Biking Across China, Episode 12: Exhaustion

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

Chongqing – Guiyang 
重庆 – 贵阳
450km // 8 days

The City of The Future

I spent more days than I had meant to in Chongqing. Amazed by the city’s physical appearance, even more so under the cloudless late summer skies that had coincided with my visit, I remained there for a long weekend, wandering around the city taking photographs of crowded streets and glass mountains that rose angularly into the sky.

It was a behaviour I shared with most other visitors. The streets were full of excited tourists doing the exact same thing as me, except they were in pairs or groups, taking turns to pose for the camera in that ubiquitous pose: one leg cocked, head to the side and two fingers held aloft in a careful curated expression of carefree happiness.

It was the opposite of the rural areas I had passed through just days ago. There was hardly an older person in sight. Strangely, I didn’t see many foreigners either, although a taxi driver assured me this was just bad luck. 

“They’re there, all right,” he chuckled. “There’s foreign teachers everywhere. If you go to the bar area, that’s where they all stay.”

Of course it is, I smiled. I had considered going to mingle in the nightlife, but always decided against it, mainly because I didn’t want to attract unwanted drunk male attention. Had I been a man, cocooned by a general assumption of safety rather than the general assumption of danger that accompanies a solo woman wherever she goes, I’d have been there in a heartbeat; but I had already had to fend off several uncomfortable advances from sober men. It felt dangerously naive to hope I would randomly meet a kind stranger at a bar.

Instead, I searched up rooftop terraces that I could laze on, and spent a beautiful Saturday enjoying the weather, pitching articles and writing. For some reason, I chose a “Zombie” cocktail to accompany me for the afternoon, and the (evidently multiple) shots of hard liquor within it went straight to my head, making it harder than usual to summon the will to make my way to a boxing gym.

Chongqing’s rooftops

Mercifully, there was no group class that evening at the gym I found tucked away on the top floor of a quiet shopping mall, meaning that I could settle into my own simple training schedule: skipping, footwork, shadowbox, small bag, heavy bag, conditioning. The trainer I had spoken to on the phone moved around in the corner of my field of vision. I heard him, or maybe someone else, guffaw from a back room that I couldn’t see into.

“I couldn’t even tell on the phone that she was foreign!”

I smiled to my reflection in the mirror at the compliment, given in its most genuine form, when the giver thought the receiver wasn’t listening.

“You’ve been in China for a long time, right?” He eventually asked, sitting on the side of the ring as I rested between rounds of shadowboxing. I guessed he was about my age, maybe slightly younger, with unassuming eyes, a quiet voice and a not-quite smile which made him appear permanently calm, the polar opposite of my own over-expressive face. He wore a black t-shirt and shorts, with a long sleeved shirt and full length leggings underneath for warmth. A thin headband half-heartedly held back his mop of black hair from his face. He was handsome. 

“Yeah,” I said, wishing I looked better in the t-shirt and shorts which were my only workout gear. “About six years now.”

“Do you live in Chongqing?”

“No – I’m just here visiting for a few days. I’m on a cycling holiday.”

“I love cycling too,” he grinned, pulling out his phone to show me a picture of his last outing, covered in mud, standing proudly next to a road bike. We talked for a while about cycling; what made it special and the best routes around Chongqing and it’s neighbouring provinces. When I told him I had come from Gansu, he looked confused for a minute, before his eyes widened at the realisation of how far I had come.

“How long have you been riding?”

“About two months now.” Wary that I had been resting a little too long, I got up and started shadowboxing slowly again, watching my form in the mirror. “You’re from Chongqing?” I asked, not wanting him to leave. It was nice to talk to somebody.

“Pretty much. My hometown is about 70 kilometres away from the city.”

Tao, as he told me his name was, was like most boxing gym coaches; a former student of China’s specialised sports academies, who had climbed the ranks and then exited them after sustaining one too many injuries. I was conscious of the mistakes his well-trained eye must be noticing in my movements, and did my best to slow down, focusing on keeping my feet as stable as possible and my elbows tight to my body as I practiced a roll dodge over and over, first in front of the mirror and then on the heavy bags.

“Do you want to spar?”

As expected, his skill far exceeded mine. He danced around me with ease, waiting until I was tired in the sixth or seventh round to let his hands loose with rapid combinations, one of which gave me the beginnings of a black eye. 

Tao, as he told me his name was, was like most boxing gym coaches; a former student of China’s specialised sports academies, who had climbed the ranks and then exited them after sustaining one too many injuries. As expected, his skill far exceeded mine. He danced around me with ease, waiting until I was tired in the sixth or seventh round to let his hands loose with rapid combinations, one of which gave me the beginnings of a black eye. 

