Location: Beijing, China. Day 516. Miles on the clock: 18,115
Delving into rural China again; Guanxi Province; the G322 road from Nanning to Yangshuo; countless conical limestone karsts with lush skins of greenery serrating the horizon; the glowing emerald carpet of flat farmland connecting the karsts in the golden late-afternoon light; tidy little sheaves leaning together in freshly harvested fields; a long stretch of hopelessly pot-holed road; a meal of boiled starfish skin with an indifferent “chef” smoking, hocking and spitting a couple of yards away; a village woman spying from behind a tree as I perform my morning defecation al fresco; the northerly headwind which I was to battle most days on the ride to Beijing; a ten minute conversation with a women using online translation that ended in her asking if I speak Chinese for a third time; a road over rolling hills, loosely tracing a river, that brought me to Yangshuo.
This small, increasingly-touristic town has become a mark on the map. Nestled snugly among the limestone mini-mountains, with the Li River running through, it is extremely picturesque despite the droves of tour groups that shuffle uncomplainingly through the small cobblestone streets; herded by a flag-waving guide. Thankfully, the tourists tend to only visit one or two “sanitized” specimens of the dozens of quaint villages nearby so only a short bike ride took me out of the melee and back in time to a place where ramshackle old buildings perch on hillsides with neat terraces spilling down to the valley floor. Men drive buffalo along hard-packed mud paths with thin sticks and women carry buckets hanging from a plank on their shoulders. Water comes from hand-worked pumps and villagers wave with broad, gap-toothed smiles.
Michi (the German I met in Vietnam) arrived and we quickly found him a rusty old mountain bike for 260 yuan (£26). The morning we rode out of Yangshuo, we first walked a couple of miles upriver and swam into the centre among completely untouched scenery. The current carried us, with increasing speed, around a couple of bends and back to the town where we were swept swiftly through the shallows. Scrambling gracelessly out of the water, we were heavily photographed by a tour group before padding barefoot back to the hostel and our bikes.
We rode north in perfect weather. Cool, sunny mornings followed by warm afternoons; a relief after the ceaseless swelter of South East Asia. We cooked lunches in the shade and indulged in hour-long snoozes before pushing on. In the evenings we briefly stopped into small towns to buy one or two pounds worth of tofu, rice and vegetables. The produce markets are always fun in small-town China. Small crowds followed us through the rows of dirty stone slabs that act as counters, asking question after question in Chinese and giggling childishly. We could only answer, guessingly, with yingguo and deguo (English and German), ar-shi-suh and ar-shi-yii (24 and 21 years old), or Beijing accompanied by pointing at ourselves and our bikes (Beijing; as in we are riding to…).
The phrase bu yao (literally ‘not want’) is endlessly useful as venders have a habit of enthusiastically thrusting duck eggs in your face while you inspect the cucumbers or triumphantly producing two kilos of garlic when you ask clearly for rice (mi fan). By the time we returned to our bikes (unavoidably with our purchases all bagged separately; environmental awareness is non-existant in China, government and citizens alike) we would usually have acquired quite a tail of curious children, jostling one another to get closer but not wanting to be the ones at the front, dangerously close to the tall, unpredictable white men. I rarely resisted the opportunity to scatter the crowd by suddenly turning and emitting a furious roar. This deterred them for a few short seconds before they returned and began trying to stroke or yank the apparently fascinating body hair that grows on guai lou (“foreign devils”); a disgusting feature to the Chinese eye.
Camping spaces are easy enough to find as China is apparently a ‘communist’ nation (The People’s Republic) so most land is common land. Local people tend to leave you alone and I’ve always felt very safe here. We slept in a diverse range of places: a mandarin farm (where we shamefully pilfered a few days worth of vitamin C), several construction sites, a quarry, a town centre hillock, and on pingpong tables in a half-build apartment block (I woke in the morning literally seconds before my table collapsed). Our tentside evening meals became bigger and better each day and we ate them with the quick, noisy, conversationless manner familiar to Chinese.
One cool, sunny morning we were invited by the pump attendants of a remote petrol station to join their chicken, rice and beer breakfast. Michi confused the only customer in an hour by manning the pump himself and we rode on into the wind with fuzzy heads and leaden legs. By lunch we both felt embarrassingly hungover. A few days later, a stout, middle-aged woman saw me awkwardly trying to work her front-yard waterpump and simultaneously wash under it. She scooped up a jug and insisted on repeatedly filling the jug and baptismally pouring it over my head while I meekly soaped and rinsed my grimy, near-naked body.
