The evening of the day I arrived in Zhangye, I met Meka from the station without a hitch and we rode back into town chatting about what we had been up to while we had been riding apart.
Whether or not you hear Meka’s stories depends on Meka pulling her finger out to write about them…
In Zhangye we were able to do a bit of sight seeing and thankfully it had some sights to see as an ancient Silk Road city. It is said that Marco Polo liked it so much that he stayed there for a year on his travels. I imagine he was just that happy to be out of the desert!
There was the Drum Tower: the centre of the city.
Perhaps Zhangye’s most well known sight is a giant reclining Buddha. This is the largest reclining Buddha made from a wood frame coated in clay in the whole of China… After a while travelling in Asia you realise that most famous Buddhas are the largest of a certain type, be it the largest sitting Buddha made of stone or the largest standing Buddha made of bronze or the largest reclining Buddha with the face of Mickey Mouse made out of chocolate.
Still this Buddha was very impressive and definitely worth seeing as was the complex surrounding it. Some of which was apparently original 11th Century, such as the main hall in which the Buddha was housed:
Sadly unlike Marco we only had a day in Zhangye and the next morning it was time to ride out again.
Happily for me it was mostly through green and it appeared that I had really left the desert, which filled me with a massive sense of relief. I really hope that I never have to ride across another one…It was also overcast which was a nice change and meant that for once I didn’t have to worry about being seared by the sun.
The day’s riding was fairly uneventful and notable only for the fact that we spent a lot of the day riding alongside part of the Great Wall. The wall went on for kilometres and was Great in that respect, even if it did look like it could do with a bit of looking after in parts.
As we rode on we ended up climbing for the latter part of the day and here it really felt like we were in the Hexi Corridor with two mountain ranges looming on either side as we worked our way up towards an eventual peak of around 2600m.
Having come down a bit we decided to camp just off the road.
This was not the most comfortable camping spot we have enjoyed and it wasn’t improved by persistent rain lasting through into the morning. We were also woken up by shepherds driving their flock through our camping spot which was a little unsettling though they didn’t bother us.
Once we’d packed up the wet tent we made our way onwards through the depressing drizzle. I was starting to rue being pleased about the overcast weather. I had forgotten that if there is one thing designed to make me miserable it is riding in the rain.
Thankfully we only had a short day to Wuwei: the last or first main city of the Hexi corridor, depending on which way you go.
Here we found that rarest of jewels in China: a cheap hotel that we didn’t get kicked out of. Here we were able to dry out the tent and have a relaxing afternoon stuffing our faces. We should perhaps have made more effort to see Wuwei’s sights but we had had a pretty restless night camping so were exhausted.
We could also see this gate quite easily so felt that we had at least seen something.
The next morning we headed out for what we hoped would be the final couple of days to Lanzhou. As it was about 270km away we weren’t sure if it would be three days.
The day started off badly as it became clear quickly that Meka’s tyre was punctured. China has easily been the worst place for punctures – I keep finding sharp bits of wire in mine and Meka’s tyres that are like staples. Sometimes they don’t manage to get through to the inner tube…sometimes they do.
This was one of those times.
Meka also didn’t have a spare inner which would mean we’d have to patch the one she’d punctured which could take a while. Then I remembered seeing a Giant bicycle shop just up the road so we went over there and we got Meka a couple of new inner tubes. I quickly put on a new one while a small audience looked on and we were ready to go.
We then had a pleasant day riding on not too busy roads up through mountains. The only problem was that it wasn’t so clear so it was hard to see some of the sights.
And there was quite a bit to see with most hills seeming to have some sort of Buddhist temple or shrine surmounting them.
It was nice to be in an area with a lot to see once again. Sand dunes get a bit tired after a while.
As the day wore on we ended up climbing far more than expected and eventually hit 3000m. Thankfully it was the easiest climb we’d had to that height with a very gradual gradient for the most part.
It was unfortunately pretty late by the time we hit the peak and we tried to descend a bit so that it wouldn’t be as cold in the night and also so we wouldn’t have to worry about the altitude.
Finding somewhere to camp took a while and we were refused permission to camp at a mosque as well.
Eventually we found a bridge to camp under which was one of the best places I’ve camped. It was dry, sheltered from the wind and had soft ground.
