Big busy cities are not really my cup of tea. Its outskirts are usually not much better either; they’re usually drab, dull and dusty. Chengdu and its surrounds tick every box in the list, which is why I wanted to get the last part of riding over and done with ASAP.
But, as the title of this post suggests, I failed in my attempt to ride at least half of the remaining 300km to Chengdu.
I left Luding at about 8.30am, after another typical Sichuan breakfast of crullers, plain dumplings and soya milk. The air was still a bit chilly, but the day seemed very promising. Today would see me achieve another record of sorts – riding through the longest tunnel ever in my touring career – the 4 km long Erlangshan Tunnel.
But first, there was some climbing to do… not the serious climbs that I had been through early in the tour but still a climb – some 27 kms of it.
The only thing that jars you out of your reverie as you pace yourself up this side of the mountain are the massive 10-wheelers (some with more than 10 wheels) negotiating their way down the mountain – the loud revving of their low gears straining under engine-braking, and clouds of steam spewing out of the sides as water tries to cool down the overheated brakes. Which means the side of the road which descended is perpetually wet from all that braking. It’s quite unnerving when these monstrosities rumble pass you, and more so when you’re smothered in the billowing steam.
Fresh fruits in season, those that grew naturally in this region, were in abundance, and they could be found lining the roadside – walnuts, peaches and raspberries being the main draw. It was time to indulge.
As usual, a typical exchange would ensue, with me trying to pass off as Chinese, and the Chinese women in their provincial patois, which meant half of whatever they were saying was lost on me.
“How much are these?”, me pointing to the baskets of absolutely delicious looking raspberries.
“20 kuai”, came the quick reply. She must have seen through me as a poseur Chinese. Well, it was still dirt cheap by Malaysian standards, which works out to about RM10.
“Aahh…I can’t finish the whole basket. Can I just buy half?” I asked the lady.
“Of course, no problem” was her reply and she proceeded to pour half the succulent contents into a plastic bag. I couldn’t wait to pop a few into my mouth. There were incredibly sweet. I then opened the handlebar bag, rearranged the contents a little so that the raspberries were on top, and proceeded to pedal off, happy in the thought that another memorable experience was in the bag.
“Hey” I was jolted by a very loud shout. “Mei yo kei chien ah!” (Haven’t paid yet!)
In my raspberry-induced excitement, I had completely forgotten to pay her, but despite her tone of voice, she was still smiling. Apologising profusely, I paid her the money and she, in her benevolent, motherly manner, took a plump little peach and pushed it into my hand, as if to make up for her shouting at me. How sweet…
I continued on my journey, with the handlebar bag top open, popping a few berries into my mouth every few pedal strokes, slowly savouring its sweetness. After only a few hundred metres, my fingers were all purple in colour, and it looked like it was going to stay coloured for a while. I was pretty sure my tongue matched my fingers in all its purple glory.
The weather was lovely, the air nice and crisp, the scenery captivating, the incline agreeably nice and I was eating freshly picked raspberries while I ambled along at a leisurely pace towards a personal-record-breaking ride through a 4 km long tunnel. Honestly, can it get any better?
It can, and it did.
As I rounded a sharp switchback, I was assailed by very tantalizing aromas of meat being cooked. I thought I must be downwind of some restaurant’s kitchen exhaust fan. I was right … but it wasn’t a restaurant. It turned out to be a huge store that sold only one thing – bite-sized meat snacks prepared in every conceivable manner. I had to buy some, of course. They weren’t cheap but seeing as these were prepared right here in the store, it had to be fresh. It looked like my food store was growing.
A few kilometres before the tunnel, I came to a viewing point by the side of the road. It was actually half a viewing point, the other half having been taken over by some locals peddling cure-all type of merchandise. There were some very strange looking things on display. The stall owners were obviously bored from the lack of customers and I was the convenient distraction that just rolled in.
We went through the standard exchange of small talk and the younger of the two I was talking to suddenly volunteered to take a photo of me with his fellow peddler. He must have been bored out of his wits. They were also quite disappointed when they couldn’t persuade me to buy some of their exotica. Well, I obviously had no use for deer antlers and lingzhi and whatnots on the road.
Just a few kilometres later, I had to stop and layer up more clothing. The cold was just too biting. Even so, a little later, I had simply had to stop…I needed breakfast #2 to warm me up. I stopped at a little shop and walked inside to find that it was also part of a home converted into a restaurant. The living room was next to it and inside, on a low coffee table, was an electric brazier. One of the 2 sisters running the shop was inside while watching TV, comfortably warmed by the heater/electric cooker. Seeing me in my cold misery, she very kindly asked me to come inside and warm myself. Immediately, I sat myself next to the brazier and felt the life-giving warmth creeping back into my body. That wasn’t all. I looked up to see the sister smiling at me and offering me a glass of steaming hot tea. They had to be angels walking on earth.
Pretty soon, the fried rice I ordered was served. I was a bit surprised by the size of the bowl but later, I was even more surprised that I actually finished it. Cycle-touring does make you a bottomless pit.
My goal of reaching Yaan, which is about halfway to Chengdu, faded when the last 20kms to Tianquan became rolling hills instead of what I thought would be downhill all the way. Worse, it had begun to drizzle a little. At 6pm, I rolled into the town of Tianquan and I knew I would have to call it a day here.
Tianquan is a mid-sized town, not particularly pretty or interesting. I stopped at the first decent looking hotel and checked myself in, not without some effort though. The residents of Tianquan were mostly Foochow, and I was completely bewildered with their questions, seeing as I wasn’t a Chinese national. I wasn’t quite sure but I think the hotel was only for Chinese nationals. In the end, I had to fill up some kind of from that didn’t look like it was for guest registration. This was an oldish hotel so the the rooms were pretty big, with high ceiling and art deco type of furniture. The plumbing wasn’t in full working order but for only 60 yuan, I wasn’t complaining.
I’ve also decided that tomorrow, I was going to ride all the way to Chengdu – all 200 kms all of it. It would be flat anyway, and I’d rather kill myself in one day of extreme riding and enjoy an extra day chilling out in Chengdu than do it in 2.
I must be a closet masochist … I think…