Hiking the Great Wall – on crutches!
ADVENTURES are a fickle thing.
Almost a year ago to the day we arrived in Chengdu feeling saddle sore, world weary and downright broke. We’d spent 18 months cycling from Scotland to China and by time the hazy city emerged we were desperate to fill the coffers, rest the legs and sleep on an “honest to god” real bed. Hell, we’d survived blizzards, sandstorms and Guardia (alongside more toilet accidents than a grown person should ever have) in a trip that was about as glamorous as Calcutta on a bad sewerage day.
The contrast that is Chengdu – highrises, rickshaws, smart phones and shanties!
Within a week of arriving in Chengdu we had an apartment, a kettle and a 12 month contract at a local English school and soon reality struck. Forget your average culture shock, it felt as though we’d moved to Mars. Actually scrap that, it felt as though our adventure had turfed us out on the Death Star, if – you know, the Death Star had fried rice and sky scrapers. It took a matter of weeks to learn that China’s the kind of place that serves up contrasts like McDonalds serves up diabetes. The local, run down fruit seller who operates out of a rickshaw has the latest iPhone and just a stone’s throw from the glitter strip where you can pick up some Dolce & Gabbana bags is a ghetto where factory workers crowd in shanties.
The rustic outskirts of Chengdu are a world away from the glamorous interior
It’s a feast of consumerism and capitalism in a country shackled by communism and it’s the land of opportunity where Big Brother is always watching.
Truth be told it was so baffling it made my head explode and the more I scratched at the surface the more I realised how bloody thick the surface was.
China is a great place to work and travel with a growing need for more English teachers plating up great opportunities
By month six Chengdu felt almost normal but I was keen to pack my bags and go. I was fed up with winter colds taking two months to bugger off and the sheer ruthlessness of the work place was killing me.
An internal battle took over. On one hand, a year in China was an amazing opportunity and despite the stressful visa runs, the rugby shoving at the metro stations and the food that set your mouth and arse on fire I knew I’d look back on my time here in awe. Geographically it’s also an outstanding place to be.
Stunning hiking trails in Western Sichuan feel a world away from the city
Ethnic groups, including Tibetans, dot the landscape west of Chengdu
The one and only Great Wall of China – it was as truly great as the name suggests
Forget the sheer size of it, the diversity of the landscapes from the bamboo mountains of central Sichuan to the ice-capped Tibetan Plateau peaks and the sweeping northern deserts there was something for everyone. Hundreds of minority groups also dotted the west of the nation making for a colourful variety in the people, food, traditions and architecture. In fact if you could visit just one country for the rest of your days the Middle Kingdom should be it.
Welcome day trips from the city – such as the Giant Buddha in Leshan – make a Chengdu stay more bearable
But on the other side of the coin the rat race was killing me. The pressure of students to constantly be the best and from the age of sometimes three take on not just extra English classes, but decorum sessions, piano lessons and math classes was mind boggling.
Women were pressured to be married by the age of 27 or be dubbed “left over” while the need to constantly jostle for a better place and defer to the ruthless class system warred with everything I had grown up to believe in.
Feeling the urge for adventure again during a small three day bike trip out of Chengdu
But above it all I wanted to throw the kettle, the bed and the apartment out the window and jump back on the bike and head for the hills.
For the first time Scott and I were at odds. While he’d suffered the same integration pains in China he’d acclimatised quicker. His Chinese was improving, he’d made friends with colleagues and his love of the Sichuan pepper had moved to obsession territory. He could have stayed and perhaps deep down he wanted to but by time our final month rolled around he too was ready to get back on the bike.
By mid October we’d concreted our plans. Get a new and final visa, cycle into the Tibetan Plateau, head south to Kunming for Christmas and then pedal onto Vietnam before swinging right.
Delicious Muslim food makes for a tasty change in spicy and oily Sichuan
Suddenly the cosy apartment seemed cosier than usual, the spitting locals seemed almost charming and the Sichuan Pepper lost its sting. I entertained the thought of one day coming back to the Middle Kingdom and Scott and I both agreed that a teaching career was what we wanted further down the track… I guess the kiddies weren’t that bad after all.
Mid-November eventually swung by and with it a flurry of record-high pollution days, colder lows and frantic “Chexit plans”.
The bikes needed fixing, some gear needed to be bought, the toaster needed to be sold and our route needed to be drawn.
Hosting rag tag groups of wonderful fellow cyclists and travellers in our 30th floor apartment
The lovely crew at Nemo (an American outdoor gear company) had thrown a very sexy new freestanding tent our way and Exped had kindly replaced our down mats. British cycling company Torm had even sent us some new merino shirts and to prepare us for the series of plus-4000 peaks in the pre-Himalayas that lay ahead, we had some new goose down gloves.
From Chengdu we had decided to take the bus straight to Kangding on the advice of other cyclists who warned of a horrific road brimming with kamikaze truck and bus drivers and while we’d initially felt dodgy about “cheating” straight away it felt like the right move.
From Kangding we would tackle the infamous G318 to the high up Tibetan town of Litang, which sits at 4100m. On the way there we’d face a whopping eight passes over 4000m with the highest at a back-breaking 4659m.
A brief trip halfway through our Chengdu stint remains the most exercise we’ve done in 12 months
It suddenly occurred to us that we weren’t just throwing ourselves into the deep end of the pool, but into the murky end of a bloody shark tank with a horrific pass that would take us from Kangding’s 2600m altitude to a 4200m pass on day one.
If you added our flabby legs, pudgy bellies and unacclimatised lungs into the mix it was a recipe for disaster.
The final week hit us like a tonne of bricks as we ran around in mad panic, attempting to clean the apartment, pack our panniers, throw out a year of accrued crap and mentally prepare for the road ahead.
I’d begun to mentally say goodbye to the grouchy woman who sold steamed buns on the corner, the charming bakery owner who served up delicious but gastro-inducing pastries and the throng of boisterous street-food vendors who comically jumped on their food cart bikes every hour when the Fuzz rolled in and cleared them out.
I knew I’d also miss that dusty apartment on the 30th-floor, the hot and crowded metro and even the aggressive nanas who were the real and terrifying rulers of this insane nation.
The day we walked into our new apartment back in November 2015
And that brings us to here. It’s now the day before we leave Chengdu and farewell the mental expat life along with our lovely friends (who made it all so much better). The temperature has plummeted and snow’s scheduled for Kangding making me wonder why the bloody hell we thought the plateau was a good idea in winter. Butterflies on speed are making spirals in my belly and before the day’s out I may lose complete control of my insides out of sheer nerves but somehow I know it will all be fine because this is exactly where I want to be.
Yep adventure’s a fickle business. In almost three years we pedalled across half of Europe and Asia, lived on the Death Star, caught a glimpse of life in the world’s most powerful Communist nation and are now set to pedal off into the Tibetan Plateau on the even tougher road to Argentina.