With Chinese food a lot more regional than we ever would have guessed (so far no soya sauce, no dim sum and no crispy duck), when we crossed into the Sichuan province just before Guangyuan we suspected dining would get a whole lot more interesting.
According to our annotated English map of China the region is known for Sichuan spicy food. By this, we had imagined noodles laced with red hot chilli paste so we thought we’d be able to spot and stop any over-hot food with a polite ‘bushi’ (no, in Mandarin). Our assumptions were literally blown away in a small Guangyuan restaurant, when we were assaulted by the famed spice of the region.
With a taste part citric, part chemical filling our mouths and tongues instantly numb we decided we’d eaten something very wrong indeed and having identified that each of four dishes we’d ordered at a bustling restaurant were covered in these tiny and inconspicuous buds, we promptly left half of our dinner untouched. For two perennially hungry cycle tourists, that’s very serious indeed. Later research confirmed we’d chewed on the Sichuan pepper. We were just glad that we hadn’t been poisoned.
In Guangyuan we also bravely digested pigs feet under dim street lighting, ate a dish which looked surprisingly like potatoes and goulash (umm.. it wasn’t) and sampled a wide range of sweet pastries with unusual fillings. Not all were culinary experiences we would rush to repeat.
With four days of cycling left to a scheduled break in Chengdu, we woke to heavy rain on the morning we were due to leave and just rolled over and went back to sleep – a rare luxury. Once we were back on the road there was little to hold our attention. Days continued to be on the whole grey and our passage was through heavily populated regions. We did climb up and down a little but the usual tranquillity of hilly regions was marred by constant truck traffic. Even the tranquil sounding jade cloud path (read: road on a ridge lined with trees) was busy with honking.
Our best culinary discovery was the breakfast duo of baozi and a bland but addictive rice porridge which those with time on their hands eat with chopsticks. After our first breakfast ‘out’, we shelved the usual porridge ritual for a pre-breakfast ride to the nearest town each day, where we’d seek out the busiest morning restaurant and eat our fill.
We spent one night in a disused stone quarry and another in a patch of grass above a yet to be built on development zone, just off a busy through-road for farmers. During the final 150km stretch of suburbia before Chengdu itself, I started wondering just what level of blatant urban camping we could get away with, but instead a cheap hotel provided refuge only 30km from our rendezvous point with our Warmshowers contact Dhane.
Chengdu traffic is something else. It reminded me of London commuting only much more hairy. The closer we got to the centre the thicker the traffic became and there were even traffic jams consisting entirely of bikes and scooters, with e-bikes jumping curves and swerving between it all.
Our host Dhane met us at a local shopping mall on his a three wheel recumbent, and leads us parade-style back to his apartment. We enjoyed the leisurely pace he set and his scenic tour. Dhane’s enthusiasm for cycling saw us cover an additional 130km by bike over our ‘rest’ days. We don’t go far for food, frequenting one local Chinese restaurant every evening. Breakfast at a Tex-Mex restaurant in the centre of town also went down a treat.
We were in need of a bike shop or two, and luckily Chengdu has quite a few. It wasn’t too difficult to find a replacement bottom bracket in one of many Giant shops, but more of a challenge to find new cycling shoes in my size with recessed cleats. I finally found a pair of Scott shoes at the UCC dealer, where surprisingly we were called behind the counter to look at a photograph – it was of us, which a friend of the mechanics had snapped the previous day.
We spent a lot of time talking about bikes – first with Dhane who was preparing to cycle to India in 18 months, and then with fellow guests Daphne and Colin who were originally planning to buy bicycles in Thailand. By the end of their stay they were set on purchasing old bicycles from Dhane instead. We introduced them to inner-city cycle touring, getting thoroughly lost on the 30km ride to Chengdu Panda Research Base.
It seems that everyone is in Chengdu to visit the pandas, and even in their slumber they didn’t disappoint. Breaking from the crowds around the main enclosures to scoff instant noodles, we continued our tour of the extensive park quite peacefully, finding an area of undisturbed adult pandas lazing around without any other humans in sight. Its odd to see these wild creatures with a backdrop of northern Chengdu suburbs but we hope our visit will ensure giant pandas have a better chance in the wild.
Our own trip becomes wilder from here as well as we detour from our southward cycle to take in a little of the Tibetan plateau. During our final evening at Dhane’s we check the route profile to Batang which is 800km away. We knew we’d have some climbing but Bikeroutetoaster suggests that it’ll be quite tough, with a total of 29km of ascent and one part seeing us climb 3000m in just 70km. We like climbing hills but…