People received us with both surprise and kindness but often with suspicion. Foreigners are little trusted in China as there is a belief nurtured into the mind of every Chinese that they are the chosen people who inhabit Zhonguo (The Middle Kingdom) which is placed exactly between heaven and Earth and is the only truly civilized state. All outsiders are, by definition, barbarians. This attitude certainly exists in Western countries but is by no means unanimous as it is here.
Each day we saw people setting off thousands of firecrackers for the mid-autumn Zhongqiu (Lunar Harvest) Festival; the debris of partially-burned red paper shells littered the roadsides, sometimes ankle-deep. Wealthy wedding parties would proceed slowly through towns in a sombre convoy of beribboned black cars, throwing several lit strings of a hundred or more crackers out of their tinted windows. A thick smoke would then settle over the scene for an hour while the smell of gunpowder prevailed.
One night we camped on a hillock in the suburbs of a relatively small city called Linglin. In the morning, our mount was severally ascended and descended by a parade of elderly individuals exhibiting their array of unusual exercises. This phenomenon is to be seen in all Chinese cities. Some geriatrics swing their arms in great arcs with each step while others repeatedly clap their hands or slap their chests with a look of intense concentration on their faces. Some choose to move in an odd stumbling jog that is somehow slower than a walk and still more give out a strained “huhhgh” with each exhalation, as if they have just been punched in the stomach. Less amusing and more calming to watch are groups performing the slow, syncronised movements of Tai Chi in parks. On this particular morning, one of the hillock’s visitors stopped a few yards from us, concealed by a bush, and launched into a long series of piercing, off-key operatic sounds that must have carried a long way in the still morning air.
The road took us past Heng Shan, the southernmost of China’s five sacred Taoist mountains. Kings, emperors and pilgrims once journeyed here to make sacrifices to their vast pantheon of gods. We passed the 1290m mountain during the International Taoist Forum which had drawn thousands of visitors from far and wide. It’s a four-hour walk to the top but nowadays most people opt for either the minibus or the cable car, both of which run to the summit.
The provinces we passed through offered opposite extremes: beautiful landscapes of traditional terraced cultivation, bamboo forests, small tea plantations, peaceful villages and fruit orchards. On the other end of the spectrum are the results of a manic sprint towards large-scale industrialisation. Hideous powerstations belch thick blackness from towering chimneys; ragged vagrants roam the roadside with meter-long unintended dreadlocks and their meager bundles of possessions dangling from sticks, sifting through piles of rubbish for food and clothing; run-down coal yards wallow in heavy hazes of fumes; tastelessly swollen towns sprawl outwards with ghostly, uninhabited suburbs of ugly, over-priced apartment blocks. China is home to 20 of the world’s 30 most polluted cities.
The most unattractive area we passed through was probably Hunan Province: China’s communist heartland. In 1893, in the small, unassuming Hunan village of Shaoshan, Mao Zadong was born to peasant parents and the future of China became set to take tragic turns in the lifetime of this one man. The budding Chinese Communist Party (CCP) based their operations from the provincial capital Changsha in the 1920s and when Chairman Mao came to power in 1949 he lent particular focus to this region. The amount of deaths resulting from Mao and the CCP’s “Great Leap Forward” are uncertain but estimates are counted in the tens of millions. The current government’s laughable official line on Mao is that he was 70% right and 30% wrong (recently downgraded from 80/20).
Today Changsha is a modern city of 7-million with a clean, neatly laid-out centre, several parks and a glittering Central Business District. However, as with many modern Chinese cities, it feels soulless; a backwards provincial capital robbed of tradition when catapulted helter-skelter into the 21st Century. The result is a place where I saw a mother, walking past a 50-floor glass skyscraper, stop and hold her 3-year-old son at arm’s length while he emptied his bowels onto the pavement; a town that has donkey drawn carts on the outskirts while waxed Volkswagens and Hondas cruise the centre; moneyed professionals in business suits stride past alleyways where the inhabitants still wear the navy blue workers’ tunic and trousers of last century’s revolution.
