The Three Gorges Tour
Rewind two days, it’s the middle of the night and I’m lying awake with a cold sweat, shivering and worrying. I’ve managed to pick up a fever and it isn’t very pleasant. The timing couldn’t have been much worse, I’ve been in China for four weeks and have been well for the whole time and I’m now ill, two days before the weekend bike tour I’ve planned in the three gorges. It’s definitely under threat because there is no way I could do it in this state.
I managed to drag myself into the University I had been working at for the next two days, then slept all evening and night, to try to recover as quickly as possible. I got some over-the-counter antibiotics and luckily managed to shake it off the night before I was due to leave. The reason I’ve spent a month in China is to complete a project looking at damage in wind turbine gearbox bearings, the subject I’m doing a PhD on at Sheffield University. I won’t bore you with the details but I have been using the microscopes here at the Huazong University of Science and Technology (HUST) to look for cracks in steel samples. Anyway, the trip was funded by the University of Sheffield, and I had enough time at the end of it, to fit in a short bike tour:
Day 1: Wuhan to the Three Gorges. 21/11/13
Distance covered by bike: 19 miles
Having completed my project at HUST, I was free to go. I went into the office in the morning to get some forms signed, then headed back to my small, cockroach-infested, but otherwise okay hotel room. I’ve definitely stayed in worse places. The location of the squatter toilet; directly under the shower head, was a slightly odd design feature. I’m not too sure of the benefits, unless you wanted to use the shower and the toilet at the same time...
My bike, Valentino, was leaning against a wardrobe, waiting for his defining moment (yes, he is a he, I don’t know why, he just is, my round the world bike, Sandy, is a she, Valentino is a he). He had been locked in a shed for the past ten years and forgotten about. One day, his previous owner, or rather jailer, cleaned out his shed , and sold its contents on Ebay. I like to think Valentino got a good new owner. £15 was a decent price too, for a folding bike. Okay, so it was a bit rusty, needed a bit of maintenance and a longer seatpost (a £9 upgrade), but after that, my new steed was ready to go. I reckon that it’s about 30 years old, it has a Sturmey Archer three-speed hub, but after a good clean and service, was as good as new. More importantly, once folded, it fit into my large suitcase, so I could take it to China for no extra cost. From a shed in New Mills, to the Yangtze Gorges...
I lifted Valentino, plus my minimal luggage down two flights of stairs, and past the bemused receptionist, who had suggested that I keep the bike outside at least ten times. I’ve learnt that bike security isn’t something worth taking any risks with, having lost a bike to thieves in the past. I climbed onto the saddle and started pedaling towards Wuhan train station. It was a lovely ride, first through the leafy, green campus, past a series of allotments, along a road that crossed the beautiful East Lake and then through a rural-feeling neighborhood, to the hulking behemoth that is Wuhan Railway Station. It is an incredible building, with its giant curved roof flowing over 20 platforms. High-speed trains constantly arrive and depart from it, to almost every city in China. Their new high-speed train network is an engineering marvel, showing, perhaps better than any other recent achievement, how quickly China has, and is, developing.
Life at the university had been fascinating and I learnt what it’s like to be a student in China. The campus is enclosed from the rest of the city and has everything that students need. You could comfortably live there all year without ever leaving, and I get the impression that some students do. The guys in my office all live in shared dormitories, which cost 1000 yuan (£100) per year. I imagine that they are not very pleasant though. The Chinese are not renowned for being quiet and from experience, shared toilets are not nice places! They don’t have any air conditioning either, which can’t be much fun. Wuhan is known as one of the “three summer furnaces” as one of the three hottest cities in China; summer temperatures exceed 40 degrees. Students always eat in one of the three campus canteens, which are great. You can get a decent meal of rice, noodles, dumplings, soup, and much more for about 5 yuan (50p). The students don’t do any cooking though. Eating in the canteens appears to be a race! First you have to find a seat (difficult) then scoff down whatever you’ve bought, without speaking, before dashing off, usually back to the office, because evenings are spent playing Warcraft, an online computer game. Some nights are spent in the office too apparently, because it does have air conditioning. The campus sports facilities are amazing, with basketball, football, tennis, badminton, pool, snooker, table tennis, athletics and gym facilities. It’s a beautiful area too, but the isolation from the outside world would get me down I think. A month has been a good amount of time to stay though.
