Currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand (06/12/2013) - 31200km cycled

2 Nov 2013

Mad dash out of China

Posted by Will

I cycled out of Chengdu quite unwilling to go, fed up of moving on and knowing that the steep slopes of south-west China waited for my weary legs. My first point of call: Xichang, a small city with a visa extension office where I hoped my race to the border would end with a fresh new Chinese sticker for 30 days. And all the time, that single lonely remaining page in my current passport brought up fresh fears that a new passport wouldn’t arrive for me in Kunming, that I would be forced to fly, that I might even miss seeing my family at Christmas in Thailand.

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A few easy kilometres of flat, densely populated land were soon followed by the painfully steep, sharp bends that I now know characterize Sichuan country roads. The natural sights were correspondingly beautiful with high cliffs tumbling down to chocolate brown, snaking rivers below and gleaming terraced rice fields worked by crinkled old village-folk. The usually faultless Chinese asphalt cracked and in some places disappeared completely. That left a thick layer of mud for the odd passing truck to splatter both body and bike-bags … but I really didn’t care. I enjoyed myself immensely on those few days to Xichang, for the first time able to escape the factories, smog, smoke, dust and debris of industrial China. Villagers invited me to eat where the evening’s game of Mahjong was being played, kids waved excitedly while walking back from school on the hair-pin roads and camping became a pleasure again, the land open to my choice of pitch.

One of those days, around mid-day, I left a village and began yet another section sloping upwards into mist. The road started out smooth with a handful of dotted huts and cattle-sheds. However, several thousand pedal-strokes and heavy breaths later and the way continued up sharply, showing no signs of a downhill. This mountain seemed higher than most. A full four hours later, now 5pm, gravel and mud abound, no more than 10m visibility, a car every 15 minutes at most and a 15 degree drop in temperature, I shivered and sweated in my thin cycle shorts, devouring two packets of sesame biscuits I had luckily picked up earlier in the day. The mist meant complete disorientation and with the cut-up, damaged road barely leading the way I had no idea how high I had climbed, where I was or most importantly when the downhill would finally arrive. An hour later, as darkness crept into the picture, the temperature had dropped even lower and the thought of camping up there became a horrifying reality, the road suddenly levelled and dropped. Bumping, skidding and sliding on the gritty patch-work of sand and asphalt under the wheels, my hands froze colder than I can remember as I clung frantically to the brakes, riding a thin line between getting out of the fog before nightfall and making it down in one piece.

That kind of isolation is what I have come to miss in China, after being spoilt by the desolate plains of the Gobi desert in Mongolia, the empty forests of Siberia, the Kazakh steppe and the remote mountain plateaux of Central Asia. Almost as soon as the relief of rejoining the main road had flooded over me I started cursing the trucks, chimneys and construction that accompanied me the rest of the way to Xichang.

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I stayed in a lovely little hostel there called Sky Lark Lodge whose manager, Daisy, agreed to come with me to the visa extension office in case English wasn’t spoken. As I had feared, the friendly office-staff nodded sympathetically, tapped ashamedly on their computers and made all the relevant calls but ultimately could offer no more days to add to my visa. Decision-making power lay at the province’s central office in Chengdu and when telephoned they weren’t interested. I played my final card: ‘I’m travelling by bicycle – it’s too far to cycle to the border on time’. More sympathetic looks but the response: ‘that’s your own choice – the visa policy of China can make no exceptions’. They were polite and patient, like almost all official staff I met in China, and I could do little more than slump out of the office, mind on fire but body in breakdown, with the horrible truth that I had over 800km to cycle to the closest border and little over 7 days.

That was quite a challenge given the lie of the land, the need to pick up my new passport (if it had arrived) and the absence of any ongoing visa in my current passport. Vietnam was closest but required a full day’s waiting in an embassy in Kunming. Laos was a couple of hundred kilometres further but the visa could be purchased in a second at the border. Vietnam wouldn’t make a coherent route given my desire to be in Thailand by early December; Laos would. The pros and cons of both spun around my ahead with the occasional torturous flash of ‘safe-house’ Hong Kong as a possible option. And to further add to my mental state of disarray, the disappointment of having to dash through China’s Yunnan province, reputedly one of the most beautiful and ecologically diverse spots on earth, ate away at me.

