We took a day to settle back in to China, enjoy Chinese food and the bustling streets of Erenhot. This is a city in Inner Mongolia an autonomous region in China, also called Ereen or Erlian, where Susanne had been before on her way to Ulaanbaatar.
There is not much to do in Erenhot even though we decided that a rest day was in its place. We used the extra day to do some shopping and getting a new China mobile SIM card as our old one from Urumqi was behaving strange.
On the way from Ulaanbaatar the front derailer cable had broken on Isaba, Susanne’s bicycle, and we had replaced it with our spare. This meant we were out of spare cables and our bikes have now done more than 20000km on these cables so we felt it would be nice to find a new spare cable in Erenhot. After walking around town and asking small bicycle shops if they would have a gear cable for Shimano Deore, it became apparent that most Chinese bicycles have a different Shimano system. As we were almost giving up we stumbled upon a Giant bicycle shop and they had the cables. See the map for location.
Cycling out of Erenhot was prehistoric as we passed maybe a hundred dinosaurs all just sculptures of course. There was a sign that cows could be crossing the road and Martin joked that it would have been fun to have a sign with a dinosaur 🙂 Well we have to keep ourselves amused on the bicycle.
We can actually divide the journey from Erenhot to Gubeikou in three fases. The first one being dry, windy with not so much diversity, the second being cold and snowy and the third being warm, lush and historic. We knew we still had a few hundred kilometers of desert and arid environment to cycle so we pushed on after leaving Erenhot. The wind has been whipping us from multiple directions but in general the cycling was not crazy tough.
On one of the first days during a lunchbreak two cars screeched to a halt after they had turned back because they saw us. Apparently this was an Inner Mongolian punk band with the name 9596. They gave us water, bracelets and even their CD. Was a nice and funny encounter at the side of the road and of course we made a photo with them.
Carrying on we still saw some very familiar scenes along the road: herders, horses, still even a few camels. But villages were slowly changing and we had a stronger feeling of China. The differences between provinces were also quite clear to us. Especially because after cycling out of Inner Mongolia into Hebei, we cycled back into Inner Mongolia again and back to Hebei once more. In Inner Mongolia the roads are of less quality than in Hebei and the quality can change in a second after leaving one province for the second. Quite amazing. We found some nice quiet roads which were either in the process of being upgraded (with roadworks) or were not maintained which made the going a little slower but in general not too bad and it was nice to have a low level of traffic. After doing two 100+ kilometers days Susanne said that today was not going to be such a long day. Not again 100+ kilometers (she was getting a bit tired). Martin said okay and at the end of the day we had done 99.5 kilometers when we set up camp. Great work! 🙂 (we had a lot of fun about this, oh the joys of bicycle touring, haha).
About halfway between Erenhot and Gubeikou we knew we had to cross a pass. We both had been dreaming about this pass, because we knew that afterwards there would be a great descent. The dreaming was even more about the weather situation though. Mongolia and also the Gobi desert in China has a lot of blue skies, so many many sun hours. But it was still cold and camping and getting up was still not that easy. Also we were becoming fed up with all the layers of clothing, numb fingers and numb toes. We were in need of spring and rather sooner than later. So we knew that when we would cross this pass it would all be better.
The previous afternoons we had had some clouds building up at the end of the day. Everyday we thought it would maybe rain or snow because of these clouds. But it never did. So on the day we were cycling up to this pass clouds were building up again. Earlier in the day we had taken a small road because it looked more interesting on the map. It was interesting but very bumpy off road track and Martins handlebar bag cable broke (which we had to fix twice, because the first fix didn’t hold). We were in good time which is why we had chosen the other road which was slower (the original road was on tarmac). The smaller road took up more time so we were a little bit late starting the ascent to the pass and thought we would sleep somewhere on the way instead of tackling it all today.
On the way up it was time to find a place to sleep. As said the clouds were assembling and it was getting colder but we were not worried because of earlier experiences the days before. We cycled slowly up and up. At 1600 meters we still hadn’t found a great place to sleep because there were many small villages and very open hillside and quite a bit of wind. Susanne said: “I just want to find a nice place to sleep, and especially I dont want it to start raining!”. The second she said that snow was starting to fall out of the sky. Oh no, what had she said now. It was still warm enough for the snow to melt so we didn’t think anything of it and rode down to the following village to ask if we could sleep somewhere. A farmer helped us out and we found a room which got a fast sweep and curtains were hung to add some privacy. There was no heating and temperatures were plummeting so we wrapped ourselves in blankets and made some food with our stove. We checked the temperature outside and by now it was freezing again but didn’t worry.
In the morning we opened the curtains and everything was white! The house where we were sleeping was a farm with sheep, cows, pigs and horses and all animals were scurrying around in the snow. Susanne was sad because she didn’t want to cycle in the snow anymore… But no choice so we head out on the street. The first kilometer or two were okay to cycle. The snow was crunchy and provided some grip. Then we came upon truck after truck who had been stuck all night. They were digging sand and throwing it in front of their wheels to get grip and continue on their way. I think in total we saw 40 to 50 trucks who had been stuck during the night and weren’t budging yet. Behind the trucks it was slippery and Martin slipped. Susanne wanted to walk, Martin was stubborn and so we had a short argument where Martin said it was okay to cycle and Susanne said it wasn’t. We had our normal tires so no snow tires anymore. Susanne was walking on the right side of a truck and could see Martin sliding on the left side. By the time we had both passed the truck we were both walking. We continued on and off the bicycle for the next 8 kilometers going very slow until the top of the pass. We continued down the pass walking, just way too slippery. After another 2 km there was a small car randomly throwing salt all over the road which was not very effective. After about 5 kilometers the road was becoming more clear. It was still around -4 and snowing so we put on our goggles and continued the downhill until a truckstop where we could warm up and eat an early lunch.
Descending down we finally did find spring and a bit warmer weather! We camped in a small track off the main road and up on sort of hiking trail. We were amid a birch forrest and especially waking up in the morning was beautiful with a very nice golden sunrise and the sun radiating off the forrest around us. We knew this was the day we could see the Great Wall and were very excited to go and spot it. We descended even more, had a small uphill which was made easy by a tunnel going through a mountain and took a left turn off the main road we were following on to a smaller road X015 (recommended!). All of a sudden it was quiet again and we were cycling through traditional old Chinese villages, stopping for lunch in a small restaurant and following regretfully dry rivers. Many of the rivers in this area have been dry, not sure if they will fill with water later in the season, but is seems agriculture and dams have influenced the natural flow of water very strongly.
We had points on the GPS where we could see the Great Wall and suddenly we saw our first watch tower and then our first section of wall. These were all non restored and thus not directly apparent. Merging in within the agricultural fields. But the further we came the more watchtowers we saw and the more segments of actual wall. Very excited to cycle in between so many years of history and the work that it has been to build up these wall and watchtowers. With a slight detour we made it to Gubeikou where we wanted to walk the Great Wall to Jinshanling. Also we would station our biked here while we would make a sidetrip to Beijing. In the next blogs more about the Great Wall and Beijing!