Anyway, back to the station, where I was sitting at McDonalds, eating a Big Mac Meal. Before you shut down this blog in disgust, let me assure you that there wasn’t a great amount of choice and that I’ve sampled a lot of the local food over the past month! I sat at the window, keeping an eye on Valentino and looking at a map, trying to decide where to go when I arrived. I hadn’t planned anything in advance, had no idea of the size of the large looking mountains on either side of the Yangtze River, and only had a 1:2,000,000 scale map along with a downloaded Google Map on my phone, to navigate with. This was the idea of this adventure though: a cheap bike, no preparation and limited gear. I want to prove that you don’t need to spend a lot of time and money to prepare for a great bike tour. I had heard that there were passenger ferries up the river, so I planned to take one to the town of Wushan, which looked about 100 miles upstream of Yichang, the city that the train would take me to.
I left Maccy D’s, with that familiar feeling of being very underwhelmed by the food I’d just eaten, then took my bike up two escalators, to the main entrance, where I unloaded it and folded it up. After an airport-style security check, I took my seat in the brand new, sparkling, waiting area. Everything was chilled out and peaceful, until our train boarding call was announced. Everyone jumped up and pushed and jostle for the best position to get onto the train first. I’ve no idea why because seats are allocated. Queuing, something we English are possibly world-leaders at, is not something that happens in China. It’s every-man-for-himself. I had quickly learned this in the canteens at HUST; without pushing I would have never have got served. I can’t help thinking that the elderly people must be seriously disadvantaged in this battle though. Anyway, I got into the spirit of it and managed to push my way through a ticket check and onto the train, put my bike on a luggage shelf and took my seat, excited about the next few days.
The brand new train displayed it speed on a screen as it sped us along at 250 km/h, far more smoothly than the trains back home. The reclining seats are very comfortable too. All the railway tracks are built about 10 metres above the ground on stilts, so views out the window are from above, which is a good position to look at the landscape. Unfortunately though, this otherwise pleasant journey was made less so by the music being blared through the speakers of various phones and tablets, children playing computer games and the fact that the lady next to me was the noisiest eater I have ever heard! On the whole though, the two and half hour journey to Yichang was great, and we arrived exactly on time, into another brand new and gleaming station building. I lifted my bike off the train, carried it through the station, unfolded it, reattached my luggage, which was contained in a small dry bag (clothes and sleeping bag) on the rear rack built into the bike frame, and a handlebar bag (valuables) that clipped onto the front. I did this all in front of a large and continuously growing audience, who were delighted when I finished, making appreciated noises.
I cycled off to the Yangtze River, hoping to find the ferry port building. I had no idea where it was, other than it must be on the river bank, and that it must be west of where I was because the train station was out of town on the east side. I headed south to the river first, and then in an upstream direction along a riverside path. I passed though a rich-looking suburb, with large detached houses (a rare sight in China), then under a large railway bridge and into a more built up area. Eventually, I found the ferry port, and went inside to see when the next boat was, it was almost dark by this stage, at about 6 in the evening. I managed to communicate that I wanted to go to Wushan on the next boat, which I was delighted to find left in about an hour and a half and would arrive early the next day.
I was three options for accommodation on board:
1. 4th class ticket: a 24 bed dorm; 100 yuan (£10)
2. 3rd class ticket: a 6-8 bed dorm; 130 yuan (£13)
3. 2nd class ticket: a 2 bed room, with ensuite bathroom; 180 yuan (£18)
I automatically chose 4th class, before checking myself. I’d slipped back into the rigid budgeting of my round the world trip. I didn’t need to now, I could afford £8 on the difference between a good night’s sleep (hopefully) and not that; I payed for a second class room. A bus would take me to the other side of the Three Gorges Dam, then on an overnight boat, to Wushan, my “start point”. I had no plans whatsoever, except that I needed to be back for my train ticket on Sunday night. Yichang had seemed pleasant enough, but like almost every Chinese city (with the exception of the giant ones), had very little character. Their vast, rapid expansion has destroyed most of the old buildings and charm, and replaced it with non-descript Soviet-like high rise concrete tower blocks and superhighways. It was more chilled out than Wuhan, anyway, which has 10 million inhabitants and high rise buildings and cranes stretching to the horizon in every direction. More on Wuhan in my blog about cycling there.
