Nanling Mountains stand on the border between Guangdong and Hunan provinces (JEREMY JOHN GREY)
Since I have been involved in charity for over 10 years and tried losing weight by riding a bike, a few friends said they might sponsor me if I did something extreme.
I'd been to Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in northwest China and liked it very much; so I thought it might be a challenge to go there on bike. I'd certainly lose weight as well as raise awareness for the charity for the disabled my wife and I were involved with.
On a warm and sunny day, the last day of February, we—myself and Phil Behan, my riding partner for the next two months—started out from Zhongshan in Guangdong Province in south China. A long ride through heavy traffic and we finally arrived in Huadu, one of the most northerly suburbs of Guangzhou and stopped for the night. Next day, after breakfast we headed north toward the city of Qingyuan, only 30 km away, but because of roadworks we had to ride 70 km before we could rest for the night. Qingyuan is a long city and the northern towns are so far away that it took us two days to get to the end, Lianzhou. Next stop, Hunan Province.
What really surprised me were the Nanling Mountains. I had read about and looked at pictures of them but basically ignored them because the highest point is only about 1,000 meters above the sea level. But that was the toughest part of any riding I had ever done. Not high, but steep. One or two hours to climb, then 10 minutes' descent before immediately climbing again. A relentlessly tough three days before we found ourselves in Hunan Province and flatter terrain in central China.
There were no signs, just a slight difference in weather, it rained more, it was cooler and the car number plates had a different character on them. The food got a little spicier too, but I enjoy that.
Several days of riding north through Hunan found us crossing the Yangtze River. More by luck than management we found the ferry, paid 1.5 yuan ($0.21) each, and rolled the bikes aboard to cross the river into our third province, Hubei.
We were heading for the city of Shiyan in the north to leave Hubei and enter Shaanxi Province, which is in northwest China, but for the first and only time in our journey, we got lost. We took a wrong turn and had the most wonderful ride through farmland and waterways. For two days, we were heading north instead of northwest, but the lost time was the most beautiful and interesting riding we had encountered so far. The weather also turned nice, so we weren't complaining. We liked Hubei.
What we did complain about when we reached Shaanxi was the Qingling Mountains on day 23 of the journey. Beautiful scenery but steep and hard. Quite warm too. Climbing is never-ending here and unlike in Guangdong, these mountains are high, up to 3,000 meters. However, you climb here for five to six hours and then descend for a long fast ride. So we enjoyed these more than the Nanling Mountains in Guangdong.
Xi'an and beyond are relatively flat, so the going was good for a few days until we started to climb again into the peaks and into Gansu Province. These are called the Liupan Mountains and now, we were talking really big climbs in arid land. The mountains receive a lot of rain and we experienced that, but the plateaus are dry, very arid and quite hot to ride through. Not quite desert, but not far from it.
Gansu and Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region aren't like the China I knew. Wide open spaces, long flat roads, intense heat and wonderful people in tiny villages that seemed to have as many shops as they had mosques. The food changes here, more noodles than rice, more potatoes than green vegetables. Coming from Europe, I felt it was more like home cooking.
The western parts of Gansu lead into the vast deserts of Xinjiang and took us down into the second lowest point on earth, the Tarim Basin. Riding 800 km between the last city in Gansu into the first city in Xinjiang makes one appreciate the size of China. Between Hami and Xinjiang's capital Urumqi, there is also a lot of open space and desert.
After 57 days on the road, crossing China's three major rivers, two of her biggest deserts and three mountain ranges, we enjoyed a long downhill approach into Urumqi. And we raised over 270,000 yuan ($38,177) for the charity, I lost 22 kg and developed a love for northwest China that will remain with me until the day I fall off my bike!
The author is a British-born Australian living in China
Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar
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