We are having a bit of a rest in Kunming and doing what passes for recreational shopping when you have the restrictions of weight imposed by a touring bike. Nothing much heavier than the lightest of feathers or ‘ mission critical ‘. Maps are unavoidably heavy, and are picked up at bookstores along the way. They almost count as a big shopping treat. There are rows of books about business and design, and several kilometres of shelf space to computing. Mao is on the cover of many books, but the standout publication in every bookshop is the Steve Jobs biography. His is the true path, the blueprint for the perfect aspirational life here. I have no idea if Steve gave the cover the green light in his lifetime, and I hope he did not. I hate the portrait for the single obvious cliché of the hand on the chin. Imagine it without the hand next time you see the book. It is a much stronger image.
The section about Buddhism has nothing by that well known author, The Dali Llama. Lots of other bald blokes in robes, so that is a little strange. The book covers of every nation are one of the last things to become homogenous. A title in France or Germany may be an international best seller, but it will have a unique cover that appeals to the book buying soul of that nation. It is a very specific art. Here in China the covers are minimal and rather beautiful.
The next part of our journey would be a grim beyond words if done by bicycle and may even be impossible. We will have to take the bus to Chengdu, which is the best part of 1,000Km north. Taking the bus and putting your bike onboard is straight forward in China as long as you give yourself a little bit of extra time. We check the distance to the terminal on Google and it agrees with the gps, about 10Km. A final walk around town and a treat of a coffee at Starbucks and then we set out with over 2 hours to do 10Km.
There are road works, with terrifying holes in the road that would swallow your wheel whole. There are diversions and places where the only route appears to be to pick up the bike and walk. Then there is the sports centre where the gps shows a purple line and a straight road to the terminal just 2Km away. The road is no longer there or any trace that there has ever been one. We take a small road, and within a kilometre it is now a building site with sky scrapers every bit as tall as the twenty other ones that you can see being built on identical sites as you spin around.
We are running out of time. We take another road, and this has been changed and no longer goes where the gps says it should. Esther is close to tears. We turn around and pick out a rough track which evidently, is now the main road to where we need to be. It spits you out onto a stump of super highway that will by next year take you where you want to go. Today it takes us just far enough, and we turn to the bus terminal having done 24Km. We are too late for our bus. We have to take a room in the only hotel. A new low has been reached as we spend very nearly 24 hours in a bus terminal hotel.
Next morning, we log onto BBC news ‘ Earth Quake Hits Sichuan province of China ‘. It is a big one, and we would have been very close to it if we had got the bus. Today, catching the bus is just a matter of walking the bikes across to the terminal. The panniers and bikes go into the lockers and then we join the line to board. It is unlike any bus we have ever seen. You wash your feet at a hose and are given sandals which you kick off as you enter the bus. Then you find your way to your cot. This is what space travel will be like if Ryan Air are doing it.
Even for a tall guy it is not uncomfortable. The landscape of China that is passing by, becomes more rugged and the feats of engineering required to put a four lane road through become ever more extraordinary. Tunnel, bridge, tunnel, tunnel, bridge, and so on as we climb and fall. It gets dark and then we stop at a remote village for food. It is back onboard and another session of retching and spitting from our fellow passengers. The darkness makes it all feel claustrophobic and now there is snoring, farting, belching and the retching and spitting before they draw breath to shout on their smart phones.
This section of the road is still under construction, and the bus is down to just above walking pace and swerving wildly to avoid the bigger of the pot holes. It is horrible. A ship at sea and a gale blowing. I am going to be sick, that is certain. I need to get something to look at. I go down to sit on the steps at the drivers shoulder. It helps a bit, but now I can see how he is driving. Every bit of straight road or smooth surface and he guns the accelerator to get by the line of trucks. There is one blind bend manoeuver after another in a game of chance. They love to gamble and none more than this driver. It is 2.00 am and still a constant flow of trucks. It is terrifying, but I feel less sick now.
