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Nipping over to Ba Xin (坝心)

Our second morning in the glorious town of Jianshui began with a visit to a small Chinese Muslim joint, where we feasted on thick Hui noodles, in spicy tomato broth. Our bowls were served on a table that had been mostly converted into a large barbecue grill. As we sat down to the noodles, the owner of the shop took a seat opposite from us and began to make small talk over the large grill. On the grill were a great number of semi-fermented bits of tofu.

He shoveled a small pile of these over on to the section of the grill that was hot, and they began to slowly sizzle. He continued to chat with us as he poured a mixture of chili oil, vinegar and a salty orange powder in a couple of small bowls.

He handed us the small bowls of spicy dipping sauce and began taking the piping hot bits of tofu off the grill and giving them to us.

So as we ate our soup, we now were able to punctuate the experience with little spicy bits of oily crispy tofu. The meal was stupendous, and it turned out the tofu bits were a free and standard addition to any meal at this restaurant. With full stomachs, we felt compelled to execute a savage wheel.

We began by heading up and out of the old city, toward the western outskirts of town. On our way, we passed a large market at the opening of which was a gigantic crowd of mostly young men in the midst of an even more gigantic crowd of red Honda motorcycles.

After some in-depth investigation, we found that this was not what we had first guessed – some kind of a red Honda rally – but a mixture of bikes for sale, and motorcycle drivers who were offering their services as couriers of goods purchased inside the interior vastness of the Jianshui Sunday market.

We decided that such a hubbub at the entrance to the market certainly warranted some exploration inside. It was, of course, no Kashgar Sunday market, but it was certainly lively and filled with all kinds of interesting goods. We wandered the interior for some time, keeping our eyes peeled for possible project K9 purchases, but eventually settled only on a small 15 cent pair of folding scissors. These scissors would later prove to pay for themselves one thousand fold over the remainder of the journey.

We exited the market and headed farther uphill, cresting the highest point of the city of Jianshui, where we turned left and headed down toward the other side of the fertile valley which surrounded the place. Jianshui itself is on a hill, which rises like a fortress out of the fertile surrounding valley.

We began our descent into the valley, which took us through a large cluster of stonemasons, all of whom seemed to be in the tombstone business. Perhaps because of the proximate availability of stone, or because of elaborate local burial customs or perhaps even because of the centralization of industry by the Chinese government, it seems Jianshui had become a hub for complex and ornate tombstones, sarcophagi, and the like.

We wheeled down an endless street of masons, feeling compelled from time to time to cover our ears against the shrill cry of a circular saw or electric sander. More often than not though, the stonework was done by hand, at great expense of time, simply using a hammer and chisel.

Once we had made it through the street of stonemasons, we came upon a giant snarling traffic jam. The road was small and packed to the brim with buses and cars. All the vehicles seemed to be burning oil like crazy, and try as we might, there was not even room enough for a bicycle to make its way through the mess.

In place of a sidewalk, there was merely a sandy drop-off into an open (though rather dry) sewer. It looked like we were stuck. So we waited and sucked exhaust for about a half hour, as the traffic slowly worked its way along. Then finally there came an opportunity for a lichtenschtein.

We took it, and followed a tiny concrete path, much too small for anything but the tiniest of cars. Our road fell steeply from the main road, and then leveled off as it ran along the wet flat floor of the valley. We wheeled past a group of old women and men seeking shelter from the mid-day sun beneath the canopy of a solitary tree. A man straightened up from his water pipe to bark a greeting as we made our way past.

Now we were alone in a sea of green rice, wheeling along the brilliant white arc of this small concrete road. The colors seemed almost too intense for reality. The complexity of the rice and the blue of the sky all the more brilliant behind polarized lenses.

We could see the traffic still raging in a gridlock to our right, so when the concrete strip turned back toward the main road, we set out once again on the small raised-dirt pathways that separated plots of rice. From these, we found our way to a low-lying thick brick wall that acted as a separator between the rice fields and the stream of rubbish that came from the highway. We hoisted our Speed TRs onto this wall and made our way along it, eventually ducking under the highway.

