Friday, 31 October 2014

the great mall of china

So we're in the capital of one of the largest nations on earth, with a fabulous wealth of history and cultural heritage (which is still being restored/ rebuilt/ remodelled for easier access)  Where to begin?  Well, this time we take a leaf from the locals' book - we go shopping.  I know, we haven't come all this way just to go shopping, but sometimes on a long journey needs must.  The city is at times difficut to navigate, principally because after a while all the roads begin to look the same.  Beyond the central area of hutongs, the traditional alleyways of courtyard houses, the city is awash in high-rise appartment blocks, office towers and shopping malls.  These are connected by the obligatory wide boulevards or ring roads.  The city still has some green areas - parks dotted around, trees lining the roads.  As we cycle around we feel like we've shrunk - everything is big and far apart.  After stocking up in Decathlon with bits and bobs we then begin checking out some of the bike shops for some replacement parts.  It's futile.  The bike market here is geared up for people riding either cheap stuff or high-end models and nothing much in between.  Oh well. 

bike servicing - these can be found all over the city

Since we arrived in China we've had warmer weather - the days are mild.  Our old guidebook recommends visiting Beijing in October when it's neither too hot nor too cold and when the skies are likely to be blue but since we've arrived it's got progressively hazier.  We haven't thought much about the pollution - it's not like India where you get a face full of blue smoke everytime you walk down the road - but one day we check the Air Quality Index website.  Beijing is around 400.  London is 41, Manchester 30.  During the night the index tops over 500.  Anything over 300 is regarded as hazardous and people should refrain from physical activity.  It turns out we cycle about 30km around the city this day.  But we don't pass out or develop hacking coughs and the next morning the winds have arrived and brought blue skies for a brief respite.

in the Heavenly Park

Our favourite pastime is wandering the old hutong neighbourhoods that surround the Forbidden City.  Climbing a hill just north of this landmark gives you a 360 degree view of the city centre.  All around us are trees.  The hutongs are built in a grid system and the old houses are all single storey so all we can see are the trees that have outgrown them.  Much has been bulldozed in the drive to modernize and develop, but this small area remains.  The narrow lanes are full of life and look rather shabby by Chinese standards.  Old bikes and rusty trikes litter the streets.  There are old chairs left outside doorways.  Peeping in you get a glimpse of clutter and more clutter.  Inside are very small neglected buildings which look like they'd be quite gloomy, facing into the courtyard space.  The streets are very clean, thanks to the army of street sweepers and on each block is a public toilet.  This suggests that the houses have no internal plumbing.  No wonder the government wanted to pull them all down.  The shame of it.  

We stay in a hostel in one hutong surrounded by small eateries, shops and not far from lanes with trendy cafes and shops, boutique hotels and micro-brewery pubs.  There are more modern buildings stuck incongruosly amongst all the older housing.  A school, flats, local government building.  Some of these bear the scars of the eighties fashion in China - coated floor to roof in white tiles.  But there also some glorious looking big old courtyard houses with ornate doorways and entranceways.  Many remain tantalisingly locked up and dusty with signs declaring they have been protected as cultural relics.  Is the only way to protect something here to lock it up?

no way out

Our main preoccupation becomes how to find a way out of Beijing and on to Nanjing where we plan to start cycling again.  The trouble is there are only tickets for fancy 'bullet' trains and these are expensive but more importantly do not take bicycles.  We remembered that usually the bikes have to go separately, but they can't even go from the station where the fast trains leave.  Also there are restrictions on what you can take onto the train in your baggage: no gas cannisters, no fuel bottle full of petrol and no knives.  Fairly reasonable I suppose, but none of these conditions are strictly applied to bus travel so we check out the bus option.  After visiting three bus stations spread over the south of the city we give up - there seem to be no buses to Nanjing.  Maybe the trains have taken all the business.  We go back to the trains.  Sleeper tickets sell out fast.  It looks like we have to take the 'hard seat' option on a sloooooow overnight train if we don't want to pay £100 for our journey south. Ooooh, can't wait.

