Biking Across China, Episode 11: City of the Future

Nanchong – Chongqing
南充 – 重庆
3 days // 170km

The Hermitage

My hotel room in Nanchong was another painfully expensive one, after the first one I booked refused me entry and directed me to, as usual, the most expensive hotel in town. A man in a dark t-shirt tucked tightly around his large paunch and into his jeans  stared as I spoke the receptionist. 

“Her Chinese is amazing. She doesn’t sound like a foreigner at all,” he said to the receptionist. Fatigued in body and mind, and vaguely irritated at being spoken about as if I wasn’t there, I didn’t look around. Everything for the past two weeks was like a procession of actors, reading lines from the same script of some cliched TV show. 

A wave of hot air hit me as I entered my room, and I searched for the air conditioning immediately. No cool setting. Great

In a well-rehearsed order, I hung up my tent and sleeping bag to dry, dumped my dirty clothes in the sink ready to be washed, and then went online to order much-needed supplies: fuel for the camp stove, imported toothpaste that actually contained enough flouride to be effective (unlike Chinese supermarket brands), and treatment creams for my long-suffering skin. 

The hotel were kind enough to send up a fan, but I still spent the day with the thick velvet curtains completely closed to keep out the sweltering sunlight. Combined with the trailing fan wire, filthy clothes in the sink and tent parts hung on every conceivable surface, I couldn’t help laughing at this bizarre, dark and hermit-like existence I was forced to create in an expensive room I didn’t want.

I found a Muay Thai gym nearby, and wandered over to train that evening, hoping to find a light sparring partner to keep the worst of the rust off my boxing skills. I eyed the members of the training group in the mirror as we warmed up with skipping ropes, looking for the relaxed and rhymthic movement of someone who had been training for a while. One was obviously better than the others, moving his rope around with ease, though I noted with a little smugness that his rope kept catching on his foot when he tried to do the crossover movement I was doing.

He introduced himself as Qihang – a name I liked, meaning to take off, depart or fly away. He was tall, with a thin but clearly athletic physique. I asked if he was a professional fighter.

“I’m at university, but I’m pretty much semi-pro,” he said with a grin. “I think I saw you on my friend’s Tik Tok account. You’re cycling around China, right?”

“What? The gym in Qinghai?” I couldn’t believe it when he showed me a video I had taken at the Flying Tiger gym several weeks ago. He knew the trainer I had worked with.

“Do you want to spar later?”

The rest of the gym watched as he ran rings around me, with encouraging shouts from the beginners and hobbyists who had also been training. I managed to get a couple of nice body shots in, but my footwork was shoddy from weeks without proper training, putting me at an even bigger disadvantage than the large difference in our heights. Still, it was exactly what I’d hoped for. The staff and other members were kind and curious, and I trained for hours every day I was in Nanchong, savouring the genuine social interaction, even if it was stilted somewhat by the lens of “foreigner” that filtered the way people saw and spoke to me.

“Go and say hello to Foreign Sister! Use your English!” Parents would urge their shy children.

“Hello,” the tiny child would say. Some were too shy to say anything; others mixed Chinese and English with glee. 

“I can say my favourite animal in English,” one girl told me with a gap-toothed beam. “Reh-bit!”

People were friendly, but I still felt the chasm of difference keenly. I was the first foreigner most of them had ever spoken to. On my last night before I left the town for Chongqing, the coaches took me for a late night dinner together which was nice, but punctuated with all the same telltale verbal signs of China’s claustrophobic society as usual. You foreigners are so free. Chinese people have to listen to their parents. People spend so much money on their kids here. Chinese food is so good. Can you use chopsticks?

Can you talk about anything other than China? I thought.

One of the parents from the club, a keen cyclist himself, offered to take me to the city’s best bike shop to see if they could replace my thick tyres with slimmer, faster ones before I left for Chongqing. We sat and drank bubble tea as the experienced shop owner tinkered with Jacky, pulling twigs and leaves from her cassette with a disapproving frown. 

“Have you been riding through fields or something?” He muttered. I remembered the multiple miles of waist high foliage I’d had to drag Jacky through to find a secluded camp spot.

“Every now and again, yeah.”

Endless fields

With the bike’s tyres replaced and all my supplies received, I checked out of my furnace of a hotel room and could finally ride towards Chongqing. 

The weather was unbelievable, soaring past twenty degrees, without a cloud in the sky as Iclimbed through modest valleys full of white village houses and backyard orange trees. Not long after leaving Nanchong, I was firmly in rural China, where spaced out villages sprawled for miles, melting into each other. A wide, bright blue river accompanied me most of the day, and as the sun started to set, I tried to find a quiet place close to the water but away from the roads and houses. 

This proved difficult. Every scrap of land was utilised for fields or houses, with only  hillsides to steep to farm and definitely too steep to camp on leftover. Finally, I eked out a spot between some trees, close to a sheer drop into the river. It was closer to the road than I would have liked, and I crouched like a stray cat whenever I heard a rare car or ebike approaching. Old baijiu bottles crunched under my feet as I set up the tent, the only noticeable rubbish aside from a couple of plastic bags. Was this a secret spot where illicit drinkers disposed of their evidence? 

