China by Bicycle :: April -- October '98

Subject: Getting to Linxia
Date: Fri, 14 Aug 1998 22:26:15 -0700

A fragmented and rough recap...

15:49 Ying Bin Hotel, Lanzhou; Gansu--China :: TU 11 AUG 98

I've just finished re-reading Prayer Wheels. Tears stream. I'm choked up, again, as if still there, the wheels turning, turning, clockwise round. Gathering, gathering myself.

There are places in the world, places and people, that touch us in this way. The traveler's bane is that we cannot collect these places and people and bring them with us. We move on; we leave behind. We carry away with us images, souvenirs, recollections, then use these to evoke the experience, the connection, if we can. I smell sandalwood prayer beads on my right wrist. I fidget restlessly with the buddha pendant dangling on my chest. I call up the blue, green and gold of the valley in my mind's eye, the purple robes and gleaming faces of young monks curiously studying the compass on my wristwatch band. I read my own words. The harmony, the beauty well up inside, overflow.

I knew when I arrived in Xiahe it would be a difficult place to leave. Eventually I did, yet I carry it with me. But I haven't gotten you there yet.

20:49 Some posh hotel lobby, Lanzhou; Gansu--China :: TU 11 AUG 98

From Lanzhou to Xiahe was four difficult days of riding through some spectacular countryside. Terraced mountainsides, dirt roads, mountain villages, people everywhere. The Dongxiang, perhaps darker and narrower in feature than the Han. The men in their pillbox white hats. The women in green, white or black veils. Some spoke less Mandarin than I.

Leaving Lanzhou we gently declined for twenty five kilometers in a drenching rain, then climbed for another 25 under gradually clearing skies before the 25 kilometer descent to Yongjing. The last 50K were quite memorably pretty: mountains and villages and terraced fields. A day at Binglingsi, across the reservoir from Yongjing, will be described elsewhere.

To reach Linxia, two days. The first a grueling day of 35 kilometers, nearly all climb high to the ridge line we'd follow all the next day. Emma rides up to a water break asking, "Can I cry yet?" She's seen the serpentine roadway high above, impossibly high above. "Don't worry. We take it a little at a time. The grade gets no steeper than this. A little at a time." We climb and climb, break once or twice and climb some more and, in time, reach that impossible bend. I'm waiting, perched on the inside embankment above the road, camera in hand. "Emma, stop there and look down the valley." <click> "Okay, now turn towards me, raise both hands and shout: WHOOEEE!" <click>

Besides this little victory, some other highlights: a busload of western tourists actually stopped and, as I puffed and mantra'd my way up the steep incline, wildly applauded my efforts. Emma, some few minutes behind, received similar approbations. Makes the bike seem a little lighter, the breeze a little cooler, the air a little sweeter.

Running low on water, a remote set of buildings around a large courtyard and the inhabitants gathered by the roadside to watch me pass. "Shui?" I ask, inserting the inappropriate western tone of query, but they understand and enthusiastically wave me inside the gate, tell me to pick a pear from the shade tree while I wait. Soon enough, boiling water into plastic bottles, deforming, too hot to hold. "Lianga ren," I tell them, two people, two of us, and walk back outside the gate to watch for Emma who shortly arrives. "Did the bus give you a standing 'O?" I ask. "Yes. Shui," she huffs. Inside the gate they're already boiling more water. She picks a pear off the tree.

How odd we must seem to these people, I think.

A little further on the pavement suddenly ends, but the unsurfaced roadway is smoothly graded, for the most part. Tomorrow I'll reach 52 km/hr dropping down into one of the ridge saddles.

While waiting up for Emma at one point I managed to befriend an entire village of Dongxiang. By the time she arrived I'd explained to them my routes through China, both completed and proposed. They complemented me on my excellent Chinese, but I only need the names of some cities and the Chinese words for bus (gonggongqiche), train (huache), fly (fei), bicycle (zixingche), and car (che). I yanked out the camera and motioned for a group shot. In the past this has almost always resulted in a scattering of humanity as if I were waving a machine gun, but the grey old man who'd been leading the conversation for the villagers eagerly accepted and several others lined up while Emma snapped a couple pics in the dying light.

That night, a campsite clinging to green slopes high above a little village. We'd stopped in another Dongxiang village to fill up one of the two nifty Ortlieb water bags Emma brought from Korea. COOL! But the villagers were struck dumb by the grimy, sweaty laowai asking for shui, water, and took no interest in the bags.

