Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Sunday, 13 December 2009


Wuhan to Government House, Hong Kong

On the morning of the 24th November, I headed for the “breakfast alley” that had been described by another traveller; it is wise to make the most of a large city’s easily accessible breakfast food. I found some tasty rice cake from a dark stall and some sweet and chewy rice-flour doughnuts from a street vendor. Children were being welcomed at the local school by rousing communist music and a guard of yawning prefects at the gates. Many anxious parents (I assume- I like to think that is what they were) were watching their offspring playing in the yard through holes in the fence.

On the way out of the hostel, I was given some more fried doughnuts by the friendly management. My bike was looking ever more ragged- the sophisticated wires supporting the bar bag had snapped on entry into Wuhan, and had been replaced by an ingenious –if I may say so myself– looking lattice of shoelaces and parachute string. My clothes had not dried in time for my departure, so they were strapped onto the back of the bike for an adventurous air-dry. This didn’t matter due to the glorious sunshine: it was t-shirt weather, a huge relief after the freezing cold further north! Palm trees were everywhere by this stage, and the odd orange tree was appearing, with the corresponding orange sellers in the streets. The countryside in this area became much greener, and the leaves were still on the trees, rather like turning the calendar back to early autumn.

In Xianning that evening I found a trendy little hotel with the most beautiful receptionist yet. Arguing the price down to an acceptable level has never been so enjoyable. There were English language TV stations from Shanghai, which made a welcome break from CCTV 9, the only channel usually available. Pornography in China is totally banned –there are regular reports in the news on crackdowns on mobile phone operators who allow access to porn via handheld devices– however it is amusing to see a particular channel pushing the boundaries as far as possible with risqué coverage of underwear fashion shows. The coverage reminded me of the fat-bottomed sheep of Kyrgyzstan and Xinjiang province.

In Xianning, I noticed real 100% juice in the shops for the first time in China. The Chinese must have an aversion to its strong taste, as only “juice drink,” really a squash, is widespread. It was as expensive as in England, which may be the reason for the limited availability. Other gaping holes on the supermarket shelves in China are any sort of cereal or fresh milk, although preserved milk is available in little plastic pouches- slightly sweetened.

The following day, quite unexpectedly as the Chinese maps I have to use do not show any topography, I headed up into the lush green hills, and bamboo forests. There is much activity around this area with harvesting and transporting the bamboo, and I have started to see it used as scaffolding. Warm weather again made for pleasant cycling. I noticed an enormous fire engulfing a mountainside, but when I pointed this out to a villager she was uninterested. Perhaps this happens the whole time, maybe caused by the authorities for an unknown purpose.

I paused for lunch in a small town, surrounded as usual by curious faces. There were dozens of individual identical meat dishes cooking on a steamer, so given the opportunity to avoid another round of Chinese Menu Roulette, I ordered one of them with some mifan, steamed rice. Sometimes, it seems, as in any Casino, you can never really win because the odds are always stacked against the punter. Although the dishes looked like a sure bet, they consisted of one small piece of meat and many delicately arranged slices of pork fat. This wasn’t as bad as you may imagine, but I didn’t finish it. Later on, I stopped at a street side noodle seller to supplement my pork fat lunch. The MSG overloaded noodles weren’t bad, but I had attracted such an enormous crowd that I had to pack the noodles away for consumption after having left the town.

That evening, I stopped in the town of Tong Cheng, where I thought I would approach the largest 4* hotel in town just in case it turned out to be the bargain of the century. The price of a room was more than three times what I was prepared to pay, so I walked out in search for somewhere kinder on my people’s currency. The staff were fascinated by my trip, and so utterly shocked that I was about to walk out that they asked me what I was prepared to pay for a room. They accepted my offer of RMB 80, and I was shown in. The room was spacious, the shower good and I made some hot chocolate, and some hot walnut powder drink, and went out for supper.

The restaurant was wholly open to the elements, but there were burning bricks of charcoal underneath the table to warm diners. On my return, I was shocked to find my 4* hotel room to be crawling with cockroaches, particularly the bedside table. I immediately headed for reception where, with improvised sign language, I tried to politely explain that my room was infested (fingers daintily crawling all over the reception counter.) When they didn’t understand this, I asked for a piece of paper, and with my limited artistic skills, doodled a roach, complete with a smile. They still didn’t understand, and they didn’t have internet (Wikipedia cockroach definition would have been a good bet)- I had to keep going with these attempts for five or ten minutes until someone arrived who spoke a smattering of English. They kindly moved rooms, but were adamant that the unwelcome guests had gathered due to my failure to immediately wash up my cup after use. It was my fault that the hotel is infested!

This attitude was reflected in the phrasing of the “Service Directory” which contained the following rule: “Obey the management. The guest who breaks this provision should be subjected to be punished” – without fair trial?!
My first day in Hunan Province greeted me with heavy pollution, and terrible visibility. The road was very hilly, and terrible quality- I hadn’t had such poor quality in China. The miserable towns were strewn with rubbish. I had to take some detours through agricultural land as the road was impassable in places due to works. These towns were grey, lifeless, and didn’t have many restaurants. I was refused food at one stall, which made me furious. In these towns there appears to be a constant stream of fireworks and bangers released into the air- I can only imagine, to cheer people up. On this day I joined the G106, the road that would lead me all the way to Canton.

I stopped for the day in Ding Jiang, a nicer town with a lively market. I initially had trouble finding a hotel, but a very kind lady frying savoury doughnuts in the street left her mobile stall attended by a passer by to walk me to a hotel. I managed to find a map of Hunan province in this town, incredibly useful, and I asked the hotel receptionist to sound out the names of the major towns I will visit on my route, as I don’t understand the map’s Chinese characters. I found a tasty supper of aubergine cooked alongside a number of other individual dishes inside a giant steamer.

On arising the following morning, I was greeted by rain, and I brought the won ton soup and steamed buns I found in the market back to the room. The rain was so hard that I became wet despite my waterproofs. A hearty lunch of pork noodles warmed me up briefly. It is interesting to note that the kitchens in these restaurants are usually outside on the pavement, and there is no back room to the dining room.
After lunch, I became so cold due to the wet that my hands ceased to function properly, highly miserable. I stopped at a cycling shop where I planned to buy an all-encompassing poncho. I was invited behind the scenes to a bowl of warm water into which I dipped my hands, and a cup of tea. Relief! Gradually the movement came back. I then sat down at a small table with the shopkeepers to warm my legs- there was a burning piece of charcoal underneath, hidden by heavy rugs. I bought the poncho, which was heavy and cumbersome (it covered not only me, but also most of the bike!) but I was not prepared to take any more chances with the weather. They informed me that I had taken the wrong road, which meant that I didn’t manage to reach my goal of the day, and had to eventually stop in the small town of Jiao Xi at dusk.

A policeman showed me to a fairly grotty restaurant that had a room to the same standard. I had hoped for a warm shower, and heating, but there was no shower, a missing window pane, and a squat loo. I didn’t mind too much- it was merciful simply to have stopped. A knock on the door from the owner summoned me downstairs for supper. I was very kindly invited to eat with him and his friends. This was a family restaurant, and they were all fascinated in a gentle and charming way with me and my adventure. I was not charged for dinner.

The following morning, I asked the landlady if there were any breakfast going, and she prepared a large steaming saucepan of dumpling soup, which she shared with me. She didn’t want to charge me for it but I forced her to accept a fair amount. I probably should have accepted this free meal, because it was clear that she wanted to give me a present, and she produced an earthenware bottle of rice spirit that she insisted I take with me. In return I gave them some of the lapsang souchong tea bags I carried all the way from London. I exchanged email addressed with the son, and promised to send some photos when I get home. When I had checked into the place, I had not in any way anticipated such kindness and special treatment.

The day kicked off with a big climb up into the smoggy cloud, through dense dark green jungle-like terrain. I wore my poncho to protect my hands from the cold as my gloves were sodden, however this had the undesired effect of condensing my sweat and making my clothes damp. At the first town I bought a nice pair of knitted gloves, and I had a fan who followed me all round the city, and told me to head in the wrong direction, which lost me some time. More fireworks, and quite impressive ones too, being let off in the middle of the day. I think these may have been connected with the many weddings that are taking place across the region. This had clearly deemed an auspicious time to get married! In many cases there were white uniformed bands, and loud faux communist rocket launchers. Mercifully, the quality of the G106 improved, and the towns became less depressing.

At one town I paused for a moment to inspect the impressive market. I saw tables and tables of what looked just like small legs of mutton. On closer inspection, I noticed that the legs did not have trotters, but paws and then I saw (with an odd mixed emotion of horror and amusement) that the skinless little tails were also attached the legs. Sadly I was so absorbed that didn’t think to take a photograph.
The hotel I found that night in Liling ordered food to be brought in for me, which meant I didn’t have to go out again. Next morning, I sent Noel a happy birthday text, and he replied saying he had reached Shanghai. I was a bit jealous, as I still had a fair way to go, through some tough ground. I had some noodles in the street where a businessman was having his shoes shined while he slurped his noodles.
I arrived at Youxian, the town I had been aiming for at 3.30 pm, and I saw a sign, in effect throwing down the gauntlet as it announced 50km to Chaling with 2 hours of darkness left. Taking up the challenge, I pedalled as hard as I could for the next two hours, and arrived at Chaling, satisfyingly, with five minutes of daylight left.
After a breakfast of stuffed steamed buns and dumplings conveniently in the street outside the hotel (to the delight of the assembled crowds), the road once again led me into the hills, and the bamboo forests. The scenery was quintessentially chinese as the road undulated next to a wide, meandering dammed river with the old little working boats plying the calm waters, against a backdrop of soaring jungle hills.
For a moment, with failing light, I was afraid that I wouldn’t find lodgings at all, and there were no obvious camping spots. I was delighted when the village of Shiu Kou came into view, and I asked a fruit seller where I could stay. She pointed to the shabby restaurant behind. I sat for some time “chatting” to some over-excitable children worrying if the restaurant owners would ever show me to a room. At last, they provided a spartan room, a cement floor, no heating, and certainly no spring to the rock hard bed. This doesn’t bother me at all, as I now have my technique for these beds- the thick duvet is folded in half, and slept on, and my own down sleeping bag is used. My fleece makes a useful cover to the filthy pillow. For less than £2 you can’t really complain.

A fried egg crowned my bowl of breakfast noodles, a satisfying touch. The road climbed steeply, and fell steeply, and I was reminded of the Black Sea coast of northern Turkey. I had planned to do a quick 60km before having lunch in a town marked on the map, and heading on to try to hit my theoretical 100km target. The road however had other plans. It climbed up, and up and up and into the clouds, and kept on climbing. This was difficult to take, because I had no inkling at all that there would be a big climb- these Chinese maps are truly irritating! I passed the 17,000km mark during the day, which cheered me up for a short period. The clouds were making my clothes damp, and I was hungry, and thirsty. I used my purification tablets to gain some drinking water for the first time since Tajikistan, and used Turkish orange powder that I had been given by Mongol Ralliers in Tajikistan to make it palatable.

When I finally reached the summit, it was so late that it wasn’t worth going any further than the first town, Gu Dong. I had a look at an overpriced hotel room, and decided that I would try to find somewhere better, leaving my bike in the lobby. A kind onlooker (as usual, there were many!) understood that I was after a cheap hotel, and led me to a wonderful little place, clean, en suite (albeit hole-in-the-ground), with English language TV for a fraction of the price of the other place.
When I returned to my bike, I found that someone had stolen my trip computer, which was a real blow. This is the only time anyone has stolen something from me. The computer would have been utterly useless without the sensor, which makes it all the more irritating. Perhaps it will be put on someone’s mantlepiece- that’s all it is good for! I had a spare trip computer, and I had noted my distance for the day, but I was unsure whether the spare I had bought in Istanbul would work, so I went out to try to buy another. After a long time pedalling the streets, I found a bike shop, but they couldn’t understand what I was asking for, despite my best sign language attempts (I really can’t understand why they didn’t understand me!) and I was close to tears of frustration. I asked in a trendy looking sportswear shop thinking one of the young shop assistants might have a smattering of English. This was correct, but she only led me (and an enormous crowd) back to the same bicycle shop that had already told me to go away. I politely thanked the kind girl who had tried to help me, and cycled back towards the hotel, fierce with rage.

Some children were silently following me, and I tried to lose them by going down a small lane. They followed. I went down another, and they followed again, so I stopped, and turned back. They did the same. I was not in a friendly mood at all by this stage, and loudly implored them to “JUST F@~& OFF!” At which, they impersonated me parrot style, and actually- left me alone!

The lady at my hotel didn’t want me to take my bike into the hotel, but just leave it in the street. This was the first time someone in China had said this- my bike knows the interior to 4* hotel rooms! It was only when they realised that I genuinely was going to go to find somewhere else that they let me put it inside. This was the final frustration to a highly irritating day.

After this, the evening improved. I managed to get my spare cycle computer working, so the whole escapade into town had been totally pointless. At an internet cafe I learned that my mother had booked a flight to Hong Kong to some to see me before flying home together, which was very exciting news. I woke a sleeping fruit seller to buy an entire sugar cane to chew on in bed, and some persimmons. I recognised Marc Edwards, a CCTV presenter doing a travel programme on “Taiwan Province.” Wikipedia confirms my suspicions that he was at Radley with me and Durham.
Weather the following day was absolutely stunning, and there was still quite a bit of climbing to do, but nothing like yesterday. Very few of the villages had restaurants and I was quite cross when some old ladies laughed their heads off at me when I thought I had asked where I could eat!