Back in the ferry terminal, I was hungry and had over an hour until my bus left. I made the useful sign; I want to eat something, which is holding a small bowl close to your mouth and using chopsticks to scoop up its contents. I was very lucky that the guy I asked owned a street food stall around the corner, so he took me there and fed me some very cheap, very tasty pork and green pepper noodles. I bought some supplies from the nearby shop then got on the bus. I planned to have a nap, but the driver saw fit to put on very loud and utterly appalling Chinese pop music for over an hour, so instead I looked out of the window at the giant mountains all around, feeling a bit intimidated. Have I bitten off more than I can chew here? I only have three gears and roads don’t look very flat. The bus arrived and I got on the boat, locked the bike up on a railing on the side, then walked through a hull full of cardboard boxes and was shown my room, which I was delighted to find, I had to myself. I went to sleep, a bit concerned about tomorrow, but excited to be back on the road in China.
Day 2: Wushan to Lijiawan: 22/11/13
Distance covered by bike: 74.6 miles
The boat pulled into Wushan at 5:30 in the morning. It was dark, cold and raining. People looked at me in disbelief because I was wearing shorts. I didn’t bother trying to explain that there was a giant mountain climb ahead and that I was soon going to be very hot. I didn’t know whether to get going, or to find somewhere to eat and wait until the sun came up. The large amount of attention I was receiving made my mind up though. I left the port, heading up the road towards, Badong, a city I had passed sometime in the night on the boat. This was definitely not the most direct route, a 40 mile river journey was nearly 100 miles by road. Unfortunately I couldn’t see much of what was supposed to be a spectacular view, but waiting for daylight wouldn’t have made much difference because of the cloud. To my delight, the rain soon stopped though and I climbed for about a couple of hours in the dark.
The bike was working great. The lowest of the Sturmey Archer gears was low enough to pedal up the road, despite it’s fairly steep gradient. It was a low cadence (slow pedaling speed) but I was definitely making progress, and it was comfortable progress at that. The sun eventually rose and the view opened out in front of me. It was still cloudy but I could see that I was in a spectacular mountain landscape. It was a great feeling, almost magical. I’d travelling by bike, train and boat overnight and had arrived in this wonderful landscape.
I carried on up the long climb and started feeling hungry. The road was remote, but with villages every mile or so, so I stopped at the first one with an open restaurant. It was a small room, with an adjoining kitchen, and they had one thing on the menu at that time of day; dumplings. That was good, because dumplings were exactly what I wanted. Hot, filling, calorific and tasty pork and cabbage dumplings appeared in front of me for one yuan each. I ate my fill as the little girl who lived there stared at me in disbelief. This was more the China that I was used to; in Wuhan, westerners are a relatively common site, here, they probably hadn’t seen a westerner for months or even years, this was well off the tourist trail, which consists of the cruise ships in the river in the gorge below. I waved farewell to the friendly family, who had been very kind after their initial shock and continued up the long climb. It was a great feeling to be riding up the hill, exploring rural China on this ancient bike. I had no idea how long the hill would last, but I was comfortable and cheerful enough. As I made slow progress up the hill, kids waved at me on their walk to school. Some of them were walking a good distance of a few miles to get to school in small groups. It must have been fairly safe because there were no adults supervising them. Some kids shouted at me and pointed, some were shy. I waved at them and shouted “Nihao”, they laughed then chased me up the hill, running until they were tired.
