China part #3 – Wild China
17 July, 2011 13 Comments
We left Lanzhou having finished our mostly eastwards path since England – now we head south all the way to Perth, Australia! The land had also changed significantly, the desert of north-west China finally overcome by green mountains and hills.
Back in the desert, thousands of kilometres of land were empty and dead. Now pretty much every available inch is used for growing crops. Tiers are cut into hills to create a flat surface for rice or corn, and water from the streams and rivers feeds the fields through carefully cut irrigation channels. In this part of China water appears plentiful – every field and river is full of it, and the mountainsides sparkle with waterfalls. As a result, the landscape is full of noisy wildlife and extravagant colour, but China as a whole faces a water crisis that may lead to other areas being unable to irrigate their fields.
All work is performed by hand and every day we cycle past thousands of villagers – men and women, young and old – tending to their crops. We’ve seen no mechanised farming equipment at all in China, although we’ve seen a few water buffalo helping out with some ploughing.
As to be expected in such fertile land, villages are everywhere. They vary in wealth quite significantly, to the untrained eye at least. The poorest we saw in south Gansu were made from mud, covered in rubbish, no running water and complete with an appalling smell thanks to the lack of plumbing and the fact that anywhere passes for a toilet. Further south the nicer villages have brick houses, taps with running water, cleaner streets and maybe a few cafes serving up noodles or fried rice.
The intensive use of land makes camping more of a challenge – in Kazakhstan we could literally stop where we pleased, with empty grassy plains everywhere. Now we have to be a bit more cunning and search out a quiet spot big enough for a tent. However there does always seem to be a spot somewhere and we’ve had a few great ones, sometimes with the holy grail of a freshwater stream to wash in.
We’re still finding towns most days and we’re still enjoying being able to spend evenings in towns and eating most of our meals at cafes (definitely more interesting and much more tasty than cooking up some slurry on our campstove). Our eating technique has evolved too: our heads have lowered steadily towards our bowls over the last two months, and chopsticks are used to shovel the noodles or rice into our mouths (Bex is particularly good at this). If we don’t fancy camping, every town has a guesthouse (cheapest yet has been £3), with the bigger towns often having really nice hotels for around £10-15, which isn’t too bad if there’s two of you to share a room. Although we’ve camped a bit between towns, it would be possible to travel light and cycle around China without camping equipment, with the exception of the desert stretches in Xinjiang.
The language barrier remains impenetrable for the most part, despite our efforts with the phrasebook. The sounds are subtle and completely alien to us, and each word has multiple meanings depending on the intonation used. I’d love to see some of our ‘conversations’ played back with subtitles – most of the time neither side has a clue what the other is on about. However, we have met some English speakers in a few of the cities, and have been taken out for dinner and beers and introduced to friends, all excited to meet an Englishman. Foreigners are rare in all but the major tourist cities – an English teacher we met in one city of half a million people had only previously seen one foreigner, 10 years before. It’s not surprising that we’re constantly stared at everywhere we go – especially in the smaller towns and villages, we may be the first foreigners that some people have seen.
Recently we’ve been faced with a choice between roads – the ‘old’ road, or the new expressway. The amount of infrastructure construction in China is incredible, with a brand new expressway and highspeed railway built (or being built) alongside most of our route all the way from Kazakhstan. These new routes take no notice of the hills in the south, bridges and tunnels both kilometres long flatten out the ups and downs. The cost of these projects must be enormous – the roads are thousands of kilometres long and nearly always on a bridge or in a tunnel – and they strike an uncomfortable contrast as the new roads slice through villages that have no water or sanitation facilities.
The roads present a bit of a dilemma for us as well: do we stick to the old road (quieter traffic, more shops, much more interesting, more miles and up and down every hill) or sneak onto the expressway (bikes not officially allowed, nice wide hard shoulder, flatter road blasting through the hills, no shops and much more boring)? It’s far quicker on the expressway but even if travelling through the exact same landscape, when on the expressway surrounded by crash barriers we feel bored and disconnected, whilst on the narrow winding old road, often with a lethal drop on one side, everything suddenly seems much more interesting!
To occupy my brain one day on the expressway I listened to a Tour de France podcast as we cycled, daydreaming about team time trials and solo breakaways. The end of the podcast jolted me back to reality and I found myself on a solo breakaway of my own, dripping with sweat, panting hard and cranking the pedals, with Bex nowhere in sight. Whoops!
We’ve taken a couple of shortcuts on smaller roads, hoping to slice hundreds of kilometres off our route whilst exploring some really quiet rural areas. The first one turned out to be a mud track over a 2,200 metre mountain pass, and the unsurfaced road had become almost un-rideable after it rained. Even downhill we were forced to drag our bikes through ankle-deep mud and it took us 3 days to cover the 120km until we rejoined tarmac!
Whichever road we choose, mountains and hills are unavoidable in this part of the world. Generally the road weaves through a valley, following a river or a gorge. But once every couple of days, the road bends up and over a 3,000 metre high pass. On the old roads the grand finale of these already challenging climbs is a savage switchback road snaking the final few miles up to the peak, followed by superb views and an exhilarating winding decent. The difference in temperature at the top and bottom of these climbs is hard to believe. In Chengdu, down at 500 metres, I couldn’t leave our air conditioned room without breaking into an instant sweat . A few hundred miles further south, and I was digging out my long-forgotten coat and gloves at the top of a pass, preparing for a chilly descent.
We stayed in a backpacker’s hostel in Chengdu, and after being stared at 24/7 for the last few months it was nice to be able to slip into anonymity, surrounded by other ‘aliens’, burgers and cold beer. I had a grin like a Cheshire cat on that first evening – the novelty of western food and home comforts like the hostel’s 500-strong DVD collection was too much to take in. The burgers must have been good as Bex managed to put away 4 of them during our 5 night stay. My first English breakfast since leaving home also slipped down a treat. We indulged without a shred of guilt about ignoring Chinese culture for a few days – after we finish our 3 months in the country we’ll have had enough noodles for a lifetime!
Whilst in Chengdu we took the obligatory trip to see the pandas. You go in the morning to see them eat, as apparently they spend the rest of the day sleeping. The pandas were weirdly human-like, lying on their backs and reaching up to grab bamboo branches, all in slow motion. Bex had obviously been taking notes as she used the afternoon to perform a very realistic panda impression of her own, spending the afternoon lying on her back in bed, covered in food.
It’s time for another toilet update – unfortunately they’ve been getting steadily worse the further east we’ve travelled. If the current trend continues I’m not looking forward to New Zealand. The norm in China is a communal trench, there’s nothing like the fear of falling backwards into the pool of slurry and a grunting Chinese man squatting two foot to your left to focus your mind. After using a petrol station’s facilities recently I actually commented to Bex that they were pretty good – they were still communal squatters, but had separate holes, metre-high dividing walls and flushes! It appears my standards have dropped to previously unimaginable lows.
We’re now in Kunming in south China, with just 400km left until the Vietnamese border (and having passed the 15,000km marker a few days ago!). China has felt enormous at times and we’ve both occasionally struggled with the motivation to get back on the bikes for another day of pedalling, knowing it’ll be largely the same as yesterday. But just as we begin to feel sorry for ourselves, something happens – the road twists through some incredible scenery, or we spend an evening eating and drinking with some new friends mentioned above – and we give ourselves a kick and remember how lucky we are to be living the dream.