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Gers in front of Genghis Khan Monument

Gers in front of Genghis Khan Monument

So, it has been about a year and a half since I returned from Mongolia/China and the amazing trip is starting to fade into memory… So before it all gets too hazy, I thought I would share a few thoughts and give a quick update on what I have been doing since then.

The three most common questions people ask about my trip are; what was the food like, what was your favourite part and where will you go next?

Firstly, the food in Mongolia was great (with one or two notable exceptions…) but anything tastes good after riding around on a bike for a few hours.  To be honest, though, I do have the occasional urge for some khuushuur or a nice horse-meat fry-up.

Tastier than it looks...

Horse, pasta and peas, delicious!

To pick a favourite part of the trip is really difficult because there where so many ups and downs, but in hindsight, I think the week that I spent on the northern edge of the Gobi Desert was probably my favourite time.  Although it was very tough and some times monotonous, it came at a time in the trip when I was really getting it all together – camping, riding, logistics – and just getting comfortable with myself.  It was also most like how I had envisioned my trip to be, just me on my own on a little dirt track in the middle of nowhere.

Into the hills....

Into the hills….

A monument on the way to Ikh Gazryn Chuluu

A monument on the way to Ikh Gazryn Chuluu

Where will I go next? That is a good question! There are so many places in the world I want to see and I want to see them all by bike. For a while, I toyed with the idea of riding Melbourne to Perth but those plans have since been put on the shelf due to other (cycling) commitments.  At this stage, I have no major overseas trips in the pipeline, but I have a feeling any future trip will somehow involve Central Asia and perhaps the Middle East or Turkey.

People seem to think that trips like mine will change you as a person. I am not so sure about that, but I do know that I gained a lot of confidence, especially in my ability to handle unfamiliar situations.  I am more willing to try new things or put myself into unknown social situation without being scared off by the thought of being awkward or out of place.  Which is not to say that I am less awkward or out of place, just that I am less bothered by it…

But the most important thing that I took away from my trip was a rekindled love for cycling. Before the trip, cycling was just an interest and a hobby, now it is a passion bordering on obsession.  I returned from overseas much fitter than when I had left and it felt a shame to let it go to waste, so I started looking around for some other challenge to occupy me.  I entered and completed the 100km edition of Around the Bay then signed up for the far more difficult 3 Peaks Challenge.  Completing this event turned out to be another watershed moment in my cycling, it was humbling because of how badly I suffered but it made me realise that most things are possible with enough planning and preparation.  And that I love climbing hills!

After 3 Peaks, I was facing the spectre of a winter slump with its accompanying loss of fitness, but luckily I discovered Audax Australia and the joys of long distance cycling.  Audax events are  volunteer-run, non-competitive rides over distances ranging from under 50km right up to 1200km. I have found this kind of riding strangely addictive and I just love the atmosphere at Audax events; sure, long-distance cycling tends to attract some of the more ‘interesting’ crowd but everyone I have come across has been very friendly and supportive, even to a young upstart like myself.  And if you ever want a good feed, just turn up to a supported Audax ride, they put all other cycling events to shame with the food that they offer!

  Over the course of 2012, I completed a number of 100km, 200km, 300km, 400km and 600km rides finishing the season with the 1200km Great Southern Randonnee, an event I was lucky enough to be asked to write a guest post for on The Climbing Cyclist.  Since the GSR, I have been riding quite a lot with a local group called Hells 500, which goes out and tackles all the major climbs in Victoria and is involved in some other great events (most involving serious climbing).  As well as some epic rides, riding with this group has been a great introduction into the local cycling community and a chance to meet some like-minded (ie crazy) cyclists.

The Hells 500 gang at Lake Mountain. Photo: Pulse Photography

The Hells 500 gang at Lake Mountain. Photo: Pulse Photography

But this brings me to my main point – shameless self-promotion… After the upcoming 2013 3 Peaks Challenge, I will start gearing up for my biggest cycling challenge yet, the Delirium 24hr Road Race in Western Australia.  This will be a non-stop ride where riders will race to complete the most laps around the fast 3.7km course in 24 hours. The organisers are encouraging all competitors to raise funds for the Lung Institute of Western Australia and are offering some nifty prizes for riders who reach certain fundraising milestones.  So, if you like, you can go to my EveryDay Hero page, have a read and maybe slip me a couple of bucks…?

