I’m sorry, it’s a long one, but there’s just no other way…
After being so tantalisingly close to the border of this mysterious country for so many months, but unable to enter, it was with a nervous excitement that we crossed the border and turned our backs on beloved green Kyrgyzstan for the last time. Finally, we were out of Central Asia and ready to be hit with a completely new culture shock. That is, once we’d cleared the world’s most long-winded customs office.
When we were told to wheel our heavily laden bikes through to a back room and saw two officials waiting behind a long table, we suspected it could take a while. This was a long way from the casual borders of Kyrgyzstan where the general mood to approaching foreigners on bicycles is “Oh, hi…that’s weird, you’re on bikes…come in, come in…where are you from then? England? Ooooh! Steven Gerrard.” These officials grimly ordered us to remove every single bag from both bikes and present them for a thorough ransacking, taking out absolutely everything and putting it all in a big disorganised mess on the table (all of our careful weight-balanced packing in ruins). This wasn’t thorough enough however, so they preceded to inspect every single item for signs of suspicious activity, even my underwear wasn’t spared from the scrutiny. Everything that could be opened was opened, including things we didn’t even know could open. I was just beginning to get huffy and exasperated when the foraging abruptly stopped.
“What’s this?” demanded one of the officials. He was holding up an incriminating-looking bag of extremely suspicious-looking powder. I won’t lie, it looked exactly like a bulging bag of smuggled drugs. We looked at each other in complete horror. We had no idea what it was or where it had come from.
Time froze and my body went numb as my mind frantically tried to replay the events of the past few days. Had we left our bikes anywhere unattended? Who could it have been? Was it the Krygyz shepherd who had come to sit and stare at us outside our tent at breakfast time that morning? Maybe the sweet 70yr old French man we’d met a bit later on, cycling the same way or the smiling women who’d watched me get water from their village well? Was one of these people the secret player in a drug-smuggling operation? The seconds dragged on painstakingly slowly as the officials continued to hold up the bag and stare at us, and I began to imagine us rotting away for years in a Chinese prison, when suddenly Joe looked like he could cry with relief as he shouted,
“I know what it is!!!” In the chaos of the inspection, we hadn’t noticed them open up his camera bag and take out the beanbag he uses (for stabilising his more ambitious shots). We didn’t even know this could be opened, but they’d managed to pull out the innards, hence the incriminating bag. We were off the hook.
Inspection passed, we went to take our passports back. The conversation went a bit like this:
Officials: “You can’t have your passports back today, it’s too late, you have to sleep here.”
Us: “It’s 4pm, what are you talking about?”
Officials: “There’s not enough time to get to the next border before it closes- it’s 120km away. We work on Beijing time, despite the fact that Beijing is 4000km east of here. That makes it 6pm.”
Us: “Well we’re cycling anyway so we’ll just get there tomorrow.”
Officials: “No, you can’t cycle, you have to take a taxi.”
Us: “Why can’t we cycle? We don’t want to take a taxi.”
Officials: “Because it is not allowed.”
Us: “Ok, is the taxi free then seeing as we don’t want to take it and you are forcing us?”
Officials: “No, you must pay for the taxi. But first you must also pay for the guesthouse which we are forcing you to stay in tonight before taking the taxi in the morning.”
Welcome to China.
Long gone are the days when you can actually get hold of the long visa you need for cycling the whole length of China so, armed only with our 30 day visa, the plan was to take a train from Kashgar through the desert section in Xinjing province, and start cycling properly from Jiayuguan south to Leshan, where we could renew the visas.
Getting the train was easy enough, although you can’t buy a ticket online unless you have a Chinese identity card, so we had to pay a company to buy it for us. Also, we had to pay a small fortune for the bikes. Unlike our previous train-with-bikes experiences in Central Asia, where you just turn up and hope somebody will help you to squeeze the bikes into the carriage by the toilets (but don’t pay anything for them), this was an extremely organised system, with your bikes travelling on a separate train and meeting you a few days later at your destination. I think I prefer the earlier shambolic method, stressful though it was at the time-no expensive fee and bikes with you as soon as you get off the train. Here you can add the cost of waiting it out in a hotel for your bikes to arrive to the price of your ticket. Plus we had another security confrontation upon trying to enter the station. Of course everything has to be scanned and they came across our cooking knife and swiftly confiscated it.
Us: “But it’s for camping! We’re travelling by bicycle! We promise not to stab anybody on the train, honest!”
Stern faced official: “It is not allowed.”
