Thursday, July 5, 2007

Day 85-94: The end of cycling

Just south of Emeishan city lies the village of Baoguo. Here travelers gather to prepare a 2500 meter vertical climb to the peak of Mount Emei. The mountain is covered with thousands of concrete stairs, all leading up to the summit, at 3099 meters elevation. Along the stairs are various Buddhist monasteries and temples, sadly most of them under construction or newly renovated, but still add to the atmosphere. The main motive to climb the mountain is to witness the sunrise or sunset over the bed of clouds that surrounds the summit almost all year around.


After two weeks of cycling more then 1000 kilometers, and few resting days, I was reluctant to climb the thousands of steps leading up to the summit of Mount Emei. Also, the monotony of walking up stairs did not appeal to me, thus I decided to take a bus up to 2500 meters elevation, walk two hours, climbing the most evil part of the stairs, find a place to stay and rise early the following morning to catch the sun breaking the day over soft layers of clouds at 3099 meters above sea level. As a result, on my second afternoon in Baoguo village, I caught a bus with the party of Chinese tourists in matching clothes, hats and flags. The bus wove its way up the steep road, a very familiar sight, but now I was comfortable seated on an air-conditioned bus opposed to pedaling up the mountain. After two hours the bus stopped and all passengers rushed to pull their jackets out of their bags and cover themselves in the chilling temperatures of 2500 meters elevation. The quick ascend made me slightly lightheaded and caused a mild headache. Nevertheless, the two hours passed quickly as I marched my way up the concrete stairs through the forest, monasteries and temples. By the time I found a small house along the path that could serve me my last meal of the day and provide shelter, it was after seven o'clock. After dinner I retired to bed early to prepare for a two-hour walk at the crack of dawn. The cramped room felt primitively simple, just large enough to house a bed and a TV, with an external door that would not shut or lock, adding to the uncivilized experience. Ironically, for the first time since entering China, the TV displayed a perfect digital picture and provided numerous channels, including a few English speaking alternatives. The odd mixture of old and new was shortly lived when my alarm clock buzzed quarter past four, three hours before sunrise, making my entire body shudder in disapproval. Slowly I made my way out the door, stepping into the dark, silent forest. Immediately, I was startled by the open, clear night sky, dotted with billions of brilliant stars, visible through the tree tops. Never before have I witnessed such a bright, vivid and clear starry sky. Breathless, I stood paralyzed by its beauty and scale until my balance lost orientation. I advanced up the stairs into the darkness of the forest, the beam of my head-flashlight leading the way. After an hour and a half I reached the summit. To my surprise, I was alone, wandering through the temple grounds in complete obscurity and silence. The stillness was interrupted as I climbed the last stairs to the Golden Summit as other hikers made their entrance. At the edge of the cliff, looking out over the dark clouds, I stood for an hour and a half as lightness emerged, watching and hearing hundreds of Chinese tourists entering the famous site. It is widely recognized that Chinese people constantly, openly and loudly clear their throats, spitting whenever and wherever possible. The phenomenon is especially noticeable in the first hours of the day. Adding the early morning exercise does not exactly relieve their eccentric habit. One after one they came climbing the final stairs, panting and wheezing. The constant noise soon transformed into an orchestra of hawking and spitting in various tones. It truly was disgusting. When the sun made its entrance, all sounds came to a stop, and every visitor stood in awe, watching the sun rise over the sea of clouds, turning the sky into a rich orange and yellow color. The entire temple site was illuminated in golden hue. To the west, the Gonga Mountains appeared in the far distance as the sun continued to rise. The 7500 meter glacier peaks are rarely visible, even on the clearest day, perfecting my visit to the Golden Summit of Mount Emei. Climbing down stairs from an elevation of 3099 meters to approximately 500, I highly underestimated. It required stepping down thousands and thousands of tedious steps. Fortunately, I found company at the top. A British traveler, named Damien, had actually climbed the entire way up, and was determined to step all the way down as well. Together we started marching down step by step after the sun had risen over the Summit. Just before lunch an appearance of a group of Baboons broke the monotonous stride. They are known to linger the area in hope of finding or stealing food from passing humans. Their large size and sharp, long teeth are slightly frightening. Excited, we quickly pulled out our cameras, squatted to get a better camera perspective, but before I had time to press the exposure button, a large male Baboon ran towards Damien at an alarming pace. As Damien instantly stood up, the Baboon reached down into his right pocket, trying to grab a package of biscuits that had popped out when Damien bent down to take a picture. Frantically, the Baboon was trying to grab the food, pulling and jerking Damien’s shorts. When he reached down to stop the fearless monkey, it snapped at him, hit his hand and displayed its vicious teeth. Seconds later the Baboon was eating what was left of the crumbled biscuits, not willing to share any with the rest of its fellow Baboons. It seems that the monkeys of Mount Emei would do anything to fill their stomachs. During lunch, as we started to alleviate our hunger, another brave monkey entered the restaurant. It jumped up onto the table behind us where a woven rise bowl was place, tore the top lid off and desperately began to stuff rise into its mouth. I stood up, shouted and chased the Baboon out of the restaurant, laughing at the exceptionally awkward scenario. The Baboons, not the walk down the mountain, had made my day.

