Our mini pink rubber ‘dice’ finally came bouncing to their resting positions both prone on their backs, tiny trotters pointed skyward. Tse Jam Tso beamed at us with swelling satisfaction. But what had he achieved? His querying grin was in search of answers. He wanted to know how much he had scored. He knew it was big. Under normal circumstances a single sentence explanation would have sufficed, but our knowledge of Tibetan stretched little further than “Tashadelik” and our phrasebook did not appear to have the rules to “Pass the Pigs” anywhere, no matter how many times we thumbed it through.
With enough time and creative charades energy anything is possible, even when little more than a word or three is shared. And so it proved. Tse Jam Tso, Chung Le and “Jimmy” (we never quite got hold of how to pronounce his name properly) repeatedly thrashed us at a game that we had only minutes before “taught” them the rules. And they loved it. These monks appeared to be able to invoke the assistance of Buddha at will, rolling and rolling those little pigs until we were soon scampering away from the table with our curly tails between our legs.
Some of you will no doubt be familiar with “Pass the Pigs”, an extraordinarily wonderful and ancient game from our home shores that transcends age, race and certainly cultural norms. But if you are still at sea, all is made clear here.
Our last blog ended with our “Odybed-on-a-train” which had deposited us in Lanzhou in Gansu province, one of these mightily heaving Chinese cities, more or less in the middle of China. Yet within a 100km ride, much of which was merely leaving the city limits, the countryside was awash with Tibetan communities, replete with beautiful hillside Gompas (monasteries) that dot much of the surrounding provinces to Tibet itself, of which Gansu is one.
And our bicycling plan was simple. To abandon eastwardly intentions and pedal now almost due south for about 5,000km from central Gansu into Sichuan (of the spicy food fame), and onto Yunnan province which borders Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. South East Asia is now in our sights.
But back to Gansu and a modicum of chronological austerity, for tales of pigs and monks comes from the very borderlands of Gansu and Sichuan. It is Lanzhou with its curiosity-filled night markets, goopy Yellow River, wicked food, deeply serious kite-fliers and evil railway baggage-handlers that deserves a mention.
While we had arrived mostly refreshed in the big smoke (Lanzhou is notorious for being known as the most polluted city in China, which is no mean achievement), our bikes had endured a harrowing ordeal. We greeted them at the cargo terminal, like doting parents awaiting their offspring at the school gates, only to have this idyllic scenario well and truly smashed by the sight of Francesca’s bike being wheeled wonkily through the warehouse. The front forks were mangled, the lights and water bottles pilfered, and Sam’s compass, that had guided us so honestly for months, making a non-appearance too.
Virtually no English is spoken in China, certainly in our experience so far anyway, and our Mandarin phrasebook wilted in the face of, well, 20 railway faces that gazed on with zero sympathy. In most countries we have visited, we have either been able to garble a word or so of the local lingo or English has found its way into our communications, but not here. The frustrations mounted and we wonkily wheeled the bikes away, deflated (like Sam’s punctured rear tyre) and in search of help.
But Lanzhou came up trumps just when we were yearning for more peaceful rural climes. Between visits to the plethora of smile-inducing eateries, where you can (and we did) fill-up for less than a quid on spicy madness, checking out the well presented but hilariously propagandistic Gansu State Museum, and chilling with the ever-so professional kite-fliers of Lanzhou, the metropolis grew on us. We idled away many an hour on the banks of the Yellow River gazing at the feats of the latter fellas, as they tussled and sought to outdo each other with bigger kites, longer tails and laughably large wheels on which to reign in their lofty dragons. Some of the tails were so lengthy (and weighty) that even the Yellow River gusts could not get them airborne.
Lanzhou also found us a charming bike mechanic, who tweaked and measured and twiddled some more (as if performing an ancient Chinese martial art) until once more Francesca’s bike resembled what it once did in happier days gone by. Despite the ease with which we had found this delightful man, we were perturbed (if not somewhat disoriented) by the strange absence of fellow cycles and cyclists, something we had also noted in Kashgar. This is China after all, where any self-respecting tourist publication must daub images of meandering Chinese on bikes on its front pages. Where bicycles queue up in their hundreds at traffic lights. Surely, the bicycle is the icon of China?
The pace of development, however, appears now to be far outstripping that of education and social advance. And with it comes petrol guzzling 4WDs, belching buses, SinoTruks and humming electro-scooters that have left bicycles to gather dust and dirt in the alleyways of China’s towns and cities.
While bikes were mended and spicy Hui Muslim Chinese noodle soup digested, we searched out a ‘Wangba’ (Internet Café) to tend to Odycycle and learn of life in the outside world. Bank upon banks of computer terminals, jam-packed with engrossed locals chuffing away on cigarettes, greeted us as we entered the darkness of one of Lanzhou’s such salubrious establishments. Initial thoughts may have been how impressive – such voracious consumption of information from the web. As the clouds of cheap fag smoke cleared (a little), the truth revealed itself. Far from educational nourishment, mindlessly tedious gaming was taking place. Plinky plonky sounds providing endless delight for the rows of boys as web browsers lay dormant. And not a girl to be seen.
And what of Odycycle itself? So concerned were we that WordPress would be blocked that we went to great lengths in Central Asia to set up our own odycycle.com webpage. That approach appears to have truly bamboozled every one the 70,000 censors, which it is reported the Chinese government employs just to patrol internet content, as WordPress remains alive and kicking (although paradoxically odycycle.com is blocked).
And it was now time to set off. The tumbling green hills of southern Gansu owed much to the ever present rains that now greeted us nigh-on each day and reminded us how fortunate we had been for so much of this trip. Tibetan villages and gompas came and went through the bubbling cool clouds as we began to climb slowly towards the Tibetan plateau, which would provide days of thin-air cycling to come.
And it was after leaving Xiahe, home to Labrang Monastery, the most important Monastery for Tibetan Buddhists after the Potala Palace in Lhasa, that we came across the soon-to-be-pig-rolling Tse Jam Tso. On a dank and unfriendly evening in odd little Luqo, he cajoled and convinced us to take a 100km pedal detour the next day up to the dead-end of ‘his’ lush emerald valley and onto the slopes that housed Mo’re’se Gompa, where he has been a monk since the age of ten. For two days we revelled in his company and that of his fellow monks, nursed our bikes back to health with his bewilderingly unhelpful input, ate mounds of samba (barley, rancid butter, corn, hot water and a smidge of sugar), passed pigs and “listened” with immense admiration to tales of his recent 3250km (4 month) stroll to Lhasa.
Our journey southwards has begun and the province of the four great rivers (Sichuan) is our next stop. Photos of our days in Gansu can be found here.
But we end this blog with a plea for help, a request for creative input. We really enjoy receiving comments on the blog and have been plotting how to generate more responses. So, a caption competition. Just provide a caption for the photo below and the winning entry will have some fine goody posted all the way from Yunnan Province in China. What more could you want?