“I don’t usually get the chance to spar properly,” he said in his quiet, thoughtful voice, once I couldn’t go on anymore. I sat on the canvas, exhausted. 

“Me neither. Thanks,” I said with a laugh, poking gingerly at my eye.

I wanted to invite him for dinner, or a beer or bubble tea or something – but I didn’t. It felt too soon, and I didn’t want to make him uncomfortable, in the not unlikely case he was just being friendly.

After I left, he sent messages expressing jealousy at my cycling routes, telling me to be safe in the mountains. I promised myself that if I ever came back to Chongqing, he would be the first person I saw. 

An Identity as an Outcast

Chongqing’s nickname, the “mountain city”, is well earned; I began climbing the second I left the hotel. It was only 450km to Guiyang, about a week of hard riding.

The roads were steep, leafy and narrow. Houses around me became small again, and I started to notice the telltale signs of poverty. Patched and broken windows; dirty clothes; fewer and fewer cars. And, as expected, there was a Party building, sparkling clean and new, standing in stark contrast to the crumbling village houses whose outdoor toilets made me wrinkle my nose as I went past. Was it my imagination, or was there a pattern to these building locations, reversely correlated to the wealth of an area? Do they just set up camp in poverty hotspots?

After about 80 kilometres of undulating mountain roads, I arrived in Qijiang, a small town that counts as an outer district of Chongqing. The accommodation was softly lit and comfortable, and I turned off my phone for the evening, determining to set aside time for mindfulness. So much isolation had allowed cobwebs to accumulate in my mind; being so used to my identity as an outcast was making me tense and unfriendly, to myself and others. 

Qijiang, an outer district of Chongqing

I spent a long time stretching out my legs and counting off all the things I was grateful for on my fingers. My healthy body. My loving family. My position of privilege in the world, which gave me a future rich with choice and opportunity. I sat on the floor of my hotel room and hugged my knees, not knowing why I suddenly felt like crying. I missed the open, empty desert of Gansu, and how full of wonder I had felt there.

The next day, aware of my tightening time frame, I decided to stick to the highway. Autumn was turning into winter, and though I was far enough south for it not to be dangerously cold, it was beginning to be uncomfortably so. The skies were persistently grey and misty as I climbed my final large mountain range, the collection of peaks that separate Chongqing from Guizhou province to the south. 

There was evidently a rich timber industry here. Instead of the frontyard cabbage patches and handful of goats, houses I passed here had stacks of stripped tree trunks piled next to them. I rode a new, smooth road through villages and towns, and it occurred to me that these roads themselves were probably no small part of what brought prosperity, ensuring easier access to goods and other people.

The towns seemed to spill on endlessly, miles upon miles of developed land, spaced out though the houses were. The scale of human expansion took my breath away, utilising what seemed like every single available patch of earth for either living or farming. Anyone who noticed my foreignness stared, sometimes stopping and shouting. I tried to tame the instant irritation that flared up by vowing to myself I would ask to photograph anyone who bothered me. If I spoke to them, these anonymous tormentors became humanised to me and I to them; and it would also hopefully result in some of the portraits I so treasured.

The scale of human expansion took my breath away

By the end of the week, I had cycled two hundred or so kilometres. Somewhat zombielike as a result of trying to control my battered mental state, I frequently miscalculated my water, not realising that I was out until I sucked on an empty straw. 

Usually, this meant nothing more than being thirsty for an hour or so before I found a roadside store, but on one morning, particularly poor timing meant that I found myself settling down in my tent for the night with next to no food and not enough water to make my ritualistic hot milk tea in the morning. Save only the night I was afraid I would freeze to death on the hillside in Gansu, just after Lan Lan had been stolen, this night was probably the most miserable I had had. 

Home of the Spirits

The next day, the roads were so steep and I was so tired that I had to walk any section that was more than sightly inclined. When I reached a noodle shop in the nearest town of Datong, nearly lunchtime the next day, I wished I could bottle the simple, all-consuming joy of being given a plate of food after a day and a half hungry. I wolfed it down, but still wasn’t strong enough for my legs to propel me up the steep slopes of the mountains, so instead I mostly walked slowly up the winding roads, watching always for discreet places I could camp. Every time I found somewhere that seemed reasonable, a villager would appear out of nowhere, always male, eyes always boggling. Even if it was harmless curiosity, I would never be able to sleep comfortably in the knowledge that someone knew exactly where I was, so I would move on.

