Right, back to the cycling! My little jaunt off to Hong Kong was successful as my passport has now been graced with a brand new Chinese visa, good for another month in the country.
The bus back into central Xi’an from the airport was a bit depressing as the heavens had unleashed their full force. Torrential rain was hammering down and even in the middle of the day everywhere was gloomy and overcast, not good cycling weather.
Internet weather forecasts confirmed the worst and this weather was not going anywhere. I decided to visit the Terracotta army, after much prompting from my mother who is a big fan of it, I booked myself onto a tour as it cost only a tad more than organising it yourself.
I wondered how the tour operators were making any serious profit. This question was answered when I was provided with a student ID so that the tour company only had to pay half price for me to get in. My new identity, blonde frenchman Jean-Baptiste…
The first things to see in the complex is the yet to be excavated tomb of Qin Shi Huang. Currently all that is visible is the outside of the man made hill that encapsulates the tomb (see first photo at the top of this post). Qin Shi Huang believed that liquid mercury contained many powers and had his tomb filled with flowing rivers of the stuff. This myth has been backed up by soil readings of the mound and is one of the reasons behind the lack of excavation.
Qin Shi Huang went so far as drinking liquid mercury believing it to be a source of extended life. I have a personal theory that the ensuing heavy metal poisoning (and corresponding mental health issues) is what led him to be decide to construct a giant terracotta army to defend him in death.
The tours will run you through the various enclosed pits in reverse order going from smallest to biggest. I’d recommend this as if you checkout Pit 1 first then the others will be sorely disappointing.
The first two pits (3 & 2) were filled with mostly smashed soldiers from when the pits were looted for the statues functioning weapons by Xiang Yu. The roof was burned during this raid, causing it to collapse, and destroy most of the statues. Notably one kneeling archer survived the roof collapse due his low posture.
It can be quite hard to get a good look at the statues down in the bottom of the pit but some have been setup in a small museum area off to the side…
Up close the soldiers are really impressive, each one is totally unique. Not unique in a “There’s 10 differant heads with 5 differant hairstyles and 20 bodies” etc. each one is totally individual. Even down to little details such as whether they have nails in the soles of their shoes, signifying they are married.
It was a bit tough to enjoy the museum section though due to the throngs of people getting their photos…
We headed off into the main pit and I was blown away. 2,000 of them have been uncovered so far. The aforementioned individuality of the soldiers is really eerie. It really feels like a crowd of people, all differant body shapes, heights, hairstyles etc. Like a real army frozen in ice. It’s captivating, you could probably pull up a chair and just stare for hours…
There was one more thing the guide was keen to show us before we left. We entered a building full of souvenir stands and our guide pointed out an elderly man sat down in a Chairman Mao style suit. We were instructed to not take photos but to simply look upon the man who had discovered the army whilst drilling a well on his farm. Quite weird, this man sat there as a living exhibition, but I guess at least he’s got some work as his discovery most likely led to his farm being confiscated!
As is usual on tours like this upselling is another way for the guides to make some money so off we went to a buffet restaurant. Being the only member of the tour not willing to spend £5 on lunch (quite a lot of money for me at the minute, I’ve got a box of 25p instant noodles back in the hostel) it was a bit awkward being sat in the restaurant for an hour whilst everyone else tucked in. The tour guide must’ve felt sorry for me as she took me off to one side, gave me some food she’d nicked from the buffet and then handed me a little souvenir terracotta soldier! The aforementioned kneeling archer who survived the roof collapse…
A great day all in all. Back in Xi’an I shipped home a huge chunk of my equipment. The reality is camping is off the cards at this point, very little suitable spots combined with cheap accommodation led to me boxing up the gear and posting it home. 7kg of stuff back off to England (including my Buddhist Thangka painting) means the bike is lightest it has ever been…
Setting off out of Xi’an felt great after the time off, legs feeling very fresh. I only managed 90km on that first day, not too shabby but not great, as my legs had gotten soft from the time off. Thankfully my cardio vascular fitness was handling the distance fine so I just need to ease the legs back in gently.
The following morning the rain had stepped up a gear yet again. I wrapped up my shoes in plastic grocery bags and chucked on my waterproof jacket. Despite this within a minute of stepping out the door I was soaked to the skin.
An hour down the road I realised my Revelate Designs tangle bag (the black bag in mounted in the frame of my bike in the above photo) has lost it’s waterproofing ability and my mobile phone and wallet were floating in a centimetre of water. With no GPS, and having not drawn a paper map for the day, I was cycling blind.
The wind really ramped up, pushing me around on the road, so I decided to pull into a hotel after what felt like 80km. I was shocked to see it was only 11am on the clock behind reception. I checked they had Wifi before checking in so that I could figure out where the hell I was and use online maps to draw some paper maps for the rest of the route.
Easier said than done as the name of the hotel was in Mandarin. I eventually figured out where I was by searching for the hotels phone number on Baidu Maps (Baidu is Chinas google equivalent). I’d only done 55km, not promising for my schedule to catch my flight home and there is still a week of this weather left. I don’t have time to sit this storm out so I’ll just have to keep going each day even if I only cover small distances.
