The rain clouds loomed and as we started climbing up a 100m blip the sky grew extremely dark. We anticipated the downpour and waited under a bridge for the worst of it to pass and as the deluge subsided, we continued onwards to look for a wild camping spot.
Our tent had developed a tiny hole somewhere and when it rains overnight we wake up with a damp patch under our sleeping mats so we were eager to find somewhere either sheltered or where the water wouldn't pool underneath us. We scoped out a few places on tracks leaving the road but weren't confident. The closer we came to the next big town before Guangyuan the options were dropping off until we saw an abandoned portacabin. You can see what happened here:
So off we went into in search of the cheapest room we could find. We stopped outside what we thought was a family run hotel and just translated "we're looking for a cheap hotel" on our phone. The young girl of the family said that she would take us to one. She was shy at first but her English was very good for such a young age and this is generally what we find. We had entered the town on the most southern tip which seemed to be quite empty of shops, lots of closed buildings littered the streets which we've seen to be quite rare in China. She took us through a few streets, not quite sure of where she was headed herself but asking people for us and we got pointed in the right direction. The neighbourhood turned out to see us and eventually we got to a set of stairs. Up we went and we were offered a room for 50 yuan - the cheapest so far! Very clean and with a shared bathroom. Exactly what we wanted, phew. A chance to dry off and check our emails and have a good sleep without the worry of getting flooded out.
A small breakfast of free corn on the cob saw us off in the morning towards Guangyuan. This city was on my mental map as being a good way marker for being fairly close to the flat lands surrounding Chengdu, but we weren't quite there yet. Over the last couple of days we had begun to go through some long dark tunnels through the mountains. Sometimes we'd had to walk on the raised pavement because there was no shoulder and the traffic was manic, but the one we had to go through to enter the city was with a good shoulder and we had no problem to cycle through it.
Finally we felt we were on the home stretch towards a break in Chengdu, but first we had to get over four large hills. The main expressway from Guangyuan took an easy route directly towards Chengdu but we're not allowed on those (we read about people sneaking onto them but we're not willing to risk it). Instead we were back on the G108 and following it through the foothills. We took a deep breath, tried to energise our legs and made our way up and over the first climb towards Pu'an. Following the signs out of the city of Jiang we ended up on a really great road with a very fair but constant incline and a brilliant surface. We figured it must be fairly new, though well established with cultivation on either side, and checked the map to make sure we were on the main road. All of our maps, digital and paper, did not show the road to exist. We were totally off any form of roads, though clearly we were on it. China really is developing quickly; even the Chinese map didn't have the road.
Again, no luck with wild camp spots so we went in search of a cheap room in Pu'an. During the day we'd learnt the Chinese character we needed to look for meaning a hotel and it opened up our eyes like we'd just learnt the whole language. Suddenly we were seeing hotels everywhere. It's a single character at the end of the name and looks like a giraffe under a shelter. That's what we look for!
The first hotel wouldn't budge from 100 yuan, the second was very enthusiastic about having us to stay but once he checked with his boss we had our first instance of "no foreigners allowed". We got over half way across the country and finally we encountered this famed problem! The third hotel offered 80 yuan, which was a huge discount from what they had on the wall and I suggested we check one more hotel we'd seen across the road and decide. It was an easy decision - the fourth hotel said "no foreigners" so back we went to the third, very helpful receptionist and checked in. When we check into hotels we generally still cook our noodles in the room for dinner to feel better about spending the money on the room, and this was no different. Clothes washed, food eaten, showered and watered we fell into a dreamless sleep.
The next day was our final big challenge before a much needed rest: we would try to tackle the last three hills. The heat was high again and it was such a still day. The wind had completely gone making it feel incredibly humid and heavy. The only respite we could get from the heat and humidity was to cycle and create a breeze across our skin, though that meant you got warmer internally from the cycling. We had to stop again in the shade early afternoon to try to recuperate a little but the whole day really was a struggle. It felt harder to do those three climbs than the two mountain passes a week earlier. Heat and humidity plays such a huge factor here.
