I haven't eaten this many two-minute noodles since I was a teenager, when I used to catch the bus home from school with Clare Manners and we would scoff them before dance class. Normally I am a fairly conscientious eater. Not in the finickity or restrictive sense, just in that I try and tip the balance towards eating predominantly healthy nutritious food. But it would appear, for some stretches through this desert at least, that my diet has taken a rather distinct turn towards the stuff of teenage dreams.
Today my lunch of two-minute noodles was accompanied by a bottle of coke and the remnants of snickers bar number one. Afternoon tea consisted of snickers number two and two fruit leathers. Those sweet dehydrated things. In fact, dehydrated is about the only type of fruit I have seen for the past week. I can distinctly recall the last piece of fresh fruit I had. It was an apple. About two weeks ago. Handed straight to me by the farmer himself as we took a break on the roadside bordering his property. It was delicious.
Snacks on arrival at our hotel this evening did not improve the value of the days nutrition. As we expected, there is a lot of waiting to be done in this province. After 130-kilometers of riding and a mere 8-kilometers from our destination we were stopped at yet another police checkpoint. Made to sit on the curb while the police checked our passports, visas and determined our previous and upcoming movements. As we speak no Chinese, this can take quite some time, seemingly also because at every point somebody higher up in the food chain must be contacted to confirm what it is they are supposed to do with these two foreigners cycling across the country.
Upon arrival to our hotel it is a similar story. We are often left waiting for long periods while the hotel staff register our presence and conduct all the necessary formalities. Only certain hotels may accept foreign guests and the check in process is lengthy and meticulous. Photocopies of passports. Photocopies of visas. Telephone number registration. Our photos are taken. On more than one occasion, the police themselves arrive to ask a few more questions and take a few more photos.
But we have developed our check-in routine. One person to take passports and get the process started. The other to organize getting the bikes stored and locked. Panniers are loaded onto a baggage trolley. Then we simply settle into a lobby chair and crack open our snack bag. During today’s hour long check in procedure Rebecca had the foresight to ensure adequate ride recovery by sourcing us both a beer and packet of chips. I guess that’s the bright side of pedaling around a hundred kilometers a day. You can get away with eating pretty much anything.
Don't get me wrong. Chinese cuisine is amazing. Flavorsome, fresh and extremely tasty. The problem is that most of our ride days, for now at least, leave us well out of reach of the leafy green oases that signify civilization and exceptional food in this vast desert basin. Instead we find ourselves in the land of the truck stop convenience store. And that, it turns out, is the land of two-minute noodles. Our dietary options are further hampered by our efforts to use what little fuel we have as sparingly as possible. Thus opting for instant everything. We can’t afford to cook anything such as rice or pasta. It would leave the camp stove on for too long.
And so we roll.
Instant oats, instant coffee, instant noodles. Snickers bars. Biscuits. Dried fruit. Chips. Soft drink and beer. It is not exactly a high performance diet.
Speaking of, I actually used to work with elite cyclists for a living. And I used to get a bit exasperated at their moaning whenever we made them walk anywhere. They used to complain when they had to walk to dinner, to a coffee shop or anywhere remotely close by foot. The athletes would ride their bikes the few meters it took to cross the velodrome to get to the bathroom. Don't even get me started on what they thought about taking the stairs.
I take back every single eye roll I made in relation to this singular issue.
I have never ridden this regularly before. Never clocked up this many kilometers back to back. And now I find myself in their shoes. The leg fatigue. At days end, Rebecca and I find the closest restaurant we possibly can to our hotel (assuming we are not sleeping in a drain). It doesn’t matter what the food safety rating is on the certificate hanging on the restaurant wall. All that matters is that they offer food, it is hot, and that we minimize the number of steps between the food and our beds.
I apologise. Because now, I get it.
We have another long stretch of highway in front of us that will offer little but truck stops and drains as respite, so it appears my diet will remain the stuff of teenage dreams for another week at least. But I am buoyed looking at the map and noting just how far we have come already. I am amazed at the progress you make, even when you feel as if you are making little (there is a life lesson wrapped up in that somewhere). And while I am not entirely convinced my diet of noodles, snickers bars, chips and beer will carry me all 6000-kilometers of this journey, it seems it might just carry me over the first third.
I thought I might struggle with the food here, but excepting our desert diet, the food we have sampled in the few towns we pass through has been absolutely delicious. With only 200-odd-kilometers remaining until we climb our way out of this desert basin, rather than struggling, I find myself very much looking forward to trying the culinary offerings that lie on the road ahead.