6th March 2018

Chengdu, Sichuan.

Tell Us A Story

I saw a map on the wall of a bar, a map of the world. China as most countries do puts itself at the centre of the map. The world certainly does look a little different seen from this ‘Middle kingdom’. But its not just the map that makes me feel in the middle of it all. Very quickly China is all around you.

So where should I start the story of this first 1000km cycled in China? Perhaps geography? It’s the most apparent after all: minute by minute my thighs report back on the topography!

From Kunming up into the hills of Yunnan, down through a long gorge with steep sides and nestled valleys, shimmying alongside a strengthening river, through the sheer gateway, only slightly ajar, of the gorge end and then through ever widening and ever flattening valleys to join the upper reaches of the Yangtze.

From there out onto the mountain circled plains of Sichuan another river referencing name, like the Punjab or Mesopotamia, across the rolling plains and over a final unexpected curtain wall of hills to Chengdu sprawling behind.

Tibet lies not far to the west. India seems far away. The coast too feels far to the east. Myanmar just a short mountainous hop away when I set out now feels a long way south. Xi’an that seemingly central Chinese city, and ancient capital of Zhongguo, China, the Middle Kingdom is only 1000km further north and with it the start of what I presume are the increasingly arid lands of western China and the old silk routes.

But merely cartographic this doesn’t really paint a picture, right? Let me tell you about the scenery: in the lowlands, arch and plastic sheet ‘greenhouses’ stretch for acres around. But the hills quickly shroud themselves in a sub-Tibetan scrubby orange, and the winds pick up as the temperature drifts downwards – down-jacket time! Cabbage strips, patches of winter greens and bare churned potato fields each in their allotted place shelter on the thin valley floors.

Then, on the stream sides, blossoming trees – apple, peach or cherry? – add the dash of frivolous colour that makes the whole scene seem less harsh, more idyllic, a little Zen even. A spring is arriving that I missed last year in India’s tropical south. And tea bushes are cultivated here and further south – tea’s native home and not too far from Darjeeling at a similar altitude just over the Himalayas.

Finally, with Sichuan’s open space, small but ubiquitous rapeseed fields, leave bright yellow streaks on the rolling hills amid the same winter veg that makes it into every noodle soup along the way.

So it’s rural, we get the picture but tell us ‘the China story’. You mean infrastructure? The building boom of smooth highways on high concrete pillars that crisscross their way over the valleys and through (sometimes not) brightly lit newly blasted tunnels? The roads, so effortless! Even going into urban areas, 5 lanes and a cycle track in each direction shuttle you into the centre of cities small, medium and large.

Or the power stations: Chimneys and a jet of flames in the background as I bought a spice covered jacket potato and some lychees from the market; dams of various sizes and stages of completion; a hillside covered in solar panels; and the surprisingly huge turbine blades stacked by the road, their mounted brethren turning in the strong winds.

There was the town I cycled through with hoarding, you know the kind, showing the pristine idyllic new street of modern shops and apartments. Turning my head, on the other side of the road there it was, a perfect mirror image made real in bricks and mortar (or rather concrete and tile grout). So perfect in fact it even reproduced the slight fakeness of the computer generated image.

There are other experiments too – a nearly finished traditional Chinese style building neighbourhood, a Disneyland-esque neo-baroque street in one city, and a park, pond and pagoda with an artificial beech and caged songbirds in the trees.

Yes but what about the flip side? The abandoned factory and faded concrete storefronts, hardly old, roller shutters down, ready I am sure for demolition and more photographic hoarding. Or the incomplete towers in identikit satellite-from-scratch settlements; and ghostly towns – life only visible in the germ of an existing village at one end.  Uninhabited, for now, but whether deserted, unwanted, or awaited makes all the difference in the world!

Is nothing old? Well there is the picturesque but now mostly untilled terracing of the steep valley sides from who knows how many generations ago. There are several steel rope suspended foot bridge just like in Nepal – the kind where you can see through the slats to the rushing slightly litter strewn river below -but a short distance further on always a concrete road bridge.

Getting towards the plains and civilisation there is the railway line with a slightly old-school tunnel and sured-up cutting feel, chunky locomotives hauling bulk carriages.

On the Sichuan plains, between the cities, The stone arched bridges crossing village streams have a slight rural England feel next to the novelty of the brick houses of Sichuan. Even Chengdu, sprawling but surprisingly low rise feels a little more mature.

Perhaps this oldness, seemingly paradoxically, hints at an earlier and longer affluence compared to the shiny newness in the hills? Because Yunnan was a relative latecomer, a somewhat peripheral, ethnically diverse and relatively backward part of China. In the hills, you still see bullock driven ploughs, and pony carts, wandering goats and goatherd, old men hoeing the heavy earth, winter greens being wilted on the roadside and rice drying in the sun – but it doesn’t feel like India.

The scene is set – but where are the characters?