China (well a little bit of it anyway)
Have you ever wondered where on earth you would be without Google? The answer is China of course and coincidentally, it’s probably the part of the planet where you could use it the most. The world’s oldest civilisation has so much contrast in its cities, landscapes, people, languages, food and culture, it must be confusing enough for the inhabitants, let alone two cyclists who alight from a train to find themselves at the very foot of it with no map, no Google and no idea.
And what exactly were we doing at the foot of China when the plan had been to go at it from the top? Basically we spent a week in Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second biggest city, and the weather had turned so cold we could barely bring ourselves to leave our hostel. We were meant to be cycling 500km up through more mountain passes to Bishkek to get visas for China so that we could then retrace our route to Osh and carry onto Kashgar, China. Kashgar is an important Silk Road city and a place I particularly wanted to visit. The reality though, is that after perusing its famous market, we would have been faced with 3,000km of frozen Taklamakan Desert to cross one way or another. So after much deliberation and many cups of 3-in-1 coffee as we peered out at the snow, we hit on the idea of flying to Hong Kong. Warm, friendly Hong Kong where we wouldn’t need visas to enter and an easy place to obtain Chinese visas.
We booked the flights and then focused on the problem of boxing the Trolls. There weren’t any bike shops around
with bike boxes but as we were walking down the main street Chris saw a couple of fridge boxes outside an appliance store. The man wasn’t interested in letting us have one. Nor was the lady at another fridge shop down the road who was confused as to why we wanted to put bikes in a fridge box anyway. Frustrated, Chris marched back to the first shop with me begging him not to, picked up a box and jammed it and me into the back of a taxi. He then instructed the driver to stop outside the other shop where he and the driver got out and manhandled the second box into the back where I was now sitting with my head in my hands. Once we were back at the hostel with the boxes, and no sign of the appliance sales staff on our heels, I congratulated him on a job well done and we set to work turning fridge boxes into Troll boxes.
The flights were long but fine. Three of them in total and the contrasts between airports depicted well the part of the world we were in. Osh, where we had to push and shove our way through the crowd around the check-in desk and were unapologetically ripped off by the clerk who went through his ring binder trying to find the place where it said we had to pay double for our bikes as they were over-size and over-weight. He couldn’t find it but wouldn’t let us on the plane until we had coughed up – cash only which no doubt went straight into his pocket. Fourteen hours in a Siberian airport with an over priced coffee shop and fluorescent lights would have sent us around the twist if it wasn’t for story time. Story time is something we started in Tajikistan. It was basically Chris trying to encourage me to stay awake in the tent past 7pm by reading to me but we’ve gotten so into the books (or I’ve become so lazy at reading to myself) that we have kept it up. Flying into Beijing was a return to civilisation almost as we know it! We were terrified we would never see the Trolls again. The check-in guy had been more interested in getting cash out of us than paying attention to where we were going and had only checked the luggage as far as Beijing. On arrival we found the baggage desk and gave the hand scrawled scraps of paper with our luggage details to an extremely efficient English-speaking official and in a few short phone calls she had tracked our gear down and assured us we would definitely see it all again. And so we took our final flight to Hong Kong!
Chris gives his impressions of Hong Kong where the political demonstrations were ongoing: Admiralty district – girl
with skin disease in Anna’s dorm taking a break from camping at the demonstration. Walking down the closed roads, expecting some hostility but being met by a peace not found in many cities. Tents as far as you could see, walking over makeshift steps only to realise that you were now on the other side of the central reservation of a 3 lane highway. New shoes x3, Mong Kok for well hidden outdoor gear & trying to find your way back to the station when every inch of ‘the worlds most densely populated place’ is crowded with advertisement boards & neon lights. HK$2 Star ferry but no bikes allowed. Busy people with time to play sport, take their kids to football on Saturday morning or challenge the winning team to a basket ball comp after work, while other people stroll on by or take a seat in the stands to pass time, play with their new mobile phone from the computer mall a block away or eat an ice cream. Stanley Market for some haggling & a bus ride back through a tunnel. The first sign of wealth, choice & a city that never stops.
