26 November 2007—7 January 2008
One of my final glimpses of Vietnam was of a motorcycle loaded sky-high with caged chickens, hitting the skids and coming to grief on hwy 1A. Considering my experience there, a road accident full of chickens seemed an unsurprising and appropriate image to depart with. Needless to say, the chooks were pretty unimpressed with the driver—the ones that still had heads, that is.
China welcomed me with blue skies and quiet roads, and Pingxiang, the first city I came to 20 km inside the frontier, was modern and clean-ish, and I was relieved with the relative tranquility compared with Vietnam. But this, of course, wasn’t exactly going to be representative of ‘the world’s fastest growing economy’. China isn’t quite as chaotic as its southern neighbor, but it isn’t all sweet steam buns either. China, I would soon learn, is more like a sweet ‘n’ sour stir-fry, and for better or worse, if you’re on a bicycle all ingredients are available for the tasting.
Note: For variety and to give some idea of what it’s like day to day on the road, this installment of the journey is a compilation of entries from my paper journal—use of present and past tenses preserved.
The young and attractive female Vietnamese immigration officer with a recovering, king-size black eye handed back my passport and sent me on my way. A few kilometers down the road the huge gleaming white edifice of China immigration was unmistakable. This place had nothing to do with the usual rundown gateway with disgruntled, terminally bored guards, incapable of looking at you in the eye. It was more like an air terminal and the officers were actually friendly. I had the feeling this ancient empire, ‘next/new superpower’, booming factory of consumer garbage, Olympic wielding colossus, had just been born. I’d made it to China. I was excited and ready to get stuck into it, but first I had to offload a bag of fruit because customs wouldn’t allow it through. I began eating and offering to everyone in sight but no one would accept the fruits of a bearded wild man, so I stuffed myself stupid and hit the wall at 15 mandarins and 5 bananas—a PB.
Slow ride, undulating country, missed turn off adding 14 km. Arrived at Ningming 4:00 p.m. but couldn’t find place to stay so continued through the afternoon and night. Stopped for water at the roadside house and the locals agreed for me to camp on their land. They offered their house but I declined because there was a blaring TV and I wanted to sleep. It must have been an occasion to party so the TV soon came outside playing dreadful Chinese love songs full blast. Why do they do that; play the TV so loud it distorts the sound?
I figured I wasn’t going to sleep there so I may as well ride into the night. I rode hard to stave off the cold. Next town bought eggs and noodles and entertained the locals with the camp stove. (Presumably, having the convenience of a small petrol fueled cooker would make a big difference to the lives of people out in the country.) Eventually at about 3:00 a.m. I got bored with riding and camped in a cane field, freezing with no sleeping bag or cold weather gear except one long-sleeve thermal top.
The morning is my favorite time of the day. The evening comes a close second for different reasons. At the end of the day I’m tired and hungry and it’s time to relax and have a feed and a beer and a look over my maps, and add and subtract kilometers, and reflect on the road passed and attempt to read a few pages of a book before passing out, but the early morning is special. Still mist shrouds the land and steam rises from the irrigation water catchments. The glow of daybreak washes over the cane fields and illuminates the limestone peaks, and filters through the dusty villages, and brings life to the steaming, crowing, quacking, squawking, yapping market place, and I get the feeling that the frontier is everywhere and it’s endless because the morning brings promise of adventure and what goes beyond is always wild and unknown.
This morning buffalo carts are piled high with cabbages and some other variety of green leaf vegetable, at a trading ground in the northern end of town. A dozen or so villagers are lingering about smoking cigarettes and crowd around me when I stop to take a photo. I’m feeling good because I only have a short 40 km to my destination, Nanning, capital of Guangxi province and first major city in China.
I stop at the large market in Wuxu for breakfast and the place is full of animals, living and dead, being chopped, plucked and traded: dogs, chickens, ducks, fish. I catch a glimpse of a goose with its neck slit while the handler exsanguinates the twitching bird. I turn away.
Nanning is large and smoggy and I don’t know where I’m going. It seems like too much work but once over the impressive concrete and steel arch bridge I take the paved walkway beside the river in the direction of the skyscrapers.
Before setting out from Binyang I purchase a Chinese road atlas. I’ve found it close to useless trying to pronounce the Chinese names using the English map, although both are essential for navigation. The atlas has enhanced my communication with the locals greatly. From Qianjiang I branch off onto minor roads which will lead me onto a longer more wiggly route, but presumably more pleasant, through the remote backblocks of southeastern China.
