A bicycle, buses and a train in China - Unfinished Business - CycleBlaze

A bicycle, buses and a train in China

Have you ever had one of those nightmare flights?  Quite frankly, short of your plane’s engines guzzling volcanic ash or a remarkable pilot landing a stricken aircraft on water or an incompetent one dumping it in a rice paddy at the end of the runway, I don’t think that there is a nightmare flight. If you walk from the plane, then it was not too bad.  So what we’re really talking about are unpleasant flights. Let’s pick one: Sydney to LA – 14 hours, flat oaf’s blubber oozing into your space, children screaming, contagious airsickness and, beyond belief, they run out of vegan meals. Yes, a bad flight. And to cap it off, you arrive at your hotel to find that it has no record of your booking. There’s weeks’ worth of fodder for the travel pages of your newspaper.

Let me tell you about a triathlon of travel in China involving cycle legs, a handful of bus trips and a little train journey.  I will start with an email that Alex sent me.  Alex and his partner, Bettina, are, like me, part way through a long bicycle journey and occasionally our paths converge, as in Kashgar, where Alex told me where I could get a Chinese road atlas and helped me translate key places using an English map of China.  I would have cycled with them from Kashgar but wanted a little more time and thought I could catch them for a ride from Golmud.  In the meantime, they decided to ride from Xining rather than from Golmud. 

Hi Ian

Where are you? After 750 km from Xining we are in Maduo (very nice trip, for us the right decision). We plan to be in Shiqu next Monday.  Maybe you are faster than we.  Have you a tip for a good stay there? How was your trip to Yushu? Maybe we meet somewhere!?  Greetings Alex and Bettina

Brilliant!  Here we are, taking completely different routes and at different times but converging on the same historic monastery town on the Tibetan plateau on the same day, assuming that I can knock over the 150 km, including a 4700 m pass in a couple of days. I left Yushu, the town devastated by the April 2010 earthquake, and managed to ride 50 km before lunch. It was hot and I took off my shirt as I cooked a noodle soup by a stream. After lunch the need to stop and photograph the first snakes I had seen in a long while hindered my progress.  An hour later, I was climbing the big pass when an incredible storm hit with sleet and gusting headwinds.  As nomadic herders brought their yaks home, I crouched with my back to the wind, waiting for the front to pass.  With slightly calmer conditions I pedaled skywards, eyeing a spot a few hundred metres higher where I suspected I could pitch my tent in relative shelter.  Although it was early, it would have been foolish at this altitude to continue much higher so I called it a day.  

Snow fell heavily in the night making packing slow, cold and difficult so I was exuberant when I pushed my bike onto the road and continued towards the pass.  After a stiff climb, I found myself at 4700 m and celebrated for the photo with shirt off.  The descent was slight and as I gathered my rhythm on the flat a minibus pulled up and out jumped a German couple, also cyclists, avoiding the weather.  We toured the monastery at Serchu Dzong together in the afternoon and then shared a drink.  As happens so often with cycle touring, you meet people for hours and it feels like a lifetime.  Uwe and Isabel have two good friends in Australia and I know both of them!  I asked if they had seen Alex and Bettina – after all, they had cycled for 1000 km on the same road.

Unfortunately, soon I had to swap the bike for transport because I needed to get to Kunming to meet Cora.  It all seemed easy: cycle 40 km to Sichu Xi’an, get a bus to Ganze, another to Chengdu and then a train to Kunming.  I could envisage some problems – the weather was bad, I was a little short of local currency and there was no ATM for a long way, there was a national holiday in a few days and I might have trouble getting my bicycle on transport. All could slow me or stop me.  I solved the currency crisis when the head monk offered to change money at a ridiculous rate in my favour!  I protested but he would have none of it.

The ride to Shiqu Xi’an was tedious, probably because I expected it flat but it dragged uphill for 25 km, making me run late for the bus, but it was a through bus and I should be able to flag it down at any point.  But it never passed and then I could not find the bus station in Sichu Xi’an.  I got myself a meal and then paid 40 Y ($6) for a filthy room in a despicable establishment in the eastern end of town near the mysterious bus station from where I planned to catch the 0700 bus. In this hotel, with no bathing facilities, you piss into buckets in the corridor and, in the bathroom, debate with neighbouring defaecators as your turds plummet 5 m to the pig-inhabited pit below before wondering where to wash your hands – small point really.  I kept turning up blanks looking for the bus station.  Did it exist?  Had bus passengers ever cast their garbage over Shiqu Xi’an. 