endless amounts of laundry in the hutongs

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

all the pictures on the wall

"I'm glad we stopped here before we reached the village up ahead" Gayle says as we continue along the G110 the next morning.  The village ahead is a city of quarter of a million people.  In this way China reminds me of Brasil where a long bus journey might take you through five or six cities that you've never heard of, don't feature in the guidebook, and yet have over a million residents.  The "village" of Xuanhua takes a bit of navigating because signposts disappear once you get into a city.  We ask a policeman who is happy to direct us and then offers us water.  Needing a refill I give him my empty coke bottle.  He starts to fill it with boiling water and when I indicate to stop he hands back something resembling a sculpture from some obscure French modern artist.  In China you don't drink cold water.  You drink hot water or tea.  Cold water apparently messes with your ying.  Or your yang.  Not sure which.  Anyway, we finally get back on our quiet little back road.

the ancient city walls of Xuanhua, built in 2011
It takes us three and a half days to cycle to Beijing.  On our second day we pass coal yard after coal yard.  It's a grim urban scene broken up only by gritty dirty mechanics workshops and giant petrol stations.  There is a constant flow of trucks alongside us and most of them are open and loaded to the brim with coal.  The flow is incessant.  When we stop at a little restaurant for lunch (after looking for the one with punters), Gayle is about to suggest I wash my blackened face when I suggest the exact same thing to her.  We are rimed with coal dust.  How we love China.  

The restaurant is busy, the locals are friendly but not intrusive - only one photo and one offer to share a bottle of maitai.  The food is fabulous.  Braised aubergine in a sweet gingery sauce.  Pork and green peppers with a little bit of chilli.  I'd forgotten how much they like chilli in China.  Somewhere along the way we get a cold cucumber dish in a vinaigrette with peanuts.  It turns out to be a real test of our chopstick skills.  Our language skills are quite basic but everyone seems quite patient when we are trying to order food.  We are thankful for carrying the phrasebook - it helps.  In the cities you find places that have photos of the dishes on the wall with their prices - this is not just for tourists.  The phrasebook helps in the roadside restaurants that have no pictures.

On our third day the quiet little back road improves - we get our own service road alongside it, so we no longer have to ride next to the coal trucks.  We also lose sight of all the trucks for some sections, as if they are diverted.  There are more views, we can see mountains to our left and a huge reservoir to our right.  We pass tiny villages in trees beside the road.  Sometimes the whole village looks new, but built in a traditional style with grey brick, all south-facing, with pretty curved roofs and tiny yards.  When we cross into Beijing province we lose all the trucks completely and find ourselves on a wonderful tree-lined road.  We pass a small local market where we find some great snack food.  

Later the road heads towards the mountains that lead to the capital.  Somewhere we spot a section of the Great Wall.  Around here there are several strands to it.  Funny though - when I checked out the road on Google Maps I used the satellite photos to get a close up of the terrain.  Even when I zoomed in around our quiet little back road I could see no trace of the Great Wall.  But it is here or hereabouts.  Now I know it must be a myth that the Wall could be seen by the astronauts on the moon.
Strangely we don't climb much in the mountains before we are heading down through a gorge.  The expressway is now intertwined with our road, built through tunnels and over impossibly high bridges, whilst we slalom downwards alongside the river.  There are trees full of bright orange persimmon and small villages tucked into nooks and crannies.  But there is also a lot of road noise as the trucks have returned and are now streaming down both roads.  You suddenly realise what a logistical and enviromental nightmare it must be to keep this country running the way it is.  We camp amongst all of this, tucked away in someone's copse of fruit trees.  

In the morning a couple come by, out picking fruit from their trees.  They mime offering us tea, but we are keen to get to Beijing - it's just down there somewhere.  We continue downhill before reaching a plain.  The road is heading dead straight for the Forbidden City and we have a 40km-long bike lane to get us there, all the way through the suburbs.  It's easy riding once you get used to the fact that the bike lane is not the sole preserve of bicycles.  Nor is it one-way.  There are scooters, electric trike van things, cyclists, pedestrians, taxis and cars, buses sometimes.  The big stuff tends to be going the right way, but with the small fry it's a free-for-all, going any way imaginable.  So sometimes the bike lane is mad chaos, whilst the road is calm and free-flowing.  After a short while we become hysterical and join in the madness, shooting red lights, undertaking slow vehicles, mowing careless pedestrians down.  It seems this is the only way to make sense of it all.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

the cycling horde

We take a train to the border with China from Ulaanbaatar.  As we trundle through the capital we begin to get an idea of the scale of the city.  In the downtown it reminds us of China - lots of construction of new appartment blocks and a giant shopping centre.  Every road is jammed with traffic - mostly 4-wheel drives.  It's another country compared to where we've just been and it took us a few days to get used to it.   Now as we depart through the 'suburbs' we can see the sprawl of new homes, mostly gers erected within a small fenced allotment.  It's thought that almost 3/4 million Mongolians have migrated to the capital in the last few years, many because they have lost their livestock in recent terrible winters.  And it seems obvious that if you want a job in Mongolia you would have to come to Ulaanbaatar.  It will probably kill off most of those small towns and large villages we have been through.