Eventually, after a 15 mile climb, which took about 4 hours, the road leveled off and turned into a series of small climbs and descents as the quality of the surface worsened. I saw a lady walking past carrying a giant vegetable, which may have been a marrow, but I’m not an expert. I cycled past a covered area where a man had recently slaughtered a large pig, it was lying on a table and people were animatedly bartering over purchasing parts of it. I looked around and saw clearly how people make a living in this area. Every area of land that wasn’t covered in heavy, wild vegetation, was being used to grow food. The main produce seemed to be cabbages and lettuces, which were grown next to the road side, but there were fruit trees and other crops being grown. Many of the hillsides had been flattened into terraced levels, in order to grow food. There was often a large pile of potatoes on people’s driveways and there were also large woodpiles in preparation for the cold months ahead.
At the first large town since Wushan, the good road surface ran out. It looked like the road had been rebuilt up to this town, and the road ahead, not repaired yet. There were road work vehicles, but they hadn’t started on this next section. The recent rain had left an inch thick layer of mud over a bumpy and cut up hardpack road surface, which was pretty slippery. A fall would have covered me in mud. I cycled slowly through the mud, amazed that my bike was able to grip and cope with the bumps. After the town, the layer of mud became less thick, although the bumps were no better. I continued in this way up a climb for a couple of miles, until I reached the top of a pass. It was more remote here, with no houses in sight for the first time since I left Wushan. The road was smooth and hard again, a layer of compressed stones, waiting for tarmac to be laid on top; it was a good surface to ride on. The road wove through beautiful forested hillside, and the gradient switched from positive to negative. I accelerated and started speeding downhill at about 20 mph, my brakes weren’t good enough to risk going any faster. The front brake was pretty smooth but the back one jumped about a lot due a patch of rust on the rim that I hadn’t managed to remove. Perhaps a couple of long descents would rub it off.
The descent was great fun, weaving down the hillside, but was over too quickly as I reached the bottom; a valley with a small stream flowing down it. The road was muddy again, and climbed up the valley. I got a puncture, which I quickly fixed before beginning to climb once more. It was mentally very tough. The views weren’t as good, I was still struggling to pedal at a low cadence and I was hungry and there were no places to eat. I found a shop and stocked up on stale cakes and crisps, which got me up the climb but it wasn’t much fun. The shock owners stared at me with open mouths, pointing at my shorts. I think it was the shorts that surprised them most about my appearance. Halfway up the climb, I got a puncture in my front wheel, which I fixed by changing the original, old inner tube with a new one that I’d bought with me. I reached an altitude of 4,000 feet and the scenery was much more interesting. There were some giant mountains in front of me, to the north, covered in mist. The road climbed over a brilliant pass, which finished with a couple of switchbacks before reaching the top and descending quickly, underneath a road sign with an arrow pointing downhill.
It was now about 4.30 and I only had an hour or so left of daylight. I was a long way short of Badong, which had been my planed destination. My map said it was 99 km to Badong, but I had already ridden about that and I was still miles away from the town... excellent quality map... I decided to descend to the bottom and to try to find a place to stay. I wasn’t sure what I’d do about accommodation. I had a sleeping bag and survival bag with me, but I would need to find a covered area to sleep if I was going to use them. I had not had room to bring a tent with me. If I could find a hotel, I’d stay there, but I wasn’t holding my breath, it was pretty remote here.
The descent went on for ages, down more switchbacks and into a much larger river valley, which turned into a lake. This river joined the Yangtze and I guess the lake was part of the giant reservoir, formed by the building of the Three Gorges Dam. On the way down to the valley floor I saw a car crash. A lorry had cut a corner and blocked the road off entirely and a car had crashed into it, with nowhere else to go. Everyone was fine, but the traffic was backing up and people were honking and getting stressed. I carried my bike around the mess and continued. I followed the road through a small town and was dismayed to find nothing there, not even a place to eat. Disheartened I started climbing up another pass, thinking I would try to get to the main road, 14 km away, there was bound to be some places to eat there. My map didn’t give me much idea of what lay between here and there but I thought it looked as though the road climbed, then descended, so I reasoned that I shouldn’t expect more than about 7 km of climbing. I was wrong.