In the space below the overpass, we encountered two Chinese children. It appeared we had interrupted a romantic encounter, and we apologized, quickly making our way onto a new road. This new road wound by two large swimming complexes, one was a vast and crowded chlorinated pool, complete with diving board and water slide. The price of entry was about 40 cents. The other was a large green pond, which sported a great deal of algal and lily-pad growth. Entrance to this swimming zone was only about 7 cents. However, lacking swimming trunks, we refrained from both of these tempting options.

From there we headed on, out of the greater Jianshui urban block and out into the open tranquility of the rice paddies. We now rode on a large, brand new, completely empty two-lane concrete road, which was suspended over an expanse of deep green agricultural land. The green of the crops was so saturating, and the fragrance of rice so thick in the air, that there was little we could do but allow the beauty of all that was around us to carry us forward.

We came around a corner and could see, nestled in the arid hills ahead of us, an ancient Chinese town. Once spotted, it seemed obvious this was to be our next waypoint. Taking only a few false turns, we successfully made our way into the center of the old quarter of this city. Inside the old quarter, we found a set of giant gates that marked the entrance to some kind of ancient walled compound.

Looked like an interesting wheel… We parked our bikes in the shade of the large wall and began chatting with a group of uniformed fellows to investigate whether or not we might wheel into the ancient walled compound. The answer was resoundingly “no.” Furthermore, we would be charged to enter, even if we followed their rules and did it on foot. Our interest in the ancient citadel diminished rapidly upon hearing this news.

So we took a water break in the shadow of the wall, and headed back out in search of more adventure.

Outside the ancient city, we decided to take a left and strike out on an old road that ran parallel to the highway which had brought us to Jianshui.

We were not sure of our next waypoint, but we were confident  there would be Chinese villages scattered along this road, some of which would contain establishments that were serving up noodles.

So on we rode. The first hamlet that we came to was very small and very poor. There were no restaurants in town, and we saw only two signs of life (apart from livestock). One was a group of old men, smoking water pipes and playing Mahjong, the other was a lone, totally naked, elderly woman, who was wandering the streets in an obviously drugged haze. We rode by her unsure of which way to look, and continued through the remainder of the town, which put us back onto the sun-drenched road, running roughly parallel to the large toll road that had brought us into Jianshui.

By this point we were becoming quite hungry and thirsty. We could see signs on the distant road, which declared to the traffic heading our way that there was another town, by the name of Ba Xin (坝心), not far from us. It would likely take less time to ride on to this city and find more food and water there than to turn around, so we headed on, through a cleft in the mountains. Soon enough, the road we were on swung hard to the right and became very sandy, the concrete mostly crumbled into gravel.

We wheeled under the highway and began traveling parallel to it on the other side now. The reason for the sorry state of the road became apparent as we approached Ba Xin. A large stone harvesting operation was in full swing outside  the city. We wheeled past huge crowds of men, breaking stone by hand using repeated strikes of a sledge hammer. They all had cigarettes clenched in their mouths and frowned into their work. Most of them took a break to scrutinize us as we rode by. Some waved.

A brief uphill section took us into the heart of Ba Xin.

There we found ourselves starving, rather parched, and quite thrilled to have arrived. The first problem we solved was the starving one, though it was initially more of a stop-gap measure. We called a waypoint at a local bakery, and for less than 25 cents purchased five pastries.

These hit our systems with a thrilling burst of blood sugar and lucidity, and propelled us on to the grocery store, where we purchased some similarly priced bottles of drinking water.

