I awake at the crack of dawn with mixed feelings. Today is going to be the last day on the road, and it’s going to be an epic ride – 200 kms, all the way to Chengdu. The good thing is, I’m not feeling as worn out as I thought I would be. In fact, the legs (and butt) have long since crossed any thresholds that hampered me early in the tour. Long days, cold days, hot days, dusty days, high-altitude days – it’s great to know that I’ve ridden through it all. A pity actually. It would have been great to continue for another 2 weeks. But for now, I can subscribe to the maxim that whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. But, it’s mostly a mental game, not physical.
All packed and ready to continue eastwards, I head out of the hotel to look for riding fuel. The sun is not quite up and over the horizon just yet, and the sky is a drab, ashen grey. There’s no wind but the morning air is chilly. The town is just stirring too, so not many vehicles are on the road. Outside the hotel, I see a shop a few doors away that has just opened its doors. It’s a mom-and-pop shop, and a couple of woks outside are sizzling with the contents frying merrily in the oil. It smells good, never mind that it’s against my practice of not eating food fried in what looks like the result of an engine oil change.
They don’t have much else besides the round crullers, similar to what we have back home that we call ‘hum chim peng’ but without any filling, and ‘shi fun’ or rice porridge, accompanied by some pickles. The fried stuff is pretty good, so I order another. This meal isn’t going to last me more than 20kms so I’d have to fuel up again soon enough.
Appetite half sated, I make my way out of town. The road is still hugging the river and it makes for great cycling. It’s also still gently rolling but not for long. I am now heading into the plains that fringe China’s fourth largest city. I would find out later just how big the city is, and how long it would take to hit the bullseye.
Sure enough, the road seems to level out indefinitely. Also, there are no more deserted stretches of roads that I always enjoy riding through. It is becoming increasingly busy, and even the air is a little muggier.
Halfway to Yaan, which is about 40 kms from Tianquan, I stop at a little noodles shop and order their house speciality – spicy, oily noodles. It looks quite lethal when it is served but surprisingly, it turns out to be quite decent. I suppose that will do until lunch.
I soon arrive at the busy town of Yaan. It is morning rush hour and I have to weave my way through the tight traffic in the heart of town. Like Tianquan and Luding, Yaan straddles a river. It’s also a much bigger town than Tianquan, and its sole claim to fame is the tea came from around the district. I haven’t seen any yet though.
Once out of town, I have to contend with 3 unexpected inclines. Worse, they are long, protracted ones – and steepish in some places. Where the heck did these climbs come from? My troubles weren’t over. I’m having a hard time locating the correct road to Chengdu. At one point, I’m heading into an expressway, even riding part of it. Now I’m really desperate. I knew that the old road paralleled the expressway but I just can’t seem to find the exit leading to it.
As is often the case when I’m in difficulties, help comes unexpectedly — in the form of a friendly gentleman riding a purple coloured bike, with a matching purple coloured child carrier seat in the back. Definitely god-sent, as he is the only bicyclist on the highway, apart from me. Obviously, he must be heading somewhere near. After telling him where I am headed, he beckons me to follow him. A little later, we enter a short tunnel that veers off the highway. We exit into a small road and my friend with the purple bike smiles at me and points into the distance. “Chengdu”, he proclaims confidently.
By now, tea farms are beginning to dominate the landscape. I’m now riding through the heart of Yaan’s tea-growing district. Every other motorcycle on the road seems to be carrying just-harvested tea leaves, or a tea farmer, recoqnisable by the basket on their back or their large hats, some of which are literally umbrella tops grafted onto a hat.
The day is getting hotter by the minute and I wish I am up in the cold mountains instead, even if it means single-digit speeds. At least the scenery there never fails to inspire tired legs.
But, I can’t really complain. I’ve had a good almost 2 weeks of great riding, and it’s now coming to the end of the trip. Today, I will end my tour in big, busy, smoggy Chengdu. The only consolation that makes it bearable will be the generally cool weather.
At the town of Qionglai, I spot a restaurant with big, bright brollies outside and big, bright characters on its signboard proclaiming its Sichuan offerings. It seems like a good place as any to stop and refuel, so I roll in out of the hot sun for another oily, salty meal (I ask to be spared the peppercorns this time).
It’s getting really busy now, and the road has widened into 4 lanes. At a crucial junction, I ask 2 policeman directing traffic which is the best route to Chengdu (there seemed to be 2). After a quick exchange with his colleague (I catch a few words that sounded very clearly like ‘bicycle’) he points me towards the one on the left. I decide to take a chance with his recommendation and not follow the route already marked on my GPS instead.
