The Russian gateway was barely more than a patch of rough, mismatching buildings set in a barren valley. It’s presence marked by twirling clouds of gravel dust kicked up by each transferring vehicle. My feeble attempt to sneak through the gates was abruptly halted by an austere guard. ‘Bus!’ He demanded, pointing back the way I came with a stiff arm.
This is what I feared; no crossing between Russia and China is permissible by foot. I did my best, however, to try to cycle the few kilometres of no-man’s-land by pleading my case to three separate agents, and as that had failed, a Russian man bought two shuttle bus tickets and gave them to me as a gift, saying, ‘One ticket for you and one for your bike.’ It was a humbling final gesture of Russian generosity, yet I was still disappointed.
Depressingly, I had to dismantle my bike in minutes and shove it into the little remaining space in the cargo compartment of the coach, from the mass of boxes being transported by the chinese passengers. 30 meters past the gates I had to unload the bike bits, lug it all through Russian immigration and feed it through the x-ray machine, then stuff it back into the bus again for the few kilometres of no-man’s-land to Suifenhezhen.
This was my second land crossing into China—the first was from North Vietnam—and on both occasions I arrived at a polished immigration monstrosity that dwarfed the immigration office on the neighbours side of the border.
As I was trying to negotiate the entry process, and most importantly, remembering to ask the immigration agent to stamp a used page of my passport as the book had barely sufficient room to get to Europe, an enthusiastic guard kept distracting me with odd questions, first in broken Russian then in broken English: ‘Bike, money?’ ‘You need yuan?’ ‘You single?’ ‘Want to buy Chinese girl?’ I turn my head for a second, then ‘stamp!’ Fuck! One more fresh page squandered on an entry stamp.
Suifenhezhen is a booming border city—its mass development fed by Russian consumers making overnight trips from Khabarovsk and Vladivostok, for bargain shopping and benders. Scaffolding, concrete and that artificially green glass only seen in China, rises from the dust and rubble that defines Chinese urbanisation. Hope and dreams (in the form of wealth) and progression manifests in that uniquely asian way—awash with neon, noise pollution and multi-national branding. The economic stimulation and the perfect ribbon of road with a bicycle lane the width of a bus, is short lived in a country where rural life is largely impoverished.
I cycled due west into nasty headwinds. Through the dusty, parched, post-winter lands, I passed giant concrete structures with billboards depicting future grandiose housing developments rising from verdant green gardens up to fictional blue skies—the great Chinese dream. Commercial constructions expand over what were probably entire farms. The high security fence at one development, I believed, surrounded a new military compound reflecting those on the russian side of the border, until I rolled by a banner advertising ‘Factory Outlets’.
The Chinese dream under construction at city outskirts.
I got bared by police from the expressway so for the next three days travelled a minor, concrete road wiggling along the undulating countryside, intermittently crossing the expressway and running through shanty villages and charmless, smoking industrial towns. The rough conditions of rural China combined with the heat, fierce headwinds and a face full of dust and grit, made cycling extremely unpleasant. At times the winds became so strong that walking into it was exhausting.
I stopped for food in a tiny bakery that produced steam buns and various racks of cured meat. The shop owner, a beautiful, friendly woman with glistening, black pearl eyes, dialled her cell phone and summoned her two teenage children to meet me. Her son had a good comprehension of English and his mother watched with delight as we communicated. Before I left she refunded the money I paid for the food and gave me two bottles of water and a large bag of buns; produce that I assume she could ill afford to donate. She refused any payment, her son told me, because I was the first foreigner that had ever visited her store.
I rolled away in the late afternoon, back into the headwinds. The noise of people going about their business, boisterous children playing in the dirt, the clatter of machinery and occasional passing vehicles, the entire sound scape seemed to fade away in the wake of that encounter. It’s that indescribably special thing some people have, which leaves me in a state of contemplative silence.
For a few days the winds shifted to favourable north-easterlies. Whole communities of farmers worked barren lands, tilling fields with draught bullocks and noisy two-stroke plough machines. Repetitive clunking rang out across the plough rippled lands as each seed was sown by hand operated devices. Peasants buzzed around on clapped-out motorbikes, spraying the fields with pump operated pesticide packs. These antiquated, inefficient farming practices, at least, employ a hell of a lot of people.