So yes, Hong Kong was a change of pace and great fun! Not to mention that once we had slogged it up a mountain to the YHA (thanks for that tip Fenella) we had one of the best views on the island for our stay. Our Chinese visas were only for 30 days though and started immediately so we had to move it. We negotiated the Hong Kong traffic in style, found a ferry that would take bikes, jumped on a train and before we knew it we were swept through another border into China and the city of Shenzhen.
It was when we were standing outside the train station with new sim cards in our phones that we began to realise navigation in China was not going to be without its issues. We had made a loose plan to find our way out of the city and head towards Guilin 700 odd kilometres away, but now as we surveyed the myriad of roads and tried to match them up with our four different mapping apps, none of which were fully working, it began to feel very daunting. For a start, every road looks like the Kwinana Freeway or M4, multi-laned and full of traffic. There are roads going over the top of other roads, some built, some under construction. Even the cross roads and avenues have six lanes. Nevertheless we set off and after a while found our way to a road similar in size and busyness to the M25, but headed in the right direction. It wasn’t much fun but at least it looked direct. Then we came to a toll station. As we approached we began to have our doubts as to whether we should be cycling on this road but it was too late to get off so we proceeded slowly and with an air of complete non confidence. That was until a man came running out of the toll booths towards us. He was waving a baton in the air and shouting and looked seriously angry. When he got close enough he half chased half herded us across the ten lanes of traffic like a Pitbull. Safe on the other side, we backtracked until we found an off ramp and looked for another road headed North West.
It took us five days to find our way out of the city. Shenzhen just merged into Guangzhou and we were beginning to wonder whether there were any rural areas still in existence. At some point we found our way onto the Greenways, which are a network of cycling paths in the Guangdong Province aimed at taking cyclists via scenic routes and points of interest. They were good to ride on and a welcome respite from the mega highways, but we never quite knew where they were taking us and eventually gave up on them. At one point we jumped on a boat after negotiating with the driver to take us to the heart of Guangzhou where there was supposed to be an english speaking YHA on the river. We were so relieved and thought we would be able to sit back and enjoy the ride as he took us nearly 30km up the Pearl River to skip a significant chunk of city cycling. He didn’t. He dropped us on the other side of the river ten minutes later and told us to ride the rest and in the process had added another 10km to our journey.
There were a couple of upsides to all this frenetic city riding. Firstly, we obviously couldn’t camp so had to stay in
very nice and affordable hotels where we had air con, wifi, sometimes even movies, beautiful ensuite bathrooms and breakfast included! Quite a step up from previous accommodation arrangements. Secondly we started to discover Chinese cuisine. Guangdong is famous for dim sum and did we have some good dim sum whilst we were there! Not to mention the steamed buns for breakfast. They are absolutely the bomb. We must have demolished hundreds of them. Thirdly, we made an unexpected friend who was introduced to us over email from a mutual friend. Simon moved to Shenzhen a couple of years ago and he and his wife helped us out tirelessly with route options and local information. Just having someone we could ring for help made us feel better about getting out into the traffic each morning.
And get out we did. After four days of doing battle, we found our way to a road that would not only take us out of the city but would continue all the way to Guilin in the Guanxi Province. Halfway through the fifth day we finally emerged into rural China and found ourselves on a quieter minor road that followed a river dotted with small villages where we could buy fresh food and start camping and cooking for ourselves again.
By now we were looking forward to doing something other than cycling all day. Inspired by our guide book, we emailed a cooking school in Yangshuo, a touristy town south of Guilin in the heart of the stunning karst landscape. The school was described as being on a farm, so we had asked in our email about the possibility of camping there after our cooking class. The owner, Pam, replied and better than camping, said we could stay in her house as she would be away. What a legend! With something to look forward to we had a little more vigour in our peddling as we scaled some hills that took us into the Guanxi Province. Our first night in Guanxi was magical. We were camped high up in the hills in a beautiful forest complete with bright stars and fireflies.
One of the main crops grown in the south east of Guanxi is star-anise and many of the villages were in the process of drying its fruit, so now and then as we rode along the quiet road, we would be enveloped in the most beautiful aroma. This combined with the sun, the butterflies, the good food and relatively flat roads made for some superb cycling. And then we entered the karst landscape and it got even better! Gosh it’s beautiful. I’ve never seen a landscape quite like it before and at sunset it is breathtaking so there were a lot of photo stops as we made our way to Yangshuo, and as a result, we arrived at the cooking school well after dark.
