Cycling across China solo as a woman. Sound awful? Amazing? Terrifying? It’s all of those.
Longnan – Nanchong
陇南 – 南充
10 days // 545 km
I spent two days in Longnan, resting my legs and avoiding the repeated messages of a zealous local who had passed me in his car the day before. He had stopped ahead of me with a shout, and hopped out to take photographs before insisting on exchanging WeChats. Initially hesitant, I agreed, deciding to assume the best of strangers for once; and he had with a wife and two teenagers in the car. How bad could he be?
Predictably, what started as an invitation to hotpot turned into invasive questions, about the west being “liberal”; about marriage being less important; about my sex life.
I sighed and deleted him, annoyed at the thought of the version of myself he would now probably relay to his friends. Unfriendly foreigner. Tease. Bitch. That’s what you get for assuming the best of people.
Despite such an unpleasant introduction to the city’s residents, the hotel was a relaxing base, with a luxuriously soft bed and shower almost powerful enough to get the deepest-lodged dirt out from under my fingernails. As well as the glaring tan line on my hands left by my fingerless gloves, the skin of my fingers and toes seemed to have actually absorbed dirt into their makeup; some of it was so firmly lodged that I had to clip sections of skin and nail right off to remove it.
The weather was glorious the day that I left, with bright blue skies and picture perfect clouds wrapped around the mountains on either side of the city.
It was 200km to my next stop, a city called Guangyuan, which was the first city on the map after I crossed the Sichuan province border. As I calculated my route, for the first time, I eyed my map with suspicion. A stretch of the route stayed at exactly the same altitude – 1617m – for several kilometres, in a conspicuous and very unnatural looking straight line in the middle of the mountains. Was I going to be riding across a disused airport runway?
As expected, it was an error in the map, and what was listed as a 500 metre climb became 1500. Fortunately, I was used to huge ascents by now. I plugged in my headphones and walked when I had to, if there was a particularly steep stretch that was too hard to ride with my heavy panniers. Progress was slow but steady, and I stopped several times to take in the chilly, misty autumn scenes around me.
Abandoned buildings, most of them evidently failed tourism projects, loomed out from the mist every now and again in various stages of disrepair. Some were practically finished, missing only window panes and furniture, their unfurnished hotel rooms and message boards looking haunting half-enveloped by thick fog.
Following the S206 down from the mountain, a spectacular valley view unfolded as I left the clouds behind. A deep V-shape valley was covered in rusty orange and evergreen trees, and the road wound through them gracefully in impossible hairpin bends. The Beatles played through my single earbud, and I felt on top of the world as I zoomed along the road, careful to avoid the deep cracks in the tarmac.
Cars became more frequent. At one point, a small truck with cage on the back drove past slowly, blaring a phrase on repeat from the tinny loudspeakers used for any kind of sales in China: “Dogs for sale. Dogs and puppies. Dogs for sale. Dogs and puppies.” Slightly horrified, I watched it go by, catching sight of several pairs of eyes glimmering in the back, swaying from side to side as the truck trundled past. They were strays, thin and dirty, and I couldn’t see many people being enticed to buy them as pets. I tried not to think about their fate.
I came into Yaodu, my rough destination for the day, dissapointed with my distance of just over 90km. It had felt like at least 100. I had a pang of missing Lan Lan, whose steel roadbike build and slim tyres meant she had been much faster on the flats and descents than Jacky. I decided I would buy some slimmer tyres in the next city.
Yaodu was a sight to behold – a beautiful small town of boxy white houses, piled together on one hilly bank of a blue-green reservoir. Three slanting bridges ranover the water into the town, and the view as I rolled across one of them was like a postcard, despite the clouds. I passed a guesthouse and thought about going in to ask for board, but it was creeping closer to sunset, and I didn’t really want tohave the inevitable, possibly unpleasant and definitely time-consumingdebate over whether I was allowed to stay there. I cycled through to the other side, eyes peeled for somewhere to camp by the water.
I spied a run-down white wall which looked promising, and parked the bike to see what was there. A derelict house? Rubbish tip? A dangerous, unused path down to the waterside?
Even better: I found a small, relatively grubby Buddhist shrine. Two basic buildings housed garishly painted wooden carvings, of the goddess Guanyin and Caishen, the god of wealth. Pleased with my find, I set the bike down and changed into a dry sweater. If this place was as unfrequented as it looked, I could camp warm under its roof. I lit one of the dusty incense sticks sitting in a pot at the statue’s feet, kneeling down on the dirty floor cushion to close my eyes, clear my mind and say a word of thanks to the world for my existence, shelter and safety.