I spent the afternoon sitting in hotel room Skype calling family at home, getting all of the grit and mud out of my clothes and working on some writing projects. The rain didn’t stop for a second, I even awoke in the night to see it still coming down heavy. In the morning things had not changed…
I needed to make some decent headway on my schedule so decided to keep pressing on the next day no matter how miserable the weather was getting. It’s tough to maintain moral as you cycle into a cold headwind, in soaking clothes with heavy rain drops stinging your face and eyes as they hit you. After a few hours in the wet your fingers begin to wrinkle like in a bathtub, after 6 hours the skin starts to come away. Lovely stuff.
Luckily I wasn’t suffering alone, after 3 days of non stop rain the roads were all beginning to flood…
I’ve given up on keeping my feet dry. The flooding is deep enough that the water is halfway up my shin at times. Frustrating as a kilogram of water in my shoes makes cycling just that bit harder. I was more interested in avoiding the human waste that was floating in some of the puddles where sewage had flooded out. Inevitably some of this tarnished water ended up splashing me in the face and I became quite annoyed that I’d used my Giardia antibiotics (an infection you get from poor sanitation) to treat the infected cut on my ankle a few weeks ago (that’s all healed up by the way but has left me with a few meaty scars). On second thoughts submersing an open wound in sewage would be a far far worse situation to be in.
The rear hub of my bicycle also began to make some horrible grinding noises as well as generating a lot of resistance. I think all the problems I’ve had with the rear hub stem from when I accidentally opened up the bearings 7 months ago back in Armenia. Despite my efforts the casing keeps coming loose and I reckon a lot of water has gotten in.
Not able to do anything about it by the side of the road I pressed on with the grinding noise coming from my back wheel. My accommodation options were at 80km, 100km and 130km. I decided to push on to 130km as the city, Sanmenxia, looked big enough to have a bike shop. The city seems to have been recently expanded and I cycled through 3km of ghost city before finding the old town and checking in.
Still no break in the rain the next morning. I checked out and headed to the local Giant bike shop. The shop was small but the owner was a proper mechanic which was a relief. I’ve been in quite a few of the larger Giant stores here in China and there is usually a huge slick repair station in the corner with a rack of tools that look like they’ve never been used. This Giant store in Sanmenxia had a grubby workstation and an oil coated mechanic who knew where every single tool was despite the mess.
After a quick round of charades he opened up my rear hub bearings to reveal what I expected. Almost no grease and rusted bearings. Really not good, ideally I need a new hub but don’t have the time to track down what I need. After re-greasing everything, and refilling my chain-oil bottle, the friendly mechanic simply asked for a photo with me and bike in lieu of payment! Fingers crossed the hub covers the remaining 1000km.
Having got the bike sorted faster than I imagined I headed off down the road aiming for another big day in the rain. The hub felt much better than before, although still far from perfect. As I crawled up the 500m climb as I rode east out of Sanmenxia, with wind and cold rain slapping me in the face, fingers numb, I found myself repeating three mantras that kept me positive.
“Keep pedalling”, a phrase my Dad signs his emails to me off with. “Punch On”, which I think I picked up from Ranulph Fiennes as the phrase that got him across the ice caps and finally “Things will be better in 10km’s” which I picked up from one of Alistair Humphries books on cycling round the world.
Things got quite grim that day as I rode through the town of Yima. The place seems to be a centre of indsutry and the air is heavy with coal fumes. The rain captures much of this dust and I soon realised the puddles in the streets were black with coal. The rain landing on my face had begun to sting my lips and eyes, I dread to know what was in it to cause that. “Things will be better in 10km’s” sounded more apt than ever.
I reached Xin’an after 100km, my intended goal for the day, only to find out after checking in that the hotel wanted me to go straight to the police station to register myself. I don’t exactly have a lot of confidence in China’s foreigner registration system, after the debacle of extending my initial Chinese visa, and didn’t fancy shivering away in a Police station for hours. I got myself a refund saying I’d find another hotel, much to the embarrassment of the manager who then offered to drive me to the police himself, and headed off to ride 20km into the city of Luoyang.
Entering the city my spirits lifted as the first hotel I saw was part of a chain I had been in before and knew they took foreigners (Green Tree Inn). As a special bonus there was a knock off KFC place across the street, £1 fried chicken burgers sort me right out! The reception upsold me £2 to upgrade to a “View Room” after exclaiming about how much better it was. To be fair it’s a fantastic room…
With there only being one day left of heavy rain (then two of light rain before the sun makes its return) I decided to take a day off. The proximity of the cheap chicken shop has nothing to do with it…. honestly!
I’m surprised how high my spirits are despite the terrible weather, even the car horns aren’t driving me as mad as they used too. I think at this point I am relishing the approach of the end. I appreciate that I’m lucky to do a trip like this but that doesn’t detract from the fact it has been a bluddy long slog. I’m excited to hit the 10,000 mile marker in a few days but after that I’ll be pressing on with the finish line firmly in my sights.
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I also want to divert the interest this trip generates towards helping out a charity that made a big differance to some friends of mine. Samuels Children Charity are a Lewes based charity providing support to families throughout the UK who are currently affected by childhood cancer. I hope to raise the sum of £5,000 from people who hear about this trip to help them continue their work, and to also keep me motivated throughout the challenges this trip will provide! If you’d like to see how the fundraising is going (or even better would like too donate!) then click here.