Since arriving in China becoming surrounded by locals has become a daily if not hourly occurrence. Stopping in a small village to consult a map attracts a handful of helpful truck drivers, while a pause for a snack in a major town can attract a crowd so large we feel like minor celebrities and struggle to even do a head count. The source of the crowds is often a mystery to us as seemingly empty villages produce a horde of locals eager to stare at us, talk about us, touch our bikes and sometime upon occasion actually respond to our smiles and attempts at pronouncing “Nihao” (hello). In response to the suddenness of the crowd forming we have taken to comparing these gatherings to flash mobs.
As we began our trek south from a small town after Jining to the ancient walled city of Pingyao our departure is the cause for a flash mob which includes the entire extended family who ran the hotel and numerous locals. Our goodbye waves are returned with enthusiasm giving us an extra bounce in our legs as we pedal along the surprisingly quiet back roads trying to decipher if the roadside honey for sale is meant as a skin treatment, a drink or a spreadable topping.
The brightness of the night time sky over the last week makes us aware of the approaching full moon and being harvest time in the fields we pass through, I wonder if there may be Autumn harvest moon celebrations. Smelling the aroma of fresh baked sesame cookies on the outskirts of Fengzhen my suspicions (and taste buds) are further aroused. The huge quantity of cookies being produced by the numerous bakeries can only be for some kind of mass festival consumption. Judging it best that we try some cookies, we stop and are surrounded by a crowd including an English student who excitedly translates our story for the gathered onlookers.
Weaving our way around Fengzhen amongst the blaring of car horns and looping mega-phone messages from a Watermelon seller, we pass a cliff face incongruously decorated with waving flags. The colours of the flags are dulled by a coating of polluted dust that covers the road surface but are still enough to catch our eye. A wooden temple seems to emerge from the cliff like it has been hewn from the bare earth. Our polluted road continues past individuals selling petrol by the side of the road as a cottage industry, before we emerge into greener countryside and our first sighting of the Great Wall of China.
With the wall in the far distance we detour to the sign posted ‘Triumphal Castle’ hoping it might take us closer to a section of the wall itself. Passing through the restored gates we are surprised to find a desolate village with all the residents sitting quietly on the roadside and staring open mouthed as we cycle past and then return a few minutes later from the dead end road. Later this day we decide the cycling is nice enough we may as well change plans again and cycle all the way to Pingyao.
The 30km to Datong fly by the next morning until still on the outskirts of the city we hit road works. Locals on bikes and scooters are driving straight through the closed section, so we follow along and find ourselves in a ghost town stretch of empty repair shops waiting for trucks with no access to them. Exiting the road works onto a smooth well maintained avenue we stop to snack on delicious muffins filled with a mix of pork and chilli, then quickly complete our main chore of finding a detailed regional map. We pass bike shops galore including a Trek-branded store where we are waved down to have our photo taken with the owner (queue another flash mob) and detour past the newly rebuilt "ancient" city walls.
Leaving Datong is confusing due to a known offset problem with Chinese road maps on our GPS, but after crossing more “closed” road work sections we make it to the right road. Two roads run parallel with each other and we unluckily choose the one that seems to be dedicated to truck traffic but, after a few hours sick of the noise we switch to the slightly less busy road and breath a shallow sigh of relief.
In Huairen the main street is being dug up by yet more road works that this time we navigate like pros despite the added obstacles of pedestrians. We have been running parallel to huge hills all day when the road turn straight for one of the peaks and we begin climbing. Passing through a village Emma notices that the local women are sitting in groups knitting and chatting but stop in mid-stitch to stare open mouthed as we slowly grind past. We pass a new hotel that strangely has gers erected next to the main buildings that resemble huge bricks. As its opening day we attract – yep you guessed it – a crowd.
After a great descent we emerge into a valley where we struggle to find a free camp. A request to camp is refused (for maybe only the second or third time on our trip to date) but with the sun setting we find another spot and collapse into the tent and sleep with the lights of Dai Xian in distance.
On the road towards Yuanping, Emma gets her third puncture in three days and we later realise that we left our tyre irons behind when fixing this one. Luckily the next time we need them, on my bicycle this time, we get by using spoon handles instead.
Reaching Yuanping we stop to eat some street food and attract a crowd including a man and his daughter who chat with us in English and promptly invite us to join them for lunch at their family home. We gratefully accept welcoming the chance to spend some time with a local family during the heat of the day.
We learn that Caolong lives and works in Beijing and has returned to his hometown for a holiday. In no time we are enjoying a huge spread of local food prepared by his mother including a plate of cold meat we are told is donkey! His ten year old daughter practices her English speaking (and singing) with us and we quiz Caolong about Chinese traffic, weather and his favourite sports. Caolong invites us to stay the night and even offers to wash our clothes (now eight hot sweaty days between washes so maybe a fair offer), but with the midday heat passed we decide to press on with our plan to reach Pingyao in two more days for some time off the bikes. Caolong lights some fireworks for good luck and then we are on our way.
We had been dreading the road through the regional capital of Taiyuan after our previous experience of cycling through large towns, but after attempting to head onto the expressway – no bikes allowed – we have no option but to follow our noses (and offset GPS) onwards. It turns out the route is very easy with wide lanes dedicated to bikes and scooters almost the whole way. We stop for lunch in a park opposite a mall where I am harangued by a security guard while buying lunch. Maybe the long hair, dusty beard and coal stained skin makes me stand out amongst the swanky surroundings? Emma makes friends with a big group of university students who can’t understand why we want to cycle to Pingyao and suggest the bus instead.
Heading out of Taiyuan we understand the students point of view as Taiyuan never seems to end. With the sun setting, me getting hit in the eye by a wasp and the only camping available tiny patches of gravel on well used paths between fields of crops Emma decides a hotel is in order. We turn down an offer to sleep in the dingy back room of a cafe and find a friendly hotel just down the road. Not so different from the tent we can still hear the horns and engines of trucks through the night but it feels safe and secure. Tired and hungry we argue about the merits of the hotel kitchen vs preparing vegetables and noodles using the lukewarm water in our room.
The next morning is super smoggy and still feeling grumpy we cycle the 30km to Pingyao under an increasingly hazy sky that I optimistically thinks is mist. The outskirts of Pingyao don’t seem too different to other towns, but passing through the city gates car traffic is left behind and the small winding alleys are decked out with paper lanterns and fluttering flags. The main traffic is whirring e-bikes and camera-toting tourists. Navigating our touring bikes through the streets and regular gates that leave only a narrow gap for bikes to be lifted through is hard work and we are quickly lost. Emma heads off on foot to try and locate a hostel and returns in record time with the owner who arranges to unlock the gates and let our bikes through.
Our bags and bikes are whisked into a room that leads off the traditional courtyard and we are left staring at the biggest bed we have ever seen, so big in fact that we have a table that sits on top of the bed. ‘This means breakfast in bed everyday’ I quietly think.
The next few days are spent figuring out our onward route through China, reviewing the options for getting to Xi’an by train vs bus vs cycling, wandering into the courtyards of various hotels (some five star and mega-swanky) and marvelling at the ornate rooms. We eat our meals and do our shopping outside the city walls where we feel more at ease amongst the basic cafes, street vendors and tiny markets than in the old city with its endless souvenir stalls and western cafes.
At night the streets continue to be filled with tourist groups following rapid fire loudspeaker toting guides while the city walls are lit with garish yellow lights giving the city an even more fairground feeling. Emma wonders how many other "themed" towns we have visited before deciding its best not to count as maybe this is a sign we have become jaded travellers.