Given that cycling the South Island is something I've wanted to do for years, with it just a ferry ride away from my current home city, Wellington, it seemed too close to pass up. So, I loaded up my bags with Mum's amazing gluten free Christmas cake...
Since leaving China I've sat with my cat and a bad cold by the fire at home in Paihia, been reminded of what a New Zealand winter feels like (urgh!), caught up with friends (usually over some kind of chocolate item), flown to Vanuatu, been ziplining over an 80 metre canyon...
I didn't know much about China before I left. The China I had heard about before my trip wasn't always a good one. I'd heard from a few that it was an interesting place yes, but I'd also heard endless stories about scams, eye-watering pollution, hot crowded cities, unfriendly people, stomach cramping food, human rights abuses... the list goes on. That certainly wasn't the China I experienced.
Ever since the first day cycling when, like an idiot, I let myself get so dehydrated that I blacked out briefly on the side of the road, I've tried to convince myself that these unplanned and generally unwanted moments are "all part of the adventure." This week, I have to say, has been packed full of such moments.
I looked out my window yesterday morning and groaned. Rain. I've ridden in rain a lot since coming to China, but riding in freezing rain at 3700m is very unappealing. I gazed around at my bright room and considered staying another night, but the idea of descending 2000m was too tempting. I wanted to be able to breathe normally again, to laugh without needing recovery time in between.
I have a thing about yaks. How could you not? They are, clearly, the coolest animal in the world. Something about the scraggly hair (very similar to mine at this point) and the 'and what do you want?!' expression. Ever since I started planning this journey I was determined that yaks would feature. So, I set out from Chengdu and headed Southwest, towards the Tibetan Plateau where, as numerous books and blogs promised me, I would find some of these wonderful creatures. For the first few days the scenery was disappointingly yak-free.
You're hungry. You cycled 90km today and the last few hours involved peddling your way through city madness in a furnace-like heat. It's nearly 6pm and you haven't eaten since you stopped for some fried rice mid-morning. Once you reached the hostel you were distracted by exciting things: a washing machine, a shower, other foreigners. But now, as you walk towards the supermarket, you suddenly realise that you could easily eat an entire yak, something you may well do in the coming weeks.
I woke up the morning after what I shall now remember as Puncture Day to find my front tyre flat. Again. I wanted to throw my bike into the nearby swamp. Instead, I pumped up the tyre enough to wheel it along and followed the directions of the hostel receptionist to a nearby Giant shop. The man at the shop spoke no English, and my Mandarin is limited to food items, so I made do with pointing at the main problems: the ever-deflating tyre, the missing chain ring bolt and a missing screw holding up my rear rack.
I've never had a puncture before. Not in all my years of riding bicycles. Not when I cycled from Paihia to Kerikeri aged 15 to go to the school pools. Not during my short-lived attempt at cycling touring in Holland. Not when dodging the cows, tuktuks and who knows what else when cycling to work in Delhi. But I always knew the day would come.
Today was pretty rough, from the industrial landscape and air pollution, to the continuous increase of both temperature and gradient, the gross taste of the water in all three of my water bottles and a minor bout of food poisoning in the which made me think I might be sick over the side of my bike. There was, however, a moment that made it worthwhile.
I am writing this while perched awkwardly on a chair. Let's just say that sitting down, after 8 hours of sitting down on a bicycle seat, is rather unpleasant. Well, it is when the roads look like this:
Apart from that, life as a muddy cyclist continues to be pretty great. I have now ridden about 970 kilometres, most of it along the same road, the once trusty, and as of today, now hated G321.
I speak no Mandarin. I don't think I can even count 'Ni hao' given that this is usually greeted with silent stares. I put the staring down to two possibilities: I'm either butchering the tones (highly likely) or the sight of a muddy, sweaty, giant foreign woman on a bicycle is too surprising to muster up a reply (quite possible). Despite my complete incompetence with their language, however, the Chinese I've met so far have really gone out of their way to communicate with me.
Once upon a time, I started cycling from Hong Kong to Scotland. That was today. Technically I didn't start cycling in Hong Kong. In fact, you can see from the photo below that poor Rafiki (yes, he has a name) was left on the back of the ferry to mainland China to be hammered by the rain and waves. Not a very dignified start for him.