The story I am about to tell right now is one of my favorites. It takes place at the end of my 2017 silk road trip and starts in a small chinese town called Dexing. After leaving my home in Paris and 3 months spent on the road, I’m close to reaching the Pacific ocean. I am also close to reaching the end of my visa, which is no joke in this part of the world. You do not overstay a chinese visa. You just don’t. Ever.
So I spend the night in a hotel that doubles as a karaoke bar, and go to bed quite late. After which, I wake up mid-day, fairly unmotivated. The routine of packing every morning then riding all day long has started wearing me down a long time ago, and I can’t remember my last rest day.
Somewhere in the middle of China, I got into a pattern where I would end my day of riding far into the evening, then struggle to find a hotel willing to accommodate foreigners, go to bed anywhere between midnight and 3am, and wake up the next day around 10 or 11am. Once that rhythm was set, I found it impossible to get rid of. I needed the sleep too much and did not have the energy to go into race mode and skip breakfast, shower and a bit of social media in the mornings.. This may sound like it is not much but it means that if I wake up at 10am, I won’t hit the road before 11 at best.
On this day, the 80th of this adventure, I wake up around 11 and give my first pedal stroke at 11:45. It’s definitely not optimal when you have 250km to cover, but it’s the best I can do after more than 15.000km ridden in less than 3 months. If I’m physically in good shape, mentally, I’m exhausted. I have two days to reach Fuzhou where the ferry to Taiwan is waiting. That is not a lot of time considering that there is more or less 500km to cover. If I fail to do it in two days, I will overstay my visa and get in trouble.
I start the day on small quiet roads through tiny villages. It is warm and sunny and I thoroughly enjoy the absence of traffic, something I’ve not been blessed with every day in China. The only problem is small roads mean slower progress. Definitely not what I need. It’s not long before I start hitting gravel. Now that would be nice if I had all the time in the world. Just the kind of road you want when you’re out for 100km. But all I can think of is my average speed and how fast it is dropping right now. Basically if I can average 25kph I’ll be halfway to Fuzhou anywhere between 11pm and midnight. If my speed drops to 22kph, I’ll get there 1h30 later at best. And by “at best”, I mean if I make zero wrong turns and don’t suffer any flats. I’ve had flats pretty much every single day since I entered China, so that’s very optimistic, to say the least.
I don’t know much about the profile of this stage. Just that there’s no big climb. Actually I was kind of expecting it would be flat. Turns out it’s not. There’s no big climbs but there’s a ton of short ones. My progress is slow. Way slower than expected. Around 21kph. That’s a full 2 more hours of riding than 25kph. Which means I’ll be halfway to Fuzhou at 1am at best. But it seems the best never happens here. As I’m entering a small town, I get my first flat of the day.
Fixing a flat when you have a spare tube is done fairly fast. But the time of spare tubes is long gone. With at least one flat a day and at most one bike shop every 1000km, I got used to patching my tubes. Now that is time consuming. You have to locate the puncture, rough the tube, apply the cement, wait a little bit then apply the patch. After all this I like to press firmly on the patch and wait a few minutes to inflate the tire just to be sure the patch and tube have bonded. Inflation also takes time, especially if you want to bring 35mm tires to a good pressure with a hand pump. When I’m in a hurry, I can fix a flat in 5 minutes with a spare tube. Using patches takes up to 30 minutes.
When I’m done fixing the first flat of the day, on the rear wheel, I notice the front has gone flat as well. This is a big blow to my morale. It means I’m going to lose close to a whole hour. Time I sure as hell don’t have.
A few kids who were playing have stopped to watch me as I repeat the tiresome routine of patching my tube. You’d think that the more you do it, the better you are at it, the faster you go. But nope, that’s not how it works. I just can’t stand it anymore. It’s a chore and I work at a painfully slow pace.
At this point I stop making any projections regarding my arrival. It’s all too discouraging. I get back on my bike and start riding. At least the roads are small and rather quiet. But if I keep riding here, there is no way I can make up for lost time. The only way for me to be more efficient is to get on the motorway. It’s straight, the surface is great and there’s loads of tunnels to spare me the climbing. It’s not even dangerous as there is a broad shoulder and very little traffic. But of course it is forbidden for bikes to ride on the motorway. I keep riding, looking for a way to get in. Using the toll is obviously not an option. I know I can’t stop before reaching the 250km mark.
The rest of the day is fairly uneventful, but as night falls I still haven’t found a way to get on the toll road. I feel it’s gonna be easier to sneak in now that it’s dark. Every time I see on my GPS that I’m really close, I try to find a way. Ironically I lose a lot of time doing so. Finally I spot a small gravel path, climb up a hill, fight my way through a thick bush then under a fence and end up on the coveted motorway. Was it worth it timewise? Probably not. I’m definitely gonna be faster but it took so much time exploring the surroundings to sneak in that the whole endeavor appears a bit vain.
I manage to ride pretty fast for about an hour until an upcoming toll forces me off the road. It’s the middle of the night, I am about to enter a small town and this is when I get my third flat. I’m not even mad or sad. Resignation is what it is. I look at the clock and the odometer and I know I’m gonna have to go ride all through the night. So I just sit and start fixing my flat while the dogs bark in the distance. I take my sweet time. There is no rush now that I know I’m not going to get any sleep. I kind of wonder if the dogs are going to stop barking at some point. Giving up usually means relief. I give up on hitting the 250km mark before sunrise and I’m relieved I don’t have to race against the clock anymore. When I get back on my bike and start rolling, the dogs are still barking.
Once I know I’m past the toll, I try to sneak back in on the motorway. Again it’s a process of trial and error but I finally succeed. That stretch is busier and a few trucks honk at me. Not for long. After just a few kilometers, a police car comes up to me and escorts me out of the forbidden road. It doesn’t really matter now. I have time, I can ride on small, convoluted, hilly roads. The good news is I actually like night riding. I like sleeping better, but I can pull an all-nighter once in a while.
As the sun rises, I make it to the outskirts of a town called Jianyang. I pass dozens of workers on their way to their construction site. Most of them on foot. Some on small motorbikes.
It’s day when I stop in a gas station in town for some breakfast. Instant coffee, cookie, instant noodles and a bag of chips. It’s the beginning of a new day. The beginning of the last stage of a 16.000km trip.
To be continued …