If you want to follow my progress in 3 Peaks, my training or Delirium itself, you can check out my Strava account.

It’s scary to think that in about 10 days I will be back at work like I had never been on a holiday.  I visited the Science and Technology Museum which was very interesting, especially the animal/natural history sections, although the Australian section had some disappointingly diminutive stuffed kangaroos.  The other exhibits were pretty good with good English captions and even the architecture of the building was impressive.

The African Exhibit at the Science and Technology Museum

From there I went to the Shanghai Ocean Aquarium, located in the Pudong area, a section of the city filled with impressive modern skyscrapers that contrast with the neo-classical colonial building on the opposite side of the river.  The aquarium was very enjoyable, well set-out and had some great exhibits; it would have been a nice place to spend a few hours if it wasnt for the hundreds of people banging on the glass, which just drives me insane.  To get back across the river I took the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel which entails a ride in a small cable car under the river as you are subjected to a fairly crappy, mildly seizure-inducing  light-display.

The little-known marine kangaroo in the Australian exhibit at the Aquarium
Cool jellyfish display at the Aquarium

The following day, I took it fairly easy, avoiding the weekend tourist crush, only visiting the Bibliotheca Zi-Ka Wei, an old Jesuit library that has been preserved and is still used as a functional library.  The tour goes through the sections containing the old books and manuscripts.  As a bit of a bibliophile, I really enjoyed the short tour; you could really smell the history (assuming history smells like old leather, paper dust and mildew).

Since I missed out on the Beijing Zoo, I made sure I made it to the Shanghai Zoo.  I was pleasantly surprised by how nice it was; most of the enclosures looked fairly habitable, except for the ‘Pets World’ section which appeared to simply be the Shanghai animal pound and was slightly distressing.  The worst thing about the zoo was the people; people feeding crap to the animals, banging on the cages, yelling at the animals – I even saw one guy poke a crocodile with his umbrella, it was all I could do to stop myself from tipping him into the crocodile pool and poking him with an umbrella. And the poor pandas, it’s no wonder they don’t breed – it’s probably difficult to get in the mood when you have three thousand idiots bashing on your window everyday.  By the end of the day, I was half hoping for the animals to stage a mass-breakout and maul some people.

Lazy pandas
It’s a hard life as a chimp

The next day I went across the river to the Pudong area and went to the observation deck of the Shanghai World Financial Centre.  It is the world’s third highest building and its highest observation deck.  Despite my pathetic fear of heights, I actually enjoyed the experience and the weather was actually clear enough to see some of the city.  It was expensive, however, with very tight security.  I often wonder about the people who work in buildings like this, right up the top of some super-tall building.

Pudong skyline, Shanghai Financial Centre on the right

On my last couple of days in China I just visited a few of the smaller tourist sites around Shanghai.  I went to the Bund Historical Museum which gives a brief overview of the history of Shanghai during colonial times, before taking a walk right along the Bund.  I really like the contrast of the two sides of the river, with Pudong and its tastefully modern steel-and-glass skyscrapers on one shore and the equally tasteful neo-classical banks and hotels on the opposite shore.  Later in the day I dodged the used syringes on the streets and went to a few art galleries in a district opposite the main train station.  It was nice to see some art that wasnt blatant Party propaganda.

My final day in Shanghai consisted of a failed attempt at shoe shopping (who would have thought it would be so hard to find size 13 shoes in China…?) before heading out to the airport.  The taxi ride was strangely reminiscent of playing Grand Theft Auto III, only less fun and more terrifying.  After the usual airport shenanigans, I got on the plane and almost 11hrs later arrived in Melbourne, thereby ending my holiday 90 days after it began.

My first day in Shanghai was a busy one; I first had a look around the Peoples Square before going to the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art that was featuring a great exhibition on the history of Pixar animation.  A lot of the work that goes into these films is art in its own right, some of the story boards, sculptures and sketches are just brilliant.

After that I went to the distinctively-shaped Shanghai Museum for another dose of bronzeworks, ceramics, traditional paintings and calligraphy.  It also had a Maori exhibition on loan from New Zealand and a very interesting coin collection.