The necessity to extend my visa had been stressing me out, and on arrival in Ru Cheng, I decided to get a bus to Shaoguan to apply for the extension. I missed the last bus, and was moping and feeling generally sorry for myself in the bus station when I was approached by a pretty 21 year old girl, Penny. She had spotted my in the street, and wanted to come over to say hi. Nothing boosts a chap’s spirits like such an encounter! She is a student, and is currently arranging a year abroad in Canada. After we had chatted for some time, I explained to her that I needed to find a cheap hotel for the night. She led me to a perfectly fine en suite bedroom for less than £2, and we arranged to go out for supper.

I thought that, being China, I could make an impact without having to spend too much money- I went to a shop and bought a couple of small bars of premium Dove chocolate, and handed her one. Choclate is costs more China than back home, so it is really quite expensive. She seemed pleasingly impressed, and she took me to eat some noodles. It was great to have some real Chinese company- I felt much less of an impostor walking the streets chatting to a Chinese girl. She is a fashion student, so she is always immaculately and stylishly dressed. People still stared, but it didn’t have the same effect. Let them stare! One child bore a facial expression of utter shock, as if he had seen a ghost. He pointed at me, point blank and ran inside to tell his parents. I told her this sort of thing happens the whole time, and she said in a matter of fact manner that it is because no travellers come to this place. A man said something to her in the street, and she giggled and said something friendly in return. I asked what he had said- “He said that I am nice,” she replied ordinarily, with a smile. I was ashamed that I had been so irritated when people had shouted at me from passing cars earlier in the day.

I asked if she wanted to go for a drink.

“A bar?”
“What is a bar?”
“It is a place where there is an area that sells alcohol, and you can sit there and drink it”
“We do not have bars”
“Where do you go if you want to have a drink with your friends?”
“We go to karaoke! Do you have karaoke in UK?”
“Then where do you go to sing?!”

In the end, she took me to her uncle’s house, where I met her cousin, and showed them both most of my photos on the computer. The house was surprisingly large, and really quite smart. They were particularly interested in the photos of Xinjiang and Gansu provinces. It is strange to think that I have seen more of their country than they have.

The cousin produced an enormous bag of food which he insisted I accept, including a huge bag of pastry biscuits, 40-something nestle wafer biscuits, Dove chocolate, instant coffee, chicken wings and chicken feet. I should have known. When it comes to generosity, you just can’t beat the Chinese, and you will always be put to shame by this.

After we had finished with the photos, it was about 11pm, and they decided it was time to go out for a meal. I had been used to going to bed at 8 or 9 o’clock, so I was astounded that a restaurant should still be open at this hour. We were led upstairs to a private room. I told my hosts that I didn’t realise that such rooms existed. He replied that if restaurants didn’t have private rooms, they wouldn’t have any business because Chinese people like to eat and talk very loudly! I couldn’t have agreed with him more! He ordered an exciting array of dishes- pigs’ ears, ducks’ feet, beef tongue, tofu, rice porridge, small snails, and steamed buns with condensed milk dipping sauce. Little plastic bags were provided to hold the base of the feet as you attack the other end. I asked Penny what you do with the bones (it is mostly bones)- do you crunch them up or do you spit them out? She replied that you can do either- it doesn’t matter. What is particularly fun about eating duck feet in a restaurant is that the sticky bones are spat out onto the fresh table cloth.

After supper, they dropped me back at my hotel, and made sure I was settled nicely into my room before leaving me. I was left utterly shellshocked by such unbelievable kindness. I told Penny I would call her again when I return to Ru Cheng after arranging my visa in Macau.

The following day I left my bike in the hotel, and made my way to Zhuhai by coach, the border town with Macau. I had been told I would be granted another extension in China, but as Rosie Wilkins promised to come and say hello, I elected to go a little further and see her at the same time as get the visa. Zhuhai was a bit of a shock- there appeared to be no cheap hotels anywhere. I asked a street cobbler if he knew where there was a cheap hotel, and he immediately led me to a room in a dreary block of flats. It all seemed a little dodgy, especially as they seemed very keen I am meticulous to lock the door, but it all worked out fine.

I was given special screening at the Macau border by the Chinese authorities, due to the numerous chinese visa extensions in my passport, and they carefully went through everything in my bag. They were particularly interested in my books, no doubt trying to prevent any politically sensitive information leaving China. If they knew I had been in Xinjiang, no doubt they would have been through all my thousands of photos.
Once in Macau, I had a great time with Rosie and Richard Whitall, exploring the old cobbled Portuguese streets and enjoying the baroque buildings (although there was Tarzan rage when the visa cost 5 times more than I had anticipated).

The following day, I made it across the border in time for a bus to Shaoguan, however I had to spend the night there because I had missed the last bus back to Ru Cheng and my bicycle. The first hotel I went to refused to let me stay after at length calling the police, and I had to go to another. The bus left at 7am, and there were so many suitcases and goods being transported that they took up the entire aisle; there was no room for bodily manoeuvre inside the bus and it was very uncomfortable for the two hour journey.

On returning to my bike, I changed clothes in the deserted hotel lobby, and phoned Penny who came to meet me for breakfast. She took me to a restaurant that specialises in Guanzhou noodles, noodles that are made from raw egg and steamed in a tray- halfway between an omelette and a noodle. During breakfast (or, rather, as I tucked into my second course) she stood up and said she wanted to go and buy me some chocolate. I tried to stop her, but she was very insistent; I hoped and thought she would buy a cheap bar of Chinese chocolate. She returned however with three bars of the most expensive Dove chocolate. To put this into perspective, this has higher economic value than a night in the hotel. It was an unbelievably generous gift, and I felt very bad to accept it, however I had no choice if I did not want to cause offence.

The journey for the day was largely a satisfying downward serpent of crossbacks, as I had a lot of height to lose before heading south into Guangdong. The smells that floated around reminded me of Summer- quite surreal such a short period of time after the arctic blizzards. At a roadside restaurant, I had a lovely dish of soft tofu, stuffed with pork, stir fried. The kind couple who ran the place gave me a huge plate seconds for free, which I genuinely couldn’t eat after the first course and all the rice I had wolfed down. They also gave me some sugar cane and a big bag of dried sweet potato as a present.

That evening, in Rei hua, I was led by some ladies to another extremely cheap hotel with an en suite bedroom. After a noodle supper, I snacked on stinky, and delicious durian fruit in bed.

After I returned from steamed bun and dumpling breakfast, my bicycle had decided to let off some steam...or at least a lot of air from the front tyre. This is always a frustrating start to a day when trying to get away early. The woman wanted me to fix it in the large area in the front of the open-air lobby, but blissfully she seeemed to understand my sign language that if I did it there I would have had an audience.
Annoyingly, the spectacular scenery of the area was veiled by low lying clouds. It was possible to make out the bottoms of the steep, thin craggy mountains that erupt vertically from the flat ground like thorns. I had briefly seen them from the window of the bus on the way to Macau.

That evening I walked out of the first hotel I went into because every room I inspected was swarming with mosquitoes. As I had paid in advance, the manager gave my money back as he seem to think this was fair enough, and directed me to another hotel. This time, the room was fine. It is funny in China how even the crummiest hotels give you a free comb and tooth brush, not that the comb comes in particularly useful on my dreads!

Fruit sellers decorated the streets with their enormous collections of bananas and oranges. I replenished my supplies, and returned to my room to fix my three holy inner tubes. The following morning, I breakfasted on steamed buns and dumplings, and liver soup which I left.

I started to notice that people now appear to be used to living in a more tropical climate. Sandals without socks are regularly seen now, despite it being December. I saw a couple of tramps who wore clothes and smiles that made them seem more Jamaican than Chinese. I made good ground, so that I could have a half day to explore Canton the next day. The hotel I stayed in that evening, in a small town, had the most ingenious bathroom. The washbasin plumbing emptied onto the floor, and this in turn drained into the hole-in-the-ground loo, flushing it. So when you wanted to flush the loo, you just turned the taps on in the basin! I went out for supper, and took the conseil du garcon, which meant three dishes arrived when I only wanted one. Dim sum was served for the first time as one of the courses- little parcels of rice pastry with chopped water chestnut inside. The noodles I had asked for were entirely saved for breakfast the following day, allowing for an early start.

I negotiated Canton rush hour the following morning- a mad dash of scooters and motorcycles. Arrival at Canton was a maze of junctions, barriers and flyovers, and it took me a long time to reach the Isle of Shamian where there is a youth hostel. A local Cantonese-speaking high school student with a smart bicycle very kindly led me there on his lunch hour.

Shamian is an island in the Pearl River, which used to be a European traders’ enclave; for long periods, it was the only place they were allowed to go in mainland China. There is a latent soothing colonial atmosphere on Shamian, where beautiful old buildings remain, there are many international restaurants, expats with pushchairs, and traffic is strictly regulated. Crossing the bridge into the rest of Canton is rather like crossing an invisible international frontier.

I headed for the nearby Qingping Chinese medicine market where I saw live snakes, scorpions, terapins and dried bugs among all sorts of other creepy looking stuff on sale for human consumption. The stalls were piled high with stock, and it was an extremely lively place. I didn’t see the caged dogs and cats that the guidebook had warned about, however I was shocked to see what could only have been tiger paws for sale, laid out on the street, on square pieces of cloth.

This is the first time I had seen such a market in China, and I gained the impression that this town was culturally very distinct from the rest of the country, and also from other places in Guangdong province. This is the third major language area I have now passed through in China (Uygur, Mandarin and Cantonese.) Despite the commercial frenzy, there was an underlying relaxed feeling to the air and people did not seem as manic as in other parts of China. This could have something to do with the sweltering heat that envelops this area of the continent, and warmth through the winter. The city sits just south of the Tropic of Cancer. There is a catholic church in the centre of Canton that could have been transplanted from a small French city, amid the lively chaos. The noticeboard outside sets out when the services in Cantonese, English and Mandarin will take place.

In the evening, I found a covered collection of food stalls by the side of a road in the central commercial district with a common seating area. I had a selection of Cantonese dumplings, followed by a ubiquitous set milk custard. I passed on the fried tarantula, cockroaches and millipede on a stick. The shops were all open late into the evening, with staff standing at the doors desperately trying to divert the pavement traffic into their establishments. One amusing tactic was to clap hands applause to the public, or to all clap in time.

The next morning, I tried my usual trick of taking breakfast in a major hotel, however I soon realised that in Canton the large hotels are charging western prices, so I went for a wander. I found a smart, but very lively restaurant, and was ushered upstairs. There were a couple of friendly looking 21 year old girls (Silvia and Fong) in the waiting area, so I asked them if I could get breakfast here. They said dim sum was the fare (hurrah!) and they would help me to negotiate the menu. As I was alone, I was seated on a table with a friendly couple of elderly ladies. They said I had to try some special tea, which was prepared in a ceremonious way- to my shock, the entire first pot was used to clean the teapot, and thimble sized cup, and thrown away. After this, Silvia approached me and said that they were waiting for some friends to join them, and they invited me to join them for breakfast. I hastily paid for the tea, and we were moved to a large table downstairs. Friends from both China and Malaysia arrived- all of whom were also students. I sat next to Fong (from Macau, who thought Macau was better off with the Portughese) and Wing, a journalism student. I asked her if they teach them what is not permitted to write under communist censorship, and she said no, “We just know.”

They ordered a feast of dim sum with all sorts of different types of steamed dumpling, rice cakes, chicken feet, and my favourite of all, a fried pastry stuffed with durian fruit. They taught me to wash my bowl and chopsticks with tea, and to pour the discarded fluid into a special container. Wing and Silvia then showed me how to say “thank you” in Chinese tea tradition: You tap your first and second fingers lightly on the table. This comes from when one of the emperors used to travel to other parts of the empire undercover in secret to check on things. Courtiers could not kowtow because this would give the game away, but instead they used this finger trick, a sort of kowtow of digits. They say that single people only use one finger.

Having finally finished breakfast, I was informed that Silvia was celebrating her achievement of a scholarship, therefore she was treating everyone to the meal. This made me feel quite bad, but there was nothing I could do. They all went off for karaoke (at 10.30am!), and I headed to my bicycle to begin the push for the Hong Kong border. The route out of Canton was difficult because no one seemed to know the way. I followed my compass and the river east. At last a couple of friendly cyclists led me to the correct road.

A flat tyre delayed me further, highly annoying, and there was rage when a street sweeper swept around me when I was fixing it and eating a sweet potato from a street seller, causing a huge billow of dust. For most of the day, the road was being resurfaced, therefore the temporary surface caused terrible dust, and there was an army of sweepers who seemed to cause more problems than they solved. I was pleased to get more thumbs-ups and friendly waves than the normal incredulous stares; I am unsure whether this approach is indicative of a shift in culture or if I just happened to cycle past a lot of friendly people.

The delays meant I had to cycle up until dark to make an acceptable distance and I
luckily found a basic but acceptable hotel for my last night in China. It was frustrating that people in this town pointed and stared at me shouting “lawai!” I would have had supper in a nice looking restaurant, but when I saw the reaction of the diners when I approached, I walked away very quickly, and ordered some egg fried rice from a street cook.

