Beyond the Bike

Stories from Stuart and Claire's original & recent journeys….
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China: A Country of Contrasts

As Deng Xiapeng and Mao Ze Dong both said 'One country, two systems'. Although they were talking about Macau/Hong Kong's relationship with the mainland, we saw this to be true in so many different ways. It is quite fitting that our final African country was one of huge (probably more well known) contrasts; geographic, ethnic and economic. Our final Asian country and of the entire journey (or the small part of the enormous country we have seen) really is also one of startling contrasts. Our first month was spent in the South of this huge country, travelling through the provinces of Yunnan, Guangxi and Guangdong en route to Hong Kong.



The country is so completely different from anywhere we have been. Sad to say, my first impressions were not great (although they did change). We arrived from Laos by bus on which the entire journey was spent trying to avoid passive smoking. Other 'dangers' were people spitting and having them pushing and shoving past us at every stop. The idea of different cultural norms was made very evident at meal times and as for the public loos, I have never seen anything like them! Usually there are no doors so you squat down next to someone else, often they have a communal flush every 10 minutes which is not very strong so there are literally piles of poo around. 


In one of the few western loos, a reminder of toilet etiquette!


Sadly communicating was often nigh on impossible as well. Apart from in very touristy places no one speaks English (why should they). I have a smattering of Mandarin but found most people very unsympathetic. Many people simply laughed when I tried to speak, some walked away shaking their hands and heads at me, some just fired back at me in super-fast Mandarin in which I was lucky to get one word. I lost my confidence completely which then made it even harder to communicate. 

All that said, when we did find someone who spoke English it was so interesting to talk to them about their views on their country and especially the current political and economic situation (see Stu's blog for more on this).  Sometimes we found people who could not speak English but were willing to give my terrible Mandarin a chance and really appreciate me trying (and usually failing) with the pronuniation.  These people were so kind and generous.  At lunch on one of our first days, after bringing our food, the waitress then brought over a map of the city (Kunming) and pointed our where we were, then brought over two coffees, on the house. Things like this happened a few times and renewed our faith in the Chinese!  In Kunming we stayed with American 'Warmshowers' host Michael and his Chinese girlfriend, Kiki, who took us our for a stunning ride around the local hills (although he was rather a lot faster on his road bike than us on Thandie). The next time we needed to use public transport, we were also stumped. Having been told that we could take the bike on the train, when we arrived, we were then told we could not take it into the station! We then enlisted the help of Elinor from who was very helpful in getting us to our next destination.

Although sometimes we struggled with the people, we fell in love with China's physical geography. We spent a week up by the Myanmar border towards Tibet surrounded by mountains well over 5000m high. We loved exploring the ancient cities of Dali and Lijiang and adored the hike we did in Tiger Leaping Gorge (despite me having probably the worst dodgy tummy of the trip). 


Lijiang first thing in the morning before the hoards of tourists arrive.


An incredible view to wake up to, at Tiger Leaping Gorge.

A day trip up to Longjii (the dragon’s back rice terraces) was also incredibly impressive, especially seeing yet another contrast - of the rich city dwellers and touristy cable cars with the rice farmers still using manual equipment.



This contrast became a bit of a theme for the trip. On one ride, we cycled through small villages where ploughs were pulled by oxen or water buffalo, wizened old ladies carried heavy buckets over their shoulders on bamboo poles, the smell of wild garlic was in the air and yet the city dwellers were prancing around the fields, in their designer gear, taking photos and then jumping on their mopeds which were usually painted with the union jack or the stars and stripes!


The sheer scale of the land being farmed manually.

One great bit of old fashioned farming making the most of new technology was when farmers laid their crops (sometimes wheat, sometimes beans) on the road for the cars (and bikes) to drive over. They would then sweep up the beans which the weight of the vehicles had removed from the stems!


Helping the farmers get their beans (think cars do it better than bikes).

We  stayed with Nancy (another warmshowers host) in Nanning and spoke to her English classes at the university. From Nanning, we cycled to Guilin and then to Yangshuo and down to Macao. This was some of the best cycling we have done on the entire trip. The day from Guilin to Yangshuo was quite simply stunning. We found very good roads through rice paddies, no traffic, a few bemused farmers and amazing karst scenery. The road we planned to take was closed due to recent floods and so we had to get a bamboo ferry cross the Li River to continue our cycle.




In a small village just outside Yangshuo we stayed with Mark and his family who accompanied us on a small ride, showed us around the area and cooked the best Chinese food we have had. Mark taught us (well, me, Stuart gave up after about 10 minutes) to make dumplings.



As we got closer to the coast the massive conglomeration of cities crept up on us. Gaoming, Jiangmen, Zhuhai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen - they all merge into one and do not make for nice cycling, so we took the ferry from Zhuhai to Hong Kong.  That is after staying with Jason and Cara (our final warmshowers hosts!!) in Zhuhai and Stu cycling in Jason’s team in a criterium road race in Shenzhen.  Things were going well for Stu until he didn’t realise he was cycling in the last lap, wondering why others were all speeding up around him!  I was just glad he didn’t crash as we saw some rather nasty falls and pile ups on the course earlier.



We then managed to fit in a trip to the 19th country (sort of) - Macau. We spent five minutes in a casino after realising that the minimum bet was well over our daily budget. We spent longer enjoying the peace and quiet in the old colonial streets, a world away from the glitzy casinos and the huge towerblocks back over the border.


Cannons from the ancient fort point accusingly at the garish, golden Casino Lisboa

Arriving in Hong Kong was a great moment although we still had a lot of hills to cycle over (500m of climbing in the 20km from ferry to where we were staying!). We had fewer than 100km left to cycle to reach our 10,000km target and our plans were coming together for another group ride in Hong Kong.  More on this ride, Hong Kong, Shanghai and other things in the next blog.


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