There isn’t a paddy field in sight, this isn’t the China from the documentaries. I’m in north western China which landscape wise is just an extension of the desert like droll from the previous free days which comes as no surprise considering this region is called Inner Mongolia. Its no surprise either that the roads are perfect considering how prolific the Chinese are across the global at road building.
I’m moving east towards the capital and things do start to slowly change. The further I go the more humid it gets, a thick haze obscures the scenery. People are constantly fanning themselves or just resided to the unavoidable sweat, their clothes clinging to them. I`ve got the Beijing Belly, its not how it sounds my stomach is in one piece, no I’ve adopted the local style, men here often proudly roll their shirts up into a crop top revealing their bellies. It is a surprisingly affective cooling system and anything to reduce the temperature is fine by me, even if it means I have to see a lot of bulbous rounds and sweaty bellies.
The humidity has an additional buggerance for me, the copious amounts of salt rich sweat that I am pumping out channels down my torso, and as if to defy gravity I am convinced it channels up my legs to pool in the cleft of my bottom. Cyclists are like cakes, you don’t want a soggy bottom. Things have become a touch raw and like getting salt in a cut, uncomfortable; I’ve started sitting a touch tentatively these past few days.
A thick haze blankets the landscape obscuring the sun which is a crimson disk in the sky. On the approach to cities huge apartment buildings loom through the gloom with dozens of cranes populating the city sky lines, a sign that more towering buildings are going up. The cities themselves are vast but all is quiet. Wide tree lined roads with huge scooter and bicycle lanes cut through urban areas, they are the sort of bike lanes that Boris Johnson emptily promised in London, the Cycle Super Highway, the Dutch would even be envious. Most of the roads in the cities are quite quiet and the flats seem empty, there isn’t even so much as a sock hanging out to dry; it seems the infrastructure has been built for the future, capable of easily coping with a rapidly growing population.
If only Chinese food was this good at home, fresh, light, full of veggies and not a sugary goo coated chicken ball in sight. I’ve even had fruit and my five a day or how ever they many they now recommend. Though after Mongolia the fruit was a shock to the system, I had the bad kind of Beijing Belly after a touch to much of this fruity goodness. The people are so friendly, as always, and I have found myself with arms full of sweet treats or noodles though this generosity does come at a price. I’m back at celebrity status posing awkwardly in pictures with a crowd of children or being the focus of stealth photos in restaurants as waitress’ not so subtly snap a picture or two of me unceremoniously slurping noodles.
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting Singapore and stopped in on the Long Bar in Raffles for their famed pineapple based cocktail, the Singapore Sling, you may on walking into the bar with its old fashioned roof fans from the 1920’s, have felt as you stepped across the oak floor boards your feet crunch on the occasional monkey nut shell. It is the etiquette to drop the cardboard like casings on to the floor. Well here in China anything goes, on the floor that is, the floors in restaurants especially around large tables are strewn with detritus, tissues, plastic, bones and chop sticks litter the floor. Lunch is a noisy, slurp-y affair complete with (in good restaurants) the odd burp or two, a sign of great pleasure.
A day or so later and I’m nearly there, maybe 200km left of my Silk Road leg and the continent of Asia and its not peaceful anymore. The air is thick with fumes, dirt and coal dust as thousands of lorries rumble along the ten lane motorway that I find myself on safely in the cycle lane, aka the hard shoulder, is perfect, my own private road. At the end of the day I feel like the great unwashed, thick grime capes my arms and face, I look like I have a bushy mono brow as the dirt has accumulated in my furrowed forehead; there is no need for sun cream here the filth does the job.
I’ve never seen so much freight and materials being moved, its a veracious nation hungry for materials, food and power. In a single day I passed over six massive power plants with their array of huge cooling towers and chimneys continuously pumping out steam and fumes respectively. I hate to think of all this filth going into my lungs, a study by King’s College claimed that a day out in London is the equivalent of smoking fifteen cigarettes a day well in urban China must be like smoking fifteen packets. Its not just my lungs under attack either, mid morning and a useless bus driver without a glance over his shoulder or to his mirrors swings to the right, into the inside lane in which I am occupying; I take an evading swerve and a clout to the noggin, you have to keep your wits about you. I felt that one and later I have to check my helmet to make sure it wasn’t cracked by the wing mirror which did its best to unseat me.
My final day, surrounding Beijing is a ring of mountains, steep, forested, insanely humid and impassable and running along the ridges from peak to peak sits the Great Wall. I pass beneath this Wonder of the World and of course I take the opportunity to mount its ramparts. I’m at a section called Badaling, its quite the popular spot apparently. Christ I’ve never seen so many people. I read some reviews of this section online, it was described as Disney Land, a touch unjust I think; its more like the queue at Disney Land to ride the magic tea cups or what ever rides they have in Walter’s theme park. It’s hot, its humid, crowded and as with the entirety of Asia no one queues orderly; I spot a few oldies who look like they are on the brink of death as the heat takes its toll. If I wanted to be pushed and shoved I would have played a game of rugby.
The wall its self has been refurbished, it snakes its way up the hill sides with a thigh burning gradient followed by a vertigo inducing decent. Its harder work than cycling and my metal cleats on the stone smoothed by millions of dragging heals act like ice skates and I find myself sliding out of control at helpless little people. I do manage to escape the crowds and walk peacefully south along the wall, looking back I can see the hordes marching along like little ants at this distance. Despite the overly touristified spot I find myself at, it is fantastic to stand atop the wall and look back towards Mongolia. At the end of the section which you can walk you can see the more ancient sections snaking off into the distance with crumbling mortar, missing brick worth and an over growth of trees as nature tries to take back control. That’s five of the seven modern wonders of the world done, just two left to go.
Wall done and its the last leg. Beijing. Its not the biggest of China’s mega cities but getting in is going to take a good while. There are nine million bicycles in Beijing and I though it was going to be amongst it, hectic traffic, scooters, beeping, dodging gormless pedestrians and of course a few of those bicycles. I’ve travelled through south east Asia an visited the likes of Ho Chi Minh and Bangkok where you take you life into your own hands when you cross the road but Beijing is not what I expected. Its a doddle and I must admit a touch anti climatic as I efficiently ride unencumbered; these Chinese and their efficiency could give the Germans a run for their money