Archive for the ‘Inner Mongolia’ Category

Posted to the border!

Saturday, May 7th, 2011

While we waited for the bad weather to subside we washed all of our kit and a mountain of sand ended up all over the hotel bathroom floor. We managed to clean it up and put it in the bin, goodness knows what the housekeeping staff made of it! We also stocked up on some more provisions and boiled lots of water using the kettle in our room, so that this time we would have plenty of water.

dirty sink

We ate at another food place and made friends with the people there too – it seems that this town is one of the friendliest places around, everyone is greeting us with smiles and waves – I think this is how  famous people must feel when they go somewhere and everyone gasps and giggles. It’s nice and makes you feel welcome but a little strange cos we’re just us. The friendliness of people in the small towns and villages is so heart warming and so different from the city, when you are much more anonymous and treated with more indifference, as you’d expect. We’ve obviously been away from the villages for too long!

On our way out of town we stopped to say goodbye to our friend Wan Jeng, who we nicknamed Eddie and stopped for a cup of tea. We ended up meeting his extended family and struggled to get away. But we finally left the town. As we cycled down the same road as before, only this time in sunshine, we were feeling much more optimistic and prepared.

A few km out of town and we stopped for a loo break, almost the moment after we stopped a police van pulled up and two guys got out, with a video camera looking quite serious.. Chris had only got as far as unzipping and quickly zipped up and came back over. One man went to get his police jacket from the boot and came over showing Chris his badge. Here we go, we both thought, what’s happening now? Turns out they just wanted a photo with us and a little chit chat, then they went on their way! Don’t know why we were worried, all of our encounters with the police in China have been very positive. Chris thinks that he was a senior officer, based on his stripes and perhaps was serious to maintain an air of authority, it certainly worked!

So off we go again, I was beginning to think we would never leave this town. The wind was against us, but not too bad and we made good progress, cycling passed ‘campsite sandstorm’. We cycled until we started to lose the light and then found a great camping spot amongst some trees.

The next day we had a tailtwind, a rare southerly, so I was up and out of the tent, bullying Chris to move from his cosy sleeping bag “Let’s go let’s go”. What can I say, we had an amazing day of cycling and managed 90km. Knees were fine, wind was behind us, the sun was shining and we had a quite a lot of downhill unexpectedly. All the trucks were waving and beeping at us.

The open road

We started to see sheep being herded by their shepherds and the faces of the people started looking less Chinese. The language gradually became more Mongolian too.

We had lunch, which was a mutton stew with potato and pasta, with bread rolls, no rice in sight! And it was delicious, like a good stew from home – I’m looking forward to more meat and potatoes! As the sun started to set we could see a town on the horizon, we weren’t expecting to come to a town as nothing was marked on our map, however the tell tale sign was the power station in the distance, it seems wherever their are humans here, they are industrial, smoke power stations. We cycled in and were greeted by hello’s and shrieking children, running alongside us.

We stopped by what looked like a hotel and within a minute had a crowd of 40 people around us. The lady owner was so lovely and welcomed us inside, she let us leave bags downstairs and said our bikes would be looked after too. We then went up to our room and had a shower before heading out for some food. I had pretty bad saddle sore which I haven’t ever really suffered from before so that was a surprise. My riding position has changed since we added the new suspension forks so this may be why. Having looked at the forecast we were due to have a tailwind the next day too and with only 160km to go to the border we reckoned we could get a lot of that done the next day.

We set off with an audience and managed to cycled almost 25km with the wind behind us, bliss, I was sure we were going to make great progress and have another good day. However the weather had other ideas and on the horizon we could see black clouds forming ahead, to the west of us. The land here is flat, like great plains – nothing in the way to break the wind. I cycled faster, naively thinking we could out-cycle the weather if we kept going. This worked for a while but then the wind came gusting in almost without warning and bang, it slammed into us. I went from 23km per hour to about 8km and it was slow going. Then the rain started and we stopped to get waterproofs on… Huddling from storm

…to cut a long story a bit shorter, we basically spent the rest of the day, sheltering from the wind, hail, thunder and lightning and rain, with a little bit of cycling in between storms and quite a lot of pushing. We made it to the next town about 6pm and the weather seemed much better and the sun was out so we pushed on. But the weather was waiting for us and no sooner had we left the town (where there are hotels, shelter, food etc) than the heavens opened again and we took shelter for the nth time that day, in a road tunnel. The only thing to cheer us up was a spectacular rainbow.

