August 19th: Kangding to Luding, 50 km. The quest for Emeishan...
A fifty kilometre bumpy downhill ride feeds us into Luding, famous throughout China for its heroic bridge saga. During the 'Long March' of 1935, Kuamintangs seized a suspension bridge, dangling high above the roaring Dadu river in Sichuan; by removing its planks, they hoped to dissuade anyone else from crossing. Twenty communist troops responded with a daring slither across the chain links, grenades in hand, successfully overcoming the opposition. Another glorious moment in communist China's history.
In Luding, we meet friendly English student Rein, who takes us under her wing and shows us the sights of the town, including a run-down park with giant plastic mushrooms seats. Our hotel is run by a 'Cybil-like' dragon who warms to us after an initial torrent of words. In the morning, I awake to the sound of shouting, except it isn't - it's just the way Chinese speak. I brush my teeth next to a cleaner washing out spitoons.
August 20th: Luding to roadside town, 95 km
A day of confusion. After cycling beyond our turnoff, we backtrack and attempt a side trip to Moxi, gateway to the supposedly spectacular Hailuogou Glacial Park. Only to be foiled by an equally spectacular landslide. Lugging bikes and kit across a makeshift suspension bridge, a fruitlessly long day ends as we collapse in a darkened room (another power cut) in a roadside town...
August 21st: Roadside town to unknown town 65 km
Beneath incessant rain, we follow an undulating road, shadowed by steep gorge walls, that winds this way and that...until we finally arrive...somewhere. Mapless, we can only wonder at the name of this town. Where are we? Our question seems too obvious for anyone to understand. Far beyond guide book territory, the ignorance is also liberating.
The hotel we track down overlooks a bustling market. Like so many in China, it's ultra-new and modern, yet steeped in forms and tokens. Patient explanations are needed to secure one of the cheaper rooms. No, we don't need air con, Nicam TV and a deluxe bathroom... The room we're given, tucked away on the 4th floor, is perfect in its simplicity, green tea and piping hot water included. White tiles and veranda give it an Ibithan apartment touch. Outside in the courtyard, we redeem our tokens in exchange for entry to the shower block, supervised by a moody attendant. I can only wonder at the inventive ways China follows through its policy of providing employment for everyone...
It's food time. As luck would have it, the word for sleep is uncannily similar to dumplings and it takes us a long while before we're understood. Making connections isn't in the Chinese mentality, or else they're enjoying the prolonged game of charades; the fact we're in a restaurant seems to offer no clue. Our dumpling renditions are met by bemused and horrified stares. What have we been saying?! But the ice is broken and a few friendly Chinese draw up chairs to watch us eat. Inspired by their success, they offer up various British icons: Blair, Thatcher, Charles, Diana, Manchester United. How many people in Britain know the name of the Chinese President?
August 28th: Unknown town to brothel town, 90 km
Breakfast; I'm sitting in a little worn-in eatery, picking out freshly made dumplings from the steaming baskets in which they're served. True masters of chopsticks, it's a blur of movement as we deftly dip them in soy, chili and sesame sauce. As I wash these delicious morsels down with what could well be seaweed soup, a heaving and chaotic market is unfolding in the background. The cacophony of sounds -- bicycle bells, stallholder yells and 'Lauwai!' (the call made upon sighting a foreigner) - adds to the atmosphere. As do so many colours - fruit and vegetables spill out of baskets, conical hats tilt this way and that, bags of rice balance on heads, and 'balsa' steam wafts across the morning air. This is a moment that encapsulates China. Non-stop life. Open curiosity. Fantastic food. It's everything I had hoped for.
There are unexpected moments on this ride when the pieces in the jigsaw seem to fit perfectly together, filling me with a warm glow. This is one such moment; an insignificant half hour I never want to forget.
Finally, after days of rain, the skies announce a baking day. We sweep through a gorge on a smooth road that eases its way downhill in pursuit of a gushing river. I dig out my Walkman - it's a day for The Eagles! (The Eagles have had their day, comments Trystan dryly). Racing like the wind through villages, all and sundry are drying out their corn - canary yellow cobs lie in bundles and corn pellets litter the roadside, golden in the sun.