On the other hand, descending down each hill was tremendous fun with very well paved roads and little traffic we reached 50 kph in some places.
Finally we peaked over the top of the final hill and felt triumphant! There was just one more blip to make our way up after Miangyang the following day, but other than that it would be a smooth run in to Chengdu. Luck really befriended us that day and we found a really pleasant wild camp spot with a cooling breeze before the final descent. Because of the breeze we set up the mozzie net and fell asleep without any blankets or other coverings and enjoyed a few hours of cool sleep. We were taking a bit of a chance since Sichuan had proved to be very wet late afternoons and overnight thus far, but we had trees around us and we took a chance. Unfortunately I woke up at about 1am having felt a couple of drops of rain and upon opening my eyes I saw a few flashes of a storm over the other side of the valley and quickly woke Mike up to put the tent up in the dark with only one torch to see by. We've become very efficient at putting this tent up and we were safe and dry in a couple of minutes. If we'd slept through the rain, it would've been OK since it never really turned into much but better to be safe than sorry. At least by that point the humidity had dropped!
The next day's target was to get over the last blip just past Miangyang so we only had 100KM left to do on the final day into Chengdu. Luckily a blanket of cloud kept a lot of the heat away from us for most of the day but as soon as we began that ascent the sun broke through the clouds and we were pouring with sweat and snail pacing our way up that last hill. We got to the top and both almost collapsed outside a shop and bought about three ice poles each (they're wonderfully cheap here) and gorged ourselves until we had cooled down. We made a little effort to find a wild camp just outside of the town but were so completely mentally and physically exhausted that we just decided that since we'd already camped 12 times in China already, we deserved to give ourselves a break this time. Thankfully the next small town was really close and we stopped at the first hotel we saw.
The room wasn't going to be a bad price, but we still like to bargain for what we can. The receptionist asked a few people if she could lower the price to what we were asking but had no luck. We said we'd ask at another hotel but she wouldn't let us leave and did her best to lower the price. Once she found out we wanted one bed in the room (they call it a single here, even though it's a double bed), we managed to get the room for 80 yuan. The police arrived to check our passports and visas but clearly hadn't done it before as they were messaging their boss with photos of our passports and random visas within the pages. Finally I had to show them the Chinese visa and half an hour later we were in the room ready to shower, eat and sleep. The police knocked at the door again to check our entry stamps, again(!), and then finally we were left alone.
The morning brought with it rain. Lots of rain. More rain than we'd seen in one go so far in China. We waited an extra hour to see if it calmed down and filled the time with breakfast, but just decided to embrace the wet since we would be in a hostel that night anyway. The police arrived again which felt like they were making sure we were leaving, I don't think they would've been keen on us staying another night, but they wished us a safe journey and told us to be careful in the rain. On our way through and out the other side of the town a police car followed us, stopping in laybys along the way... Again we're not sure whether they wanted to check we were safe in the rain or just checking we left, but either way we never felt threatened. They would've just been following orders.
Finally, FINALLY we got to the edge of the city. Although the edge of the city was effectively another city... But still we felt like we were closing in on a break.
At one point I looked to my right for no particular reason and saw a very familiar sight:
IKEA! We had been to the home of IKEA in Sweden a few months ago and it felt like the other side of the circle to be able to visit a store in China. The prospect of the cafeteria hastened our pace to the front doors and I returned to Mike triumphant with two ice creams - the cheapest thing on the menu at 1 yuan each, and they tasted like Europe.
Once at the hostel we went out to find food in the surrounding streets and our fuses were almost totally burnt out for the time it can take to find what you want to eat. Sometimes after a hard day all you want is something familiar, but here only a few things are familiar and both really hungry and tired we both got quite short tempered. We never argue, the worst we do is get frustrated at the situation and after everything is solved, in this case our bellies filled with fried rice, we're totally back to normal again.
We stayed in the hostel for two nights until our warm showers host, Peter, was back from his own motorbike tour of Vietnam and we cycled across the city to stay with him for a few days. This brought the prospect of more rest, good food with a guide, PANDAS, clothes washing and Game of Thrones. The reality did not disappoint...