Cycling across China solo as a woman. Sound awful? Amazing? Terrifying? It’s all of those.
Jiǔquán – Ébǎozhèn
335km // 5 days
The roads were mercifully flat and baking hot under the cloudless desert sky. Not far from Jinta reservoir, where I had seen that beautiful sunset, I passed a collection of desert tombs: brick pillars built like miniature houses, some with stone inscriptions and some simply consisting of a broad cone-shaped pile of earth, with paper and dried wood nearby for burning.
Empty bottles of rice liquor were strewn around, mingling with ashes and scraps of burnt paper in the dust. Walking among them I couldn’t help imagining the mourners who must have stood here and emptied them, how their throats must have burned.
I thought of my own Dad when we had attended a funeral together in a London church, drinking from a hip flask of whiskey before offering it to me, separated from these tombs by thousands of miles, experiencing the same pain.
Softly inclining and declining desert roads took me along the path of what apparently was the old Great Wall. My guilt at avoiding the famous Wall fortress in Jiayuguan was somewhat assauged by these wind-battered ruins that occasionally rose into semblances of towers.
Despite the inevitable authenticity doubts that haunt any and every cultural relic in China, they felt much more real than the reconstructed forts swarming with tourists and selfie sticks, and I admired their withered outlines against the sky.
The desert around them extended to the horizon in every direction. Had the landscape been just as desolate when the wall was built? Which unlucky soldiers were stationed there, watching out over nothing?
Maybe like Trump’s wall to seal off the southern US border, this wall wasn’t designed to be manned, but rather just to stand, huge and unscalable, a giant line in the sand separating Us from Them. It felt absurd to be able to draw such parallels, thousands of years apart.
By now I was familiar with the sound of different types of freight trucks that thundered by every now and again, not often enough to be disturbing today. I had a new sense of gratitude for them, realising their business was the lifeblood that ensured my way was peppered with roadside convenience stores providing water and food.
Around 2pm, legs aching, I stopped at a restaurant for shade and some noodles by a place signposted Salt Lake Village on the X221. A group of three truck drivers eating there watched me wheel my bike over from the road, sipping from a large plastic container of tea and shouting advice.
“Lean it on that sign!”
“It’s too heavy for that. And it’ll get too hot.”
“Don’t bother locking it. Nobody’s going to touch it here.”
“Why don’t you just put it on the floor?”
“The bags are pretty heavy; I just need to stand it upright so it’s easy to get going again later.” I said, struggling for a minute before finally managing to prop Lan Lan up against a wooden pole. I pulled off my helmet, sunglasses and scarf, enjoying the astonished response to the revelation of my very foreign face.
“Are you from Xinjiang?” The most outgoing man asked, eyes wide. He didn’t quite believe me when I said no. “You sound like you’re from Xinjiang! And you look like a Uyghur. You have their accent.”
“If I was a Uyghur, do you think I’d be able to walk around freely in Gansu?” I probed, trying to tease out comments on a topic I knew was dangerous.
But the men, freight truck drivers from Hubei, just laughed politely; they either didn’t know what I meant or didn’t want to talk. I guessed it was the former, since the Chinese government goes to great (and successful) lengths to hide its ugliest actions from its population, and I couldn’t picture truck drivers being automatically careful about what they said to a foreigner. The prospect of talking to a foreigner at all was probably far more exciting than any abstract fears about censorship.
I wolfed down a bowl of the province’s famous noodles, waving to the wife of one of the truck drivers as he video called her to tell her all about me and my bike.
“This is my wife. Say hello to the foreign lady, wife! She’s from the UK and is biking all by herself to Shenzhen! My wife is in Hubei,” he said to me proudly. “She’s a good girl. She’s never left our village.”
I marveled at how different our lives were, the Western feminist in me wondering how happy she could really be. What I knew about Chinese culture told me she was in all likelihood just as happy as I was.
My next stop, Gaotai 高台, was busy with activity as I arrived at the Twin Dragons hotel. I stopped to buy a melon from a roadside stand, again being mistaken for someone from Xinjiang. 130km made the day’s cycle my longest yet, and I almost collapsed with gratitude when the hotel receptionist said that yes, they could accept foreigners, as long as I had a green code and proof of quarantine completion.