Genghis sits proudly in UB's main square to greet all cycle tourists

Our train is full of Mongols preparing to swarm across the border and into China for a spot of pillaging and looting. Or shopping as we call it these days.  We wonder how the relationship is with China these days - Mongolia is beginning a mining boom for coal, copper and other minerals.  It will become rich quickly but it remains to be seen how the money will get spent.  Our landlady at the hostel was doubtful - too much corruption, too many government ministers with family connections with China. She also complained about how the Russians had destroyed her country.  Her own grandfather, a wealthy farmer with several thousand animals, was killed in the purges of the '30's.  It seems Mongolia, once the home of the most feared tribe on the planet, is now pinned down between two awfully strong neighbours.  If you have a business in UB then you probably have to know some Chinese.  The young woman on the bunk above Gayle is heading to Beijing to buy clothes.  We assume she means wholesale - it's a long way to get a new outfit for the winter. She has her young son with her but he is deposited at a station in the night, presumably with grandparents.  She doesn't speak Chinese though - "there are many Mongolians in Beijing".  Were there ever.  When Genghis and his mates crashed the party in China they were the first foreign rulers of China.  It was his grandson Kublai that then established the Yuan dynasty which ruled over most of present-day China and modern Mongolia.  And here lies the rub.  The Chinese now view the Yuan as their own, and Mongolia as part of their territory.  Oh the irony.

The border crossing in the morning is a pain.  You are not allowed to cycle the 800 metres or so of road approaching and in-between the border posts.  We know this but we are reluctant to pay for a 800 metre jeep ride if we can help it.  But the border guards won't have it.  A bus driver is told to take us to the Mongolian border post, but he tells us to get out and take our bikes with us once we get to the post.  Can't blame him - cheeky freeloaders.  After being stamped out of Mongolia we are then told we must take another ride to the Chinese side.  We end up paying $5 each for the 300 metre stretch.  On the Chinese side there is more doubt when they see our bikes.  We must take a ride.  But we haven't even been stamped in yet, we have to point out.  We are finally reunited with our jeep driver, who clearly thought he'd seen the back of us.  His two Mongolian passengers are crossing the border for "shopping" and the man is really friendly and helps us load and unload the bags and bikes.  Finally we are over the border.  Breathe out.  And relax.  

dogs don't walk in China, but are ferried everywhere
China.......  We love it.  We really enjoyed being here in 2009 and 2010.  It's got loads to fault it for, but it also has great people and great food.  And great bike lanes.  The border town of Erlian has the typical wide boulevards with bike lanes wide enough for a bus or a cycling horde.  
But these days there are more electric bicycles and scooters than cyclists.  One great thing about Chinese towns and cities is that motorbikes are banned.  It means you don't get the noise or pollution (at the point of use, at least).  We cycle into the town centre and ask about the bus station.  Yes, yes, I know we're supposed to be cycle tourists, but have you seen how big the bloody Gobi is?

the only identifiable snack food we could find

There's a bus to Zhangjiakou (a good tongue-twister for the Mandarin beginner's class) at 6.30 in the morning every day.  But can we take our bicycles on it?  The Mandarin for bicycle is zixingche - an even better tongue-twister. Yes, no problem, says the woman at the ticket counter.  But she's not the bus driver. The next morning his reaction is "mei you" - a familiar refrain we are used to.  All bus drivers say no when they see our loaded bikes.  Finally he agrees and we squeeze our bikes and panniers into a crowded hold.  Seven hours later we arrive at our destination -  a city you've never heard of with over half a million residents.  It only takes us an hour to cycle beyond the outskirts. 
interesting variant
 There is an expressway to Beijing but we have spotted a little back road that runs alonside it on Google Maps.  We don't have a map, but this back road, the G110, runs all the way to the capital, so we will have to stick to it.  The little back road has eight lanes as we leave the city.  This gradually goes down to four, but there seems to be rather a lot of trucks.  We pass a huge power station with ten chimneys belching out smoke - it is an archetypal image of modern China at it's worst.  There has been little 'greenbelt' land so far and when we draw alongside what looks like a tree-nursery we decide to pull off the road, even though it is not yet dark.  There are plantations of various types of tree and we nestle our tent in amongst a thicket of thin but densely planted ones.  We are suddenly invisible. We are not so far from the road and we fall asleep to the steady drone of trucks that continues all night long.

