Sichuan Tour. Day 12, 25 May. Tianquan to Chengdu

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.

Breakfast, prepared fresh and hot.

Rice porrige, pickles and round yue tiow...delicious

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.

A great start to the day's ride -- misty, verdant gorge with gently flowing river, just outside of town.

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.

Breakfast #2 -- freshly made noodles in spicy oily sauce. Quite good actually.

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.

Captain Purple, my saviour from Yaan, leading me out of town.

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.

Nothing but tea everywhere.

Even road shoulders were taken over for drying tea leaves, kilometres of it.

Nifty umbrella hats

In between tea harvesting, beekeeping is sweet business

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).

Lunch in Qionglai

As always, I'm not disappointed, but the French beans fried with strips of fatty pork isn't too half-bad. So is the fried egg soup with fresh greens and tomatoes. Rice, as far my Chinese roots are concerned, is fine with me anytime. I like rice, so I have my fill. At least, the neutral taste of rice helps offset the oily, salty tastes. That, and the fragrant all-you-can-drink Yaan tea.

A loaded Surly never fails to attract attention

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.

Almost Chengdu...

But first, a long boring ride next to the expressway.

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.

Approaching Dayi

Wide, wide road leading into Dayi town.

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.

Late afternoon snack outside a small grocery shop.


I always enjoy meeting such folk on the road, even if my command of Chinese leaves a lot to be desired

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.

English lessons along the way...

When you need to pump up your basslines...

Not a very tactful way of reminding their English-speaking inmates that they're missing a few marbles.

Bike lanes, with its own traffic lights, not that anyone cares, least of all cars and motorbikes.

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).

Riding into the very heart of Chengdu. Daylight is until after 8pm or so.

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.

Not quite what you'd expect from a backpacker GH. Feels like I'm in Bali.

My lovely room...with no view.

Sichuan BBQ, here I come!

I ate very heartily that night. How heartily, you might ask? Well, even I was shocked by the bill.

Part of my dinner

More of my dinner... I need some roughage.

Yes, that's part of my dinner too...

The mother helping out...sleeping baby and all.

Tomorrow, and the day after, I explore the city of Chengdu. But tonight, nothing will wake me once my head hits the pillow.

……………………………………………………

RIDE STATS:
Tianquan (708m) to Chengdu (508m)

Total ride time: 15.5hrs (13.5hrs on the bike)
Distance to day: 197km
Total tour distance: 957km

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Sichuan Tour. Day 11, 24 May. Luding to Tianquan

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.

First order of the day -- breakfast. Freshly made yue tiow...

..accompanied by soya milk and plain dumpling

The ascent started just a little outside Luding, the well-paved road gently winding its way up into the mountains. As always, the scenery is a balm for tired legs, and immensely gratifying to the soul. I never tire of this.

My guess is it has something to do with making Tibet a better place...by the Chinese, of course.

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.

Cherries!

and walnuts

and peaches.

and raspberries

After passing a few stalls, at the little town of Gangudi, I stopped at a stall that offered the aforementioned fruits.

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.

How to eat raspberries on the go...

Purple was the colour of the day

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.

Meat heaven..

Meat, cooked every which way you could think of ...

and then some...

including dried.

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.

I have no idea what those little furry things are...

Deer antlers I could recoqnise

The view of the valley I had just ridden up from

wish i knew what it meant...

The first of 2 tunnels before the actual 4km Erlangshan Tunnel

In the distance, you can barely make out the entrance of the Erlangshan tunnel

Free for bicycles, of course.

Actually, no bicycles allowed...except for Malaysians.

Almost there...

Finally, the entrance to Erlangshan tunnel.

The tunnel is very well lit, with emergency laybyes at regular intervals. It was cold inside

The tunnel exit...and into a different world..

Misty, wet and cold.

But the scenery was just awesome

It would be awesome too, if one got hit by these boulders..

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.

Also good for warming up humans...

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.

The hotel I stayed in... located at the opposite left of the junction

Another day, another oily, salty meal...

Out on the street, I came upon a pushcart selling roasted corn. It was nice just standing at the stall waiting for the corn to be ready

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…