These friendly policemen waved me down and gave me water. Fat chance that would happen back home.
The novelty of being back in China wore off very quickly as the reality hit. China is like a demanding child; it steals your attention in onerous ways, and isn’t easy to like. The repressive conditions in rural China are reflected in every aspect of life: subsistence living, trashing the environment, lawless road culture, lack of patience, repulsive habits. Subsistence living takes advantage of every opportunity to make ends meet: every speck of land that can be cultivated, is; wild edibles are harvested from the roadside; rubbish is looted for plastic and other recyclable materials; Entire mountain valleys are quarried. For three weeks my spirits were sucked out of me as I pushed into hot headwinds, hopping between villages with the charm of dilapidated ghettos, choking on bad air, camping in dirty scraps of land at the roadside or between fields, assaulted by lousy drivers.
It’s a bully culture out there that obeys nothing but the laws of physics—smaller objects move for bigger objects—and the bicycle doesn’t stand a chance. Pedestrian are forced to bolt between traffic, even on green walk signals. Vehicles pointlessly bombard with screeching air horns, and because everyone is crying wolf all the time, the horn has no value as a safety device.
My anticipated route, as vague as it is, originally included a crossing of the Tibetan plateau. However, I found long distance cycling in China so unpleasant that I became embittered with the entire experience. This is not to say that the people are unfriendly, or the country isn’t interesting, or that someone travelling by this or another means would have a similar experience, but I realised early on that in order to keep my sanity I needed to escape as soon as possible. Because I had travelled via Japan and Russia I was already setup for a northern route to Europe, as opposed to the more frequently travelled silk route through central Asia. Getting to Tibet would require several more months of travel south-west through China before arriving at the Himalayas. Rerouting through Mongolia and back into Russia was the logical route to take given my northerly position. As I travelled deeper into China, my thoughts shifted to Mongolia and I became set on the prospect of getting back into nature again. The Himalayas, I had to concede, was another journey. As it’s turned out, the route would have been thwarted anyway. As of early June, China has closed Tibet to foreigners indefinitely. Having limited access to news, the first I heard about it was from other travellers a month later in Erenhot, on the China-Mongolia border.
I preferred entering cities in the mornings, when you can get all sorts of yummy hot meals at the markets. This man made spicy egg cooked in dough. I ate about 6 of them.
I arrived in Tongliao, at the south-eastern corner of Inner Mongolia (Chinese prefecture), still hundreds of kilometres from Mongolia but the last major city before crossing the border. It was my final opportunity to get bike spares for the remote Mongolia section. The assumption that you can get anything in China is false. Obtaining goods as unexceptional as bungee cord or decent road maps or bicycle running gear (even in Beijing I was unable to buy a single chain ring) can launch you on a citywide search that will probably yield nothing. From city to city I came up empty handed to the explanation that ‘Our city is a small city. We don’t have these things here’. But these prefecture-level cities have populations of hundreds of thousands, housed in high density apartment blocks. They are unsightly concrete sprawls set on featureless grids. Endless dumps of rubble from gutted buildings and construction sites consume the pavement and disperse in swirling clouds of dust with the hot summer gusts.
While waiting for a package to clear customs, I left my bike in a crumby hotel and caught the train to Beijing to try to source the bike spares and make a half-hearted sightseeing effort.
Dinner party and cards at my friend Emma’s apartment in Beijing.
The Forbidden City
798 Art Zone
Beijing Quanjude Hepingmen Roast Duck Restaurant. Had Peking duck at the ‘largest Peking Duck restaurant in Asia’. At 200 yuan for half a duck and a couple of beers, It was the first extravagant meal I’ve treated myself to since leaving Japan, but it was worth every yuan. Absolutely superb!
Oriental timbre decor lined corridors feature photos of dignitaries and tyrants who’ve dined there.
Usually my meals looked something like this and cost around 6 yuan.
On the train ride back to Tongliao, I stopped at Shanhaiguan. There I caught a taxi to the Jiumenkou Great Wall—the only section built over water. This section of the wall was virtually void of tourists.