From there I went to the disappointing Shanghai At Museum which is full of paintings of either happy communist peasants or grim communist soldiers heading off to kill the Japanese.  Essentially all the paintings were like that, all in a similar style and no original artwork to be seen.  I ended the day with a visit to the overpriced Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum to watch people grope their favourite movie stars.

I am finding Shanghai to be fairly different to Beijing.  Maybe it is just the area that I am staying in, but Shanghai definitely feels more modern and more business-like.  It is also hotter and even more humid and I am beginning to look forward to being somewhere that isn’t 90% humidity all the time.

There is no shortage of tourist attractions – or tourists – in Beijing.  Recently, I visited the Jingshan Park, a large well-maintained garden to the north of the Forbidden City.  It has a nice hilltop temple that offers some great views of the surrounding area.  The park also has a butterfly enclosure but that was a bit dissapointing as all it contained were two species of butterfly and countless children catching and killing said butterflies.

Some unmurdered butterflies
Temple and gardens in Jingshan Park

The Forbidden City is a huge complex of temples, pavillions and palaces that housed generations of emperors.  It is very impressive and had plenty of good museum displays although, like most tourist attraction in Beijing, it closes fairly early.

Forbidden City
The rooftops and terraces of the Forbidden City

The following day, I went to the Workers Cultural Palace which, other than its size, is nothing special.  From there I went to Tienanmen Square, which was a strange experience; it is nominally a public space but security is extremely tight in and around the Square.  Like the metro stations and museums, you have to go through security scanners just like at the airport before you can enter the Square.

Workers Cultural Palace
Tienanmen Square
Tienanmen Square

Facing Tienanmen Square is the China National Museum, full of the usual assortment of ancient bronzework and ceramics but also had some interesting temporary exhibitions on loan from around the world.  The ‘Ancient China’ exhibition was an interesting insight into Chinese history from the Neolithic Age to the 19th century, the ‘Road to Recovery’ display, however, was some pretty blatant Party propaganda. In regards to propoganda, the Beijing Exhibition Centre just drips of it; a whole building dedicated to telling you how great Beijing is and how amazing it will be in the future, once they have finished knocking down all the old buildings…

The grand entrance to the National Museum

Despite the builders best efforts, Beijing is still dotted with a number of ancient sites, including the Ancient Observatory and the Ming City Walls.  The Ancient Observatory was very interesting with some good displays relating to the history of astrology and some of the instruments used.  The Ming City Walls is not overly impressive – the poor man’s Great Wall – but did have a cool little art gallery tucked away in a tower.

Astrological instuments in the gardens around the Ancient Observatory

Just to the south of the Ming City Walls is the Temple of Heaven Park, a huge enclosure with a temple complex, a palace, endless gardens and a number of yokels who think it is okay to take sneaky photos of red-headed, bearded foreigners…  Yes, that’s right, the paparazzi are still hassling me even though I am no longer on the bike and am just another tourist in Beijing – at least once a day some tries to take my picture with varying degrees of stealth.  I often wonder how long I would last if I wandered around tourist attractions in Melbourne taking photos of Chinese people…?

Temple of Heaven
The gardens in the Temple of Heaven Park

After buying my train ticket to Shanghai, I visited the Olympic Park to see the Birds Nest Stadium and the Water Cube.  Both are larger than I expected but it was a dreary day so I didn’t hang around too long.

The Birds Nest Stadium

The morning of my departure to Shanghai, I went to the Museum of Natural History which was disappointing; other than a decent dinosaur display it was fairly run-down and shabby.

The high speed trains between Beijing and Shanghai are, unsurprisingly, very fast – averaging about 306km/h and peaking at 312km/h – and got me to Shanghai in about 6 hours.  They are also very comfortable, just like an airplane but with more leg room.  I wish, however, that I had taken a train during the day instead of an evening train so I could have seen some more of the countryside.  I arrived in Shanghai at about 11pm and took a taxi to the Le Tour Backpackers which seems very nice, nicer in fact than my hotel room in Beijing.

Today, after moving from the hostel to a nearby hotel, I rode out to the Bookworm Cafe, for a nice coffee, some lunch and a good read.  I locked my bike up in the bike rack just outside the front door, in plain view of a security guard not 20m away.  After about an hour, I came out and lo-and-behold my bike was gone, stolen!  As it turns out, that particular spot is a bike theft hotspot – I talked to two other people who previously had their bikes stolen from the exact same bike rack.

