After a month of bombing it through north China there was still one thing itching us. (I mean apart from the endless honking, the difficulty in finding hotels, Chinese Internet and the expensive water- there was one thing itching us). We hadn’t really seen the China we came to see. You know the one I’m talking about. The rice terraces, the canyons, the space, the farmers wearing nice hats etc.
Now you’d think cycling 2890km would offer that.
Previously, whenever presented with a brown-sign opportunity to see something potentially beautiful, we pedalled on, knowing that our 1740km in three weeks weren’t going to cycle themselves. With the visa extension in hand, we now had a month to afford us more time to see the Real China.
So we changed tack and decided to get away from the noisy beeping roads for small periods of time and hop on a bus, train, walk- whatever it took to find The Real China, which had to be buried somewhere between these busy roads. We ruled out the much recommended Tiger Leaping Gorge because to get there from our present location involved going via some other stunning gorges, which much to our annoyance the police are insistent they don’t want foreigners going to, for some completely unknown reason.
We googled nearby Emei mountain range. It looked well good and so decided this would be our target for some well earned peace. Just look at all those temples! Apparently you can even stay in them! We left our bikes at the hostel and made for the hills.
After a couple of hours we found some great steep off-track tracks which took us away from the more crowded official paths. We got lost wandering through hills and farms. It was beautiful. This was it. Finally some peace. And finally a chance to take some of our own photos!
Then we had to rejoin the main track which included sections of road. We walked alBEEEP. We walked along thBEEEEEP. BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP. It became hard to enjoy this scenery BEEEEEEP with all this going BEEEEEP on.
I need to explain a little more the difference with Chinese honking compared with the rest of the world we’ve seen, because Carmen’s last post doesn’t explain the nuance. From east Europe onwards, the horn is more regularly used than in west Europe. It’s used pretty much by every passing car as either a salute or as a subtle, “hey I’m here”. And that’s ok.
Chinese bus drivers have louder horns fitted. They are so loud it’s insane. It must be illegal. Most buses (and some lorries) beep their way aggressively through the narrowest villages at 40kmph+ with pedestrians’ ears (old, infirm, young etc) a metre away from the source. They beep aggressively because they don’t want to have to brake at all or slow down. They believe they are the most important thing on the road at that moment. Rather than a short bip to alert of presence, a Chinese honk can last many seconds. Followed by the same perpetrator immediately honking for a further few seconds as it passes your ears. The offender will honk several times like this. Then it’s the next bus’ turn. Then the next. There are a lot of buses in China. They even do this in tunnels. Why they bother on an empty road when 1/it’s empty and 2/we can hear them honking a kilometre behind us, I don’t know. That’s just the buses. It becomes very hard to concentrate and starts to eat away your senses.
It’s the literary BEEEEEEEP equivalent of BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP it’s the literary equivalent of beep littering ones book BEEEEEEEEEEP with beeep a BEEEEP bogus beeeeep word. BEEEEEEEP BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP.
No really, it really is awful. Really. It’s confusing, distracting and makes you want to simply close the book. Read: Piss off China!
Anyway, back to our pleasant stroll. We thought we had dodged the entrance fee because we started late and were wandering around into the evening. But the security guard kindly opened up his office for us and issued us two £18 tickets, which felt more like a bloody fine as he logged us into his system with barcode and SNAP, photo ID for their records. Ticket valid for two days only: you can hike, but hurry up.
Oh well, we thought, if this is the price one has to pay to get some peace and nature, I’m sure it’ll be wor…
Hold on, did I just see a load of litter?
We found a temple away from the roads in which to sleep. It was beautiful. And quite peaceful.
(Apart from the monks watching TV.)
(And the monks coughing up their phlegm.)
(And everyone talking loudly in the resonant courtyard.)
We had a brisk wakeup at sunrise as everyone began talking loudly again in the resonant courtyard so we resumed our walk. This was the day where we had a fully emmersive experience with another one of China’s biggest ethnic minority (the first being Chinese Drivers): the Chinese Tourist.
