Here in China the truth is that trains aren't quite that exciting most of the time. Concrete ties are the standard here, not wood and pitch. Cigarettes and bai jiu flow freely to complement the ramen noodles and chicken feet that are consumed in abundance. Tracks crisscross nearly every nook and cranny of China, and this mode of transportation has taken center stage here, especially as high-speed rails have become more prominent. Even outside my bedroom window, laborers work ceaselessly upon 5 new subway lines for this bustling city. For this particular trip, I opted for a hard-sleeper ticket and paid the equivalent of $.07/mile, which is only rivaled by driving a 40mpg car with gas @ $3.00/gallon, but I could sleep soundly on the way! If you didn't mind the hard seat and a long night of restless sleep, you could get by for $.04/mile! My friend and I boarded the train for the 13 hours over a route that can be driven in 6, but conversation was good and sleep was decent. We locked our bikes in a galley-way where men smoke the night away, and it gave me peace of mind that no one would swipe it at a intermediate stop.
Morning came and the end of the line along with it. I put my bike back together and then Joe* and I began a late-in-the-game route planning meeting. The original thought was to try to go via small country roads and farming paths, evading the highway as much as possible given that Joe had done this ride two years ago and reminisced not so positively that the road conditions, diesel fumes and coal dust would be better to forego. There were problems with our ambitious plan, though. Time restraints and lack of adequately detailed maps led us down the main highway instead of trying to thread our way down small roads that were not sure to have outlets at the far side of the each village.
Day 1's ride took us through Panzhihua, a town that was but a sleepy hollow til 1966 when Mao moved people there en masse to start mining the rich resources from the hillsides. The giant mine that sits midway through town is the engine of the local economy, boasting 93% of China's titanium, 80% of vanadium, and an impressive array of other rare metals. 1.4%o of China's GDP (approx. 4 billion USD) is produced here along with the not-so-encouraging fact that it also churns out 8% of China's industrial solid waste (40 million tons). Road conditions were such that the name "highway" should've been revoked long ago! Potholes, ruts, and a few kilometers where our bikes were mired in 2 inch deep muck--mud and oil mixed together in what looked like a toxic sludge--were standard fare. The day had it's fair share of challenges, but we weathered the storm.
We were on the road by 9, trying to put some miles behind us as we had about 75 to cover, preferably before nightfall. The road conditions were markedly improved and the sun shone bright across the valley's villages and rivers. We had to work all morning to ascend a mountain pass and were rewarded on the way up with snacks and lunch--a freshly slaughtered hog with veggies and potatoes, grilled on a charcoal flame on the table at which we were invited to sit at. Never mind that we still had over 50 miles to go at 3 in the afternoon...it was a delicious lunch and the hospitality and generosity was amazing. The miles sped by quickly once we made it to the pass--20 miles and 40 minutes later, we had went from mountain top to river bottom and the rest of the evening into the night, we traversed the ups and downs of the valley roads and then made a long ascent into Yongsheng, a city seated on a plateau of sorts. We had traveled 173 km in 2 days and I'd hardly seen a pedal powered bike at all due to the mountainous terrain. But there in Yongsheng, bike shops were numerous and the flat terrain gave the local townsfolk confidence that biking wouldn't be too tiring. At the end of our ride that night, darkness had long since covered the land and its chill had long since numbed my feet and hands. I was ready for a hot shower and a recovery meal, and it was indeed granted according to my desire. Joe had made some friends a couple years ago, and they were not only ready to receive us and put us up for the night, but prepared a homemade dinner for us and good conversation carried us til midnight.
The next morning came too soon, and I ended up only being in that town for 13 hours as I took the 10am bus out of town back to Panzhihua so I could catch an evening (overnight) train back home. The connections were all smooth, and though the ticket lady on the bus gave me a bit of hassle about having my bike aboard the busiest bus line in town, we reached the train station after an hour or so of standing in the aisle holding my bike up and holding on for dear life with the other hand. Fried rice was the order of the night again, I bought some water for the train ride, and prepared to check in. Once aboard the bus, I again locked my bike in the galley way, and eventually the evening was filled talking with locals, eating more chicken feet, spicy noodles, duck throat, and washing it all down with rice wine...lights were out at 10pm and I slept quite soundly til first light. I was back to Chengdu by 7:45 and packed up my bike once more with the panniers, picked my way through the early morning crowd assembling at the station, and rode south several miles back home.
This trip was my first official bike tour, and its got me thinking that biking is definitely a great way to see China again, and affords the flexibility that few other modes of travel do. I wouldn't have stopped at the 'pig slaughtering party' if I was driving a car or motorbike, I doubt, and we surely wouldn't have been recognized by the bar owners as foreigners if I had a helmet and riding jacket on...so in the end, sticking out a little bit isn't such a bad thing here!