What's that saying about the best laid plans…?
On the outskirts of Xian, a friendly bicycle commuter decided to adopt us while on his ride home in a neighboring city. Right away, he invited us to lunch, which we gratefully accepted. He rode while typing in translations on his phone with both hands, not even glancing up at the road. Meanwhile, Matt and I were swerving around potholes and braking for the chaos cropping up around us. Somehow he just gracefully glided through it all at his very leisurely pace. We followed him for what seemed like hours, wondering if lunch was actually going to happen. But after a tour of the attractions in his hometown, including a lake, temple, and rebuilt bell tower, he led us in to a covered market, a real locals' place, and ordered us huge bowls of delicous spicy noodles. We don't normally eat so much while riding, so after we said our goodbyes, we pedaled away even more slowly than when we were pacing with our spontaneous friend.
As if that wasn't enough, then the brazen connecting Matt's front rack to his fork broke off without warning. We figured it would be an easy fix with countless truck repair shops on the edge of every town we passed through. We would just wait until we saw sparks flying as we passed by one, then point to the machine and Matt's bike to get it welded back on. Of course, we were used to seeing welding in action on every day except the one time we needed it. So we approached a shop and began the pantomiming routine. As tends to happen, a crowd gathered and two younger guys translated for us. The mechanic said no, so we kept going. About a mile down the road, the guys who translated tracked us down and told us that the shop actually did have a welder, so we turned around. When we got back to the shop, they then said, "Sorry, actually it is broken." Before we started riding the same mile-long stretch for a third time, Matt had the genius idea of having them write a note in Chinese explaining what we needed. We handed to the next shop we saw and it worked brilliantly. The piece was back on in a matter of minutes. The mechanic insisted on also putting the front rack back on himself, even though Matt was gesturing to let him do it. Not a big deal, except…
While he was tightening one of the screws, it snapped off inside the fork! This began a several hour saga of a rotating team of mechanics trying to drill out the screw after we rejected their idea of welding an improvised rack connector onto his bike. They broke two drill bits in the process, but persisted until they drilled through the original hole and continued on, accidentally or intentionally (we're not sure!), to create a new hole on the other side of the fork! This was perplexing, but our nervousness subsided once they rustled up a bolt big enough to go all the way through the fork and the rack appeared to be secure once again. I think the original mechanic was more relieved than we were and refused any payment for the whole ordeal. We rustled through our bags for something to give them, but could only come up with random things like an open pack of cookies and such. Sadly, the perfect solution did not occur to us until we were many miles gone: buying a case of beer at the convenience store and sitting down for a happy hour with them! Perhaps that was for the best though, since we were riding long after dark to make up for all the ground we didn't cover during the day.
The next challenge we faced was four days of rain for at least part of each day. This actually had the opposite effect of slowing us down. Being less inclined to stop for photos or food, we just rode and rode to keep warm, hovering around 70 miles on most days. However, our bodies and our bikes reached new levels of dirtiness. The dusty coating of road grime we had become so accustomed to was now dark-grey splatter paint on everything despite our fenders' best efforts. If a hotel actually let us in the door, it was quite a process of wiping down eight bags and two bikes and heading directly into the shower so that we did not wreck the room. Our bikes seemed to be protesting their abuse as they developed a strange grinding feeling vibrating up the pedals. After checking the drive chain multiple times and seeing nothing unusual, we became convinced that the gunk had somehow gotten in to the crank sets. At the first break in the rain, we asked an employee of a Giant bike shop to clean them out. He set up his bike stand and spread his tools out all over the sidewalk in front of his shop, so we also got to entertain a crowd of random people with nothing better to do than watch our bikes get taken apart. He also did some other basic work, like lubing the chains, as well as a practice we had not seen before of filing the teeth of the cassettes. That made us a little nervous, but he seemed to know what he was doing. In the end, our bikes felt great again...right up until the next rainstorm when the same weird grinding feeling returned. This time we just ignored it, and when the roads dried the sensation disappeared. We don't totally get it, except that rain on Chinese roads makes for cranky bicycles.
