China by Bicycle :: April -- October '98

Subject: It's a fat red line on the map!
Date: Mon, 27 Jul 1998 09:36:10 -0700

22:19 Fandian at 18K marker, G310; Shaanxi--China :: SU 26 JUL 98

Highway G310, the straightest line between Baoji in Shaanxi province and Tianshui in Gansu province. A fat red line on my Chinese road map. We spent most of today in hot anticipation of finally reaching it. Ahhh, pavement! Bliss!!

We'd begun the day in Baoji, booming railtown on the Wei river's north bank, and probably the source of Shaanxi's favourite beer, known by the town's name. The Chinese road map shows no bridges spanning the river, but I couldn't imagine such a large city, at the very end of an expressway, provided no means for reaching the main westward artery, G310, paralleling the Wei's south bank. Riding out of the city, we found bridges, plenty of them, but all crossing some minor river or tributary of the Wei. It seemed we were stuck on the north side, with the rail way, while a ridge of mountains divided us from our goal. Unbelievably, the map was correct: no way to reach the Wei!

The map showed only local roads west of Baoji, and these meandered off into the mountainous territory far north of the Wei before winding back south to dead end at some small railtown along the rail line. It looked like we were in for a disheartening backtrack through a very nasty construction zone, a couple dozen kilometers retraced eastward to the last bridge connecting the Wei's north and east banks.

But when asked, "Tianshui?" the locals kept pointing us westward down some minor road. In disbelief, I dug out the map, pointing to Baoji, to Tianshui, to the Wei River. I kept repeating, "Qiao?" Where's the bridge to get across the river? I'd get a confused look back. The local would trace along the rail line, find some small burgh some distance away, point and say, definitively, "Qiao!" Well, this was usually accompanied by a whole lot more which I couldn't understand, but the point was made: some unmarked road nearly paralleled the railway line and would eventually bring us to a crossing of the Wei. OK, let's give it a go.

The minor road narrowed. And narrowed. A kilometer or so after passing an enormous Mao statue (facing due east, of course) in the centre of a traffic circle, the asphalt ended a few hundred meters before the whole roadway appearing to completely end in a farmer's field. Oh, man! I turned around just as Emma caught up. "Looks like were taking the donkey track to Tianshui," I told her.

This was just 8 kilometers into our journey. Earlier, over breakfast of cold rice noodles in chilli sauce and these fried bread things filled with either egg or leafy greens, I'd told Emma we'd be picking up the pace today. "Averaging 12.5 kilometers an hour over the whole day, including rest times. If we can peg the speedometer at 18k/hr while riding, that should enable us to put at least 80K behind, camp roadside for the night, then just one more day of the same to reach Tianshui." Backtracking would kill any dreams of reaching Tianshui in two days. Emma, trooper that she is, was up for it. Now backtracking seemed inevitable. We're obviously not on G310. But here too, the locals were smilingly adamant. Yes, continue along this way and you'll reach Tianshui! It wasn't that simple, of course. I'm skipping all the map pointing, phrasebook brandishing and gesticulation, but again the message was clear enough. Tianshui: go west old man.

So we did. Bouncing and jouncing along on an uneven dirt road. We'd only pedalled a kilometer or so when the pair who'd urged us on caught up on their motorcycle. They wanted our autographs! While signing the notebooks they'd obviously just bought for the occasion, I took the opportunity to ask more questions, get out the map, double-check with the phrase guide. Yes, in about 30km, there would be a bridge across the Wei. Smooth sailing to Tianshui.

But he was trying to tell me something else and I couldn't get it. "Wo bu dong," I said. I don't understand. After thinking about it a moment, he pointed to the dirt track beneath us. "Lu," he said, meaning 'street' or 'road'. Ok. Got that. He held both hands up toward the mountains saying, "shan." OK. Mountains. Another word I know. Then he voiced a rumbling sound, like thunder, while cascading his hands downward.

"Landslide!" I think Emma and I both caught that one immediately.

Yes. Landslide. "Shuh woo gongli" down the road, he said. About 15 kilometers. "Bu hao" for cars. Not good. "Meiyou," there's no way around. But, "hao la" for bicycles. Bicycles can get around fine.