I climbed steeply through the evening gloom and got another puncture, this time on the back wheel. I replaced the inner tube again, with the other spare I’d brought, and carried on the climb with my lights on. I saw a guy buying a pig from the back of a pick up truck on the roadside. It was a goof road, and a nice gradient to be cycling on and my spirits were still high, although I was worried about finding a place to sleep. The security of having a tent with you on a tour is very valuable, here I felt a bit vulnerable without the option of a cover over my head for the night. On the bright side, the road passed through a large orchard full of oranges, so I helped myself to a few that had fallen off the trees and they were delicious. At one village I saw a young child having a tantrum and was appalled to see that his mother hitting him hard with a stick.
After a couple of hours climbing through the gradually darkening night, I eventually saw lights up ahead; the main road. There was a shop, where I bought more supplies and finally I arrived at a junction. There was a petrol station and a construction site. I went in and promptly got chased by 4 large dogs. This would have terrified me a couple of years ago, but after my world tour, it was something that I had got used to. I jumped off my bike and squared up to them and they backed off. A construction worker came out, and amazingly spoke pretty good English. I told him I was looking for a place to stay for the night and he took me to a hotel around the corner; luck was with me! Zhiquang, the construction worker, was a lovely guy in his mid-twenties. He was so helpful and translated what I wanted to the receptionist, a very friendly lady who also wanted to help me. I got a room for the night for 80 yuan (£8) and was told to take my (very dirty) bike into the room because they wanted it to be safe. I went up with their help and they showed me how to use the heater and the shower then asked if I was hungry. I said very hungry! Ten minutes later I was sat in the hotel reception, eating a giant meal that the receptionist had prepared for me, free of charge. It was delicious, and more food kept coming; pork and cabbage noodles, fried egg, rice, root vegetables and peanuts. What had I done to deserve this?! Can you imagine how good that moment felt; one minute I was climbing in the dark, worried and unsure where I would sleep and what I would eat, the next I had a comfortable hotel room and a huge and delicious meal in front of me. Bike touring is the best thing in the world...
Day 3: Lijiawan to the Three Gorges Dam: 23/11/13
Distance traveled by bike: 37 miles
I woke early, hoping to reach Badong in time to get a ferry along the Yangtze in daylight hours. I met Zhiquang and a friend of his, who guided me to the road to Badong. It was fairly obvious where I needed to go, but they were insistent that they helped me, so I walked with them to the town centre. There was a large market there and the two construction workers bought me an army top and trousers because they were convinced that I would be too cold in shorts. They also bought me fruit and drink to take with me; what lovely people! I waved a fond farewell as I headed off on the road to Badong.
The road to Badong was almost all downhill, so it was an easy start to the day. It was still cloudy, but the sun was trying to break through. At least it wasn’t raining. The views over the valley below were stunning; the road was good quality as it wove down the mountain and it was a fun descent. My brakes were coping fairly well too, which was good news! As I progressed down the road, it reached the valley floor and a fast flowing stream, and then the giant reservoir behind the Three Gorges Dam, which joined the Yangtze gorge after about 15 miles. On the way down, I stopped at a bridge to have a snack. Some of the cakes I had bought from a shop the day before were truly disgusting, so I fed them to a dog that had come over to investigate me. I was still cycling through land that was being used to grow things; oranges, lettuces, apples and cabbages. Every bit of spare land was being used to its full.
When I reached the Yangtze River Gorge, I could see that there was only one bridge across to the other side, despite my map telling me that there were two. It really has been a useless map. I cycled along the north side of the gorge, before crossing an impressive suspension bridge which took me to Badong. After a confusing but eventually, successful search for the ferry port, I boarded a high speed boat, that would take me downstream to the Three Gorges Dam, the largest hydroelectric dam in the world.
