Well, this is it. The last post of the trip! Officially we’ve been off the road for a week now. It’s been a very busy week, moving into an apartment, applying for the Guinness record, and catching up with friends who we hadn’t seen in nearly half a year. The last few days though into Beijing were by no means easy though. We hit some of the coldest weather since Tibet, strongest winds since Urumqi, and boatloads of trucks.
Thanks to everyone who has followed along with us through the whole trip! It’s been wonderful sharing our story with those who would hear it. I hope we did our adventure justice. Let us know what you thought in the comments at the bottom of the post!
And now, back to the story…
Days 142-146; December 7th-11th; Zoucheng, Shandong – Qingdao, Shandong – Weihai, Shandong – Weifang, Shandong – Tianjin – Beijing!!!
Well, you know what they say. All good things must come to an end. Even if the good things involve sandstorms, snowstorms, rainstorms, days without bathing, altitude sickness, blown tires in the desert, hundreds of kilometers of road construction, and horrible drivers, you’ll hear no argument from us that it’s been a good run. But, that said, we couldn’t stay on the road forever (or so Amy finally has me convinced), and we couldn’t send in our record application until we’d wrapped it all up. So, it was time to start setting our sights on Beijing.
Curse You Baijiu! You Get Me Every Time
You may remember that where we last left off was in the midst of a happy reunion in Zoucheng, which just so happened to involve copious amounts of a locally made Chinese liquor, Baijiu. One bottle was about 39% alcohol per volume and another was about 54% (your average vodka or whiskey is about 40%). So we’ll pick back up the following day when Amy and I woke up at about 9am, 3 hours later than we had been lately, and through the haze of our hangover started to pack everything up and get ready for the 400km ride to Qingdao.
The haze wasn’t entirely self-induced however as the pollution had persisted and intensified from the previous days making visibility frighteningly low. Neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow, not hazardously high particulate matter AQI readings could keep us off the road though! So we packed up and met up with a big group from the motorcycle club at the clubhouse before setting off at around 11am.
Only one guy was brave enough to ride with us on a motorcycle (last time when I was in Zoucheng in October, everyone was on a motorcycle. You can watch the video from that ride here). The rest went in cars: one normal sedan, one giant Ford F-150, and one Z-series Beamer convertible. They escorted us to the highway entrance where we weaved our way past the congestion at the on ramp and through the toll booth, waving goodbye to our friends as we disappeared into the smog.
Some Fog And Excitement On The Highway
Expressways can be quite a boring experience, and this time wasn’t really much different, mostly. This area of the country is quite flat anyway so the scenery wasn’t anything special, and with only a precious few hours of daylight left we had a lot of ground to cover in a short period of time. So we put our heads down and powered through. Soon though the pollution made way for actual fog as we made our way closer to the coast. The clearest indication of the change was the nearly instantaneous drop in temperature as the air carried a notable wetness with it.
As the fog started to thin we passed through a relatively big interchange with another road where the lanes expanded briefly to accommodate the additional traffic. Just as the lanes merged back to two, there was a big stoppage of traffic. It was the first time on the trip when all the vehicles on an expressway had come to a full stop. People were even out of their cars walking around to see what was going on and locals from nearby villages were up on the highway walking around with boxes of instant noodles and fruit to sell to the immobile travelers and truckers.
It took us about 20 minutes to get through the tangle of vehicles, sometimes having to ask other motorists to move a few inches in this direction or that so that we could squeeze through. We finally got to the front however and the cause of the stoppage and I really couldn’t believe what had happened. The first sign were carrots strewn over the asphalt and then some broken panes of glass. We saw the truck that the crates of carrots had fallen from and as we got to the front saw that the cab of the truck was just completely destroyed. It no longer held any of its original shape, with the only indication of its previous purpose being the position on the truck and signs of a mattress and blanket sticking out from the wreckage. We drove past and saw several more trucks in various states of destruction. Two had seemingly run into each other, another had run into the railing on the left side of the road, and yet another had somehow tipped over. It was like driving through a war zone, with the mist that hung over everything resembling the dust just starting to settle after an explosion. Seeing something like that as vulnerable as we are on our two wheels really gives you pause for thought. I decreased my speed by about 20km/h and put my blinkers on, increasing the chances of our being seen through the fog.