Oh, and by the way, as an afterthought, in a couple kilometers it starts to get hilly. This he put simply by waving a hand like a leaping dolphin while saying, "Liang Gongli," and holding up two fingers of the other hand. He waved us on, "you'd better get underway..." then reached up to the low, overcast sky and cascaded his fingers down, "'s going to rain."

Hilly indeed. Though the track proved to be intermittently paved with a warped and creaky asphalt, it also grew increasingly steep, and each hill an increasingly long climb until they weren't hills anymore, but passes. Climb, climb, climb, climb. Of course, where there's an uphill there's a downhill following but it's pretty difficult to take full advantage of these when the bumpy dirt road is intermittently attempts to unseat you.

Midway into the second climb Emma asks, rhetorically, "I guess this means we won't make Tianshui in two days?" I reply with a wry grin.

I turn long climbs into a meditative experience. I voice some simple melody of my own, or whatever song's running through my head at the moment, and use the rhythm to pace my breathing and the turning of the cranks. Spin, spin, spin. La di da! Spin, spin, spin.

Emma is essentially still in training and not quite able to power up the hills, yet. Our multiple rest stops draw the long climbs out even longer. Our average speed dropped to below 5km/hr. The last major climb of the day rose steeply for a few kilometers to a ridgeline along which the road continued to climb for several kilometers more at a slightly reduced pitch. Our game was trying to figure out two things: When would it end? and Where does it go? The peaks ahead proved to be stepping stones to peaks beyond. A car would disappear around a corner, and reappear as if from a wormhole. "Tell me, what did I come to China for?" Emma asked at one point. "The challenge," I replied.

But always, and despite the dense, humid fog which had our sweat running in rivulets down arms and legs, bullets on our foreheads, always the improbably clinging terraces of corn and sunflower and tiny mountain villages with their sweeping views of deep tree-ridged valleys and ravines. Beautiful. Extreme. Fantastic. Later, Emma would recall these visions, these impossible scenes, and admit, "This is what I came to China for." All I could do was agree.

7:08 Fandian at 18K marker, G310; Shaanxi--China :: MO 27 JUL 98

She also commented on the ubiquitous habitation of so remote-seeming a place. "We'd go a couple hundred meters and see another person." Yep, never more than a kilometer without another face. We're not even 50K from cosmopolita, from Baoji, though the sense...remote, removed, displaced. The people cling to the steep slopes with an impossibly easy grace equal to the thoughtful, graceful lines etched there by terrace and footpath. And everywhere they are clinging without any concept of how hard their life seems to those of the West.

Finally, the long, long climb peaked. The road turned downward. A little gingerly, respecting the loads on our bikes, we dropped down into the valley below. Yes, I could see it now; the valley running south and along its floor there was the road which would lead us back to G310. We rolled and rolled and rolled around bend and hairpin all the way to the valley floor. And there were told to follow the valley north.

Hmmm. Not right. But the stream rippled northward, and two more locals corroborated: Tianshui that way, north. Perhaps the valley doubled back to the south where surely the river Wei must be?

So down the slight valley grade we went, following as it turned westward, but never south. Shortly we missed the graded surface of our steep climbs and descents because here no graders had passed in weeks. Bump and grind, pitch and yaw, small quagmires, and small villages of dumbfounded and amused villagers. "Hello! Hello!"

I stopped at one of these, one large enough to be worthy of a cartographer's notice, and showed a shop owner the map. "Which town are we in?" sliding my finger along the rail line and three towns marked on the Wei's north bank. After a couple moments the merchant pointed assuredly to a circle, then with insistent jabs he pointed at the soil between his feet. "Jiege, Jiege." Literally, 'this, this'--and he pointed back at the map, at a small dot on the Wei River's south bank, at a small dot along G310.


I explained to Emma, "Well, if what he says is true we've been along G310 all along." But I couldn't believe it. I'd had locals point to dots on the map before and "Jiege, Jiege" only to mean we were in the county of the same name as the town. Obviously this county must straddle the Wei. "We must be pretty close to the Wei."

Finally the valley opened into another and its stream emptied into a larger river's south bank. Yes, there across the river, the railroad tracks dive in and out of tunnels. There goes a train now. And the river flows due east. Sure looks like the Wei.

I cycle on a ways, Emma some distance behind, and contemplate the possibilities. A hundred feet ahead a group of men stands beside the road. Maybe they can explain why such a large river is running away from the Wei? I don't want to believe the alternative. A loud crack. The men scatter. A forty foot tree falls from the road side, straight across the road where the group had been standing. I shake my head. For multiple reasons.

