Biking Across China, Episode 2: Melons in the Desert

Guazhou to Yumen
150km // 2.5 days

I woke up in Guazhou (瓜州 guāzhōu), the next city along from Dunhuang if you trace on a map the province’s only road network with your finger. My mouth and nose were taut from a long night of breathing waterless air, a sensation I would quickly grow used to.

The character guā in Mandarin means melon, gourd or squash – essentially any large, fleshy fruit or vegetable, but most commonly melon – and zhōu means district or town, meaning that Guazhou can be translated rather endearingly as Melonville. The same character is also used in the term 瓜子guāzǐ (“gua seeds”), sunflower seeds, which are one of China’s cheapest and most ubiquitous snacks.

A wander to a market nearby brought easy samples of both. The small melon I bought was sweet, but not bursting with flavour as I hoped it would; the seeds however, still warm from the slow roasting bowl they sat in, had a delicious, deep smokiness that combined beautifully with the satisfying crack of each shell under my tongue.

I cycled on out of the city, passing fields full of well-fed donkeys and eventually following a path out in the direction of a broad, shallow river that Google Earth assured me lay just away from the road. Wild camping is a legal grey area in China, meaning that my first and foremost goal when finding a spot is to find somewhere I won’t be seen, though that policy was more for personal peace of mind than fear of the 5-0 in an area this rural.

The cracked riverbed by Beigangou

I pushed the bike along a turning behind a tiny hamlet signposted as běigāngōu (北干沟 “north dry bank”), following a sandy path through fields that slowly became more and more barren. I wondered if they had always been this way, or if the sand and unkempt weeds that filled them were evidence of the creeping desertification that worried Gansu’s government.

Slightly guiltily, I reveled in the soft sand. It was perfect for camping, so I pitched my tent and went for a blissful run along the pale ground of dried up riverbed nearby, which cracked and powdered like a thin layer of icing under my feet. Though it looked depleted, plenty of water still ran in the river proper, and I comforted myself with the hope that the dried up ground was just a sign of seasonal fluctuations in water volume as I soaked in the perfect temperature and clear, mellow sunset.

Roadside Farms

The next day brought bright, relentless sunshine. The roads were frequently lined with seas of brilliant yellow: corn heads laid out to dry by the countless small farm owners in the area. My requests to take photos were met with bemused but friendly agreement from shovel-toting village dwellers, most of whom looked over fifty.

Seas of brilliant yellow

“This is the year’s harvest? Won’t birds eat it if it’s just out on the ground?” I stopped by bike to ask.

“No, the little birds won’t come near it. They can’t swallow it.”

“How much will you make from this crop? There’s so much of it.”

“Oh, about 60 or 70 thousand [yuan].”

Shovel-toting farm owners

Several miles later, a mountain of sunflower seeds to my right caught my eye. I slowed down, the heavy bags on my bike forcing me to turn in a wide angle, and shouted out to one of the men raking the seeds out: “Zhèxiē dōu shì guāzǐ ma?” (are these all sunflower seeds?).

Being naturally rather averse to making conversation with strangers and aware of how awkward people become when they know they are being photographed, if I were being selfish I would prefer to take candid shots. Recently I have made it a rule to ask permission, and am hardly ever disappointed. I took the plunge. “Can I take some photos?”

“Of course you can,” he replied, barely looking up. 

A mountain of sunflower seeds

A brief photo session turned into a long and mutually curious conversation with the man – whose name I never learned, but who called himself Long Tu on WeChat – and his older brother. We shared a watermelon from their (enormous) backyard, and then they invited me for lunch together at their nearby friend Cang Ge (“big brother Cang”)’s courtyard house, where they ate when they were working on their farm.

The Courtyard House

It was the first time I had seen beyond the gates of one of the brick houses that lined almost every village I had been through. I glowed inwardly at the privilege of being invited into one of these homes, whose walls I find so symbolic of the closed and private nature of Chinese family culture. A handmade circular doorway led through to a small courtyard, in the middle of which grew chilli peppers and a grape vine with clothes hung up haphazardly around them. Small doorways led into the other sections of the house, including a dark kitchen where Cang Ge’s wife and daughter were preparing fresh noodles. A half-starved cat skulked by the kitchen door, mangy and ignored.

“Try this.” Long Tu held a green pepper in his hand, the shadow of a concealed smirk on his face.

“What is it?” I asked, immediately suspicious. “A chilli pepper?”

“Exactly. One of the ones grown here. It won’t be too spicy.”

“You eat some first.”

He took a bite and I followed. To my surprise, it wasn’t too bad; years of Chinese food had certainly honed my spice tolerance, I thought to myself proudly. “Pretty good,” I said, shrugging just as the spice started, predictably, to creep up with a vengeance in my mouth. Long Tu guffawed as my eyes watered. “That’s a northwestern chilli for you!” He laughed, proud.

Huge plates of thick noodles and two pink plastic bowls of spicy tomato sauce soon emerged from the doorway and were put on a small, low table, which we sat around on tiny stools. Long Tu made valiant efforts to keep the conversation in Mandarin rather than the local dialect, which I could only half understand, but to little avail. I assumed that like many of the older more rural population, Cang Ge could understand but not produce standard Chinese.