When we woke up to the fifth day of rain in a row, we conceded to the demands of our bicycles and declared it a rest day. Even then, as we were drifting off to sleep, a loud hissing noise suddenly emanated from the corner of the room where the bicycles were propped up. My bicycle had blown a flat without even being ridden!
In Langzhou, our least favorite city in China thus far, we had one last epic time-suck before reaching Xining. We rode circles in the city looking for an affordable hotel that also accepts foreigners. I found it savagely ironic that hotels with English names and signs that said "Welcome" would deny us. To be fair, local governments require hotels to be registered for accepting foreigners in these western provinces, but still, don't waste our time by advertising in English then! Despite arriving before dark, we finally checked in after 10pm to a 7 Days Inn for twice the cost of what we usually pay.
The next morning, rainy no doubt, we were delayed on our way out of town by something we had been hoping for since we left Beijing: we crossed paths with our first foreign cycle-tourers! They were three guys from Germany, of course, supporting my conviction that 80% of the world's cycle tourers are German. While they were happy to chat with us, they didn't quite share our level of enthusiasm since they had met many cyclists en route from Europe through "the Stans" and into far Western China. I suppose own our personal experience explains why it is not so popular to cycle China from east to west...oh well, we survived!
As it turns out, we arrived in Xining with ample days to spare. Settling in to a room at the chill Lete Youth Hostel for a week was both relaxing and productive, as we actually had time and energy to write blogs, edit photos, and other projects that long days in the saddle don't easily allow for. Almost every day, a new European cycle tourer arrived at the hostel (but strangely no Germans...) and we enjoyed hearing the stories of people who we can truly relate to. We cooked most of our meals on our camp stove out on a terrace in order to use up fuel we couldn't take on the train to Tibet. Sadly, we failed at camping on the sly since launching this cycle tour and our punishment was hauling pasta, tomato sauce, oatmeal, sugar, and dried fruit over 1500 miles before consuming it. When we got too restless in the hostel, we ventured out to a few cultural sites around the city. In the Qinghai Tibetan Cultural Museum, we perused quality exhibits about traditional medicine, artisanal woodwork, metalwork, calligraphy, and regional dress, only occasionally cringing at verbiage about the "liberation" of Tibet. The real draw of the museum is an astounding thangka scroll that is 2027 feet long, a collaboration of over 400 artisans chronicling Tibetan history, culture, and perspective in an extremely detailed painting with elaborate fabric designs sewn to the edges above and below. Photos were not allowed, but I snuck one anyway since words cannot accurately describe the large room where the scroll repeatedly curves back on itself, allowing for the entire masterpiece to be viewed, although it would require multiple visits to fully appreciate its intricacy.
We've developed quite a fondness for the Chinese Muslim cuisine since first sampling it in Xian, so we frequented many spots for grilled spiced bread and lamb noodles in this one-third Muslim city. However, on the last night we branched out and went to a Tibetan restaurant called Black Tent. We happened to walk in on their opening night after being closed during a change of ownership and upgrade to the decor. The young friendly new owner, Tenzin, explained that as his first customers, we would join him and his friends for dinner free of charge. He chatted with us while the chef put the finishing touches on the generous feast, then we sat down to our first yak meat momos (dumplings), rich mutton soup, lovely vegetable dishes, and a delicious dessert of fresh fruit covered in yak milk yogurt. We also got to try Tibetan barley wine, much different than the barley wines at craft breweries back home, but still quite enjoyable. The evening was a totally unexpected and generous treat from a sincere host. It was one of those moments that reminds us of why we travel.
Despite a successful week of "catching up" in Xining, the more scenic route we didn't take still nags at me. Was taking the straight shot a mistake? Considering that it rained more days than it didn't during our extra time in Xining, perhaps it was meant to be.