Unfortunately, shortly after the boat left Badong, it started raining and visibility dropped. Although I could see the sides of the gorge through the mist, a lot of the view was hidden. It gave a me a feel for the scale and beauty of the Yangtze Gorges, but unfortunately, I think another trip is required for me to say I’ve seen them properly. The boat was quick and got to the dam in about 2 hours. Whenever it (violently) changed direction, I had to hold onto my bike to stop it from being knocked over. On board the boat, most people were just using it as a form of transport, rather than a sightseeing boat. There were a lot of sightseeing cruise ships on the river too, which would have been cheap. Most of the river traffic however, was large container ships, transporting vast amounts of goods up and down the Yangtze. The river moves more cargo than any other in the world and there are a large number of cities on the river, including Wuhan, Nanjing and Shanghai.
When the boat arrived at the Three Gorges Dam, there was almost no visibility. It was raining heavily and it was very cold. Without much equipment with me, it wasn’t much fun to be riding in these conditions, so I half considered getting a bus to the next town. I decided to cycle though and to stay the night near to the dam, in the hope it would clear up the next day, so I could get a view of it. I cycled for about an hour, to a small town at the bottom of the dam. On the way, I passed the giant locks, used to transport boats up and down the height difference in the river level caused by the dam. They were giant and very impressive to see. In the town, after searching for about half an hour, I found a hotel by asking a guy at a sightseeing tour office. I followed him on his motorbike to the hotel and I was delighted to arrive there, being thoroughly wet and cold. The hotel owner was a lovely guy, and I was told that I was the first non-Chinese visitor they had had that year. I asked to stay in the cheapest room they had, and they gave me a free upgrade, before inviting me to dinner with their family later that evening. It was amazingly kind of them and my second free evening meal in as many days. The Chinese people here were so welcoming and friendly, more so than I had experienced on my last visit.
After a shower and putting some clean clothes on (including my new Chinese army trousers) I got into a car with the hotel receptionist, her “brother”, who spoke very good English and his mother. I use quotation marks because I found out later, that they are actually cousins, and they have another “sister”, who is the daughter of their aunt. Due to the one-child policy in China, there are many only children. Extended families are therefore closer, and the children consider themselves as siblings, despite having different parents. When we arrived at the house, I met the grandmother and the mother of the receptionist. We sat around a large table and ate an excellent meal, cooked by the very imposing and impressive grandmother. She was an amazing lady, hardy and tough and a proud head of the family. It’s a challenging place to live for an old person, being very hot in summer and very cold in winter, but she was doing fine. We ate pork, boiled in a broth, cabbage, stir fried pork, eggs, green beans and also dried beans, which were sort of fermented; a traditional recipe which tastes much better than it sounds. I talked to the family, via the guy who could speak English (whose English name is Chris), and told them about what I was doing there and about my previous cycling expeditions. Chinese people are given English names at school, which they use if they have contact with the Western world. I heard about their family, which sounded very close-knit and about the career plans of the English-speaking guy. They really were lovely people and it was so generous of them to offer me such wonderful hospitality. I was delighted to be complimented on my chopstick skills; I’ve now spent three months of my life in China, so I suppose that all the practice has paid off. I still feel that my skills are far inferior to the locals though, who can eat much quicker than me.
That evening, I wasn’t too sure what to do the following day. It was still very wet and cold and there was a large mountain pass between me and Yichang, where my train would leave the following evening. I wasn’t sure of the conditions at higher altitudes and if the conditions remained the same, I didn’t think that my equipment would be suitable to attempt the pass. Maybe I would have to do a short ride to the Three Gorges Dam and take a bus to Yichang. It would depend on the weather in the morning.
I left the house and was given a parting gift of six boiled eggs! I was driven back to the hotel, which involved a long detour around another car crash, and was then told that I had to go to the local police station. During my trip in China, a slight worry has been in the back of my mind that I have been fairly outspoken about my opinions about the Chinese Government in my book “Every Inch of the Way”. Realistically, I’m sure it is not anywhere near big enough to attract the attention of the Chinese Government, but you do hear horror stories of people getting into trouble for this sort of thing in China. So I was slightly worried about the reason that the police wanted to meet me. In the end though, they just wanted to take a photocopy of my passport. Apparently, this is standard procedure for foreigners in this town, which is very odd. I’ve experienced odder behaviour from the Chinese police though. I spoke with Chris, who asked if the British police acted similarly for foreign visitors in the UK. I explained that there were far too many foreigners in the UK for this to be possible and told him how much more open it is, although the big cities in China, such as Wuhan aren’t too bad.