My final breakfast in China was Guangzhou noodles and pork congee, and the man sitting in the next table was trying to get his toddler to say “one two three four fixe six seven...” because I was there. They never made eye contact with me or said hello and I thought this was all very irritating.

The weather was absolutely glorious, and I had a shiver of excitement at the idea of getting to Hong Kong. I was brought back down to earth when I ran over a human turn that made two brown stripes in each tyre. In seething anger (where else in the world could this happen?!) I stopped to clean my wheel with some grass cuttings. It amused me that after 10 months, the same bottle of hygiene gel was still being used. I found a car wash that let me hose down my tyres for free.

The border into the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone was not even checked anymore; it reminded me of the borders between EU Shengen countries. On the brink of arriving in Hong Kong, I was utterly frustrated by people’s utter ignorance of the direction of Hong Kong, and there were absolutely no signs. It reminded me of trying to find Gibraltar from Spain when I was a child. One would have thought that in 12 years of Chinese “sovereignty” Hong Kong would be on the street signs. When I did find someone who spoke English, you can imagine my frustration, just as I was on the brink of finishing my journey when she said, “You want to cycle to Hong Kong?! It is really far! Take the train!” This reminded me of the man I had met on arriving into Tirana, Albania who said that we couldn’t have possible cycled from Montenegro that day as it is a thousand kilometres away!

I eventually followed the instructions of a sage seeming sugar cane seller, and found a border crossing. The last border crossing! En route, I met the Pacific Ocean expanding in front of me, an extraordinary feeling.

I had to wheel the bike through the pedestrian area rather than go with the vehicles which was a bit awkward, especially when filling out immigration and “I have no flu symptoms, I promise” forms. Others in the queue were sympathetic and friendly.
Hong Kong is absolutely terrified of flu, which is not surprising as they have had a lot of cases of various types of “killer flu” in recent years. A sign asked people to “maintain coughing manners” as one of the ways to fight the disease. The idea of appealing to people’s manners in China amused me.

Once through the border checks, and in a jubilant mood, I made for the road. I was immediately beckoned to stop by a policeman. He informed me that there was a bridge, and that this was a motorway therefore and if I attempted to cycle over it I would be arrested. Having cycled over every bridge and through every tunnel on the trip, I was convinced that I would be able to talk my way out of this one. I talked through the trip, and said that in China I had been allowed to cycle, or had been given a police escort. By now there was a crowd of police officers with “Hong Kong Police” written on the brass on their hats. The Hong Kong police crest looks more British than Chinese- the royal crest has been replaced by a bauhinia flower image (Hong Kong’s national flower and symbol) but it retains the feel of the crown crest.
“I am sorry, there is nothing that can be done. This is Hong Kong; this is not China. They do not have law. We have law. Our law is based on London Law. If you cycle on the motorway you will be arrested.” It was irritating, but refreshing to be in a free country ruled by law for the first time since, well, Greece, Turkey or Georgia, depending on where you draw the line. I asked if there was any other way rather than cross the bridge, and he replied with pride that I could try to walk round the beach, back into China and down the beach into Hong Kong, but then I would be picked up and arrested with all the other Chinese attempted immigrants, as happens every day.

They very kindly let me put the bike in one of their police vans rather than pay a taxi fee, and gave me a lift over the bridge, dropping me off on the other side. They were very friendly, and interested in if their police van was similar to police vans in the UK. I replied slightly tongue-in-cheek that I haven’t seen the inside of many police vans in the UK but this joke fell on deaf ears. They asked me if I was an Arsenal fan, and I replied that I prefer rugby and cricket to football. “Ah yes, rugby and cricket, very good!” they replied knowingly. How marvellous to be back in the real world! As they dropped me off they gave me directions, and suggested I buy a map. “Pteh! I need no map!” I thought to myself.

It was strange to be driving on the left again for the first time since Kent. Northern Hong Kong seems like suburban Britain with its little streets, British road markings and pedestrian crossings as well as the UK style number plates on the cars.
Cycling in the north western New Territories was easy, and there was a backdrop of the famous green mountains. I reverted to using “proper” cycling road rules! I met a couple who cycled with me for a period, showing me the right way. The road continued down to follow the coast. I asked a passing cyclist to take a “money shot” of me right in front of the Pacific, and I was excited to make out the skyscrapers of the city in the distance. I fixed the Union Flag that Rosie had brought out from London and given to me in Macau, to the stump that was once a wing mirror on my left handlebar, with a couple of cable ties.

After a while, I found myself in the Tseun Wan, which is still quite a long way out considering the hundreds of pedestrian crossings in Hong Kong that severely hinder progress. Tsuen Wan is very developed, and I mistakenly thought I was well down into Kowloon. After a lot of asking around for the Star Ferry, and a lot of frustration that no one seemed to know where it is, I found a couple of police who told me that realistically, my only option was to put my bike on the MTR (tube.) I explained to them that this was not an option, and they suggested I take the motorway. I asked if I would be arrested, and they said I would probably be OK. Clearly not all Hong Kong police are quite so zealous!

I found the motorway, lit my rear light and went for it- the traffic was dense and I cycled fast to get this highly unpleasant experience over as soon as possible. As I approached Kowloon, I spied a flashing light out of the corner of my eye. Thinking this was the police, I decided to come off at the next exit, a little early. It was however a recovery vehicle, but I was close enough to Tsim Sha Tsui (Star Ferry!) to get there on the normal roads, although this took some time.

On arrival at the ferry terminal, I wheeled my bike through the bee hive-like crowds and propped it against the glass fence of an observation pier to take some celebratory photographs. It was pitch dark by this stage, and the buildings over the other side of Victoria Harbour on Hong Kong were lit up in neon, standing tall like a very funky feng shui guard of honour. One bore large words “Hong Kong Welcomes You.”

The ferry that takes bicycles goes to Wan Chai, and I decided to find a hostel near there, in Causeway Bay and make the final push to Government House the following morning. I was stopped by a very pretty girl who wanted to pose for a photograph with me. I wondered to myself whether it will be difficult to come down from such celebrity status. I checked into the hostel I had stayed on my previous trip to Hong Kong. Arriving at a city that I know strangely adds a greater deal of satisfaction than arriving somewhere unknown. I have perspective; I know that the last time I was here it took 12 hours on a flight.

The following morning, the 13th December, I loaded up the bike with all the belongings that had safely brought me here from London for one last time. The Union Flag fluttered beautifully in the breeze as I followed the tram lines towards Central. Government House is located up the hill in the Mid Levels: what a time to discover that a gear cable had broken! I took a self timer photo at the exiting moment I found a tourist information sign to my final destination.

Unable to cycle the bike up the hill, I had to push it through the pavements, and up and down a number of flights of stairs. One flight was so steep that I had to detach all the panniers and carry them up first. At the top I was met by an English voice “Canny that, a Union Jack!”

At last I arrived at what looked like Government House (I had never been there before), and asked the policeman outside if it was; he confirmed that I had finished my journey. The final day had been four kilometres, but over the last 10 months and 9 days I had cycled 17,692 km. I told the policeman that I had just cycled here from Buckingham Palace, and that this was the end. He seemed fairly disinterested, but obligingly took a couple of victory photos. The Hong Kong Flag with its Bauhinia Flower crest was raised over Government House just as the Royal Standard had fluttered above Buckingham Palace back in March. Reaching my final destination was rather like arriving in Australia with a spade. If you keep digging it really is there; I am walking proof that if you jump on a bicycle in London and keep pedalling, you really do get to Hong Kong!

Over the months I had imagined what the feeling would be to complete the task I had set myself. Would I be overjoyed, sad, or relieved? The answer was that I was confused. It would take some time before the fact that my quest was over would consciously sink in. At that moment outside Government House I had all my kit inside my panniers and instead of stopping, I could just as easily have pedalled on. I said goodbye to Government House, and walked down the hill. At the bottom, I paused for a while, gazing up at the skyscrapers around Chater Garden. I felt dizzy as I contemplated all the places I had been, the people I had met and the friends made, who had nursed me, fed me, given me shelter, and helped me to get here.

The trip had taken me through: The UK, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, China, and Hong Kong.

The exhilaration of touring the world on a bicycle is well expressed in the lyrics of Walking in the Air, as I realised during my cycle in the evening through the chilly desert of eastern Xinjiang, waving at dumbstruck children. I moved slowly through their world, a world incomparable to mine but I was there long enough for them to wave at me and interact with me. Others simply went about their daily lives without noticing that a Chartered Accountant from England was cycling through their village en route to Hong Kong.

We're walking in the air
We're floating in the moonlit sky
The people far below are sleeping as we fly

I'm holding very tight
I'm riding in the midnight blue
I'm finding I can fly so high above with you

Far across the world
The villages go by like dreams
The rivers and the hills
The forests and the streams

Children gaze open mouth
Taken by surprise
Nobody down below believes their eyes

I was interrupted from my daze by John Sutherland, an English chap who recognised that I had just completed something large, and he invited me out for a celebration lunch. He had toured the world on a motorcycle, and knew something of the magic to be free on two wheels. As I tucked in to a hamburger, assuming its new status, the bicycle was wheeled into a hotel left luggage room.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Dangfang to Wuhan

On the morning of the 16th of November, having learned out lessons from the following day, w made a supreme effort to wrap up as well as we possibly could, for the snow was still falling. it felt a little like putting on armour in anticipation of battle, with three layers of socks, and plastic bags between various layers on hands and feet.

When I checked out of the hotel room I was met by three giggling chamber maids. As I made it down the landing towards the lift one of them shouted. "I love you!" to which I responded "I love you too!" More giggling. And they shouted "I LOVE YOU!" again to which I responded, "I love you MORE!" Fits of giggling from all three, and they all disappeared into a bedroom for, no doubt an uncontrollable giggling session.

On the way out of town, in driving snow, I asked a fruit seller for a couple of plastic bags to go on top of the socks I was using as mittens. She carefully placed them on my hands and tied them on my wrists with the delicacy of a tailor.

It didn't take long, however, before our hands and feet seemed like frozen ice blocks and incredibly painful, despite our best efforts with gloves, plastic bags and socks placed in some very inventive places. We found a barn where a group of men had lit fires from breeze-block style charcoal bricks in terracotta bowls (one brick per bowl.) It took a long time before the pain left my hands and feet, which produced a lot of steam.

Needless to say, for the second day running, we stopped early due to the weather conditions. The town was freezing cold, as was the hotel which was lacking electricity, although this later came back. Restaurants don't bother with any heating and everyone simply goes about in multiple layers and coats. Wartime spirit!

The following morning, having eaten a very Chinese but satisfying breakfast (largely consisting of tofu, vegetables and steaming hot rice porridge) and having loaded up the bike, I noticed my tyre was flat. With an ever growing crowd, despite the fact that this was in the hotel lobby, I repaired my spare, and fixed it to the bike. All along, the crowd had been growing, and when I started pumping up the tyre outside the hotel I had attracted a serious gathering. When I removed the pump there was a loud pop and a hiss of air. The valve from the shoddy brand new chinese made inner tube had broken off. This produced fits of uncontrollable laughter from the crowd, at which point, incandescent with rage at them, I told them all to F off very loudly and crossly. They don't understand English but I have found that if you drop the F word it gently lets people know you may be a little irritated- it's not as belligerent as it would be to English speakers. This only produced more laughter. In provincial China, westerners are seen by many as, as I have mentioned before, fascinating exotic creatures. In this case, I got the distinct impression I was more of a clown. Even when you are cross you are funny.

When I went inside to find my trusty Halfords inner tube, padded in 12 patches but Not Out, the class idiot followed me inside and started rootling through my things. I raised my voice again, and he copied what I had said, parrot like, and sniggered. Noel pointed to the broken Chinese innertube and said loudly "Zhon Guo bo hao!"-"China- Not good!" Usually I would be a little embarrassed about such a outburst, but on this occasion I chipped in "Zhon Guo bo hao!" and "Ing Guo Hun Hao!" -"Britain very good!" (pointing at the trusty world travelled inner tube from Halfords) This wasn't a particularly nice thing for us to have said. The army of chamber maids were an injection of calm and peace, soothingly helping to hold things where needed and actually being quite helpful. In all other countries, when people stop when you have a puncture, it is nearly always to try to help or at least to try to chat or communicate. In China, it is simply to watch- usually without even saying Ni Hao (hello).

Luckily the old tube was repaired and we were on our way, much later than hoped. Noel didn't whinge about all the wasted time which was good of him. At lunch, Noel's chain broke and he attracted a similar crowd. Shop assistants had stopped working to stare at him through the window displays. Luckily he is very nimble and repaired the link very quickly.

The town we stayed at that evening really didn't understand about winter. It was truly freezing. Families were sitting outside their homes eating, chatting and playing board games. All doors were open, and you could look into the houses and see the bedrooms. The doors to the hotel were wide open, as were the windows and when we complained that one of the bedroom windows was missing a pane, the woman didn't know what we were complainig about. We spent a long time looking for a restaurant that had closed its door for supper, and when we had made out choice, we then realised that the back door was wide open. On the way into the hotel after supper, Noel closed the front door as we went upstairs. 2 minutes later I went down again and the door had been propped open. Breakfast was served in the hotel lobby, under the hood of my down filled jacket.