The receptionist shouted at a guard to help me with my bags. He must have been nearly 60 but refused to let me help carry them, and was so busy telling a colleague he saw about my “gutsy” bike trip that he nearly missed the elevator.
The hotel room was a classic example of the bizarre mix of luxury and make-do that I love about China; the shower was huge and the bathroom had a cold compress face mask, but there were only a few sheets of toilet paper; there was a desk, kettle and nicely presented teacups, but no tea or coffee; the room was spacious, with thick carpets and heavy velvet curtains, but the windows were miniscule.
The next day called for an 80km ride to Zhangye, where a friend I had known years ago in Qingdao had invited me to stay with her. The prospect of finally having some company at mealtimes was heartening.
Camels of Zhangye
A long weekend of rest in Zhangye, a city in the middle of Gansu province known as an ancient outpost against tribes and the first stop on the Silk Road, was mostly spent eating and catching up with the friend I hadn’t seen for years.
One day was dedicated to a touristy trip out to Dàxiágǔ 大峡谷, (literally “the Grand Canyon”), a geological park nearby, though I quickly regretted being persuaded into going. The scenery was admittedly impressive, but it was only accessible via many stairs, which my tired legs protested sorely against. Being subject to the gawks and whispers of fellow visitors and the unreasonable price of tickets didn’t help.
It reminded me why I had chosen to bike around in the first place; it was exactly places like this, packaged for the photo-conscious group tours, that I didn’t really want to see.
The highlight of the trip was the camels and their herders. The camels, enormous and far more muscular than the spindly idea of them I had in my mind, looked healthy and relaxed, unlike the depressing scenes that are sadly all too common at zoos and animal cafes across China.
“I’m Tibetan,” the herder pulling our camel told me when I asked where he was from. He was softly spoken with round, light brown eyes and a flat face wrapped in thick material to protect him from the sun. I don’t know why it sat better on their faces than the patterned snoods of the ayis. Maybe it was the difference in the timbre of their voices; shrill and fussy versus calm and soft.
How they had found jobs here, I wondered; did they know each other from home? Was camel training a longstanding business?
“We start to train them when they’re three years old,” another camel herder, female this time, told me at the other end. “These are all about 10, they’re nice and calm.”
I bet they are, I thought, not wanting to ask how exactly they were trained. I eyed the wooden stake that was driven through each of the camels’ noses, attached to a short rope that kept them in line with the one in front of it.
When Did You Get Back From America, Anyway?
After Zhangye, my planned route was to go south into Qīnghǎi 青海 province, heading towards the famous Qinghai lake, a body of saltwater ten times the size of Lake Tahoe that’s one of China’s top cycling destinations, especially in the late summer when it’s smothered in flowers.
I cycled 60km to a small town called Mínlè 民乐, the final stop before I crossed the province border, with the incline in the road being so subtle that I thought there must be something wrong with me or the bike. I arrived exhausted, surprised but relieved when my distance app told me I had jumped 950m in altitude.
The first hotel I went to offered the coldest reception I have yet to receive in China. Despite its online page saying they accepted foreigners, the woman sitting behind the dark reception desk was almost comical in her resemblance to an angry toddler as she told me with crossed arms, “No, absolutely not. We can’t take you here,” turning her face to the corner of the ceiling.
“Oh, it just said on your page that you did,” I said, not exactly surprised at what she was saying, but shocked at how offended she seemed at my presence. “Do you know any hotels around that do accept foreigners, then?”
“Longxin hotel, up the road.” She gestured vaguely with her nose, not looking at me, arms still crossed. Was she just cold?
“When did you get back from America, anyway?” Finally she looked at me for a second or two with narrowed eyes and a wrinkled nose, as if she smelled something disgusting.
I didn’t answer, just thanked her and walked off to find a hotel I could stay in, disconcerted by such raw and ignorant dislike. Longxin hotel was of course the most expensive in town, but at least it was nice, and I slept early to prepare for my highest altitude climb yet the next day.
It was also the date of one of my biggest mistakes so far, ending with me and the bike in the back of a police car.
Not that I was aware of that in the morning.
A Police Escort
I woke up with my legs aching from yesterday’s 950m climb over 60km, wondering whether I would make it through the even bigger climb I had planned for today. 1500m up and 67km across. Those numbers made it sound doable, like a 1500m race; but actually doing it, I knew, would be something completely different.
After a breakfast of yóutiáo 油条 (fried dough sticks) dipped in thick, peppery noodle soup and a warming cup of sweetened soy milk, I filled my bag with carb-rich snacks for the road and set off. The ascent started before I even left the town. I turned right up a main road and instantly slowed to a crawl, sighing and mentally preparing myself for the long day ahead.
The climb was hard, but the skies were clear and the scenery was nothing short of spectacular as I moved toward Qinghai. Snow capped mountains rose behind bright green meadows, with the occasional herd of sheep or cluster of farm workers on the outskirts of the city.
As the road went further into the mountains, the fields dissipated and instead I was cycling in the cradle of a deep valley, surrounded by steep hillsides and grazing herds of black, thick-coated yaks. Signs and wire fences kept the hillside separate from the road, warning tourists to keep out of the environmentally protected zone.
Behind the signs, sandy-coloured marmots dashed between burrows with a movement halfway between a rabbit and a guinea pig. White tents showed where yak herders spent the night, usually with a car parked next to them, exhibiting the strange coexistence of modern technology and an ancient nomadic lifestyle.
I hadn’t accounted for how thin the air would become as I climbed. Around 3 in the afternoon, five or six hours in, I was having to frequently stop and push the bike and its heavy bags, struggling to gulp down enough oxygen to pedal. When I reached the last 15km, I could only walk.
My map told me that the final 5km to Ebao town would be downhill, and I willed myself to continue, kilometre by kilometre, to the peak, staring longingly at the empty lorries and pickup trucks that sped past with ample space for a bicycle and a tired girl in the back.
Finally, I reached the peak, around half past five with an hour or so to sunset. Next to a group of small stands selling food and woven ponchos like those the herdsmen wore, a cheerful blue sign told me that I was at an altitude of 3685 metres; the height of Mount Fuji. I then felt much better about being so out of breath for the last 2 hours.
Feeling like I could cry, I clambered back onto the saddle and started my descent into Ebao, which I could see in the distance. This was where the problems began.
The sun had already fallen behind the peaks, meaning that it was cold – really cold – coming down the mountainside.
Damp with sweat from the day’s exertions, wearing fingerless gloves and no longer warming myself with my own movement, the ride down the hill was actively painful. My fingers and face, bearing the brunt of the wind as I sped downhill at 35 or 40kmph in a race against the sunset, rapidly went past numbness to acute pain, as did my face. The rest of my body shivered.
The thought of fiddling with tent pegs when I was unable to move my fingers, and sleeping in the shade of a mountain which passers by told me had seen snowfall just last night was not an attractive option.
The cold overrode my better judgement, and despite knowing that as a foreigner I would be highly unlikely to be able to rent a room, I made for the first guesthouse I saw. All I could think about was that I could not stay out in the cold any longer.
“Can I stay here for a night please? I have a green code and all the other documents.” I blew into my hands, knowing the answer from the kindly guesthouse owner would be a no, but hoping I could look pitiable enough to persuade him to flout the rules for a night. “It’s ok if you can’t. I have a tent outside by my bike. I’m just quite cold, so I thought I might as well ask.”
“You can’t sleep in a tent! You’ll freeze,” he exclaimed.
“Can’t you make an exception for one night? I’ll be gone in the morning. I’m not a virus risk. I haven’t been out of China for 6 months. I can show you my passport.”
“I think you might have to go to the next town. We’re not supposed to take foreigners here, in Ebao, at all. Last year there was an American, and I don’t think he could stay.” The owner had large, worried looking eyes that looked earnestly at me from under thick eyebrows and a permanently wrinkled brow.
My hands were still hurting. Last year? I thought disbelievingly. Before coronavirus? I paced back and forth, cupping them to my mouth to warm them, saying nothing and hoping that the conviction most Chinese hold that the cold is a serious danger to your health would work in my favour.
“You know what I’ll do. I’ll call the local police and ask them to get permission for you to stay.” He said.
I was almost certain that this would not work in my favour, and kicked myself for ever coming in here and not just sucking up the cold and putting up my tent somewhere out of sight in the hills. Before I could think of any way to ask him not to get the police involved that didn’t sound highly suspicious, the man had already taken out his phone and dialled. My heart sank.
“Come next door to our restaurant and have a cup of tea while we wait. Everything will be alright, you won’t have to camp.”
I know, I thought. I’ll just spend the night in a prison cell.
This is a problem that occurs frequently for me. The scarcity of foreigners living in China and vast uniformity of experience for the remaining 99.999% of the population mean that very few Chinese understand how different things are for someone who doesn’t have a Chinese ID card.
It’s typical, for example, for a Chinese person to tell me that of course I’ll be able to stay in a given hotel, buy a train ticket online, open a savings account, visit a local monument, or do any number of mundane things that I find in reality I can’t because my identification document is a British passport whose sequence number doesn’t fit the pattern most customer databases are designed around.
In a similar vein, the guesthouse owner was convinced that the police couldn’t possibly refuse me lodging in the town altogether. I sat drinking tea, eventually asking for a bowl of noodles too, and hoping they were right. Three policemen, two young and one older, walked in as it started to get dark outside, wearing uniforms that didn’t quite seem to fit them.
“You can’t stay here.” The first one said loudly, the moment he barged through the door. Charming.
I guessed he and the other younger officer were both about 25. Both were slightly overweight and unhealthy looking, hunching heavily over the table when they sat down. Neither seemed to like looking at me when they spoke to me, instead preferring to speak about me to the older officer, who was evidently their superior. He was also far more skilled at communication.
“Can we see your passport?” He asked politely, looking at me directly and sitting down opposite me while I ate my noodles. “I’m really sorry, but this whole county isn’t open to foreigners. It’s part of our duties to have to take you out of this restricted area.” He was a small, stocky man with bright, kind eyes and a wide head, shaved in a buzzcut, with pointy ears that stuck out from the sides, reminding me of a JRR Tolkein character.
“Oh,” I said, seeing that it was pointless to argue and deciding to be as cooperative as possible. “I had no idea, nobody told me anything about that when I was on my way here. If I’d have known earlier, I wouldn’t have come. Is the pandemic really bad here?”
“It’s not because of the pandemic; it’s just a closed zone.”
“Oh.” I thought all of that ended a few years ago. “Has it always been like that? Why?”
“What, why is it closed?” The older policeman looked at me. “I can’t really explain that to you,” he said. So either he doesn’t know, or it’s something military.
“Huh. Fair enough.” I went back to my noodles, silently mourning the 7 and a half hours it had taken me to climb a mountain to get here. I’m never going to a guesthouse for a cup of tea again.
While I ate, the officers argued over how best to get me out of the county. It was already 7pm and dark outside, and the last train out of the town had already left.
“Just drive her back over the border.” The first officer said. You mean bastard.
“And leave her on top of a mountain? We can’t do that, she’ll freeze. And she can’t cycle in the dark.” The oldest officer said. “We’ll drive her back to Minle. The bike will fit in the back.” He glanced over at me. “You finish your food first, and then we’ll get going. The bike’s wheels come off, right?”
Ten minutes later, I was sharing the back seat of a cold police car with one of the younger officers and a plastic bag full of drinks and snacks. Maybe this is why they don’t look so healthy, I thought as they offered me a bottle of something sugary and a cigarette. I wished they would close the window and let the heating work on the car.
They chatted in their local dialect as we went, laughing at stories that I only caught the vague gist of; somebody’s mother in law, something about the herdsmen in the hills, a nice girl that one of the officers was interested in but wasn’t sure he was good enough for. The second of the younger officers, sharing the back with me, crooned along to the radio.
“Here, drink some of that,” he encouraged, motioning to the untouched bottle of iced tea in my lap. “The air’s really dry here. It’ll do you good.”
I watched 6 kilometres of mountain road flash by in the darkness outside the window in a fraction of the time it had taken me to push the bike along them. Too tired even to be frustrated, I looked forward to the hotel bed that, on the bright side, was now waiting for me.
We arrived back at the exact same spot I had set out from that same morning, and after a brief set of goodbyes, the officers drove off. I wondered if they would go for the drinks that the older officer had chastised the younger officers for suggesting. It wouldn’t be every day that their duties took them into this larger town, an hour and a half drive from their usual precinct. I didn’t care. A long hot shower sent me straight to sleep.