Over the last 10 days we have gained another 1000km northwards, a hundred more saddle sores each and thighs with the girth of tree trunks. The ride out of Chengdu was hideous for the first couple of days. The pollution was at the highest level we have seen, so thick that visibility was only a couple of hundred meters and you could taste the grit in the air. We both felt ill from it and it is unimaginable that people can survive past the age of 10. Perhaps some have never seen the sun? The road was also shocking with mud, ruts, and huge trucks thundering around.
Thankfully after that things picked up immeasurably. Spring has sprung in China! The sun came out, the blossom bloomed and the road was lined with fields of yellow canola as we rolled up and down the hills heading north. The towns we come to are vastly different from the rest of our trip. In Laos, and even Thailand, there would be one road, a few basic shops and a guesthouse. In China we are hitting towns the size of Wellington every few days with malls, airports, 8 lane highways... No English though which keeps us on our toes, where we like to be when not on our bikes.
After a day off to recover from a particularly nasty 90km we started out on a section that required 400km in 3 days, followed by an 80km warm-down into Xian. The first day was over a decent hill and then down a big river valley. It was a perfect day for riding with warm temperatures and a slight downhill so we got through the 120km with enough energy left to explore the town at the end of the day.
The next day started out down the same river before heading into the mountains which we would spend the next 2 days getting across. All was going well and we were flying along in the morning before our momentum was halted as D's front tire exploded with a report not unlike that of the long nine on the good ship Hispaniola. Luckily I saw it coming so had stopped or things could have got messy. We attracted quite the crowd - 15 men and one rather concerned looking toddler who were very interested in the changing of the inner tube (and the swearing and flinging of the old tube that accompanied it).
After that the hills started and Foping was a welcome sight at the end of 150km. A 35km uphill greeted us the next morning, just to sap any remaining energy our legs may have had, so another slow 130km saw us finally over the mountains and onto the plains of Shanxi. The road was spectacular at times, with massive gorges descending from 2500m mountains to a cliff-lined and perfectly clear mountain stream at the bottom. The last gorge we followed like this was about 80km long.
A quick note here to publicly thank the Chinese engineers who built two very impressive and long (2km) tunnels halfway up the mountains on our longest days, saving us at least 2 hours riding a day - we could see the old roads crawling up over the tops and were very very glad not to have to bike them.
We have been constantly overwhelmed by the Chinese peoples' friendliness and desire to help us. On this leg we came out of our hotel one morning (where 5 staff had helped us to our room the night before and demonstrated all the facilities, including how to turn on the taps) to find our bikes had been given a quick clean overnight. In another town we were looking a bit lost so a woman approached us and said she would like to be our guide. She was an English teacher and escorted us to the supermarket, at which point she was off with a cheery goodbye. We had heard so many stories before arriving that people were ignored at hotels and treated pretty gruffly. So far we have experienced nothing but the opposite.
Off to the Terracotta Warriors tomorrow, then onto our last 800km push to Beijing (which we have to do in 8 days so we can get there in time to meet Nova!).
More photos: http://picasaweb.google.com/steelbaker/CentralChina