Tired and frankly fed up with the lack of progress and ‘the stupid wind’, I was all for stopping right there and putting up the tent. It wasn’t a great spot however and Chris persuaded me to continue just a bit more to find a better place. On we went and it got dark. We reached a sign saying 100km to the border and some toll booths. We asked about camping behind the building there but they didn’t really understand, so we pulled off the road after a km of so and camped. It was blowing a  hoolie by then and we wrestled with the tent in the dark, By the time we were set up and laying down it was about 9pm! I was shattered and couldn’t believe that after such a long day we’d only managed about 60km. I felt less tired after 90 the day before! Tomorrow was the 5th so we really needed to do as much as we could and get to the border, the last day of our visas was the 6th.

Sheltering from Storm number 3!

So we woke up and guess what, there’s a side wind blowing so hard that you could barely stand in it. Great! We packed up the inner tent and used the outer for shelter to cook breakfast and coffee. Then packed up and wheeled back to the road, with a plan to flag a truck and get a lift. After two hours of standing by the road and flagging trucks, none of them stopped – they were all friendly but heavily loaded and had passengers. I was pretty cold by now and so we went over to the petrol station near the toll booth. They gave us hot water and we ate biscuits whilst trying to decide what to do. We could cycle back 10km to the town and see if we could arrange transport there or get a bus. I loathe going back on ourselves, especially having already done it a few days ago. However we couldn’t see any other option. We thought about explaining to the staff at the garage to see if they could help us and speak to the truck drivers. Chris managed to explain our predicament to them  and with a complete stroke of luck, the China Post van pulled into the garage.  They both jumped up and said “Erlian, Erlian”. That’s the name of the border town and it seems the post van was headed that way. They ran out and asked him, the result was yes!! We exchanged some money and everyone got their cut we think, then we loaded everything on top of the mail into the back of the van.

The 100km journey took about 1.5hrs and seeing the conditions outside we were glad to be inside. Sand and snow was sweeping across the plains, with the wind buffering the van. We didn’t really talk and both of us dozed off for a while.

View from China Post van

As we arrived in Erlian, we were greeted by Dinosaurs. Apparently dinosaur bones have been found here and an impressive use of the landscape and creativity meant that life size statues of dinosaurs peppered the landscape. Pretty cool!

Dinosaurs at Erlian The land before time

He dropped us off in town and we found a cheap hotel. The contrast between camping and being outside followed by the warmth and comfort of a cheap hotel room ( I mean you wouldn’t want to take a holiday there but..) is so acute, we were both exhausted, and we hadn’t even cycled anywhere!

This town also had a fast food restaurant called Dicos (which you may remember us talking about when we first arrived in southern China). It’s like a KFC but actually a bit nicer. We went straight there for some additional comfort and had chicken burgers and chips and ketchup! Heaven. Now all we had to do was cross the border the next day and our Mongolia adventure would begin!

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Cabin, actually tent fever 29-30th April

Sunday, May 1st, 2011

The wind woke me up about 6.30am, the tent was being blown about and it sounded like a gale out there.  I rolled over and went back to sleep, we weren’t going anywhere just yet then.

Around 8.30 I woke up again and it sounded even worse.  Chris was awake and we both gave each other look that involved raised eyebrows! I opened a little bit of the tent and saw very little except dust, no blue sky today. The tent was being blown all over the place but it is designed to withstand this kind of weather so we weren’t too worried. However with the wind and sand blowing like that we couldn’t really cycle, so we resigned outselves to staying here for a few hours until it cleared. I opened the laptop and started writing the rest of the blog from the previous day. The internet wouldn’t connect so I didn’t get very much further.  Chris went outside to boil up some water and make coffee for us, and some toast! By the time he returned we had two slices of toast with jam, peanut butter for Chris and 2 cups of coffee, and settled down to watch a few episodes of The Big Bang Theory. Around lunchtime the battery on the laptop died and we decided to have a look outside again. Not much better, looks like we were stuck here. I think Chris was quite pleased – he’s always wanted to be hold up in a tent for a day!

