[11/1/09. Posted by JP for GC.]
Friends: Good fortune continues to stalk me like an unrelenting predator. As I approached the sprawling city of Xian, population over four million, a couple of fifty-year old cyclists wearing helmets out for an afternoon ride, one riding a fold-up bike and the other a mountain bike, tagged along with me for a few miles, exchanging nothing more than hellos and smiles and a confirmation that I was still on track for Xian central.
When we came to a light and the guys indicated they were turning, I hurriedly pulled out the sheet of paper I had written the hotel where I was to meet Julie-Ann. They indicated it was the direction they were headed and to follow along. We rode for another twenty minutes continuing on main arteries making a couple of turns. It was too much to hope for that they would take me all the way to the hotel. My luck didn't extend that far, but when they stopped again indicating they were turning, they drew me a map, marking that it was three kilometers further on the road we were on and then a left turn at a round-about that I couldn't miss and another two kilometers with the hotel on the left side of the road.
After three kilometers I started asking again, fearing I might have missed the turn. It was one kilometer further. I turned onto another wide thoroughfare with separate bike lanes on both sides of the street blocked from the highway by planters, making it difficult to see businesses on the opposite side of the highway, where the hotel was to be.
After a kilometer I spotted a baked sweet potato salesman along the road, one of my treats. I stopped for a couple, as I was famished, not having had a proper meal all day in over 65 miles pushing it to make it to Xian with adequate light to navigate the metropolis. It was closing in on five pm, so it was well that I had only had nibbles all day. I showed the potato man my piece of paper with the hotel on it, which the bicyclists had also written in Chinese. He pointed up ahead across the highway beyond an overpass and there was the hotel. And then a block beyond the hotel, I found this Internet place. I can hang out here until 7:30 or so and then go meet Julie-Ann at the hotel. It was too easy to be true.
The gentlemen cyclists weren't the only cyclists who came to my aid today. I met six others out for a Sunday ride in the mountains at the summit of a high, high pass after a steep eleven-mile climb to start my day. I had stopped to put on my vest and wind-breaker and gloves for the cold descent when I saw these six cyclists coming up from the other side. They were as astonished and thrilled to see me as I was to see them. They were accompanied by two car loads of friends who had come to pay their respects to a Buddhist pagoda that was under construction at the summit. Their friends all had cameras, real ones with big lenses. They immediately went berserk snapping me from every angle as the cyclists took turns for a photo op with me. It was so crazy I pulled out my camera to take a picture of them taking pictures of me. They laughed and obliged.
Only one of them spoke English. He was wearing a blue jersey with the official Tour de France logo on it. It was a product I had never seen on sale at the Tour. It was another of those notorious Chinese knock-offs. I pulled out my photo of me with the Tour Devil. He and several of the others immediately recognized him. They were the first people in China who had. It has caused quite a bit of befuddlement from others wondering who that horned character holding a pitchfork might be.
I could only guess how much further it was to Xian from there, since my map doesn't give distances, just a small scale, which of course doesn't take into account climbs and squiggles in the road. I was hoping I was within eighty kilometers. They said it was sixty but fifteen of those were another climb after this sixteen kilometer descent to highway 210. That wasn't good news at all, but it was a relief knowing how long that climb would be once I started it. I would have been distraught no end that I had to endure another indeterminate killer climb when I thought I had finished off my climbing for the day. With plenty of warning, knowing what I was in for, I could mentally prepare for the challenge ahead. And it was a good one, much much steeper than I would have preferred.
When I started this morning's climb I was hoping it wouldn't be more than three or four miles, just long enough for me to fully warm up after my coldest night of the trip, the first time I had to zip up my sleeping bag. As my wake-up climb went on and on, my only consolation was I'd have an even longer descent, and it was allowing the temperatures to warm before I commenced the plunge.
After the second ten-mile climb of the day I had a stupendous twenty-mile descent to the Xian valley floor. But it was another fifteen miles to Xian, fifteen miles those cyclists didn't tell me about. I kept nibbling on various biscuits and crackers and cookies I had in reserve. I had some noodles left over from dinner last night that I also munched on when I took breaks during the climbs. I'd also downed a 900 calorie bottle of a dairy drink, a recent discovery that has provided me with high-octane fuel.
I didn't know how high I'd climbed, as the battery went dead on my altimeter-watch a couple days ago, a loss even worse than being without my kickstand. I'm hoping I can replace it here in Xian, but if I'm unable to it's no longer much of an issue as the mountainous terrain is pretty much behind me.
It would have been nice to know how much climbing I did the past two days, as I made a gradual ascent of nearly 200 miles through two spectacular gorges. It has been cycling and scenery of the highest order with so little traffic that if I had been playing that game of making deals with myself allowing a stop for a rest only after a car passed me from both directions, I would have had a long, long time between rests.
I have penetrated far enough north that yesterday for the first time I could feel a decided nip in the air. Locals in the small towns I passed were sitting out in front of their homes or businesses around small fires in a large pan. The scenery has been brightened by a yellow and red tint in the mountainside foliage and the flight of falling leaves.
I've had to wear a vest and jacket the past two days, but still cling to my shorts, saving my super-deluxe team Garmin tights for more extreme cold. I know those tights with logos on the side will cause a sensation, even more than my bare legs in these chilly temperatures. None of the other cyclists I saw today were in shorts or bicycling gear other than helmets and gloves.
Some of the chill can be attributed to the altitude. If I only knew how high I camped at last night, and what altitude I'm back at now, I would know better, though I can say it is much warmer here in Xian than I've experienced the past two days.
Almost as dramatic as the scenery through the gorges was another Chinese engineering marvel, a divided four-lane superhighway paralleling the old two-lane highway that was my route. It was built largely on stilts above the river with countless tunnels barreling through the mountainsides that my road wound around and over. There were usually two tunnels, one for each direction of traffic. The tunnels were frequently 100 feet or more above the river with the stilts slightly increasing in height to the tunnel entrances. The precision and imagination in the road's construction was boggling, almost an exercise in proving it was possible to build such a road.
And there was no more traffic on that highway than on mine. It was another of the many roads recently constructed here in anticipation of the automobile-loving hoards to come. The new highway bypassed the two huge climbs I had to make. The new direct road was fifty kilometers to Xian. The old road was 110.
So now I have a couple days of R&R to look forward to with Julie-Ann. The renowned Terracotta warriors are twenty miles outside of Xian. There are other sites to see and a museum or two. The heart of Xian is surrounded by the most intact city wall in all of China, which can be bicycled. And with luck we'll find a movie to go to.