After the previous day's 130KM effort we woke near the foot of our first big climb since Helen hurt her knee. The knee had been causing some anxiety for us both but it had been OK the previous day and we were feeling fairly confident about the 2500 feet climb to come.
Jack had recommended a different route, one that would be less heavily trafficked with the coal trucks that are so prevalent in Shanxi. His cycling club would be riding from Datong to the summit of Mount Wu Tai and this was the route that Jack had recommended we take on our way to Xi'an. After some deliberation during the previous day, we decided that the 5000 feet climb to Wu Tai would be a bit too much so we headed for the nearby pass at Yanmenguan.
A couple of days previously we'd been discussing routes with Jack. We showed him the planned route we would take from Datong to Xi'an which we had based on advice that Big T had given us. That advice was that S class roads would be relatively clear of big trucks whereas G class roads were built for them. Our original plan was to take an S class road all the way to Shanxi's provincial capital, Taiyuan, but when we showed that route to Jack he said it would be all big trucks. We planned that S class road route on the basis that it would offer the most gentle climbing for Helen's knee.
As it was though, we rode over the Yanmenguan pass. In the scheme of Chinese roads, it's a small road on a relatively small mountain but it far exceeds any single climb in the UK. The climb started immediately after we set off, passing through a small village and remnants of an earthen section of the Great Wall before becoming very steep indeed. Helen and I have different attitudes to climbing; I love it whereas Helen is ambivalent at best so we have a routine that we employ. Whenever we reach a serious climb I will ride ahead perhaps for 2 KM before stopping until I regain sight of Helen and that's what we did here (except that I was stopping more frequently because tight roads and the speeding trucks don't make for a very comforting climb). At one point I ended up riding back down the mountain to make sure Helen was OK because I started to worry that she had been run over, but of course Helen was fine and for all the craziness of the Chinese truck drivers, I haven't actually ever felt in any real danger. They're actually very good around cyclists - they always do give plenty of space.
As the climb went on consistently steep we reached a Great Wall Pass outpost with a mega Buddha statue high on the hill. Helen and I stopped for a short break and of course to pose for obligatory photos with the Chinese. I set off again for the summit and by the time Helen arrived I must have posed for 20 odd photographs with three different groups. It's all very good spirited though, so we're always happy to pose with people. Folk often try and sneak photographs of us too, especially in restaurants and shops. We almost always just ask if they'd like to take a photo and they're over the moon that they can pose with us.
At the foot of the descent we stopped in a small shop for supplies. Whilst sitting on the steps outside a man invited us into his living room for endless cups of tea and a tomato so that we could shelter from the sun while we spoke with his two young girls using the translate feature on WeChat, and again posing for photos this time with cat filters.
We pressed on to the next big town, Xinzhou, my mood had dropped consistently since lunchtime and we decided it would be best to have a night in a cheap hotel in which Helen managed to haggle the price down by one third.
The next day was fairly uneventful apart as we rode down to Taiyuan. I say it was fairly uneventful except for two major events. Firstly, as we were climbing out of Xinzhou we were back on the haulage road. A few seconds after one particular coal truck passed us there was an almighty bang from its undercarriage and it veered sharply to the side of the road before coming to an abrupt halt with the air full of dust and our ears ringing. It was obvious that one of its tyres had exploded with us just a few metres behind. We were very lucky it wasn't level with us. A few hours later we arrived in Taiyuan. It's easy to forget that Chinese cities are mammoth by UK proportions. We had planned to cycle all the way through but after about an hour of battling with traffic we'd hardly made a dent in traversing the city. It was beginning to get dark, we were tired and so we once again decided to look for a cheap hotel. Perched outside Starbucks we stole some WiFi and reserved a room in a guesthouse online for £6. After sorting out maps and decided on a route to get there we set off and, unusually for us, arrived at the correct location first time. The street was small and crowded but there was no sign of the guesthouse so we had to Shanghai a local into helping. He tried to phone the guesthouse for us but couldn't connect. He then asked some locals where it was and he dutifully pointed to a vacant plot of land and said it had been demolished. With sighs and laughter we turned our bikes around and peddled back to the bike shop we had passed a few hundred yards previously where one of the shop assistants took us to a hotel over the road and after some brief haggling, we checked in for £11. Before coming here we read a lot online about how important it is to register every night with the police (advice that we've wilfully been ignoring by camping) but it doesn't seem even to matter to the Chinese as, in this hotel, they didn't even want to see our passports.
Clothes washed and spirits higher we left the hotel to try and find another local mega Buddha on the way out of the city. On arrival, we discovered that they had (apparently) recently introduced visitor fees which we couldn't afford so we decided to crack on. We picked our way through some lovely quiet roads on the valley floor which made a great change to the usual heavy haulage routes. We both desperately thirsty so took advantage of a local watermelon stand where we bought, and ate, a whole watermelon for about 65pence. As usual, I communicated with the locals without any language but all in good fun and after posing for more photos we set off again. After 95KM, Helen's knee had started to grumble too much so we took our leave of the day and set up camp under a bridge. Under-bridge camping seems standard fare for most cycle tourers but it was our first and possibly last time. Chinese traffic does not stop overnight and with no breeze to shoo away mosquitoes, we were inundated. Luckily we have plenty of Deet!
Despite the traffic we actually didn't sleep too badly and were back on the road by 7am. Next on our itinerary was the ancient city of Pingyao which comprises an ancient walled city which is 1.5KM square surrounded by the usual Chinese urban sprawl. Our touring bikes weren't allowed into the heart of the ancient city so we took it in turns to go in for a quick exploration while the other waited with the bikes. As beautiful as it was, the ancient city was quite a tourist trap and we didn't feel that we'd miss much by not spending more time there. We stopped for some biscuits on the way out of the city and spent some time chatting to passersby and were gifted some delicious, and free, nectarines.
A few hours later we were eating an extremely good lunch in a town called Jiexiu. Jiexiu sits at the head of a river valley that will take us south to the Xi'an plain. A small curious crowd gathered and following our brief photo shoot we cycled off towards the head of the valley, except we didn't make it very far. As we pulled into the local Spar (yes, Spar, but it does cheap water) a horn sounded behind us - we'd been pursued by a local from the restaurant. He got out his car and came towards us with phone in hand where he'd typed that he wanted to invite us back to his house. The apps that we use for translation, both us and the Chinese, don't always get it quite right so there was a bit of to and fro with our new friend. We explained to him that we were quite tired from all the cycling and would be very grateful for a rest, anticipating that we would go with him back to his house and perhaps be able to have a shower. So he got in his car and we followed and a short while later we found we were in a hotel lobby with a man we'd only just met who was paying for us to stay the night. In fact, he seemed disappointed that we couldn't stay longer and it seemed that he would happily have paid for us to stay a few days but not wanting to take advantage and with a limited visa allowance we opted for just the one night. Finally, we introduced ourselves and our new friend Guo Fengwei helped us with our baggage to our room and we made an agreement to meet in the evening for a beer.
China has been amazingly hospitable so far. The people are generous, warm hearted, inquisitive and friendly and we are very grateful for all of that.