Back north in Tongliao, people scattered for cover, cowering beneath eaves and in shop fronts to witness the beauty of an electric storm. Water gushed out of gutter pipes randomly protruding from building facades. Heavy hail resulted in citywide flooding. I departed in the late afternoon riding through rivers and lakes formed in the slant and depressions of the streets. In the dimming day I cycled west into the country through gail force headwind and heavy showers that conspired to release a second round of thunderous rage. Dripping under my wet weather gear, I took cover under a pathetic, spindly mop of a tree being wiped around in the turbulent wind.
12 km out, I stopped for water at a crumbling village that, like so much of rural China, seemed to be weeping in the drizzle an muddied wreckage of poverty. A guy I met at the shop deplored my being in such miserable conditions and invited me to stay somewhere, I believed, but instead of taking me to a shelter, he lead me to the cop shop. A group of shabby, partially uniformed men surrounded me, making it clear that I was not welcome there and pressed me to return to a hotel in Tongliao. No thanks!
1 km further, at the edge of the village, I stopped at a family restaurant and fumbled through my notebook to order a meal. Across to my right, I looked glumly to the group of family and friends scoffing at a huo guo (hot pot) and racks of dumplings, and back to the chewy, oily chicken dish placed in front of me, regretting with every mouthful the limited menu items scribbled in my notebook.
This man and his daughter invited me to sleep at their restaurant.
Following a chain of bad events through the day, I was kindly invited to sleep in a private dining room to the side of the restaurant. Lying on a thin mattress by the window, I gazed outside the checker panelled glass at a plump spider flapping about on its web in the turbulence. In the opposite corner, a red lantern buffeted and spun in the gail. I listened to the boisterous chatter and bursts of laughter penetrating through the paper thin wall; the incomprehensible noise of foreign language, the inexorable audio of my surreal existence. Out of my pointless dissatisfaction with things, I wondered who’s life might be more trying; the spider’s or mine.
The family were up early preparing the restaurant: sweeping the floors, rearranging the tables. I ordered tea and dumplings for breakfast. Two young guys arrived on a motorbike and invited me to join them for stinky fish huo guo and together we knocked back consecutive shots of 50% baijiu (white spirit) until a fresh bottle was drained. Then they ordered a round of beers. It was 6:30 am.
For the second night in a row I was invited to stay in a room at the back of this ladies restaurant.
I enquired where I may get a fed in town and these lovely people showed me to their restaurant and cooked me a delicious beef fried rice gratis. One of the best things about touring in China is the enormous size of the meals.
At Kailu, a young woman helped me check in to a cheap hotel. The receptionists looked at the large police placard mounted to the wall by the desk—probably for the first time—that states foreigners are prohibited from staying at the hotel, but my local help discreetly urged them to let it slide. Only certain, expensive hotels are allowed to accept foreigners. I avoided accommodation as much as possible, only staying in the occasional hotel when I needed a shower and wanted to checkout a city, killing two birds with the one stone.
Eating dumplings at nearby restaurant, two guys at the neighbouring table excitedly tried to communicate with me, using their phones to translate and calling friends with limited English to answer questions. ‘My friend wants to invite you to dinner,’ came the voice on the line.
‘Now?’ I asked. I was already eating dinner. ‘Ok!’ I agreed.
The guys jumped up. ‘You, let’s go!’ One insisted.
‘I haven’t finished my dumplings. Or my beer.’ I said, pointing to my plate.
‘You, now, let’s go!’ He demanded again, throwing some notes to the waitress for their meals and mine.
Sure, why not? I thought. This kind of opportunity is rare in China. The three of us drove through the town, in pouring rain, in his black Volkswagen Passat to a nondescript restaurant, climbed the stairs to the second floor and entered a small cubicle dinning room, where four friends were eating huo guo. Two of the girls there could speak English well enough. ‘Polease,’ one of them said, pointing out my host.
‘Polease. Polease.’ she reiterated.
‘Police?’ I asked.
‘Yes. Polease, polease, polease,’ she repeated pointing to each member of the dinner party.
