On the cold nights in the tent on our approach to Guiyang, I entertained myself with typing up a few paragraphs for our next blog entry while Tamar cocooned herself in her sleeping bag for warmth. That kinda took Tamar by surprise, but she allowed me to finish off the full entry, so for this one, you have my ramble to rumble through – hope you enjoy it. Keith.
We previously found China to be a place of many fascinations and many frustrations and so it’s not that surprising that this time around we’ve found the same thing – the sad thing is though that on many days, the frustrations seem to significantly outnumber the fascinations, but we’re having a good time … honest. China is the most populous country on our planet with somewhere between 1.4 & 1.5 billion people. The 2nd most populous country is India with a population not far behind that of China. If you rank all of the world’s countries in order of population size, you then have to add together the populations of the next 8 countries that make up the top ten, just to match the population of China. So with that many people, they really are in a world of their own, and so who are we to say that their way of doing things isn’t the right way?
China also has the 2nd biggest economy in the world and yet when you travel through the country, there are so, so many people that have so little money. Yet China’s middle-class is growing at a phenomenal rate and so it won’t be long before they are the world’s biggest economy and the ones calling the shots the way that America currently does.
It really is an amazing place – you see people bringing their rice or grain to the mill on the back of a pony, or on a cart, or on a motorbike, or a mechanical-donkey (a cross between a motorbike and a small van, motorbike at the front & small van at the back) while in the cities, you see Range-Rovers, Mercedes & Audis quite frequently. The daytime temperatures at this time of year where we are, are around 6oC to 8oC and yet we see people washing their laundry by hand in the rivers and streams. We see people walking along the roadside collecting plastic bottles that the lazy have thrown out of their car window, but the bottles are being collected for money if they take them to the place where the recycling is gathered together.
Where we are, the land is very hilly and yet most of the farming is done on ground that is horizontal so that they can flood it to irrigate the crop. On hillsides it is therefore mostly terraced, that means the individual plots of growing ground can be very small, too small to get a tractor or other machine onto, and yet the ground is used. So most (or at least much) of the agriculture it done by hand.
You may see a water-buffalo being used to plough the ground, but often you just see people (mostly the elderly) tilling the ground with hand-tools.
You may see a donkey or pony being used to bring produce out of the hills, but more often than not, it’s being carried out on a pole across somebody’s shoulders. Yet they use as much of the available land as possible. Road-side verges will be used for growing cabbage or lettuce, even when the road is so dusty the leaves produced are just caked in dust. Tracks and pathways into the fields therefore only need to be wide enough to walk along or for your donkey or water-buffalo to walk along, so they’re not very good for pushing a loaded tandem along, This all makes finding somewhere at the end of the day for our tent, quite difficult – and that’s before we consider that the temperatures are sitting nearly all day & night at between 5oC and 8oC. And yet we still see traits of the tropics with banana trees here and there every now and again.
In and around Guilin a lot of citrus fruit is grown, most of which is either pomelos or satsumas (or perhaps the original mandarin-orange). Locally produced produce is often the cheapest and that’s certainly true of the satsumas, although pomelos never seem to be cheap and often seem to be a bit disappointing. But we are now gorging ourselves on between 1 & 2kg of satsumas a day – we almost need to stop twice a day to buy more satsumas so as not to overload the bags, but they are just so sweet and tasty. We have passed through a couple of areas where they are growing strawberries, and they are still bearing fruit (yes, in December when it’s 8oC). We treated ourselves one day and they were indeed very tasty, but at nine times more expensive than the gorgeous satsumas, they weren’t nine times as tasty, so for now, we’re sticking with the sats.
