We found a camp spot overlooking the river that night as our legs could go no further. We were out of sight from most of the traffic on the roads nearby and figured that once the sun went down we would be invisible in our green tent. The heat that night was unbearable; it was the first time we slept with all the doors open. We should have just put up the mozzie net but by the time we realised the temperature wasn't dropping in the tent, it was far too dark. We covered each other in DEET and finally fell asleep to a cooling breeze.
Our plan the next day was to do a big push to our booked hostel right next to the Terracotta Army. The Mausoleum complex sits about 30 KM east of Xi'an and we were going to be passing it to go through the city so we figured we would save ourselves some time and money and just visit it in passing. The complex is huge: the actual tourist bit is two sites of the Terracotta Army and a short, free, bus ride away is the Mausoleum of the Emperor. The Mausoleum is essentially a garden with a large, unexcavated mound in the middle. It's a very pretty place to walk around and there are two extra pits they have excavated with a few terracotta pieces and horse skeletons, and it's also much quieter because the Chinese generally aren't that interested in the gardens. Surrounding the Army complex is a village made up of restaurants and hostels where we stayed in a Hello Kitty themed room. I kid you not. We stayed for two nights and visited the site on the whole day off we had. It's always something I've wanted to see ever since I found out it existed so I'm so glad we didn't flinch too much at the price of entry and made the most of the day there. It's pretty incredible and I recommend it to anyone, though be careful on how you get out of Xi'an to visit it as there are apparently a lot of tourist trap tours.
This is a cycle challenge first and foremost, so the next day we plodded 40KM through the heat to our hostel in Xi'an and slept the rest of the day! We had planned our way over to Chengdu by reading blogs, but none are terribly up to date so we went with our gut and chose the mountain pass with the least climbing to protect my knee. This would take us out west towards Baoji and turn off through the mountains to Taibai and beyond. Chances of wild camping are noticeably diminishing as every inch of ground is now being cultivated so we now take the attitude of "well, the cost of the trip is the cost of the trip". We save where we can but if we literally cannot find anywhere free to sleep then we'll book into a cheap hotel and barter down as much as possible. It's not worth getting into trouble by camping somewhere inappropriate.
A day and a half out of Xi'an, having followed the long flat G310 the whole way, Mike glanced down to his right along the road and spotted three tiny puppies in a ditch. Now, it's been pretty difficult to see how many wild and hungry dogs there are in the world but we've become hardened to it since we've been seeing them every day since Poland. But there was something about how small these puppies were and the fact they were LIVING IN A DITCH that meant we stopped. They must've been about 10 weeks old but were skin and bone. We took some time to feed them the last of our biscuits and give them some water but after some internet searching using nearby WiFi we figured there was nothing we could do for them. They had fleas so we couldn't comfortably take them long distance with us to Chengdu (though images of having three puppies in our bar bags was joyful) and there just aren't the shelters in China which exist in the UK. So we had to leave them to their fate as with the hundreds, maybe thousands of others we have passed over the last couple of months. We still think about them and hope that, maybe, a local farmer saw them and did something. Who knows. Occasionally you get people who care.
With heavy hearts we plodded on towards our turn off just before Baoji and the roadworks began. Roadworks in China are common. I read somewhere that a lot of them were delayed due to the 2008 Beijing Olympics and they're still catching up, but they seem far too common for that still to be true. The road system does seem to be in the midst of a mega upgrade; tunnels are being blasted through mountains to make expressways through the picturesque ranges and small villages are being overshadowed by mega overpasses. At this point, the S road up the mountain had been dug up and it looked like it had been that way a long time, but still it wasn't too bad by bike. We planned on going a few kilometres up the mountain and find somewhere secluded to camp and get a good, cool start up the rest of the climb in the morning. As we approached the bend in the road we planned on stopping at, we were confronted with one of the best views we'd seen so far in China.
Unfortunately the entrances had been dug up along with the road so we couldn't visit, but we camped behind it hidden from the road in the rubble. Our luck had begun to turn with the heat and we had a great breeze through the tent the whole night. In fact when we were putting it up just before it got dark, it nearly blew away as the breeze picked up!
Up early and on the bikes up the mountain, the road eventually got back to being perfectly paved. Fifty metres after the tarmac returned, we were stopped by a very aggressive angry man who kept talking to us in Chinese even though we very obviously didn't understand a word he was saying. His gestures suggested that we couldn't go up the road, but we needed to know if it was because he thought we just couldn't do it, whether there had been a land slide, or for some other reason. Other vehicles were going up and down so it couldn't have been a landslide. Finally, he understood that we were giving him our phone to type in Chinese to us in the translate app.
