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.

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