I had to go to the nearby police station to make a statement (they seemed a little doubtful when I explained how much the bike cost as bikes are so cheap in China) then walked an hour in the rain back to the hotel.  I was a little disappointed to lose the bike that had carried me so far but I was more concerned about the expensive gear that was outfitted on the bike; the helmet, pump, lights and especially my good clipless mountain bike pedals.

In one respect, however, it is not all bad.  Except for the loss of my equipment and the hassle of dealing with police and travel insurance, this actually makes things a little easier because now I am freed from the expense and effort of getting the bike home to Australia. The silver lining again… sort of…  Hopefully, my travel insurance will help to recoup some of the losses.

The Great Wall of China

I walked the Great Wall today, on a tour organised by the hostel.  The Wall is extremely formidable, crossing some very hilly terrain and the hike was breathtaking – in both senses of the word.  It certainly isn’t for the faint-hearted as the Wall is very steep and rough in places, making it a fairly challenging hike, especially in the damp heat.  I was glad to be fairly fit from all the riding but the walk was still pretty rough on my poor, sore knees.

At the start of the walk

The views were amazing but marred by the all-pervasive smog (it’s not beautiful, cool mountain mist you see, but horrible, grimy city smog).

The Wall snaking over the ridges
The steep climb

The Wall was built to keep out nomad raiders, but looking at the terrain I couldn’t imagine a large cavalry troop making much headway through the heavily forested hills and valleys.  Given how much money and man-power it must have taken to build and man, it seems to me to be a hugely expensive, albeit impressive, monument to paranoia especially since it ultimately proved ineffective (the Mongols just rode around it to conquer China).  In any case, it was an amazing experience to walk on the Great Wall of China.

After the walk on the Wall

It is hard to believe that not so long ago I was camping on the fringes of the Gobi desert and now I am in one of the most populous cities in the world.  The neighbourhood that I am in is fairly touristy and a bit funky with a good bar/cafe scene.

On my first full day in Beijing, I visited the Lama Temple and the Confucius Temple.  Both were a little overcrowded for my taste but are good examples of traditional Chinese Buddhist temples.  I always feel uncomfortable playing the tourist in working religious sites so I was a bit awkward wandering around with my camera while other people were burning incense and praying at the shrines.

Lama Temple
Guardian lion at the Lama Temple
The Confucius Temple

Later that day, I stopped at the Bookworm Cafe which is an amazing place; several rooms just wall-to-wall books and serving good coffee – essentially my idea of heaven.

The following day I rode out to the Beijing Zoo but because it was a weekend and Chinese Valentines Day, it was packed.  There were so many people that I could hardly approach the ticket office, so I jumped back on my bike and rode away in defeat.

Because I thought I didn’t have very far to go, I left Jining fairly late and, of course, promptly got lost.  The GPS led me astray again and had me searching for a road about 20km north of where it was actually located.  This led to a ride through the Chinese countryside that would have been nice except for the fact that I needed to be in the next town by nightfall.  I eventually found the right road at about 4:00pm, after some extensive backtracking, and had to really push along the hilly road into Xinghe.  I got into town just on dark but, luckily, there was an amazing hotel just on the edge of town.  The next morning, I got up early to explore the beautiful park behind the hotel before hitting the road to battle with the coal trucks through the hills on the road to Zhangjiakhou, a nice city on a river.

The park behind my hotel in Xinghe
The bumper-to-bumper coal trucks

A combination of coal dust, dirt and sweat left me looking like a chimney sweep and explained why people were giving me especially strange looks all day.  This trip has probably taken years off my life what with all the sunburn (ie future skin cancer), smog inhalation and ruinous treatment of my knees.  Dinner that night consisted of small fish, spiced and battered, eaten whole – head, eyes, guts and bones – which was surprisingly tasty.

