Beginning of the end…..
Before we set out on this journey I had the ambition to update my part of our common blog continously. The access to internet was very good in central Europe and I could make daily updates, but as internet connections became more and more scarce the blog got updated less and less frequently. It wasn’t because there was nothing to tell, only that it was so complicated tell the story.
A few weeks ago here in China I got a writer’s block and didn’t update my part of our blog for almost two weeks. Now it has been almost two weeks since the last update and this time it isn’t because of any block.
Firstly, we stayed in Chengdu for almost a week doing nothing and it is hard to tell an interesting story about what we do and our experiences when we do nothing…. When we then started to cycle the first few days out of Chengdu it was rather uninteresting from a cycling or traveling perspective and there was really nothing to tell.
Secondly and more interestingly is that we are now quickly approaching the end of this journey. Fro/m the start in Sweden in February until 2-3 weeks ago we have been living in a time bubble consisting of here and now and we rarely thought further into the future than a few days at the time. Of course we have had rough plans to stick to – the visa clock has been ticking since we left Georgia, but that has been pretty much the only time constraint we have had. We have not been aware of what day in the week is and not what date it has been either. It has been a very pleasant experience to live like this and I recommend you all to try it sometime.
It is today only 39 days left until we on November 30 will ride our bikes across the Chao Phraya river into downtown Bangkok. Of course we could make a discrete arrival to Bangkok, take a few photos at the finishing point and then continue as all other times we have flown into Bangkok for vacation. This would be possible but it isn’t the way we want to do it. We want to cycle through Thailand with our friends and other local cyclists and we would like to host some kind of arrival party in Bangkok and all this need to be planned.
The last few weeks we have been too pre-occupied with the arrival to Thailand and all the arrangements around it rather than what is here and now. This has not only taken time from writing blog updates, it has also forced us to get out of our comfy ”here and now time bubble”. Nowadays we are very well aware of what date and what day in the week it is and in a way it feels like the journey is over even when we still have more than a month to go.
We hope we can be able to publish our plans for our arrival to Thailand and Bangkok on this blog within a week and then get back into the time bubble while traveling through south China and Laos.
We have lost three dear friends….
Don’t be afraid – nobody has died…
We submitted our applications for extension of visa when the visa office opened after the one week holiday. One day later we got our passports back with a new sticker attached telling that we can stay until November 10th. It was a great relief and we went back to the hotel to pack our bags to be able to leave early the next morning.
When we had cycled less than 500 meters the following morning Wej complained that her rear wheel was wobbleing. Luckily we were just outside a bikeshop and we asked the mechanic to take a look at the bearings. It turned out that the the cone we got replaced in Hami some 1500 km ago was worn out. This was far too early and has caused us a lot of concern. The shop didn’t have any replacement cones to sell so the mechanic jumped up on his bike and guided us to the city’s sport stadium where there were at least 10 bikeshops side by side.
We got our bikes washed and another mechanic dissembled Wejs hub, cleaned the bearings and replaced her cone. It took a while and when we left we had lost our first friend that day, but we didn’t notice it until the following morning.
It took a long while to repair Wejs hub and clean our bikes and when we were ready we decided to not go on cycling that day but to go back to our hotel and check in for another night. We then went out to have dinner at the simple restaurant that we had visited a few times already and when we returned to the hotel we realized we had lost friend number two.
A few days later we lost the third friend right in front of the entrance to a tunnel. I had got a flat tyre a kilometer earlier and quickly changed to a new innertube but when I started to cycle I could hear a loud nosie for every turn of my newly fixed front wheel. I stopped to investigate what it was and realized friend number three was lost.
So who are these lost friends?
Lost friend number one is Wej’s dear green cap that she has had for many years and on this trip she has worn it under her helmet every day. It has served her well and protected her face and head from the strong sun during many many hours of outdoor activities not only on this journey. Its military dark green colour had faded and the cap had got a very nice patina, but now it is lost forever. Wej is sad to have lost her friend but is also happy for its long and loyal service.
Lost friend number two is a souvenir soft toy from the Turkish football association that we got as a present when we fixed a flat tyre on the main square in Trabzon where the football association was having an event. We actually got one each but we gave away one of them to a kid we met somewhere in Georgia. The other one has been our mascot and has been riding with us over mountains and through deserts hanging on Wejs handlebar bag. We had hoped we could bring this friend with us to Bangkok and we are sad to have lost her, but we hope she will continue traveling happily on her own.