It took all our efforts to persuade them to let us keep the bike multi-tool. Add the cost of a new knife to the ‘Being fleeced by China’ accounts list. Fast forward to the train and all the Chinese passengers are happily tucking into their watermelons with the huge knives they brought onboard with them.
Ok China, come on, we’re waiting for you to redeem yourself…
Tired and exasperated, we arrived in Jiayuguan early in the morning, after two nights spent sleeping on trains. Time to find a hotel and rest while we wait for our bikes. We didn’t fancy just aimlessly wandering the streets, so went into an Internet cafe to track one down. The boy at the counter immediately looked awkward and crossed his arms in a “no you can’t come in here” kind of way. The place was full of Chinese people happily using the Internet. “Er…why can’t we come in here? It’s clearly open and I can see a free computer right there…” The answer was perfectly rational and normal- you have to be a Chinese national with an identity card to be allowed to use Internet cafes. “Ah, ok then, that makes sense, yes of course, silly me, we’ll just go back to wandering the streets aimlessly then, see you.”
We eventually found a hotel the traditional way, and after a conversation with the receptionist’s iPhone translator app which began, “Would you like to rent a house?”, we were able to catch up on sleep and explore the city. The first thing we noticed were the crowds of middle aged and older women dancing in the streets. This wasn’t some carefree expression of freedom; it was a very organised, choreographed, serious affair. Visors on, standing in orderly lines, following the leader. The dances weren’t particularly energetic- a foot shuffle here, an arm lift there, but apparently it’s good for the health to engage in a little street dancing every morning and evening.
Very quickly, we discovered the thing that would become one of the main themes of our time in China- food! Entering China from Central Asia was like being released from food prison where you are forced to eat your rations of fat soup and unappetising meat every day, to be suddenly faced with an unimaginable amount of delicious possibilities. To say we developed an obsession with Chinese food would be an understatement. Whatever you want, you can have it. Noodle soup full of fragrant herbs and spices; sticky rice; dumplings; more vegetables than you could ever imagine; meat; fish; eggs, a huge variety of fresh fruit…it’s limitless. All rich in flavours and all so cheap! Every mealtime was suddenly an exciting prospect, and every time we try something new we decide it’s our favourite thing. Eating out here also has the added amusement that either before, during or after our meal, the cafe owners, chefs or other customers will approach us giggling and ask to have their photo taken with us. Practically every time. We are a tourist attraction. And that’s usually even without the bikes. I’m thinking about trying it out in London when we get back, finding a Chinese person and asking if I can take their photo because they look different from me. Wonder how that would go down.
Eager to maximise the potential for deliciousness whilst in the country, we equipped ourselves with the very useful ‘Waygo’ app, which involves pointing the iPad camera at a Chinese menu and reading the translations line by line. Although it sometimes takes us a painstakingly long time to order (and attracts a lot of attention from staff and other customers, who enjoy crowding around us to watch the magic, shouting so loudly to each other despite standing inches apart-they really do love noise), this wonderful invention has saved us from helplessly pointing at random things and ending up with various animal innards for dinner; instead we can enjoy a healthy vegetable feast every day. We’ve yet to try ordering some of it’s more obscure suggestions though.
The first section of cycling from Jiayuguan to Lanzhou wasn’t particularly inspiring scenically, although we were riding alongside the remains of the Great Wall for a few days, which was interesting, especially when you see how much of it has actually survived this long. Much more impressive than paying to see a reconstructed section. Another interesting thing we noticed in this deserty northern wasteland were the huge solar power plants. People are quick to criticise China for it’s levels of pollution, but little is said about it’s huge efforts to embrace clean energy sources. Last year they spent more money on renewable energy than the EU and the USA put together! Also, we noted that pollution levels in the cities were significantly lower than most of the other countries we’ve ridden through, with a huge number of people riding electric scooters, bikes and even three-wheeled market carts (in the generous cycle lanes that make city cycling an almost relaxing experience here).
On the other hand, their obsession with packaging and waste is really quite repulsive to witness. Open a packet of biscuits and you’ll find that every biscuit is individually packaged within the packet. The apples in the supermarkets are not only individually wrapped in plastic, but they also have an extra polystyrene net around them for cushioning. Every time I see it I can’t help but groan in despair. People in restaurants and cafes will order huge amounts of food, only to leave most of it and each time we watch as it’s all scraped into the bin. (We’ve taken to discreetly swiping leftovers before they’re confiscated as we just can’t bear to witness it).