At the grocery store, we asked for directions to a street where we might find noodle shops, and armed with that information set out. Our search took us to the center of the city, where there was a vast round-about, in the center of which was what looked like a giant flying saucer skewered by a flagpole. From there, we were able to head up to the street of noodles. There were three or four restaurants to choose from, most of which were empty or contained only one or two people; but a restaurant at the end of the street seemed relatively crowded, so we chose that one. Outside was a small group of old men who appeared to be oscillating between smoking from a large steel water pipe, and engaging in schtick with one another. Inside were a group of school girls slurping huge piles of fried noodles from a plate.

We were warmly greeted by the advance guard of old, water pipe-smoking men. They paused from smoking 50 cent packs of Chinese cigarettes through the giant metal pipe, and smiled at us. They seemed a bit shy, and we were hungry, so we politely acknowledged them and passed on toward the kitchen, from which the tempting smell of fried noodles was emanating. The smell was intoxicating. I did my best to order a couple of the same. In the meantime Scott sought out a table for us.

As we waited for our noodles to arrive, we chatted with the school girls sitting next to us. They seemed interested in practicing their English, and even more interested in blushing, giggling nervously, and pushing each other. We did our best to be amiable, and after a short while, the children departed and our noodles arrived. In my supremely bad attempts at Chinese/pantomime communications, I had failed to order the school-girl special, but had successfully  ordered two totally different dishes of cold spicy peanut noodles. The noodles were delicious and startlingly cheap, likely hand pulled in the back of the shop.

Once we had finished the noodles, we rejoined the gents outside, to chat and do bicycle schtick with them. They were very interested to hear that the Speed TRs were, in fact, made in China, and glad to hear that we enjoyed the local cold noodles. We explained that we had come from Jianshui, and they tut-tutted about city folk, while heartily congratulating us on having made it this far. When the time was ripe, we bid them farewell, and climbed back on the Speed TRs headed for Jianshui.

The ride back was glorious. It was hard and fast, with some very good stretches of long downhill, followed by gnarly climbs. The sun was sinking low and the dry heat of the day was quickly being replaced by the comfortable temperatures of evening in the desert. We encountered a bit of traffic again in the same stretch of road we had on the way out, just before the street of the stonemasons. It was less thick, though, and we were able to take advantage of the small size of our steeds and weave through the traffic, passing hundreds of cars, and capitalizing on the breaks in traffic made by motorcycles. Soon we were through the worst of it, and climbing back up into the city.

We crested the highest point in Jianshui just as the sun was setting. I paused at the top to wait for Scott and watched as a dog that had just killed a chicken walked by with the corpse in its teeth, leaving a trail of blood drips on the pavement. Just then Scott arrived.

There was only one question: where to feast? And the answer seemed pretty straightforward. So we coasted downhill toward the same restaurant where we had eaten the night before. Our friend was thrilled to see us. Once we ventured with him over to the cooler where all the ingredients were on display, he insisted that we get four dishes rather than our usual three. This we were happy to do, since after such an incredible wheel, we were starving. And at the end, the bill was a fraction even of what it had been the night before. We tried our best to pay him more money but he became offended and gruffly refused us.

Once again, as new customers came in, he would show us off as his two American friends who were so Chinese. It felt great to be such a VIP.

We parted with warm regards, and headed back to the hotel for some much deserved sleep.


  1. laura | July 7th, 2010 | 1:00 am

    FANTASTIC and well done! that noodle dish looks absolutely delicious, pls see if you can get the recipe or remember the ingredients.

  2. Mark/Dad | July 11th, 2010 | 4:46 pm

    Many nice photos! And now we know the cost of chlorinated water in China is about 33 cents.

  3. Woody | July 11th, 2010 | 5:27 pm

    @ Mark/Dad

    Do you mean bottled water? If so, totally agreed. If not, where do you get the information for that calculation?

  4. रश्मि शर्मा | January 25th, 2011 | 11:36 pm

    फोटोग्राफ्स शानदार हैं खास कर खाने वालें चिजों की… देख कर ही मुंह में पानी आ गया काश आपने इसकी रेसिपी भी सीखा होता

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