The high walls of a rural house

It didn’t bother me much. I sat there eating, catching slivers of their conversation about the weather and this year’s crop prices, wishing I could take a photo of Cang Ge’s weather beaten, deeply tanned and pockmarked face. He had a deep voice, broad shoulders and large, rough-skinned hands, and his smile and gravelly laugh came easily, making his deep-set black eyes twinkle. He reminded me of an aged Cornish farmer, with weather-beaten skin and a body moulded by years of work and wrapped unpretentiously in loose, hardy clothes.

Full of watermelon from earlier, I struggled to finish the expected two bowls of spicy noodles. This drew a string of worried exclamations from Cang Ge’s wife. “Foreigners don’t like noodles, anyway,” Long Tu’s brother tried to console her. “They eat steak.”

I smiled to myself, happy for once at the inexplicable persistence of this particular stereotype about white people which I could used as a shield against being force fed more than my stomach could physically hold. Briefly I marvelled at the deftness with which Long Tu had avoided a second enormous bowl himself, finishing his plate quickly and moving to smoke a cigarette by the doorway. He offered me one, but I refused, preferring to avoid the comments that a woman smoking would probably ignite in this relatively traditional household.

Leaving their house in the early afternoon with yet another melon in my bag, I continued cycling towards an enormous nearby reservoir, rolling effortlessly along a well paved road framed by sand dunes and piercing blue skies. I felt like singing, looking forward to another night sleeping on soft sand next to clear water; but I found this reservoir gated, with warning signs and an imposing guardhouse.

As I pondered whether to scale the fence – the area was vast, the guardhouse looked empty and threatening signs in China are often signals of the absence of actual policing – a pair of cars pulled up behind me. They were carrying what looked like another group of would-be campers, all male, who leered out of their windows, shouting at each other to “look at this American!”. “I’m not American,” I muttered. Not wanting to be anywhere near them after dark, I cycled on.

Like an African Plain

There was a river nearby just out of eyeshot. It took an hour to heave the bike off-road through brush to its silty banks, but I was rewarded with views over a vast expanse of greenery like an African plain, complete with grazing horses.

I hoped I would remain undisturbed, but just as I had pitched my tent, an enormous herd of sheep appeared on the horizon, preceded by a shepherd. I tried to play it cool as he walked by me, hands clasped behind his back, clearly bemused at my setup. I couldn’t understand a word he said, but guessed what he was asking and replied in Mandarin that no, I wasn’t alone, my boyfriend had just gone to find us some food and would be back presently. Did he want a cake?

My campsite companions

He shook his head and unfolded a tiny chair, sitting with his eyes closed and wearing a gentle smile, enjoying the last of the day’s sun as he waited for his sheep to catch up. I felt ridiculous for having gripped my knife in my pocket.

Night fell, cold and quiet, with the hour before I fell asleep punctuated by the occasional passing of hooves and footsteps. One heavy-sounding set of hooves came to a complete stop right outside my tent, and in the dark my heart beat wildly, my fingers tightening around the knife on my keyring. I stayed that way, frozen, for 15 minutes, waiting for something to happen and wondering frantically whether I possessed the nerve to stab an attacking wild horse.

Nothing did. Whatever it was must have walked away on thicker grass than it approached on.

As my nerves wound down, I actually found vague comfort from the apparent fact that China’s decimated environment still contained pockets healthy enough to support wildlife. I slept soundly, wrapped tightly in my sleeping bag.

Sheer emptiness

I woke to find I had lost track of the days. I pushed Lan Lan back over the unforgiving sand, pulling gloves on to protect my browned hands and my scarf up to my nose to give some refuge to my painfully sunburnt lips for the final stretch of road to Yumen (玉门 yùmén).

The road was a merciful one, following the efficient route of the highway, but remaining separate enough from it to spare me the worst of the thundering freight trucks. It weaved across the flat land between the sand and the sky, at points rising into bridges over the expressway.

Views over sheer emptiness

Crossing these bridges often yielded a quintessential view of developing China: a confusing crossroads of abandoned half-paved roads and truck-made dirt tracks would surround the actual functioning road.

These half-finished sites act as traces of the haphazard indecision and inconsequential waste of Chinese construction, where unfinished projects were simply left behind in the middle of nowhere as workers and funds move on to the next site. To a space-conscious European like me, used to expensive materials and extensive safety rules, it looks comically messy; to a time and money conscious Chinese construction company, it would be comical to waste time cleaning it up. 

Standing on these bridges, I was also struck by the sheer emptiness of the miles of flat landscape I could see. The image of modern China is often distilled into crowded, chaotic metropoles, but here it became apparent that that sardine tin illusion is created by lopsided development. There’s more than enough space to go around, but money gluts in the cities, and people follow.

Just before I reached Yumen, I would come across another of China’s odd surprises, but this episode is already far too long. Hold out for Episode 3.


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