The following day the weather was marginally better, but still cold. We passed through one area that was devoted entirely to stone carved statues, mainly of dragons and Glorious Chairman Mao. It was extraordinary to see such skillful work being carried out in the streets. That evening we stayed in a truly world class hotel in Nanyang which would have cost an awful lot of money back home, but in China it only set us back less than 15 pounds each.

This was the point where we had planned to part company, Noel to continue for Shanghai and I to branch off South for Hong Kong. Noel left first, and left me to check out. When I did so I was handed both our passports back as he had forgotten his. I texted him to return, and I had looked at the map and decided that a good route was to continue east for another couple of days and turn south at Xinyang. We therefore had a further 2 days cycling together, which was good.

Another puncture, another crowd, despite being in the middle of nowhere. They were amazed as I put my socks on my hands over my gloves. What a fool I am! Socks go on your feet! On the way through a town we passed a couple of carts selling fish. Tethered to the carts were the cormorants used by the fishermen to catch the fish.

The staff at the little hotel we stayed at in the small town (by Chinese standards) were all standing to attention in grid formation as we returned from breakfast. It is not ususual to see this in all places and establishments, from petrol stations to restaurants. More hilarious is the dance routines that often they all have to perform together in the street first thing in the morning. It can be quite strenuous looking!

In Xinyang we went out for a final supper together, and ordered a sweet and sour pork- it looked more like a cocktail, served in a pineapple shell. The best either of us had ever had, although at GBP 3.50 it was very expensive by Chinese standards.

Noel very kindly tore a couple of pages out of his Chinese road atlas before we parted in opposite directions the next day. The weather was great- sunny and verging on warm as I entered Hubei province. I am hoping that when I get down to the tropics it will be reliably nice and warm!

There has suddenly been a re-appearance of water buffalo. I haven't seen these much since Azerbaijan. Back then, all you could make of them was their heads and horns as they peered out of the mud but now there is no need for them to wallow. They produce gigantic mounds on the roads, and they are largely it seems used to pull ploughs.

In the small town where I stayed in a comfortable room they were burning rubbish, including plastic and leaves in the street. This is a very common sight. There was a lively market the following morning where I took breakfast and wandered through. There was only one shout of "Lawai!" which may be a record.

The weather was still good, and I put in a very long 140km day to get to Wuhan,the capital of Hubei province. There were droves of sugar cane sellers in the streets for much of the day. Wuhan is a city of more than 4 million people, and I was surprised to see B&Q and also Wal Mart. The town sits on the massive Yangtze River, an awesome sight from the bridge across it set against the night time (by the time I reached the bridge) city-scape and laser shows from many of the buildings. Enormous hulking barges and ferries plough constantly through it. Reaching the Yengtze brings another feeling of accomplishment, rather similar to having reached the Great Wall back in Gansu. I am truly now in China's heartland. There were lots of smooching couples all along the bridge. Cheap date! With the help of some very kind members of the public who led me to the correct road, I found the hostel. It is very nice, but they have that leave-the-doors-open problem and the room isn't heated. I shouldn't grumble- I have been severely spoilt by the incredible hostel in Xian.

Yesterday I spent most of the day finding innertubes, which proved successful. The hostel staff were very kind in sorting out this important issue. There was a superb lunch market near the bike shop selling all sorts of goodies. I had some garlic-grilled oysters, sugar can juice and a chicken kebab. The kebab was pleasant enough, but there were pieces of chicken cartillage between the pieces of meat. Crunchy!

I then took the ferry across the Yangtze. As I bought the ticked I was reminded of the formalities of Chinese queueing when a woman craned her arm past me and held her money into the small glass window opening in the hope (haha! in vain) that she would be served before me.

The ferry reminded me of the old ships that constantly stream across the Bosphoros in Istanbul between Europe and Asia. The sun was just setting and there was a pleasant (pollution induced?) blue-grey pastille hue to the sky and the sky skrapers. On the other side of the river, I wandered down the main commercial street; it is extraordinary how affluent some of these Chinese cities are, when there are farmers only a few kilometers away who are using buffalo to pull a plough.

The glitz of the shops would easily rival London, Hong Kong or New York. Many of the shops are still however chinese brands, selling brand names that wouldn't be allowed in the west such as "Polo" instead of "Ralph Lauren Polo" and "Crocodile" instead of Lacoste, with very similar logos. The name "BBC" made me laugh for a clothes shop, expecially as there had been a clothes chop in Xian called "Tony Wear." "Playboy" is considered quite a respectable designer brand here in China- people have no idea of the pornographic implications of the trade mark in the West. Pornography in China is banned so there is no reason for them to realise it, but is rather disturbing to see respectable middle aged people wearing Playboy jackets. When I told one of the receptionists about the connotations of the brand, she was absolutely amazed. Leopards really can change there spots in China; anything is possible here, as we are constantly reminded.

I ventured out to the supermarket last thing where there were tanks full of toads and another of terapins! As I approached the tanks, a large fish jumped clean out of the water, splashing me and I noticed that there was another tank of little crabs. There is no need to visit the zoo in China, you can simply go shopping.

I had planned to leave Wuhan this morning, but as I munched my breakfast I was conscious of the fact that I am tired out and need a full day of rest, which is what I have done today- next to nothing.

I am still, despite a few frustrations, really enjoying China. It is invasive and unpredictable and frustrating, but that must be part of its addictiveness. It must be said that the people, although en mass, they can sometimes be a little irritating, are almost without exception utterly charming and helpful individually.

I have done more than 16,000 km from Buckingham Palace, and more than 10,000 miles. 5,000 of those kilometers have been in China alone and there remains about 1,200 until Hong Kong, the final destination which should take me less than 2 weeks. I hope you are all happy and well. Thanks Jam Pot.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Baoji to Dangfeng

After I had finished writing my last entry, I locked my bike, and caught a taxi to Xian to try my hand with the authorities there to extend my visa. The hostel I found, very near the south gate was the cheapest (Y 25), and the best hostel I have found anywhere in the world. It was housed in a very old building and took the feel of an old Oxford college, with a lively bar and restaurant downstairs.

That evening I met Charles, Jamie and Susie for a drink in a bar, but they were already utterly sozzled, so the evening didn't go on very long. This was probably a good thing considering the marathon day awaiting me. Susie managed to backward somersault into the table behind her while showing off her stylish new red high heels. Glass and wood went flying, but the Chinese neighbours were very placid.

Upon finding the right place to renew the visa, which took considerable time as the office had changed locations, I was told that, "According to regulations, your visa cannot be renewed a second time. You must leave the country. You can go to Hong Kong to buy a new one."

This wasn't good news with a visa expiring the following day, so I hared back to Baoji to take up their kind offer of a visa in 7 days. This was granted, 35 minutes before the close of play after I managed to persuade them, with no material proof whatsoever other than a credit card, that I have at least US$ 3000 at my disposal. I had to come up with some pretty cringe-worthy chat about the fact that "I am a man of considerable means" (ahem) and "I am a Chartered Accountant, don't you know?!" In the end, the clincher was the moment I punched some figures into a calculator and said "That's how much money I have!" The auditors among you will rest assured that analytical review skills can come in handy for visa extensions! I would sadly have to return to Baoji the following Thursday to collect my passport and the shiny-new visa occupying an entire page.

The ride between Baoji and Xian was glorious. There was a slight following wind, blue skies, and plenty of little villages to pass through and observe. There were many stone masons at work by the side of the road, carving beautifully-formed Chinese characters with pick-axes and chain-saws onto what looked like marble grave stones. The only thing that slightly deflated me was the constant stream of "HEEEELOOOOOO!" shouted from distant strangers on the street. I had concluded to answer back with "Konichiwa!" but I hesitate to drop that bomb for fear of causing injury to innocent bystanders.

I stopped for a sugar cane snack- the first time I have seen this. It is remarkably refreshing and satisfying even if it does create a huge mess of the pulp that has to be spat out. This makes one fit in with the locals! I also had a barbecue pork sandwich for the first time, from a very hospitable lady in the street. In the little town I stayed in that evening, I found a very lively outside, but covered market of food stalls selling all sorts of things, but mainly beef kebabs, grilled fish, and pots of rice noodles with quails eggs and chicken. As I was perusing, and taking photos, I was approaced by Billy, a pretty Chinese girl who spoke perfect English due to having worked as a "dealer" in Singapore. As I enquired the subject of her dealings, she informed me that she dealt cards. I rather put my foot in it by asking if the little girl with her was her daughter when in fact it was her sister, but she was still keen to help me find the best place to eat, and she stationed me at a stand selling a very spicy but very nice rice noodle dish cooked in a clay pot. She told me that she was astounded to see me in the town, because "foreigners don't come here!" I found this especially pleasing, and is a very good reason to explore a country in the manner I have chosen.

The arrival at the West Gate of Xian was significant, as this is the end of the Silk Road, which I have now cycled in its entirety, originating in Istanbul. I took a quick arm-length shot of myself at this victorious moment, and my bike marked it by yielding a flat front tyre. The last thing I wanted was to change the inner tube in the amphitheatre of a 3 million inhabitant Chinese city, so I pumped it up and continued. I had to perform this three times to get to the oasis of peace that is the hostel. In the process I was unduly rude (I entirely ignored them with a frown) to a load of old gaffers who no doubt thought that a lawai (foreigner) pumping up his tyres was the most interesting thing to happen in the streets of Xian since the forming of the People's Republic.

At the hostel I met up with Noel, a jolly American chap I had met in Kyrgyzstan with whom I had hoped to travel on to Hong Kong. He has however been given a deadline by his girlfriend, and has had to revise his travel plans, and is going to finish in Shanghai. For the first few days we are heading in the same direction, so we will cycle together for at least a bit.

I really enjoyed a few days' enforced rest in Xian due to the need to return to Baoji on the Thursday. Apart from the first day, the weather was too awful to spend hours exploring the streets, but it was a very pleasant place to be, and the hostel was a wonderful base to spend hours chatting to other tourists, and the pretty English-speaking receptionists (this was particularly fruitful as it yielded a discount!)

Xian is full of quintessentially Chinese buildings with enormous rooves, which include the city walls and gates, bell tower, and lots of pagodas and temples. It is also home to the first McDonalds I have seen since Baku (Azerbaijan), many high rise buildings, and a disturbing amount of pollution. Some days you can't properly see the buildings, and the power of the sun is hugely reduced.

We made it out in the driving rain to pay homage at the Terracotta Army, very much worth the effort. I hadn't realised that the rooves to the ditches in which the army had been placed had collapsed over the millennia, in effect crushing the whole army to smithereens (ignorant me), and that the excavation work is still very much ongoing; you can see the archaeologists at work. The many warriors and soilders who have been immaculately pieced together are however collectively and individually an incredible sight. It is like looking back through time at individual people, life size, who walked the earth before the time of Jesus, complete in their true raiment. Fascinating.

On Wednesday evening, the town was completely covered with a thick icing of snow. This produced a pleasant effect on the large sloping chinese rooves and dragon follies, but it also meant that my train to Baoji the following day waited on the platform for an entire hour. The effect of this was that I missed my return train, and arrived back 4 hours later than planned after a 2.5 hour standing-only leg. When I turned up at the police to collect the visa, it took nearly an hour for them to hand back my passport. They had clearly not started the visa process until I had returned to their offices; I wish they could have saved me so much wasted time and given it to me when I first went there!

Returning to the hostel that evening, I found Chris and Astrid, the British and Dutch couple I had met in Kashgar. It was great to see them again, and we all went out for supper. They had had a horrible time in Xinjiang, being followed by the police to such an extent that the police even booked themselves into the hotel room next door! I am glad my passage through Xinjiang was so comparitively hassle-free! They are also going to Hong Kong, so I will next see them for cocktails in the warmth!

I have been cycling with Noel for the last few days since Xian. It has been great to have someone to joke around with; we have a similar sense of humour. The weather has been bitterly cold (0 degrees C) to the extent that fingers and toes turn to ice blocks in the freezing wind. We have not cycled long days due to the lie of the towns. Yesterday we cycled up a 1000m+ pass which was very pretty in the mist, and we hadn't anticipated it. We had a nice noodle lunch where we met another pair of cyclists who had cycled from France and were en route to Shanghai at ultrasonic pace- their visas were running out! The doors to the restaurant were left open despite the freezing conditions and the full house chatted away from under their heavy coats. The chef was hand pulling the noodles. This is done all over China, and I don't know why we never see this back home.

Today we had a very early stop. We were both in considerable cold-enduced pain from the snow. I put on three layers of socks and also put socks over my gloves in an attempt to beat the wind chill on my fingers, but after 50km we decided to dust off the caking of snow, and call it a day at noon in a little town called Dongfeng where we have found a nice little hotel. Our clothes are hanging up, we have defrosted under a warm shower; we spent the afternoon devouring sweet and sour pork and watching a film on Noel's laptop. I have discovered an ingenious way to heat up walnut milk (ubiquitous, although choclate milk is very hard to find) in the kettle by dipping the plastic sachets in the boiling water. A soupcon of brandy would greatly improve it, but me must make do.

