassionally huge, accompanied by cracks in the road underneath from the force with which it had fallen. Some sections of road were cracked, and sapling trees snapped in half from more recent calamities. No wonder there were no rice terraces around here. What must those huge boulders sound like when they fell? Weren’t the people who did live here scared?
On one such landslide-prone road, a car stopped ahead of me, and two men got out to shift some rocks that were blocking their way.
“Do you need any help?” I said as I drew close.
“We’re alright, you go ahead,” they waved me off, before doing a double take. “Oh! What country are you from?”
“I’m from Xinjiang,” I lied, wondering if they would believe me.
“Huh! Crazy. You look just like a foreigner,” he said, shaking his head. “You riding all by yourself?”
Ha! “My husband’s up ahead,” I said, my usual line to imply I was not alone and vulnerable. “He rides a lot faster than me.”
I waved goodbye and sped ahead for a grand total of about 200 metres before I was forced to skid to a stop. There must have been a huge landslide; an entire chunk of road had collapsed into the gorge, leaving no way across.
A minute or so later, the car pulled up behind me. Shit.
“Where’s your husband?”
I cast my eyes over the four small men who had tumbled out of the car and stood squinting and stretching. They looked pretty harmless. And besides, what was I going to say? That my imaginary spouse must have flown across the gap without thinking to call me?
“I just say that to strangers. Safer.”
“Oh. We’re good people, you don’t need to worry about us.” The driver lit a cigarette and we all approached the gap in the road.
“You could get across that with your bike,” one said. I glanced over the edge. It was a good 6 or 7 metres down a rocky, clearly landslide-prone cliff face, with a wide and fast-flowing river right next to it.
“I think I’ll go around,” I said, trying to fix my expression to something that didn’t say “are you f*cking mental?”.
The detour added 30 kilometres to my journey, but most of it was downhill, and it was an easy if lengthy descent into my destination city of Longnan, a reassuringly busy and homogenous provincial city. By the time I arrived, I hadn’t showered in 4 days, and didn’t want to think about how I would smell to a stranger. I kept my distance from the friendly staff at reception.
I locked Jacky safe in the basement, and revelled in the warmth of the shower, spending two hours scrubbing the dirt from my clothes in the sink.
After nearly 2,000 kilometres, I was finally ready for phase 2 of my journey, moving out of the remoteness of Gansu and delving into the lush central province of Sichuan.