Back at the hotel, I watched a very interesting news report about the rise in female wealth in the country. Apparently, 33 percent of millionaires in China are now female, a much higher ratio that I had expected. Due to this, there is a shortage of female body guards. Apparently female millionaires do not want male body guards due as sharing a room with them is frowned upon in Chinese culture. Also, male businessmen want bodyguards for their wives. As a result, female bodyguards are very well paid and in demand. There was also a report on the news about a large oil leak from a pipeline explosion in China, which seemed to be a large environmental disaster. Apparently the pipeline had been built ignoring many safety regulations. It made me wonder how much of the vast amount of construction going on in China at the moment is being completed to high safety standards.
Day 4: The Three Gorges Dam to Yichang
Distance covered by bike: 43.4 miles
I slept very well that night and had no plans on waking up early, assuming that the bad weather would continue. Luckily, I naturally woke up at about seven and one look out of the window told me I was in luck. The clouds and rain had gone and a blue and orange early morning sky greeted me. I quickly packed up, ate some of the eggs I’d been given, said goodbye to the hotel staff who’d become my friends, and headed towards the Three Gorges Dam. I knew roughly which direction to go, so after navigating through a maze of busy, bustling streets, I left the town and reached a brand new road that followed the side of the Yangtze. Ahead I saw a large bridge, again not shown on my map. It would provide a perfect viewpoint of the dam, so I cycled to it, hoping to be able to get to the middle and take some photos. The bridge was guarded by a couple of policemen and they wouldn’t let me onto it. I tried to explain that I didn’t want to cross, but they kept waggling their forefinger at me and saying “Mayo” (no). I don’t know why they didn’t want me to go over the bridge; it was either because I was on a bike or because I’m a foreigner. The bridge has a pavement, so it’s clear that pedestrians are allowed to use it. I tried to ask why not and to show that I was pretty keen to see the dam. In the end, I left my bike at the police box and started walking across the bridge. They didn’t like that and got animated. In the end, because of my persistence, one of them accompanied me onto the bridge and walked with me to a point where I could see a good view of the dam. He let me take a few photos, and then escorted me back to the bike. I waved to them as I rode off, thinking about their behaviour. They were clearly acting on orders; I wish I knew what they were.
Anyway, the view of the dam was spectacular. It’s not the most beautiful dam, but it is vast. The height isn’t hugely impressive, although, it is pretty tall. It’s the width of the dam, spanning the entire River Yangtze that is so amazing. The river is one of the largest in the world and the ambition and the feat to build a dam across it, must rate as one of, if not the greatest engineering achievement of all time. The dam has a rated power of 22.5 GW, which is about the same as 5 nuclear power plants, or an incredible one third of the UK’s peak electricity demand. It has also solved a lot of the flooding problems, experienced for decades, by the towns and cities downstream. It’s also improved the shipping route, making the previously dangerous fast flowing section of the Yangtze, a flat reservoir. On the other hand, there have been questions about the safety of the dam, which has apparently been designed with a giant safety factor and to withstand an earthquake of 7 on the Richter scale. Some experts worry that shortcuts were taken and that it has not been constructed to high enough standards. It has also blocked silt from moving down the Yangtze, which will have large environmental effects downstream. 1.3 million people were relocated when their towns and villages were flooded by the new reservoir too. It’s a very interesting and controversial project and great to have seen, particularly as I am an engineer, interested in renewable energy.