I am still having a superb time slowly feeling my way through China, and I am really looking forward to the weather warming up a little as I head further south. I have finally booked a flight on Air New Zealand to arrive home on Christmas Eve, hopefully in time for a pint of Hooky at the King's Head. It's time to venture out for another tickle of the tastebuds, which takes priority so I must close.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Sary-Tash (Kyrgyzstan) to Baoji (China)"

The marshrutka (minibus) ride back from Osh to Sary Tash to rejoin my bike was utterly miserable. The road was non-existent, and it wound through the mountains, through enormous herds of fat-bottomed sheep. I was lucky to have a group of Belgian backpackers to share the miserable experience with. It made me very glad to be traveling by bicycle!

As is typical for Kyrgyzstan, the place I left my bike wanted to charge me for half a night’s stay for each night my bike had “slept” on his property. I couldn’t be bothered with an argument, so I reluctantly parted with the cash.

This was to be my last experience of Central Asian (or Soviet) tourist standards. The heater in the room I shared with an interesting French photographer was heated by an electric cooking ring; supper was rice cooked in milk; breakfast was yoghurt and bread (I left the warm milk, which I really can’t stand); the stove was fired by cow pats and there was of course a pit loo at the end of the garden. I had to use ear plugs to block out the sound of the grandmother shouting at the wailing children to get to sleep. In the morning, they all burst into the room without knocking, as it pleased them. This really gets my goat when I am paying for a room.

After 2 months in Central Asia, I was more than ready to get to China. My cycling was lethargic on the ride towards the border. I felt a little like a dog who is bored of all the old smells and wants to go on a new walk. The road from Sary Tash to the border, in true Soviet style (one last flurry!) was absolutely awful, and had been dug up in preparation for the laying of tarmac. The guidebook I believe says they have been trying to do this since 2003. The road resembled a river delta as most traffic didn’t stick to the official “way” (I shall not flatter it by calling it a road any longer) and they ploughed new paths over the green pasture. Feeling low on energy (rice for supper and yoghurt with bread for breakfast) I stopped to make some noodles with sardines. This was revolting, but gave me a little oomph. Later on, a phone call from my mother and from Pat Lardner at Cothill (my old school) lifted my spirits. It was incredible to be able to speak to them from one of the most remote places in the world! This was the last phone call I would be able to receive for a month as I was about to enter Xinjiang province China, which, despite being officially described as being “Autonomous” has had its internet and international phone lines cut by the central government in response to the summer riots.

I camped that night surrounded by 5000m snowy peaks, and it was too cold outside to cook. The following morning, having dusted the ice off the tent, with pretty low energy I headed out on the final push to the Irksteim Pass, the Chinese border. I was prepared for an enormous climb. The route that morning was however downhill nearly all the way. When I reached the bottom, I was certain that this was the start of the Big Climb, however I met a friendly cyclist couple, Erin and Sam from Wyoming who gave me the Good News that in fact I had done the pass, and that I was nearly in China! Hurrah! All that Pamir Highway training has clearly not been wasted. The road miraculously became beautiful tarmac, and there was even a line down the middle of it. At the border I ran into the Belgian gang with whom I had shared the ride from Osh. The border was closed until 2pm and they were playing a card game, bataille. There was a shop where I bought some much needed sugary drink and grub. In typical fashion, the woman took a long time with a calculator to add up 40+40+30.

When the border finally opened, I have never seen a border guard take so long to stamp a passport. With serious furrowed brow, he looked the whole thing over about five times before finally giving me the green light to leave the country. What the issue is, I really don’t know. Check the photo (admittedly I don’t much resemble the photo which was taken during a miserable lunch break in my fat audit days), check the visa; stamp.

For some reason it amused me to see “OUP” on the back of most of the lorries. I doubt this stood for Oxford University Press.

At the chinese border point there was an old sign saying “Welcome to China” which rather disappointed me because I was hoping for a more gleaming 21st century reception. A military man took all our passports into a porter-kabin and we were given tiny stools to perch on. There was a man directing traffic with a red flag, except there was no traffic. There was also a lot of marching and standing to attention from the assembled troops. It was shambolic and there was much fidgeting; it reminded me of CCF at school.

When they had finished playing with (I later found out they were photographing) our passports, we were sent down to the real customs and immigration, a few kilometers down the road. This was more like it. The reception here was more like Miami Airport, and we had to fill out Immigration cards and Arrival cards. The immigration desk had a selection of buttons you could press at the end of the process, ranging from “Satisfied” to “Checking Time Too Long” and “Poor Customer Service.” Although the process took a really long time, the Belgian guy in front of me pushed “Satisfied”; I abstained. Thankfully customs didn’t make me unload all my stuff to put it through an X-ray. I understand now that this was a minor miracle.

Immediately having passed through the border formalities and cycled onto the open road, I could feel the excitement and energy entering my muscles. After 11,100 km I was finally in China! The uphills were no longer difficult with the perfect tarmac, and I sailed up and coasted down. The slowly up and slowly down of Tajikistan was but a memory! The villages I passed through were still however mud-brick, and I noticed that the local language is written in Arabic script. Road signs have large Chinese characters, and small Arabic inscriptions. There were colourful signs showing Chinese and Central Asians (some of whom in yurts) living side by side in harmony.

I saw the first camels since Uzbekistan- these are all majestic two-humped bactrians, growing their wooly winter coat. I also whizzed past many yurts- something I had thought I left behind. Getting towards dark (Chinese time is 2 hours later, so this was about 9pm!) I stopped in a village to ask if I could find a bed. I was told I could not, so I moved on a little nervous.

As darkness fell, then, on the first night in China, I arrived at a tiny village and made the sleeping sign with my hands and head to the first person I found. Without hesitation, I was invited in and given a bed. To this day, I am not sure what kind of institution this was- it seemed like a cross between a police station and a community centre.

In the dark green kitchen tent outside the building, I was given a delicious supper of chinese chicken cooked in a wonderful spicy sauce- the taste of ginger on my tongue was an absolute delight after so long in the culinary wilderness. It was served in a big plastic bowl and everyone dug in with their chopsticks (first time these were used!) Beers were drunk with gusto and each sip was heartuly toasted. They made sure I was eating enough and a large bowl of rice was served near the end of the meal.

They made sure I realised that this was a Kyrgyz village- and that there were a few Han Chinese about too. The two parties seem to live together perfectly happily. They would point to eachother and say "Kyrgyz" or "Han Zou" rather like we might talk about whether someone is English or Welsh. When I asked later on if the music was Chinese, they said "Yes, Kyrgyz Chinese."

After supper, we all went into what seemed like a classroom, and everyone (about 20) sat down at the desks. Sweets were then spread out on the tables in front of everyone and everybody dug in. It seemed very ritualistic reminded me of prep school! After this, the older people retired and the younger people played some music (not that loud) from the computer, and started waltzing round the room! They insisted I joined in. When we were doing a bit of freestyle dancing I showed then how to twist and turn Scottish style which amused them greatly!

They were very considerate in that they realised that I would be tired, and before too long asked if I wanted to retire for the evening, which I thankfully accepted. They would accept no money at all.

The next day was glorious weather (it is rarely not in this region of China) and I raced past a man riding a camel. I found breakfast, which was steamed buns stuffed with mutton. Not bad, although I would have liked anything but mutton. There was a little shop in the small town, and after the barren shops in Central Asia, the contents seemed like a bank vault. I bought a preserved duck leg which I had for lunch on-the-go which was delicious.

The scenery was mountainous, and very beautiful although I wasn't well prepared for the lack of towns and I was very hungry by the end of the day. At the first town I got to, a couple of hours before dark, the nasty man in the noodle shop refused to serve me, and the guesthouse refused to let me stay. The shop sold me some flakey bread and some candied peanuts which saw me through to the next town.

This town, I think was called Huaheu (I am not entirely certain because all the signs are in Chinese!) and was much bigger. I arrived at sunset. I thought at the time it was huge, but in hindsight it wasn't that big in Chinese terms. I had RMB 88 in Chinese money which is about GBP 8. The hotel was RMB 80, leaving me only RMB 8 for supper which I assumed wasn't going to be enough. They insisted on payment in advance so, in a huff, off I trotted to the cash machine. On the way there I was stopped by the police who spent what seemed like an age passing my passport among themselves. This made me even crosser. Then I found out that my card has been suspended by Barclays, in their wisdom. I could not find anyone to exchange my USD notes. I went back to the hotel and the woman still insisted on payment in advance, despite the fact that I indicated that I would not have enough money to eat. A sharp shake of the head and a click of the tongue. Furious, I threw the money at her and was shown to my room. This is the first time I had lost my temper with someone on the entire trip, and only my second day in China. With a devil-may-care attitude, I went to a cafe and eat a lovely stir fry vegetables and rice, which mercifully came to RMB 8.

The hotel room itself was an absolute delight- the first crisp clean linen for a few months, TV, and all sorts of little nic-nacs like toothbrush, shoe shine mitt, and little disposable shoes that are standard in all Chinese hotel rooms.

The following morning I obtined cash through the "charge-up" emergency card I bought in Dover. This, along with the USD I was carrying was enough to see me right through Xinjiang.

On arrival in Kashgar, I realised I had lost the card detailing the location of the hostel. I meandered through the Sunday Markets (some one had told me the hostel is near there) but no luck. The crowds were pretty heavy, and I was a little shocked to see an official punch a member of the public in the face. Most people on the streets of Kashgar are Uygar, not ethnically chinese at all, hence the recent troubles. These people are the natives of the area, and their physical features are much the same as Anatolians (Asian Turkey), Azeri and Uzbek. The local language is Turkic, and they wear similar clothes to other central Asians. The men wear enbroidered skull caps and many of the women cover their heads, often their faces too.

After a good couple of hours searching for another tourist who could help me out, I realised that there are not many tourists in Kashgar and it was getting dark. As I passed the Glorious Statue of Mao (complete with garrisons of military riot police, armed to the teeth trenched in behind camo barriers) I was stopped by a very serious policeman. He was very interested in why I was in Kashgar, where I came from and how long I was planning to stay. He gave me a lecture about how if I tried to do any cycling at all in China I may well be punished. After this, he insisted I follow him in his car to a Hotel- he said he would find me a cheap one. I started off walking the bike down the pavement as he had told me not to cycle, then he screamed out the window, "YOU CAN CYCLE!"

He led me to the Qinnibach Hotel, which was such excellent value that I ended up staying there for an entire week. I had an enormous en suite room and over the week it only cost about GBP 20 more than sleeping in a dorm. I had hoped to meet Tom (with whom I cycled in Central Asia) in Kashgar, or at least get a message from him in the hostel as we had arranged, but he must have forgotten.

In any case, there were plenty of fellow lunatics (cycle tourers) to keep me company, including a Swiss couple, Bruce and Patricia, on a tandem who had met Isabel when she was in Samarkand. I then ran into Pierre and Janie whom I had met in Turkey! They were staying in the same hotel, and it was brilliant to see them again. There was also a fellow Brit, Chris with his girlfriend Astrid who had cycled from the Netherlands. All very jolly, but sadly no one I could carry on cycling with. I had hoped to meet an American chap, Noel, who I had met in Osh, but he was well behind me and with the visa days ticking I needed to push on before he got to Kashgar.

It was in Kashgar when I first attempted to cut out the dreadlocks that currently afflict the back of my head, but it was a little painful with a Swiss Army knife, so I gave up after a while. I confess, the back of my head is more Rastafarian than Radleian. The mop has not been cut since February, and with the daily beating of the helmet and the fact that showers are often hard to come by, it is difficult to keep that L'Oreal perfection. The idea of going to a terrified Chinese hairdresser is too awful to consider. It shall have to wait till Hong Kong.

In the first few days in Kashgar, it was still Ramadan and there was a particular street near the mosque where a veritable feast of street food was served on different stalls after sunset. This was a wonderful treat to someone who has, as I have said, been deprived of food variety for a number of months. There was fried fish (fresh water fish with a slight hint of mud, but very tasty when hot), hot and cold noodles, boiled eggs in soup, chicken, melons, sweet pancakes with meat inside (not bad, although I didn't eat any more after I learned about the meat!) No dish cost more than 40p- most of them about 20p. I steered clear of the intestines, heads, hooves, and tongues.

The streets of Old Kashgar by day bustle with shops selling the objects that have been made by their skilled artisans in the workshops in the back. This includes metalwork and woodwork, including cooking utensils (lovely wooden steamers) and toys. There is also an abundance for some reason of dentists. As you wonder the streets you are treated to the sight of people having their teeth drilled much as you might glimpse someone having their hair cut in Stow-on-the-Wold.

I went to the Sunday animal market where they sell tons of sheep and goats, no small number of cattle, and a few camels. The sheep and goats are arranged side by side with their heads through a rope which creates a very artistic chevron pattern. It was interesting to observe deals being made and the traders joking with eachother whilst making business. I was hit by a moist flying cowpat when one of the cows jumped out of its trailer.

The Sunday Markets themselves were no different on a Sunday than on the day I had arrived- they are like the Souks of Morocco or the Grand Bazaar of Turkey, but without so much character. There are long covered alleys of stalls, many of which attempt to sell tourists fur hats- dog skin and fox skin are favourites. There are however many alleys that only sell consumer goods such as cooking equipment, so it is nice to see that these ancient markets are being used by locals and not solely devoted to the tourist trade. The true old town of Kashgar is being knocked down bit by bit, day by day. It is mud brick and a little grimey, but it is rather a shame. The Party wants to make everything nice and new. You can see the demolition teams working just outside the Sunday Markets, and there are places all over the Old town where old is going down and new going up. The new buildings are not unattractive- after central Asia I was delighted to see clean new structures, but it is a shame to lose the old.

