Tom and Jodie posted a photo:
View our route plan in more detail here
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Qindao Sharks RFC
|Mr Mu, former national prop for China|
Before I start, we must apologise for the lack of posts since October. Sadly, we were unable to access our blogsite from China so quite a good excuse really. We should be back on track to keep you updated now as we take on our new exciting itinerary through South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong, flinging open the doors to rugby in Asia and hopefully soon closing the doors on a very cold winter!
So where to start? The barren Chinese desert or the Qingdao Sharks?! Though I feel the Sharks deserve to go first, I also think that a bit of background to our unreserved joy at eventually reaching them in Qingdao, on the east coast of China is needed. A little scene setting so to speak.
We knew China was going to be the tough one. We’d bravely – though perhaps in hindsight a little nonchalantly - spoken of the challenges that lay ahead. Freezing temperatures, strong winds and desolate desert stretches. The lack of rugby until the East coast was a bit of a blow, but with our new schedule in place at least it gave us time to master our chopstick action and for me to hopefully find some Chinese food I could enjoy (putting aside crispy duck pancakes, Chinese food has sadly long been labelled as gloopy, greasy and yucky in my books). We were confident we would prevail, though the last two might not be so easy...
Putting our chopstick/ food fears aside, we rode into Kashgar, West China, feeling positive and happy having made it over the mountains in one piece and looked forward to the journey ahead. List of jobs in hand, we attacked each one with gusto. (1) Map of China – check! (2) Plot route, distance and timing to the East coast – check! (3) Get blind drunk on cheap Chinese wine – check! We cleverly managed to roll all of these little jobs together, and spent the most enjoyable afternoon shopping followed by drinking £2.50 bottles of ‘Great Wall’ red wine and blazing a trail across the map. It probably wasn’t the most sober decision to take on items (4) and (5) i.e. chopsticks and food, that same evening but we had run out of crisps and wine, and I was getting peckish. So it came to pass that later that night, we found ourselves sweating over a ferociously hot and spicy Sichuan Hot Pot. For those that have never had this before, it’s most easily described as a kind of Chinese fondue – without the cheese. DIY cooking might be more accurate. Anyhow, the pot is separated into two halves, one filled with normal stock, and the other filled with such fiercely spiced chilli stock that it melts your eyebrows off if you get too close. No prizes for guessing which side of the pot Tom chose to throw in his chosen little skewers. Chicken, pak choi, fish, sausage, carrot....skewer after skewer was dunked in and then gobbled up once satisfactorily cooked, or most likely overcooked. It was all going so well until we foolishly decided to throw in a handful of noodles. What happened next was worthy of a scene from the Generation Game (what did happen to good old Saturday night family entertainment?). Burning chilli stock was flicked everywhere as we vainly battled on to retrieve the slippery little beggers with our chopsticks. No amount of twisting, jabbing or scooping would do it. Even the waitresses sat down at a nearby table to watch the show with muffled giggles. Finally, exhausted, sweaty and covered in splashes of Sichuan stock we stumbled out back into the fresh air of the night. (4) and (5) might not have been achieved but I hadn’t laughed that much for a long time.
Heading out of Kashgar we faced the longest single stretch so far with no stopping. Approximately 1500km separated us from our next destination and really, we had no idea what to expect. I mean, how desolate could the desert actually be? Very desolate as it turns out, especially when you are on a bike. For fifteen days we solidly rode, watching the days gradually get shorter, the temperature fall and our kilometre tally grow. And to be fair, it wasn’t too bad. We always carried enough supplies for at least two days, and the scariest thing about it was my hair after two weeks of no washing.
It was the next stint that took us by surprise I suppose. Good days meant arriving at a truck stop or town before lunch and not only getting some good hot food but stocking up on essentials (water, noodles, biscuits and bread!), bad days were seeing a single lonely petrol station, really bad days were seeing a sign for a petrol station only to arrive to a semi finished building with no facilities at all! Things really came to an abrupt head when having dived into the tent for the night (around 6.30pm – late nights don’t exist in the desert!), the wind seemed to be picking up with decisive energy. Quite soon, our front tent pegs were being ripped out and Tom was braving the gusts to try to anchor it down with rocks to stop it from flapping around our panniers whilst my ‘sense of adventure’ evaporated by the minute. The morning didn’t bring any respite, and after a sleepless night we decided that we should try to brave it out and get on the road. As usual, Tom got out first to take care of the ‘outside’ jobs while I took care of the ‘inside’ tent jobs (much easier for us shorties). His foot was barely out of the tent, when, without both our weight to hold the tent down, I was flung around like a tombola. The whole damn tent nearly blew away with me inside it. This was not good. And it didn’t get much easier. Riding the bikes was virtually impossible in these freezing mountain cross winds and so we resorted to pushing but even then kept getting blown off the road into the metal barriers. Five long hours we battled on. Pushing, being blown over, screaming, standing up again, pushing a bit more... I can honestly say they were the longest and hardest five hours of my life before we were saved by a chain smoking angel whose name I will never know. Pulling up next to us in his truck, he got out and helped us on board as we struggled to move against the storm. He didn’t even ask where we were going. We didn’t care. Relieved and exhausted, we just sat in silence listening to crackling Chinese radio, as he drove us past overturned lorries and through dust storms on the 100km stretch we had left remaining to our next town, Hami.
