Sometimes we wonder if anyone is reading our ramblings other than our immediate friends and family but we have just had a huge donation by the wonderful Bill Wharf. We've learnt that Bill is keeping a keen eye on us from afar and we wanted to say a huge thank you for his donation and support, especially after Helen went through a rough mental health patch a few weeks ago. It means the world to have your support.
We ended Shanxi on a high. At the end of our last blog, we'd just been dropped off at our hotel by the incredibly generous Guo who said he could come and meet us later for a beer. Guo arrived at 5.30 with his young nephew in tow and asked if we'd eaten. When we replied we hadn't, he suggested going to a local restaurant so off we went in his car. A few corners and one song from the Chinese version of the The Voice (Sing China) playing on the DVD screen at the front of the car later, we arrived at a local hot pot shop.
Hot pot. If you haven't heard of it is something of a unique way of communal meal preparation. In the middle of the table sits a deep tray separated into various compartments each containing a different flavoured, constantly boiling, soup. The guests then order any items which they would like from the menu which are all served raw and throughout the course of the meal the raw ingredients are thrown into the soup to cook and removed by the guests when ready. It's a way of eating together we hadn't experienced before which we thoroughly enjoyed.
When we arrived at the hot pot shop we thought a strange man was trying to get into the back of Guo's car. He turned out to be not so strange, in fact he was Guo's brother in law and as we got out of the car we were greeted by Guo's wife, her brother and his wife and all their children. It had been Guo's wife, we later found out, who suggested that Guo come after us in his car and invite us out for the evening which was something we hadn't realised earlier in the day but we recognised the whole group from lunchtime when we had explained to them all about our travels in China.
Beers later, Guo suggested that we go out "to play" - a word that seems to be quite commonly used by adults in China; much more so than it would be by adults at home. With the family split among scooters and Guo's car, we drove to a nearby KTV which we've even seen in the very small towns since. KTV is a manic karaoke emporium where guests can book a private room to sing their hearts out, so we did exactly that. Guo and his brother in law bought a table full of beer followed by some fruit platters and started the songs off with some Chinese hits, which of course we'd never heard. Guo was intent on playing the version of the karaoke that won you points depending on how well you sang. Thankfully for us, there were very few English songs in that category so we were left to slaughter Adele, Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars, amongst others. The whole escapade was filmed and perhaps at some point when we come to terms with what we did that night, the footage will be released.
With scant regard for safety and full of beer, Guo then drove us back to our hotel. He had offered to take us climbing up a mountain the next day but it turned out his partner wouldn't let him off work so we said our goodbyes and promised he'd be welcome in Scotland if he ever wanted to visit.
The next morning we set off slightly worse for wear but still intending to do a full day's cycling. We were back on the heavy coal haulage roads and being passed by dozens of trucks every hour all spitting black fumes and throwing coal dust from the road into the air and onto our skin where it stuck fast to the liberally applied sun cream. By the end of the day we were thoroughly filthy and looking for a place to camp for the night. We stopped at a petrol station for a cold drink and to have a look over our map to try and locate somewhere suitable. I noticed that the petrol station had an employee shower and was in the middle of typing up a translation to ask one of the attendants if we could use it before moving on as it really wouldn't have been pleasant to sleep in the state we were in. As I was typing, two men got out of their car, one with a perturbed look on his face as he saw two mucky and tired foreigners sitting on a bench outside his local petrol station. He came over and we all had a good joke about how filthy we were and in the usual fashion explained what we were doing and where we were from. When he learned that we were simply looking to take a shower he suggested that we all go and make friends over dinner, but before that that we could go to his house and get cleaned up. An offer which we gratefully accepted. So once again we were following a car with no idea of how the evening would unfold.