The co-owner Jackie was unfazed and showed us around and even showed us to the beer fridge before she left us on our own. She also said we could stay as long as we liked! Dangerous. We ended up staying three nights and it was refreshing to say the least. The staff were friendly and invited us to join them for meals. The room we stayed in was gorgeous and comfortable. The cooking school itself was fantastic! A total investment in our culinary skills. We were joined by a fun black American family for the class. I know they were black because they told us they were! Apparently there’s a difference. One of the guys asked me whether Australian aborigines are black. I said they are. After further discussion and more questions, he informed us that it does not sound as though they are black at all. We remain mystified on that front. But we have learnt how to use a wok! We were taken on a tour of the food market which was useful because we had been quite conservative in our food shopping thus far. Once we returned from the market we set to work cooking up a storm in the open air kitchen. The best thing about the dishes we were taught is that they are all so easy and yummy and healthy! Especially if you have a wok. Jackie overheard us discussing this issue as we were packing our bikes to leave and went and found an old wok from somewhere which she gave us. They were such great people. Chris strapped it on top of Steggy and we headed off for Guilin, the capital city of the province.
We overnighted in Guilin and caught the sleeper train to Kunming the next day. China
was living up to its reputation for size. We did some online mapping and had worked out that we would need to do about 150km per day to make it to Laos before our visa expired which would take mightier souls than us to achieve. The train ride was fun and scenic and we had no trouble from the guards getting our bikes on board. In Kunming we found our way to a great little hostel where we stayed for two nights. We had the best noodles of the trip from the no-frills digs over the road and discovered a huge food market around the corner.
With our new found knowledge of Chinese food we walked in with confidence. Honestly, in some sections, it was like a vegetarian’s paradise. The quality and array was almost too much for me to take after so many months in Central Asia where I was grateful if I happened to find some grated carrot in my rice. Oh yes, they’re taro and yams and lotus roots and underwater potatoes we said knowledgeably. And they would be garlic shoots and cauliflower stalks over there, and oh my god broad beans and broccolini (we hadn’t seen anything this familiar the whole trip!). Red dates and goji berries – I was almost squealing with excitement as I threw a few handfuls into a bag and handed over the equivalent of 30p to the vendor. These are really expensive back home I assured Chris who was looking dubious. With all this fresh food and believe me, this is only scratching the surface of what’s on offer, I honestly can’t
understand why people still feel the need to eat maggots and meal worms, but there they were as well, out on tables waiting to be bought, alongside all the other stuff you hear about in Chinese markets such as dogs, pig snouts and goat heads. An online vegetarian guide we found for China went some way to explaining it: “In recent history many Chinese were too poor to afford meat. Now this generation have grown up and had children of their own and back with a vengeance will munch on almost any critter they can get their hands on”. So there you go. Each to their own – we’re all different. With this in mind, I averted my eyes from the woman taking a blowtorch to a chicken, the live crabs bound up with string, frogs packed into string bags and the fish and eels slowly suffocating in shallow trays, and instead focused my attention on the moon cakes and cookies, steamed buns, dumplings, fresh noodles and every grain and pulse you’ve ever heard of. We again filled our food bag with the best selection of goodies for the trip yet and set off for Laos.
One further point of note from back at Yangshuo, was that Chris decided it was time to change the chains on the Trolls. He couldn’t find nine speed chains but solved this problem by buying eight speed chains along with new eight speed cassettes. And so I said goodbye to my three favourite gears – the two easiest ones for pushing myself plus 20kg of stuff up hills, and my favourite biggest gear for the rare occasions when we find perfect descending conditions and can go really fast downhill. This change, which I was assured would make me stronger, came just in time for the final section of our China leg – the rolling mountains of Yunnan!