After a couple more hours of deliberating and accessing how much water we had, we decided to put up the tarp to give us more shelter so we could cook properly without being blown away. After some wrestling and re-positioning we got it in place and I was able to cook up some dinner for us. Funny to think that at home everyone would be watching the Royal Wedding, going to street parties and celebrating, painting union jacks all over the place and having a few drinks, meanwhile we’re stuck in a tent in the middle of nowhere, wearing sand googles and thermal leggings!

Chris treated us to some popcorn too…

It began to get dark and the wind picked up as we lay in the tent. It was so loud and I wondered how the people in America must have felt when the tornadoes were passing through their towns recently. The dust being blown our way was coming into the tent somehow, even through the doors and zips were firmly closed. The force of the wind was impressive.

With an ipod loaded with movies we fired up Batman – The Dark Knight and plugged in the mini speakers. At full volume we could only just hear the film – the wind was so loud. Half way through Chris dived outside to take the tarp down, it was making a racket. However by the time the film ended the wind seemed to have died down and we were optimistic that the dust storm was beginning to subside. We eventually nodded off to sleep.

At 3.30am we were both wide awake, the wind was blowing so hard I could feel it underneath me and the whole tent was bending over to once side, shaking and straining under the force. I was quite worried now that the tent might not cope and the poles might snap and that we’d have to evacuate in the middle of the night. I cuddled up to Chris for warmth and reassurance. It’s strange to feel so vunerable and yet at the same time know that inside the tent is the safest place to be right now. We talked through some scenarios and what we would do should any of them happen, then, as Chris put it “well dunno about you but I’m going back to sleep!” we tried to get some sleep.

About 6.30am I was wide awake again, listening to see if it was any quieter. But no. Blimey we were gonna be stuck here for days! Well we weren’t cos we didn’t have enough water and would need to pack up and go today whatever the weather. I stuck my head outside to see what the world looked like and was slightly shocked by the draft of very cold air that hit me and the sight of snow and ice drifting around out bikes. Definitely time to pack up and leave. I woke Chris up who was decidely unconcerned and light hearted about it all. I guess after 3 months in the mountains with snow and ice you get used to it.

I pointed out that we needed to leave though and Chris decided to have a look outside… “Er you know how you said it was just patches of ice, well it’s now snowing!”. I rush to look and saw sideways snow being blown at us. Great, first sand, now an ice and snow storm. Our first thought was that the snow might clean some of the dust away, but we quickly realised that it just makes a sludgy, muddy mess. It took us ages to pack up as everything was covered in a layer of soggy dust. The wind blew away most of the snow and it didn’t settle, it just raced across the land like polystyrene balls.

Once outside we had our big jackets on with hoods and googles, against the ice whipping our faces. Chris got blown over twice and I lost my foam roll mat as the wind took off with it. Chris ran after it but it was gone before he had chance to get near it. Putting the tent away was fun, like a military operation! My toes were numb, but the rest of me was warm. It took both of us to haul each bike back up to the road.

It was 20km to the next town, the first place we could stock up on water. We decided we would see if we could push the bikes in that direction for a bit, in the hope that the weather might improve “it can’t last forever”. It was starting clear ahead of us and the sun came out. So we tried this for about 200metres, but I was using all my strength and body weight to push against the wind and it was pretty impossible. I couldn’t see how we could hope to push for 20km. Then as if sensing my gloom, the weather turned again and the sky filled with snow and ice, hurtling towards us, skimming across the road. We turned around.

It was 9km back to the town we’d had dinner in, we started heading back there, wind behind us. We were both disappointed at going back on ourselves, we never do that if we can help it. However we had little choice. The wind was gusting so much that cycling wasn’t fun and I was gripping the handlebars so hard. At times I got off and pushed as it was a side wind as much as tail wind and the bike was being blown all over the shop. We finally rolled back into town and headed back to the restaurant. We hadn’t eaten anything today yet and decided to re-group there.