There were plenty of unfinished holiday villas around, and I toyed with the idea of waiting until it was dark to climb through one of their windows. Easily done, but not so easily explained if I was seen. The idea of having to talk my way out of a breaking and entering allegation was extremely unappealing, so I continued slowly pushing Jacky up the steep mountain road, reasoning that I would either ask for board at a guesthouse, or set up camp once I had the cover of darkness.

The skies were darkening fast when a truck stopped a few metres in front of me.

“Do you want a lift?” 

A tiny man stuck his head out the window, looking at me with concern. My legs burned; it was nearly dark; there was nowhere to camp; and my map told me it was more than 5 kilometres even to the peak of this particular mountain, let alone a town.

“I really do,” I said, and the man instantly hopped out to help bundle Jacky into the back of his van.

“You can’t cycle in this fog! It’s so dangerous!” He reprimanded me. “What about ice on the ground? And the cold? You can barely see your hand in front of your face!”  He showed me his national ID card in an effort to prove himself as trustworthy, though I had already decided from the way that he spoke – and the fact that he cared about whether he appeared trustworthy – that he was no danger to me. 

He was a noodle seller, who drove around the remote mountain villages delivering orders door to door. He spoke quickly and excitedly, with an accent I could understand easily but that betrayed his rare use of standard Mandarin; he habitually confused his h’s and f’s, pronouncing “feichang” (extremely) as “heichang” with a gusto that forced me to bite back a smile.

I told him I wanted to find a hotel in Xianyuan, the next town a few kilometres away, whose name translates as “home of the spirits”. 

“Xianyuan? I know Xianyuan, it’s just up here,” he said. “You should come to Yelang, though! I’m from Yelang. We can put you up for the night!” 

I did not want to spend the night in a male stranger’s house, no matter how friendly. He seemed to realise this, hesitating as his recognition of the problem of propriety battled with his fervent wish to extend hospitality. I insisted that I would rather stay on the mountaintop; I didn’t want to miss too much of my bike route, anyway.

“But the way down is so steep,” he worried. “There will be ice. You could slip. It’s so dangerous.”

“I’ve been through worse,” I assured him, remembering the mountains of Qinghai that were more than double the altitude here, and secretly doubting there would be any ice. It wasn’t close to freezing outside, even overnight. 

We arrived in Xianyuan, a tiny mountain town that reminded me of French skiing villages with its narrow, hilly streets and empty off-season hotel rooms. The area was clearly a tourist destination in the summer. My new friend bundled me into the restaurant of someone he appeared to know – though I was never sure, as I have learned that ordering food with a familiar shout doesn’t always mean actual familiarity amongst Chinese people. The restaurant area was cold, so we moved into a large, dirty back room that held their entire family: two schoolgirls sharing a single chair in front of the TV, a grandmother sat behind them knitting, a young boy who dashed in and out of the nearby backdoor, and the mother, who sat next to us by the stove heater once she had brought in our food. 

“Where are you from?” She asked, looking at me intently. The noodle seller, hardly eating anything, answered her questions for me while I ate. She agreed that I shouldn’t go to Yelang, the noodle seller’s hometown.

“There won’t be ice,” she snorted, rolling her eyes at him. “It’s not that cold.”

After I finished eating, having spilled a fair amount of rice on the table, we headed for one of hotels nearby. 

“Don’t tell them you came from Chongqing,” he said urgently. There were rumours of a COVID outbreak. “Don’t look for trouble when there’s no need, you know. Just don’t say anything. Let me do the talking. It’ll be fine.” 

Amazingly, I was allowed to stay, though my evening was punctuated by no less than five visits from a revolving cast of local policemen, all asking the same questions. The final visit came after I had fallen asleep, and I made it clear that I was irritated at this invasion of my privacy and sleep as they asked me again where I had come from; what I did for work; what my nationality was; where I was going and why; and bizarrely, whether I had any filming equipment. 

“You understand,” they said as they shuffled out of my room for the last time. “Sorry to bother you. It’s the pandemic, you understand. Anti-pandemic measures are very serious at the moment.”

“Yes, I understand,” I hummed as I waved them out and closed the door. So serious that you need to crowd 6 men into one girl’s hotel room to ensure that no viruses are spreading.

Isn’t It Hard Living Here?

The steep road continued, up and up into the mountains, cutting diagonally across the hillside and through the clouds.

The air got thinner and houses more sparse. Those that were present were a mix of new villas and ancient wooden cottages, some with signs outside warning of “landslide danger”, which, since they were always planted on top of the remains of a huge landslide, looked as if they had always been put there too late.