I shan’t bore you with the details but it is fair to say that China left me pretty broken. Beaten and broken. The cold weather continued to bear in on us, and no matter how hard we tried to keep up our spirits, falling asleep in a freezing tent, and waking up covered in frost (inside the tent that is!) every morning was wearing us down both physically and mentally – me in particular. I hadn’t been sick really the whole trip, and all of the sudden I was aching, tired, coughing and wheezing. The short daylight only serving to make the long stretches even harder to cover. But we ploughed on, struggling with frozen fingers and frostnipped toes, making fires, cooking instant noodles and for me, existing solely to reach the next pitstop where we could sleep inside and warm up for a couple of days. These rests had suddenly become an essential part of our journey, something we hadn’t really needed before. And accepting this and my undeniable fatigue was what made me hit rock bottom. I had always been so confident in my capabilities, to keep going, to tough out anything, to cope with the freezing temperatures, endure the dirty (I mean really filthy) hands and grubby clothes, the camping in ditches, to grit my teeth during the long hill slogs and do it all with a smile. But I didn’t want to smile. I wanted to cry. And so all of the sudden, I was lost.
An enforced visa extension break in Xi’an over Christmas helped me to recover physically but I was badly shaken, it was like the floor had been pulled from under my feet and I didn’t feel like I had ‘it’ anymore. I wasn’t the tough adventurer I desperately wanted to be. It was too hard. I felt so completely and utterly crushed. But there was nothing for it but to get back on the bike and keep going. Just keep pedalling. And just hope. Hope that I got it back. That the fire that had kept pushing me forward for nearly 14,000km re-ignited.
Through it all, Tom was incredible. Strong, encouraging and honest. I can truly say that without his support I would have come to a complete standstill in China. And with his help, I learnt to accept that I hadn’t failed like I felt I had, that most sane people wouldn’t much enjoy pushing their bike up icy freezing hills in the middle of nowhere, with numb feet and a wheezing chest surrounded by honking buses and lorries with only a long shivering night to look forward to at the end of it. And so slowly, he helped drag me out of the impossibly deep pit I made for myself. I didn’t want or need pity, just a helping hand and someone who understood.
Besides, it wasn’t all bad. The mountains in West China had been breathtaking. Double humped camels trotted clumsily across our paths in the desert which has to be a highlight for any cycling trip. Camping in East China had been easier than expected too, if not precariously close to poo on a number of occasions. And food on the road had been cheap and delicious. Soft, steaming dumplings, mounds of slippery noodles, warm and crispy bread, fresh vegetables and all for pennies. Yes, food in China had been a pleasant surprise indeed – well most of the time anyway...
And now to the pinnacle of our journey through China. Finally, ecstatically, reaching the sea again after so many months and knowing that waiting for us would be our opportunity to see rugby in China first hand and get our vital Chinese signature for the ‘World in Union’ scroll.
The Qingdao Sharks were formed back in 1998 making them one of the first non-university rugby clubs in China. Rugby is still relatively unfamiliar across most of China, and the Sharks were not the first club on our journey to explain how this lack of popularity inevitably leads to insufficient funding and sponsorship. But once again we witnessed how true passion and dedication to the sport overcomes these monetary obstacles. During our visit, the Sharks annual 4 day rugby training camp was in motion. A camp which sees hundreds of kids from as young as 5 or 6, getting involved, playing rugby and most of all having fun. It was explained to us by Luna, who works for the club, that the training camp is mostly funded personally by the club’s chairman, Mr Wang, as are many of the club’s activities. “Wow – what does he do for a living?” we both asked, imagining him to be some big hot shot. “He’s a teacher” she replied while registering our surprise. “But he is a firm supporter of rugby and believes in seeing children grow up with certain values”. Values which he considered to be fundamental to the game of rugby. Honesty, integrity, strength, dedication and hard work. We were seriously impressed. And boy did these kids do him proud. I was exhausted just watching them tirelessly practicing and taking instruction from the Qingdao Sharks players and coaches, in weather that can at best be described as bl**dy freezing!
But, there was one Shark that we were particularly looking forward to catching. Mr Mu, former prop and now coach, is one of the original 30 rugby players that became registered in China back in 1991, when China was still unaffiliated with the IRB. Given that the population of China back in the Nineties was around 1 billion we were pretty pleased with our find and quite rightly decided that he would be a perfect representative for Chinese rugby on our scroll. Mr Mu is now one of the most experienced Chinese coaches in the country.
It was an interesting and fun afternoon, not least because we had managed to meet with a team which didn’t rely on ex-pats to fill their numbers. In fact there wasn’t an ex-pat in sight. It was good to see my pre-conception of rugby in China proved wrong. The Sharks hope to tour in Italy later this year, to keep spreading the word to the world that China plays rugby. And with rugby being played at the 2016 Olympics, who knows how the sport could grow. With over 1 billion people to pick a squad from, there is no doubting that with the right funding, support and training, China could surely follow in the footsteps of their Asian neighbours in Japan.
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View our route plan in more detail here