A couple of days in Changsha was enough navigate the often unfathomable maze of Chinese bureaucracy to make a visa extension application. We passed our time with visits to the informative Provincial Museum (which made no mention of Mao) and Changsha City Museum which had a statue of the Chairman in the grounds and a large portrait of him over the permanently closed exhibition hall. Also, in the grounds is the small building which acted as the first CCP headquarters in the early 1920s. Although just an empty, dust-covered four rooms today, on walking through them I couldn’t help but feel an overpowering sense of disgust for the man who operated there almost 100 years ago.
In the hostel we spent our time avoiding an overly-friendly male nurse who, in his words, “teaches masturbation in a sperm bank”. He said he loves his job but has no friends. We also met Julian, an English cyclist on his way home after 3 years riding the roads of Africa, the Americas, Japan and Korea.
We rode on in rain and took a short off-road detour to sneak onto the Expressway which is off-limits to cyclists. After a couple of hours we were evicted by a policeman who gave us a stern but incomprehensible lecture while his giggling subordinate took photos of us with his iphone. The rain lasted a couple of days and we used plastic bags in vain attempts to keep our feet dry. A friendly mechanic fixed a problem with Michi’s bike using aggressive hammer strokes and the following day his rear wheel dramatically gave way (for those technically inclined, 6 inches of steel rim peeled away from the wheel like a banana skin and the tube loudly blew-out after it). He hopped on a bus and I met him 20 miles on in the city of Yueyang where a mole-eyed bicycle repairman (operating from a cart under an overpass) spent two hours building a hopelessly egg-shaped wheel before we found our way to a Giant bicycle shop where the staff fitted a new pre-built wheel and fed us an ample dinner.
We noticed the days getting shorter and the nights colder as we crept north and autumn ploughed south. The trees combusted into numberless reds, oranges and yellows; the rice harvest was over and the ground browned. At the beginning of November, the next crop of rice was sewn in immaculate green lines that stretched away to the horizon on the chessboard-flat land that we crossed. The days shortened, the temperature dropped and I wore socks and used a sleeping bag for the first time in over 6 months.
Wuhan was the next big city and from here I made a one-day return train journey to Changsha to collect my passport with its processed visa. There is little to do in this megatropolis of 10-million souls so we decided to ride around the city. We went a few miles and got onto a fast, busy road before the accident. While absent-mindedly cruising side-by-side down a hill at about 25mph, our handle bars clipped each other. Michi was the first down and he collided painfully with the tarmac that raced backwards beneath him. His falling bike knocked the back of mine and down I went too, somehow managing to land predominantly on my toppled bike as it scraped to a halt. Thankfully our heads were untouched and no speeding bus had run us over. We staggered onto the pavement to access the damage: cuts and bruises and a broken camera. Our bikes and brains were intact. The traffic continued to rush by, as did a clutch of pedestrians. Not a single individual stopped to help or see if we were OK after our very visible and somewhat spectacular accident. This upset but didn’t entirely surprise us as only two weeks earlier a toddler died after a car ran her over. The event was captured on a traffic camera; 18 passers-by ignored her inert body before a second car ran over her, also failing to stop.
With the mercury dropping we upped the pace on the now perfectly flat land and set our sights on Beijing. The rain began again and Michi’s woefully inadequate tent (bought for £4 in Bangkok) collected a puddle of rain each night. His sleeping bag was wet through as were his clothes. He stoically resisted for a few days before understandably taking a train to the capital. I put my head down and pedalled hard for the final leg; bypassing cities and pulling 100-mile days. A 10-mile long bridge carried me through the mist high above the enormity of the Yellow River. The rain stopped and, the further north I went, the drier the atmosphere became.
On a cold, clear morning I entered Beijing and threaded my way through the morning rush-hour traffic to Tiananmen Square. Here I met Michi under the imposing portrait of Chairman Mao on the gates of the Forbidden City (which is neither forbidden nor a city). 20-million people went about their lives around us and I went about finding a hot shower and a big meal.
Guanxi, Hunan, Hubei, Henan, Hebei: another five provinces and almost 2,000 miles of Chinese roads ridden. I have seen yet more and understand still less of this enigmatic country. I continue to probe and try to draw conclusions but thus far can only conclude that, in a country so massive and so diverse, no over-ridding statements can be made and I can only strive to see more. The fascination continues.
More by this author on his very excellent Blog.