D11: 香坊 → 直罗 - Me China Red - CycleBlaze

March 29, 2021

D11: 香坊 → 直罗

As the total number of days of my life that I've spent on the road goes up, the chances that any one day will be among "the most memorable" goes down. Today, however, today was definitely one of those days.

And I didn't even get into a fight with anyone.

It started fairly normally. I had a not particularly excellent breakfast accompanied by some particularly excellent Ethiopian coffee¹. I found out that despite the appearance of subsistence farmers barely eking out enough of a living that they were able to open a guesthouse for urbanites that Mom's other child is one of those aforementioned rich urbanites and she spent last winter with the other grandbaby at their beachside villa² in Hainan. I also added some slogans to my collection of historic propaganda and I confirmed that there really was no lodging on this road after Xiangfang Village but, if I wanted to come back and try to actually find the Grottoes some future day, I had three other guesthouses to choose from.

Pre-1976, Maoist
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Population control is the quickest path towards building a moderately prosperous society in all respects
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The Shangzhenzi Revolutionary Site at Xiaoshiya looked like a spectacular collection of grottoes that probably hadn't had any statuary at the time the revolutionaries (including Xi Zhongxun—father of the current leader) moved in, but there was no way to tell as the site was locked up when I passed by.

After Xiaoshiya I counted perhaps half a dozen obviously man-made square and rectangular holes along the cliff face prior to my getting to Shangzhenzi Village. None of them, however, were close enough to the road to bother with trying to explore on a day that was looking to be a decent length and which had the risk of actually being overly long.

Perhaps the only thing of note along this road were the three large abandoned compounds, perhaps factories of some sort, with what looked for all the world like guard towers but which surely couldn't be prisons (despite the barbed wire coils) cause who in their right mind would stick a prison this far away from anything? 

One might also ask who in their right mind would stick a factory this far away from anything but you need only read about Third Line Defense Projects to know the answer to that question.

At lunch in Shangzhenzi, which started with my instant oatmeal in the village's General Store and continued through to dumplings with oilfield workers in the same General Store, I found out from the shopkeeper Mrs. Hua (a 52 year old woman who had lived her whole life in Shangzhenzi) that they were, in fact, abandoned prisons. And that the reason they'd been abandoned was because the positive of "sticking them out in the middle of nowhere where prisoners have nowhere to escape to" was eventually determined not to outweigh the negative of organizing the necessary logistics required to get food and clothing to the prisoners or their guards.

Back when there were enough people in Shangzhenzi for there to be a government office building, this was it.
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Andy PeatOh, I love this building. When can I move in?
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4 days ago
Marian RosenbergTo Andy PeatNot sure. It might be hard to find the landlord.
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3 days ago

Ordinarily, I'd be trying to find a restaurant to eat in rather than a General Store. But, although the main road had a handful of shopfronts with worn and tired signs for restaurants and even guesthouses, the same shopfronts also had newer (but still tired) signs with phrases like "Dangerous Structure" and "Keep Away for Safety". The change from logging area to nature preserve in combination with the closing of the prisons had killed the local economy and the more recent efforts towards ecological tourism hadn't yet started to revive it.

Leaving the General Store, Mrs. Hua wanted to get a video for her own TikTok of her escorting me off on my way and she thrust her phone into the hand of two convenient young men walking by from an inexplicable somewhere to an equally unexplained somewhere else.

The drinks shelf in Mrs. Hua's General Store. There was also a separate corner with two cases of beer and one each of the local fizzy drink Dayao which comes in "orange" and "fruit" flavors.
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I say this because I'd just come from the direction they were coming from. I'd seen the total lack of stores. What's more, I've been having a serious issue in this region with getting my fizzy caffeine instead of the local pop, and the two men—in their green PLA fatigues with single use face masks crisp from actually being new today³—were just casually walking down the middle of the road with plastic carrier bags loaded full of Coke and Sprite.

If, in fact they had gone on some kind of supply run, why had whatever vehicle which had dropped them off done so here and not closer to where they were going?

But, I was on my way again, and even if I had had the time to be stopping again and asking the soldiers "where did you appear from?" I can't imagine that they'd be answering me.

From here I turned north to go over the mountains to the next eastwest valley. I'd known that it was going to be a small road. It was shown on both Google and AMap as a road with no name or route number, was just a thin brown line on my paper maps, and wasn't there at all on OpenStreetMaps. I'd assumed however, what with it being on my paper maps at all, that it was going to be paved. 

I'd forgotten, however, the cardinal rule of the paper maps that I specifically get from one map publisher only because—even if I'm getting the civilian maps—that military publisher makes the most accurate maps of China: if it constitutes a through route from A to B or could potentially be considered to have any sort of tactical significance, it will be shown. (The creators of my paper maps are also just as interested as I am in historic bridges, have a tendency to include unnamed forts and defensive walls from the bow and arrow era, and mark things like fresh water sources.)

