25 - 28 April 2016
For the fourth time I went to the bus station and for 10-15 minutes the driver didn’t open the trunk but at least he didn’t stop me from reorganizing my luggage so I felt confident that we were leaving. With 15 passengers (same as the day before), we left on time at noon only to go 5 minutes to a petrol station where we spent 40 minutes to get petrol (why was this not done with a 24 hour delay?), do some paperwork and pick up another 15 passengers (probably cheaper getting on outside the bus station). This latter made me conclude that the problem yesterday was not in Kunming, but likely an empty bus not leaving Xi’an and the company didn’t want two buses in Kunming – anyway this behaviour is only possible with a monopoly (one bus company with one daily departure). It also made me think what a charade the bus station luggage scanning was, because the people getting on along the way of course didn’t have their luggage scanned - and neither did I because I had a big bike. I picked the a rear seat (no sleeper) and for 6 hours I had all 4 rear seats to myself – then two people occupied 2 of the seats and at 20.00 the bus was full. Little room and the guy next to me was more restless than a two-year old who had too much sugar, so it was now quite uncomfortable especially the thought of sitting like this for another 13 hours (not counting the unknown delay). Fortunately, a lot of people got off at 23.00 and 2 of the guys moved to other seats leaving 3 seats for me as the remaining guy sat straight up in the other corner. From the early morning, I again had all seats so I must consider myself lucky under the circumstances.
The afternoon weather was lovely (sunny with white fluffy clouds), so it was a beautiful drive over countless mountains and through equally many valleys. A first hand experience in Chinese infrastructure with countless bridges (road on stilts) sometimes up to 25k long through valleys where the inhospitable mountainsides didn’t allow a road as well as 500+ tunnels blasted through the mountains to prevent steep sections (between 0.1 – 8.0k long). It was always up or down but the tunnels/bridges ensured grades of mostly 4-5% and occasionally 6-7%. However, this is not the story had I biked – the highways are off limit and according to other bicyclists the secondary roads most often go over the mountains and down the valley bottoms on steep roads making it a very challenging and tough ride. So I was happy to do this 2,000k bus trip saving me at least 3 weeks of biking though I wouldn’t have come this far east had I biked. Early evening it became overcast and suddenly everything looked grim and uninteresting making me appreciate the first 6 hours. We arrived in Xi’an at 15.00, six hours late so the trip ended up being 27 hours. I can’t see they can ever do it on time because along the way we only had two ½ hour food breaks and then a mysterious 3 hour break – just parked off the road in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night. There were 2-3 drivers so why they should need a sleep I don’t know – or maybe to cool down the engine though that should not take 3 hours and if necessary it would be better with many shorter breaks… who knows…?
Xi’an is located on the Guanzhong Plain just above sea level, so any way out is over the mountains. Not necessarily very steep (?) but the least hilly way out for me would be over 6,000 metres elevation climb within 150k – normally okay if gradual, but with only a few days biking (in Myanmar, Thailand and Laos, respectively) the last 2 months, it didn’t seem like a good idea to re-start on a very long uphill on a fully loaded bike. So I spent late afternoon investigating bus options at different stations to go to Lanzhou or Guyuan, the latter being my preference with least kilometres but same elevation. I went to my couchsurfing hosts at 19.00 – a lovely family of three; Erica, Feng a cute little Yuen Yuen. Very hospitable and generous people and the conversation continued until after midnight.
Xi'an is the capital of Shaanxi province, which the Chinese call the northwest, but to me it is right in the middle. It is one of the oldest cities in China and the oldest of the four great ancient capitals, having held the position under several of the most important emperors/dynasties. In other words, lots of history and culture, but again I’ve done most of it when visiting in 1999 and had little interests in repeating all the sightseeing. I did however, spend an afternoon walking half way around on the wall (well-maintained and the longest in the world) and within the walls amongst other seeing the Bell Tower, Drum Tower and visiting the Muslim Quarter. Another afternoon I biked around town visiting a number of parks. Before arriving the weather forecast predicted 20C, overcast and possibly rain, but luckily everyday was 28C and sunny - such a different experience when the weather is nice. I stayed an extra day - Saturday - to have a full day wih the family instead of just a few hours in the weekday evenings - amongst other we visited a museum in a closed textile factory and walked around a nearby park.
Initially planning to ride many Chinee provinces, I got a dictionary with many different dialects. However, it was useless having only a few frases in each dialect - a Mandarin dictionary would have been a much better choice. One afternoon I went shopping for dinner but after two hours in 2 supermarkets and a local market I had found none of the main ingredient I needed - or when they looked right I had no way of confirming this as nobody spoke English. So I made my own small dictionary for the bike trip and had Erica and Feng help translate it into Chinese.