Fortunately, there's just enough clearance under the fallen trunk to squeeze the bike underneath, and a couple of the tree fallers assist. On the other side, I draw out the map again. Point at the previously described village, point back down the road. "Dui," <correct>, comes the reply. Point at another village further west on 310, point up the road in the direction we're heading. A nod. "Dui." Resignedly, point at the muddy water flowing 30 meters to my north. "Wei He," I say. "Dui, Wei He."

At least my sense of direction is vindicated. I did everything right to get us on the G310 but just couldn't believe the result.

Emma arrives a few minutes later and the tree fallers lift her bike over the fallen trunk. Her breaks are squeeking--"Not a problem," I say--and she thought something was rattling, but couldn't figure out what it was. It seems to have gone away.

I share the news: "We've been on G310 the whole time." We look at each other, no doubt the same question running through both our minds. Who'd a thought the fattest, reddest line on the map would be mostly dirt? "Are you sure?" I point to the river. "The Wei He. And there's the railway. I'm sure."

It's the next day now, and Em still doesn't want to believe it. "There's gotta be pavement!" I joke. "Yeah, we'll get on the train and two kilometers later G310 will become blissfully smooth asphalt with a separate, spacious bicycle lane all marvellously shaded with willows." We laugh.

But yesterday's journey isn't quite finished yet. I'm just going to finish it up without much effort to prettify the language.

A few kilometers later we found the landslide. An entire rock face had tumbled over and through the roadbed, carving a huge bite from the surface and leaving a pile of rock five meters high on whatever remained of it. The slide is at least a week old. A week ago my friend Vivian attempted to come this way but had been turned aside at Baoji due to "road construction." This was the obstruction. There was no sign of any construction, or any intent to begin it either.

As we unloaded the bags for the portage across the slide zone, the skies that had been teasing us with sprinkles all day decided to tease us with another light drizzel. Emma discovered the source of the mysterious rattling: one of the screws holding her pannier rack had disappeared. Fortunately, it was no more serious than digging a replacement screw fromt he spare parts box at the bottom of my duffel bag. But the drizzle became a light rain, lightly soaking all the things pulled out of the duffel bag while repairs on Emma's bike were underway.

My family think I live a charmed existence. My father used to talk about my guardian angel all the time, as if I were the luckiest guy on earth. I figure a truly lucky person would never find himself in this kind of situation. But I have to acknowledge that perhaps there is a guardian angel who only intervenes when I'm teetering on the brink.

As Emma and I start the job of repacking our bikes we're both looking upriver a kilometer or so at the cluster of buildings. A big cluster with some white tile buildings, a town, with a restaurant certainly but maybe a hotel? We can't quite make out where the river runs, but it looks like the town's stacked up along the northern side of the valley and the rail line runs right through the town. It'll take a bridge to reach. Oh, please.

The irony. There was a bridge, of course. The one all the people along the way assured me was there. And our salvation laid not in crossing it from north to south to attain G310, but in crossing it south to north to leave it. It's not a fine hotel. There's no shower or bath or even running water in the room. The floor is bare concrete and a fan moves the moist, warm air through the room. I'll leave the description of the outhouse to a darker moment. But it's dry, and there's a decent restaurant across the street. And a train station around the corner.

It's raining this morning. Hard. G310 will be a quagmire, probably for the next couple of days if, indeed, it is unpaved all the way to Tianshui. If we repeat yesterday's pace, just over 5km/hr over an 8 hour day it'll take five days to traverse the remaining 150 kilometers to Tianshui.

But there's a train station. We may yet reach Tianshui by nightfall.

~~~ I Love Responses ~~~
Do you want to improve the world?
I don't think it can be done.

The world is sacred.
It can't be improved.
If you tamper with it, you'll ruin it.
If you treat it like an object, you'll lose it.

There is a time for being ahead,
a time for being behind;
a time for being in motion,
a time for being at rest;
a time for being vigorous,
a time for being exhausted;
a time for being safe,
a time for being in danger.

The Master sees things as they are,
without trying to control them.
She lets them go their own way,
and resides at the center of the circle.
  graphical element Attributed to Lao Tse
The Tao Te Ching
Chapter 29
trans. Stephen Mitchell