The axles hit up against their end stops as we hit yet another section of road moonscape. Up ahead there is a row of kiosks. The start of the toll road again and a sign that improvements have got this far and smooth tarmac is not far away. The driver celebrates with a few more crazy over taking stunts and then just some recklessly fast driving. He chain smokes to stay in the zone and does a few deeply dredged spits.
The bikes have had a better journey than we have. Not a scratch, and we hook the panniers on to ride to find a hotel. Building is a mania here, a total compulsion and a primal urge with a whole load of corruption and kickbacks. Kunming was big at 7 million and now we are in a city of 14 million all needing to get a slice of the pie. In our hotel, it is wall to wall coverage of the earth quake. Over 1 million people have been affected and this city is the organisational focus of the rescue. Trucks have a special emergency logo tied to them and speed through the streets. Outside our hotel, a compound has been built to load up supplies. It is clear that the Chinese want to show how good they are at disaster management. They bring out all the technology and the huge manpower of the largest army in the world. It is very impressive. There is blood donor stops on street corners but commerce has not even taken a faltering step. They are used to earth quakes here.
Chengdu is the best place in the world to see Pandas. Which is what we do. The cutest creature in the known universe, and the research centre has 40 of them, so it is a must. Next day,snow and heavy rain are forecast for the mountains and the rescue area, we leave the hotel and pedal out into a damp morning. It is cold enough for arm warmers. Like all Chinese cities, there are bike lanes and this helps. We are amongst the commuters and it is what is refereed to as ‘ crush hour ‘. It is bikes, motor bikes, rickshaws and pedestrians and there are no rules what so ever. ” What side of the road do the Chinese drive on? “. Well, that is a trick question along with ” Who has the right of way at a junction? ” It is very hard on the nerves. There are many high value, black window tinted trophy cars. Those without number plates are asking the cops to take a gamble with their careers. Pull me over and you have no idea what you are getting involved with, how far my power reaches. I may be no one, but is it worth the risk.
We pick up the 108, our road out of the city, and path north through China. Within a few kilometres of finding it, the road works start. We try to find alternative roads and weave through small suburb markets. Every time we pick up the 108 it looks good and then is blocked. Now we are trying to find a route through industrial parks. Security guards watch us pass as they sit in their little cabins. They watch us return from another dead end where the gps shows a road. Back on the 108 with the trucks, tractors and cars and now things are tight. It feels very unsafe. Why are they not on the toll road?
We drop down onto the sand base of where the road will be built. It stretches off to a blur of horizon. This could last 10Km or 300Km. ” Are you enjoying this at all?”. I know the answer already and we stop. We only have this road north, there is no alternative and it looks like the only safe thing is to push. ” There is no logic here, we could have this for days “. We stand astride our bikes not knowing what to do. ” Shall we go back?”. It is the only safe option. Then we ask the un-askable , ” You had enough of China?”. There has been ample swearing this morning and the answer is clear.
Last year his was a beautiful road once you get clear of the city. Ahead, there are fields of Sunflowers that stretch to the horizon. It is wonderful touring, but not today, or anytime soon enough for us. We go back to Chengdu and search for a plan. It falls into place quite quickly when we agree that we have had enough of the heat and need to get to the hot bits before they have the full oven roast heat of summer. Turkey it is then.
We need to get the bikes ready to fly and give them a bit of TLC. It is here that we have a very big stroke of luck. There was the depressing prospect of a tortuous series of mimes to a disinterested young bike mechanic. ” Big box, pedals off “, and so on. A bit of time on the WWW. and we found Larry Adamson and his shop NATOOKE. A custom bike shop owned by a Chinese speaking Yank. A true gentleman and a font of all knowledge bicycle. We are looking good again and a smile has returned to the corners of our lips. Of course there has been cock ups and we have had to take three attempts to book the flights – thank you CHEAPO AIR – never again.
When next we meet on the WWW. we will be in Turkey. Lets all hope that our bikes and equipment will be there as well. You know that I told you we would never fly Ethiad again for as long as we both shall live. The sound you hear is mastication, us eating humble pie followed by our own words. See you all soon.