Unfortunately, the place turned out to not be so disused.
I had been kneeling down for several minutes when I heard male voices approaching. Instantly, I knew I couldn’t stay here. It wasn’t even peak timing for the traditional post-dinner walk; if people were here already, I definitely couldn’t set up camp for the night without being seen. The voices wandered into the other temple building, and I hoped I could avoid them noticing me; but as I moved out of sight, I crunched a leaf underfoot and they both turned around, eyes boggling.
I looked intently at the ground, and they walked off, but were back a minute later, trying to be nonchalant as they looked again at the temple they had just been in, stealing glances my way every few seconds. Yep, not staying here.
Half a mile down the road I found a promising grassy inlet, leading to a small overgrown patch of grass next to a babbling, rocky stream. The place was heavy with insects, but apart from that, perfect for camping, and I set about making my fabric home. Halfway through pitching, I noticed to my dismay a lone man wandering slowlyover, hands clasped behind his back, probably on his evening walk with a belly full of home cooked food.
I heard him coming from a while away; he was yelling out “aaaaooohh!” at intervals of every ten seconds or so, as many older Chinese do when walking in parks or by water sources, to get rid of built-up bad qi (energy) from the body. It was this that made me decide not to stop pitching. If someone was a threat, surely they wouldn’t shout their way over.
He looked surprised but not alarmed when he finally turned a corner around the weeds and saw me. After a pause, he wandered closer, and said a few words in dialect.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what that means,” I confessed in Mandarin.
“You’re building a tent?” He said, in Mandarin this time.
“Yes, a tent,” I said, not sure how I would elaborate further.
“Oh, a tent. That’s nice,” he said with a toothy smile. He was tiny, shorter even than me, as almost all rural Chinese dwellers seem to be, due maybe to nutrition or work or just age. He wore a thick grey coat and woolen blue hat that seemed to dwarf his wrinkled face. After watching me for a few seconds, he turned and walked away, resuming his shouts as he got back to the road.
I took off Jacky’s wheels and piled her and the panniers in the porch of my tent, both so she wouldn’t get wet and to act as a defence mechanism in these more populated areas. Anyone trying to open the tent door would immediately (and painfully) trip on her, as I had several times even when I knew she was there.
I slept easily as soon as the sun set, warm in the tent for the first time in weeks now that I was down from the mountaintops. I almost giggled with glee at how comfortable and not-cold I was. In the morning I woke early, lying in my sleeping bag listening to the whistles and clicks of birds around me. Not wanting to break the peacefulness of the morning, I heated some water to refill my water bottles and make a cup of milk tea, and lay there for a long time, listening to the birds and gentle, peaceful patter of drizzle on the tent. The weather forecast said it would be a wet day, so I cherished the dryness of the tent interior while it lasted.
It rained all day, and by the time it was noon I was freezing cold with 65km still to go to Guangyuan. Shivering, I came through a town where I wondered whether to stop for lunch. I was hungry, but also soaking wet, and sitting down to eat in wet clothes would only make me colder. Changing would be pointless – dry clothes would get wet again instantly – and also extremely awkward if not impossible in the confined glass space of a roadside noodle shop.
Riding 65km over the slightly mountainous terrain I found myself in would, I estimated, take 5 or 6 more hours. The thought of 5 or 6 more hours of vigourous exercise without food was extremely unappealing. All of this was going through my mind when I spotted a relatively large guesthouse, directly on my left. I stopped. Should I bother asking?
Nothing to lose.
To my shock, the small middle-aged woman at reception said of course they could accept me. She looked at my wet clothes in horror, motioning that I should immediately go upstairs.
“You’re all wet! Of course you can stay. We’ll get you upstairs and you can get showered and change into dry clothes.” I beamed, hardly able to believe my luck in this tiny town.
“I just need to check with the police first what we need to do to let you stay here.”
Oh. Crestfallen, I sighed, mentally preparing myself to continue riding.
“Are you 100% sure I can stay?” I asked cautiously. “If the police say no and I have to leave, I’d rather not get changed into dry clothes. I’ll just carry on riding.” I pictured the humiliating possibility of getting warm just to have to go out in the rain again.
