Our trusty friend Gav who saved us with a money transfer in Turkey helped us out again by linking us up with his friend, Natalie, who lives in Beijing.
We chatted to Natalie by WhatsApp and then WeChat before leaving Georgia, and she very kindly organised a driver to collect us from Beijing airport. After a weird two day limbo on planes and airports we landed in Beijing early in the morning and succeeded in finding our luggage and bike boxes. Unfortunately, Mike's bike box had been ripped open along an edge and pathetically taped back together. From the damage to Mike's chainring it must have been dropped and someone angrily opened it to see what was in it. Later we figured the only thing lost out of the gaping hole left open was my travel towel so all in all not bad. Our tent was in there so we were lucky really.
Out we went through the arrivals door into the airport and we looked at all the signs for our names. No Mike and Helen. So while I tried to get the WiFi to work, Mike went back along the line looking at the phones of all the drivers waiting. This may seem strange but we had been asked to provide a picture of us as well as our names so we wondered if we had just moved too quickly to be seen. Almost straight away Mike saw our picture on a phone and a very smiley man helped us to the car which was, thankfully, large enough for everything. It was a shock to exit the airport into the high humidity of Beijing especially so early in the morning but that was just a taste of what was to come.
It took an hour to drive to our hostel from the airport. We found out later that it was possible to cycle and actually the bike lanes are not bad, but we didn't fancy unpacking the boxes in the airport. It took us hours back at the hostel with a lot of adjustments to brakes and gears so we're glad of our decision. It may not be hard core bike touring but we don't need to cycle every metre to feel part of the "gang". That's not what this is about for us.
Our hostel was in the centre of the tourist zone very close to Tiananmen Square and all the ancient hutongs (narrow alleyways) which were spared from being redeveloped. Our first day consisted of sleeping lots and putting the bikes back together in case something major was wrong and we needed parts. The bent chainring teeth could be bent back, thank goodness, and everything else had survived really well. Mike did an excellent job of packaging them up and rebuilding - I'm very proud of him.
We had three further full days in Beijing and did a fair bit of walking around. We didn't spend any money on entrance fees because, well, we need to be more frugal, so we explored the city on foot which we always feel is the best way. We climbed up to the highest point in the city in Jingshan Park and enjoyed a view over the Forbidden City and beyond which was definitely worth the climb in the humidity. I can't describe the humidity well, except that you can exit, freshly showered, from an air conditioned building and within 30 seconds you'll be sweating like you've run a 5K. It's nothing like either of us have experienced before and really added to the feeling of a change in place and culture.
We met Natalie for beer and dinner on our second night and had such good fun. Weirdly, the subway shut 30 minutes early and we had to get a taxi back to our hostel. It turns out China has a big problem with fake money, so much so that sometimes you'll receive fake notes out of cash machines but banks won't do anything about it! The taxi driver gave us 70RMB change in fake notes. We found out they were fake when trying to buy breakfast the next morning. We managed to Google the difference and have been well aware of it since. It didn't put a downer on the night though; it had been so much fun to chat to someone who had people in common with us, it almost felt like we were at home.
Two nights later, on our final night before setting off on the Chinese leg of the cycle, we met Natalie and her friend Corinne for a route planning beer session. Corinne cycles a lot around and out of Beijing and advised us on a great route north of the city to see a quiet part of the Great Wall. Decision made we drank the rest of the beer and went for dinner.
We ended up in a diner Corinna said was brilliant for fish. The fish was brought out still alive, wiggling in panic in a plastic bag for our approval. It's customary to over order on your meals. You generally order (at least) one dish per person to share between everyone and rice each if you want it. We didn't realise the time and suddenly it was midnight, definitely way past subway closing time! Since we would be cycling the next day it felt appropriate to give the city rental bikes a go. It was dead easy to get around the city with superwide bike lanes (often being used by parked cars but not for long) and we had an exhilarating (and tipsy) ride through the city, past Chaiman Moa's portrait in Tiananmen Square and back to our hostel.
We awoke with trepidation for the start of this new, vaguely planned leg of the journey. We were worried about camping (it's illegal because technically you must register with the police every evening) but we can't afford a hostel every night. Also not all hotels and hostels accept foreigners. It made us a bit more worried than was necessary, or healthy.
One puncture and a few hours later we were in the suburbs of Beijing slowly climbing into the hills. We made an effort to wave and said 'ni hao' to people as we passed and they all waved back with enthusiasm. Some people had said you'll probably just get a blank face back, but I guess we were still close to the city and people were used to foreigners. One old man nearly fell off his bicycle as he waved back to us. It definitely put a song in my heart after the last few weeks.
We had left late but we got into the hills before needing to find somewhere to camp. Our first night had us well hidden in overgrown disused terraces with no fear of being seen by anyone. I guess the culture shock has washed over us like a tsunami, because we needed to watch a couple of episodes of Community to feel comfortable enough to sleep.
The next day we climbed up to the top of a 1000m switchback hill. This is when my knee pain really began. I had experienced some discomfort when walking around Beijing and thought I would be fine when we got cycling again, but it got to the point where I had to get off and walk because I couldn't put weight through my knee without pain and it was worse going uphill. A bit of a worry! And frustrating since I was mentally ready for hills again. We did get to the top eventually and started a descent to find a new camp spot. Mike found a great spot next to a crystal clear stream and we set about making camp and having a wash in the water before eating noodles for dinner and falling fast asleep to the sound of the water.
I woke up at 6 thinking I could hear voices so I encouraged Mike to wake and we packed quickly and pressed on. We were to descend a little onto a wide flat valley which seems typical of the area in between mountain ranges (have a look on a map to see what we mean) so we hoped to get a lot more kilometres in today. We would also be leaving Beijing province and heading west into Hebei to take us close to Datong, but we weren't planning on going into the city. We had a few weeks to get to Xi'an to stay on track to make our New Years Eve flight from Kuala Lumpur so we felt no need to go further west and into a city if we didn't need to. Also cities are expensive!
We really cracked on with covering ground in the morning and stopped for lunch in a gem of a market. Its brilliant what you find when you stop and look. I had taken a pain killer (an 800mg Ibuflam pill given to us by the kind and generous Denis in Hamburg, who in turn received it from his mother) in the morning and it worked a treat to help keep the pace up all day.
Soon we reached the western edge of Beijing Province and as the road deteriorated and poverty increased it was very clear where Hebei began.
The one thing which links all of the provinces together is how the whole country is run off WeChat. You can do so much more than message people. You can pay for things, top up your phone, pay bills, pay in restaurants, pay in shops, join WiFi networks among so many more things. We've been in shops where you either pay with WeChat or with cash - no cards. So many people just don't carry cash on them at all and we don't blame them after learning about the fake money problem.
Posts by either Mike or Helen. Individual authors will be named.