So come the morning I woke with a dry tent and we got packed up and ready to leave pretty early. I’d seen a sign earlier yesterday that seemed to suggest we were only 130km from Lanzhou so I thought we could definitely make it as most of it would be downhill.
So off we went for what turned out to be one of the most miserable days riding I have had on the whole trip.
We were dry for about two seconds after leaving the bridge and it went on to rain pretty much continuously the whole day. Sometimes quite heavily sometimes just drizzle and sometimes just wet fog. When it stopped it was only long enough for you to think hey maybe the rain has stopped before it would start up again just as you’d had that thought.
What was more annoying was that it looked like it would have been a really lovely road to have taken. There were still many temples on hills and we even saw a giant golden Buddha on a mountain across the valley. Sadly it was too foggy and rainy to get any pictures and most of the time we just rode along feeling sorry for ourselves.
The only highlights were the trays of dumplings we had at a couple of restaurants.
What was even worse was that after about twenty kilometres I saw the first sign which had the distance to our destination on it, rather than it being the 110km I was expecting it read 150km. This meant we’d have to do an extra 40km meaning the ride would be about 180km for the day. This is a pretty big distance and far further than anything Meka had done before so we had to hope that the favourable gradient would make it possible.
Thankfully it did and there came a point when we were fairly sure we would reach the city, which we were very much looking forward to. We were feeling very wet as the rain grew unrelenting the closer we got the city. We also went through some bad patches of road so we were not only wet but covered in mud. Our bikes were making very unhappy noises and our brakes were gradually becoming more and more useless as they had to compensate for the conditions.
Arriving into the city we thought our troubles would be over and we’d be able to get dry and warm in a hotel quickly.
This was not the case.
To start with we had some trouble finding the street the hostel I had picked out was on. This was because for some reason the street sign said a completely different street from the one that it was called. Don’t ask me why.
Eventually we found a kind local who spoke some English who helped us find where the hostel was. Was being very much the correct tense as it had closed two years ago…something its web page had not made clear.
The local then said he would help us find another hotel. This turned out to be very difficult as most hotels that were reasonably priced were off limits to foreigners and the ones that would take us were charging about triple what I wanted to pay.
Finally we decided we would just pay, we were very tired, very cold and very wet so we went back to one of the hotels that we’d checked earlier to check in. We said goodbye to our new friend and went to take a room. In the time we had tried a few other establishments they had filled up…no more rooms. By this time we were getting a bit fraught. There was one other hotel nearby that had said they would take foreigners so we went there to try and get a room. I went through the process of checking in but then one of the ladies working there made a call and after that they showed me a translated message on a phone saying they had no more rooms either. I’m pretty sure this was a lie and that they just didn’t want to go through the trouble of registering us.
Now we really didn’t know what to do. We were slightly out of the city to the west and didn’t know if there were any other hotels nearby. We didn’t really want to ride our bikes as Meka’s brakes had pretty much stopped working completely and mine weren’t exactly safe either. So I checked the Lonely Planet I had with me and saw there was a hostel on the east side of the city. It was so far out that it didn’t show on the map in the guidebook and I didn’t have an online map I could use where I could type in Chinese street names.
Calling the hostel I tried to get their GPS coordinates but they didn’t know them so we decided we would try and get a taxi there. This didn’t work out so well as it was still raining and trying to get a cab was a bit of a free for all, also with two bikes it was probably impossible anyway.
So we tried to get the hostel people to explain where it was to some locals who could show me on my map so we could try and ride there, a prospect we were dreading.
In the end the guys were incredibly helpful and managed to flag down a flatbed truck and convince the driver to take us to the hostel 10km across town. They then insisted on paying the driver and wouldn’t let us do it and even fought amongst themselves to do so.
Without the help of those guys I’m not sure what we would have done as we were both feeling pretty out of it at that point. Instead of being stuck on the street in the rain we were fairly quickly at the hostel and checked in and showered and fed and curled up in warm dorm beds…Thanks group of early middle aged Chinese men!
The next day, when we got a proper look at our bikes in the light of day any smiles were quickly wiped off our faces as they were filthy. Easily the dirtiest I had ever seen mine. Cleaning them was not fun.