After the troubles in Urumqi back in the summer, there is a massive military presence on the streets of Kashgar. As I mentioned before, armed soldiers are trenched in in places where people go about their daily business such as near smart new shopping complexes! It seems very surreal. There are also convoys three trucks of riot police who patrol the streets day and night. They gaze out at the crowds from behind their transparent shields thoroughly bored. One night the driver of one of the trucks waved at me. We had been told on the last night of Ramadan that there was a 11.30 Beijing time (9pm Xinjiang time) curfew, so we made sure we were not on the streets that evening.

I eventually left Kashgar on the 24th September, and ended up camping in the Taklimakan desert. The camping spot was however well secluded and I slept well. I wasn't well prepared for the lack of towns or shops and didn't have enough supplies! I cycled further into the desert the following day, and had my first Laghman for lunch. This is a dish of hand pulled noodles, fresh vegetables, and mutton and is actually quite nice. The only problem, as I was to discover, is that is really the only dish served in Uygar restaurants. I camped again, this time on very uneven ground which made me sleep really badly. On top of this, I stupidly didn't have enough food, so my energy levels were very, very low the next morning. Repairing a tyre and packing up camp required a supreme effort, and the 47km to the next town the next day felt like four times that. Lorry drivers were very kind and stopped to give me drinks. Another car stopped to give me water. If you have been a fool and not taken enough water, you never need to worry in China because someone will stop to give you some.

At the town, I found a little hotel that took me in, but insisted I register with the police. They took an age writing all sorts of details down, and then took me off in a car to a copyshop where they copied EVERY PAGE of my passport. They then came to inspect the room, I assume to make sure it was fit for a foreigner. The room was pretty foul, and the guy tapped the windows (why, I don't know) before giving it the all clear. I was furious because he had brought his lighted cigarette into the room. It must be said that he was very polite, but he swaggered like only a provincial Mr Plodd could have.

The next day I felt much better having had a hearty laghman supper. Laghman then followed for breakfast, lunch and supper. It's funny how there is usually a huge selection of restaurants, but not of dishes!

My skills at tying the chinese characters on the signposts the map were vastly improving. I was stopped by the police only because they wanted to goggle at my bike, offer me fags (that seems like the usual Chinese friendly gesture, so it's a shame I don't smoke) and feed me delicious melon. A VW passat slowed down to have a look at me, and I gave them an ironic wave, pretty cross at being stared at even as I cycle. Ten minutes later, I saw them parked in the verge, and they beckoned me over. They insisted I accept a bag stuffed with fruit and moon cakes, and a couple of bottles of water. They took lots of pictures, and were really friendly. I felt severely guilty for having been peeved at their initial slowing down; you have to have patience in bucketloads and just be friendly to everyone. This is not always possible! Many times cars have stopped to give me snacks and water; the Chinese have proven to be a supremely generous bunch.

That night I stayed in an Uygar guesthouse in Achu- back in the land of the pit loo, although this one had a chair with a convenient hole for those too weak to squat.

The roads are some of the safest I have riden on due to the paucity of cars and the large hard shoulders. Despite this, coach drivers are a total menace. They have horns of which the QE2 would have been proud, and use these as a substitute for prudence. They do not slow down for these little towns, and I saw one in Achu terrifyingly overtake a lorry at speed in the middle of the town. I am glad to be only a spectator to the action on the road!

The following day, as I was approaching Aksu, a car stopped to give me some water (unbidden) and it was Mr Li and his sister- a wealthy cotton merchant who had given me a drink a few days earlier when I really needed it. He told me to look him up when I got to Aksu later that evening. He was very friendly, but had a slight resemblance to Michael Jackson! He wanted me to stay in the 4* hotel he was in, but it was a little more than I wanted to spend (albeit only 20 quid, I should have gone for it!) He found me another, marginally cheaper 3* with English films to watch for free! He took me out for supper of dumplings, and I watched a Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore film when I retired. I can't remember the last time I had watched a film.

The landscape for this stretch had been very beautiful, with the desert sands to my right and high deserty mountains, shrouded in a sands haze to my left. The heat during the day was still pretty hot.

It was such a nice hotel that I took an easy morning, and when I ventured out, a police woman checked my documents as I sat and took breakfast in an outside stall. A white face equals a police check in Xinjiang. She was not friendly, but she was extremely polite, passing me the napkins just before I needed them. She had to call English speaking reinforcements to interrogate, and he was quite friendly when I told him about my trip, and wished me well. Later on, a poor policeman had to chase me down on foot when I inadvertently jumped a checkpoint, and even he was very polite and friendly. The haze lifted that afternoon to reveal snow capped mountains to the north.

And so, on the 29th September, due to the late start, I decided to stop at Karayulgun after only 54km. I found a nice little hotel with en suite bathroom, and argued the price down from the equivalent of 12 pounds to less than 7. The lady then insisted I go with her to the police with my passport, and she bought me a drink on the way. When we were there, she grabbed the passport back off the policeman when she realised he had done the official check and was now just being nosey! In these provincial towns the police are the local lads, as they are in the UK and are not at all a force to be feared. On the way back she bought apples and watermelon which she showered upon me, and then took me out for some chinese beef noodles at a restaurant that was delighted to have a foreign visitor. Many photographs, and posing whilst shaking hands. They like that. She would not accept any money for all this kindness.

The following morning, I went back to the restaurant and had beef noodles for breakfast as I had promised. He totally refused payment. More shaking hands, more photos. The son of the Uygar neighbour restaurant owner then insisted I go with him to a photographer over the road to have a picture taken with him. The background could have been taken from the smurfs! During this time his brother turned up, whom I had not met, combing his hair, and he also wanted a photo taken with me!

Being a foreigner in China is sometimes like being a celebrity, and other times it is like being an exotic bird in a zoo for everyone to gawk at. They will shout "Hello" at you in a ridiculous manner, toned as you would talk to a dog, or if you were asking polly if she wanted a cracker. If you respond, it is more likely than not followed not by friendliness, but by hoots of laughter. They have made the bird talk, or the dog roll onto his belly! I am still undecided as to whether this treatment is excusable by the fact that there really are not many different looking people in these parts, but it is truly enraging. You cannot cycle through a town or even walk down the street without people shouting this at you and it is pretty uncomfortable. Sometimes I have taken to wearing my buff as a mask.

The following night, the teahouse in the middle of nowhere let me pitch my tent after my evening injection of Laghman. There was a large refinery with a yellow flame illuminating the desert nearby.

The next day the 1st of October, I had my temperature taken twice by the police at checkpoints, with a terrifying little infrared gun. We would find this kind of intrusion onto one's personal life utterly awful at home. I arrived in Kucha which is a big town, and I had high hopes for an easy night watching chinese adverts on TV. The 60th anniversary of the state holiday however meant that all the hotels I could find were full, and I wandered the streets for probably an hour and a half looking for lodgings. I was picked up by the police, who, after making sure I had bought supper, led me to a perfectly nice and cheap hotel. They took my temperature with a thermometer in the armpit before letting me in the room.

The next day, my temperature was taken again before I was allowed into the supermarket! I love Chinese supermarkets- there is always something new to try, and a huge basket of snacks seldom exceeds a fiver. On every sales shelf there is a loudspeaker barking away, and on this occasion, with the holiday, it was utter bedlam. I spent that night in Luntai, a small town where I found PORK noodles for supper.

The next morning, I had what has become my morning staple for the first time, meat stuffed steamed buns. You usually get about 10 in their own little steamer. You dip them in soy sauce and chilly sauce and they are not bad. Also recommended is deep fried dumplings or deep fried dough. All this usually comes with a tofu soup or a sort of dark congee which is delicious if piping hot and mixed with sugar.

I am ashamed to say I used my middle finger in true anger for the first time in my life on that day. A JCB driver with the loudest horn I have ever heard thought it would be hilaroius to draw up next to me and give a good blast. I used the American version because it is more international: I didn't want him to get confused and think I was giving him a victory salute. I felt pretty bad afterwards as I only want to be charming and friendly to people in these countries I visit, especially when so many people have showed me such kindness.

That evening, I arrived at a little village at dusk that had no guesthouse. I asked the police where I could camp, and they told me to wait for a bit. After a wait, and a lot of banter, I was invited in to stay with an Uygar Family. My host was a 20 year old student. He has sisters and a brothers, and his parents were very happy to have me to stay in their home. He was very excited to have a foreigner to stay and was fascinated by my passport. He told me that it is very difficult for locals to get travel documents. He insisted that he is Uygar and not Chinese- this was the first time I had encountered such sentiments, and that is why me description here is deliberately vague. I was a little surprised when he showed me a picture of Osama Bin Laden on his phone, and he showed me a video on it of human bodies being taken apart, I assume by a medical professor. I put all this morbid fascination down to naive innocence rather than being a serious pervert: he was very childlike. He pointed out his music heroes on the TV, and I noticed that they were Han Chinese.

The following day his mother made a laghman that was very nice, and eaten with steamed buns and he insisted on taking me to see his "pear tree," which I thought was rather odd. This actually turned out to be an enormous orchard and he filled a shoe box with the most delicious pears. At the time I thought this would be too big to carry, but when I tasted the pears I was very glad to have it. Chinese pears, and in particular those from the vicinity of Korla are both crispy and juicy- unlike our pears which tend to be either crispy and dry or juicy and soft. They were extremely concerned that I do not forget them, and he gave me a necklace to ensure I do not.

The wind was so awful that day that I decided to stop early in Korla. I found a 3* hotel for half the price of a German youth hostel, and was utterly delighted with the huge, immaculate room with computer (being Xinjiang, no internet alas), bathtub, the "news" in English, 2 double beds and all sorts of toys. Below there was a spa where I steamed away for a while.

The fire notice on the door read as follows: "Please do not worry if a fire is occuring, our hotel has owned superior scattering facilities to ansure you are transmitted safely" (!) What about Extreme Unction? Surely that would be included in the full hotel service?!

The next day the wind wasn't so bad, and at dark I found a small town with a cheap hotel. The woman showed me where I could eat supper, and I had a very nice fish dish although the bones were everywhere and I impaled my tongue. I thought I had ordered pork ribs. When I finished I returned, showered and got into bed. Fifteen minutes later there was a rat-a-tat-tat on the door. Who the hell could this be?! It was the hotel owner who spoke no English. I dismissed him politely and got back into bed. Ten minutes later, at half ten there was another knock. This time it was the police. "The hotel has no right to have foreigners; this is a private hotel. This man will take you to the next town, 15 km away where there is a hotel for foreigners. I am so sorry." Complaints, appeals to decency and human rights would do nothing to help my cause. Feeling like a refugee, I got dressed and packed up. It took a long tome to explain to them that I wanted to leave my bike at the hotel because I have cycled all the way from London and I am not going to let this sort of thing break my line, damn it!

It transpired that as I had had a shower they would not refund my previous hotel, so I had to pay for 2 nights that night. I was not a happy man, although the amounts were not material. silver lining was that the new hotel included breakfast, although a Chinese hotel breakfast is nothing to get excited about: cold salty vegetables and lukewarm soup.

I returned to my bike and continued my cycling. That evening I got caught out by the dark in the middle of the desert on the quiet motorway (motorways are safer and faster if you get the chance). There was a barbed wire fence preventing escape, so I camped in a tunnel underneath which was surprisingly not too noisy, but the ground did shudder when a lorry went over.

The next day quite unexpectedly led me up quite a high deserty mountain pass which was really beautiful under the blue sky. I reached the top just before dusk, and I found a chap in a portakabin selling instant noodles to truckers, which did very nicely for supper with some bread to dip in. He led me to an unused bedroom in a sort of unused police station which was great because it meant I didn't have to pitch my tent. I killed an ENORMOUS spider just before going to sleep.

The next day, the 8th of October, I sailed downhill into the Turpan depression, one of the lowest places on earth, and the place where the highest weather temperature ever was recorded. In the depression it became very hot and I whizzed past many nodding donkey oil pumps. I had seen quite a few of these in Xinjiang in the previous few days. Turpan is famous for grapes and raisins and the town was surrounded with vineyards. There were also loads of mud-brick lattice buildings for drying the grapes. I was too late for grapes, but fine for raisins. They were enormous, plump and very sweet- and bright purple or bright green.

The town itself was much like any other large Chinese town. It took me a long time to gain entry because the police check was baffled that my visa had been issued in Baku. I went to see the police here, who extended my visa without any problems aside from linguistic ones. As this took an entire day, I went to see the ancient silk road city of Jiaohe which, although being more than a thousand years old, and made of mud, is in remarkable condition. It was like visiting ancient Mycaenae in Greece.

Cycling through desert-like terrain the next day I decided to stop at a melon seller for a snack. I chose a small one, and the guy refused to sell it to me. He insisted on a large one. Big confusion and frustration. He opened it up and fed me piece by piece until I had had enough, and then refused any payment. In Shanshan I found a really nice, and cheap hotel.

