Xi'an via Jiuzhai Gou to Songpan

4th - 21st Jan 2004

We took a sleeper bus from Xi'an to Hanzhong and then a day bus from there to Guangyuan in Sichuan province. We did this because we didn't fancy cycling out of Xi'an, we knew there were some closed areas to the south of Xi'an and we felt the need to accelerate ourselves a bit and get a change of scenery. The sleeper bus was amazing, the aisles inside the bus were completely filled with luggage and the roof was packed one meter high along its entire length (including our bikes). Amazingly I found a bunk that was almost long enough for me and managed to sleep for much of the night.

We were rewarded with cycling in warm weather for the first time in months, and then with cloudy weather and a little rain. It was our first rain since a storm in the Gobi in October, although we had had a couple of days with snow since. The fields were green and there was no snow or ice to be seen. Obviously this was altogether too pleasant for us, so we pointed our wheels west and north, through a corner of Gansu province into the mountains of northern Sichuan.

Our first day's riding ended at the small town of Sandui, nestled below a large dam. The place was seething with English teachers and their students, all keen to practise. They helped carry our bags up to our hotel room (on the fifth floor!) and were pleased to be rewarded with 5p coins from Britain and the chance to say "How do you do?" to real English people. Over dinner more found us, and then some of the first group called to see us in the evening. We went to bed exhausted at eleven, then were rudely awoken after midnight by some men unlocking our door and marching into our room. They were the police and it seemed they just wanted to check our documents and see if the reports that we had come by bicycle were true. After fifteen minutes they left us but it was hard to get back to sleep.

Next morning we climbed a series of switchbacks to the height of the dam and then I cheerfully said "That's all our height gain for the next 100km", assuming that the road would run along the reservoir shore for that distance. How wrong I was! The road rose and fell constantly and steeply (at one point it was 500m above the reservoir), and when we left Sichuan and entered Gansu province the tarmac (already bumpy) ended. The weather was cloudy and slightly damp but the views were nice.

After that reservoir we cycled beside a river with gold panning boats and soon came to another dam and another reservoir. This time the road was less severe and the views were even better, but the surface was atrocious (and this was a highway!). This meant that progress was slow because four hours at 10km/h was all the shaking we could stand.

Finally, 20km from the town of Wenxian, we got smooth tarmac. After that we sped along towards Nanping and then Jiuzhai Gou, until the gradual steepening of the road slowed us down. The road was quiet, the sun shone and the scenery was beautiful.

Jiuzhai Gou was a bit of a disappointment. There were an incredible number of big expensive hotels and the guesthouses inside the park where we had hoped to stay were closed. We found we could only go into the park for a day trip and that we would have to take a bus and pay $20 each for the priviledge. We decided that we saw a lot of beauiful scenery for free while cycling, so we had a rest day in a warm hotel room and then set off for Songpan.

Pretty soon we were riding on snow, but the road was good, the sun shone and there was little traffic. The first day we climbed 1200m over 42km and then camped in trees near the road. Thanks to the inadequacies of Chinese road atlases we didn't really know how far we had to go. It was of course jolly cold, but Ju lit a campfire and we brewed numerous cups of tea to ward off altitude headaches. Next day we discovered that it was only 300m and 10km further to the pass, which we reached a little after midday. Then it was downhill for 50km to Songpan.

Songpan is famous for its horse treks. Because it was nearly Chinese Spring Festival we only had time for a two day trek, but we really enjoyed it none-the-less. We had two guides who did all the camp chores and cooked us food over a roaring campfire. It was actually warmer camping out that night than it had been in our literally freezing hotel room.

Then we spent a couple of days in Songpan. We bought supplies to take us through Spring Festival when all the shops and restaurants shut for five days, and spent the evenings with the other three travellers in town. The celebrations started on the night of the 21st January, with more fireworks and bangers than I ever seen. We also saw people doing everything you've been told not to do with fireworks. They sell hand held roman candles which whole phalanxes of people (adults and kids) would carry down the street, firing into the air and down the street in front of them. Kids ran down the street trailing strings of bangers which would explode sequentially as they ran. In the midst of all this were numerous small stalls piled high with fireworks for sale, I dread to imagine the explosion that would result if a rocket landed on one!

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