Funneled into Chengdu.

After one last herculean push (by our standards at least), we’ve arrived in the capital of Sichuan Province; the vast, sprawling metropolis of Chengdu. Already, the mountains feel too far away. The last pass, which hiked us up from a balmy 1850m to a snow-spilled 4500m – via a long wrap-around climb – has now fed us back down into the plains at a lowly 500m. Except things are never that simple. The descent was one long, rough and tumble construction site, albeit with stunning mountain views. Wolong, one of the famed Panda breeding centres in a supposed UNESCO biosphere, came and went in a cloud of dust and strip of half-built hotels, waiting for the road to be complete and the Chinese tourist floodgates to open. Hell-on-Wheels was racing through unlit death-trap tunnels, the sound of impending trucks reverberating louder and louder as they gunned their engines and blasted their horns. And the factories pumping out plumes of dark fumes into a dirty grey, hazy sky. And the crazed drivers that insisted on overtaking up hills or round corners, directly into our path… Often on a mobile phone, and waving to us…

But like all journeys, there’s always nuggets of enriching experiences to be found, even on the hardest days. Getting utterly, frustratingly lost on the outskirts of Dujiangyan unearthed villages connected by quiet roads, fringed with tea houses and restaurants, where folk huddled around tables, engrossed in games of dominos. Inevitably, someone would spot us pass and yell out, Lawai! Foreigner! – then a mass of heads would swivel in our direction, after the initial bemusement and confusion of spotting one in these backwaters – like the sighting of an unusual bird. Here, the pace of life is a noticeable notch down from that of the cities, and people still hawk their wares by bicycle or trike – Tangerine Lady, Tofu Man, Wicker Basket Lady, even Clothes Hanger Man made an appearance. When we stopped for ice cream, cars pulled over and crowds quickly gathered – at one point, the ‘tallest lady in the village’ compared her height to Cara (who’s no bean pole) to general amusement.

Finally, we worked our way back onto the old Chengdu Highway, running parallel to the newer expressway. With 35km to go, it was time to crank up the pace. The road was smooth and broad, and erratic signs counted us down – and sometimes up – via a sprawl of amalgamated towns, littered with the usual selection of car parts, truck tyres and dumplings. To make up time, we tailgated tractors, waving to three-on-a-scooter passengers, picked up from school by their parents.

We knew we were getting close, when our eyes stung from the unaccustomed pollution of leaving the clarity of the mountains to riding into China’s fifth most populous city. Dusk was falling as we finally neared its outer limits, where we were funneled into bike lanes: chaotic, never-ending streams of electric scooters and bicyles tussling for space on the commute home. This is no sedate Sustrans route. Here, sharp reactions and keen eyes are the order of the day. Ahead of me, a man on a singlespeed merged into our lane, cutting deftly, even elegantly, through a seemingly impenetrable wall of trucks and buses. After a nifty, unexpected swerve to avoid an opening car door, he was lost amongst the bikes once more like a minnow swallowed up by a large shoal of fish. At traffic lights bike wardens tried vainly to restore order to the procedings. At one junction, the Old Lady with the Red Flag and Whistle was being ignored by the Young Lady on the Yellow Scooter, sending her into an enraged flag-flapping storm, in a vain effort to stop anyone else encroaching on the ignored zebra crossing. Like everyone else, we kept our eyes fixed to the digital readout that counted us down to Green, oblivious to any turmoil behind.

Ever increasing neon hoardings signaled our arrival into the city’s heart, along with the obligatory McD’s, KFC and Starbucks (no fears of American Imperialism here), trendy clothing outlets and computer stores that are the calling card of modern China. As is the constant shape-shifting of its cities, making road maps tricky to follow. Not only is Chengdu changing all the time, but parts of the city are also under rubble while construction of a new Metro goes on. Luckily, a scooter riding doctor from a nearby hospital extracated himself from a busy line-up to guide us to Wenshu Temple before his shift began. Then the baton was taken over by a couple out on their evening stroll, who took us all the way to home for the night, Sim’s Cozy Guesthouse – a traveller’s favourite – tucked in a hard-to-find backstreet packed with busy eateries that spill onto the pavement. Here, it feels like a small slice of old Chengdu, even if the traditional, black tiled roofs and curved eaves almost look out of place now – indeed, this area is also scheduled for ‘reform’, as the couple put it, and the cranes and diggers have already moved in, waiting impatiently to demolish a few more beautiful, historic buildings.

But for now at least, it’s time to put up our feet, explore this city famed for both its fiery cuisine and peaceful teahouses, and plot our onward travels south. Arriving can be a good feeling, and we certainly feel like we’ve deserved it…

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