Time waits for no man and since our last blog post, time has marched on and lots has happened. We’re now actually back in Malaysia where we plan to be back on the bike in a few days time, but this post will tell you a bit more about our time in China and another post that will hopefully go up in a few days time, will tell you all about Tamar’s brother’s fantastic Han Dynasty traditional Chinese wedding.
In many ways, China has got under our skin, but in a good way. While the hooting horns still bring us close to committing a crime, the other universe that China sits in just continues to amaze (although sometimes shock) nearly every day. In the last blog post, our plan was to be on a bus the following day, going about 600kms north and out of the mountains. We were told to be at the bus-station for 11:00am. Sadly this information was incorrect and we should have been there for 9:00am for the once-a-day service from Guiyang (Guizhou province) to Zigong (Sichuan province). On discovering that we were a little late for that day’s bus, we considered a number of options such as going to another city, but then decided just to settle for travelling the following day instead, and we bought our tickets and made arrangements with the bus-station police crew for their help in getting the bike through the station and onto the bus in the morning. We found a local hotel for the night as it began to snow, and then in the morning everything went swimmingly and by 4:00pm we were in Zigong, 600kms away and about 10 degrees warmer, 1000m lower down out of the mountains.
The bike had to be split into two to fit into the luggage compartments underneath, but that was all fine and the bus journey was very straight forward. The bus travelled on the expressway (motorway toll-road) but from it we could regularly see the road that we would have been cycling on had we ridden the journey, and just like before Guiyang, the road went up and down steep hills at every opportunity while the expressway, regularly up on stilts, just cruised through and over the mountains. We crossed high points at about 1600m and the hills were covered in snow and it looked bitterly cold out there. Such contrast to Zigong when we arrived there at about 400m altitude, with the warm sunshine causing us to shed the thermal layers of clothing that we thought would be necessary. It would have been a tough 6 or 7 days on the bike from Guiyang to Zigong and we would certainly have not arrived in Chengdu in time for Christmas with Tamar’s brother.
Our route from Zigong to Chengdu was via the town of Leshan which is home to the world’s largest Buddha statue (carved from stone). I think in our travels so far, at least half of the Buddha statues that we’ve visited have been the largest in the world, when you fully read the small print, for example, the largest lying Buddha made with a wooden frame and covered with papier mache. But without doubt, Leshan’s “Da-Fo” (large Buddha) is pretty big at 71m tall and this makes his fingernails larger than the average person. The road from Zigong to Leshan took us through an area where lots of bamboo is grown and where lots of large specimen trees were sold. The root-ball of the trees was trussed up with rope. A bit later, we passed a workshop where they were making reels of rope and we stopped for a look and were impressed to see that the rope was being made out of straw. In the UK, straw is the bi-product of wheat or barley harvest, but in China it’s from the rice harvest. Three ladies were hand-feeding the straw into a machine that twisted the straw and wound it around a large reel. Then we put two and two together and worked out that this was the rope used on the root-balls of the specimen trees.
Leshan is a pretty town that sits on the confluence of two rivers – the Dadu and the Min. In the wet season, the turbulent waters of the confluence were a great danger for river traffic in years gone by and so a wise monk considered that if he were to create a giant Buddha statue right by the confluence, recessed and carved into the 100m high cliff, that would bring calm to the waters. Work began in 713AD and went on for 90 years and the extracted stone was discarded into the hollows of the riverbed so as the Buddha took shape, the turbulent waters were indeed calmed – all thanks to the calming influence of the Buddha. The statue is now in the centre of a whole temple complex and so, on our visit, our guide was able to answer lots of our questions about different facets of the temple and the Chinese Buddhist traditions and for a short while after our visit, we even knew our ying from our yang.
I mentioned previously about how much of Chinese life, goes on out on the streets – just walking around the towns and cities and cycling along lets us see so much of this. In a riverside park in Leshan, during the day, groups of people were playing cards while others were playing traditional Chinese instruments, and in the evening, a singing group got out their overhead projector and electric piano, poached some electric from the nearby lamp-post and then had their evening practice session. Who needs a village hall when you can just practice in the park? You will regularly see people dancing, or playing badminton, aerobics classes on the pavement or ladies with fans doing their traditional fan-dance in the park as we saw in Chengdu. All you have to do is walk around and be entertained.