Wet and covered in dust, we ate another delicious meal and sat with our friend Wan Jeng and his friend. Both feeling a bit battered and wind swept, it was nice to be welcomed back. They brought out a bottle of alcohol (like peach snapps) and we were poured several shots. The converstation got a bit exhausting when Wan tried to ask us if he could come to England to work as a chef and the 3 of us could open a Chinese restaurant, and how much could he earn? We tried to explain that there are many restaurants already and that getting a working visa for the UK is difficult, plus it would be expensive for him to do this. We didn’t get as far as saying that we have no plans to open a restaurant! We went round in circles for a long time and he really wanted us just to say yes. In the end we had to leave as we couldn’t really say much more and wanted to find somewhere to stay the night. He kept pouring Chris more beer and wanted us to stay at his house. He was so hospitable and refused to let us pay for the food and drinks. We really hoped that he understood we couldn’t say yes to what he was asking, despite being so kind to us. It’s difficult to know how we are percieved and the idea that we could just arrange for him to come to England and set up a business together, seemed so obvious, so simple to him, yet not so simple to us. This was certainly turning into quite a surreal day, snow storms at breakfast followed by peach snapps and business propositions by tea time!

We found a hotel willing to let us stay and checked in, pretty expensive, but right now I didn’t care. We were careful to move our dirty pannier bags upstairs without reception seeing how grubby we were, in case the changed their minds!

Phew! We both collapsed onto the bed for a few minutes and then took hot showers to clean off the dust and dirt.

Reflecting on the last few days we realised that we’d been given a taste of what the Gobi will be like and learnt a few lessons too. On the whole we were prepared for the cold and remoteness, but needed more water – we knew this for the Gobi but between towns we didn’t think we’d need as much and hadn’t planned on being holded up for more than a day. The dust and sand gets everywhere, so putting everything away and keeping bags closed is crucial. As for the wind well, I guess we’ll get used to it. On the plus side our tent stood it’s ground so we are pleased about that!

Some of you may read this and think well if they can’t manage to get to the next town 20km away in these conditions how are they gonna cope in the Gobi. Well I guess the answer is that it’s a learning curve, neither of us have been here before and it’s hard to know what ‘windy’ means until you stand out here and experience it rolling across the empty plains. As for the dust and snow, on their own they are fine, but combine with the wind, you can barely see in front of you. As with any adventure you have to come and try for yourself and see what you can do. We are prepared with clothes, good kit, strong bikes and lots of determination (Chris was impressed that I didn’t cry yesterday, despite being out of my comfort zone!). This big weather is a force to be reckoned with, so I think it’s important to understand your own limitations and not be too ‘macho’ about it. Yes maybe we could have pushed our bikes 20km in the wind to the next town. However physically I wasn’t able to do that and mentally it didn’t make sense to fight the wind and snow. Turning back may feel a bit like failure, but I’d rather save my energy for bigger battles in the future, when there is no town to go back to.

The forecast is for sunny skies and less wind tomorrow…

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The calm before the storm – 28/04/11

Sunday, May 1st, 2011

So our first nights camp was very successful and comfortable, and after a breakfast of porridge and coffee, we packed up to go. Chris now has an Extra Wheel and having realised that the two new panniers were too heavily packed, he set about trying out a new system. I realised that my back wheel was totally flat, having just loaded up the bike! So I unloaded and changed the inner tube. Finally we got on the road again.

Within 400metres my left knee started to hurt again and we had a headwind. Hmmn this was going to be interesting. We pushed on as we needed to get some kms done and I didn’t want to stop so soon after setting off. The road was long and flat ahead of us, with the wind barrelling in from the north and west.

After 10km we took a break at a petrol station, the people there invited us in and we sat in front of their TV drinking hot water, watching Jimmy Carter arriving in South Korea in Chinese, all very surreal.  It was so still and quiet inside. After our short break we continued and I knew there was a town in about 15km. After being blown about, wobbling and being buffeted by the trucks coming passed, I got off and pushed for a bit. Then the road turned and the side wind turned into a tail wind, hurrah! We had a few km being jet propelled along before a storm rolled in. We could see the clouds gathering and the wind increased, before we knew it, it was blowing a gale and sand, dust and a little rain came hurtling towards us. Almost at the same time we both braked and dived off the road – enough! We hunkered down by the side if the road, where there was a small embankment and huddled away from the wind.

On the road

We decided we might as well have some noodles while we waited. Noodles weren’t too great to be honest, as I stupidly added the packet containing a mass of chilli, way too spicy. Oh well.