21:35 Ying Bin Hotel, Lanzhou; Gansu--China :: WE 12 AUG 98

Camping was a trial run for a lot of our gear. The Coleman Peak I multi-fuel stove gave us some problems switching from white gas (not available in China) to kerosene (called meiyou in China, and widely available here). However, with kerosene elements finally in place it fired up on the first attempt. Gotta love it when something works straight out of the box. We'd neglected to buy vegetables or much else so dinner was noodles in beef broth with a mystery spice that had broken open in Emma's spice pack. The tent ain't quite expedition quality, but should serve us fine under most conditions. Just gotta hope we don't run into any desert sandstorms: it flapped a bit in the pre dawn breeze. Actually, I thought bats were flying back home to the mine shafts dotting our hillside.

I tried sleeping in just the fleece liner for the sleeping bag, but that proved too chilly. However, with the sleeping bag as a blanket...toasty. Not that I slept much. Or I don't think I did. Same with Emma. One of those nights where you keep thinking to yourself, "I have slept at some point, haven't I?" Impromptu camping can be like that.

In the morning, goat herds climbed the precipice-like dirt road up from the village below and past our campsite, without comment. Well, the goats had plenty to say.

The second day followed a ridge line, terraces falling away to the valley floor far below. This was Muslim country, home to the Dongxiang and Hui minority nationality groups. Mosques with hipped rooves and tile, like any Chinese structure, though warped slightly toward more Arabic forms. Along the road I met some young folks who spoke more english than chinese, and even less chinese than I.

A village devoted entirely, it seemed, to marketing local produce, products and livestock. People remarkably easy around my camera. Dead-pan. Curious, as I clicked frame after frame in the sheep market. Crowd slowly gathering. We moved into the heart of the commercial strip looking for water and fruit. Mobbed. Fifty, perhaps more, a crush of curiosity. My trailer obscured in the crowd. Like a subway car at rush hour.

Transferring water to the bike's water bottles, I hand the empty bottle to a small boy, gesturing, "hold this." He does, uncertainly looking to friends in the crowd while cool clear water gurgles in. Another bottle, and another. His uncertainty becomes pride. But what do we do with the empty containers? Always a problem in China where the street or sidewalk are considered trash receptacles. We can never bring ourselves to just drop empty plastic by the curb. Here, we dole out the empties to the children in the crowd.

I see only the top of Emma's head as she bargains for pears. We want eight, but the merchant will sell us no less than 12. Emma takes four out; he puts four back in. Eight yuan. A dollar.

We ride out of town, oddly exhilarated, fascinated, gob smacked. Emma's not experienced anything like it. I have, but it's still a kick every time. We ride a kilometer or so out of town, pick a shady spot and listen to the village sounds drifting our way on mid-morning sunlight spilling into the valley below. The pears aren't quite ripe, but we peel a couple each, pack a couple more in our bags and leave the remainder as a gift to anyone else choosing this tree for a place to pass the time.

We ride along, down into saddles and back up to peaks, few changes in altitude more than 100 meters. Sometimes on the east ridge, sometimes on the west. The valley sometimes greener, sometimes drier. And people all along. Men in wide straw hats riding horses, clusters of bells evoking snow and grandma's house. Veiled Hui women, faces framed in black or green or white. We can't figure out the significance of the colours. Young boys in shirts and vests call, "Hello, Hello!"

It is a beautiful day, high in the mountain cool looking deep into the valleys. The scenery is grand, probably the most strikingly beautiful since leaving Xian more than a week ago. We ride, and ride. Then the reservoir we crossed two days before, to reach Binglingsi, appears on our right. Emma: "We've ridden all this way, two days, and not even managed to cross the reservoir?" It had taken a speed boat much less than an hour to make this distance.

I show her the low valley sweeping across our path, its river emptying into the reservoir. Linxia lies below us, perhaps 800 meters below, and 30 kilometers up the valley. Pay back time for yesterday's nasty climb. A maximum of 63K/Hr for me down the steep switch backs. Feel the air heat up. Falling, falling, braking, turning, falling falling. So exhilarating.

Then the shallow climb to Linxia, a dozen kilometers or so. Emma's ride-end mantra, "Stick a fork in me, I'm done." I'm confused by the map in the guidebook, and eventually we give up looking for the recommended hotel. Locals point us to the white tile and blue glass modern monstrosity next door. Later, after some Sanxiangcha, 'three fragrances tea,' on the third floor balcony overlooking Minzhu square, we walk back to the hotel. I notice then that I recognize the neon characters standing atop the hotel's roof. The Linxia Binguan, they say. The recommended hotel. Life's like that sometimes.

Tomorrow, the 110 kilometer climb to Xiahe, Labrangsi, at 3,000 meters. I'm eager for it.

~~~ Responses Welcome ~~~
Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
mastering yourself is true power.

If you realize that you have enough,
you are truly rich.
If you stay in the center
and embrace death with your whole heart,
you will endure forever.
  graphical element Attributed to Lao Tse
The Tao Te Ching
Chapter 33
trans. Stephen Mitchell