We have had warm feelings for friend one and two, but unfortunately the same can’t be said about friend number three. Although we have had no feelings for each other, friend number three has played a crucial role during this trip, but now time caught up with him and he died in front of that tunnel after a 16.000 km long and dutiful service. It has happened that we have yelled at our friend and been disappointed of his performance, but he has never complained. He has just kept rolling and rolling until he was punctured so severely that a pen could be put through his thick black skin.
If you didn’t already know it I can tell you that this trip between Göteborg and Bangkok is carried out by bicycle and I will take the opportunity to mention a few words about the last two weeks cycling experience.
The ride from Chengdu to Leshan was very different from the previous weeks on the east tibetan plateu. Chengdu is located in the lowlands below the mountains and this area is very densely populated. We took a small road the 160 km from Chengdu to Leshan where we would apply for extension of our visas. This small road passed a village – yes you read it correctly A village…. Although being on a small road on the countryside we hardly saw any fields or forests. There were buildings along the road all the way from Chengdu to Leshan and it felt like we were riding through the world’s longest village. Of course it was many villages that had grown together and behind the single row of houses that lined the road we could see the fields of rice and corn. Seeing so much people, houses and activity was very different from our experience during our ride through the east tibetan areas.
Being on the east tibetan plateu was a cold and sometimes wet experience. In the lowland between Chengdu and Leshan we could finally cycle dressed only in shorts and T-shirts again. We had looked forward to it and enjoyed every second of it.
We have followed road 213 for a couple of weeks now. It’s a long road that seems to cross central China from north to south. We have been on and off it since we bypassed Lanzhou. We left it somewhere outside Chengdu but south of Leshan we joined it again.
Road 213 is a good road with a perfect surface and it has been a joy to cycle on it.
Two days after leaving Leshan we arrived to a small town outside the city of Nananzhen that is located where two tributaries to the Yangtze river merge. The good old road 213 was in a poor condition here due to being severly damaged in the Sichuan earthquake a few years ago.
We stayed one night at a hotel in the unlit village outside Nananzhen. When we went out to find somewhere to have dinner it was a compact darkness and a very dense fog. It was foggy in the morning too, but at least it wasn’t dark and road 213 had been repaired so we could make some quick progress until we would start a 1500 meter climb over a mountain.
We had checked both our printed map and online maps and road 213 was now going to take us up on the mountain and when we arrived to a T-shaped intersection in a town before the switchbacks we were a bit unsure about which way to go so we asked a police officer for help. He spoke no english but his body language told us that he thought it was a really bad idea to go on road 213. We soon understood why…..
After that T-intersection road 213 turned into a very poor dirt road with big potholes and lots of loose rocks on the surface. We were surprised to say the least. On the map the road looked like it had looked all the time with the same size, colour and number, but here it turned into what could best be described as a dirt road for tractors in a forest.
First we thought that the condition of the road was temporary and it would get better later on, but after a while we realized that road 213 has a complex and split personality with different charachteristics….. When we realized that the road wasn’t going to get any better and we would be slowed down significantly we were disappointed for about 30 minutes before starting to enjoy the unexpected adventure that fate had brought upon us.
We passed small villages and met many groups of curious kids on their way to school. Just like the kids in central asia they ran after us trying to talk to us using the few words in English they know. Being followed by curious kids is something we got used to in central asia but had yet to experience in China.
In the late afternoon we understood we wouldn’t make it over the mountain to the next town so we decided find somehwere to pitch our tent. To find a place to camp is difficult in an area that is so steep that people have to make terraces on the hillsides to get some land to grow rice on, build their houses or park their cars.
When we camp we have a security related rule that is that either nobody sees us or knows where we are or lots of people are aware of our presence. We try to avoid being seen by only one or two people.
So what to do when there is nowhere to pitch a tent and there are people around, but too few to be called ”many”? We found two spots immediately beside the road that could serve as a far from perfect tent spot and then we waited to pitch the tent until it got completely dark.
Our tent was next to some big boulders less than 3 meters from the road and although some cars, motorcycles and even pedestrians passed us nobody noticed the tent. One man walked along the road talking loudly on his cell phone and pointed his torch light right to our tent, but didn’t seem to see it.
