Almost Famous

China | Chengdu - Urumqi | 4th to 11th September 2015 | 12692km

Having warily gone through how we met, 'fell in love', pointed out Penrith on a map and made sweeping comparison between Hadrian’s wall and the Great Wall of China we got onto the actual tour. Our host Li Rui, had asked us do a short presentation of our trip to his travel group, which in exchange for 4 nights in Chengdu, we were happy to do. On arrival we were given a run down of our schedule for the next few days and informed that a second talk had been scheduled for Sichuan University. By the time we'd had the poster unveiled to us, using a sultry photo of Flo in a Lake and a title which translated to something like travelling to end of the earth with the love of your life, it had got past weird and we were just going with it. The PowerPoint we ended up with was 75% our story of young love, early years spent living in Penrith castle and later, designing/architecting most of Manchester's city centre. 20% chasing Frodo et al around New Zealand and being heroic/romantic in various places, 5% rest of trip. To celebrate a job well done our crack team of power pointers took us for a the local specialty, Sichuan hotpot, which was fantastic, especially for a now fully recovered Luke. Both presentations were a little awkward, but good hearted and a few people were really keen to ask us questions on planning a long trip. The main event though was having Flora write you a postcard saying come and see us in Manchester. Many of the Chinese we spoke to held quite black and white views of the world. Whilst very interested in western life, they were all adamant that British food was terrible and everything was horribly expensive (which to an extent we agreed with, but we could point out a few gripes we had with China…). So, very Britishly we held our tongues, avoiding getting too patriotic. Li Rui’s Mum was particularly lovely and breakfast time was great fun as she got us right back into Chinese food with dumplings, and the Chinese equivalent of a meat pie which we need to learn the name of, boiled peanuts, oranges, rice porridge, eggs and sweetcorn. Initially Flo had them stumped food wise but was soon presented with a bowl of ‘vegetarian’ dumplings. 'What are they?’ Flo asked. Thinking for a few seconds, ’semen balls’, Li replied, just as Flo had braved putting one in her mouth. Only after she’d managed to keep it down, did Li find the word he was looking for, sesame balls. The fact that Flora was frying her eggs with chopsticks was testament to how long we’d spent in Asia! Li Rui, his friends and his Mum had us right back into liking China, for the most part, after a difficult week or so.

You can travel on a hard seat, hard sleeper or soft sleeper on Chinese trains. The latter being the most expensive and the only option we’d been left with when we booked our tickets back in Zhaotong. At £80, for a 48hour journey, that still wasn’t too bad. The bikes had been sent the previous day, as is the system with oversized cargo on long distance Chinese trains. This left us to haul all our kit through the crowds and onto platform 6 for the 11.21 to Urumqi Xinjiang autonomous province in the far north west of china. 6 panniers, 2 bar bags, 1 large dry back, a rack top bag and two plastic bags can be made to look almost graceful when loaded onto the bikes, but are horribly impractical to load onto two humans. Our little soft sleeper cabin had 4 beds, a little table and just enough room in the middle to swing a very small cat. Plenty of people came past several times to watch the westerners do thing like eat and watch films (All the Harry Potters, if you’re wondering). One chatty lad, Simon, was learning english and seemed to know more about England than us. We were pretty stumped when he asked us how we felt about the constitutional monarchy in England. Having ran out of UK places names to ask if we’d knew of, he went off and came back with his Cambridge English text book. He'd got it on the cheap and as such was convinced it wasn’t legit and wanted us to check to make sure. Soothed to sleep by the huge shunts as the coaches caught up with each other under breaking for each station, we woke up on the second day to a much flatter and emptier world which we guess was Gobi desert. Among other moderately interesting things there were some enormous wind farms - we read somewhere that China had spent more in 2014 on renewable energy than Europe and America combined. Big snow caps in the distance as we approached our stop and the end of the line.

The sun was out but it was cool in the shade and having collected the bikes pleasing easily and remounted everything with the traditional circle of onlookers we realised we weren’t sweating, having cleared the tropics after 4 or 5 months. It was a dry heat and it was bloody lovely! Signs are in Chinese and Uighur script and the police swat presence was very noticeable. Tensions between the indigenous Uighur people and Chinese authorities have sparked violent clashes in the past and security is high at banks, parks and petrol stations etc. We had to scan our bags just to get into a supermarket. From Steven and Cal’s flat we watched a chap on a lower rooftop waving a big flag in circles, which seemed to be encouraging his pigeons to fly in an orderly fashion around him. In search of a recommended American owned, English speaking, Mexican food serving, French named cafe we stopped someone to ask for directions (mimic drinking coffee, say name of cafe and look as confused as them) and got a response in Russian! To complicate matters even further, most locals run on a different time zone, two hours behind Beijing time, making more sense of the daylight hours. So now essentially we’ve no idea what time it is or which language we're meant to be not understanding...