In 2008 I spent 5 months skateboarding almost 5,500km across China. I have mixed memories of that trip. Memories of pure joy and memories of pure torment. But the one indifferent constant of that trip was China National Highway 312. This trans-China highway was my home for that 5 months. I did some detours every now and then. But I always came back to her.
On the China National Highway 312 in June 2008…3,333km away from Shanghai
Recently, I had the opportunity to travel back to China. It was for an Asia New Zealand Foundation Leaders Network conference, to be held in Xian in central-ish China. I skated through Xian in 2008, so quite apart from being excited to be in Xian for the conference, I was secretly extremely excited to be seeing my old friend Highway 312 again.
So I hatched a plan. I would take my folding bike with me to Xian a few days before the conference, take a bus to around 150km south-east of Xian, and cycle back in time for the conference. I would spend some time with my old friend Highway 312.
I flew to Xian from New Chitose Airport in Hokkaido Japan. This required a connection in Tokyo and Beijing. Lucky for me, Air China allows bicycles as checked-in luggage free of charge, so long as they are within the weight limit (23kg). Accordingly, I just packed my Tern Verge S27h folding bike in Tern’s Stowbag 2.0 and checked it in, hoping for the best.
The bike arrived none-the-worse, and in no time I had caught a bus from Xian airport to central Xian, and then the last bus to Shanglou for the day at 8:40pm. I finally arrived in Shanglou (map) at around 10pm on the 18th of August. The helpful university student I was sitting next to on the bus helped me find a hotel (US$8 a night), and I was finally in bed at around 11pm.
The next morning I was packed and ready to leave by 6am. The hotel staff gushed over my bravery for attempting to tackle the great feat of cycling 150km to Xian. “You are very brave!” one called as I cycled away.
Breakfast in Shanglou that morning consisted of what I remembered eating often while in eastern China previously: spicy dumplings and a few bowls full of rice porridge/gruel. Today, I gobbled it down with glee. Which was a little surprising, because when I skated across China in 2008, my body was inexplicably shutting down on me quite regularly, making most meals quite the chore… Today, however, I was feeling strong, and made good time out of Shanglou towards Xian, stopping only to pick up some fruit at a local market.
Not long out of Shanglou, I realised that I’d never actually traveled this part of Highway 312; previously in 2008, I had skateboarded from Xian past Shanglou on the G70 expressway, which was under construction at the time. Going back and trying to cycle on the G70 was out of the question, however, so I just continued on along the 312.
Probably due to the presence of the G70 super-expressway just one valley over to the west, the 312 had hardly any traffic. Perhaps one or two taxis and private vehicles every 30 mins or so. Perfect for cycling.
The wide even gradient soon became monotonous, however, and I jumped at the chance at a detour up a short, sharp valley. The alternate route was well signposted, and it looked like there had been some effort in trying to make the area somewhat of a tourist attraction: “tree-lined avenues,” “cool roadside lakes…” It was definitely much more pleasant than the main road.
The previous night I had left my smartphone on the bus from Xian to Shanglou. I checked with the bus station the following morning if the phone had been handed in, but to no avail. The most immediate pressing issue that this predicament presented me with, was not so much that I no longer had access to the maps I had downloaded to the phone, but I no longer had any way of telling the time. So at some stage in the morning (it was 9:30am, I would later find out) I decided that my stomach was telling me that it was lunch time. So, listening to my “stomach clock” as the Japanese call it, I stopped in at what looked like a kitchen of some sort.
I approached a group of men sitting outside, eating some sort of soup with what looked like dumplings in it. I asked if I could order some food (I actually said “do you have food?” which was quite obvious they did, but it’s the only way I know how to communicate that I want to eat something in Chinese). They looked a little confused, but quickly offered to give me a bowl of the soup they were eating. I was sort of confused also, since I thought they were customers at the kitchen. But I just went with it, and said yes.
One of them pulled a plastic chair up to the plastic table, sat me in it, and in front of me was placed an enormous bowl of scalding hot soup. Into my hand was thrust a withered cob of corn, possibly cooked a few days ago. A rotund man of around 50 years of age waddled out of a door opposite the kitchen and sat down at the same outside table I was sitting at. A couple of the men present scurried into the kitchen and brought him a similarly scalding bowl of soup and grimy piece of corn on the cob.