The next day I was scheduled to cycle 50 kilometers to Leshan, a large city to the east, along the Dadu River. However, I woke up early with severe pains in my calves, questioning my ability to pedal. Despite their growing size and strength, descending thousands of steps had left them impaired. I was able to walk with short, tiny steps while biting my tongue in pain. To undertake any kind of stairs was nearly impossible. To my relief, cycling was the least painful of the three; walking, climbing stairs and cycling. Thus, I headed for Leshan, moaning and cursing. On the way I planned to stop at the "1000 Buddha Cliffs", near the city of Jiajiang 30 kilometers north of Emei Town. But after entering the site, having paid the entrance fee and discovering a series of stairs that swirled up and down through the hundreds of Buddha statues, I immediately turned around. I literally could not climb stairs, let alone walk down them. Instead, I cycled the last 25 kilometers to Leshan, and found a hotel on the bank of Dadu River, in the heart of Leshan. I had only one obligation in Leshan; to visit the Grand Buddha of Leshan, the largest Buddha in the world. 71 meters high, carved into the cliff overlooking the Dadu River, it is an overwhelming structure impressing hundreds of visitors everyday. On my first day in Leshan, I cycled a beautiful road along the river to the site early to miss the Chinese tourists. I wandered the site impressed by its scale, unenthusiastic about my sore calves. I spent two days in Leshan, cycling around town or traveling by "cyclo", avoiding walking as much as possible. I found the city charming and its people unexceptionally friendly. The outdoor servings along the river provided a cheerful atmosphere, and I spend both evenings there eating and drinking local beer, one night with the company of a Dutch traveler and a Chinese family playing a traditional Chinese game. On my last night I went swimming in the mighty Dadu River as is surges along the edge of the city. It seemed to be a common evening practice among the locals, although they were floating more than swimming, wearing floatable rings around their waists. I, on the other hand, was convinced I could stay afloat on my own as I entered the water to swim with the force of the river for a few kilometers until the stream weakened and I left the river, proud and excited about the experience.
160 kilometers separates Leshan from Chengdu. I had originally planned to take a bus the last stretch of my journey, but since I left Kunming in Yunnan I had made a promise to myself to not step on a bus when I could cycle. Therefore, I intended to reach Chengdu in two days, dividing the 160 kilometers accordingly. However, a wild idea occurred to me when I was in Leshan, sitting comfortably by the river, looking at the water passing by. Why not end my cycling with the longest stretch of the journey? On a flat, smooth road I could easily average 20 km/h, and I could also cycle over eight hours, that I proved to myself when leaving Lijiang to Ninglang a few weeks ago. Therefore, I could hopefully manage 160 kilometers without too much difficulty. The plan was to divide the day into four two-hour "spinning classes", and between each "spinning class" I would break to eat and drink. Each two-hour "spinning class" would transport me about 40 kilometers. 