Last year when we were in China, we noted a peculiarity of buying produce in market-places whereby even though the country uses the metric system and things are sold by the kilogram, prices are quoted “per jin” which is pretty much half a kilo. I think it’s an old unit of measure used in the country and when they went metric, they kept on the old name, but it was confusing when you asked for 1 kilo of something, they then doubled the price they had quoted just a moment earlier. So our satsumas in the Guilin area were costing us about 2-yuan per jin (about 40p per kilo) but now the further we travel from Guilin, the price is creeping up and we’re now paying 3 to 4-yuan per gin (60p to 80p per kilo).I love walking around food markets, you really see a slice of life in that country which is most likely to differentiate it from others, and you often see things that you may wish you hadn’t, the freshest meat after all is that which was killed just a moment ago! You see baskets of live chickens and ducks, bowls or tanks full of fish, bowls of crabs or snails or frogs. And then you find the section where the dogs are packed into cages and the butcher is currently scorching the fur off the most recently killed and 2 or 3 others that were killed earlier are hanging on hooks like any other side of beef that we’d see in our own butchers shop back in the UK. As you walk around a market you expect to hear chickens and possibly even ducks, but you don’t expect to hear the dogs from their cages. The array of fresh fruit and vegetables is stunning though and all the traders wanting your business – I love it. Unlike in the UK, where fruit and veg is often sold from the same market stall, here the vegetable stalls always only sell vegetables and are nearly always found inside the market hall, while the fruit stalls only sell fruit and are nearly always outside the market hall or lining the alleyways leading into the market hall. You can find great food all over the place in China. In Guilin, we found a good indoor food court sort of area with lots of different stalls selling lots of different things. In Yangshuo, we found Gan’s Noodle Shop and it was so good and so cheap we had 2 meals per day there, for 3 days. While cycling, we stop each day to buy lunch from some sort of eatery. Sometimes it’s a rice-plus-dish sort and other places only do a noodle soup, but with a variety of additions into the soup. We prefer the noodle soup shops for a number of reasons: they are generally cheaper, you can hold the warm bowl in your hands and warm yourself up, the soup is more warming than a dish, and it’s easier to order from as there’s no real menu to choose from. We’ve had some wonderful noodles in the past week. At one place the noodle lady got chatting (of sorts) with us and offered us seconds (which we greedily accepted) and then we had to nearly force them to let us pay for our food. Another day, another town, and possibly the dustiest town we have ever been in, and we stopped at somewhere really very unassuming only to be served a bowl of possibly the best noodle soup ever – this time we ordered seconds and it was just as lovely as the firsts. And then in another little town, the noodles were fried but just as tasty but again the lady of the establishment got chatting with us, got some photos with us and a photo on the bike and then most certainly would not take any money from us for our lunch.
Steamed dumplings can be found all over south-east Asia, but I think those in China are the best. Moist, full of flavour, full of filling – vegetables or meat or bean-paste (although they’re the ones I try to avoid) – and as we pedal through a town, we’ll spot steam billowing from a tall stack of woven baskets or metal trays and we know what’s inside, and at 1 or 2 Yuan (10p or 20p) each we often stop and treat ourselves.
The thing is with our food, we don’t know any of the Chinese names for any of the meats or vegetables, so thinking back to the sights of the food-markets, we have no idea what meat we are eating when we point at a bowl of fried pieces when getting extras put on top of our noodle soup. There are however lots of different forms of Tofu (bean-curd) in China and increasingly (Tamar especially) we’ve been having tofu with our food. It’s great stuff, soaks up the flavour of any dish wonderfully, is cheap, nutritious, and tasty.
Life occurs on the streets, not behind closed doors in China. What do you do if it’s cold inside, well of course you light a fire in the street, then come outside and sit around it – perfect solution. Or if your child needs to wash their hair, you get a bucket of water (warm if the child is lucky) then sit outside your front door and wash hair as required. Your vegetables are washed at the tap outside the front of your house. At many restaurants, the cooking is done on a roadside burner. The dumplings are cooked on a big steamer sitting outside the front of the shop.