an oasis

Thursday, 16 October 2014

end of the road

Riding to Karakhorin we have a good tailwind to keep us motoring along.  In fact we've had pretty much tailwinds ever since we left Olgii.
"No we haven't" Gayle objects.
"We have - nearly every day" I retort.
"What about the day we reached the tarmac?"
"Hm, yes, but apart from that."
"Most of the time we've had headwinds." Amazing.  In the end we agree to disagree.

We find Gabor the next morning at the Erdene Zuu Monastery taking photos.  He's got up at dawn to catch sunrise but the morning has been overcast. The monastery comprises of a huge compound, the walls of which are studded with stupas.  It's believed to be the oldest surviving buddhist monastery in the country and was built on the site of the old capital of Karakorum built by Kublai Khan's father.  Kublai preferred the food in Beijing (who can blame him) and shifted the court southwards. The city is nothing more than a small town these days.   We mooch about the few buildings that survived communist rule.  There's not much open now it's low season - two monastery buildings with lots of novice monks reciting prayers and then tucking into dinner.   We take a bench in the sunshine and enjoy the warmth and watch local tourists stream in and out.  It's very relaxing.  

We have just enough time left to cycle to Ulaanbaatar in order to extend our stay in the country, but it means moving on after lunch.  However there's something about everyone's body language that is sending out a signal - and that signal is "enough".  We talk it through and the unanimous decision is stay here for the night and try and get a ride in the morning.  Now we've reached the asphalted road the excitement has somewhat diminished and so has the pretty scenery.  We're happy to have cycled what we did, but now we're all thinking of places other than Mongolia.  Gabor will be flying home - once he sorts out a flight - and we'll be going back to China, after a four year absence.  There's plenty for us all to think about.

somewhere else, mentally I mean, not physically

In the morning we head over to the bus yard to look out for a bus.  It's all rather quiet.  An old lady who has been sweeping litter into a small bonfire chats to us in English.  "Self-taught" she says proudly.  She helps translate for us when a couple in a big 4wd hear that we are looking for a ride.  We agree a price and then the driver hurries us to load everything into the car.  The three bikes get lashed to the roof.  It turns out the husband works here but his wife has a job in UB so they are heading that way.  The ride is uneventful and dull, apart from some exciting driving when we approach speed bumps - instead of slowing down and driving carefully our man swerves off the road and around the obstacle.  The car is a right-hand drive - there's lots of second-hand Japanese cars here - so he can't see to overtake anything big along the way - it doesn't matter though - I mean, who needs to look to see if anything is coming?

We unload on the edge of the city within easy reach of the airport.  Well, apart from the road that's been dug up and is now choked with traffic.  We weave our way through clouds of dust and find the immigration office to extend the visas.  It's a relatively quick and painless process - we all purchase an extra week.  As it's late afternoon we ponder whether to ride into the city to find a place to stay.  Gabor has noted that we haven't camped together for quite a while and we all opt for cycling off the road and onto some open land for one last night under the stars.

he's going to miss semolina in the mornings

Once in the city, comfortably established in an appartment hostel in the city centre, we set about sorting ourselves out.  The ride across Mongolia has been one of attrition.  My rack has snapped, our tent zips are all failing to close, and the scew holding Gayle's rack on has sheared off inside the brazeon.  Gabor has donated his spare tent zip sliders, which he brought along for such an occurrence.  He shows us how to unpick the end of the zips and swap the sliders.  It feels like we have a brand new tent - no more three-handed contortions to close the zips.  We find a bike shop run by the Belgian Consul where I pick up a cheap rack - to replace the cheap one that's bust.  They can't help us extract the broken screw in Gayle's bike but refer us to a catholic-run school and care centre which has workshops for training young boys as mechanics.  It's a priceless tip-off.  Brother Andrew takes us to the workshop where a tutor and his disciple set to work with all the right tools.  And bingo - out comes the screw.  Later on, back at the appartment, I start removing my broken rack.  One of the screws is a bit tight, it finally gives, but only half of it comes out.  The rest is left inside the brazeon.  Unbelievable.  Gabor is amused.  There's quite a bit sticking out on the inside of the frame and Gabor checks out possible solutions on the internet.  Gayle suggests we just go back to the catholic mission.  So practical.  I am too embarrassed.  Instead I head off to buy a file, file down two sides of the thread and then I'm able to unscrew the bloody thing out. 

the bus queues in the capital are horrendous

The morning that Gabor sets off for the airport it's trying to snow.  He has a flight at about 11am but he's got to ride there and then wrap his bike to check it in.  We are impressed to find he has risen early to get his breakfast and be ready.  It's odd to wave him off.  Usually we leave first.  