The day that we left Leshan we had a great example of Chinese patience on the roads. As we cycled out of a small town we came upon stationary traffic. Being as we’re on a bicycle (albeit a rather wide and long one) I tried to weave my way past the hold up (Tamar loves it when I do this). There had been a minor accident in the opposite direction with a car’s nose sandwiched between two trucks – one truck had been stationary at the side of the road and the car went to pass it not noticing the 2nd truck already overtaking both truck & car in a single move, and thus car nose sandwiched. They were taking up three-quarters of the available road width so now traffic in both directions was trying to squeeze through the remaining space. With the holdup, people being delayed further back in the jam who couldn’t see the cause thought it would be best to overtake everything so that they too could get to the front. And so you end up with a full road-width of traffic, facing onto a full road-width of traffic. We managed to get the bike around one of the trucks involved in the car-sandwich so we were gone, but it was a long time before the other traffic held in the jam got through and started to overtake us.
We regularly witnessed another classic example of Chinese patience on the roads, but seldom was it demonstrated with quite the finesse as could be achieved by Tamar’s new sister-in-law. When queuing in a line of traffic at a cross-roads, waiting to cross the oncoming traffic into a side-turn, as the line of traffic moves off and begins to thread its way into the side-turn, if you perceive that its going too slowly or you don’t want to get stuck behind something, you just neatly jump out of the line, swiftly under-cut everybody and then deftly nudge your way back into the line further forward. The skill of your manoeuvre I think is best measured by the number of horns that you cause to have hooted at you and that’s where Tamar’s sister-in-law was definitely the master as she would smile and nudge her way back into the line-up without a squeak.
After Leshan, it took us two days to cycle north to Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan province. Chengdu has grown at a phenomenal rate over the last 10 to 15 years and now has a population of over 10 million people. Perhaps 15 years ago (I’m not completely sure of the dates of these) they created the first ring-road in the city. As the city grew they needed another a little further out, so they created the 2nd ring-road and then a bit later, the 3rd ring was developed. Then another, but between the 2nd and the 3rd, so they called it the 2-and-a-half ring-road. To deal with the still growing levels of traffic, over the last 2 years they have built an elevated ring-road directly on top of the 2nd ring, completely looping the city: 28 unbroken kilometres of elevated highway. Chengdu is also building a metro network. In 2006 work began on its first line and already 2 lines are fully operational with another 2 lines due to open in the next few years and if I recall correctly, 4 more lines currently being planned. China must be such an exciting place to work as a civil engineer!!
The rapid development has its costs however. Smog in the city can be crippling some days. It seems everybody’s smartphone is equipped with an app that tells them about today’s air quality. A measure of a certain particulate in the atmosphere (sorry I can’t remember which exactly) should ideally be below 50, but is considered safe up to about 100. During the 4 weeks we were in Chengdu, it was rarely below 200, often up around 300 and on one occasion nearly topped 400 and these levels were described as being “serious risk to health” and “hazardous”. With pollution at such levels, many would choose to only exercise when the count was low. We observed some very grey days where high-rise buildings less than a kilometre away could hardly be seen but we also had one or two very pretty days complete with blue skies and you could dance with your shadow as the sun was actually visible.
We arrived into Chengdu on Christmas Eve and Duncan (Tamar’s brother) was able to sort some accommodation out for us, close to his apartment. We were staying on campus at one of Chengdu’s universities and so there are lots of reasonably priced places to eat all around and lots of street food vendors, all tailored to the student market. Wraps or rolls, dumplings or fried potatoes, chicken’s feet or sweetcorn – it was all on offer. It was difficult to walk anywhere and not be tempted to try something else. That, coupled with the many great restaurants that we visited, have resulted in us returning to Malaysia perhaps a few kilos heavier than when we were diving on Tioman. Sichuan province has a unique peppercorn that is used extensively in the local cuisine and when eaten, is like a small nuclear explosion going off in your mouth causing a certain numbness. This numbness allows more chilli than might be reasonable in a dish to be added and so you end up with a mouth on fire, and numb, all at once. We dined on Sichuan hotpot, fish cooked at your table in a paper bag, wasabi laden salad that blew your sinuses wide open, Tibetan yak meat, to mention just a few of the highlights.