We were still able to camp quite a lot (which was great, as our budget is definitely shrinking these days), although we’ve had to become a bit more imaginative when finding spots in the more built up areas. Sometimes however, we’d find ourselves in an unexpectedly enormous town just at the wrong time, and realise we needed to find a hotel. Normally, this would be easy. Find the cheapest looking hotel and check in. And indeed, these big towns are full of hotels, many of them cheap and perfect for what we need. Only, there’s one problem. Can you guess? That’s right, you need to be Chinese national with a Chinese identity card to be allowed to stay in a cheap hotel in a big town or city in China. After learning this, we try to avoid staying in big places, but sometimes find ourselves trapped there at the wrong time and being directed from hotel to hotel, in search of one that will take foreigners, and of course ending up at the most expensive, luxury hotel which of course welcomes us in. Sometimes the hotels don’t even know whether they can take us or not, but don’t seem in any rush to find out. In one town, we were passed around a few times before being allowed into a relatively cheap place and, feeling smug, carried our heavy bags up many flights of stairs to have a long awaited shower, food and sleep. It was late and we were exhausted after a really big day of cycling. Ten minutes later, there’s a knock at the door and we’re being kicked out because they just checked with the police and actually, they can’t take us, sorry. Government rules. Back out on to the street with you, foreigner.
Luckily, in all but one of these extremely infuriating situations, we’ve been rescued by the locals. Upon seeing our helplessness, sitting on the street with our bikes, wondering what the hell we’re going to do, people always seem to approach us and want to help, inviting us to stay in their homes or directing us to a super-cheap unofficial hostel in somebody’s flat, even taking us out for dinner! The warmth we get from people everyday in China is hard to describe, and completely tears you into pieces when you’re already an emotional wreck from all the beurocracy you have to deal with on a daily basis. Anybody who speaks a bit of English is desperate to talk to us, and help us in whatever way they can. Everywhere we go we seem to meet some amazingly sweet people who really lift our spirits, so much so that it’s really difficult to stay mad at China. It’s just too confusing. One minute we could be on the street cursing this frustrating country and threatening to jump on a bus and just get the hell out, when somebody will approach us and completely transform our evening, and the next morning we’re proclaiming our undying love for China, and saying how great it would be to live here.
After Lanzhou, we climbed up to the Tibetan Plateau, and spent a relaxing week riding through the green plains and rolling hills at high altitude, surrounded by hairy yaks, eagles and various giant rodent creatures. It was here that we encountered the bizarre industry that is Chinese tourism. So there’s a lot of grassland up here, and it’s nice I suppose, and spacious, but there’s no way to distinguish one part from the next. So when we saw signs for “Scenic Spot” next to the side of the road and saw the tourists spilling out from coaches lined up next to each other, all queuing up to take photographs next to the “Scenic Spot” sign and then go to the gift shop, it was a little bizarre. Why not just go to a more peaceful part a kilometre away to actually enjoy the tranquility rather than cluster together and defeat the whole point of visiting a remote place in the first place? Also lining the roads were opportunities for a “Tibetan nomad experience”. You pay to sit in a tent for a bit next to some prayer flags and eat a very expensive meal of yak meat, pay again to have a very expensive pony ride along the side of the road, while traditional music blares out of the speakers, drowning out the peaceful sounds of the plateau. We rode past a lot of girls heavily dressed up, riding ponies next the the road whilst taking photos of themselves with selfie-sticks. It’s ironic to pay such a fortune for an experience of nomadic culture, when the defining feature of this culture is the hospitality of the people. After Kyrgyzstan, it felt a little odd to witness.
Despite the fact that this area was completely overrun by tourism, riding on across the plateau, we found that people were just as willing as usual to invite us to stay or have a meal with them and refused to take any money, so the welcoming culture of hospitality still exists, it hasn’t been completely killed by the coach loads of tourists with selfie-sticks yet.
The real natural beauty began on our descent from the plateau as we headed down towards Dujiangyan, following a river gorge with towering mountains in all directions, through villages full of beautiful wooden houses with ornate rooves. It really was lovely. We’re very sceptical of taking anything at face value though, as many of the ‘old town’ areas in China have been obviously completely rebuilt in a way that’s initially convincing but as soon as you look closely it’s all just a little too modern and shiny. I suppose it’s better that they’re trying to recreate the beautiful old architecture rather than just building something boring and new in its place though.