The night was ugly with the intensity of snowfall increasing as it worked towards morning and I still did not know where in town I might find the bus station.  Couldn’t LP have said “500 m east of the post office”?  I was up before 0500, packed my sleeping bag that had protected me from earlier inhabitants in the room, ate the rice pudding I cooked last night and then bounced my loaded bike down 22 steps, through the metal doorway and out onto the dark street with its white carpet.  Immediately, big black Tibetan dogs stalked, more bark than bite, but enough to force me to walk rather than ride.  I pushed past the snow-clad pool tables, and turned right onto the main street.

Two km further, I struck luck:  there was a lit vehicle that surely must be a bus.  It was nothing more than China’s only broken down truck with working lights. I went past the service stations to where the town faded away convinced that there was no bus station, before retracing my steps and screaming F… O… at the packs of dogs that I had screamed similar profanities at moments before.  Then, just at the appropriate time, nature called and I just had to go.  No worries, all over and done with in seconds and buried beneath snow so that these filthy canines had to dig for their breakfast. 

Back in town there were lights.  A dumpling maker indicated that the inter-city bus station was a few hundred metres along the road I had traversed several times, while a helpful tourist wrote “where is the intercity bus station?” in Chinese characters.  Armed with this I ventured east again, panniers covered in snow and beard frozen, past the concrete pipes, past the dogs with bad breath and towards the service stations.  A woman doing it tough indicated that I had passed the bus station and got a girl on her way to school to take me there.  It was almost 0700 and I had found it!  There, down a mud drenched path track was a ramshackle building – a house, a bus station, a shop, an entire complex, I guess.  I knocked on the door and ventured in pleased to see a slow-combustion stove because by now my hands were the wrong side of cold.  A man indicated “no bus”.  I tackled it from different angles and by the time I realized that snow was stopping transport, his partner was waking from her slumber in the corner.  My chance of being in Kunming on Saturday or even Sunday to meet Cora, who was flying in from California, was fast evaporating. 

So there I was, back in town standing among snow-covered yaks and dogs pondering what to do.  I did not have enough yuan for private transport while the weather made hitching difficult.  The first priority was to warm myself inside and out so I crossed the road to a dumpling place, only to discover that it was one of the few without vegetarian dumplings. I crossed back to my bike thinking that it was not my day. Should I return to the horrid Gesa’er Jiudian and hope that the weather improves as it had on most days?  The catch was that, apart from the foulness of the GJ, I would be losing time.  At this moment a minibus driver shouted “Ganzi” and I started negotiating.  He wrote down “20”, which a helpful hanger-on translated to the sensible 200.  That’s brilliant – roughly what I’d expected to pay on the bus if they charge my bike and pile of luggage as a person.  Half an hour later with all seats at least filled and to the monotonous sound of Tibetan music we were traversing the snow-capped Tibetan plateau on a truly awful road that jarred the bones and rattled the brain.  Nine hours later, after we all got out just once to push the bus through mud, we arrived in Ganzi. I put my bike together, checked that there was an 0600 to Chengdu and wheeled around the corner to the relatively salubrious Jintaiyong Binguan that offers hot water and WiFi.  I had no luck with either of these but after two excellent plates of stir-fried tofu and mushrooms at a hole-in-the-wall, returned to watch some Champions’ League highlights, knowing that I was still in the running for Kunming.

You don’t have to look far in the World to find a prize F..Wit. I found one at the bus station the next morning, where I discovered that I could get a bus ticket but the luggage compartments were full.  I was stranded again, but no worries; once again I negotiated a reasonable fare on a minibus.  I dismantled my bike, detached the wheels and undid the gear mechanism and then the driver reneged.  There I was, in the rain, a large pile of stuff – stranded once more.  I unloaded at the driver and, to his amusement, called him everything under the sun.  It was not going to get me anywhere with someone who held all the cards but it felt great, like the exhilaration of avoiding a near accident – “sex in Ganzi” you might call it.  Well, thank you F..Wit; love to be there when you fall on your arse so that I can give you the final boot in the goolies.

After hanging around for an hour without a sniff of transport heading to Chengdu I changed my plans.  I reassembled my pile, walked up the road, secured a pile of vegetarian dumplings and found a minibus going to Kangding, four hours after I should have been on the bus to Chengdu.  This wrote off any chance of getting to Kunming on Saturday but kept me in the running for Sunday.  For eight of the eleven hours we bumped over roadworks and then hit glorious new tar for the astounding descent that left me lamenting the fact that I was in a bus.  At the Kangding bus station, a woman wearing an electric blue ski jacket with pink jumper pounced on me offering accommodation.  I paid a dollar more than I should have for a 4 m2 room above a restaurant but she did mind my stuff while I found some yuan and booked a ticket for the morning’s Chengdu bus. 