A very good indicator of how bad condition a mountain road is in is when it isn’t possible to cycle faster downhill than uphill. Our average speed up the mountain was about 7-8 km/h and it wasn’t faster on the way down….. Both of us got blisters on our hands from all the breaking on the way down.
A few hours later on the second day on the mountain we got a glimpse of a good looking road in the far distance. After a quick look on the map and we realised that it must be our road… 🙂 It was an adventure on the mountain but we also looked forward to get back on a nice road again. When we had descended to the road we realized one problem and that was that the good road was missing on maps and seemed to go to the east instead of south towards the next set of switchbacks.
We soon came to a 4 km long tunnel that was neither on the printed map, nor on the online map. We thought this tunnel was a new one and that it would bypass the next steep climb by going through rather than over the mountain before re-joining road 213 after the mountain pass. We entered the tunnel that was downhill and after speeding through we took a look at the GPS that told us we were not on any road, but indicated we were far off where we had planned to go.
Not very tempted at going back uphill through a long tunnel we stopped to re-plan our route. The road we were on was too new to be on any map but it seemed it would take us straight east to a motorway that is parallell to the road we planned to ride. We have had enough of motorways and decided to go on a smaller road parallell to the motorway. There were two major towns on this small road and there was a lot of traffic on the 20 km between them.
After passing the first town we witnessed a very chaotic situation. Two trucks traveling in opposite directions had crashed into each others side and blocked the road completely. It wasn’t a serious crash and the damages were minor, but they had to be removed before the traffic could flow freely again. The line of cars waiting behind both trucks grew quickly and were soon several kilometers long. Instead of lining up properly behind each other and leaving the lane for the traffic in the opposite direction free, the cars and trucks waiting on both sides started to overtake each other to get to the front of the line. This meant that the road was completely blocked on both lanes in both directions and rescue vehicles had big difficulties to access the two trucks. The road looked like a giant car park and we had to go zig zag between cars that had parked on our side of the road.
Once past the last cars waiting we speeded on trying to get as far as possible before the traffic was let on again, but only a few cars came. We think that they still may be parked on that road trying to sort out who to back out first….
This situation was interesting from a cultural perspective. Nobody seemed to think the thought that if I overtake the car in front of me there won’t be any space for me to get back in again and I will be left blocking the opposite lane causing everyone to get stuck, but since everyone is doing this I can do it as well. To me this was a real life example of the philosophical terms ”tragedy of the commons” and ”prisoners dilemma” (google if you don’t know them).
An hour or so after the chaotic situation we entered Yanjim which probably is the world’s most narrow town….
The town is located along a river that flows between high mountains with very steep sides. Yinjin has two parts, one on each bank of the river and there is no flat area since the town is literally built onto the mountain sides. The side we stayed at had two long major streets with steep alleys or staircases leading towards the apartment blocks where people live. Parking on the street was impossible and many buildings had a garage on the street level. We had to squeeze our bikes under a stairway in the combined hotel and apartment block that we were staying at.
Although the city had so little flat area the two main streets were very busy with fancy boutiques, restaurants and shops side by side. Yinjim is probably not known for anything but I’m glad we came here and I will remember it for its very unlikely location.
It had been good weather with nice temperatures but with some haze all the way from Chengdu to Yinjam. When we left Yinjam the temperatures dropped and we could see how dark clouds got into attack position. We got one more day with a grey sky but then we had rain most of the time all the way into Kunming. Since it rained and the beautiful views were blocked we decided to go on the motorway to get some kilometers done.
Chinese people like to refer to Kunming as the city of eternal spring. It is located at 1900 meters altitude and being only 250 km from the tropic of cancer which is where the tropical zone of the world starts it is supposed to never be really cold but have a pleasant weather throughout the year. Not so when we visit though – the temperature has ranged between 7-13 during three last days into Kunming and now when we have been in the city for three days already we feel like we are back in Göteborg. This kind of weather is what we are used to back home at this time of the year and never did I expect to experience the same weather conditions only three cycling days before crossing into the tropics.
For more photos of our trip from Chengdu to Kunming, take a look at Wej’s most recent blog post. She has put in a lot of photos there.