Hectic, noisy, polluted and fast are just a few words to describe our cycling in China to date. Most days see us racing along busy roads where we jostle for space with trucks, grabbing a bowl of noodles in a packed cafe surrounded by staring faces for lunch and then as dusk rapidly falls hunting to find a camp spot or taking a hotel room if all else fails. However we had heard good things about the road between the big city of Xi’an and Chengdu in terms of scenery, peacefulness and interesting cycling so we were eager to get rolling.
There was more natural beauty between Xi’an and Guangyuan, and even whole days of peacefulness, but the riding was still broken up by stretches on the same busy, polluted roads that we had experienced in the north. Although cycling along these roads is not fun, our progress is usually swift and with headphones in I can sing at the top of my lungs to drown out the traffic noise a little. This draws more than the usual amount of staring from passing motorists.
Even passing through two sizeable national parks finding places to camp was not so easy seeing us pitch in a collapsed viewpoint one night, a roadside rest area another and take hotels more often than we are used to after a long stint camping while cycling in Mongolia. The countryside outside the national parks is intensively farmed even if this means using ladders to access fields that are carved from the steep hills.
The mountains we passed through were largely obscured by the same haze that covered Xi’an and even the small town of Pingyao, leaving us wondering if pollution is the only cause and hoping there may be a more natural explanation. Contrasting against the grey skies was the vibrant green of the first rice paddies we have seen and the bright yellow of corn either on the cob or else as kernels spread across any available surface (road included) to be dried.
One evening while waiting for dusk to pitch our tent a couple of passing motorists stopped to chat. After a few basic questions we passed them our phrasebook which they studied for so long Emma and I began to chat amongst ourselves. After around 20 minutes of no talking the book was returned to me open at the phrase “I like you very much”. I hesitantly smiled back noticing that the next phrase on the page was “Let’s kiss”, before with much laughter they jumped in their car and drove off.
It was with some surprise that we rounded a corner one morning to see a car-park filled with brightly coloured tents and a group of hikers preparing for a day walking in the nearby Foping National Park. We stopped to chat and within minutes were sharing their breakfast and discussing the details of our own trip. As the hikers rushed to start their day they explained that the nearby Panda centre had over 100 pandas and was one of the top 10 natural beauty spots in China. Emma instantly decided to visit and once bike storage was agreed with the ticket office I agreed.
The park was a strange mix of nature trail and zoo with the development of an on-site hotel and a huge panda shaped visitors centre in progress. We walked along manicured paths, smiling at the signs that told us not to walk down steep stone stairs backwards. We stopped quickly at the bird enclosure, bypassed the monkeys and headed straight for the panda area. We arrived to see a crowd of people watching a single paw grab bundles of bamboo and stuff them into a mouth hidden from view. A few minutes later the lone panda emerged (queue paparazzi levels of camera shutter whirring), and walked swiftly into its shadowy enclosure.
As the crowd of onlookers moved off we remained quietly behind hoping the shy panda might emerge when the noise had died down. We weren’t disappointed when a few minutes later the panda made a beeline towards us and sat down just a few metres from us and gave us an eyeballing. Although we think of pandas as slow moving and docile it was amazing to see how agile they can be – as quickly as the panda arrived it disappeared back into its shadowy den.
This seems to be the signal for the camouflage clad photographers sharing our spot (do they think the panda won’t notice them behind the big glass wall if they wear camouflage?), to ask the keeper for a memento of their panda visit. The keeper disappeared into the enclosure with a stick and a plastic bag gathering a full sack of panda poop that he handed to the photographers in exchange for a cigarette. My internet research has lead me to believe the photographers were actually a crack scientific research team who drive a panda poop powered vehicle and needed the fresh poop for the return journey to their secret lab deep in the Chinese jungle.
The strangeness of the day continued with a long downhill to an unexpected (and unordered) Hot-Pot lunch. When its 30+ degrees outside sitting at a table over an electric element with a pot of steaming broth under your face, while the air-con blows 10 degree air onto your back is a little weird. We ended the day swimming in a river next to our camp spot and thinking that the perfect events of this day made up for the smoggy cycling we had recently endured.
Continuing to Guangyuan we made our way up a pass in torrential rain that cooled us for the climb then chilled us to the bone for the descent. We returned to busy roads where the fast-vehicle only Expressway soared above us, leaving us to fight for space with vehicles two, three and four wheeled that, judging by their exhaust fumes, are all powered by coal. Arriving in town we had our first experience of hotels requiring us to register with the local police but five hotels, one police escort and three frustrating hours later we were finally enjoying a hot shower in an absolute bargain of a room.