At the top of one peak I would climb that day, a pair of houses stood by the road in the mist, one functioning as a humble home and one, huge and grand, being built next to it. I stopped to take photos of the commanding valley view, and noticed an elderly woman sitting outside. I motioned to my camera, and she nodded, giving permission for me to photograph the house. 

A little house in the mist

“Isn’t it hard living here?” I asked.

“Oh, sometimes.” She seemed surprised that I could speak Chinese. I was surprised she spoke Mandarin.

“Are both houses yours?” 

“Yes. We live in this one. If we have money, we buy materials to build,” she said, motioning to the big house. There’s so much hope, I thought with admiration. I couldn’t picture anyone I knew in the UK building a house on the side as a potential source of income. Then, I thought about the abandoned house I had camped in on the moutaintop in Sichuan, and the hoardes of others that populated the road before and after it, breathtaking and unused. I hoped there would be enough business for this little mountain house.

Hopeful half-built holiday villas

Good at Invading Places

The day wore on, and I cycled through the clouds into another tiny village, which would have remained nameless in my memory had I not chosen it as one of the now hundreds of marks that tracked my 3000km route so far. It was called Jinqiao, meaning “golden bridge”, though I couldn’t see a bridge in sight. Ravenous and cold, I stood on a corner in Golden Bridge and stuffed my face with a sort of preserved, crispy cake from a convenience store, promising myself I would stop and make a cup of hot, sweet milk tea as a reward for reaching the final summit ahead. 

As I ate, I admired the restraint of a man sweeping his storefront across the road, who appeared to be completely nonchalant about my presence. It turned out he had just been so absorbed in his task that he hadn’t seen me, and when he did, he stopped in his tracks, broom in hand, and did a double take so comical I couldn’t help laughing into my hand, nearly choking on crumbs.

“Does it snow here in the winter?” I asked eventually.

“Uh…yeah. It’ll start to snow in, uh, about two weeks.” He said, shaken into normality once more. It was quiet, and our conversation carried; a woman’s head poked over the windowsill of the storefront. “Where are you from?”

“England,” I said.

“Oh, yeah. England. The British Empire.” He paused. “You guys are good at invading places.” 

I didn’t quite know how to respond, other than meek agreement. As I commonly do when talking to Chinese people, I felt the weight of history like an almost physical force, passed down in our respective educations, with different parts exaggerated and downplayed in each. Part of me wanted to protest that all that was a long time ago and had nothing to do with me. And yet, here I was, traveling freely around the world while he swept a decrepit rural storefront, the paths open to both of us a product of the economic wins and losses of preceding centuries. A Mandarin phrase I had learned in Lanzhou bubbled up in my mind, which a boxing coach had used when trying to explain why he stayed in his city: yi yan nan jin, “it’s too complicated to say all at once”.

As we spoke, an older man walked toward us, carrying on his back a pale woven basket with a toddler inside, swaddled in winter clothing so thick that it looked like a miniature Michelin man. I loved these baskets. They were widespread in the countryside, used for carrying anything from cabbage to firewood to children, and there was something so typically Chinese about them: a mixture of economy, practicality and sheer low-tech hardiness, a reliance on the strength of one’s own back and nothing more. They couldn’t have cost more than a few yuan new, less than a plate of food, and yet many of them had clearly been used for years, the shoulder straps worn and replaced, demonstrating an aversion to waste that didn’t seem to be part of life in the cities.

“Don’t you get tired, carrying him on your back like that?” I asked, seeing that the man’s curiosity was piqued by me talking to the shopkeeper. It was a question I had wanted to ask many women I had seen on mountain roads before, as they bent under the weight of their loads.

He shook his head, looking at me with a confused expression, as if I had insulted his love for his child. 

Tiny mountain villages

“Don’t you carry them this way in your country?” he said in disbelief. I thought for a minute and tried to describe a pushchair. He seemed to understand, nodding thoughtfully. I rode away wishing I had asked to take his photo, but once again having been averse to abusing my position as an outsider. The last thing I wanted was to make them feel like zoo animals, the way I so hated when other people did it to me.

The summit was still several kilometres away, and I meandered up winding roads, surrounded by greenery and the damp, persistent cold of the mist. Jacky began to make clicking noises, like an animal whining in the cold. With a dull pain that I was used to by now, I missed Lan Lan.

“A foreigner!”

