Leaving Dongsheng on Saturday morning we turned our bikes east and headed for Datong. This was to be our last nights hosted accommodation before reaching Beijing. The only road available to us was the S109. The only other route being a new expressway. The 109 snakes its way through what must be one of the largest coal fields in China, where open mines are visible everywhere. Each day they are visited by hundreds if not thousands of trucks hauling coal to the nearby power stations. This would not be too bad if it were not for the state of the road. However we soon found a newer section of dual carriageway that is intended to replace the old road once opened, and as it was still under construction we had it all to ourselves. Deciding to use this newer road we began to make good time despite it having no tarmac. The road was flattened dirt and stone which allowed us to keep up a steady pace crossing new bridges where the old road dipped and climbed incessantly. However, all good things come to and end. And this one did just that when it turned into mud and stone.
Riding alongside Sven I was alarmed to hear the noise coming from his bottom bracket. It had been creaking for a few days but was now beginning to bind too. We were trying to make it to Datong, two days away, where we were hoping to find a new bottom bracket for him. The chances were slim however as his bottom bracket is made by Truvativ, a brand that is not common in China. A lunch break in a smaller city produced no bicycle shops so we pushed on in hope. It was going to be late the next day before we would be able to reach Datong, where we had arranged to meet and stay with An, a couchsurfing host. Climbing out of our lunch stop city we realised though that Svens bike would not make it. Cresting a hill we dropped down to the truckers cafe where we tried to start a conversation with five drivers having their lunch. It turned out they were heading to Datong, about 120 kms away and would give us both a lift with our bikes. Watching them lash our bikes to the back of their lorries was worrying to say the least, but once finished we checked them for security and pronounced ourselves happy with the result. It was now just a seven hour drive to Datong where they dropped us off at the outskirts of the city. Half an hour later we were sitting in KFC waiting for An to come and meet us.
The first thing on the agenda the next morning was to sort out Svens bike. Even if the bike shop had the correct tool to remove his bottom bracket it was doubtful whether they would have a replacement. In typical Asian fashion, if you find one bike shop, you have found them all. There were four shops all next door to eachother. Only one had a mechanic who seemed to understand what was wanted and he immediately set to work to remove the left crank from Svens bike. Much hammering and grunting later he had succeeded in removing the whole bottom bracket, before he told us that they didn't have a replacement part. There is no way to repair the BB so taking it out was of little use. Then Sven pointed to the three cracks in his frame and told me that he didn't expect it to last more than another month anyway before he would need to buy a new bike. So now he had a cracked frame, and no bottom bracket. Time to buy a new bike then.
It took some persuasion and a lot of bargaining before we got a price that Sven was happy with. It involved swapping the new stem, handlebars, tyres, tubes, seat post and saddle from his old bike to bring the price down. His one disc brake was given to me to post to his home when I got back. All that was left were the wheels which he wanted to send home. For some reason the post office didn't want to play, and told us to go to the train station a few kilometres away, which we did. We couldn't understand why until we got there and discovered a huge central post office. However, it seemed that they were playing by the same rules as the first post office and refused his wheels despite them being boxed up. Sitting outside the post office eating a packet of biscuits we were greeted by a woman who pointed to her bike and offered us some apricots. Although we couldn't  understand anything she was saying she continued to talk to us for some minutes. We kept looking at eachother and laughing at the absurdity of it before deciding that she should have the wheels from Svens bike. Finally free of the burden of spare parts we set off once again, this time with Sven charging away using the full spread of his 24 gears.
