We see just a fraction of the Gobi desert on the morning our train speeds from Ulaanbaatar towards the Chinese border town of Erenhot. Rolling hills the same colour as the flat plains pass the train windows like early computer graphics randomly generating a landscape. After our own sandy desert crossing in the West of Mongolia we’re more than happy to be viewing it from picture windows. There’s a large concrete rainbow set into the ground at the immigration border and as the train passes it, passengers crowd to the aisle and look out the windows. We’re in China!
When we lived in Auckland we frequented the back alley Chinese supermarkets and their accompanying Asian food-courts, both catering to a large expat community from China and other Asian countries as much as cash strapped University students and young workers like us. Its a trend we continued in London, spending weekends scouring the suburbs for authentic Chinese fare and the ultimate reasonably priced dim sum restaurants and using Chinese ingredients in our own cooking from the Asian wholesalers on our local high street. Chinese culture and kitchen are both things we’re keen to know more about.
From the outset Erenhot is an easy city. We deposit our bags at the first hotel we come across (handily labelled as such in Mongolian script) where for £8 we have a full en-suite, running water, bright white sheets on the bed and even air-conditioning and a kettle. Food is high on our agenda and back on the streets we look for lunch in a town which is much bigger than we had initially assumed. As we wander, we pass a restaurant set for a banquet with dishes piled high on several tables. There are burnt cigarettes, ashtrays and empty bottles everywhere but oddly no indication that any of this abundance of food has been touched.
Our chosen lunch spot for our first Chinese meal is a much more simple affair – we walk into the first diner we come to with tables of eating customers and pictures of food on the wall. Shamelessly peering at the food being eaten by other diners rewards us with our first Chinese meal since London, with bok choi and mushrooms in black bean sauce accompanied by stir-fried bacon and capsicum and a pot of green tea. We’re not universally welcomed – a inquisitive toddler takes one look at Justin’s bushy beard before bursting into tears.
Needing supplies for the road south, we’re directed to a supermarket, which is nestled inconspicuously (to us who can’t read the language) between many small corner shops. As we peruse aisles of all sorts of random Chinese foodstuff, mostly vacuum-packed or miniaturised and unidentifiable, its a stark contrast from Mongolian shops where a united nations of imported foods take almost all shelf space.
We’re cycling south to Jining where we plan to join a road to Hohhot so we can catch a train to Xi’an – anticipating 450 km or so of cycling. We’re up early to counter the heat, only to be welcomed by overcast skies which soon turn to rain. We join a sparsely populated three lane highway out of town, slowing only to take a close look at the large collection of giant dinosaur statues spread near the town limits.
On our first day we meet a few other cyclists – first two French guys detouring 1200 kilometres from their route to Vladivostok to meet up with girlfriends in UB and later a solo traveller with homemade rain-covers and panniers cycling home to the Netherlands from Japan. Hearing about their various routes through China makes me look a little closer at our map and I wonder if a train from Hohhot is our best option.
Hills eventually appear on the horizon, then trees, and soon we’re cycling among hills and trees, though the desert soil still holds everything together. Over the next few days roads become busier with truck traffic and small towns and villages start to become overrun with small factories. We’re confused by the walls painted with long lines of Chinese characters accompanied by huge strings of numbers, guessing they are either ‘for sale’ signs or advertising for products produced nearby.
Food is without fail a highlight of each day’s cycling and while we still cook in the evenings we start eating big cheap cyclist-sized meals out each lunch time. Our various food ordering strategies include asking for recommendations based on base ingredients, pointing at pictures in a phrase book and surveying the food already being served. Aside from one incident of dodgy chicken, all ploys work remarkably well even if sometimes our table groans from over-ordering.
We continue to hear shouts of hello from passing traffic and a few random acts of kindness come our way as well. On the same day a couple offers a watermelon from the backseat of their car and a solo Chinese motorcyclist with a full set of clean rear panniers pauses at the top of the hill so he can have his photo taken with us, then opens an empty rear pannier to offer us a bar of good quality European chocolate.
We reach the outskirst of Jining by mid-morning on our fourth day on the road after covering 350km. Cycling into the centre we realise the town is much bigger than we had anticipated and are unsuccessful in our search for a reasonably priced hotel, (including a stint where Justin takes a tour of the town on the back of a traffic policeman’s motorcycle). One of the cycle tourists we had met had said he has an allergy to Chinese cities, and this statement suddenly sharpened in our minds.
Sure it was a modern city which looked vibrant and exciting but actively looking for a specific type of business amongst the mass of unfamiliar signs, while keeping an eye on the erratic roads and drivers was impossible. Unable to find even an internet cafe, we eventually stopped for lunch to do some quick planning with the few offline resources we had to hand.
Large bowls of rice and salad were consumed while we pondered a busy road to the busier town of Hohhot where surely we’d replay the same hotel problems as here or we could take the unknown route south. Figuring that the cycling to date had been fairly interesting we decided that we’d cycle some of the distance to Xi’an, with a train between Datong and the preserved old city of Pingyao a possible timesaver. As we finally left Jining, I secretly hoped our new route would pass some of the ruins of the Great Wall of China.