A group of children had spotted me through the railings of their house. I waited a minute before I looked up, seeing three small faces staring at me open-mouthed. I waved, sending them scattering with laughter. One was brave enough to follow me as I pushed Jacky up the steep road. I guessed she was about 9. She wore a faded pink tracksuit that looked like she had grown just slightly out of, and her hair was pulled back into a messy ponytail. She walked with bouncy strides, her hands in her pockets, not scared of me at all. Instantly, I liked her.

“Hello! Where are you going?” She said when she got close enough.

“I’m going to Guiyang,” I replied, wondering if I had been this brave when I was her age.

“Oh. You can speak Chinese,” she sounded a little a disappointed.

“I can speak English too. Are you learning English at school?”

“Yes! I can say ‘how are you?’ And ‘what’s your name’,” she said proudly. “What’s your name?”

My name’s Ellie,” I echoed her switch to English with a smile. “What’s your name?”

“Ai-li?” She scrunched her eyebrows, trying to reproduce the unfamiliar vowels. I nodded encouragingly. “My name is, Zhou Yiyang.”

“That’s a nice name,” I said in Mandarin, before trying out another stock English phrase: “How old are you, Zhou Yiyang?”

This was evidently not something she knew, because she looked back at me blankly. I switched back into Mandarin. “Do you know that one? I’m asking, how old are you?”

“Oh. I’m 8,” She told me. 

“Ok, so how do you say the number 8 in English?”

Eight.”

“So, when I ask you “how old are you?” You can say, ‘I’m,’ then the number.” I explained, slipping easily back into the familiar character of an early years English teacher gleaned from my previous year of work in Hangzhou.

I’m 8!” She shouted triumphantly.

“Perfect! Well done. Your English is really good,” I smiled.

“How do you say, ‘how are you?’” She asked conspiratorially, as if she didn’t want someone nearby to hear. 

‘How are you,’” I told her in English.

“I’m, finethankyou!” She shouted back in one breath, grinning at the conversation she had engineered before disappearing, presumably to tell her friends what had happened. She appeared again a few minutes later further up the central village road. “You’re back!” I said. “Are you coming to Guiyang with me?”

“No,” she said emphatically. “Just going to my uncle’s shop.” I followed her eye line to a dark doorway. That was a shop? A gruff voice from within shouted:

“You’re a foreigner?” 

Just like that, I felt the simplicity of my interaction with Zhou Yiyang slip away, childish curiosity replaced by adult prejudices and suspicion. I bought a couple of bottles of water, filling my backpack as the group of three or four people inside asked why I was travelling alone; why I wasn’t married; would I marry a Chinese man; and what did I think of this great nation? I rattled off my usual replies, wishing I could go back to the conversation of a few minutes previous about single digit numbers.

Wriggling out of several offers to introduce me to marriageable men, I waved goodbye and continued towards the peak of the mountain.

I had climbed 1800m, a greater one-day ascent even than anything I had done in Qinghai, and I was proud of myself as I stopped for a “lunch” of sweet, powdered milk tea, a Snickers bar and some peanuts. I savored the warmth of my cup of liquid sugar with my legs swinging from a concrete slab that jutted out from the road over the valley below. It wasn’t clear what it was designed for; perhaps to catch landslide debris or even just a miscalculated section of road, but it was perfect to perch on and listen to music, watching cars follow the curves of mountain road below like toys.

Wild bamboo was everywhere, thick and far-reaching, and I wondered whether pandas had ever called this place home. There was plenty of birdsong, so evidently some trace of habitability remained. I would ask someone once I got into town.

Wild bamboo and stone houses

Experienced enough by now to know that it was worth putting on layers for the long, windy ascent down the mountain, I wrapped myself in my worn yellow jumper, put socks on my hands to shield my fingers and began my descent down the almost 2000m of height I had just climbed. 

I put my music on my speakers for once as I zoomed along, blasting out my favourite songs from the past few years, reveling in the enjoyment of words and sounds that were as out of place in the Chinese countryside as I was. The sense of freedom and euphoria that I had come on this bike ride to chase, so rare since I had lost Lan Lan, finally raised its head again, and remained for the next few days as Jacky’s tyres ate up the flat, relatively featureless highways which led to Tongzi city, then through to Zunyi, and then again to Guiyang, capital city of my sixth province, Guizhou.

It had been more than a week of hard riding, and as I checked into my hotel, I could feel the fingers of exhaustion in my joints and muscles. Washing my clothes in the sink of my low-ceilinged hotel room, I looked forward to the next day, when I would sleep late in clean bedsheets.

No boxing tonight. I would find Mendaosha, a boxing gym a friend had recommended, tomorrow.

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