I left Sky Lark Lodge in such a panic that I forgot my camera charger and had to cycle back 20km. Not a good start when locked in a race against time. I calmed down as the hills kicked in, all pressure flowing from my head to my legs. I decided on Vietnam too. More kilometres than that wouldn’t be possible. The rain hammered down and I unrolled, pitched and crawled into a wet tent every night. The tent has a small, hidden hole in the roof near my feet which means a puddle of water every morning, a soggy reminder of the cycling conditions a mere inch outside the leaking canvas. Another strain of those days was the near-constant failure of my brakes. Now you may think that’s an advantage when pushed for time, but in fact it’s nothing short of terrifying on the slopes of Sichuan and Yunnan where trucks, cars, motorbikes, scooters and bikes pull out of the tiniest exits without a look or moment’s notice. I adjusted my brake pads time and time again, so often that I lost the crucial spanner in long grass and so now my trusty old shoes join the fight, scraping noisily on the floor every time I make a desperate attempt to stop.

I can’t say I wasn’t enjoying myself though. The spectacular scenery continued, almost entirely unspoiled as I left the main road once more. I crossed the Yangtze river in the rain, at this point a thin but raging torrent of frothing brown water. People began to change as I entered ethnic minority areas. Brightly clothed figures stood out in the rice fields against the sun, the kids continued waving, men and women wore brilliantly eccentric hats, darker faces shouted unfamiliar greetings and three times a day I slurped noodle soup amongst them. I regretted more than ever the speed I had to pass through a place so buzzing with life and beauty.

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Kunming arrived in reasonable time but I knew that if everything went to plan I would have less than a day to stay. My first call: the post office where six weeks ago I had applied to have my new passport delivered. At first the staff denied operating a poste restante service at all. Of course, good old-fashioned persistence paid-off and in the end they showed me through to a warehouse around the back. The warehouse couldn’t have been more disorganized. There were mountains of thousands of different sized parcels piled high against the walls, some having evidently collapsed to lie scattered over make-shift corridors. I approached the only person in sight, a man sitting near the entrance behind a computer. I intimated that I’d like to collect my package to which he beckoned me closer to look at the monitor. To my horror, the blue screen of death stared back at me, the insides of the computer no doubt crashed and mangled by a life of dealing with the Kunming postal service.

‘Come back tomorrow’, he stuttered in broken English. Predictably I refused and after several heated minutes he agreed to pass me a sheaf of documents that looked like a list of all parcel arrivals for the last few weeks. Painstakingly, I ran my finger over the entries, stopping excitedly every time I passed a name with English characters. As the number of pages to search became fewer and fewer I became more anxious and finally, having exhausted the list, I started rummaging around the smaller, envelope-sized parcels for any sign of my name. Speaking of a needle in a haystack would be an understatement though given the chaos existing in that place. I couldn’t quite bring myself to give up though. The language barrier gave me the impression they couldn’t quite understand what I was after.

Half an hour of enquiry later with the front desk and a better English speaker had produced a few more lists where again my name was absent. Close to the point of resigning myself to the fact that the new passport simply hadn’t arrived yet and that the ever-present visa hydra had suddenly sprung 50 new heads, a final list was thrust towards me. A name sprung out at me, three rows from the bottom, written in sloppy English scrawl and black ink: ‘W.Johson’. Disregarding the possibility there might indeed be a person named ‘W.Johson’ (as opposed to my name: ‘W.Johnston’), I tore off the packaging and there it lay, fresh off the presses, the dark red cover shining with gold lions and a sparkling new crown. I now have a new passport! Over 40 crisp new pages of joy to spend at will. I can’t wait.