From Laibin I had a bitch of a time trying to get directions to a nearby town. I wasted a good hour in the reception of a major hotel. None of the five girls behind the desk had the foggiest how to get to a town 15 km away. The kind receptionist did her best to help though, and eventually fagged down an auto rickshaw to lead me the way out of the city.
(The Chinese auto rickshaw, known as a Tuk-Tuk in Thailand—no idea what they call it in China—is essentially a motorbike with a small open cabin welded on to the back end, which can fit about six people. The vehicles aren’t only used for ferrying people. You often see them dangerously loaded beyond capacity with all sorts of living and nonliving things.)
Passing out the backend of Laibin into the country, I came across a vagrant crouched to the ground picking scraps of rice from the dirt with chopsticks and spitting out the grit with a grimace of understandable repugnance. I had a few steam buns left from my breakfast supply hanging from my handlebar, so I turned back and handed them to him. No words passed. The man was bearded, filthy beyond recognition of even his ethnicity, and had the look of utter astonishment as though I was extraterrestrial. There are a lot of poor people doing whatever they can to eke out some kind of subsistence existence but I’ve rarely seen homeless in China.
In Zhenlong, a small hill town, I stopped at the market in the town centre and was invited for tea by a group of local men. We didn’t have much to say, of course, because we couldn’t really communicate. Regardless, I spend 1.5 hours engaged in the ritual of preparing pots of tea and knocking back nips from tiny glass tea cups, and watching world sport highlights on a dusty TV mounted high on the grubby wall. Outside women were selling meat, oranges and boiled corn, and mangy dogs were sniffing about and lapping at muddy puddles.
Shortly past Zhenlong I came to a badge crossing. A small group of teenage boys were acting tough, smoking cigarettes and poking at my bike, attempting to wind me up. As most men in China smoke, I assume it’s probably less a rebellious thing and more a coming of manhood thing for these boys to have cigarettes hanging from their gobs. I charmed them by snapping their pictures. By contrast it’s very rare to see women smoke. I’m offered cigarettes several times a day and sometimes the pipe, which looks like a long bamboo bong. It maybe seen as rude, certainly baffling, that I gratefully decline their token of respect.
Down the road the town folk of Gao’an tried to get me to stay the night but I wanted to make more distance. It was slow going on rough, unmarked dirt tracks and I got lost in the v-sections and cross roads that flow like a labyrinth through the vast ocean of mature cane fields. But I wasn’t too fused because it was that mid-afternoon time of day when the sun has dropped deep enough to cast an orange haze out over the physical world and I am perfectly content to be nowhere else on this planet than where I am.
People give different directions or some don’t care to give any real direction at all, so they throw a lazy arm in one or another un-interpretable way. It’s rare, but clear to tell, when a person takes an instant dislike to me, because they are the ones who throw lazy arms only after they’re forced to acknowledge my existence, as opposed to being amazed that I exist at all, which is the common, logical reaction out in the country where people have no need to venture beyond their locality and foreigners are non-existent. Their antithesis is the wrinkly old man with a lifetime in the outdoors etched onto his face, who, after seeing me completely perplexed with the situation and at a total loss to comprehend his friend’s roughly sketched map, led me to the second barge crossing down a single-track dirt path on his rickety, squeaky bike. I offered him a mandarin but he wouldn’t accept, muttering something about having no teeth.
(Note that the overwhelming majority of people in China and Southeast Asia are very friendly and curious and will go out of their way to help if needed.)
At dusk I arrived at Shilong—looking sinister under the fading light and even more decrepit than most towns as the usual works, building ruble and debris is piled and spilt everywhere. After a wash, I crossed the street to an outdoor vender for a large helping of Chao Fen (fried noodles) and one bloke wouldn’t leave me a lone. I guessed he was gay, for among other reasons, he kept inviting me to go dancing. Apparently he was a member of the local Tango club. Naturally, I declined the invitation to Tango with a Chinese man so he took the opportunity to impress me in another way; he grabbed a fresh bottle of beer and popped the crown seal off using his teeth. (Like a scene in a movie, I didn’t think people actually did that.) The constant attention can become overwhelming and sometimes I really yearn for my own space.