He happily bit into the corn, and proceeded to slurp up the piping hot soup at a pace quite unreasonable for anyone with fully functional pain receptors in their mouth.
I opted to let the soup cool a little while I chewed at the tasteless corn.
It took me around 20 minutes and several rounds of stinted but jovial conversation to get through the soup. It was quite delicious, with large chunks of potato and floury dumplings, with what I suspect was a generous inclusion of pork lard. By around minute 18 of my stay, I had finally deduced that the men present were not in fact customers. They were staff in the (or perhaps ‘a’?) restaurant. The rotund soup-skuller was the father of two of them.
If I was still a little hazy as to the situation I had found myself in, they seemed quite sure of the situation they were in: their first ever foreign guest in the history of the kitchen. As such, I spent approximately 15 minutes of those 20 with at least one smartphone camera pointed at me, either for a photo or video.
The meal was finished off with a photo with the lads…
And a firm refusal of any any form of payment for the meal. This is China.
I bade my farewells, and carried on up the valley to rejoin with Highway 312. This consisted of 1st-gear mash-the-pedals climbing up an impossibly steep pass, but allowed for some great panoramic views over the terrain.
Back on Highway 312, I felt like I was back in the grind of main-road cycle touring: on the main physically easy, but mentally draining. By what felt like lunchtime (or, more precisely, a second-lunchtime), I had made it to what I had intended to be my destination for the night, a small town called Lanqiaozhen (map). 60km before lunch…this felt like a very solid effort. But unfortunately there appeared to be no hotels or inns in the town (I wasn’t carrying a tent), so I decided to just have some lunch and push on to the next larger town, Lantian (map), another 30km or so away, downhill.
It was at lunch that I remembered that I had always struggled with noodles in China. Thick, stodgy, and flavours so intense (salt, red peppers, garlic) that finishing a bowl of them would always be somewhat of a herculean accomplishment. Today was no exception. I put my foot down and completed the whole bowl though, since I knew I’d need the energy.
Suitably powered up for the remaining downhill to Lantian, I mentally prepared myself for another few hours of monotonous Highway 312.
How wrong I was.
The next two hours had my jaw hanging low in amazement as China dished out exactly what keeps me enticed by this country: unexpected and enthralling natural beauty.
Photos hardly do justice to the hanging bare rock faces that greeted me at each turn on this super fast, almost traffic-free descent on a perfect surface. China really has a shock-and-awe value that is worth spending time in the country for…on a bike.
The beautiful rocky gorge (the Qing River gorge, according to a helpful Reddit commenter) spat me out onto the vast, hazy Xian plains. From there it was a hair-raising sprint into central Lantian.
I stayed one night in Lantian before doing the final dash into sprawling central Xian, a city of over 8 million people. Even if I was on the same road as I had taken 8 years ago, I very much doubt I would have recognized it…that place it colossal. Lunch on my way into the city was an old favourite of mine: ‘tree ears’ and chicken…now this is something I can eat truckloads of.
I eventually arrived at my accommodation for the night at around 2pm in the afternoon: the Sofitel Xian On Renmin Square. For the unacquainted: this place is four-star amazingness. Easily in excess of US$100 a night, which in China is uber-high-class. Luckily for me the conference was the next day, so this night was part of the conference package.
I nonchalantly cycled through the main gates and towards the entrance to the hotel. A security guard rushed towards me, and ordered me to stop. His demeanor clearly said “you’ve got the wrong address.” I suppose I couldn’t blame him. I was dusty and sweaty, and my bike was splattered with mud. It was close to 40 degrees outside, and no, no self-respecting guest of this hotel would subject themselves to such physical torment as to cycle in this heat.
I told him I had a reservation, and he relented enough to allow me to walk my bicycle to the front entrance. A gaggle of bellboys had congregated, fussing over what to do with this creature who clearly had bags of some description, but they were attached to a dirty bike.
I was most definitely not a case study they’d been briefed on in their training.
Eventually I was allowed to wheel my bike into the lobby, and my bike was ushered into the back luggage storage area. I grabbed my panniers, thanked the bellboys for their help, checked in, headed up to my room, and promptly went to sleep.
The rest of my stay in Xian, a short three days, went quickly, and before long I was back on a plane out of the country, bike folded up in it’s bag.
Highway 312, it was nice spending time with you…I hope to be back another time soon.