Thursday, 2 October 2014

and pause

While Gabor is retrieving his phone we continue on our route.  We are only 20km ahead but we don't meet up again for another five days. It turns out that Gabor has a broken spoke on his bike which he has to replace before he sets off from the police station. Meanwhile we are riding south from Jargalant village up through a very pretty valley and over a pass, down to the White Lake, which is, er, blueish.  Riding around the lake seems to take an eternity.  There are still plenty of gers here with their animals.  It's mostly cows and yaks and sheep and goats.  I am happy in Mongolia because the dogs are left at home to guard the ger - they are rarely out with the animals.  For the first time in Asia it seems that animals are sometimes left to look after themselves - the herder doesn't always stay with his animals all day.  I guess it's because this is open country and no-one is growing anything.  We see no cultivation on our ride, except for one place where they are growing hay to feed the animals in the winter.  The irrigated fields of grass are vivid green in the pale yellow landscape. 

Leaving the White Lake we circle a tiny extinct volcano.  The lava field spreads across the valley and is dotted with autumnal trees - a weird and wonderful sight.  We know we are about to reach the asphalt road but there's no sign of it just yet.  Under a rare grey sky we start to climb another very long low hill. The dirt tracks are thankfully quite firm - there are about fifteen to chose from.   The damage caused by vehicles without a road is impressive.
At the brow of the hill is a road construction crew.  Ahhhh, we can smell the warm tarmac being laid.  But the newly asphalted road is not yet open.  We can see it running away into the distance but all the trucks and minivans and 4-wheel drives are still following dirt tracks.  What to do?  Nothing for it but to push our bikes over the earthern barricade and up onto the brand new road, empty of traffic.  This road is ours, all ours.

The day ends with a terrible headwind which makes even the aphalt road hard work.  We turn out of the wind and into a canyon and find shelter in a lovely forest full of ovoos - the animist stone piles that are found at most passes.  These are covered in blue scarves.  It's peaceful and a little bit eerie but the woods are a great place to camp away from the road.   In the night we hear a strange noise - it's snow sliding off the tent.  At sunrise the snow is still falling and the landscape is quilted in white.  The brightness is cheery but the cloud remains low all morning so we stay in our sleeping bags.  By lunch the snow has stopped but we decide to take the day off and stay in our tent.  We're hoping that the weather will improve and the roads will be clear by the next day, which turns out to be so.  

Now we're on tarmac the riding is much easier, but the climbs to the passes seem longer and the passes seem higher.  It's a real pleasure to be able to look around at the scenery without thinking where your wheels are going anymore.  We wonder where Gabor is - did he pass us yesterday? After one more cold night camping we reach the town of Tsetserleg, which is a significant waymark for us.  There's a posh guesthouse in the town that does a full english breakfast - so of course we head straight for it.  Gabor is not to be found.  We settle in and bathe.  Hot water.  Clean clothes.  Luxury.

We go out to eat and wander through the town.  It's not a big place and the main street has a clutch of shops and eateries.  We go into one but the menu is all in Mongolian and the place is empty so we step quickly out again.  Just to our left we notice a man squatting down and pulling down his trousers.  Evidently he is about to lay some cable.  On the main street of the town?  Neither of us can believe what we've seen so Gayle turns round to check.  Seems you can take the boy out of the country but you can't take the country out of the boy. 

On our way back to the guesthouse we meet Gabor coming the other way - he's just arrived.  He is weary too after the ride and the cold nights.  The next day we all just relax.  The next day we get up ready to continue to UB but can't muster the required united energy.  We defer till the next day.  The next morning it is snowing.  Oh dear, we'll have to stay another day.  Our motivation to get moving is really quite low.  We still have just enough days to cycle to UB in time to get our visas extended and finally set off for Kharkorin.