I walked a km to the wangba, a typical smoke-filled den inhabited by males playing computer games, and after letting Cora know my progress, worked my way through a nice bunch of emails.  The final one was from Bettina, who I expected to meet in Serchu Dzong.   It read:

“Dear traveler friends

Our trip is to end.  At 24 Sept to be killed Alex in an accident in Tibet.  Bettina.”

It was 2300, raining, dark, foreign and I was hungry and tired. I looked at the cross in the subject line that I had not noticed earlier.  Devastated, I wrote a few sentences and logged off, walked down the street for a meal and then returned to my rectangle, lay on the bed, drank tea and just thought.   

The next day was smooth.  I slipped into the bus station behind a departing bus and thus avoiding unloading my bike in the crowded passenger lounge for X-raying.  A fellow found my bus and helped me load my things and immediately after leaving I realised that the bus driver was sensible.  We stopped for lunch halfway and it was then that I met Qinzi and Zhishon, a student couple who spoke some English. I asked whether I should get a train from Chengdu tomorrow or continue by bus today and try to catch one from Zigong tonight.  A couple of days ago I realised that I had walked into a hornets’ nest – nasty ones, by failing to realise the Chinese holiday at the beginning of October.  Things were busy beyond belief.  They thought it better to try Chengdu and phoned their friend Kang. 

After eight hours of smooth bus travel we arrived at the densely populated Chengdu bus station where I was handed over to Kang. In no time we had weaved our way to the train station and minutes later I had a ticket on tomorrow’s 1538 to Kunming.  I remarked on how cheap it was and Kang smiled and said that I have not got a seat; I would be standing for 20 hours.  At this point I suggested that I find a room near the station but Kang was having none of that.  His room-mate was away so there was a bed in his room down at the medical school.  I cycled the seven km and he yelled out as I cycled past our meeting point.  We walked around the corner to some pretty spartan buildings and took my things upstairs.  So, here I was experiencing part of the life of a Chinese medical student, eating in the refectory and walking the campus. 

The next day, the first of the holiday, we got up late, went for a Sichuan steamboat, then a plate of noodles before pedalling together to the station.  We allowed a lot of time but soon it was clear we were running late.  But multi-tasking Kang got my goods booked into the parcel department and then guided me through the crowds and the labrynthine railway station to the door of carriage 16.  I owed him a lot but any thought of a monetary gift was out of the question – it’s un-Chinese, he said. By coincidence, Kang will be doing a nutritional project next year and I can certainly help him with that! 

I parked myself inside the carriage thinking that when the door closed I would have a little floor space.  This plan worked a charm with one minor problem: I had not seen the tiny sign saying “smoking allowed”.  I remained a few minutes in the intoxicating atmosphere before moving into the carriage proper, where the density of passengers brought visions of trains going to sinister places in the past.  But, hang on, these people were happy and, like me, were on holiday and I was going to be happy too.  So here I was after 100 km of cycling in snow and rain, 30 hours on buses of which half was on extremely rough road, eight hours arranging transport and now 20 hours on a train without a seat, thankful that I put my cycling shorts under my torn trousers because it makes the floor that bit more comfortable.  It was uncomfortable even for those with seating but it was one day of our lives even if it was the time equivalent of a plane flying from Sydney to LA and back to Hawaii.  We laughed, shared food and even looked at photos on laptops.  Food trolleys passed regularly loaded with pretty good food.  Unfortunately, the thing I can’t do is fire off a spiteful letter to the travel pages complaining about the terrible service of airline X. Instead, I am grateful to China Rail because, by allowing passengers to endure discomfort, I will be in Kunming with three hours to spare. Yes, I am tired, uncomfortable, smoke wafts in, the dunny stinks occasionally but I am alive, happy and in 18 hours will see Cora for the first time in months.  Hopefully, my bicycle will arrive and we will start the next adventure – cycling from the Chinese border to Singapore.  I think of the agony poor Bettina must be enduring, the black shoe pointing at me as I cycled past in Serbia, its owner mangled under a truck.  Yes, the haunting black shoe and our visit to Mauthausen on that cold, wet day. I’d say “bitterly cold” but come on, it was early spring and we were wearing clothes. 

Have you had a horrendous flight lately?   

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