Across Continents

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Road to Xi’an

October 27th, 2010

"Endurance is patience concentrated" Thomas Carlyle – Scottish historian and essayist

Towards Huining - web

Beyond the town of Dingxi the northern route to Xi’an (pronounced Shian) climbs steadily up through the steep, neatly terraced hills. Sweet corn the cultivated staple. Pleasant autumn sun, the last of the crop being gathered in. No deep, plunging valleys or steep rock faces, but much of landscape still above six thousand feet. The road winding its way up to a col at over seven thousand. Then a steady, drawn out descent towards the town of Huining. Invigorating.

Depending on which map or guide book you consult, it seems more likely that the Silk Road runs a little further south. But, aside from the historical association, there seemed little else to differentiate the two routes. In the end I’d made my choice on the basis I’d pass through a town that featured in my less than reliable travel guide. Curious to see how it’d fare on this occasion. I wasn’t hopeful.

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First snows

October 24th, 2010

First snows - web

First snows. I’d expected rain, heard the gentle pitter patter during the night. Woken to find a light dusting on the surrounding steep hillsides. The odd cyclist trundling by, often with an umbrella to provide some shelter from the still falling flakes.

Suppose I shouldn’t have been that surprised. Overnight temperatures forecast to be a few degrees above freezing, a band of rain passing through. An altitude of about six thousand feet. But still quite a contrast from the bright, sunny weather just a few days earlier, then a pleasant low twenties by mid-morning.

By nine the snow had stopped. Roads wet rather than slushy. Passing vehicles a light smattering at worst. A check of the map, the route through the mountains to Xi’an (pronounced Shian). I’d be on the provincial road, akin to an A road in the UK, rather than the dual carriageway. Probably safer if conditions worsened, but tougher, slower riding, the road surface often poor.

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Stopping short

October 22nd, 2010

I’d absolutely no idea where I was. Or at least what the small town was called. Other than being about twelve miles short of my intended stop at Dingxi. But, after a bit of hunting around, I’d managed to find a room for the night for about four pounds. With an en suite squat toilet. Very clean.

My cunning plan to use the Expressway to sprint down to Dingxi in the remaining daylight had been thwarted by an observant toll booth official. She’d spotted me tucked close in to a slow moving lorry as I’d sought to sneak past. Not to evade payment, there being no tariff for a bicycle, but to avoid being refused entry.

That had been the decider. I’d have to spend the night here. Wherever here was. Too late now to attempt the slower highway to Dingxi. Besides, it was time to reflect on progress, the ever shortening days, the road ahead. And the timeline to Hong Kong.

[Author’s note: And still no idea where I’d stopped for the night – not on my map, nor is there any discernable name to be found on Google Earth!]

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Goat tracks

October 21st, 2010

The road tunnel was bricked up, the bright blue steel door padlocked on the inside. From within the sound of workmen, too distant to hail and ask if they’d let me through. Prospects weren’t good. I’d insufficient daylight left to return to the last town, find an alternative route to my intended stop at Dingxi (pronounced "Dingshi" – possibly) and make it there before dusk. Besides, I wasn’t exactly sure there was one, other than the Expressway running roughly parallel with the old highway I was following. Or trying to. And no guarantees I’d be allowed to ride on the new road.

Some miles back I’d asked for directions at a small truck stop. A young woman had indicated I follow the road I was now on. A short while later she’d caught up with me in her car, accompanied by her husband and daughter. Whilst this was indeed the road to Dingxi, there was some sort of problem ahead. Something about a tunnel. Unlit perhaps. I showed them my lights. This didn’t seem to allay their concerns, but it appeared I could go this way, perhaps a short detour ahead. And a steep climb.

Now it all made sense. So, there must be a way around, presumably contouring around the steep hill through which the tunnel ran. Which also explained the two Chinese touring cyclists I’d seen half an hour earlier, heading in the other direction. A way through to Dingxi. If there wasn’t I was sure they’d have stopped me.

A short way back from the tunnel entrance a rough track led off to the right. I followed it simply because I couldn’t see an alternative. Steep and dusty, it wound slowly up the hillside, long vertical drops to one side for much of the way. Occasional deep patches of fine grit, attempting to wrench the bike towards the edge. Only the odd goat for company, unperturbed by my presence. The eventual descent back to the old highway almost as perilous as the climb up, traction difficult to maintain on the loose surface.

Back on tarmac of sorts, for the most part downhill towards Dingxi. Steady progress, but not enough to reach my intended destination before dusk. I’d been much slower leaving the city of Lanzhou than I’d expected, some unexpected climbs. And I’d not bargained for the tunnel detour.

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