For this month’s cover story we’ve brought together a short collection of travel writing. In Part II of this five-part series, author Simon Clode recounts his attempt to cycle across China on a Flying Pigeon, the iconic Chinese bike which – with over 500 million units manufactured – is one of history’s most popular vehicles. We join his journey in western China, by which time the Pigeon has broken and been replaced by a more practical mountain bike.
I had not intended to go to Qinghai on this journey. In the initial planning stage, I’d been tempted when Apple Maps pointed out I would pass a decommissioned atomic test site. Yet, I still did not fancy being forced to climb over the desolate and unforgiving Qilian Mountains on the Pigeon.
As such, I did no prior planning or research on the province; including the more useful logistical research about hotels and places to source food and water. This turned out not to be much of an oversight, given there were so few of any of these things. Something you might expect of a province deemed worthy of being the testing ground for nuclear weapons. I was going into China’s Wild West with little more than the knowledge I would be spending much of my time in the mountains.
I woke up to the beautiful sight of snow-capped mountains under a blue sky. Still naively pleased with what I deemed as my serendipitous change of direction, I finished packing my tent. As I began pushing back to the road, the wind rose up in every single bit of the wrong direction. It took me an hour to push the first 3 kilometers up towards the mountain pass.
With looming deadlines of real life things like job interviews and weddings, and a burning desire to drink Malbec and eat lasagna, my interest in the wholesome integrity of the trip was beginning to dwindle. As I described my situation to friends; I wasn’t doing it for charity, I wasn’t doing it for any sense of achievement, I was just a twat riding a bike across China.
A stretch of road by the Qinghai-Xinjiang border
Following the death of the Pigeon and various road closures, I was already on Plan C, and had decided that, from here on in, if I received an offer that would allow me to avoid complete misery, then I was going to take it. Such an offer came about. I heaved the Giant into the cab of a passing truck and cleared 20 kilometers of headwind hell as the driver took me to the quarry he worked at. Though he was in a rush, we almost stopped for a second breakfast after my poor grasp of Mandarin made him think I hadn't yet eaten.
We arrived too soon for my liking and I had to push for the rest of the pass. There was no peddling to be done. It felt like the air was thinning and the presence of snow in May gave that feeling some credence. Shortly afterwards, I received a water donation from a car full of alarmingly young and affluent people, one of whom was far too beautiful to be touching the same bottle as my filthy hands.
The gravity dividend matured in some style in the early afternoon; 25 kilometers of pure, joyous descent that was only interrupted by the need to strip down to vest and shorts as I hit scorching hot plateau below.
The author stops for a water break
I eventually stopped just inside Qinghai province near what I now know is the western edge of Suqian Lake. I set up camp just in time to discover that the whole “the desert is cold at night you know” advice is not a lie. I also became slightly alarmed at the lack of phone signal and roaming data available. Not just because I'm part of Generation Y and I can't live with not knowing football scores, but because I still didn't actually know exactly where I was, or where exactly I was going, and that was a problem.
By the following night I’d at least found a hotel. My alarm went at seven but the quilt detained me until nine. With desert to come, I took a final liquid break at the last petrol station in town, which confirmed that the next human settlement would be over 300 kilometers away. I filled my water flask and set off into the unknown.
One of the unknown’s great benefits is that it often amazes. Within thirty minutes I had arrived at a stunning scene of wind-eroded sandstone walls. One of the unknown’s great failings is that it’s often unknown because there’s no reason to live there. The stunning scenery was quickly replaced by 40 kilometers of monumentally tedious straight road through a bleak monochrome grey landscape.
In mid-afternoon, the third significant sandstorm of the journey arrived in a more beautiful yellow form than its predecessors. After 500 futile meters of trying to push through it. I sat with my back to a huge dune and weighed up my options. Every time I chose a place to camp I was gambling on there not being a better place one, two, or even five kilometers further away. I struggled on before finding a dell behind a small dune. It wasn’t perfect but I still decided to put all of my chips on it.
I began to dam the wind by building a wall at the entrance to the dell with huge stones. In the hostile conditions, this took a significant amount of both time and swearing. As I unloaded all of the bike’s luggage to use as ballast and climbed into the tent, a dark orange sky lit up the violently shaking nylon and it all began to look like a little piece of hell. But at least it was my little piece of hell.
Words and images by Simon Clode
Read more in Last Flight of the Pigeon: A Journey Across China By Bicycle, which is available on Kindle through Amazon
Read Part I: I Took a Billion-Dollar Cruise Ship with Fan Bingbing, Part III: I Hitchhiked Along the North Korean Border, Part IV: I Lived in a Gansu Cave House & Part V: I Was a Post-Disaster Tourist in Sichuan's Earthquake Villages.