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03 July 2011

Shiver me Limbs!

The end of June, 2011.

I meet Phil in the early morning hours after buying some fruit and fried breads. We cruise through the already bustling streets en route to our bus, which will take us up to 三关口 (Sanguankou) our climbing destination for the morning. We arrive at our stop, and entertain a number of taxi drivers and pedestrians by our mere presence. They quickly endeavor to assess our equipment, its integrity, and how much it cost us. Hands begin passing over bike frames, checking the suitability of the padded seat, honking horns and ringing bells, gauging the value of each item as if they were preparing to auction it off in a few minutes time. Several men cycle through to lift and assess the weight of each (conveniently undertaken after we’ve already taken off our panniers). 不太重 (bu tai zhong), “not too heavy” is the verdict.
Phil and I prep the bikes to go under the bus, which he informs me may not happen at all if the driver is feeling particularly prickly that morning. Seats down, wheels off, bags off; all amidst the constant banter and questioning of our audience. They want to know where we’re going, what we’re doing, what everything cost, if we’re married. We try to keep track of our dismantled components in the crowd, all the while trying to put back a 包子 (baozi) or two, steamed buns with a variety of filling. This morning I went with the 韭菜 (jiu cai) a garlicy oniony vegetable that’s quite tasty.

My buddy Richard and my bikes on the road.
The bus screams up and the ticket lady ambles off  to appraise the situation. Phil and I quickly dive under the bus, rearranging all the luggage to suit our needs. Ticket lady laughs as I sprawl prone in the belly of the beast, shuffling this bag there and that sack there. Soon we establish a sizable alcove and stack our bikes underneath. We leave our peanut gallery on the sidewalk to harangue the next passing 外国人 (waiguoren), foreigner, that passes by, of which there are few in the city of 1.5 million.

On the road, we settle sleepily into our seats, passing idle chat and the remaining 包子 between our teeth and along our tongues. Phil regales me with harrowing adventure tales of gnarly whitewater and flipped kayaks in the Alps, round-the-world airport scrambles, and a Guatemalan bus station that defines the word chaos. I enjoy the tales as the 贺兰山 (helan shan), Helan mountains, climb into sight, capped in cloud.

The 西夏王陵 (xixia wangling), Xixia tombs, one of the area’s biggest tourist attractions pass into view on the scrub plain. Mausoleums constructed over a thousand years ago to safely encapsulate some dead ruler or another, the earthen beehives are a stark contrast to the surrounding flats (“a pair of muddy nipples,” according to Phil). I watch them float by against the overcast backdrop as the bus banks westward to the mountains.

Standing atop the Great Wall at sunrise.
Soon we pass through the old Great Wall, stamped earth that has lasted since the Ming Dynasty constructed it in these far western reaches of their empire seven hundred years past. And then we are off the bus, in a cold gusting wind blasting down from the mountains. Clad in shorts and t-shirts, us mountain hardy fools neglected to bring much of anything warm. To add to the fun, the clouds are descending upon us, and drops begin to fall from the sky. We smile stupidly and hop on our steeds.

The headwind is large, and we could walk faster than we are pedaling. With only a couple kilometers to go before turning off the pavement, we bend our heads into the breeze and will our legs to work. They fight back. They refuse. Muscular mutiny. And I just fed them! Ungrateful bastards.

At our wash winding out of a steep canyon, we turn onto the sharp cobbles and debris and pedal shakily past goats, sheep, and a farmer/shepherd before finally dismounting when pebbles turn to boulders. Lock the bikes to a tree, grab our bags, and we’re off!

Dodging a few rocks kicked down on us from the local fauna, we wind up canyon around sharp dry bends in the river bed and arrive at our cliff. Phil’s crag is quite nice, being so close to the road and rather accessible. He and his compatriots are likely the only hands and feet to have scaled this wall, and he affectionately tells me how he has named several of the climbs after a busty friend’s cleavage and crack.
Sunset east of the Yellow River.
The hike up has warmed us, but it is by no means comfortable. The warmth quickly evacuates our bones as we harness up and eyeball the wall. I offer to lead a climb, and am soon awkwardly scaling a crumbly, dusty crack with two questionable pieces of gear, sharp rock, and dirt in my eye. I love it. As I pull out of the dihedral on broken rock, with little behind me that would remotely catch a fall, I am shakily reminded how and why I love climbing so much. I slowly set up an anchor at the top and peer back down at Phil, still belaying me, and wrapped in a brilliant neon pod from head to toe. Ordinarily functioning as a waterproof cover for his bike packs, he has converted this blindingly bright shell into a kind of cocoon, and looks quite happy about it. Dancing around in the canyon bottom, trying to stay warm, with a huge shit-eating grin on his face, I can easily see how he and I would naturally become good friends.

A bit more grabbing and high-stepping later (technical terms for climbing), and it’s raining. Sideways. The wind is now punching across the mountain side, left hook, right jab, right up my shorts. We decide it might be a reasonable time to head home. So we scramble back down the slippery rock to assemble our gear and say goodbye to the crag for the day.
Camp along the Great Wall.

We wheel our bikes back to the road, mount up and begin our initially slow roll down the hill. Phil crams the last of his 包子 into his cockpit and we begin to pick up speed. The drenched asphalt could have bred concern of hydroplaning, but instead Phil and I glimpse an opportunity of reduced friction to go as fast as we possibly can to get the hell down to some warmer pastures. Whirring wheels and water sailing through the air accompanies our rapid acceleration to 60 kmh as we play leap frog with freight trucks coming down from the mountains.

The air warms rapidly and we are soon too hot. Back in the flats we resume casual conversation as we pedal toward a noodle joint for some sustenance for our ride back to 银川, Yinchuan, our home. All in a good morning’s fun.
P.S. As usual, I forgot to take photos this trip, so the photos posted are from a cycling trip a couple weeks prior.

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