Ningdu - Unknown small Chinese village approx. 105km
Heading into the countryside
It wasn’t a surprise to me this morning when I woke up to the light drizzle of rain outside my bedroom window. Many people, especially Chinese have said I’m mad to be undertaking this journey starting in March as it’s the rainy month in this region of China. I have two replies to that: one – I’m English and am well and truly used to a bit of rain and two – leaving in this month means I won’t have to ride through the desert in the height of summer. So at the moment I can poke up with a little bit of rain.
Today was the day that I left the Guódào; or "national roads" and headed into the countryside. Immediately one could see the difference between the relatively smooth national roads I’d been riding on and these small provincial roads. Riding the bike here certainly required more concentration due to the large number of pot holes. However the upside was, less traffic and some much more interesting scenery.
The ride was going very well, I’d been through a handful of small towns and even had a large throng of about 30 people come to watch me buy bananas in one such town. My journey took on a whole new level of interestingness as I entered yet another of these small towns.
I passed a white pickup truck as I entered the town and it was clear the driver was struggling to get his truck up off a dirt track road and onto the main street. However it wasn’t long before the truck was behind me. There was much beeping of horns and I just suspected it was another Chinese person interested in riding behind me for a while. It wasn’t until the truck drove past me and then pulled over blocking my way along the road that I realized something was up. A voice came from inside and spoken in perfect English said, “Stop, please stop” Out of the truck came a very well dressed mid-thirties Chinese man. He approached me and then pulled out of his pocket a small black leather case which he flipped open to reveal that he was in fact a policeman.
“Hello, I’m a policeman, I would like to ask you some questions, please follow me to the police station”
Now I don’t care what country you’re in but being pulled over by the police anywhere is a terrifying experience. What was happening here? Had I broken some ancient Chinese rule about riding bikes in this town? Was this a shakedown?
All of these thoughts were running through my head as I followed the truck down the road and to the police station. I was escorted through the gates of the station and into the yard and invited to rest my bike against the wall before being led into what seemed to be an interview room.
The officer, a Mr. Yu as I previously mentioned spoke almost flawless English and I was at pains to point this out to him hoping that my flattery might stand me in good stead later.
It turns out I had nothing to worry about, Mr. Yu simply wanted to practice speaking English with me. I’m guessing that this part of China doesn’t see too many foreign visitors. He and his assistant were hospitality personified. Mr. Yu enquired as to whether I was hungry or not. I told him a little and no sooner had I done so his assistant came rushing back with a whole carrier bag full of bread! He asked many questions about England and what I was doing in China and it wasn’t long before word had spread and some kids from the local school were now standing in the doorway all arching to get a look of their ‘foreign’ guest.
Pleasantries exchanged I was eager to get on my way but obviously also not wishing to offend Mr. Yu I stayed a little while longer. When I did finally manage to leave I was given a police escort out of the town. On the way we also passed the local major and I was introduced to him. Finally another small entourage of people gathered as I was about to leave the town and photos were taken. It was a very, very bizarre experience.
It was clear at this point that there was no way I was going to make it to Le’an my intended destination for the day. While the national roads follow a much more direct route the country roads wind onwards and usually upwards. It was a tough afternoon of cycling with plenty of climbs. It was the first day when I wasn’t sure about where I was going to sleep. I was beginning to think about the possibility of camping outside. I reached the summit of the final climb of the day at around 5 o’clock. I knew there was another small town not far away and hoped that there would be a place for me to stay there. What I hadn’t accounted for was the fact that many of these country roads are half built. So as I started my descent the road swiftly turned from paved to rocks then rocks and mud and before long I was riding along nothing more than a boulder lined dirt track which could barely pass for that of a road.
One usually associates riding downhill with speed, but this was far from the case here. Having successfully negotiated the downhill ride I found my way to a small town. It was so small in fact that I didn’t even get the name of it. There was one hotel in town. It’s hard to say what people’s reaction to me has been so far. It must be strange for them to see a foreigner in such a remote part of the countryside. I think we could describe it as an ‘uncertain friendliness’ from many of the people along the way and this was certainly the reaction I got here.
As I’d arrived at dinner time there was no way I was getting into the room until everyone had done with eating. I was freezing and this I have to point out was not the kind of hotel you find with a plush lobby. Instead it was a large concrete room with a few wooden chairs and tables and large shutters which opened out onto the street.
I decided that while I waited for them to finish their meal I should also eat something. I ordered a bowl of vegetable fried rice and was amazed when it arrived, perhaps the woman had thought there were other cyclists with me and they just hadn’t arrived yet because this bowl could surely have fed 5 people. I struggled to make my way through the bowl but managed to finish a good three quarters of it. I was then taken at long last to the room and was pleasantly surprised at how nice (but cold) it was. I didn’t bother to barter over the price as 60RMB (6 pounds) seemed fair enough. I unclipped the panniers from the bike and began to carry them up to the third floor. It was only when I made my third trip up and started to carry the bike up the stairs that the lady owner came along waving her arms and protesting something along the lines of “impossible, no no, bike must stay here” I smiled, playing the dumb foreigner card and continued to carry the bike up with me. There was plenty of laughter from the crowd who had once again gathered inside and the lady eventually gave up trying to persuade me to leave it downstairs.