It was only really bad when it went uphill. Or downhill.
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Longest dirt road I've been on since 2012 and the one in 2012 was a provincial level route through the mountains of southern Gansu that was about to get paved.

Rather than be a sensible sort of road which crosses the mountains, winding it's way slowly up the valleys until it came to a pass, this one went straight up and over the ridge. Presumably, this was because of the grasshopper sized mini oil pumps that I kept running across, but it may have always done that; there were a lot of abandoned yaodong⁴ caves.

Mini oil pump
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The whole time I was on the section with the oil wells, I saw a grand total of seven vehicles, four of them with people in them. Flagging down the last of the pickup trucks (little did I know, shortly before I was to come to an occupied building), I asked if they had any water as I'd gone dry and they helpfully emptied their tea thermos into my bidon before asking me lots of questions like "you biked from where?" and "aren't you afraid biking alone?"

Nice guys
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The aren't you afraid question is one which would be echoed by the guys at the occupied building and one which often gets asked of me. Usually the reasons that Chinese people give for why I should be afraid are fairly consistent: I'm a single woman; there might be robbers; wild animals, and ghosts. Today, however, neither man brought up any of those reasons.

Nope. The reason I should be afraid biking alone over the mountain through what's now a nature persevere is....not just any wild animal, it's.... leopards.
Specifically leopards.

I'm apparently crossing wild cat territory. And both men, with the wide eyed credulousness that tells me that they don't get enough random visitors this way to be trolling me, are absolutely certain that they've not only seen big cat spoor, they've seen the cats themselves. So, even if it weren't still too cold to camp yet, and even if my cooking supplies weren't entirely geared to making coffee, I better be off the mountain and back to where people are before it gets dark.

I figured since the "do not enter without authorization" sign came from the Nature Preserve Management Office and not the military that I probably wouldn't get in trouble if anyone who found me had a problem
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With pre-warning from the offices where I refill my bottles that my GPS will be telling me to leave the oilfield road for one that's even less traveled, I attempt to duck under a gate that turns out to be open and spend the next while and some having no brain cells left to pay attention to how beautiful the environment I'm biking through is as I need to instead not crash. It's a relatively wide track, the problem is that the last few times cars took it must have been after a recent rain and the pattern of ruts has turned it into a fairly technical single track. The soft sandy stuff in the middle is good for slowing me down whenever the slope gets me going faster than I'm comfortable but its also good for noticing rather a lot of paw prints that I do a reasonably good job of convincing myself are from dogs.

After wasting far too much time snacking, drinking water, and appreciating the fine stonework on a late 60s bridge, I make it to down the valley road on the verge of dusk only to first discover that the valley road also isn't paved and then to be told by the first forest plantation I come to (a mostly abandoned place that must have once housed hundreds) that they don't have any food for sale or lodging but "don't worry" the coal mine up ahead just a little ways totally does.

It doesn't actually say "Arbeit macht frei" but the sentiment is basically the same.
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Rules posted by the gate include things such as inmates not being allowed to take unnecessary items (such as clothing) with them when they leave for the day.
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The coal mine is up the road rather a bit more than a "little ways" though I do manage to get onto something resembling the idea of having once been paved before it goes completely dark. 

Next time I see people is outside the first of the two abandoned laogai (Reeducation Through Labor Camp). He says the same thing. The coal mine will have food and possibly even lodging. The women that I meet just outside the coal mine gate on the finally paved road tell me the same thing, just a little farther and there's a restaurant. I won't like it as much as if I go all the way to town to spend the night but it should have beds. 

But, I never see the sign for a restaurant and I end up doing another 25km in the moonless black where nothing exists beyond the edge of my headlight before I finally make it to Zhiluo, food, and a bed.

The slogan over the gate reads "Smash the Old, Build the New". This is only the second time in 19 years in China that I've actually seen that slogan other than in a photo.
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The second of the two former laogai appears to currently be mining offices of some kind.
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¹ I'll let you guess which came from the guesthouse and which came from my luggage.

² I don't remember which bay she said they'd been to but it's not one where people have first homes, nor is it one where very many people have second homes if you get what I mean.

³ This is an area with such a low frequency of mask wearing that the two of them were the only mask wearers I saw all day. Also, even in the city, a substantial number of people keep their masks (even the single use ones) crumpled up in a pocket until needed. But you could just tell to look at them that neither of them had fussed his mask off and on again, or pulled it down for a moment to smoke a ciggie or to get some air that didn't taste like his own breath.

⁴ A yaodong is a local cave home dug into the soft loess soil. Depending on what era the occupants moved out and whether it was for another yaodong or for modern style housing, it may have been stripped of everything and be nothing more than a hole in the hill, or it might look like an abandoned home.

Today's ride: 84 km (52 miles)
Total: 488 km (303 miles)

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