Walking up stunning gorge and mountain paths, we shared this endless steep staircase with herds of Chinese Tourists. The Chinese Tourist migrates throughout the year (using their cars and their horns on their roads) across all provinces of China. Today several herds had come to Mount Emei. But also present, our common cousin the macaque monkey. Experts aren’t sure who descended from who vis-à-vis the Chinese Tourist and the monkey.
The Chinese Tourist knows no peace at all: shouting because there’s a monkey to look at, shouting because there’s a couple of white tourists, shouting because there’s a cable car over there, shouting because a member of family 200m behind wants some biscuits, shouting for fun presumably because when one shouts really loud, the sound waves travel and reflect off the surrounding mountainous surfaces, leading to the original shout taking on extra reverberant qualities as well as a prolonged lifespan, much to the delight of the Chinese Tourist.
The Chinese Tourist carries photographic apparatus which he uses to capture striking images of surrounding nature, our cousins, us and- with help from the world’s most offensive invention, a selfie f*** stick- themselves. All material is instantly uploaded to the digital ether of newsfeed wasteland, for bored people to see, appreciate and provide commentary.
Small stalls in the middle of otherwise peaceful nowhere offered up food and overpriced titchy water bottles, which we downed in one. No big bottles to be seen. Actually, this was common in Chinese townships: well-stocked supermarkets with various grades and sizes of vinegar, soy, vodka but with no sign of anything bigger than titchy water. This was more infuriating when dehydration was a genuine danger here and you were being ripped off for it.
Two of the stalls we walked through- platforms the size of a small bedroom – had chefs wearing microphone headsets connected to a megaphone-tannoy and addressing, seated right before them, tiny audiences of half a dozen. In the middle of a stunning mystical hike, these knobs were further adding to the noise pollution.
Other stalls offered up sling shots. Now, I saw no correlation myself with these and the presence of monkeys, but I did come across a blog that suggested so. Hmm, assaulting monkeys with sling shots? Even though they may not be gifted with the evolutionary dexterity to spell it, this was clearly GBH.
Now can you see why I’m coming down hard on the Chinese Tourist?
Even when we checked into the next temple to sleep, people still had to shout. There was always a reason to shout: shouting because they were washing their feet, because they were about to go to sleep, because everyone in the dorm was asleep, because they were praying and then because they were about to wake up and go hiking before sunrise, and because the sunrise looks beautiful and because look, there’s a foreigner also watching the sunrise too BLA DI BLA DI BLA BLA BLA RAH RAAAH RAAH
This was becoming an awful experience.
“Shout if you’re a twat!” instructed Carmen to everyone in earshot on one section of path.
“I don’t think they understand English, Carmen” was what I was just about to say before one herd of Chinese Tourists started shouting.
We were surrounded by twats, it seemed. Shouting because they were twats.
(If you’re wondering whether we played “Honk if you’re a twat” on the roads, I tried but failed, it’s just not possible. The only word to describe Chinese honkers begins with a C)
This was clearly how not to do tourism. Take a stunning backdrop, make it accessible for everyone, spoil it with every kind of pollution possible, charge people a fortune for the privilege, assault the local wildlife and call it a “hike”.
I didn’t take the above picture of the summit using my Nikon DSLR D3300 (with polariser), because on day three, ready to embark on the final climb towards said summit, we were confronted with this:
We took this photo, gave up, turned back and took an overpriced bus back to the hostel. It was 9am.
The driver, with his extra loud horn fitted, beeped his way down and coughed up phlegm about a hundred times. Sometimes he hocked and beeped in unison. BEEEEEP BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP XGHHHHGEUPHHHHT BEEEEEEEEP BEEEEEEEEEP XKKKKKRRRRRFFFFGHHHHHHHT
Noise, noise, noise and bloody noise.
Our attempt to see China’s beauty spots was a pathetic failure and it put us off risking another farce at another tourist spot with another hefty price tag.
Back on the road
So we changed tack again and realised that actually, we had more peace on the busy roads. Roads that were partially closed due to environmental disasters proved to be winners. So we reacquainted ourselves again with the REAL Real China.