The next day, I cycled into the desert again (I have never made the mistake of being under-supplied again!) and found a large crater by the side of the road which hid my tent perfectly. I was startled by human voices in the night, but Chinese trucks break down the whole time, and this one had done so on the bit of the road nearest the crater. Not the best sleep I have ever had, but crystal clear stars.

The next day took me through a place I have since discovered is famous for being outrageously windy. And it was just that; not much fun at all. As the road turned south however towards late afternoon, the wind started to assist more than hinder, and I made good ground. Despite this, at fall of night I arrived at a village, Yiwanquan, with no guesthouse. The police directed me to a building where I was immediately invited in.

I had been thinking that day, as the mind wanders when you cycle, what it would be like to be back in an institution like a prep school. I was just about to find out. This was a workers' lodgings and I was given a bed in the dormitory. Workers in China nearly always wear combat camo clothes. They then asked if I had a bowl; I provided my army mess tin. They filled this with lovely bean sprout stir fry from the enormous couldrons of the kitchen, accompanied with steamed buns. They were all extremely concerned to make me feel at home, and ensured I had second helpings. They were fascinated by my sleeping bag and how it can compress into such a small bag.

As I dozed off, they were getting stuck into a serious game of cards. If in Central Asia they play backgammon, in China they play cards. At half 6 the next morning, just as used to happen at prep school, the lights were automatically turned on, and just as at prep school, no one paid any attention. This was followed 15 minutes later by bursts of Peking Opera music, and half an hour later again more music. This was when everyone started to stir. They provided me with warm water to wash my face, and soup and steamed buns for breakfast. They also insisted I take some steamed buns in my bag, which was lucky because I was nearly out of food. Before I left I gave them all some small euro coins and some of the many Azeri coins that have been cluttering my bag. They were delighted.

They had tried to get me to slurp my soup. Chinese table manners are something that take a long, long time to get used to. It would appear to me that in general no one really cares how you eat your food. If you are in a restaurant and you want to spit, by all means make a huge noise to clear your throat and project a gobule onto the floor. This noise is what usually wakes me up when I am in cheap Chinese hotels. Also, there is no need to use the chopsticks to pick up your noodles- you can shovel them. Just move your head down to the bowl, and slurp them from the side.

I stopped in a little convenience store to buy some sweets in the afternoon. The woman behind the counter filled a carrier bag to the brim with sweets, cakes, preserved eggs, coke and sprite, and insisted I take it. I tried hard to give her some money for it, but she would not accept.

In Hami that evening, I found a cheap hotel, where the staff led me to a rerstaurant for supper. I made a noise like a chicken and then a noise like a cow with a gesture, thinking I had asked for chicken or beef. Just as I had finished the chicken, and was about to ask for the bill, a huge plate of beef arrived, which the woman insisted I had asked for. Why they thought I wanted 2 huge, and expensive dishes is beyond me. Communication can be so frustrating sometimes, in that they are programmed it seems, totally differently. In another country, they may not understand your speech, but when you ask a question or make a gesture, there is no other question you could possibly be asking them, so they understand what you mean. It is so frustrating sometimes that it is hard to restrain one's temper, and sometimes you can feel like crying or biffing someone. Patience is everything!

At the bank the following day, hanged my remaining USD 300 for Chinese money. There was a Bank of China, which is the only institution that will do this. My passport was scrutinised by 3 different people, I had to go to one clerk to prepare the forms before proceeding to the cashier. She worked quickly, but there was so much paperwork that it took an age. She was very pleased when I pushed the "good Service" button. Then, at the cashier, I counted 9 forms going off to different places, each one stamped with three different stamps by the same clerk. So much for segregation of duties. I counted 9 forms going off in different directions, one of which with my phone number on. In any other country, this transaction would have taken about 3 minutes.

That evening I was invited to stay with the Traffic Police, who collect road tolls. It was good to have somewhere to stay, and some supper although one of them was I fear a little disappointed that I don't swing the other way, if you understand what I'm getting at. I don't know what gave the impression that I might, but I fear it may have been the rather strange photo with the Uygar boy I mentioned above that he picked out of my bag, and the pictures on my camera of the guy I had stayed with in the orchard, who looks rather camp I am afraid to say. I pretended I didn't understand what he was getting at and made very clear that all I was interested in was going to bed!

The 15th of October was a mammoth day of 140km to XinXinXa, the border town with Gansu. I followed a new, and as yet unopened motorway all day and it was like having the worlds best cycle path. The only problem came just before dusk, as I was arriving at the town, when it turned out that they had not finished blasting through the rock at one end. This was a very nervous moment, but I found a road worker who showed me the dust track into XinXinXa.

I had met a friendly Taiwanese cycle pair (Ida and Leon, brother and sister) in Hami who had warned me that one hotel in XinXinXa was awful, and best avoided but they said I had no way of telling which one this was. I was very disappointed when the staff at the hotel I had just checked into told me about a Taiwanese cycle pair who had stayed there a few days before. They made a nice supper, but the hotel was AWFUL. The loo was an unconcealed hole in the ground at the end of the corridor, right next to my room. No water, no flush. And it wasn't cheap either. After I had turned off the lights to go to sleep, there was a knock on the door. Oh No! Not the police again! It was a young staff member who it appeared was interested in chatting. I was fuming with rage, and told him that I was going to sleep and closed the door. Five minutes later, another knock, and the woman who runs the place was going mad. She then led a stranger into my room and gave him my spare bed. I had not paid a dormitory price. It was not worth complaining, and I went to sleep.

The next day, I cycled into Gansu, although I wasn't aware when I actually crosed the border. Finally, in touch with the internet and the outide world again! I had a long day cycling through hilly desert-like scenery, and I was concerned I wasn't going to find a town with a hote, as my water was running very low. I crossed the railway tracks however, which are great landmarks because they tell you exactly where you are on a Chinese map, and saw that I would soon arrive in a town.

I played Russian roulette with the menu, which yielded a pleasant pork sate, asked if there was anywhere to stay. When the bill came, there was another 2 quid on the bottom of the bill. When I asked what this was, the waitress replied, "Sleeping," whereupon I was led to a more than acceptable room I had to myself. The loo was un-usable as far as I was concerned- a pit with four standing holes side by side, and mounds of poo (sorry everybody) rising up above each hole. The Chinese are largely not bothered about privacy when it comes to defecating. I remember being shocked when I was taught at school that the Romans didn't have any dividers in their latrines. Well, often, nor do the Chinese. I often see them doing it just standing by the side of the road.

The following day, the wind was extremely kind to me, blasting me at 40 km/h for the last few hours to such an extent that I cycled 154km by the end of the day. The landscape was lunar, but terracotta mud, and I whizzed past an enormous sea-loke reservoir that wasn't marked on the map. I exited the motorway in the middle of nowhere, and asked the toll people where I could pitch my tent. I was told to speak to a girl who spoke English on the tannoy, and I was invited in.

They made a huge fuss over me, plying me with milk, cakes, tea, and a huge supper. I noticed that they were very civilised, and used their chopsticks with great delicacy. They were very impressed that I know how to use them. Many places assume that no foreigner can use them. They let me use the internet to check my emails, which I had really been looking forward to, but I found out that some spammer had sent a wierd email from my account about mobile phones to all my contacts, and deleted not only all my contacts but also all my emails for the month before. So if you got an email from me like that it was spam, and if you sent me an email, send it again!

The next morning, they very kindly made me some noodles and warm milk and asked if I wanted to stay another day. I cycled further into Gansu, and having now left the desert, I was catapaulted into Autumn. The sweet smells reminded me of home, and I didn't realise it, but I subconsciously associate autumn with happy thoughts, like Rugby. This gave me a boost. The landscape reminded me of home, with the autumn hues, the hills, and the sheep. I found a room on that evening, the 18th October in Yumendong.

The next day, I arrived early in Jiayuguan, and went to see the castle that marks the start of the Great Wall. It was a surreal thought to have reached such a landmark, having left London on my bike and just kept pedalling. It was a very impressive castle, but the wall itself has not been restored, and is purely mud brick. Inside the castle, there were waxworks from hundreds of years ago doing daily chores. It occurred to me how little life has changed for many people over the last few hundred years. The wood burning stove with large circular pot holes in the kitchen could have been taken out of any of the local restaurants. That day, I had also seen fields being ploughed with oxen and small farmers work the land and harvest by hand.

I was very tired the next day, and decided to pop into a passing town, Jiuquan, only 20 km on to buy a map of Gansu. This was an utter disaster as no one could work out what I wanted. I would show my map of Xinjiang, and then said "Gansu," pointing again at the map, and indicating I wanted to buy one. I found a shopping mall, and when I thought I had found a bookshop, the woman provided a child's jigsaw map of China. This nearly brought tears of frustration. I walked past a bike shop, and they changed my brake pads and cables for me, and a passing woman who spoke English in the meantime quietly went off and bought me the map I wanted. Just as you are about to strangle someone in China, someone does something unbelievabley kind to make everything OK again. I was tired and decided to call it a day, and the bike mechanic led me to a nice, very cheap hotel (2 pounds).

That evening I walked out of a restaurant when as I walked in pretty much everyone stopped talking to stare at me, and the waitress looked at me in the manner of a dog pleading not to be shot. I was tired.

The landscape the next day reminded me of the south west of France, complete with snowy mountains in the background. The mornings are very cold, but the lunchtime heat is still shirtsleeves weather. There are carts everywhere with maize stalks and chaff, and every possible space is given to drying the maize: gardens, streets, rooves. I stayed in a little town called Yuanshanzi for RMB 10 which is about 90p - the least I have ever paid for a room anywhere in the world! Perfectly acceptable and they even give you a thermos of hot water.

The night of the 22nd was spent in Zhongye, a large town where I found a decentish hotel. I bought some dragon fruit to snack on, very nice. The following day was perfect weather, and I should have made good grouynd, but I only made 66km and stopped in Shandan due to tyre problems. I started to follow the Great Wall which snakes in and out of the railway tracks. No one really pays attention to it- in some places it is gone totally, in others it is quite significant. After while I found a grotty little guesthouse, which was cheap so I accepted a room. These two revolting men who seemed to run the place then came in, and one of them brushed the dirty bed sheets with his hand in front of me to try to make them clean. The other guy had chronically nicotine stained teeth and a large boget hanging from one nostril, which he wiped off and flicked somewhere in the room. They then sat on the bed and tried to explain something in Chinese. Another frustrating thing is that if you don't understand what they are saying, they are convinced you will understand it if they write it down for Chinese characters. I was getting pretty cross and indicated that I didn't understand and that I wanted to be left alone. The bogey guy then made an obscene gesture with his hands to indicate sex, and I realised they were pimps who wanted to know if I required any "services". I said no, and told them to leave, but they wouldn't go, and 3 minutes later he made a different gesture. At this point I was livid with rage, picked up all my things, and demanded my money back, which he reluctantly gave me. The last place I want to stay is a brothel with dirty sheets! Luckily I found quite a nice place nearby that I can't believe I had missed before. There was a power cut for much of the evening, and they provided candles.

The following day, having been woken up by the Peking Opera music blasted into the streets before 7am, I cycled up and down a huge hill to Yongdong. The Great Wall followed me all day, firstly on my right, and then the road cut through a narrow gap in it (I do hope they didn't make the gap.) It is mud-brick, and the little gaps in it make it look a bit like cartoon teeth. Being mud, it is the same colour as the landscape so I would be very surprised indeed if you can see it from space, even with a really really good telescope. There are the remains of watchtowers every few hundred yards, and huge forts lie unceremoniously derelict. The landscape was a little deserty, but I suppose it couldn't have been true desert as there were many sheep and shepherds going about their daily lives around it, paying no attention to this world famous relic!

Next day, the 25th October, I continued to plod on, enjoying the beautiful autumn weather, and watching the locals at their back-breaking agricultural work. The pit loo in the little guesthouse that evening was guarded by one of the biggest and meanest spiders I have ever seen. I just can't get used to the public nature of these loos. When I went in the following morning there was a chap in there chatting away on a very high tech phone whilst squatting. You often see people squatting by the side of the road- it is necessary to watch where you cycle!

I cycled up a 3000 metre mountain pass that afternoon, and there was lovely snow-kissed scenery at the top. Buddhist buildings have started marking the landscape which is both beautiful and adds more satisfaction at having made it into the buddhist world. I had noticed people transporting as many as three live sheep on the back of a motorbike, and also bikes with panniers made especially to carry chickens! I had to cycle a little into the dark that evening, which I usually will do anything to avoid, but before long I found a little guesthouse in a town and a very nice won ton soup.

The Chinese National Anthem blasted into the streets rose me the following morning, and I enjoyed a long downhill stretch. I had been cycling down the motorway (EASILY the safest option) and someone helped me lift it over the fence for lunch and back onto the motorway again after lunch. I enjoyed boiled vegetables (the ones where you choose which veg you want to eat on little sticks and they cook it for you) and steamed buns while seemingly the entire population of the local school took it in turns to peer at me through the doorway, and come and have little chats. I didn't mind at all- sometimes I imagine foreigners NEVER come to these parts, and they were very friendly. The towns however are incredibly modern with high rise buildings, modern-seeming shops and wide, if quiet, streets.