Pausing for a brief lunch in Hanyuan, we push on to make the most of this break in bad weather. By early afternoon, the strength of the sun diminishes as it plops below the gorge line. To our side, a train line regularly disappears and reappears within the mountain face. If the Chinese had been in Tolkien's MiddleEarth, they would surely have been dwarfs, famed for their incredible tunneling. A patchwork of crops cling to the mountain side like a vast detail from an intricate etching.
Our destination seems close, and a steep climb signals our arrival. Just as an unconscious man in the roadside signals the kind of town we're to expect. A dump.. I don't like to utter such condemnations, but every country has them and this seems to be China's. Clearly, Sichuan Provinces beautification program hasn't reached these parts quite yet.
In the throws of half hearted construction, every hotel seems a front for a seedy brothel. The first dingy doorway I peer round offers a flight of dark stairs. There, I'm surrounded by an increasingly large group of overly made-up, giggling girls. Clearly, this is not the kind of room we're looking for. Shunted from one hotel to the next, we finally chance upon one that will accept us. A little bargaining later (watched in rapture by a small knot of eclectic bystanders) we secure an OK deal. I've seen a lot worse and barely notice the cigarette butts ground into the floor, the windowless frames or the small pools of spit in the outside corridor. The way the naked light bulb is positioned behind the fan gives a disturbed flickering. I've given up expecting a shower or even a toilet; at least there's running water!
After a good feed - as always in China - things look up. We kill some time watching a grainy TV and hit the sack.
August 23rd: From one mysterious town to another, 90 km
Unexpectedly, our smooth tarmaced road deteriorates into the worst trail we have yet ridden. Precariously narrow, it clings to the gorge side; we let huge 'DongFeng' trucks squeeze by in a cloud of dust. A boulder comes flying down and narrowly misses my head, thudding to the ground behind.
By all calculations, we should be now be in Emeishan. Yet as we ponder this track that curves unendingly into the distance, a day of toil seems more likely. A dark tunnel submerged in shin deep mud descends us further into hell.
We emerge into yet another small town - by Chinese standards - where we're scooped up by a police motorbike and side car and escorted to the local station. Explanations to the English speaking officer: two Englishmen looking in vain for Emeishan, the Holy mountain that, apparently, stands dramatically against the skyline somewhere close by. Then we're off to the city of Leshan, home to the world's tallest Buddha. The police are delighted and ask us about Big Ben; in Chinese mythology it stands a mighty 98 metres high. Politely shown the road out of town (so much for lunch) we're waved farewell. 'We are good friends! Welcome to China!'
Yet another scruffy Chinese town looms on the horizon - rickshaws, motorbike taxis, bustling markets, dirty apartment blocks, satellite dishes and big colourful umbrellas lit up by neon stripped lights. Yet these towns, so often belittled in the guide books if at all mentioned, offer a charm and friendliness that are often lacking in the 'tourist spots'. Flicking on the fan and TV, we surf the music channels; it's always amusing to catch the latest Chinese bands.
Outside, we're stared at openly. Writing journals, passing eyes are filled with fascination over the speed at which we write our bizarre-looking words. Over a bowl of dumplings, sixteen year old Maggy ventures over for a chat. She speaks incredibly good English, though she won't admit it. Her family run the fish restaurant opposite and she's an avid Manchester United fan. Like many Chinese I have spoken too, she laments the fact that she'll never have the chance to travel outside the PRC. I try and talk as much as possible, figuring it might be one of the few times that she's had the chance to practise the language with a genuine English speaker. I hope she makes it to University and continues her studies - this seems to be the only way of getting 'out'.
A passing thought...
How to get by in China: smoke copious amounts of cigarettes, be able to recite the Manchester United football players, speak Chinese. Listed in order of importance.
Unfortunately, I fulfill none of these. In the meantime, the quest for Emeishan and the 'Big Buddha' continues...