Guilin is famous for its karst scenery – pillars, spires and cones of rock, 200, 300 or 400 metres tall, just popping up out of the otherwise flat terrain and covering the landscape. Farming goes on of course right up to the bottom of the rock spire and the rock itself is covered in wild greenery making a most spectacular vista.The normal tourist thing in Guilin is to take a river trip through the scenery towards Yangshuo. We cycled this instead which wasn’t quite as pretty as the river, but the road out of Yangshuo for over 100kms was just so pretty and at that point, when we were only about 200m above-sea-level, we enjoyed a couple of dry, sunny days in 15oC to 18oC, and it was flat to boot as the road weaved between the karsts – the cycle-tourists perfect day. Or at least it might have been perfect if it weren’t for the Chinese method of road repairs. To us, the top surface (asphalt or cement) seemed to be in generally good condition, but every half-kilometre or so, somebody would have removed a perfect rectangle of the top covering, to a depth of about 2cm but a section about 20 to 50m long, just from one side of the road (mostly our side) and then left it bare, so the bike would step down into the created hole, and then have to hit the sharp edge at the other end of the hole to get back up onto the normal road-surface. With the weight of luggage and 2 riders on top, you have to approach this sharp edge slowly, so as we cruise along at 20 to 24kph, every half-kilometre we have to slow to a crawl (or face the oncoming traffic in the opposite lane) to look after our tyres. And this went on for 20 or 30kms at a time with no sign of anybody thinking of filling the holes in. Many days later, we found 2 guys (working only with a pick-axe and a sledge hammer) digging out another such hole – I wanted to stop and take their tools off them.
Since our couple of days in the lowlands around Guilin and Yangshuo, we have climbed from 200m to over 1,300m and now to 1,050m here in the city of Guiyang. We have been on the main A-road the whole way as the road threads its way through the mountains, often sharing the same valley with the new expressway (motorway toll-road) and the train-line, but as the new expressway and the train-line routes have had their hills flattened (or tunnelled) and the valleys bridged, our road just goes up and down, and round and round. Our diving legs have been battered back into cycling shape with no mercy shown.The climbs have been tough, the flat spot at the top, short, and the descent a white-knuckle ride. When we get a flat section before the next climb, we express our appreciation and relief to each other, but then the road goes up again – sharply. So we sweat out the climbs and the shiver on the descents considering that it is 5oC on the dull overcast days. We’ve passed through a number of good sized cities but we cannot fathom why the mostly good surface of the main road has to degenerate into a rubble-strewn mess regularly for a couple of kilometres both on entering and leaving the city. Although we have reasonable maps (and a new tablet computer complete with GPS) we have little way of predicting the severity of the climbs on the road ahead or the heights that the road will go to, so predicting how long it will take us to get anywhere is close to impossible. Even just 150kms from Guiyang, we couldn’t dare guess whether that could be covered with two 75kms days, or would it require three 50kms days. Day-1 we covered 70kms and so resolved that with a determined effort we could do the required 80kms to have us in Guiyang (and to a hotel with hot showers and central heating) but we didn’t account for most of the last 40kms of the road (together with 3 significant & very steep climbs) being covered in a recent layer of rubble & dirt. At first we thought the road surface was just in a very bad and broken up condition but then we noticed that the surface had actually been deliberately put there. And then there’s the issue of Chinese trucks, most of which have water-cooled braking systems to stop their brakes overheating on the mountainous roads. The cooling systems are externally mounted and just spray water over the wheel-hubs and brake-drums, so the trucks leave a line of wet behind them and on the rubble and dirt, it just turns to rubble & mud. On one of the climbs we had to get off and push as we couldn’t get sufficient traction on the slippery, slimy surface. And in hollows on the road, the water would gather at the bottom and create small lakes of mud. Our polite demeanour was severely challenged as we reached Guiyang in the dark, the cold, with a bike caked in mud, hungry, and then struggling to find an affordable place to stay. But then you meet some more lovely people and two guys (one who spoke English) who just happened to be walking past spent over half-an-hour with us helping us check-in to our hotel (not always a straight forward process) and earlier another guy had led us to another hotel but sadly it didn’t have any secure bike parking.
We’ve passed our first Chinese coal-fired power station with rows of trucks piled to overflowing with coal, parked up along the road outside. This was at the edge of the town that I earlier described as being the dustiest we’ve ever seen (and where we had the tastiest noodles ever). The chimney stacks puffed smoke like any other power station anywhere else in the world but you had to wonder about the pollution and if more Chinese become more affluent, then more home appliances will be owned, like washing machines and air-conditioning units, and more electric motorbikes and more computers will be bought. But to counter the coal-fired power station worries, perhaps nearly half of the houses in China have solar water-heating units on their roofs … just a pity that not so much sunshine gets through the smog.
Of course other causes of dust are quarrying, and what better way to coat a town in dust than to have multiple quarries working away on every route out of town. Coat the road in the dust (and the verge-side vegetable plots), add a liberal sprinkling of brake-cooling water, stick in a number of pot-holes (owing to the number of heavy trucks rumbling in and out of the quarries) and some roads are fascinating parts of the world to remember.