Before long bottles of beer and baijiu began to flow. What was likely to be a simple dinner turned into a piss-up with the local police squad, ending in a karaoke booth with everyone belching soppy Chinese love songs. After we were all drunk, I was delivered back to the hotel (that’s forbidden to take foreigners) and shown past the receptionist and up stairs to my door by the group of inebriated police officers. The next morning at checkout, the nervous hotel receptionist disposed of my room receipt and with it evidence of my stay.
Off the road, one on one, I found the Chinese to be great people. As I was never in tourist areas there wasn’t any risk of being ripped off. My experience was quite the opposite. Restaurants often refused payment, I suppose, for the novelty of having a foreigner come by. There was a stretch of about a week when I didn’t pay for a single meal. Usually a festive mood would fill the restaurants with guests and staff gathering around to look at my maps, joke, and ask questions.
I was feeling more content before realising that the farmlands were giving way to rolling grasslands. For the first time I could look out to the horizon without seeing the ubiquitous ugliness of human activity: of upturned land, crumbling structures, garbage and clattering machines. What few fields exist were producing little more than stunted crops from the sandy soil.
It was getting hot. I stopped at a servo for water. The pretty young casher gave me a hug as the boss snapped some pics with her cell phone. They were curious about where I sleep, eat, etc. With minimal English she asked ‘Eat, my house?’
How could I refuse? It was the first time I had been invited to a rural home. I followed her motor scooter over lumpy, muddy dirt roads a few kilometres through the countryside to a small, brick village. I entered her property through tin gates and parked my bike by the rear wall of the house. A chained dog let out a few lazy barks then retreated back to the shade. A red rusty tractor in disrepair and bits of machinery and farm equipment were scattered around the courtyard. At the southern side of the yard was a vegetable patch producing lettuce, tomatoes, spring onion and various other unfamiliar produce. She and her mother cooked up a storm of delicious dishes, while I hung out with her young husband in uncomfortable silence. After the wonderful feast and a litre of beer, I hit the road again completely drained.
If only it could be like this everyday!
This is a typical village shop where I would get water and ice-cream.
By evening I arrived at a small city. Another water stop produced a small crowd of onlookers. I was ushered into a restaurant by a friendly man for a free feed of dumplings and beer. A storm was brewing and he urged me to stay in the city so he showed me to a basic hotel. While negotiating with the reception, his wife stormed in and gave him a hiding (don’t know why). With that, we move to another small hotel a few doors away and the staff refused me entry, which riled him and he retorted angrily, but I was well aware what was going on. It was just another example of a system that infuriates rather than pleases.
One of my favorite places to eat. Dumpling restaurants often had open kitchens, where you can watch them hand making the dumplings.
A crowd had formed around the amusement. The receptionist shook his head smugly at my friends disgruntled protest, while the wife was having a tantrum. But for once I felt strangely calm while someone else was being faced with this. Eventually family members were pulling the man away and telling me to ‘go’. Frustrated, my friend threw his hands up in resignation to the absurdity of the situation. I cycled into the stormy night, forced to camp 30 minutes out in torrential rain, but happy to be free.
As I was drying my gear and packing camp in the morning, a rare group of cyclists passed and invited me to join them. 30 km away we stopped for a picnic at a parkland. More cyclist from the district arrived. A banquet was laid out and slabs of beer unloaded from the car. I clinked beer cans with a cheeky young high school teacher. Though slight as a sparrow, she could drink. She knocked the can back in one. ‘No,’ she protested at my sip. ‘You must drink it all!’ And that was the theme of the afternoon. I joined the cyclists heading west to Bairin Zuoqi—a small city in the foothills off…(don’t know the name of the range as maps in English don’t exist). The hot afternoon ride was punctuated twice by electric storms and hail that hurts.
Pick the odd one out.
In town, Wang Guiyi, a member of the cycling group, checked me into a hotel and generously paid for my room and treated all to a superb round table banquet, featuring a menu of many delicious local dishes that otherwise I’d never know—the best meal I’ve had in china. They invited the English teacher along to translate. ‘Do you like drinking?’ Kathy asked, using her English name.