Me, realising why the hotel staff looked scared…

After performing the daily trailer-loading routine for the crowd of onlookers, I left Zhangjiakou aiming for Yanqing.  I got lost going through Xauhau, wasting time and energy, before rolling into Yanging well after dark, 129km later.  The smog and dust had been so bad all day that I couldn’t enjoy the scenery which I suspect was actually rather nice.  It does explain why so many Chinese people smoke; with all the dust, soot and smog, the air is probably cleaner after it has been filtered through a cigarette…

Smoggy scenery

Sometimes I felt a bit bad for pushing through China so quickly, that maybe I was missing out.  I often arrived in town fairly late and by the time I had showered, eaten and resupplied, it was dark.  I normally tried to have a bit of an explore the next morning but that meant that I left town late then got into the next town late that evening – a vicious circle, really.  But, to be fair, camping was largely out of the question, so I was sort of obliged to go from town to town and I figured that I had slept rough in Mongolia enough to warrant staying in decent hotels in China.  I also made sure I ate lunch at small roadside places and didn’t have dinner at the hotel resturaunt, just so I could say I was ‘experiencing the real China’!

I left Yanqing nice and early to do the final 77km into Beijing.  I was still fairly tired from the previous long day but, luckily, it was almost all downhill into Beijing.  In fact, it was a very steep descent into a mountain valley dodging cars and begging coal trucks not to kill me.  Once out of the valley, there was about 10km of road lined with people wielding pressure-washers to clean the coal trucks before they approach the city, so I got my bike washed.  It was good to finally get all the Gobi mud off my bike after carrying it about 600km and across an international border.

Down the mountain to Beijing
Looking back up the hill

Finding my way through Beijing was surprisingly easy; it is very bike-friendly, well laid-out and well signed.  I booked into the Beijing Downtown Backpackers Accommodation, a friendly place located in one of the historic lanes of the city.

I am glad to have just to have made it to Beijing after over 2600km. I am also a little sad to see the end of the riding but I am about ready to give up the nomadic life and to become a sedentary Beijing tourist for a while.

I got out of Erenhot easily and headed towards Sonid Youqi, the road was amazing, it was hard to imagine that only a few days previously I had been wading through Gobi mud and sand.  The way out of town was dotted with dinosaur statues, most notable of which are the ‘Kissing Dinosaurs’ that span the road.  If you look closely, you can see that they should probably be called the ‘French Kissing Dinosaurs’ – a bit lewd for straight-laced China!

French Kissing Dinosaurs

Less frisky dinosaurs

I wasn’t too keen to be riding – I was tired and culture-shocked – and I kind of just wanted to catch the train to Beijing but I talked myself into riding the 3-4 days to Jining and making a decision there.  Despite a side/head wind and the fear of the bike falling apart, I managed 123km (my longest day yet), thanks to the excellent road.  The town of Sonid Youqi was nice and I got a beautiful hotel room for a surprisingly cheap price.

Giant bull and cartwheels outside Sonid Youqi

The following day was hillier and hotter on the road to the small town of Tomortei (at least I think that is where I was…) but I was blessed with a decent tail wind.  I spent the night at a defunct guesthouse, camping between the long-drop toilet and the compost heap.  A Korean couple on bike also happened to be camping in the same yard which was a happy coincidence.

My biggest problem for the last few days has been the sun; I had run out of my good Australian sunsceen and was onto some Korean suff I had picked up in UB.  Sunscreen designed to keep melanin-replete Asian girls from getting a little darker is no good for protecting melanin-deficient white boys from frying in the hot Asian sun.  It looked and felt as if I had been riding under a grill all day.

The Korean couple were fairly experienced bike trekkers and they really showed me how it is done; they broke camp in about 15min and were on the road while I was still blinking blearily and drinking my (awful) coffee.  My only consolation was that I passed them about 10km down the road, moving about twice as fast as they were.

I decided that I like riding in China with its good roads and frequent towns but I hate trying to find accommodation because it’s not very English-friendly and hotels can be hard to spot from the bike.

Heading to Jining, my target for the day, I got a large nail straight through my rear tire and attracted a large crowd changing the tube.  In fact, that is one of the things that I dislike the most about China; drawing a crowd.  People will stop to watch me change a tire, or load the trailer, they will go into stores and homes to call their friends out to watch too.  One day I had half a dozen people watch me eat an ice cream.  Another problem is people taking pictures of me without my permission, usually as I am riding.  A number of times I sensed a car hovering just beside me and when I look across I realise some idiot is hanging out a car window with his camera phone.  One guy followed me for about 5km, passing and stopping, trying to get some photos.

The punctures and paparazzi notwithstanding, I made it into the bustling little metropolis of Jining on the third day after leaving Erenhot and decided that I would attempt to push on to Beijing.

Guess what grows wild in some places in China and Mongolia?

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