She assured me I could stay, confused by my agitation. You’d know what I mean if you’d been with me the last six weeks, I thought, but it was impossible to resist the urge to get warm. I hurried into my assigned room and peeled off my layers, hoping that I would be able to sleep in the bed I had paid for. Maybe I could just stay in the room and sit out the night like a seige, refusing to come out until it was dark and the police had gone home. I highly doubted anyone would chase up a rogue foreigner here, and even if they did, what would they do? Put me in a cell? Drive me to a hotel? Either way it would mean a roof over my head out of the rain.
Of course I didn’t do that. Instead, half an hour later, I obediently followed my host to the police station a few streets away, passport in hand, followed by the eyes of everyone we passed. It turned out to be an amazingly simple procedure. “That’s it. You can go now,” the bored police officer said after I handed him a photocopy of my passport. I couldn’t believe it.
We walked back to the guesthouse slowly, and on the invitation of the elderly owner, I sat for a while in the stove-heated room to the left of reception, which was obviously the core of the family home. Grandma knitted on the sofa; a tiny girl toddled around on the floor, watched by grandpa and the middle-aged lady’s husband; an 8-year-old boy played a card game with a schoolmate at a low table.
I warmed my hands by the stove, and the elderly man talked to me in almost unintelligible dialect. The greying middle-aged man, presumably his son, answered most of the questions for me in a strange three-way conversation, with surprisingly accurate knowledge of my home country. “The UK’s really small.” “A few tens of millions.” “10 hours on a plane.”
The room was plain, but comforting. The heating didn’t work well, and there were no toiletries, but the water was hot and the sheets were clean, and I wrapped myself in them gratefully. I was, apparently, the only guest. I wondered if it had always been this way, a classic overambitious size of Chinese businesses, or whether the emptiness was a result of the pandemic sweeping through Yaodu and crucifying tourism-based businesses.
Loneliness had started to sink in. I called one of my best friends in the UK as I did my leg stretches, laughing at the happenings of the day together, but aware that I was struggling to shake the underlying heaviness of being so isolated.
After a brief spell through Shaanxi, I realised I was finally in Sichuan province.
Landlocked in the centre of China with the mountains of Tibet to the west, tropics of Yunnan to the south, and a mass of central Chinese provinces to its east, Sichuan is famous throughout China for pandas, extremely spicy food, earthquakes, mountains and lush greenery.
I’ve never really understood the craze for pandas, but I have always been intrigued both by the natural beauty of Sichuan’s landscape and also by the distinct cultural identity Sichuan is said to have, which holds itself as somewhat separately from the dense and homogenous population centres on the coast.
The scenery was indeed very different from the crumbling vilages of Gansu. The dialect was slightly easier to understand here – with some repetition, I understood some of what shopkeepers and people on the street said to me, rather than having to take a complete guess like I had in Gansu or Zhejiang. Houses were larger and multi storey, and made up in an attractive, Tudor-like style of white paint and exposed, age-warped wooden beams. They rose out of the trees like cottages from European fairytales.
There was greenery everywhere, and more wildlife; and after a while I noticed another difference – no looming, sparkling clean party buildings in the villages. The houses were further apart here, so maybe it was futile to try and choose a suitable central position for a party building. Sichuan felt like it had somehow evaded the omnipresence of the CCP. Perhaps that was one of the things that made it feel so genuine.
Everything felt richer: the houses were bigger and in better repair, the fields were fuller, there was more birdsong in the air. Unfortunately, there were also many more insects in the air, that swarmed at me from amongst the roadside foliage if I ever stopped for more than a few seconds.
I camped when I could, but the excessive moisture meant that my tent needed more and more care to remain liveable. One evening, after the day’s ride, I unraveled it to realise that I had forgotten to dry it out during the day, and it was out and out soaked. I couldn’t sleep in it; if I was wet through the night, I would freeze.
It was already getting dark, and I started to worry. What if there was nowhere I could stay? The nearest town was only a few kilometres away, but was it big enough to have a foreigner-approved hotel?
Deciding to take the highway to shorten the route, I scanned the provincial town for any sign of a bigger hotel. A neon sign, a bed marking on my map app; eventually, a receptionist at a guesthouse pointed me to the Mei Li Zhou hotel, perched on a street corner and, mercifully, open to foreigners, despite some initial worried questions and plenty of stares from the small audience of drunk men who decided to gather in the hotel lobby.
“She’s so pretty,” one of them said, leaning in closer than I would have liked to peer at me. I leaned away. “Where are you from? Why is your Chinese so good?” I said nothing, staring in irritaton at the ceiling. I wanted to mutter a colourful insult, but saying anything would ignite a conversation that I wanted no part of.
