Sometimes you have to let the train take the strain. For some it's the train that causes the strain.
I had spent so much time in the mountains that I needed to make up time in order to arrive in Beijing for my flight home. I also needed to extend my visa for a second time. The only problem was that in Xian it would take a week whereas in Shangri-La it took just one day.
Buying a ticket for the train was straight forward once my interpreter arrived. The journey was scheduled to last fifteen hours, arriving in Xian at 6.15 the next morning. The bike could go on the train as long as I took the front wheel out. Don’t ask me why but that is what is required. The bags would be okay on the bike I was told, counter to the reports from friends and other blogging cyclists. Arriving at the station though I was met with an airport style metal detector through which I and the bike had to pass, the bags going through an x-ray machine. So, I would have to take the bags off after all. Thankfully I would not have to fight my way onto the train with the bike before finding a seat as they are all allocated on the tickets. This didn’t stop people scrambling for the train though. And when I tried to find the baggage car I was told my bike went into the same carriage as me.
The bike had to be stood on the back wheel and lashed to the outside door to stop it falling over. Obviously this would also stop anyone getting on or off the train through that door, and other doors were also blocked
by people laying down strips of cardboard and sleeping on the floor. What followed was for me a very uncomfortable night with very little sleep. The seats were hard and upright. I swapped my seat when I found the one next to a Czech man who spoke excellent English was free and we spent the next few hours
chatting as we trundled slowly along the valleys on the fringes of the Tibetan plateau. The rain fall had been heavy for the last few days and this showed in the river levels
An early arrival in any city is fun as you experience it coming alive for a new day. I rode into the centre of the city to the bell tower and drum tower. These are found in most cities and are used to mark the start of the
day and the end of the day, although I can’t remember which is which. Then through the Muslim quarter to a hostel that I had marked out as being the most likely to be quiet as it was right opposite the city wall on a small street. Xians city wall is very impressive. 12 metres high and 12 to 14 metres wide, it bounds the city on all four sides with three gates in each wall and surrounded by a moat. The wall has defended Xian for centuries while it was the old capital, spanning 13 dynasties, being the largest capital city in the world at
the time with over one million people. But as impressive as the wall is, it’s not the reason that everyone comes to Xian. Once at the hostel I met Sven a 23 year old German cyclist riding around the world on a beaten up old dirt jump bike with a single gear and one brake. I thought that I was traveling light but
his kit is minimal to an extreme. He rides in flip flops, shorts and t-shirt, with a spare t-shirt and shorts, a thin foam roll mat, sleeping bag and sun hat. A few other essentials such as camera, tooth brush etc make up the remainder of what fits into a backpack no bigger than mine. He says it looks bigger than it really is because of the ukulele he bought along the way !
Hitting it off immediately we headed for the visa office as he was renewing too and discussed a plan to fill in the time until we could return to collect our passports. Sven is on a very tight budget and therefore not
visiting many of the tourist attractions but there are some that just can’t be missed. The Terracotta army is such an attraction and so we made plans to ride the 45 kms out of town to visit it and continue up into the mountains on a four day loop. All Chinese tourist attractions are graded from one to five A’s. Lijiang and Shangri-La old towns have been given four A’s, while the Terracotta army have five. Impressed as I was by the old towns I was expecting something really special at what is one of Chinas top tourist draws. Before we got there though we also came across the palace of the concubine, another five A attraction famed for its gardens. With an entrance fee of over £13 its expensive but after being so pleasantly surprised by Lijiang and Shangri-La I decided to spend an hour or so wandering around. Unfortunately, despite being very nicely laid out and exhibiting a variety of architectural styles there was much more stone than garden.
Moving onto the Terracotta warrior museum, discovered when a couple of farmers were drilling a new well, we shelled out another £15 to gain entry there. The pictures of rows of soldiers, archers and cavalrymen that I have seen prior to coming here do it more justice than it warrants. Once inside the buildings that house the three pits there is a feeling of distance as you are not allowed to get within ten metres of the statues and are placed on a walkway a few metres above them. Although you are able to see both facial features and hair styles of many different variations, the fact is that if you have seen them on TV or pictures on the internet then you are not going to see any more when visiting them in real life. We spent a couple of hours wandering around the pits and the museum before exiting disappointed, especially Sven as he said that he could live for five days on the money he spent to get in there.
We camped that night in an unfinished building , sleeping just on our mats, open to the breeze to prevent mosquitoes and to keep us cool and set off the next morning for the mountains. If the tourist attractions had been a disappointment the countryside was not. The road wound up a narrow valley twisting and turning all the way, with overhanging rocks, waterfalls and stone carved into amazing shapes. We followed this for about three hours before finding a campsite for the night. He next day was more of the same. Climbing
another valley and descending once again we entered a small side valley leading to a reservoir that seems to have become a leisure draw for swimmers, boaters and fishermen. The further we went up the valley the nicer it became until we found ourselves at the foot of a flight of stairs leading to a shrine at the top of the hill. Leaving our bikes at the bottom we climbed to the top and decided that, with a couple of buildings having one side open to the elements, it would make a perfect place to spend the night, once again sleeping almost alfresco to ward off the heat.
One more climb the next morning and the start of the descent out of the mountain range that took us about twenty kilometres before we had to pedal again, and then only gently as it was downhill for at least another hour to our lunch stop. Arriving back in Xian we met up with John, our host from the couchsurfing.org website, an Irishman teaching English in a local school.  Introducing us to some fellow teachers and students he had invited around we spent the evening discussing various aspects of our journeys as well as answering questions in order for the Chinese to practice their English. Agreeing to stay on an extra night so that we could partake of the English corner the next evening (more questions and answers) we were able to have a lie in before collecting our passports. Unfortunately the English corner was cancelled that day so we spent the time discussing route options for our trip north towards the wall.
Sven has to be in Beijing within two weeks which leaves us little time to hang around. The route we settled on was going to be over 1600 kms to Beijing, which we would have to cover in 13 days, including rest days and sightseeing. With someone else to ride with it is easier to keep a faster pace as you have someone to pass the time with, chatting and laughing as you ride. It also means that the breaks are shorter as you don't suffer boredom so much. There are times however when we are riding the same road but at different paces. Sven is riding a single speed bike and has to stand and power up the climbs in order to keep momentum, whereas I can lead from the front on the flat as I have the gears to keep up a higher speed that Sven spins out on. Mostly though we are riding together. It's the first time that I have ridden with anyone for more than a few days.
We have been wild camping as well as sleeping in buildings that have been abandoned or not yet finished. With so much building going on in China it's not hard to find somewhere with a rood for us to sleep under. One evening while looking for somewhere to sleep we met a young guy who pointed to a building that he was sleeping in while working on a new office block. After taking us to dinner we went back to check it out only to be led to the back door of a new Honda dealership that was just being made ready. In a back room were two beds, a computer hooked to the internet and of course toilets and a washroom. Given free reign to come and go as we pleased we had a very cosy night with breakfast thrown in too.
With such a long way to go to Beijing and wanting to spend time visiting a few sights along the way we are going to have to get a lot of distance in each day. There won't be much time to stop and admire the view as I have been able to do previously. That is the problem with riding with someone else. You no longer have complete control over the times you spend riding, stopping, eating etc. Instead there is discussion and compromise. This is not bad as long as you are approximately on the same wavelength and timetable. I would have liked to take a couple of days longer to reach Beijing, but having someone to ride with will make the journey go quicker I am sure. If it doesn't work out then nothing is lost but having spent four days riding to the east of Xian with Sven I think the last couple of week to Beijing are going to be a blast, and not just in terms of speed and distance covered.
 





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