That night, I got caught out by the dark, so I climbed out of the motorway and asked in a little village where I could camp. Although the chinese are incredibly kind and helpful in general, they do not seem willing to help much when it comes to this sort of thing. In central asia, I would have been invited into a home to camp in the garden, or, much more likely, to be an honoured guest in the home. In this little village the people wanted nothing to do with me. I really don't mind this: they owe me nothing and I owe them nothing. I am self sufficient, and I was only asking where I could camp our of courtesy. I wandered off and found a quiet spot in an orchard. I took a couple of nice juicy pears from one of the leafless trees as the harvest had already happened it seemed, and the remaining few fruit it seemed were left there to rot.

I had camped only 40km from Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu and my plan was to spend one night there before bashing on towards Xian the next morning. I was not expecting the Hong Kong style metropolis that Lanzhou is with green buddhist temple-crowned mountains close-in, a large river and hundreds of gleaming high rise buildings. I settled into the first hotel I found at an acceptable price that took foreigners and planned to do nothing other than write this blog for the rest of the day.

After lunch there was a knock on the door. This was not the police, nor an angry chambermaid about to bust me for washing my clothes in the sink. There, somewhere under a hevy mop of hair and a shaggy beard, much like mine, stood Charles Lamb, an old Oundlian fives player with a passion for eating well. He was dressed in clothes very similar to mine (blue tracksuit bottoms and a red fleece) and the staff had thought he was me, and tried to let him in my room. He also has the same bike as me, minus the Rohloff Speedhub. It was a boon to meet another British man having not held a proper conversation with anyone other than my family on the phone for a while. Rather co-incidentally, he had been cycling for a long time with a girl I met on a boat to Bilbao in Spain last November! After a bottle of 1994 Chinese red, we decided to cycle together for a bit, although in retrospect, he has been cycling for a long time with these guys at the speed of light (150 to 200km a day compared to my 90 to 120) so we only ended up cycling together for a few days. I have no intention of ruining my enjoyment of the cycling (and cycling here really is enjoyable) by busting a gut to stay up in the fast lane.

The following day I decided to stay in Lanzhou all day while Charles went to see some buddhist caves and I spent all day writing the bulk of this masterpiece. That evening, by another co-incidence we met a friendly anglophone chinese man that Charles had met at the caves when we headed into the centre for food. He very kindly treated us to some local muslim grub- a very nice cooked pear, some delicious sweet cold wheat soup, and a foul sweet bean soup that we both just managed to finish out of politeness. He then insisted on taking us out for some beers, which was very kind of him too. In China, beer is drunk out of little shot glasses which are constantly refilled. It was very late by the time we went to bed! He talked a lot about politics, and was a little like a prophet for the Communist party. "It is great here- progress is so fast. In UK it takes decades to build a road, but here we have communism, we just move people...There are some crazy people in Tibet and Xinjiang who do not want to be part of China..."

The next day we left very late having had breakfast in a 4* hotel -a great wheeze- and done a few chores. While Charles was in a shop I observed a man having his shoes shined. The woman took a lot of care over the job- dilligently rolled up his trousers and carefully placed pieces of paper to protect his socks from the polish. At the end, after she had carefully rolled down the trousers and taken out the bits of paper, he never looked her in the face, or said anything to her- he just gave her the money (RMB 3 - 27p) whilst chatting on his phone, and walked off. This appears to be the norm- they don't say thankyou in a commercial transaction, and explains why they are always a little flabbergasted when we do. I have actually stopped using the Chinese word "Xie Xie" in such circumstances, and have started saying "thankyou" instead which causes less surprise.

That evening we found a nice little hotel in a little town, and it was good to have someone to split the already cheap bill with. These little towns are being rebuilt by the central planners. It is plain to see that people are being turfed out of their little traditional chinese houses (which have chinese-style rooves and little ornaments on them) by way of "progress" in the form of blocks of flats. Charles made the comparison with Britain in the 1960s, and that they don't seem to be learning from our mistakes! You can see the diggers at work, and the next street earmarked for the wrecking-ball. The building work goes into the night. As we wandered early in the following morning in the Hunt for Breakfast, they were busy laying the marble in the new town square. This would have been a clutch of little houses very recently.

Poor Charles was startled when I speepwalked in the middle of the night - I thought some chinese guy had come and moved into the room! I shouted "WHAT'S GOING ON?!" at which point he woke me up and all was well! Early the next morning, at about 8am there were people classically dancing in the main square, as well as performing aerobics, and funny dance exercises involving badminton raquets and shuttlecocks. Most of these people are elderly, and I have since seen government advice for the elderly that to do this too early in the morning on cold days may be bad for their health!

For three days, the mountain scenery was made even more dramatic by the presence of terraces going from the valleys right up to the summits. The terraces themselves were either ploughed terra-cotta in colour or as bright as Augusta golf greens- surprising considering the scarcity of rain in the area. The views were truly breathtaking, especially when the panorama opened up down the valley.

The next day, as I was fixing a puncture on the side of the road, Susie Wheeldon and her pal Jamie -the people Charles had been cycling with- flashed past and I hailed them down for a chat. I hadn't seen Susie since that boat to Bilbao from Portsmouth (last year I made this trip and cycled back to test out my bike, stopping with friends at Sauveterre on the way back and demolish as much foie gras as politely possible.) It was great to see her again, and to meet Jamie, who (I hope he doesn't mind my saying this) has a touch of Johnny Vaughan about him.

They all warped on, leaving me to take things at my preferred pace, whilst enjoying the scenery. They found a 4* hotel in Tianshui which if shared with another person only costs a tenner. We sat there for a good hour the next day munching away at the all-you-can-eat buffet which had a man pulling fresh beef noodles, the traditional chinese breakfast favourite. I decided to part company from the peloton and make my way towards Xian while they took a day off to inspect the Majishan Grottoes.

I plumped for the small road rather than the motorway as I thought I may want to stop earlier and there are always more towns on the little roads. I thought I was terribly clever following the chinese characters for Xian and Baoji, and enjoing the villages I was passing. Grain was being dried on the verges on the road; they even put it on the tarmac itself so it was necessary to take care to avoid running over it. There was a lot of climbing involved, up into the green hills/mountains. These were very steep as they crowded round the road, much like sandcastles made with a bucket and spade.

I was irritated when I arrived at a police roadblock and told that this was a dead end at about 3pm. After a bit of non-linguistic communication, it turned out that I had taken completely the wrong road and I had in fact cycled up to the Majishan Grottoes. 5 minutes later, Charles, Susie and Jamie turned up in a 3 wheeled taxi. I decided to call the cycling a day, and joined them in the grottoes. It was a good mistake to have made because the grottoes -caves with buddha statues on a sheer cliff face, made accessible by artificial platforms and metal staircases- were very special indeed. The sight of the largest 15 metre buddha statues carved into the side of the cliff against the blue sky and the green mountains was quintessentially chinese.

I found a little, extremely cold guesthouse near the grottoes that also gave me some supper. I have started usinfg my water bladder as a hot water bottle from the thermos of hot water you always get in these establishments, and it worked very well indeed. After finding breakfast in the street of plain doughnuts and glutinous spicy noodles from some delighted ladies the next day, I tried to find the through road, heading in the right direction. The terrain reminded me of the north coast of Turkey, the hilliest place I have cycled so far. I passed quaint little villages, all decked out in red chinese lanterns (no doubt left over from the holiday a month ago) as we would use bunting. Then the road passed under the motorway and I realised I was totally lost, and needed help. I asked some workmen for the right way to Baoji, and they pointed me down a disused dirt road, steep downhill and through a tunnel. I took their advice, and 5km later when I saw the motorway again I realised I was going perfectly the wrong way.

The only way of getting back on track would be somehow to get onto the motorway, which was going to be difficult as in this section it is usually either high bridges or tunnels. I spotted a banked section, and climbed the bike up the steep bank, removed the panniers, and carefully passed them through a hole in the barbed wire. After a lot of struggling, and a lot of swearing, I was moving in the right direction (having crossed the central reservation -the motorway was largely EMPTY) After I emerged from the first long tunnel, The air had taken a sharp, damp coolness that instantly reminded me of Belguim back in March. Much of the rest of the day was spent in large, well-lit tunnels. I would rather cycle in the open air, but being in a tunnel means that I have not had to cycle over the top of the hill!

As I approached what would be the last tunnel of the day, I was hailed down by the police. Oh No! They explained that the road was very dangerous; I explained (without lying) that in my entire trip across Eurasia this was the safest road I had been on. China is funny. They think that the highway is dangerous because in the west we think it is dangerous, and they are keen to have western values but do not make any allowances for the fact in the west we actually have something called "traffic"- a noun alien to the Chinese highway.

They wanted to shove me and my bike into a police van and drive me through, but when I explained (again, without lying) that I had cycled every inch of land between here and china, they went off and held a discussion. This was positive. They announced that they would let me cycle through the tunnel, in front of a police car with flashing lights. So off I went, pedalling as hard as I could into the tunnel, with had a "continuous downgrade" as the chinese signs say, allowing me to be very speedy at about 35 kph. The police escort was made even more ridiculous by the fact that half of the tunnel was cordened off for pithy roadworks, and this was where I cycled, and would have cycled- reducing the danger factor to 0.0001. The tunnel went on and on and on. At an approptriate place, a layby, I pulled over assuming the police car would want to pull over to let the angry motorists who were bottled in behind carry on with their lives. They were having none of it, and told me to carry on, for heaven's sake! The tunnel kept going- on and on. When I thought we were nearing the end, it turned out to be simply a white coloured paint that was slapped on every few kilometers to wake everybody up. When the motorists started angrily hooting their horns, the policemen would silence them with an angry message through the loudspeaker. It was like the announcements silencing the growing murmours in the Sistine Chapel.

When we eventually got through the tunnel, which turned out to be 12km long, big handshakes all round, and they insisted on carrying on the escort until I was on the right road, despite a fifteen foot hard shoulder and no traffic. They were very concerned that I should take a few sips of water before carrying on. The scenery was lovely and I should have liked to have stopped to take a few photos, but alas this would have given rise to a lot of moaning. At the first exit, I asked them if I should leave the motorway, but they said no! Very kindly, they let me continue until the town called Fujiatan on my English map, but in actual fact is something else entirely and I have forgotten. They took me to a hotel, and helped me navigate the sea accommodation woes (en suite, not ensuite, inspect the rooms....) before finally a cheery farewell. The hotel menu had photographs, which meant I didn't have to play gastronomic roulette, and I managed a nice belly pork dish with egg fried rice.

The next morning, after fixing an inner tube and devouring a curious breakfast of fried eggs, sweet egg soup, salty vegetables and a mountain of fried bread, I left Gansu province and entered Shaanxi province where it seems, the police are more keen to keep cyclists off the motorway. They man the entry roads. This is irritating because while the motorway tunnels are lit perfectly, the common variety ones are not. This doesn't mean I am going to get hit by a car because I am lit up like a Christmas Tree, and you can hear all the cars coming well in advance, allowing a leisurely migration to the pavement. It is however much, much slower. Big irritation.

I arrived in Baoji last night hoping to renew my visa here, which must be done before the weekend. The last visa extension in Turpan took overnight, and I know that small towns are easier than large ones like Xian, which take 5 days to process. The rules are not uniform however, and when I eventually found the PSB (Public Security Bureau- similar to Bergerac Jersey's fabled Bureau des Etrangers) they told me, by way of a phone call to a university lecturer who spoke English (no doubt a friend of one of the pretty girls who worked there) that in Baoji this would take 7 days.

I found lodgings for a tenner- for another tenner I could have wallowed in 4* luxury in the hotel opposite. In Chinese hotels you often get unusual phone calls from someone who doesn't speak English. I was unusually friendly to the one last night, and chatted in English for a few seconds to whoever it was before putting the phone down. A few minutes later there was a ginger knock on the door, and in the corridor stood 2 girls who seemed far too beautiful and well dressed to be prostitutes. It can seem a shame to have morals sometimes.

I made it over to the 4* joint there for quite simply the best breakfast I have ever had in my life (excepting, of course my mother's one.) For less than GBP 2.50 there was an all you can eat buffet with all sorts of fruit, sweets, chinese funny things, hot milky coffee, eggs, bacon (!!!), toast and jam (!!) all sorts of things from portion sized steamers, a selection of soups and description is hugely wanting in delivering the true splendour of the occasion. You sit down on enormous round tables with whoever is there and in the full hour that I dedicated to stuffing my face, the company changed twice.

I have opted to train to Xian, 200km away to start the 5 day renewal process, and come back here tomorrow to continue cycling. I appear to have charmed the hotel staff who are letting me leave my bike here. There was a train ticket booth conveniently next door to the hotel, and I purchased a ticket to Xian for this afternoon by way, again, of a telephone to an English speaking colleague. It is good of them to do that. Unfortunately the morning trains were all booked out so I am off at 4pm. The terracotta army will have to wait.

I have had an email from Noel, the American chap I met in Osh. Apparently he is a few days behind me, and we may combine efforts from Xian. He cycles at normal speed, it seems.

I am about 2 thirds of the way through China, and I have cycled more than 15,200km since that cold morning at Buckingham Palace. The plan is to get to Hong Kong before Christmas. If anyone fancies a chat, my Chinese number is 15293752474. The adventure continues!

Many thanks to Jam Pot for uploading this for me.