So back to the ride; I left the policemen, and joined a road that ran next to the north Yangtze River bank and a motorway. It was a good road, which took me along a scenic route by the river side. It was great to have a better view of the spectacular scenery and the river, with all the large ships heading in both directions, in front of a backdrop of large mountains. Soon, the road started climbing up the north side of a large gorge and it was a beautiful ascent. The road wasn’t too steep, so it was all rideable, despite my lack of gears. The climb first took me through a few fair-sized villages. I passed a market, which had been erected under a bridge, so it was sheltered from the rain. Under the bridge, were stalls selling parts of pig, other meat and fruit. I stopped at a shop, and was greeted by the giant smiles of a man and his wife, who sold me some biscuits and Pepsi to fuel me up the climb. Soon, the road became more remote and wound up a hillside, before passing through a series of tunnels, on a road cut into the side of the gorge. The views of the gorge from this elevated position were the best of the trip, overlooking the giant river. After clearing the tunnels, I reached a few more villages, where a lot of fruit was grown. Three different pickup trucks passed, with megaphones strapped to the roofs. The drivers shouted over and over again through the megaphones, advertising their produce. I imagine that they would sell to any of the houses on the roadside and that this is how most of the food shopping is done here.
A few switchbacks later, I was at the top of the side of the gorge. I reached a viewpoint, looking out over the gorge. I could see the road winding up to where I was now and from this elevated position, I could see for miles in both directions. It really was spectacular. Soon, the road moved away from the river and the gorge was out of view. The road levelled out and I was crossing a high plateau. There were giant, carved rocks for sale on the road side, positioned in rows, to make for a strange and slightly eerie sight. I think they were used for large signs, to display town names perhaps, or maybe by businesses, to position outside their buildings. The road climbed again to another small town and the top of the pass, from here it was all downhill. I whizzed down the road, more confident in my folding bike’s descending ability now. I saw a few groups of cycle tourists, all Chinese, heading in the opposite direction from me. About a mile down the climb, I came across a cyclist, who’d had a mechanical problem. His rear derailleur had snapped and was terminally broken. I fixed his bike, by shortening the chain to a length that he could use it on a medium ratio gear. The bike was single speed, but at least he could continue. He was immensely grateful and tried to give me all his food. I tried to refuse because I didn’t need it, but he was insistent. In China it is seen as rude to turn down a gift, so I took a bread roll, two oranges and an apple, and managed to persuade him to keep the rest of his food for himself.
After about an hour of descending, I was back on the riverbank. I passed a beautiful canyon, on a smaller side gorge then Yichang appeared on the horizon. Cycling into the city was an eye-opener. I saw the poorest people of my entire trip to China. They were living in run-down shacks and looked pretty desperate. Soon though, I reached the city proper and was cycling though a familiar sight that is a generic Chinese city. Most cities in China, look very similar, with the same high-rise buildings and wide streets. A ten mile ride along the river bank took me to Yichang East Train Station, and my tour was over.
It had been an incredible few days and two particular aspects of the ride had struck me. First, was that the Chinese people in this region had been so friendly, welcoming and generous, more so than on my two month long ride through the country two years ago. I wasn’t sure whether this was the area that I was in, or just plain good luck, but I was astounded by the welcome I had received. Here is a list of stuff I was given over the previous three days:
- A full army camoflague outfit
- Three oranges
- Two apples
- A bread roll
- Eight mini kiwis
- A bowl of peanuts
- Two large evening meals
- Six boiled eggs
- Two milk drinks
- Two bottles of mineral water
- A free room upgrade
The second thing that had amazed me is what is possible on a very basic bike. Valentino had been a triumph! I had cycled nearly 200 very mountainous miles in about three days of riding on a bike that cost me £15, is about 30 years old and is certainly not designed for this sort of trip. It had been great though and with a slightly lower gear ratio, would have been perfect. This shows that bike tours are accessible to everyone. A suitable bike can be purchased on Ebay for very little money. I didn’t have any special equipment with me, my bike was about as basic as they get, but I’d had a fantastic few days of cycling in wonderful scenery, met amazing people, and the whole trip cost less than £100.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my adventure. My next plans are another Ironman Triathlon, which includes a run up Ben Nevis, and a trip to the Indian Himalayas next Autumn. If you haven’t read it already, you can get a copy of my book about my round the world bike trip from the links on this page. I’m also currently booking speaking engagements, so drop me an email if you’re interested, details here. Thanks for reading,