No sooner that the storm passed, calm and sunshine, than a second one arrived this time with rain. We both ran and got our waterproofs on and waited. It passed quickly and 10 mins later it was blue sky and sunshine again – all evidence of a storm having being removed, apart from the wind…

We cycled on and reached the town, Qahar Youyi Houqi. My knee was really painful now, so I was keen to stop so I could rest it. We found hotel but they wouldn’t/couldn’t let us stay cos we’re foreigners. After a few more attempts at other places, we realised we couldn’t stay in this town.  Many Chinese hotels are only allowed to accept Chinese citizens, with an ID card. A bit cross, tired and hungry we agreed to cycle out and find a camp spot. However we would eat first.

We stopped outside a little restaurant and went inside, leaving the bikes to the spectators. Pretty sure that this town doesn’t see many westerners, everyone was staring at us and kids were giggling beyond control! But it’s all pretty friendly. We managed to order some food and waited to see what would arrive. The man in the restaurant soon became good friends with Chris and by the time we left he was showering him with gifts of cigaretttes, loo roll and a metal set of cutlery with chopsticks. All very kind, and then he hardly took any money for the delicious food he’d served us.

Wan Jeng

Wan Jeng

So we took our leave and several goodbyes. Stopping for water at a shop on the way out we made some additonal friends…

…and then got going.

The landscape opened out and we could see hills and not much else on the horizon.

It was quite late now after our time in the restaurant, but we would see how far we could get. On we cycled, but with the wind blowing at us, it was hard work and my left knee was not happy. (Should just explain that I don’t have a knee problem per se, it’s caused by the muscles in my legs not being strong enough or too tight to do their job and so the joints take the pressure.  I often get this when I haven’t cycled or hiked for ages and then I go and ask a lot of my legs with no warning, but don’t worry it goes away after a day or two, just need to go easy).

We started looking for a camping site and soon realised that there was othing obvious so we should just pull off the road and go over the mounds until we find a flat bit of land. We did this and found a sheltered flat area that seemed perfect. It was so calm away from the road, much better.  We set up the tent and I changed and slapped on some moisturiser (thanks Mum!). The air here is so dry and my skin felt tight, my hands were like sandpaper and the moisturiser soaked in so fast! Chris spent some time messing about with his panniers on the quest for the perfect system.

After such a big feast we didn’t need any more food so we snuggled down and started writing this blog before going to sleep.

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Jining, Inner Mongolia to camp spot 35km, 27/4/11

Saturday, April 30th, 2011

After packing up, scoffing some Boatza (delicious little steamed buns filled with meat), taking some photos and telling the locals what we were up to, we finally got on the road about midday.

Chris with new Extra Wheel

Chris with new Extra Wheel

Leaving Jining

Leaving Jining

Finding our way out of Jining was fine and we stopped to fill up our fuel bottles with petrol. The woman there was concerned that I was cold in my cycling shorts and gave us some hot water to take on our journey.

The road was fine, tarmac and not too busy. The real challenge was the wind, mostly a side wind but a headwind too at times. With a few stops along the way and tired legs after 4 months without cycling (for me) we reached 35km around 5.30pm. My knees were really hurting now so I wanted to stop and camp. Chris went off exploring and found a great spot for us, off the road.

Chris relaxing with a coffee

Chris relaxing with a coffee

We set up our new tent and enjoyed a coffee and biscuits as the sunset, all very civilised don’t you know!

Liz in new Hilleberg Stakia tent

Liz in our new Hilleberg Stakia tent

As I type he is cooking up broccoli, spring onion, smoked ham, red pepper and rice on our stove, smells divine! There is a definite chill in the air and I am wearing leggings, fleece trousers, 2 icebreaker base layers and my new Montane jacket, plus thick socks, down boots and a buff. The only thing that’s cold are my hands, as I type!

Aiming to get a few more kms done tomorrow so we shall see. 300km to the border…. visa runs out 5th May!

p.s. we know that you’re porbably wondering what happened to Chris in the mountains and what we have been doing for the last month, well Chris is going to finish his tales of bears, snow andTtibetans as we go, and I’ll tell you more about Chengdu, Xi’an and Beijing. But for now we wanted to keep you up to date with our latest adventures as we head north to Mongolia.

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