The rest of the ride into Chengdu is quite lacklustre, without anything remotely interesting to pique my curiosity. Most of the time (and it seems to go on and on and on), I seem to riding next to the Chenwenqion Expressway. I’m not making good time either, as the road is quite pot-holey, and cracked and broken in many stretches. I’m beginning to regret taking the policeman’s well-intended advice.
At one point, just before the town of Dayi, the old road abruptly ends at a bridge that’s being repaired. The workers ask me to turn back and point to a detour a little down the road. It turns out to be in even worse condition – a dirt track with big muddy potholes but luckily, it’s a short one. Soon, I’m on the big, wide multi-lane road again, coming into the town of Dayi.
It’s getting on a bit in the day and my engine is flashing the fuel-near-empty sign. Dayi is a very big, modern town, with many concrete structures dotting the landscape. There is also a lot of construction going on, so I have to contend with the dust and CO from vehicles as well.
A lady sitting at a table under a tree, knitting away in the dusk light catches my eye. She seems to be the proprietress of the ‘xiao mai pu’ behind her. After nihao-ing each other, I ask if she would be kind enough to help cook instant cup-noodles for me to which she happily obliged. She’s a cheery woman, and like so many on the road I had met before, she’s simply glad for some distraction. As I eat the tasty noodles and perk up with a Red Bull, she plies me with the usual questions. It turns out she’s just working at the shop and, rather sadly, aside from Chengdu and the surrounding towns, she says she never been anywhere her entire life!
Inevitably, her neighbours come over to check out the party under the tree. For good measure, I zoom out the screen view on the Garmin to show them where we all were at that moment on the world map, and also where I come from — oohs and aahs from the gallery — such moments are priceless to a bicycle tourer.
Are we there yet?
Obviously not. I’m getting impatient and Chengdu doesn’t seem to be getting any nearer. The road is getting better though, and I can now cycle in a bike lane. Of course, being China, one must be alert at all times. People who lived on this side of the road will simply drive their motorcycles and even cars right onto the bike lane — in the opposite direction of where I’m going!
It’s the evening rush hour too, and I’m beginning to see many cyclists out for their evening rides on the bike lanes. A guy on a Giant mountain bike comes up to me and asks where I had ridden from. When I tell him Tianquan, he is quite flabbergasted. ‘So far!”, he exclaims. With an encouraging word, he rides off to complete his ride.
The sun has already set and I have just crossed into the first of the ring roads circling the city. It’s getting quite stressful now — I feel so disoriented with the bright lights, the din, the heavy traffic, the multitude of pedestrians going every which way. Worse, I’m feeling very hungry, and I can only think of the Sichuan BBQ shop next to Lazybones, which spurs me on a little harder.
Riding on the elevated highways into the heart of the city is not for the faint of heart, more so at night. It’s a good thing I’m running ultra-bright rear blinkers coupled with the blindingly bright, 900-lumen Magicshine light in front. Even so, it’s not an easy task either trying to locate the guesthouse, and I lose some time going round a bit in circles as I got nearer the centre of the city, in part also due to the fact that the China map in my Garmin was not offset-corrected (I had forgotten to add a crack file that would have corrected the irritating offset).
Finally, after what seems an eternity, I arrive at the front door of Lazybones – it is 9.30pm. I have been on the road for more than 15 hours, and I have ridden a butt-breaking 197 kms! It’s official – a new cycle-touring record for me! I feel so elated, even if I’m totally knackered. I can only wonder how much calories I expended today. I know for a fact that my pants are now a few notches looser; they always are after a tour. But for now, a quiet little hip hip hooray will suffice.
Making my way in through the front door, the staff are surprised to see me at such an hour. Although I have reservations, there is no single room left, so the nice girl gives me a twin room instead, on the ground floor. Thank goodness for that. I’m not sure if I can climb the stairs after this. My room is at the end of the corridor, and in my present state of mind, and body, I really don’t care, so I just park my bike outside the door.
Sichuan BBQ, here I come!
I ate very heartily that night. How heartily, you might ask? Well, even I was shocked by the bill.
Tomorrow, and the day after, I explore the city of Chengdu. But tonight, nothing will wake me once my head hits the pillow.
Tianquan (708m) to Chengdu (508m)
Total ride time: 15.5hrs (13.5hrs on the bike)
Distance to day: 197km
Total tour distance: 957km