This is what he typed:
Fair enough. It's an Army area (now) and foreigners could not go. What a shame! He kept on with his aggressive attitude and I just snapped and said loudly (not shouting I hasten to add): "There's clearly no point in shouting at us, we cannot understand you". He seemed to finally understand my tone and spoke quieter, continuously pointing down the hill until he got bored and drove off. We wanted to check with someone coming down the hill whether this was true, and sure enough the first person we stopped said yes, we could not go up. Why did no one tell us this in the 8 kilometres we did up the hill in the first place? I guess it's all part of people not being confident to talk to foreigners. Anyhow, at least it was only 8 kilometres and not half way up! So back down we went and resigned ourselves to trying to go on a bit of a detour west. This would take us through Baoji and up the S212 to Fengxian where we would join the G316 east back to joining up with our previously planned route. Our original route via Taibai was meant to be just the one pass but our new route took us over three mountain passes. Well, at least it would be a good test of my knee!
We had got up so early that morning that we made good progress after coming back down the mountain and through Baoji. Another huge city by UK standards, but average in China. The turn off we were due to take to head back up the mountains was at a large cross roads and luckily at one of the corners was a bike shop. We've found bike shops to be immensely helpful ever since the lovely Jack and Jay in Datong so we headed over and asked via the translate app whether or not the Army was up the mountain on this road. They seemed to say it was absolutely fine. Finally back on the good luck train! The climb started immediately and up we went.
The S212 was busier than the road we had planned to use and eventually we found out why - it led to a tourist spot for the source of a river. Anyway, by the time it got to 1.30pm it was far too hot for us to be climbing so we stopped in the shade for some noodles and a nap. Time passed 3pm when it should start to get cooler so we got back on the bikes and headed up the 24 switchbacks to the top of the pass. The pain I had experienced in my knee back near Beijing and Datong had so far not reared its ugly head again and I managed to plough my way up that climb without walking once!
Luckily we found a wild camping spot that evening as we started to descend down the other side. We were brilliantly secluded, hidden in undergrowth and as night fell we watched an electrical storm discharging in the distance. Multiple strikes of lightning flashed every minute yet no sound of thunder ever reached us. Fengxian was our next big town on the way through the Qinling Mountain range and we got there just in time for a lunch time thunder storm and downpour which saw us holed up in a restaurant longer than planned. As the storm didn't seem to want to relent, we decided to take a half day to eat as much as we could afford to energise our legs for the next day and the two mountain passes we hoped to cover. We found a great little hotel in town right next to the restaurant we ate at that night. If you follow us on Instagram, this is the restaurant where the chef paid for our meal. One thing is for sure, we've never felt unwelcome in China. Now, this hotel did take our passport details but they didn't take a photocopy. So that night once we were in bed and falling asleep we were awoken by a hard knocking at the door. We scrambled to get dressed and opened the door to a policeman who wanted to see our passports. I had read about this happening and I knew we hadn't done anything wrong so I wasn't worried but there's always something about being confronted with authority, especially in an unknown country, which gets your heart pounding. He spoke to the hotel lady in Chinese for a few minutes whilst they both flicked through our passports and then said to Mike, "Come with me". He pointed to me and said I could stay "and relax" so I guess that was a good sign. Mike was marched off to the police station (next door to the restaurant) and answered questions about what we were doing in China whilst they took a copy of each of our passports. The policeman said "keep your bikes safe, have a nice time", shook Mike's hand and sent him on his way! I suppose this all came about from the hotel not taking an actual photocopy of our passports and visas, but you never know, he may have just been curious about us.
The following morning the first pass started as soon as we turned left off the main street of the town and began a steady and perfectly manageable incline until the top. I genuinely have never enjoyed climbing as much as I have done in China. It's improving my confidence no end. At the top we stopped to buy cold drinks and homemade cookies from an old man and his dog. We still think these are the best cookies we've ever eaten and we don't think it's because it's been a long time since we had good cookies. Oh man, I really miss cookies.
We descended far enough for the second climb to be called its own pass and not just a continuation of the same climb. This time the gradient was much shallower and went on for longer until the last few kilometres when it really kicked up to about 15% in places. Again, no walking for me! I got up all three passes without walking and I'm very proud of myself for that (very un-British of me, I know). By this point it was mid afternoon and we were starving, having not really eaten lunch, so we stopped at the first restaurant we saw. We are usually the object of huge interest and excitement whenever we stop to eat and everyone got their photo with us this time too. Then some random man paid for our meal for us and went on his way. He didn't even want a photo! The only thing was that we were going to order more food but now felt a bit awkward so we finished up and headed further down the hill. A second dinner stop for dumplings filled our bellies happily and we were now in search of a suitable camping spot - always a stress. We had a look at a few options, including an abandoned house which turned out to be the victim of a landslide. As we cycled away from that one, Mike commented that he hoped no one had been in the house when it happened. I noticed just to the side of the house was what looked like a gravestone, but I didn't say anything at the time.