Next stop - the wall. We had chosen a couple of major tourist sites to visit the wall as these were the best preserved / heavily renovated sections, as well as being the places where you can see the wall snaking its way up and over the mountains. We had also chosen to visit a couple of other places that weren't so heavily touristed, hoping to get onto the wall for free and to avoid the crowds. Badaling was our first stop, and it was easy to see why all of the tourists go there. The wall is not just huge but hugely impressive too. It's even been adapted for wheelchair access, but we couldn't understand why it was done here, or the way it was or done. The first ramp was steep enough but then you had to get a lift, then another steep ramp, some steps, one more stone threshold stone to climb over (in an archway that is too narrow for wheelchairs) and you are on the wall with a choice of which way to go, left or right. Both choices are impossibly steep, with many tourists stopping constantly to get their breath before plodding on again. There aren't many places where the wall is flat as the mountains make a more defensible position but I'm sure that there would have been better places to build in wheelchair access. Perhaps they have adapted all of the major tourist portions of the wall for wheelchairs
A nice long descent down the valley towards Beijing brought us to another road junction where we headed north once more. We had been looking at the map for a smaller road which would cross the line of the wall where we were hoping to find a less well preserved, and therefore less touristy area of the wall. Camping just off the road side that night we woke to see a group of cyclists all on mountain bikes riding up the road. We thought about joining them but rounding a corner we saw a group of westerners getting out of a couple of minibuses. We were next to a section of the wall that is out of bounds to tourists due to its need of renovation. It turns out that one of them was a tour guide leading the rest of the group on an 8km hike along the wall. It doesn't sound like much of a hike, but when you climb up onto the wall and see the terrain and the steepness of the wall as it crosses the mountains you think again. Much of the wall has steps to climb but in places there are just slopes that you have to lean into so much that you are almost using your hands. The tour guide showed us the path up onto the wall and suggested that we don't leave our bikes in view. As I had already had experience carrying a bike up a mountain last year I decided that a short section of path up to the wall would be withing my ability. Svens bike has no luggage and so he had no problem, but the bar-ends on my handlebars kept getting tangled in the overgrown bushes alongside the path. As I was at the back of the group there was no-one to untangle them for me so I spent a very frustrating 15 minutes tugging the bike free on every corner. Finally I made it to the wall and climbed up a wooden ladder with the bike on my back.
What a buzz. The Great Wall of China. I was on it. A lifelong ambition was being fulfilled. A series of walls that stretches roughly east to west. The entire wall with all of its branches measures  over 21,000 km, or over 13,000 miles. The first walls, made of wood and tamped earth, were started as early as the 7th century BC. Over the centuries the walls were rebuilt, fortified, extended and renovated for different reasons such as defence, immigration control, tax and toll collection barriers and as transport links. Walking up the wall and seeing it stretch over the mountains that formed the horizon it's hard to understand why anyone would feel the need to build a wall over the top of mountains so high and so steep. It couldn't have been much fun for the soldiers garrisoned there to keep watch, but as Genghis Khan is reputed to have said, a wall is only as strong as those that defend it. And they can be bribed. Which they apparently were.
Walking to the top of one section and looking back along the route I had just climbed I thought of the cricketer Ian Botham who walked the wall for charity many years back. This was soon after China had opened its borders again and probably before much renovation work had been done to make the wall suitable for the many visitors that were to come in later years. It much have been a hard walk, most of it on ascents and descents, up and down steps and slopes as well as rough ground where the wall was in need of repair.
Setting off on our bikes again a short time later we passed the group of cyclists having a chat and began what was to be my last mountain climb in China (for this trip anyway). The sign at the bottom said 'Slow down. Steep descent ahead'. Baffled by this we carried on climbing for another hour before we reached the descent. The sign itself was correct, but why warn us of a descent when we are at the bottom of a climb ? Whatever they were trying to tell us didn't matter though, because as soon as we started that descent we were grinning from ear to ear. New, smooth tarmac, long gently bends and beautiful scenery. Again. Leveling off near the bottom we found a great place to camp alongside the river, cooked dinner and made ourselves comfortable for the night. The next morning was a 120 km ride to Beijing. A 10 km gentle climb and then it was all downhill to Beijing. The finish line for me on my longest ride ever. Over 13,500 kilometres (more than 8000 mikes). I was looking forward to stopping and taking it easy but I didn't want to race there. All good things come to an end they say, but that doesn't mean you have to rush it. A rain shower provided us with the perfect reason to take an early lunch and ice-cream stop. 
What was Beijing going to be like? I was aiming for the forbidden city and Tainanmen square as the end of the ride. Images of tanks rolling into the square to suppress the student demonstrations on the 4th of June 1989 are a chilling reminder of what a hardline dictatorship is capable of, yet I had seen none of that on my travels. Estimates vary on the number of people killed under orders form hard line dictators that day, ranging from hundreds to thousands. The Chinese government initially condemned the protests as a "counterrevolutionary riot", and has since prohibited all forms of discussion or remembrance of the events, therefore these figures will probably never be known. In more recent times China has hosted the Olympic games (2008), inviting the world to visit and share in its more recent cultural and economic reforms. This is the China that I have witnessed, but the earlier images were still in my mind as I rode into Beijing.
I had no idea how I was going to feel as the ride came to an end in such a place.
 





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