Passed another homeless eating discarded scraps of sugarcane. There are oceans of the stuff around being harvested, sold by the roadside and trucked around to processing plants. The locals peel it with machetes, chew the core and spit out the fiber.
The men appear to be pretty relaxed with life. It’s common to see men standing by the road while their women are sweating it out tilling the field, harvesting the cane or aggressively pruning the citrus orchards. I’m occasionally taken aback when I roll through a village and all (yes, It would appear ALL) the men are lazing around drinking tea, smoking pips and playing pool (or cards) like it’s a public holiday, while the women are busy with their duties: cooking meals, washing clothes, chopping wood and doing hard labor. In some parts even the majority of auto-rickshaw and taxi drivers are women—a curiosity unseen in Southeast Asia, or anywhere else for that matter. It’s more pleasing to see groups of women taking a breather and playing Mahjong in the streets.
Over one pass, through some patchy flatlands with limited crops due to the coming winter, and by late afternoon I enter a region of spectacular limestone mountains. Big hogs squashed into bamboo cages strapped to motorbikes, zoom by. I’m taking a photo and admiring the view in one town and hear some chickens screech. I turn to see two chickens swinging upside down from the back end of a motorbike within an inch of the ground (usually they’re hung from the handle bar). The motorbike has just come off the sidewalk and knocked the chickens senseless on the curb. A moment later I turn to catch a glimpse of a woman running a knife across the throat of a chook and the unsettling reaction of the bird tensing up before dropping limp.
These are powerful images that remain with me—an important part of the nomadic experience when so much changes day to day, kind of like mental chapter markers that help me distinguish the multitudes of people, places and experience encountered.
The town of Yangshuo—the first and only tourist destination I come to in China—on the wild serpent-like Li Jiang River, with a dramatic backdrop of limestone peaks, is a setting to die for. I intended to stay one day but Yangshuo is so immensely scenic and tranquil that days add onto days. I stayed a week.
It’s getting colder by the day and I still have 10 plus days to get to Nanchang to pickup my winter gear. The trees have shed their leaves and the land has turned to the dusty pale brown of winter. The mandarins are mostly harvested and the deep evergreen orchards set a striking contrast within the withered landscape.
I ride away from Guanyinge early and cross a concrete bridge. The road continues along the western side of the river. It’s a beautiful section and the traffic is light. At Guanyang I discover with great frustration that a road direct to Dao Xian marked in the road atlas, doesn’t actually exist. I could have taken an alternate route but too late. This blunder has added a tough 70 km—an extra day.
Many villages have their own industry: wooden coat hanger village, rice noodle village, bamboo village and, the most extraordinary of the lot, Wenshi—granite village. The stone is extracted from nearby quarries and the mass of machinery used for processing the rock runs for kilometers. Circular saws with blades at least a meter wide, suspended on tracks cutting gigantic blocks of Granite into wafer thin slices and other forms. And everything in sight—the whole surreal landscape including the river—is swathed in ghostly grey granite dust.
It was getting late but I decided to keep on, to make up for lost ground. I traveled up over the pass into Hunan province at dusk and the roads turned to shit! The day couldn’t have got worse. The roads were in works, a mess, and though remote and quiet, any passing vehicle would kick up a dust cloud so thick and blinding I’d have to switch off my headlamp to see anything at all. I struggled on for about 10km, maybe 2 hours riding, until I found refuge in Xianzijiao.
Another tough one!
The road is becoming more and more crumbled and the Chinese are proving themselves to be as horn-happy as the Vietnamese. My attitude has suffered. A light spray of rain most of the day and cold enough to have mist-breath at midday. I arrive and find a rough hotel in Guiyang, late night after doing 113 clicks. The typical group of young men crowd around me at reception. I’m having the usual trouble communicating, and the men are joking and laughing about the whole mess, burdening communication further. Despite the complete language barrier, I turn to the lot of them and tell them in a way that could only be interpreted as having no uncertain terms, to shove-off. They get the picture.
Waiting at the elevator is a group of smartly dressed businessmen smoking cigars. They sense my discontentment and try to strike up a conversation, but I don’t understand, so one of them pulls a fresh wrapped cigar from his pocket and hands it to me. I try to explain that I don’t smoke but this falls on deaf ears. He insists, sticking a toothpick through the butt of the cigar, that this is not a matter of choice…
I drop down on the bed and look at my weary self in the large wall mirror. I’ve noticed in the last few days, bags developing under my eyes and my face is a redder shade than usual. I study my features despondently. I’m tired and gaze at the cigar in my fingers, and decide it’s not such a bad idea, so I light it up and take a few puffs. My head goes light and before long the tension recedes. I realize that the businessman knew exactly what he was doing. I’m ready for a beer and a feed.
