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The Great Wall

Monday, December 23, 2013

Joining a group of tourists to go on a trip is not really my thing at all, but I figured it was the best way to get to The Great Wall (and back)  then do my own thing. Our English speaking Chinese guide collected us all by the entrance gate and suggested we pay an extra 80 yuan to use the chairlift up to the wall, on top of the fees we had already been charged. He assured us it would take 40 minutes to walk up the steps and we could save time taking the chairlift. Everybody duly obliged, that is except for myself and a fit looking German who agreed to walk up with me. It took just 10 minutes and I was slow! I did a quick picture of the ‘new’ renovated wall, then quickly left the group to do my own thing – I’d come to see the old wall in all it’s glory.

A newly renovated section of The Great Wall at Mutianyu

Quickly skipping past the signs telling me of prohibited entry, I was on my way through the undergrowth to see the old wall before anyone could object. My only regret being it would have been so much nicer had I been here in another season, say spring or autumn. I walked the whole section climbing high up the hillside and though it was hard work, it was pretty magical. The Chinese have plans to restore this section too, which I think would be a great shame.

The unrestored section of wall at Jiankou

The great thing about visiting the Jiankou section in December was that I had it all to myself. There are sections where you have to take extra care and not everyone would enjoy battling through the brush, but apart from the chillingly cold wind it was a very enjoyable day out with a tour group!

Watchtower, Jiankou section of The Great Wall

Sure footing and care needed on this section at Jiankou

As I came back to my starting point, time didn’t allow me the privilege of wandering much further along the new sections, which went on for many miles.

Looking back along The Great Wall at Mutianyu


It’s Freezing!

The cold is almost unbearable. Riding here in northern China the daytime temperatures have not gone above freezing, hovering around the minus 5° mark. This is creating problems with my water bottles as they never get to defrost and actually replacing fluid lost through sweating is proving to be a bit of a headache. OK I bet you’re wondering why I’m sweating if it’s so cold? Well I’m wearing so many layers to keep out the cold wind that my body is overheating, particularly on the climbs. At night even with my top end kit I’m cold, as ice is forming on my sleeping bag (a 4 season) and the tent inner, so instead of sleeping I’m trying to stay warm.

Northern China. Very cold, very bleak and very polluted.

As I cycled out of Beijing I spent my first night sleeping in a newly built (but unfinished) warehouse, as I couldn’t find any other suitable location. Day two and I’m a little further from major towns, so pitched my tent in a quiet tree lined field well away from the roads. Unfortunately I was spotted and along came the Police to tell me it was unsafe and I must go to a hotel. I protested that I didn’t have those kind of funds (typically 30-40 USD) which is why I was camping, to which the English teacher replied “no problem, we will pay for you”. Sorry I said, run that past me again please? “don’t worry, we will pay for the hotel” she said as they bundled me and my bike into the police van. Now forgive me for being pessimistic, but somehow I thought this was too good to be true and ‘the hotel’ would end up being a police station, but no, it was a reasonable hotel a few kilometers down the road. Wow, a warm shower and clean sheets!!

If only such good fortune could have persisted, unfortunately I had to camp a good few more nights and was learning fast how to become ‘undetected’ from both locals and the authorities. But as above, the cold started to seriously affect my performance as it was taking far too long to pack up camp then actually get warm enough to do any meaningful cycling. I was not sleeping and after I reached Taiyuan I called it a day, getting on a bus south to Xi’an. I don’t feel remotely guilty about it either, to have continued would have been just plain stupid.

Something else I learned, though not quick enough, was how to avoid being overcharged by the local restaurants and shops. In the past it has been sometimes pretty blatant, but trust me on this, the Chinese have taken it to a whole new level and it was not me making a mistake with currency conversion. I’ll give you a few examples:
1. Five small local buns, a packet of milk powder (which had the price on = 10 yuan) and a packet of pot noodle was offered at 155 yuan, which is roughly 26 dollars.
2. Three small milk sachets, two snickers, I was asked for 175 yuan which is 30 dollars.
3. Bowl of noodles, 40 yuan which is 6.6 dollars.
Apart from the bowl of noodles and milk powder I never bought anything from the above and the true price of things became clear as I ventured into the transport cafe’s. These people are the friendliest and most honest of the locals I’ve yet met, so now I simply seek out their haunts. A bowl of noodles and tea is 5 or 6 yuan (one dollar) and many times I’ve been given it free, the only cost being asked for my picture. Lovely people.

The true face of Chinese hospitality and honesty.

So I’m nice and warm in my five dollar a night hostel here in Xi’an. I’ll probably spend Christmas day here then move on Boxing day, my next stops being Chengdu and Leshan, where I have to extend my visa. I’ll post another update in a day or two, but to all those who won’t be logging on again until after the festive season, have a great holiday and a glass of wine for me…

Monday, December 23, 2013 at 1:30 pm

Hi Derek
when we were in China we were told to totally ignore the room rate that was posted in the reception. We’d always look at a room, ask the price then we’d say “tai gui le!!!” with a horrified look often as not the price came down.
In Chengdu we recommend Sims Cosy Guest House (it’s actually quite a big place). You’ll likely meet other travellers there and maybe even some cyclists. We stayed there in 2010. Sim is a very nice man and has lots of information (he helped us put our bikes on a cargo train). Here is the link:
Hope it’s got warmer!!
The Sloths on Wheels

    Monday, December 23, 2013 at 1:55 pm

    Hi Gayle,

    Thanks so much for this, I’ll give it try. btw – I like your blog!