‘Sure, I usually have 1 or 2 beers with a meal, and sometimes more if it’s a party.’
‘Tonight it’s a party so you must drink a lot,’ she told me.
As the beer and baijiu flowed, I realised I was at a serious disadvantage. In China, I’ve learnt, you don’t cheers just once then drink at your own pace, but rather drink at the same time as others. In other words, every time someone clicks your glass you’re obliged to drain it, before it’s promptly refilled. I had been doing that all afternoon and as I was guest of honour at a large gathering, my glass was working overtime at the dinner also.
‘Bottoms up!’ Kathy would say, checking to confirm if her usage of the expression was correct. ‘Perfectly!’
Kathy’s English was good, and I apologised that she was dragged out on a Sunday evening to work as my translator. She told me she was lucky to have the opportunity to speak the language. I knew that I was just as fortunate. ‘I suppose you don’t often met foreigners here,’ I enquired, wondering how much practice she gets way out in northern China.
You are the first foreigner I’ve spoken to in 46 years,’ she told me.
‘How old are you?’ I asked.
My friends from Bairin Zuoqi, who did everything they could to help me and show me a good time.
With their help they got the local museum of history (that’s usually closed) to open just for me.
Phoenix on a casket.
From Bairin Zuoqi I considered which route to take: the easier southern highway route or the mountainous but quieter northern route. I decided on the latter hoping it would yield a new view of China. The road wound up a wide valley between verdant fields covered in fresh crop shoots, passing tiny brick villages. Horses and donkeys tethered to palings, fed on dried cain scraps. The western ridge rose from the plain like a long row of shattered teeth.
Farmland mostly vanished, replaced by sandy grasslands of the lower Gobi. Over night, I went from months of nightmare camping scenarios to treeless grasslands that stretched to the horizon with barely any sign of man. Yurts appeared. Cattle, sheep and horses roamed free. I crossed four passes before arriving at the open lands on the northern side of the range. Like a series huge meteorite craters, the valleys sunk beneath high ridges circling around 360º.
For the next 500 kilometres I travelled over rolling steppe. It was a huge relief to finally get through the worst of China but progress was slow for the prevailing summer westerlies that I had been fighting for two months were intensifying. Somedays I was averaging 10 km/h (less if I was walking) and struggling in the heat to do 50 km. The only spec of shade available was from the occasional road sign. I would sit in the shade, lethargic from the heat and headwinds, drink water, listen to audio books and not moving for an hour.
Genghis Khan’s younger brother. Looks like one hell of a tough bastard!
My favorite kind of restaurant—with pictures on the wall.
Past a chinese couple motorcycling around China, patching a tube roadside. First road travellers in 7 months.
A few hours later I past a chinese man in his twenties cycling to Beijing. Notice the bag of steam buns on the handle bar; I did that too.
Cycling out of town, I was stopped by a policeman in a 4×4. ‘I don’t speak Chinese,’ I told him. He did a u-turn demanding me to follow, but I didn’t know what he was saying and continued on my way. That really pissed him off as he had to turn his vehicle around again, banging his horn and screaming at me like a madman. Oh, will you fuck off! I’ve got to make distance, I thought, but I sucked up his tirade, followed him back to the station and went though the routine (for the second time) of entering various offices, while half a dozen people scrutinised my passport and visa, probably for some inconsistency. I was shoved in the back of a police van and two of his subordinates drove me through the streets to a printer to get the thing photocopied, which I had to pay for. It’s your copy, you pay for it, I was tempted to say. Instead I held my tongue. Only two more stops and I’m out of here. Let’s not blow it now.
Another restaurant encounter, another piss-up!
In Erenhot—my final stop in China on the Mongolian border—I met the first foreign travellers on the road since departing Japan seven month ago. Konny, Andi, Nico and Stephanie are returning to Germany from Australia in a pair of Land Cruisers. No doubt travelling China in a vehicle has its advantages but one disadvantage they faced was having to pay an absurd fee to take a government minder and being confined to certain main routes, as is the law for all motorised vehicles.
Konny, Andi, Nico and Stephanie from Germany, were the first foreign travellers I met since leaving Japan.