It’s Not All Glamour: A Day on the Bike in China

Chris eats rice porridge at a street-side eatery in Kunming

On the wonderful occasions that I get to reconnect with friends at home, I always ask the question: “So what’s new in your life?”

With frustrating regularity, I receive the answer: “Oh, nothing you’d be interested in.  It’s not nearly as exciting as anything you’re doing.”

My goal for this post is to dispel some of that romanticism.  This post is about the days that don’t make it into the blog, that are so predictable my camera never leaves its bag.  Travel, like all disciplines, has a routine, and more than its fair share of tedium.

This is one day on the bike in China.

7:00 AM

I fell asleep more than 9 hours ago, but the first thought in my mind is “already?”  This country has the most comfortable budget hotel beds in the world.  Sixteen bucks gets you something like a Best Western room, with two clean-sheeted queens and free toothbrushes wrapped in plastic.

I’m up before Chris.  I strip and head for the wall pegs, our riding clothes stored there like engine rags.  Which is what they are. It’s been five days since I washed them, and my bike shorts hold the shape of my legs even on the peg.  Grimace and pull.  They’ll soften with sweat soon enough. Chris wakes up to me stuffing scattered gear into panniers.

Chris gets the electric kettle going, a staple of the Chinese hotel room.  On the menu: Nescafe.  We’ve been drinking it for so long I almost think it’s coffee. We drink it in silence when the panniers are rolled  and ready.  I run through flashcards, trying to pick up a few more words of Chinese each day.

8:15

We eat small steamed doughballs stuffed with mincemeat and rice porridge at a hole in the wall hotel adjacent.  Our bikes are parked in front of the cook’s workstation. We start to talk about the ride.  I pull out the sheet we write before each leg, start reading some elevation stats. 200 meter bump at km 30, 300 meters at km 60 and 75. At 85 clicks, the real work begins.  2300 vertical meters over 75 kilometers.  We’re sleeping in the fields tonight.  We’ll need to grab noodles, seasoning, and gasoline along the road.

10:30

My trip computer reads 85 minutes of ride time when we hit the bottom of hill 1. Besides a few faulty shifts on my rear derailleur, the ride has been smooth.  The first two hours are always nirvana if the road is good.  I’m still juiced off the coffee, and my blood sugar is high enough that I dream about things that aren’t food and pain—it’s all endorphins and fresh legs. The grade kicks up to a steady 4 percent.  I shift down without thinking and close the gap between Chris and I, putting my wheel behind his for the ride up.

I used to dread the hills. I not quite sure when things changed, but I’ve started looking forward to them.  Maybe it’s that after 24,000 kilometers of open road, the countryside has to be jaw-drop beautiful for me to bat an eye.  And when I’m not stoked on the scenery, I have to be stoked on the biking.  That means getting into the pain.

100 meters up the hill, the lactic acid surges into my legs. I stall my hand from pushing on the shifting tabs and push the pedals a little harder.  I focus on form, clinching my abs to stabilize the bike, making sure I keep my shoulders square over the handlebars.  I try and pull up on the clips as much as I push down. The hills are the only thing of consequence I’m going to accomplish today, so I damn well better beast them.

We’re over the crest in twenty minutes and passing trucks on the way down.

12:20

3 hours, 15 minutes on the bike.  The hunger bite kicks in, hard, right on time like every other day.  Hunger doesn’t develop slowly on the bike, like it might if you weren’t exercising.  The endorphins suppress it until they can’t, and then the floodgates just open, and you realize you owe your muscles a few thousand calories.  You get five minutes warning max.

We’re in small villages along a river valley, topping off hill two.  Not a restaurant in sight.  We keep moving forward, finding hope in the village around the next bend, but none of them have restaurants.  At 3 hours, 40 minutes of ride time, I’m about ten minutes away from having the mood swings of a girl on her first period. Anger at Chris stews unprompted. We end up stopping at a tiny convenience store built at the entrance to someone’s house.  We buy two cups of ramen noodles, and the kindly lady goes into her house to boil us some water. It barely makes a dent.  One more cup and we’re operational again, sort of.