A couple of kilometres down the road we pulled into a small town which we learned is occupied almost entirely by employees of the coal burning, soot billowing power station and our new friend was one of these employees. We parked up our bikes outside his front door and went upstairs where we were met by his whole family and a tray of cold watermelon which we swiftly got stuck into. Before long we were clean and looking moderately more respectful and out of the shower we were offered tea and what I thought was a biscuit but which turned out to be a block of tea which we were told we should take with us. We were then given the wash cloths that we had used in the shower and a block of fancy soap to take with us on our travels and we headed out the door for dinner with a bottle of the local spirit in hand. It turned out that our host had had his two sisters as well as his best friend staying with him so his whole family came to dinner. Dinner was a bit of a blur with more of the spirit drunk than was sensible because we were having toast after toast and being encouraged to empty the glass every time. We asked about the possibility of setting up our tent in the local park and we were assured that it would be perfectly safe to do so, but that it wasn't an option - too many mosquitoes meant that we had no choice but to stay in our host's spare flat a few blocks away and before long we were there with the whole family cleaning the whole place so we could have a bed for the night. When we remarked how hot it was an air conditioning unit was found along with an ornamental hand fan which again we were gifted and has since been incredibly useful.
We were taken for breakfast the next morning where we had a delicious tofu soup with fried bread and were something of an object of curiosity to the locals, including the two school girls sat next to us who were eager to show us their English textbook. As we leafed through we stopped on no particular page and started reading only to be amazed by the fact that at some point in studying English the girls had written out greetings about two people called Helen and Mike. We went on our way with new friends on WeChat to keep in touch with as we ride across China.
A big day was on the cards despite the second hangover of two days as we rode for a town called Xinjiang. We had hoped that we would mostly avoid the lorries through the course of the day as we would be riding on a smaller county road but as it turned out the road quality went down and the truck numbers simply went up. Together with the heat passing 40 degrees it started to become quite mentally challenging, especially for Helen when we were separated across a very busy intersection so packed with trucks that we lost sight of one another and Helen didn't know which way to turn. But shortly reunited, we rode on and before we arrived in Xinjiang we had the unfortunate experience of watching an old couple being knocked off their little electric scooter by a minibus, though thankfully they seemed OK. We're doing some of our biggest days in northern China and today we did another 130KM before arriving at Xinjiang. The town wasn't exactly what we expected. As we rode in, the roads were wide and well constructed but there was little in the way of actual buildings on either side. We turned on a road which we thought might take us into the centre and asked if there were any hotels available nearby. Stopping in a local butchers shop, which we first mistook for a restaurant, we were given the chance to sit down and wash the coal dust from our faces before the butcher's daughters found us a cheap hotel online and drove us to where we needed to go. With some tasty noodles in us, we were in a bed a couple of hours later.
In the morning and out of Xinjiang we at last had the opportunity to ride on some much smaller roads and noticed immediately a significant fall in the number of trucks. It was well timed since Helen had come down with a nasty sore throat. As we climbed over the last belt of hills before leaving Shanxi, we rode on ever smaller roads and through uncountable orchards before finally looking for a place to stop for the night. Many of these orchards had small abandoned huts in their midst and we thought if we could find one of these it would be a great place to sleep. We thought we had found just the one and we took a turn off the road and into the orchard only to be met with the confused faces of a local farmer and his wife so we made a quick retreat and with no other options, we sought out the nearest hotel. The heat had soared again through the day and the hotel's shower had a single setting which was "gorgeously cool". The sort of cool that we would've been unable to find had the shower had an actual dial. We also noticed in this hotel that our passports had gone unchecked for quite some time and that it seems like the rules on guest registration in this part of China are more or less unenforced.
In typical fashion, whenever we stay in a hotel we always leave much later than we would if we'd've camped and back on the bikes in the middle of the morning we made our way to the edge of the province. I don't know whether it was the slightly inadequate diet since we've been in China or the days on end of riding or the breathing coal dust, but my legs just wouldn't engage for the whole day, and for the whole day I rode with the feeling of exhaustion. Eventually we had to stop so I could splurge on some sugar and an energy drink just with the hopes of kicking my legs into gear. It seemed to do the trick and soon we were saying goodbye to Shanxi and hello to Shaanxi in crossing the Yellow River.