40 times four makes 160. The plan worked as I uneventfully pedaled to the outskirt of Chengdu city on smooth tarmac and crowded roads. My bicycle computer correctly displayed 160 kilometers and 21,5 km/h average speed as I entered the city. The remaining 15 kilometers until I reached the guesthouse on the north side only slowed me down, but did not pose any problems. Having cycled 175 kilometers, I stepped off the bicycle enormously proud of my accomplishment; ready to put the bicycle away for this time (but for small excursions around Chengdu and Beijing). After a well-earned hot shower, I sat down to order food at the atmospheric, pleasant guesthouse (Mix Guesthouse) and met another cyclist - Ian from England. He had seen my bicycle parked inside the lobby and curiously asked a series of questions. I answered and proudly explained that I had completed 175 kilometers today to finish a 3500-kilometers bicycle adventure. He congratulated me as well as enlightened me that he, too, was a dedicated cyclist. Further, he informed about his latest journey which had started in Istanbul, and was not going to end in the next years to come. Ian had traveled by bicycle for the last twelve years, cycling mainly in China but also other places in the world. In China alone he has pedaled 58,000 kilometers, further than the distance around the equator of our planet. My 3500 kilometers from Saigon in the south of Vietnam to Chengdu in central China suddenly seemed insignificant. Nevertheless, I tried to celebrate my endeavor, but after two beers I stumbled into bed, postponing the celebrations for another night.
Chengdu is the capital city of the Sichuan province. With close to five million inhabitants it is a large, modern, commercial city of clustered high-rise buildings, busy streets and loads of western influences. McDonalds, Starbucks, Pizza Hut and several western well-known clothing brands are present in every large department store. Still, the city offers a taste of Sichuan culture and history, and one can easily find small, lively streets and markets where men and women sell various traditional foods and goods. I had several days in Chengdu to rest, relax, run errands and sightsee. There are many attractions and places to visit in and around the city. I started with handling most of my errands, such as pick up my flight ticket to Beijing and exchange money. Secondly, I cycled around the capital to get an overview of the central metropolis and experience the atmosphere. I visited the famous Wenshu temple, Chengdu's most well-preserved and largest Buddhist temple. Its tea garden made a perfect place to update my journal, read and observe monks in their daily life. When my bum had had a couple of days of rest, I cycled to the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base, 15 kilometers north of the city. Here, about 50 Pandas are housed and the site is world-known for excellence in panda research, breeding and nursing. The park is also the largest in the world of its kind. It reminded me of a big, standard zoo, but only consisting of pandas. Walking through the park, seeing tens of pandas sleeping or eating (that is all they do) was exhilarating. Never before have I been so close to these endangered animals. Despite their large size, they are overwhelmingly adorable. Their movements are slow and childlike, fumbling as they stuff themselves with heaps of bamboo; their main source of food. Often they strike an awkward, charming pose as if they know how to get the crowds of tourists to fumble with their cameras, trying to seize the moment. I continued to visit various sites of the city, some interesting, some dull and ordinary. Despite my active engagement of the city, I have had plenty of time to hang around the guesthouse, doing nothing, reading, watching movies or speaking to other travelers, sharing experiences and stories. I have slept more than usual, a sign of relaxation and relief. The massage parlor across the street, offering a professional full-body rub down for 20 Yuan (2 Euros), might play a small role to my peaceful state of mind. My last day in Chengdu will be uneventful but for packing and the tedious process of dissembling my bicycle, preparing it for the plane ride. In a couple of days I will arrive in Beijing to enjoy my last days of my journey.

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