I munch a hoarded Snickers bar as we coast downward.

3:30

We hit the base of the monster hill, after a quick stop to adjust my derailleur.  I’d been excited about it until I saw the road.  It was more of a goat path.  It would be a road soon, but in meantime, there were bulldozers and gravel piles that made passage even more difficult than if they’d left it untouched.  Our progress slowed to a crawl—just 3 or 4 km an hour.

We were in our lowest gear, and our tires kept slipping on the loose dirt.  Every few hundred meters we had to get off and push over steep sections of rock or sand. I became covered in mud and extra sunscreen.  My gear cluster got gummed up too, and I was forced to listen to the creaks of friction of my chain as I pedaled. Painful.

5:45

We’d been moving two hours on the road and only advanced eight kilometers.  Ride time: 6.5 hours.  I could feel my body starting to give way. I started making dumb mistakes—bumping into rocks I could avoid, pulling my shifting tab the wrong way. We found ourselves in a hidden valley, with terraced mountains inhabited from top to bottom—almost 2000 meters of vertical living.  The bulldozers and construction crews killed some of the serenity. No energy to pass them though. Time to find a place to sleep.  We forced our bodies up a few more switchbacks, then found a terrace that looked uncultivated and accessible from the road. A quick stop by a creek to fill up on water for cooking.  Then we pushed our bikes down the mountain towards the terrace, slipping and grabbing bushes for stability.

Arrival at last.  I couldn’t bring myself to open a pannier for twenty minutes.  I just sat in the dirt and ate handfuls of peanuts.

7:00 PM

It’s my turn to be on pot duty tonight. It’s not a bad gig; I stay close to the stove as the temperature drops. I watch the egg noodles boil and cut up hot-dog-looking mystery meat we bought from the roadside lunch joint.  I believe it has some protein, but it looks like the kind of food you store for nuclear winter.  The pot is overflowing. Standard ration is 500 grams of noodles a meal.  The master chef’s flourish: chicken stock powder.  I boil the water until it is gone.  This saves water but makes the noodles salt mush.

We eat overlooking the valley, which is almost too dark to see now. Then we wash the pot using our hands as a scrub brush and we’re in the tent by 8:30.  I squirm into my bag and try to flatten out some of the lumps underneath the tent. I pull out my kindle to read. Futile exercise.  I won’t last fifteen minutes.

Tomorrow there’s another two grand in vertical meters.

Bike Touring, Travel Adventures, , Permalink

4 Responses to It’s Not All Glamour: A Day on the Bike in China

  1. Love the way you guys share here— the style is so digestible and I feel like I lived that day too (having lived 3 years in China and done quite a few long rides/hikes over the years).

    Enjoying following from afar (Paris) and looking forward to the next adventure like this. You guys are lucky ;-)

    -Brad

  2. pH says:

    To riff on what Brad (previous commenter) wrote — Actually, we are the lucky ones, fortunate armchair companions of Post1. It is we who inject the romance, per the point of this piece, into the wet, cold, hungry exhausting routine of the adventure – it’s hard enough to write when you’ve had 3 square meals while sporting headroom slippers… so to recieve these professionally written accounts given the surrounding circumstances…bravo. It’s therapy for us all.

    • pH edit says:

      What? You don’t have headroom slippers?
      They’re great when you’ve had a long day and you can’t think anymore…Put those babies on, get a martini and, presto! More thinking!

  3. Sara says:

    I just read your interview at GoKunming and wow, you two are doing something absolutely amazing! Reminds me of one Chinese movie where the guy biked to Tibet. I can’t believe how you can actually do it!

    If you two happen to pass by Guangzhou on your way to Hong Kong, and are in need of a place to sleep, just contact me and you two can stay at our home.

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