So, did we find the peace we were looking for? Yes, we did actually. The further south we travelled, the better things got. Yunnanians don’t have the same love affair with their horns (PNI) and so we were spared honk abuse for the final two weeks. This meant that my middle finger got some well needed rest too. Indeed, I don’t think I had ever used it so much in my life as in China. (And I work in TV!)
After a much needed rest in Kunming, we made for our final 300k leg towards Vietnam via the beautiful and relatively peaceful Fuxian lake. It was the best part of China that we had seen so far. Authentic traditional villages untouched by tour**t development and very very idyllic. (We of course got grumpy again as some Chinese Tourists turned up in the evening and completely invaded the aforementioned peaceful and idyllic atmosphere by shouting over our romantic lakeside dinner and then over a game of mahjong in the echoey hotel corridor until 1am, causing us to once again lose faith in China.)
The country won back some points though in our final two days as we descended a stunning pass into the Tropic of Cancer. We had spent weeks above 1000m so we weren’t really noticing any kind of sub-tropical conditions. In one day we went from cool cities to intense tropical heat. Descending into this felt like a hair dryer blowing into your face. This descent was sickeningly beautiful and we were lucky to have the entire 40k of it exclusively to ourselves because the road was actually closed. Of the several dozen descents we’ve done to date, this was the astoundingest. Cycling couldn’t get better than this.
Even more astounding, my Apple iPad decided to DELETE rather than IMPORT some 150 photos of the final two weeks spent in China, including the aforementioned descent. You know, the photos of the descent that I just described as “sickeningly beautiful” and the most astounding. Gone. Most of the other photos were of dodgy English found in silly menus and signage. Also gone. Oh, there was also two of some Chinese Tourists in the act of taking photos of themselves using their selfie f**ksticks. Also gone.
Our favourite thing about China was the food. You might well be imagining greasy shiny things in sugary sauces, or perhaps a load of strange meat. Whilst we saw plenty of the latter (and none of the former), we ate vegetarian food every day, twice a day. Only the Chinese can make simple things like cabbage taste and look exciting. The meat we did eat on a handful of occasions included some excellent yak in Tibetan homes, splendid fish broths and the odd bit of pork here and there. The food was consistently good and is by far the best we’ve cycled through so far. Not only would we recommend it but we’d recommend it to vegetarians. Chinese food abroad doesn’t do Chinese food justice.
And did you know that China makes wine? I mean real, proper wine. I happened to pick up a bottle of Changyu which happens to be the country’s oldest producer, starting out in 1892. China now forms part of the world’s top ten producers and is second after Spain in terms of land given over to wine. But it’s hardly a surprise that they can make such good wines because the grapes we ate were also astounding.
Our second favouritest aspect of China were the people. So long as they weren’t sleeping in your hotel, driving buses or being tourists, the every day Chinese people we met were cute, shy and polite, so naturally we loved them.
China’s young and immature tourist industry didn’t offer us the necessary contrast we needed to counter the hefty cycling. We had some good times here but we wouldn’t recommend cycling it. Obviously I am extrapolating from our experiences and I would love to see China again but with the help of an expat-in-the-know of the places to see.
Cycling in Yunnan was far more rewarding than any of the rest of our route further north. If you aspire to peace and scenery, we found it hard to get a healthy blend of either. Oddly enough, we found comfort in the big modern Chinese cities: they have everything you need including great cycle paths to navigate your way safely around otherwise dauntingly heeyauwdge cities.
The development everywhere is astounding. I would love to know how many kilometres of tunnels alone are being built at any one time across the country but the traffic police I asked met my inquisition with a blank expression. Between 2008-2014, the motorways alone had almost doubled to 112,000KM. And China seems to be doing wonders to please the hypocritical western countries (who already have the benefit of hundreds of years of industrialisation- probably built on slavery) busy pointing fingers towards China over carbon emissions. Cycling in any city’s two-wheel lane is a silent affair: everybody drives electric scooters, which can be bought for £150! You have to see it.
Ohhhhhh Europe/UK/London has a lot to learn.
What’s for dinner?… I’m glad you asked: