End of the (Silk) Roads

Long time coming, but I have made it to Xi’an, the start/end of the Silk Roads – depending on which particular story you read. But it was quite something to get through the city walls, and make my way to the Bell Tower, where my hostel is superbly located.

Random thoughts/views from the road from Lanzhou to Xi’an:

Roll out of Lanzhou, busy busy, lots of commuters, I’m just another cyclist…not quite, I get the thumbs-up from a normally staid policeman. Want to buy water from my favourite street vendor. Seems to be not right in the head. His wife doesn’t trust him, he sells me things, she comes over and makes sure he gets the price right. Saw her hit him once, great left jab. He just defiantly went and sat back down on his chair. Don’t think it was the first time she’s hit him. She clearly felt no threat towards her. The power politics of women here are interesting, but that is another blog entry sometime.

Smog smog smog, as I slowly grind up the hill, I see just how bad it is, hanging over the city, cloaking the valley. Surely it must be just around the city…no, it goes on for miles and miles. Visibility cut right down, filtering out the sun.

Riding through tough terrain, steep hills, but terraces cut into them, small plots cultivating all sorts of crops. A man works a plough behind a pair of donkeys, struggling to keep up with them as they turn the corner at the end of the small field. No tractors used here. They couldn’t get to the small plots. Steep narrow footpaths wind their way up the hills, too steep for any vehicle.

Carts are pulled by people, not animals. A strap across the body, handles on each side, hauling all manner of things. Corn, apples, pears, vast bunches of celery. People with stalls on the side of the road, selling pears – “Refined Pears” – on the box. Some stalls are well setup, tables and umbrellas, lots of stock. One man stands on the side of the road in the rain, only a small amount of stock, no shelter from the rain, he’s holding up the scales, as he doesn’t have a table. Yet he seems the most cheerful of the lot. People are remarkably upbeat, considering what’s been done to them over the last 100 years.

Pass the 2,000km marker on the 312 road I have followed from the border. Started at over 4,800, have gone a long way in a month. Want to take a photo, nothing to steady the camera on, get a slightly odd shot. No matter.

2000km marker

Dirty town, stop for a Coke, sit on the steps outside the store to drink it. Realise a large crowd of girls is gathering at the window of the restaurant next door, pointing and staring. Doesn’t bother me so much, I sit and relax, ignoring it for now. Find a hotel, hot water promised for later, but is still cold, fall asleep, not bothering with a shower.

Rain next day, not happy grinding up the hills in the rain. Puncture. Crap. Rear tyre falling apart, only bought it one month ago. Oh that was about 3,000km ago. Put on new tyre, roll again. Two more punctures that day, not happy, didn’t have much time to spare, days getting shorter now. But where are the trucks? Ah, another main road joins this one, here they all are again. Grind up the hill. At the top is a tunnel. No lights, and roadworks closing one lane. Chat to guy directing traffic. Laugh about tunnel, then go for it. Noisy trucks with me, so loud in the tunnel. Then they speed off and…it’s pitch black and I can’t see anything! Have my rear flashing light, but no front light. I know there are potholes in this tunnel, and lovely metal conduits running across the road to catch cyclists out, so I stop and wait in the darkness. Finally more vehicles come along, lighting the way, and I make my way through, emerging into the light, and the downhill!

Struggled a bit today, thought I wasn’t going to make the planned distance…then I go downhill for ages, onto the flat, racing along, make my planned town just before dark. First hotel wants to look at my passport, calls various others over, mucks around for ages, finally says, “mei yo” – no foreigners. I was obviously foreign, why didn’t they just say that in the first place, instead of mucking me around? LP says this place is a “quintessential northern town, broken streetlights and coaldust everywhere.” Well, there is coaldust, but it’s not that bad, and the streetlights work. Order a bowl of noodles, turns out to be noodles and tripe. Remind myself yet again that I really must learn some more Chinese characters and words for food. Usually I just point at something random on the menu, it’s like a lucky dip. Sometimes wander around pointing at other people’s plates, or walk into the kitchen. Good thing I’m not vegetarian.

Roll along the dual carriageway, lots more farming and people now. But then turn up into the hills, and it’s beautiful, no people, just bush. Too much fog/rain today though, very limited visibility. I think it actually is fog now, not just smog. At least it doesn’t taste like coal. But then I head downhill in Victorian England. Or something like that – coal everywhere, filthy muck along the road, huge piles of it everywhere, trucks carrying it. Stunted bushes along the side of the road are covered in black, small patches of green struggle through. A girl walks out in a shockingly white jacket, the cleanness harsh against the blackness. Wonder how long it stays clean. Ride on into town.

Find a hotel, they show me a room, but then don’t seem to want to look at my passport, and take my money. No, I must sit down in the bedroom with three ladies knitting. A pregnant women sits wrapped up in bed. I am given a cup of tea, and told to wait. Vaguely I’m wondering what’s going on, I’d really like to go to the toilet, and get a shower. But a surprise – a young man walks in, the son I guess, who speaks English, and he gets me sorted out. 24 hour hot water, I need it. The shower represents China to me – it has lights, a radio, 9 different places that water can come from, out of a hose, the roof, jets on the wall…and yet nothing works quite right, and the water isn’t hot enough. But it will do.

Eat a bowl of noodles and other random stuff from a clay pot, down an alleyway. Bit cold and miserable tonight. Getting some supplies from a small store, a man walks in says something to me – hang on, that was in English. He was vice-principal of Bin Xian Number 2 Middle School, and he studied English back in 1989 – must have been an oddity then. He wants me come and talk to a class at his school. Why not? The school is nearby, and even though it is 20:45, classes are still on. We walk into one, and he asks me to “give a lecture on learning English.” Err, OK. So I babble some stuff in front of this class:

Chinese class

After that, I meet the family, including the 16-year old who wants to become an interpreter, and they encourage him to talk with me. Some other students from the class come along too. They don’t understand all I say, but they want to hear the native English speaker. Afterwards, I am given mooncakes and fruit, for the journey to Xi’an. It was getting late, and I need to sleep, but it was a good experience.

Long grind out of town the next morning. Two good climbs, with tunnels to match. Total lack of driver ability, courtesy and understanding mean that minor incidents turn into major traffic jams, trucks backed up for kilometres. I ride past it, make it to the top of the climb before the trucks. Mostly coal trucks, black dust everywhere. Mixed with rain, I watch the fluid running down from my front mudguard. It looks like used engine oil.

Pass through a town, major roadworks on the main road through town. No do one lane at a time stuff, rip up the whole road instead. Lots of rain, total mudbath through town, takes ages to get through. Getting all a bit down about it, but it keeps going and going. Get to the edge of town, a dual carriageway starts, and a wonderful piece of Chinglish lifts my spirits. The road has two lanes in each direction, plus another wide shoulder/lane. Over each of these are signs indicating their use – I can choose from “Non-flexible Lane,” “Runway,” or “Exceeding the Lane.” I have to think a bit, before opting for the “Non-flexible Lane.”

Getting more filthy through the day, I stop to clean vast amounts of muck off my brakes. The drivetrain is a hopeless case. I wonder if I should stop at one of the many little stalls along the side of the road, where you can wash your coaltruck. I would do it, but my panniers don’t seem quite so waterproof as they were when I started, and I don’t really feel like filling them up with water. Dropping the tent and Thermarest has I helped I guess, but my bike still feels heavy enough on those uphills.

Finally get to the outskirts of Xi’an. Distance signs contradict themselves, and the city seems enormous. Try to work out where I am on my maps, not sure. Some locals help out. Always seems to be a bit further than I think. Finally, there they are – the city walls. Still some pedalling to do, but it can’t be far…there is the Bell Tower! And beside it, the first McDonald’s I’ve seen since Istanbul. 6 months, 11,000km. Further investigation this morning reveals that there seems to be 3 Starbucks and 3 McDonald’s within a few hundred metres of where I’m staying. Crazy stuff.

Making it to the hostel, I’m vaguely wondering about what I must look like, and I just want a shower and clean clothes. I’m getting some strange looks from people – even the Westerners are staring at me. Must be because I look like this coalminer:

Coal Miner

For some reason they stuff me around for ages when check in. Just give me the key will you? Put the bike away, don’t even bother cleaning it, don’t want to think about that yet. Will be nasty. But finally I get my room (dorm this time, same price as a cheap hotel in small towns). But it is nice and clean, and there is hot water, lots of it. And I settle into the bar, drinking my free beer, and I’m warm clean, and happy.

It’s a bit strange though, suddenly I’m back into the tourist circuit. Dreadlocks, etc. The usual crowd. People just come in on the plane, or talking about how tough the train journey was. No matter, it’s a very nice change to speak in English for a while.

One more thing, this post is ridiculously long already – there is a fancy supermarket over the road that sells New Zealand Mainland cheese! Colby, Edam, Mild, Tasty! Don’t think I can hold off, I must go and buy some…


Heavy Air is Good For You




  1. Anonymous

    Hi Lindsay, great post, really interesting. Glad to hear you made it! Hope you are getting a few days of R&R.; We liked Xian a lot. Look out for some roujiamo (meat in a bun), good dumplings and the street vendors with kebabs of meat over a BBQ – they come out at night. The city walls are really cool – take your bike up to ride around them. The warriors are truly amazing. Suggest you get bus or taxi there, most organised tours stop at 10 other boring places on the way. The burial mound nearby is quite impressive too, when you realise the big hill wasn’t there until the emperor decided he would like the peasants to build it. The Muslim market is good for a wander, but you have probably seen lots like it and we found a lot of the good silk stuff in a department store in Beijing (after we backpacked it over!). The big park is nice in the evening for a few beers watching people. Might be different in winter. Watch out for the beggar kids – there is one (about 3 years old) who grabs your leg while another one pickpockets you. We also liked the Shaan’xi (?sp) museum. Looking forward to seeing you in Jan, need you to write me a gear list!
    Nic and Dave

  2. Nice! You made it to Xi’an. Correct me if I’m wrong, but weren’t you only supposed to do the Karakoram highway into Pakistan? While you are in Xi’an, find out if they still have the ‘singing fountains’ at the Big Goose Pagoda. A lot of fun and a laugh for sure. Are you heading into South East Asia next?

  3. Anonymous

    man, sounds like an awesome trip so far, nice coal miner impersonation.

    How long have you got left and where is next?

  4. Mike, plan was always to get at least this far east. Beijing, then via Shanghai to SEA.

    Probably at least another 6 months to go before I get to NZ.

    Nic, did the self-organised bus thing, after some not so great reports from others doing the organised tour, who went to various “factories” on the way.

    Will think more about a gear list.

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