Hanging up the tent to dry in my bathroom made the room smell like a garden shed, but a dry one at least. As always happens when I’m sad or exhausted, I fell asleep before 8, waking in the middle of the night to the drone of a mosquito in my ear.
Two more days of cycling through lush green villages was all it took to get to Nanchong. The further I went into Sichuan, the more I liked it. The food was amazing; thick, spicy noodles are a local specialty, and I ate bowl after bowl of them coated in their sweet, spicy and sticky peanut sauce. The best bowl I had was, as always, a random find, in a tiny mountain town where the owner was full of smiles and disbelief at what I was doing. Between mouthfuls, I told him the food in Sichuan was the best I’d had in China.
“You don’t mean that,” he beamed, clearly delighted.
One night on the road, it took almost an hour to find a camp spot anywhere away from the sharp and curious eyes of the villagers. It was nearly completely dark before I eventually spotted a grassy bank under tree cover, a few metres up a very small hillside. Hurriedly, I set up my tent, mindful not to switch on my bright phone light, which would light up my tent and make it visible to anyone who cared to look. A bizarre intercom system which I had heard throughout the day as I cycled through nearby fields played announcements and music into the village streets at intervals, a mandatory radio service.
Initially irritated, I eventually started to enjoy the calming background noise of the evening broadcast – I was settled between two intercoms which had a small delay between them, creating a strangely calming call and echo effect, especially hypnotic when it started to play scratchy, sanguine Chinese lullabies around 7pm.
I was less charmed when it started again at 6:30am playing the patriotic news.
“China has the greatest number of exports of any country in the world”
“China strongly believes every country must be united in the fight against coronavirus”
“Chaos continues in the American elections as Trump files lawsuits against voters”
“China has succeeded brilliantly in controlling the virus”
How did people not get sick of it?
It was a warm day and unchallenging terrain, but the last day into Nanchong was still difficult. Where I once would have stopped to take photos, I found myself now mostly keeping my head down except when it was unavoidable. I just didn’t have the energy.
The pandemic had worsened yet again in the UK, and travel home for Christmas was going to be impossible. I missed my family.
I stopped briefly in a lakeside town called Shengshui to eat. Holiday homes were dotted along the side of a spindly, sunkissed reservoir, and the scene was so beautiful that I considered stopping riding for the day and checking into a hotel there. As I squatted on the ground, refilling my water bag and stuffing bread into my mouth, I noticed a group of older women discussing me a few metres away. I heard “waiguoren” (foreigner), “zhen lihai” (amazing) “qi zixingche” (riding a bike). Oh, go on then, I thought, lifting my head to make eye contact and open the way for a predictable conversation.
For once, I didn’t regret it. They were kind, and genuinely interested in what I was doing, rather than in taking a picture of me or pressing me to answer vast, general questions about the state of my country.
“Aren’t you cold?”
“You must be tired. Rest for a while here!”
“You’re covered in plant bits,” one of them said, picking sticky burs off my jacket in a caring and instinctive gesture so similar to my own family members that I thought of my own grandma and nearly welled up with tears. I didn’t know when I was going to be able to go home and see her again. I waved goodbye to the group of women and kept moving, wishing I could transport to the fireplace in my grandma’s living room, wrapped in my duvet and sipping a hot chocolate.
As I forced myself to keep riding, I tried to think of ways to reward myself for my commitment and keep myself motivated. Take a day off for meditation and drawing with my phone off? Find a spa? I didn’t have a swimsuit. Get to a city and order a book? Maybe I could find an audiobook to listen to, like the ones we’d listened to in the car with my dad driving to the very southern end of the U.K. when we were kids.
Slept on a hillside, another tiny, bedraggled field side path that was just overgrown enough to suggest nobody went that way anymore. Ducks quacked loudly nearby, signalling that I was not far away at all from someone’s house, though I couldn’t see where it was for trees. The golden light of the afternoon made the hills glow around me. The sunset was beautiful through the slim, tall trunks, and that night the sky was full of stars.
The final 60km into Nanchong was easy. There were far more empty lanes than cars on the stretch of highway I encountered, so instead of following winding country roads, I stuck with it, content to settle into a rhythmic autopilot listening to random podcasts about Fort Knox, beaver habitats and Chinese politics.
When I finally arrived, I had been riding for more than a week straight. I was pleased; I’d made good time.
I closed out the world with a set of blackout curtains, and slept for what felt like days.