When the image loaded upon my computer screen, my eyes traced the line as it traveled left to right across the graph. It was anything but flat – the line spiked upwards at kilometers 100, 120, 200, and 300 at brutal slopes. It was about the exact opposite of what any sane cycle tourist looks for in an elevation profile. The route was mountainous as hell.
“Let’s do it,” Morgan grinned.
8 days in, now another 4 to go. My legs let out existential groans, but I pushed them out of mind. They knew that this longer route would take us off the highways and valleys that could whisk us to Guilin in no time. But we didn’t care. We wanted the pain and the mountains and the tiny villages. This was our last shot to get ‘out there.’
Our mountain fever started in Kunming, where in the weeks prior we had decided to rest and pursue a couple stories, maybe make a couple of friends. It didn’t go so well. All we could think about was the end the trip. We dogged our interviews, and conversations with travelers and couchsurfers felt forced. With Shanghai so close on the horizon, all we wanted to do was keep moving.
So we decided we’d make this last bike tour a challenge, drawing circuitous lines along country roads and mountains that might give us a chance to soak in the exoticism of rural China. That’s how much of our route planning has been in China: exercises in avoiding the identity-less cities that still manage to pack in a quarter million people each. With so much rabid construction, it’s only off the highways that buildings are spaced far enough apart to take in the views, and villages have some semblance of life before Reform and Opening.
By the time we reached Hechizhen, things had become even simpler. As we huddled around my computer to analyze the elevation profile, we weren’t thinking about villages or views anymore. All that mattered were the hills. Eight days on the saddle and I was barely acknowledging my surroundings. Somewhere in there I knew that we had passed epic landscapes and bustling street markets, but the rides had mostly become something to fill in time. They were days scratched off the calendar until Shanghai, and our impending Thanksgiving feast in Guilin. Beasting up hills became our sole purpose. Four more days of them were four more X’s on the calendar.
“Cheers – we made it!” Morgan said, lifting his Chinese beer.
1450 kilometers in twelve days, never flat, and we still managed to arrive in time for Thanksgiving. It felt like an accomplishment. We awarded ourselves by quadrupling our typical $5 dinner budget and ordering a wok full of fried duck. And six huge beers.
Only then, in my exhausted and calorie-induced stupor, did it finally hit me – it’s over. Memories of the mountains flooded back: our dirty hotel rooms in nameless villages; the mist-shrouded passes along rutted roads; the smiling farmers in terraced rice fields; camping multiple nights in the rain…
“Wow, I’m really going to miss it,” I sighed.
We took the last pulls on our beers, paid the bill, and wished the flock of giggling waitresses a Happy Thanksgiving.
I know we’re not quite there yet –we still have 6 more rides to Shanghai. But it’s just a formality, really. They will be flat rides on good roads through industrial parks and suburban developments. Most of it will go by in a blur. Still, it’s strange to think that even these relatively tame days will become a world apart once we reach Shanghai and the next stage of our lives. The ride from Paris will be over. It comes with tremendous excitement and, already, a touch of nostalgia.