Our route took us through the epicentre of the 2008 earthquake, which killed over 87,000 people, and it was sobering to see the destruction that is still apparent. Many of the towns have been completely rebuilt and are shiny and new (with their tourist attractions and signs to ‘ancient temples’ etc. already in place), but are still ghosts towns due to the fact that the road leading to them is still partially destroyed (we had to jump onto the expressway to get around the numerous broken bridges and tunnels).
It was here that we came to the most bizarre tourist attraction yet. The town of Yingxiu marks the actual epicentre of the quake, and was completely destroyed. Again, this has been rebuilt, but they’ve left the horrifying remains of the school which collapsed as a respectful monument to the victims. At least, I think that’s what the original thinking was behind the idea. Surrounding this building are a few uncomfortable extras which put that into question, including:
1. A gift shop directly opposite.
2. A place to rent ridiculous novelty tourist bikes just around the corner, about 50m away.
3. A popcorn stand.
We stopped in a state of double horror. Horror One being the sight of the collapsed school and imagining what the scenes in 2008 must have been like, and Horror Two observing the hoards of Chinese tourists, having a great time on their novelty bikes, eating their buckets of popcorn whilst taking their photos of the tourist attraction before going into the gift shop to buy a souvenir. The authorities had obviously tried to regain some of the intended respect for the monument by putting a very serious sign next to it saying, “No Laughing Noise”, but how can you not laugh when you have novelty bikes, popcorn and a gift shop- all the ingredients for a great time? Our state of horror didn’t last long actually, as the tourists soon spotted us there-FOREIGNERS!- and started taking photos of us instead so we had to flee. Apparently we were much more interesting than the collapsed school.
There’s just one more defining factor of cycling through China that I have to mention, and then I’m done. Honestly, I don’t know how anybody manages to write about China and not mention it- the traffic. Even just writing that word makes my heart beat faster and I have to take deep breaths. There are no words to describe it. Ok, there’s more of it than in other countries, and a lot of it is directed onto the narrow roads we’re cycling on because of the mountainous landscape and the fact that road building (although working fast to catch up with the demand) hasn’t quite reached the necessary level yet. That’s all fine, we could all deal with that and get along nicely if everybody were to behave like adults. We knew it would be busy. But the honking…it really is enough to make you lose your mind.
Chinese horns appear to be a few decibels louder than horns anywhere else in the world, and the drivers seem to be extremely excited by this. Honking is a sport and everybody is a player. Trucks driving through a deserted village will honk their way through incessantly, just in case somebody didn’t realise they were there. Trucks overtaking us will honk not only once before they make their move, but again as they get closer, then another prize honk right in our ears as they’re level with us, just in case we can’t see them, despite the fact that we’re now visibly flinching, and then one more for good measure as they’re driving off, just to say goodbye. It is an assault. Imagine this, every minute of every day spent riding on narrow roads through this country, and you begin to understand why we are in such a delicate emotional state, ready to snap at any given moment. It could easily be used as a form of torture.
At first we just quietly got on with it. Then we got bothered by it. Then we started shouting back in protest, but this didn’t seem to have any effect, so we needed a new strategy. We decided to form the CDREP- the Chinese Driver Re-Education Program. The three aims of this program are:
1. Teaching Chinese drivers that honking is not very nice.
2. Getting our own back.
3. Making ourselves feel a lot better.
Each time we get a honking that is louder/closer/more frequent than necessary, that driver is given a free taster lesson from the CDREP. We each have our own tactics. Mine is to stop before they reach me, turn around with an icy glare and point at them, shaking my head slowly like an angry headmistress. This freaks them out and they stop honking to look confused instead. I like it. Joe’s tactic is to mentally clock the main offender, somebody whose honking behaviour has been particularly bad, and then catch them up when they stop at a light or a traffic jam (of which there are far too many here). He then pulls up in front of them and hurls a fireball of rage and abuse, making it clear with sign language featuring honking and ears splitting. I’ve never seen him look so insane. It’s extra funny when he turns to grin at me immediately afterwards- proud of a job well done. On a few priceless occasions, these incidents have happened next to a crowd of tourists, for maximum embarrassment of the driver. It sounds pathetic, but put yourself in this situation day after day and you’d do the same. I’ve fantasised about violence more than once whilst on these roads, so we have to do something to keep sane.
So here we are in Leshan, having our second day off in three weeks, waiting to pick up our renewed visas. It’s a clear indication of our mixed up feelings about China that if our application gets refused and we have to leave immediately we would be delighted; but if it is accepted and we get another month (which is the more likely option) we would be delighted. Oh China, what are you trying to do to us?!