Monday, December 23, 2013 at 1:43 pm

Hi Derek.
Wow, you are one brave determined cookie! You truly are.
I just want to wish you a Happy Christmas.
I am sure that ALL your friends in the UK and beyond will be thinking of you.
God bless you.

    Monday, December 23, 2013 at 1:57 pm

    Hi Andrew,

    Please pass on my very warmest regards to everyone at this special time of year. I truly miss home (Yorkshire) at Christmas time, even though the last few have been unusual to say the least.

Monday, December 23, 2013 at 2:19 pm

In my thoughts, Derek, as your adventures continue. And what adventures they are! Thank you for sharing them through your blog.

Happy Christmas.
Mary x

    Monday, December 23, 2013 at 3:31 pm

    Hi Mary, nice to hear from you. Enjoy Christmas, you’ll be in my thoughts too. God bless.

Monday, December 23, 2013 at 5:04 pm

I don’t know you, but I am a fellow cycle tourist (less accomplished!) and would like to wish you all the best for Christmas. Pissing with rain and 70mph winds here! Enjoy the cold clear weather


    Tuesday, December 24, 2013 at 1:17 am

    Hi All, a very Merry Christmas, thanks for all the good wishes and have a great festive season. I’ll be staying put here in the hostel until Boxing day, then on my way again. Julian, haven’t seen rain for months now! (OK a little snow) Where are you?

    Tim, my love to all the family, I do keep checking up on your puppy through your daughters blog!

Bristol Rob
Monday, December 23, 2013 at 7:41 pm

So glad to see you’re on your way again, sailing over the keep out signs and posting wonderful pics and tales. A very merry Xmas to you on the other side of the globe.

Monday, December 23, 2013 at 10:43 pm

Well nobody could accuse you of giving up easily, Derek. I couldn’t take those temperatures, especially overnight in a tent. Your story shows that it’s often the poorest people who are the most decent to travellers. Stay nice and warm over the next few days and we’ll raise a glass to you on Wednesday.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013 at 6:07 am

Dear Derek,
Congrats. .. so nice to know you on the road again!! Good luck with the cold, you may miss it in sweaty south east Asia!!
Best wishes for Christmas and New Year. We will of course drink Champagne for you in Paris with Gab!
Take good care of yourself and enjoy the road!
Lots of love
Vero (from Dushanbe)

    Tuesday, December 24, 2013 at 6:29 am

    Hi Vero & Gabriel,

    Champagne in Paris, you do like the high life! As for being sweaty, right now I’d take it immediately. 😉

    Have a great holiday, let’s catch up in the New Year.

    All the best


    Oh ps: can you email me details of those photo books you had done, it’s time I did something for my loyal followers.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013 at 1:24 pm

Hi Derek! Merry Xmas from a hostel in St. Petersburg! Just to let you know there is also other people spending the festive season in a hostel;) stay warm!

Patrick Hugens
Tuesday, December 24, 2013 at 2:46 pm

Hi Derek, have a Merry Christmas. Stay warm!

Thursday, December 26, 2013 at 5:01 am

I can’t but admire your willingness to ride in such weather! If I were to ride in China in December, I probably wouldn’t go anywhere north of Fujian, Guangdong, or Yunnan…

By the way 30-40 USD sounds like a lot for a hotel room in rural China. I don’t know today’s prices, of course, but 2-3 years ago it usually wasn’t a problem to find a reasonably decent place for 60-120 yuan (around $10-20) in most towns I went through. In winter, some places would ask for an extra 10 yuan or so turn the heat on.

Cheaper places may not be called “hotels” (宾馆, binguan), but rather “guesthouses” (招待所, zhaodaisuo) or sometimes inns (旅社, “lüshe”). Often, there would be just a sign with a generic “住宿“ (zhusu, “accommodation”). Usually, they don’t mind receiving foreingers, although in some cities (Nanjing is one example) cheaper places seemed to be prohibited from taking foreign tourists.

As to the food, it seems like most simple eateries or take out places have a menu / price list posted on the wall (it often looks like this: ),
with steamed buns (plain mantou 馒头, or bao[zi] 包[子] with various stuffing) going for about 0.5-1 yuan, and a noodle dish (some kind of mian 面 or mifen 米粉) or soup (some kind of tang 汤) or dumplings (水饺 shuijiao / 饺子 jiaozi) rarely going for more than 10 yuan. Even if you speak next to no Chinese, it helps to learn to know how the names for the foods you like are spelled, so you can just point them on the menu. Of course, you usually only see food places in towns (even small ones); in a village, there may indeed be no “organized” place to buy food, other than maybe a tiny store. Fortunately, in most of the country, towns (镇 zhen) or townships (乡 xiang) are only 10-20 km apart…

Large supermarkets, like Tesco (乐购, Legou) or Auchan (欧尚, Oushang), seem to be the best places to shop for groceries without having to speak to anyone. But of course they are only found in larger cities.

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