The morning brought a blanket of mist, illuminated beautifully by the sunrise over the river. I could see a wooden boat docked by a small pier far away on the opposite bank, pictured myself pushing it out into cold mist, cutting silently and slowly through the glassy, turqoise river surface. A pair of male voices carried over the water, too far away for me to see where they came from despite my high viewpoint. I remembered spending the night in our Grandpa’s boat in Essex, when my Dad told me that sound travels far across still water, whistling loudly to prove it.

The road to Chongqing twisted through villages for miles and miles, spread out over the fertile greenery with hardly a Party building in site. Google Earth showed the landscape continuing on like this for tens upon tens of miles, with an infinite patchwork of houses and fields, houses and fields, hugging the twisting turquoise river. 

As I entered Chongqing province – the bits of rural land that frame the megacity itself – I was stopped by a group of policemen for another seemingly pointless “inspection”. Irked by the insistence with which I was stopped when cars were allowed to drive by as I waited, with an effort, I tried to make jokes about the distance I had to cover, but I have never been a good liar and my irritation at being racially profiled must have shown on my face. The atmosphere was tense as I tapped my foot and waited for the sauntering policeman to come to the conclusion that I was not, in fact, a virus risk from abroad.

In the final leg towards the city, I reflected on the deterioration of my mental health, and the tangible reduction of my patience towards others. How much of this was the effect of genuine, external problems, and how much of it was an internal change, a shortening of my fuse as I was spent week after week with only myself for real company? 

I was becoming unkind to myself, too.The day before I arrived in Chongqing, I saw to my surprise that I’d climbed close to 1000m in a day. My legs were getting so much stronger, I thought. I must be really fit. 

Then why do you look so overweight? A nasty voice whispered in my head. I was shocked. I had worked hard to beat my body image demons in adolescence, and hadn’t whipped myself with such harsh words as those for years. Alone, without a support system, my mind was apparently fertile ground for self-criticism to take hold. I had expected this journey to be challenging, but mainly in a physical sense. I hadn’t realised that the biggest challenge would be fighting off the negativity lurking in the corners of my mind.

The biggest challenge was, by far, mental

City of the Future

Chongqing was nothing like the grey city I had imagined.

The final roads into the middle of the city hugged the hillside, rolling up and down with the steep greenery. It was still warm and sunny, unbelievably for November, and  I stopped when I crossed a quiet footbridge to admire the valley it crossed, bathed in postcard-like sunlight. 

Approaching the more central districts of the province-city, I passed houses made of darker brick, in a style slightly like Beijing’s hutongs, but bigger in scale. Backyard metal workshops and their products spilled out of doorways; one door hung off its hinges, revealing a tiny room stuffed floor to ceiling with thousands of metal springs. 

There were traces of earthquake debris here and there, and it struck me that this area’s basic geography was very similar to the impoverished parts of northern Sichuan and southern Gansu I had climbed weeks ago. What was it that had made this area prosper while they languished? 

By the time it started to get dark, I was still more than 15 kilometres from my hotel, and the roads were becoming a tangled mess of six-lane highways choked with traffic and without a bike lane in sight. Balking at the prospect of riding through a mountainous city of 30 million at rush hour, I bundled Jacky into the back of a hired minivan and watched, open-mouthed, as the skyscrapers rose higher and higher outside my window.

We drove for more than an hour towards Chongqing’s very centre, which glittered with skyscrapers. I felt glaringly out of place in my dirty cycling gear amongst the speedwalking, well-dressed crowd and shiny cars that reflected neon lights on their spotless hoods. The scale of the buildings, how tall they were and how closely packed together, reminded me of Hong Kong, except here, impossibly, people seemed even richer, holding huge smartphones and designer bags as they strode off to dinner.

Chongqing’s glittering nightscape

I had booked a hotel right in the centre of town, in preparation for a night on the town with the friend who was supposed to meet me here, but a sudden pandemic outbreak in her city meant she couldn’t leave, scuppering our plans and meaning I had a large, twin bed hotel room to myself. I video called my missing friend and we laughed about it, virtually clinking our wine glasses from afar. I went to bed firmly drunk, and did nothing the next day except wash my clothes and buy a scarf, hoping it would add a hint of sophistication to my single set of casual clothes and make me feel less out of place in this enormous, shimmering city. 

I stayed there for days, boxing casually at a club nearby and spending my days at rooftop terraces, typing away on my laptop. While I was there, a news story broke about Stephen Ellison, the British consul general in Chongqing, jumping into a river to save a drowning local, and I almost tried to get in touch before thinking he would probably be swamped and tired of talking about it.

Tourists taking pictures were everywhere, and amazingly, even in this city of tens of millions, I saw no foreigners. So this is where all the young people from the countryside go, I thought; it was the reverse of the villages. There was hardly an old person in sight.

It felt like I had stumbled into a city from the future, or another planet even. Skyscrapers loomed higher than the mountains behind them, and spaghetti highways made travelling in a car an experience in itself: impossible layers of tarmac snaked through one another like an Escher painting, enough to make you woozy. I balked at the thought of cycling here and stared at the handful of cyclists I did see in dumbstruck admiration. I asked one driver whether the roads were confusing.

“No, of course not! They’re simple really. You just follow them along.”

A drone would have been best to capture the true magnificence of the jigsaw engineering, but I had to make do with my camera and feet. Having drunk in everything I felt I could of the city, and more importantly, unable to justify staying another night in my expensive central room, I left Chongqing longingly behind.

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