We keep an eye out for overgrown pathways leading off from the road as possible options for camping. You never know where they will lead - sometimes they're a no go and sometimes they're spot on. This time our path led off up the side hill to a fly tip with a level bit of spare ground away from the main trash site.
"No one will ever come up here, we're good". It was getting late and the sun was due to set in about an hour but since we were within a valley it would get darker a little sooner. We had settled down to read our kindles inside the tent when it was late dusk and, of course, some fly tippers turned up. Thankfully they were wanting to keep themselves just as secret as we were and no police turned up after they left so we had a great night's sleep away from the sound of trucks we've become accustomed to.
The next 100KM was predominantly downhill but we were again struck by roadworks as they build a new expressway straight through the mountains. The current road winds its way around the base of the hills and the surface isn't fairing so well with the ever increasing demand for truck road space. As we dropped out of the valley into the Hanzhong plain and turned west towards Mian the chances of wild camping dropped again. Every inch of the land is farmed. So we asked in one of the small towns whether there was a hotel, thinking that it would be cheaper in a smaller town than a larger one. No luck; we were directed towards Mian, so carried on. The second roadworks of the day increased our frustration no end. They really like to dig up a good 10 kilometre section of road without much sign of actually laying down new tarmac. There's no chance of any resurfacing being done in short sections here, it's always at least 10 kilometres. It made very slow going into Mian and by the time we got into the town we were covered in grey dust from the road and must've looked a sight. We asked at 4 or 5 hotels what their lowest priced room would be and tried our best to barter even lower but no one was wanting to go lower than 100yuan. Except the last one who said we could have a room for 98 yuan. Oh well, every little helps! That's two ice creams for us we otherwise wouldn't have had.
Sometimes on this trip I've wondered whether I'll ever smell clean and fresh again. It can be hard to keep your clean clothes smelling clean so even when you put on something new, it doesn't have that "just washed" smell and after four months and a difficult roadworks day, I'd had enough of always feeling like I smelt bad. One mini tantrum and one long shower later, all was well in the world again.
On our way out of Mian to head into the hills again we spotted a supermarket and Mike, the chef, stocked up on ingredients to add to our instant noodles we have most days for at least one meal. That evening we dined extravagantly on fresh tomatoes and noodles. You may laugh! But it was the best fresh tomatoes and noodles I've ever had. Before eating this wonderful meal we headed out of Mian on a small local X road which we hoped would keep us away from big trucks on the G108 for a while. There were few trucks that's for sure, but it was clear why. The road must've been incredibly old and after a short while the tarmac disappeared and we were faced with 40 kilometres of gravel and rock roads which you see in pictures of the Pamir Highway. It was a good test of our bike handling and neither of us came off but it was frustrating to have been slowed down again. As the heat of the day started to fall after 3pm we were rounding a corner to see the perfect wild camping spot. Down by the river which the road was following was a grassy area partially hidden from the road by trees. It was early for us to be stopping but since we didn't know whether we'd have this opportunity further down the road and we were both tired and sore from the off-roading style cycling we'd been doing, we stopped and set up camp. We had stopped with about 30 kilometres of the rough road to go so we got up early and just got our heads down and got it all done.
It was along this X road that we met the young girl you'll have seen in one of our pictures on Instagram. She brought us grapes and just as we were leaving we ran over and gave us a paper decoration to take with us. We really hope that these encounters leave these kids eager to go back to school and carry on learning English because they genuinely are so good at it and very keen to talk with us. You never know what doors another language will open for you.
The terrible old road turned into the G108 eventually and back we were onto tarmac. I'll never take tarmac for granted again. We really wanted to push on to Sichuan province today as we're getting impatient to get to Chengdu and have a well deserved few days off. It's very important whilst in a long bike tour to have rest days as proper rest days. Our last day off was spent walking around the Terracotta Army, and before that it was in Datong so we're pushing our limits a bit. We've had half days which really do help, but we need to unwind as well.
The G108 is pretty uneventful although for once most of the traffic was actually on the expressway so it was quite pleasant heading down to the border with Sichuan. We could see dark clouds up ahead but unlike in the UK when you want to get away from rain, we eagerly awaited the cooling rain it looked like we were due to get...