The frustrating is sometimes actually infuriating. Many Chinese are incredibly nosy – you cannot look at map or the tablet computer without someone leaning over your shoulder (sometimes to the point where you can barely see what you’re looking at as their head’s in the way). Then there’s the constant honking of horns – especially if there is no reason for it (clear road ahead, no blind bend etc), or no point because the other traffic can’t go anywhere anyway, or to let you know that they’re going to join your road from a side-road whether you’re in the way or not (we took evasive action). Idiotic drivers eg those who slow to 10kmph in the outside lane of a dual carriageway to take a photo of us and cause the drivers behind them to swerve into our lane and almost into us, or the guy on the motorbike who stopped to take a mobile phone call in the middle of four lanes of busy city traffic. The instant crowds of people whenever we stop, who insist on patting the bike’s seats, yanking the pedals, fiddling with the gears, brakes and steering, poking the panniers, prodding our fruit and veg (have you never seen a tomato before?), dropping fag-ash with gay abandon and even sneezing open mouthed over the Pino (Tamar considered this to be more than just a little disgusting), before leaning on the saddle in a proprietorial manner and resting a foot on one of the pedals – sorry, but do you own the bike? I have actually learnt how to ask somebody if the bike actually belongs to them and some of those who I have had to use it on have reacted with suitable embarrassment, while others have just looked confused. Dirt from overloaded trucks, unmaintained engines belching clouds of thick, black diesel smoke as the truck changes gear right beside you on a steep climb. Noisy locals shouting and screeching in hotel corridors between the hours of 2 and 5am. The list of infuriating things goes on…..
There are lots of good things too though, many of which I’ve mentioned already such as the great food, the free lunches and people helping us find & check-in to hotels. And at the bus station when we were trying to get information about whether we could get to a particular city about 600kms away and a girl (who spoke a little English) from the dumpling stall next door came and helped us. In some of the noodle shops we’ve been in, they’ve had heated tables, glowing beautifully warm – you huddle next to them and eat off them but at the same time you do think that doors would be kinda nice too … but would make it harder to watch the bike outside. There are also some considerate drivers – ie those who slow down on slip-roads to let us pass before they join our road, or park their car in a sensible place before getting out to wave and take a photo of us as we pedal by. Satsumas by the bucket load. And we also like the frantic buzz of the cities, and the way that simple shop-houses sell all manner of goods that you wouldn’t find on any high-street in the UK – I’m sure the other day, we were briefly stopped outside a theodolite shop.
And then there’s the downright odd – neither right nor wrong, just odd. Do you consider your toilet time to be a private moment? The cubicle complete with closing door is an unusual feature in Chinese public toilets and in many places you’re lucky when you at least get a bit of a wall around you as you squat over an open tiled trench. Your neighbour just over the wall drops his load into the same trench as you drop yours and then when the auto-flush sends a gush of water, both his load & yours whisk past below you on its merry journey to heaven only knows where. In our western world, I have noted that we have the most disgusting habit of using a handkerchief – like I mean why would you want to put some snot into a piece of cloth and then store it in your pocket? Wouldn’t it be far better for you just to get rid of the snot at the earliest possible opportunity, and just spit it out no matter where you are? And what about our table manners? When we encounter a bone in our food, we take it from our mouth and we put it on the table beside us or perhaps on the edge of our plate (but most Chinese eating is done from bowls so the side of plate isn’t an option). The bone is waste product and the table is no place for waste – the floor is the proper place for waste, not the clean table where there is lots of other food, so when you take a bone from your mouth, just throw it on the floor, it can be swept up later.
Who’s to say what’s right? China is just amazing, amazingly different, amazingly crazy, amazingly big and lots of other amazingly’s too – like I mean the population is 1,000 times greater than that of Northern Ireland. Tomorrow our adventure will continue on a bus (we hope) from Guiyang to Zigong, across more mountains out to the plateau of Sichuan province, then 4 more days riding should see us in Chengdu to spend Christmas with friends and family there. As the photo of the Chinese shop window says, a Christmas Merry to you all !!!