I then visited the visa extension office in Kunming where again I was rejected for more days for now familiar reasons. So, quickly off to the Vietnam consulate where for an extortionate fee a visa could be processed in a single day. I spent a blissful afternoon relaxing in a hostel: browsing the internet and drinking coffee. After chatting with Mum and Dad on Skype for a while, two girls approached, admitted to overhearing some of my conversation, and asked if I was ‘Will’. Taken aback I nodded and they explained how they had heard about the website from other travellers, how they enjoyed reading it and were envious of my adventures. Later that evening I got back on the bike, my head about twice it’s normal size, full of their compliments and more committed than ever to the semi-imagined idea of improving the website, for my own sake and the benefit of others. In the coming months I hope to do just that. Watch this space.

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The three and a half days to Vietnam saw me run out of energy, first in the legs and then in the mind, to the point where I felt thoroughly sick of cycling. Brake failure plagued my days and I cursed the downs as much as the ups. I took the bike to a repair man but the brakes only held for a few hours and then the bite disappeared. The rain continued too, soaking my already dampened spirits. All my clothes were clingy, my socks and sleeping bag smelled abysmal, I worried for my electronics, my pannier bag zips failed and my waterproof rucksack cover hung torn and limp off the back of my bike as I rode.

And then I hit a downhill that changed everything. Almost 2000m of vertical descent plunged me head-first into tropical rainforest, from chilly winds on rugged hilltops to strangling humidity, banana plants, conical hats, palm trees and the skittering of a million insects. Welcome to the jungle. Welcome to Vietnam!

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9 Comments already on “Mad dash out of China”
  1. 11:53 ampermalink
    02 Nov 2013

    RosieJ

    Wow! I think this has to be one of my favourite posts yet. Couldn’t be happier that your new passport arrived just in time and you now have a few weeks to relax amongst the banana plants and tropical rainforest… jealous! Xxxx

  2. 12:13 pmpermalink
    02 Nov 2013

    Fran

    Wow, just about sums it up! I’m with Rosie there – a great post, Will. Hope things are a little less frenetic in Vietnam and you get your bike properly fixed.
    Lots of love from us all, F xx

  3. 12:23 ampermalink
    03 Nov 2013

    Laura

    Love your blog, Will! Thanks for the mention- was great to meet you in Kunming :-) We are still your biggest fans!

  4. 12:25 ampermalink
    03 Nov 2013

    Laura

    Ps glad you made it to Vietnam safely. Don’t like the sound of those insects though!

  5. Will

    1:12 ampermalink
    03 Nov 2013

    Will

    Thanks Laura. Have you guys left China yet? Come to Vietnam – the insects are waiting!

    And Fran, ‘less frenetic in Vietnam’ hehe I will be posting pictures of Hanoi soon. I’m not sure anywhere could be more frenetic. When crossing the road look everywhere but up!

  6. 4:41 pmpermalink
    03 Nov 2013

    Marion

    Phew…….a cliff hanger if ever there was one. Well done for hanging in there. Strange how if you do things will often work out – one way or another… Recent half term in Cornwall. Your ears were burning. You are a bit of a hero here too! but no pressure Will, you have done it already! Much love

  7. 6:44 pmpermalink
    03 Nov 2013

    Birgit

    Will, I can only agree with the person writing before me – I loved reading the post and I’m very happy to know everything went well with your visa!
    You’re a great inspiration – I’m more and more thinking about another and this time really long bike-trip…!
    Take care and all the best,
    Birgit
    (… not anymore in Stockholm, but in Botswana now – hope you know who is writing ;-) In case your way brings you to Africa I am DEFINITELY joinging you!)

  8. Will

    11:29 ampermalink
    05 Nov 2013

    Will

    @Marion: lovely to hear from you .. and I hope you had a nice time in Cornwall .. I heard there was some kind of hurricane!?

    @Birgit: of course I know who you are! i’ll never forget how you guys took me out of the snow in Stockholm to consume wine and cheese!
    I can’t believe you’re in Botswana … how did you end up there? I’m going to send you an email VERY soon because I would like to interview you … *pause for suspense” … you will soon find out!

  9. 6:10 pmpermalink
    05 Nov 2013

    Cassandra

    Sorry to hear that the Chinese visa didn’t work out but glad to hear you made it to Vietnam in one piece. Enjoy!