“The old world will burn in the fires of industry. Trees will fall. A new order will rise.”
Saruman, Lord of Isengard
JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Twin Towers, 1954
Ok, so I’m not saying that China’s rapid development is exactly like the fall of Middle Earth but there are some striking topographical similarities between the two places.
Consider this map of the Taklamakan in Western China (with our position and previous route highlighted):
Now look at this map of Mordor.
It’s uncanny. As you can see, both are large deserts, enclosed on three sides (north, south, and west) by mountain ranges. Both are also famous for their hostile conditions – Taklamakan in the local Uyghur language, literally means something like ‘place of no return‘. Given these ominous circumstances, we decided to hop on a train (our first since leaving England) and travel 4300km from Kashgar to Chengdu, hence bypassing the metaphorically Orc infested Plateau of Gorgoroth. In practical terms, this would also allow us to spend our last two months of cycling in cheap and cheerful South China, Laos, and Vietnam, where I have just booked a flight home from Hanoi on the 15th of December.
So from Chengdu, after a whole two weeks off the bikes, we eagerly set off southwards into the densely populated Sichuan Province. The roughly London-sized city was crowded and enormous, but still managed to feel harmonious and unstressful. Everyone seemed unshakeably even tempered, and there was none of the frenetic urgency and grumpiness that often infects Central London. Exotic street food fried and boiled everywhere, and in the parks and open spaces crowds of people practiced Tai Chi, danced to music, and drank tea. It was a very different world than the one we had left behind in Central Asia. As we cleared the city limits, a cool wet mist hung in the air, and for the first time since Azerbaijan, the landscape was green. With 1000km of extremely mountainous rural China to cross before reaching the city of Kunming in Yunnan Province, we were looking forward to some tough, but peaceful backcountry cycling. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out as expected.
As the above quotation suggests, Tolkien had an intense dislike for the side effects of industrialisation. When he wrote The Lord of the Rings, his portrayal of the forced ‘industrialisation’ of the Shire was widely believed to reflect the transformations going on in England at the time. It may now seem unfair to equate the British post-war government with the dark forces of Sauron, but 60 years later those same transformations are currently underway in China and it’s easy to see what Tolkien hated so much: The invasion of the countryside by machinery and noise and pollution; the disruption of nature; and the end of a simple rural way of life for millions of people. Is it ultimately for the best? Who knows? Either way, it did kind of spoil the chilled out cycling vibe we were hoping for.
As we cycled along through our new surroundings, I scanned the roadside for potential camp spots to see what we might expect to find come nightfall, but found absolutely nothing. Day after day, most of the land was too slopey, and everything else had either been turned into terraced plantations or claimed by thick undergrowth. Fortunately, hotels in China turned out to be incredibly good value and not hard to find, so like many other cycle tourers in this part of the world we’ve slipped into a new routine of setting a daily target where we know we’ll find a hotel, and going for it. In light of this new development – and with very similar conditions ahead – we have decided to take the unprecedented step of posting home our tent and cooking pannier. It was a difficult decision, but with five weeks left to cycle a very hilly 2100km, speed is now of the essence and we’ll certainly be a lot faster without them. Even so, saying goodbye to our beloved bedroom and kitchen will be a sad moment. They are the closet things we have to a home, and they also have the miraculous ability to be a source of spontaneity and adventure, but at the same time, a source of comfortable familiarity and routine.
Unsurprisingly our new cushy existence of clean sheets, warm showers and hot pork-bun breakfasts is working out quite well so far, but it does come with its own set of challenges and pitfalls. The main one involves misjudging the difficulty of the terrain and failing to make it to a hotel town. This has already happened three times! On one occasion we were forbidden from staying in our chosen town by the police. The whole area was apparently off limits to foreigners (presumably due to a cluster of sinister looking metal factories in the surrounding hills), and after being escorted 15 kilometers down the road, we were abandoned to carry on to the next town, in the dark.
On another occasion two days later, we got stuck up a mountain at 2600 metres in thick fog. Just as we were resigning ourselves to a wet and hungry camp spot right on the roadside, we came across a lonely brick compound with a man smoking outside it. After an elaborate mimed request to camp there, and a brief phone call from the man, we were beckoned inside and given a bare – but very welcome – concrete room in which to roll out our mats and sleeping bags. In the kitchen, the man’s wife and mother insisted on warming us by their charcoal cooker and feasting us on pomelo (a grapefruit-like fruit), tea, rice, pork, and vegetables. Conversation was impossible, but they managed to explain that they were from Chengdu, and we guessed that they were stationed here as road workers, to inspect – and if necessary clear – the nearby mountain pass in bad weather. The next day, after a big breakfast of noodle soup and lettuce, our saviours absolutely refused any money for the food, and cheerfully sent us on up the mountain.
To be treated with such kindness had come as a bit of a surprise. Up until this point, we had felt a distanced from the locals, and slightly intimidated by China’s formidable language/cultural barrier. Everything seemed alien to us, and supposedly ‘universal’ words like OK, kilometres, and toilet were suddenly useless. Even our well honed charades and Chinese dictionary phrases were being met with blank stares. It felt very disempowering – and still is frustrating – but since our encounter on the mountain, we’ve come to realise that behind the initial confusion, there are usually some incredibly patient and friendly people.
As we carried on cycling over the pass, the fog finally cleared. For the remaining five days to Kunming, the road wound up and down through deep, fertile valleys and along the Yangtze River, under a warm and sunny sky. The background cacophony of earthmoving, truck driving, and miscellaneous banging never went away for long, but at least our Chinese food-ordering skills were improving. Learning the words for ‘fried’ and ‘no Sichuan pepper’ were major breakthroughs and before long, we were mostly getting what we wanted.
On our way through the countryside, we saw another side to the glitzy modern China presented to the international media. Colourful ethnic groups like the Yi (photo, left) still lived and dressed traditionally in their mountain villages. And the towns, again, seemed to evoke notions of post war Britain. In amongst the signs of growing prosperity, conditions were still basic and most people lived very humbly, with no obvious luxuries. In Chengdu, high streets may have been full of iPhones and designer labels, but here they sold the raw materials of manufacturing, and were full of people making things – from mattresses to wooden ornaments to window frames. Always though, there were simple open fronted, family run restaurants where we would guzzle down delicious bowls of rice, noodles, meat, and vegetables, all cooked with generous pinches of salt, spice, and MSG.
Although the weather was perfect, the November days grew short and we had to cycle all day to make our ambitious targets and reach our hotels. For added motivation to keep going, we would be ruthlessly bitten by tiny black flies if we stopped for too long. These were no joke, and Emily was especially bothered by them. One evening we gave her a full-body bite audit and counted 81 in total! As we closed in on Kunming though, greenery gave way to urban sprawl and the clouds of flies were replaced by equally unpleasant clouds of dust and diesel smoke. By the time we arrived at the Cloudland Youth Hostel we were more than ready to hang up our cycling mitts.
Now, having rested up for the last few days with a big crowd of fellow cyclists, we are once again raring to go and will head south tomorrow – tentless and stoveless – toward the tropical forests of Southern China and South East Asia. What could possibly go wrong?
Photos of Sichuan, China