From Jining and southwards the map mainly said continusly habitation. Thus we met a lot of Chinese people here, mostly of them only staring at us. When we arrived the big cities of Datong and Taiyuan, we could also enjoy all the "western" pleasures, like hamburgers and hotels with hot showers....
We noticed it as soon as we crossed over the border from Mongolia to China, i.e. the difference between the Mongolian and the Chinese temperament. While Mongolians had been somewhat reserved, the Chinese were the complete opposite, openly curious and always smiling. Truck drivers we met on the roads stuck their heads out the window, smiling and laughing. They waved to us with enthusiasm, honking their horns energetically both to greet us and to warn us that they were coming.
In the villages of Mongolia, it was the children who came running and surrounded us. In the Chinese towns, children were almost nowhere to be seen. Here it was the men, young and old, who dominated among the eager to see us. Almost no one spoke English, but they smiled, talked amongst themselves and commented on our equipment and the bikes we were riding, nodding in recognition and giving us understanding looks. Once in a while we also saw women, but they always stayed in the background.
Extensive planting of trees
The area alongside the roads in Inner Mongolia and Shanxi (the province we are in now) shows signs of having been an almost treeless area until not so many years ago. Particularly in Inner Mongolia trees are being planted now on a large scale, most likely in order to prevent the spread of the desert from the Gobi in the north. Willow trees, pillar aspen, pillar poplar and pine are the four most dominant kinds of trees. Judging from their size, willows were the first trees to be planted, and they line many of the older roads. During the last 2-3 years, pine seems to be the most widely planted tree, as we saw thousands of acres of newly planted pine trees along the roads.
Road standards in China
The Chinese are currently constructing many new roads. We were surprised how good the roads were most of the places we biked. The time when roads were hand built by thousands of Chinese workers with picks and shovels is gone. Chinese roads are on par with Western standards, and picks and shovels have been replaced by huge excavators, trucks and bulldozers. But there are also poor roads. The paved roads leading to the densely populated city of Datong were terrible, almost as bad as the cart roads we experienced in the Gobi Desert.
Most Chinese are on holiday the first week of May. We didn’t know this when we got in a taxi on May 3rd for a trip up the mountains to visit the Hanging Monastery about 70 kilometres from Datong.
In Lets Go China, this monastery is listed as one of the most important sights to see in the vicinity of Datong. The description in the book is a bit vague, but we gathered from it that this would be an old monastery built on the side of a mountain about 2000 meters above sea level. We were hoping for a beautiful view and a nice walk up a mountain. But we were completely mistaken about that!
We ended up sitting in the car gaping at the sight that greeted us as we rounded the last curve towards the parking lot. All our hopes for a nice walk up a small mountain in peace and quiet were shattered. Now we were looking over a giant parking lot with hundreds of cars and a large visitor’s centre with thousands of Chinese tourists.
The Hanging Monastery consists of a series of small attached houses in the middle of a mountainside, a large part of the mountain hanging over it. It seemed quite small suspended there almost in mid-air with tall mountains on all sides. The beautiful view we had hoped for was non-existent.
It cost all of 60Y (about 50NOK) to get in, in other words not something for the average Chinese person. It was also quite clear that upper middle class Chinese dominated among the tourists. This we could also deduct from the expensive cars and fancy digital cameras many had brought with them.
There was a lovely stairway about 150 metres long leading up to the monastery. All during the approximately 4 hours we were in the area, the stairway was continuously filled with Chinese visitors standing in line to get to the monastery. We ourselves stood in line for more than an hour before arriving at the entrance. Finally there, we did a round tour of the monastery, packed like sardines in a can with Chinese tourists in every direction. The Hanging Monastery was unbelievably beautiful standing there beneath the mountain ledge, but we never had time to really enjoy the experience with so many people about.
A large dam was built just above the monastery, where the electric works had previously been. We took a walk up to the dam and were able to have a little time to ourselves and relax after our meeting with all the crowds.