The Yunnan province according to a geographer I know, is a dissected plateau. I agree that this is probably correct and qualify it as being a heavily dissected plateau. The features of a dissected plateau are that it has become hilly as a result of being carved up by rivers over the centuries. As it was originally a plateau all hills (or mountains in this case as they were about 1500m high) consistently rise to the same elevation. We had no idea how gruelling it was going to be when we set off from Kunming to see the Yuanyang Rice Terraces on our way down to Laos. We just wanted to avoid the main highway and thought the terraces would be nice to see. God… there’s a lot to be said for research. The first climb was a long 40km in warm conditions. Shit, I hope we don’t have to do that again, I said as I eyed the surrounding mountains on our race back to the valley floor. We did it many more times. It was another eight days of repeated climbing out of one valley just to drop into the next. We usually managed one and a bit valleys a day. And to top it off, we arrived in Xinjie, the central point for accessing the Yuanyang terraces, to find the whole mountain was shrouded in thick fog and for our efforts, we saw nothing. Mind you, we still had to pay the equivalent of two days budget to use the road.
Despite the wearying riding, in some ways this was the best part of our tour in China. We had gotten the hang of finding and ordering food, finding places to stay and we got a good snapshot of China from the mega progressive nation hell bent on achieving self sufficiency to the very traditional cultures of some of the minority groups in rural areas. People on the whole weren’t interested in us. We rarely got a wave or smile as we went by which had been the norm in every other country bar Georgia. But then we would have random incidents such as one lunch stop when we went to pay the bill to find that it had already been paid by another guest who we hadn’t even seen let alone spoken to. One night we couldn’t find accommodation and people actually ran away when we tried to ask for help. Another night a man jumped on his motor bike and showed us to a gem of a place. We still had to look down as we showered to avoid falling into the squat loo but the bathroom was clean and had hot water and in the morning we found we
were in the centre of a very happening market. We saw whole suburbs of cities which were brand new and completely empty with wide new roads going nowhere and we saw tiny villages where the women proudly wear traditional dress and old women will climb out of the back of a truck unassisted with a basket of chooks under one arm to sell at the weekly market.
The agriculture here was also gob-smacking in its magnitude and organisation. And it is immaculate to look at. Every bit of accessible land is used to grow everything from leafy greens and beans to entire valleys of bananas and rice or tea. I can’t even begin to fathom how they manage the quantities that must be produced. Despite not seeing Yuanyang, we still saw plenty of rice terraces which have been hewn from the mountains by the Hani people over hundreds of years. And the bananas! Millions and millions of the trees which on the upside must form a huge carbon sink but at the complete expense of biodiversity. There is obviously an awareness of regeneration though where deforested areas have been replanted and allowed to relapse to jungle and we even came across a section of preserved rainforest as we got closer to the Laos border.
The worst day of the whole month in China was when the road turned to gravel for the last 30km to the top of a valley. It wasn’t as technically difficult as a lot of the dirt roads we have ridden but it was busy enough with traffic that we were coated in dirt by the end of it and slippery enough that we were riding until after dark to reach the town at the top. We went straight for dinner when we arrived and were stretching out the front of the restaurant while we waited for our food when a German couple appeared. They were the first westerners we had seen since Kunming and they asked where we had come from that day. I was so buggered I couldn’t remember. I looked at my Garmin and said we had done 90km. They had done 66km which instantly made us feel better, but it also turned out they had come overland from Germany via trains, buses, taxi etc. and inspired by all the cycle tourists they had met along the way, had kitted themselves out with made-in-China cycle touring kit in Kunming for the next leg of their journey through SE Asia. The poor things had been dealing with broken spokes every day and if I thought I was knackered from the long days of climbing, they were really suffering. The girl asked me how I found riding on the gravel road today. I was still covered in a layer of dirt and reassured her between mouthfuls of rice and eggplant that I definitely found it as awful as she did. We left before them the next morning and noticed one of their bikes had a puncture to deal with before they could set off. They must be behind us somewhere and I always think about them now when we are on difficult sections.
Our last stop in China was a big town called Mengla where we stayed for two nights to try to recover a bit before hitting Laos. And the best part about it – we woke up in the morning to find a street stall set up opposite the hotel with the best variety of steamed buns yet! You should have seen the girl’s smile when she saw us crossing the road on the second morning. Oh yes, her profits soared that week!
So on to Laos where we hear they serve their coffee strong with condensed milk and sugar! Sounds like life there is gonna be sweet 🙂