As soon as we crossed the border line between Beijing and Hebei, the road instantly lost all sense of organisation and cleanliness which characterised Beijing. There's clearly far less investment in roads and, well, people in this province. We continued on the G110 for the rest of the day and trucks became the predominant vehicle. Eventually with all the dust on the road being whipped up into the air I could feel my teeth becoming rough. Funnily enough I felt the effects of pollution at this countryside province more than in central Beijing.
My knee grew worse and I popped another 800mg Ibuflam and pushed on waiting for it to take effect. Since we had been successful in wild camping for two nights we began to look for places to secret ourselves away again. Mike spotted an abandoned building on a quiet building site which didn't look like it encountered much activity. Getting off the bikes and having a peek inside the building, it seemed suitable but would just need a sweep to clear it of broken glass and general debris.
"But it's only 4pm, its too early to stop. How are your legs?" Mike asked me.
"Fine except my knee, I don't feel tired"
So we sat for a few minutes watching a cargo train travel past. We'd seen and heard these trains a lot in the last few days heading north and west out of Beijing and we had been told by Natalie and Corinna that we were headed towards coal mining country. When I say we sat for a few minutes, I'm not kidding. This was finally my opportunity to count how many cargo carriages it was towing. In this instance there were two trains attached together and each train consisted of a driver carriage at each end and 105 cargo carriages. That was a 210(+4) carriage train! It literally took minutes to crawl past!
Off we went to increase the kilometres until it got closer to dinner time. By this point the number of trucks was getting incredible and the driving spectacularly dangerous. They will over take each other with oncoming trucks which have to swerve out of the way. We hadn't seen driving like this since the double overtakes of the Baltic States. We later found out that G roads were practically specifically built for trucks.
Soon enough Mike spotted a familiar looking yellow pannier bag bobbing ahead.
We hadn't met another bike tourer since passing a French guy near the Turkey/Georgia border and before that it was the last time we had seen our friend Arne in Bolu hundreds of kilometres before. I couldn't speed up with my knee as I was maintaining a pain-management rhythm so Mike went and caught up with him to say hi.
Pulling over to the side of the road we made our acquaintance with big-T. That's obviously not his real name, nor is it his English name, but neither of us could get a handle on his Chinese name. He didn't seem to mind. We were all headed for Huailai, the nearest big town about 20km ahead so we pushed on together. As we got into town big-T suggested we camp in the local park; it was what he did all the time whilst bike touring. He didn't seem to know or care about us technically having to register our stay with the police so we went straight to grab some food.
Over dinner he showed us his drone and the unbelievable pictures he got of the Great Wall earlier that day. He had left Beijing that morning and had come straight out west the way we had considered going before we were advised by Corinna to go north. Drones are pretty damn awesome and if we had the money we'd definitely get one, but even at Chinese prices they're out of our reach.
Our phone data had stopped working earlier that day and we figured out with big-T's help reading the Chinese texts we had received that we only had 500MB of data with the card and we had been allowed to use 500MB more at a high price. Damn. No more mobile data for us! We had been told we had 15GB, but that was a bit of a porky pie. We'll be relying on WiFi from now on so our posts may be more intermittent.
Big-T very kindly paid for dinner while we were distracted and said it was his treat since it is our first time in China. Such a generous, kind hearted man. He'll be a fantastic doctor (he'd just finished his studies).
The park he had in mind was busy with a fairground and something of a disco going on. It wouldn't have been our first, second, or even tenth choice but he was confident that it would be fine and no one would bother us. In fact, only an elderly couple came over interested in us and were massively enthusiastic about our travels. I've never seen so many thumbs up and grins from one little lady! The music and crowds died down at 11pm and we managed to get some sleep before the alarm rang out at 5am.
I woke up very low. I didn't know if my brain had been worrying about my knee all night and the repercussions that may have on the trip, or whether I was hitting a major low after stopping my antidepressants over a week ago, but I was tearful all day. We packed up and went for breakfast, during which time I decided to email out for some advice from a physio I saw after LEJOG when I had knee pain, and to the guy I had seen for my bike fit. Sitting outside on the step I just started crying and I couldn't hold it back. I'm still grieving for my cat (you may laugh, but he had been in my life for more years than he hadn't) and I was struggling to get over the culture shock of being outside of Europe.
Mike must have sensed what was going on and came outside to comfort me. He ran through our options:
Only options 2 and 3 were real options but neither of us wanted to cut even more kilometres out of an already reduced trip. So we asked for Big-Ts help once more and we sorted a train from Huailai (the town we were in thankfully had a train station) to Datong. Why Datong? There is a warm showers host there who owns a bike shop so we wouldn't have to worry about the cost of a hostel for a few days. We hadn't been planning on going into the city properly, but plans change. Big-T took us to the train station and helped us buy our tickets. Our bikes had to go in cargo on the 6pm train so we could either catch the midday train to Datong and wait for the bikes to arrive or we could hang around Huailai and get on the same train as the bikes. Even though we wouldn't be in the same carriage, we preferred just being near them so we opted for the late train which would get us into Datong at 10pm. We cannot thank Big-T enough for helping us sort this. A train official called Su could speak a bit of English and was a properly lovely lady but it would've been difficult to really understand what was going on without his translations. Our panniers had to be put into big rice sacks and sewn up and the bikes had to be stripped of anything lose. It was quite easy really, but the language barrier was difficult. All in all it would cost us 160RMB for our tickets and cargo. That's about £20.
After waving Big-T off on his way where we would see him again in Datong, we had 9 hours to kill until our train. Now we had no data, finding wifi was a priority.
There was a shopping centre on the main road near the train station so we ducked in. It turned out to be a child's arcade on a few floors, a very tall narrow building, but we saw signs for WiFi but couldn't see how to get it working. I asked a security guard "WiFi?" And he shook his head but beckoned us to follow him. The lady he took us to shook her head and her hand near her mouth in the way we had seen before. Natalie had told us that a lot of people in China see a western person and panic and refuse to help. They just get scared. So the security guard pointed for us to wait and he ran off trying to find another person. Eventually a lady appeared and said "hello" and I said that all we wanted was the WiFi password. We sat down, asked the first lady what the password was and made it all work. Easy as something quite difficult.
Nevertheless we had been told about the desire to help from some which would counterbalance the fear from others. The security guard showed just that. He couldn't help, but he made sure he found someone who did. Thank you security guard and lady!
We sat on the floor of the entrance hall until lunch time. Whilst returning to the train station after filling our bellies with chicken, we passed a sports shop and a large pharmacy. 15 minutes later we had a cheap but sturdy pair of trainers with a flex in the sole (i.e. non cycling shoes) and a knee brace for me to try. We decided that our plan of action was to rest for a couple of days with lots of stretching and squats and then cycle slowly south to Xi'an as much as I could manage. I would cycle in trainers so my feet were free and see how the knee brace supported the whole structure. It's a plan, we'll see how it goes.