Slept badly. Hoot‘n’ toot‘n’ traffic screaming all the way to my fifth level hotel room. Zero inspiration to leave. It’s wet and drizzly outside, which isn’t bad—it cleanses the air—but it’s going to be a cold one. As usual people in the hotel can’t help with direction but I find it eventually, stopping for noodle soup and steamed buns for breakfast on the way out of town. It’s plenty of up and down and I’m pleased to discover very minor traffic. It’s cold all day. Eventually the roads turn to crap and it’s a mud-fest. It’s getting late and I’m wet and cold and uninspired. I’ve been feeling negative for days now and I regret my bad attitude. I try to snap myself out of it.
In the tiny settlement of Gaotingsi, wet and cold, I finally find another rough dwelling being passed off as a hotel. There is absolutely nothing about this place that represents a hotel; in fact I’m not even sure it is. The place is very poor but at 10 Yuan ($1.30) no complaints about the rates. The old couple are alarmed at my lack of warm clothing and are very caring and organize a large bowl of hot water to wash with and a pair of slippers and a trench coat, and offer me unlimited cups of tea and rice crackers, and I sit with the two old girls under a blanket draped over a small square table under which is burning a compressed coal brick (commonly used for cooking), and nobody understands anybody, but who cares when you can laugh about it. I’m on the mend!
When it comes to spitting in public, there’s no restraint in Chinese culture and no one expects it. The sound of phlegm being wrenched up from the recesses of the throat and spat out in the most spectacularly ungraceful manner is as much a part of the soundscape of Chinese civilization as the hoot‘n’ toot‘n’ traffic and the noodle slurping. I’m not exaggerating. China is quite unique in this regard. I’ve seen people hawk in shops, in restaurants, in front of me while I’m eating, in lifts, I’ve even seen one bloke hawk in the foyer of a large hotel and not one of the 30+ people there, including the receptionists (with the exception of myself), flinched. That’s right, up and out onto the marble floor and no one cared. I’m big on cultural diversity, just don’t hawk in front of me while I’m eating, please!
One other thing the Chinese are big on are explosives. Perhaps this is unsurprising as they were, after all, the inventers of gunpowder. Out of the blue, you’ll hear the rapid crack-popping of fire crackers like miniature cluster bombs, and it can happen anywhere, anytime, country or city. Fireworks are just apart of the excitement of life. I’ve seen fireworks set off during the day, for no apparent reason and on more than one occasion. For example, a small village in the morning with no one there to see except a bicycle nomad and a few sleepy locals—only they were more interested in the nomad and his cooker. In many ways, China is like a great living circus and that’s what fascinates.
Nan Chang holds no surprises, no monument or point of interest that I came across—more or less what I’ve come to expect of Chinese cities of its million-plus size. It has a modern façade but I doubt you’d need to dig deep beneath the surface to find, well, the other China. Strolling around, getting lost in the backstreets to find the bloody carcass of a hairy greyhound being skinned on the sidewalk, is simply the other scene from the glitzy department stores and multistory celebrity banners displaying Swiss watches and other icons of affluence.
Eight days squandered on bureaucracy. Time consumed by customs requiring extensive paper work to free up my winter gear, plus 5 days waiting for a 30 day visa extension. Add the weekend and it becomes 7 and, of course, those 7 days are sacrificed from the precious Visa you are waiting for. There’s no way to speed up the process; that’s how long it takes to print out a sticker that consumes yet another full page of your passport.
Two weeks later I arrived in Shanghai. I spent several days confined to my room in the Love Inn with a nasty head cold, where the ‘Hotel Advices’ on the door informed me that I was ‘not allowed to bustle, go whoring (What kind of a love hotel is this?), gamble, [or] traffic in narcotics’.
Unfortunately, I’ve had to put the expedition on hold to return to the real world for a while in order to cash-up for the next stage of the journey. Freedom, if it exists at all, is only temporary. On a positive note, my search for work has brought me back to a country I adore: Japan.
My journey to the cold white north of Hokkaido will be the next and final installment of the first stage of the expedition.