Well, we luckily made it to Qingdao just before sunset safe and sound, finishing off with a pretty stunning 20km bridge crossing into the famous coastal city. The drinking, cold, humidity, and probably the emotions of getting close to the end were starting to catch up with me however as I was starting to feel pretty awful. A night’s sleep would take care of the residual effects of Baijiu drinking, but my nose had been running all day and my throat was starting to feel scratchy.
Falling Ill On The Shandong Peninsula
The next day was a great day of riding. Qingdao is on the south way corner of a little peninsula that sticks out into the East China Sea known as the Shandong Peninsula and we had decided to make our way around the border of it rather than cut through it. Unfortunately, the discomfort in my throat had transformed into a full blown cold. I tried sleeping in a bit, but found it difficult through my congestion.
We headed out and made our way through some nice country road that hugged the coastline. The fog came on thick today and we had some of the lowest visibility of the trip. Luckily no truck pileups this time but there were some barely missed stop lights that made me a little nervous.
Weihai is supposed to be one of the nicest cities in China. Sitting right on the coast near two much bigger cities, Qingdao and Yantai, it is clearly a very new development with extremely wide roads built into a very clear and deliberate grid. We stayed on the edge of the city though and the next morning, after picking up some Chinese medicine for my worsening cold, we hopped onto the expressway. The end was near now with only two days left until Tianjin, our final provincial level region (Tianjin is a municipality province like Beijing and Shanghai), but the weather was at a level of cold approaching unbearable.
We hit our first snow flurries since Qinghai and the high speeds on the expressway were giving me freezer burn in my fingertips to the point where even after warming back up at each rest break they remained slightly numbed.
Through The Industrial Wasteland
The last full day of The Great Ride of China was from Weifang, Shandong to Tianjin. We had nearly 400km to cover to get there though and we wanted to avoid the expressway if we could help it since the freezing winds were becoming too much to deal with. So with no breaks longer than about 10 minutes, we made our final push north.
This particular corner of the north east is incredibly industrialized and so we had to share the road with an army of trucks. The final leg was a bit surreal as we rode through a coastal, industrial wasteland past two of the biggest ports in China, Huanghua and Tianjin, while simultaneously dealing with the harshest wind we’d encountered since way back when we were Xinjiang. This time though, as we leaned the bike into the wind in an effort to keep us going in a straight line, the windchill was below freezing.
Tianjin is quite a pretty city. Apparently it prizes itself as being the cultural center of the north east, arguable now since Beijing’s rise to prominence as more of an international city. It’s architecture, similar to the Bund in Shanghai, has a heavy foreign influence thanks to its role as a sphere of influence during the West’s colonial push in China.
Our Last Supper Stunk
We met with an American friend of ours, Lauren, who worked as a program director for a startup art school in the center of the city. She had some recommendations from a local friend for food to eat at a nearby restaurant. So we handed over the names of the dishes to the waitress and waited to see what we’d get. For our final meal of the trip we were lucky enough to enjoy what appeared to be liver, a dish that could have been intestines cut up into sushi sized rolls, and pretty tasty sweet and sour egg soup that we discovered had some slivers of gelatinized duck blood. Lauren told us solemnly that in her 10 months of living in Tianjin it was probably the worst meal she’d had. Oh well! Local dishes recommended by a local and it seemed fitting for some reason to have intestines on our final day on the road.
The next day it was time to get up and wrap up the trip. 146 days, 33 provinces, and over 33,000km/20,000 miles (over 34,000km according to our odometer) had all led up to this: a final 120km stretch of extremely well traveled highway connecting two of the biggest cities in China. watching the signs for the city center of Beijing countdown, I barely even noticed the freezer burn in my fingertips today. 120km… 90km… 60km… 20km…