One interesting factor though was the part the Chinese staple, rice, played in meals in some of the fancier restaurants. Our main reason for being in China was for Duncan’s wedding and we were lucky enough to be invited out to many more classy restaurant meals than we would normally allow ourselves. The lazy-susan in the middle of the table would get loaded with wonderful dishes – vegetables, meats, fish, tofu – but with so many great dishes to choose from, why would you want rice as well? And so there was no rice served. And as you dipped into each of the dishes and transferred some from each to your own bowl, it was frighteningly easy to lose track of just how much you’d eaten. And when the lazy-susan would start to look a little empty, more dishes would be ordered as the host became concerned that you might return home still hungry and they might be responsible for such a tragedy. It really was difficult to stop eating (for both of us) while there was still beautiful food on the table but our western approach of wanting to show our appreciation by eating everything, was proving counterproductive to our waistlines.
As part of standard wedding preparations, Duncan’s best man organised a great stag-night which began with an excellent meal in a Japanese restaurant with lashings of Asahi beer and lots of Sake toasts. The evening continued in a traditional vein as well with entertainment that included traffic-bollards and night-clubs. And of course on the morning after, most of the questions centred around how on earth did people manage to make it home.
We spent a lot of our time in Chengdu, updating various other parts of our website (if you should care to browse the other pages). We began our itinerant lifestyle in April 2011 but our trip of 2011 seemed to sit in our heads as a stand-alone and not part of the trip that brought us to China and on into south-east Asia. But more recently as we meet people and tell them about ourselves we have begun to include that trip into the conversation of where we’ve been. So now we’ve taken the step of updating our maps and daily-stats pages etc, to all indicate the total number of kilometres that we’ve covered since leaving our home in Croydon. As we rode back into Kuala Lumpur from the airport last week, our records tell us that we’ve now done over 44,000kms.
We also made some time to do a little sightseeing around Chengdu visiting some temples, both traditional (Buddhist mostly) and modern (shopping malls mostly). In the streets and alleyways surrounding the Wen-Shu temple, there are shops and stalls selling jewellery and traditional crafts. You can get beautiful pieces in jade, amber, silver or gold. You can get a 1.5m tall Chinese ancient scholar statue carved in a single piece of marble, and you can even buy a severed tiger’s foot, and so some of the more shocking bits of China are found. As we walked past the stalls (yes plural) that had tiger’s paws for sale, when the stall holder caught your eye after you had spotted the paw, he would raise his hands to beside his shoulders, curl his fingers, and snarl his face, just so that you could be in no doubt about what the item on his stall actually was. It makes you fear that some endangered species don’t stand a chance – if this is in the open on the stall, what other horrors are available in the traditional medicine shops?
Tamar suffered a very personal tragedy while we were in Chengdu – her most beloved Sony E-reader (electronic book) died and had to be replaced without delay to limit the distress. A day of internet research and the wonders of Amazon on-line ordering and the void in her life was re-filled with a new Kindle Paperwhite just a day later. Using the internet as we know it, isn’t easy in China though. China has recently blocked all things Google, so the Google search page is off limits, as are Gmail, Googlemaps and all other parts of the G-world. Facebook has been unavailable for years and lots of other parts of what you might be used to using, doesn’t work either. This is where a VPN (virtual private network) comes in handy, but some days even that gets blocked and while you might connect to a server in Hong-Kong or Singapore, 10 minutes later it would stop working and you’d have to swap to a server in Japan or somewhere else, only to have to swap again in a further few minutes. Getting things done on-line was often tedious, but we survived.
Chengdu is also famous for the Panda Breeding & Research Centre just outside the city. This link between the city and the big bears can be seen everywhere and there’s even a massive one climbing onto the roof of a shopping mall in the centre of the city.
We would love to return to China someday and cycle from Beijing to Lhasa in Tibet and then on through to Nepal – sadly it’s difficult to predict when this might be possible owing to the heavy restrictions on independent travel in Tibet and the already short span that you can get a Chinese visa for. Here now are just a few more photos from our time in China and Chengdu. Another blog entry will hopefully go up within a few days or a week and that will cover Duncan & Spring’s wedding and time spent with parents over from the UK for the celebration.