The Great Wall of China and our first mountain pass
We had to cross two mountain passes between the big cities of Datong and Taiyuan. The first pass was the highest, rising 650 meters. On our way across, we caught glimpses of the Great Wall of China for the first time from a distance. Parts of it were in bad shape and had collapsed.
We were offered a ride over the pass by one of the many truck drivers transporting loads of coal, but we declined politely and got across using our own muscle power.
The areas surrounding the big cities of Datong and Taiyuan are extremely polluted by Norwegian standards. Pollution stems from automobiles, chemical factories and coal power stations. The valley in which Datong is situated was particularily bad, with a lot of coal dust in the air. After only a few short hours on our bikes, we had a thin layer of dust stuck in our hair and all over our skin and equipment, causing a lot of people to stare at us when we entered a restaurant for a bite to eat. Occasionally our throats burned a little as well due to the large amounts of pollution.
A group of Italians motorcycling through China
About 50 kilometres north of the historical city of Pingyao, which is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, we were stopped along the road by a man waving us in. Two other men with professional video cameras and two cars full of even more people accompanied him. “What can this be?”, we all wondered.
It turned out that the man waving us in was a pleasant Italian, Carlo Alberto, who had driven his small motorbike all the way from Rome, throughout Europe, Russia, and Mongolia, and now into China. Accompanying him was an Italian film crew from Sky Channel, which was making a documentary series about his trip. They also had an official car from the Chinese authorities following them every step of the way to make sure that they didn’t do anything illegal. The group had in fact paid the Chinese authorities 55 000 Euro for permission to make the trip.
While we talked to Carlos, two cameramen swarmed around us, filming us from all angles. They worked professionally and effectively without saying a word. Having tried several times to get on a Norwegian reality program, Jardar finally saw the chance to make his TV-debut, and thus thoroughly enjoyed himself in front of the cameras. We learned that the team was on its way to Golmud and Lhasa, the same as us. But instead of leaving from Kathmandu, they will be returning to Bejing from Lahsa.
The crew films us as we bike away, and when their vehicle passes us a few minutes later, one of the cameramen leans out the window to film us once again. Three hours later when we arrive at Pingyao, we encounter Carlos and his crew again. Apparently they’ll be making as many as 60 episodes, the first of which will be sent this coming October on Sky Channel. The documentary will be shown 3-4 times a week. We also learned that Carlos has his own home page at http://www.carloalbertocavallo.it.
As the sun sets in Pingyao, we catch a final glimpse of Carlo on his motorcycle heading slowly down one of the city’s main streets. Ahead of Carlo we see a cameraman sitting halfway in and halfway out of the crew car filming him. A few seconds later they all disappear around a turn and are gone.
Status per 9th May
Due to lack of time, we’ve decided not to head towards Xian. Instead, we’ll travel directly west from Pingyao towards the city of Lanzhou. First we’ll have to get over a small chain of mountains, which involves going through a pass almost 1000 metres high. Once over the mountains, we’ll come to a mountain plateau about 1200 metres above sea level. Here we’ll be biking to a large extent along the Great Wall. This area is somewhat inaccessible for tourists, and we expect to arouse a bit of attention. We don’t even know yet whether the area is closed for tourists, i.e. a so-called “unopen area”.
The distance from Pingyao to Lanzhou is about 1250 kilometres. We expect that we’ll need about 20 days for this stretch, including a couple of rest days. The big question for us now is whether or not we’ll have to go to Hong Kong from Lanzhou in order to get an extension on our “double-entry visa”. One woman at an international travel agency in Taiyuan has told us that it would probably be possible to extend our visa without leaving the country. We’re hoping this is the case, so that we can save on expenses, time and worries.
Phsysically we’re all fine, aside from the fact that we’re still a little sore from all the biking. We had hoped that we would be used to our bike seats by this time, but this seems to be taking longer than expected.
So far the bikes are holding up, despite the rear tires being too small for the heavy loads we’re carrying.
If we aren’t able to find an Internet Café in Lanzhou, it may be a while before our next update.