I have joined a mad Irishman on a cycling trip around the world.

Monday, 1 July 2013

China: An Epic. Part 1

It has been a really long time since I posted a blog and I blame China! Apart from The Great Fire Wall which blocks this website among many others, I didn't really feel like writing about China while I was still in China. We were there for four months, a full month longer than we had anticipated. It hasn't been an entirely relaxing time to say the least and the next person who tells me I am on a three year long holiday will get an ear-full of cycling in China stresses. You're about to get one right now. So, here is the Chinese epic blog in three parts!

Having been in China before on this trip did nothing to soften the shocks which come as soon as you roll over the border line. Our holiday within our "life style choice (!)" of Thailand and Laos was over and we were back to big cycling days in big hills with visa time constraints snapping at our heels and cold winds heralding the subzero temperatures of a Chinese winter just around the corner. China is an incredibly loud place, everything is at full volume. People don't talk, they shout, the don't eat, they slurp and burp, they don't blow their noses, they haaaaaaaaark it all up and spit it all out all over the place. Quite often Julian and I would eat in silence because the restaurants are so deafening it's not worth trying to make yourself heard. If you're near someone who's on the phone and you're not expecting it you might poo yourself. And the horns, oh the horns. As Troy Cobb once said, each time someone blasts you from behind it shortens your life by five minutes.

I found dealing with the traffic to be the biggest challenge in China and I admit I have developed some quite serious road rage (and pedestrian rage). The driving is the worst I have ever seen, worse even than India and Indonesia. People can't seem to see past their own noses. More than once I watched two cars turning into a road at the same time, going very slowly but neither giving an inch until they're actually bumper to bumper and totally stuck. We watched one car almost take it's wing mirrors off trying to squeeze between two huge stone bollards put there to stop the cars. People would gladly risk our lives to get to the red traffic light three seconds sooner. It beggared belief. I swore at many people but they all just smiled and waved back which was most infuriating. In the cities the electric scooters zip past like silent stealth loonies, close enough for you to reach out and hit them if you wanted, which I did.

In our first two weeks, according to www.bikeroutetoaster.com, we climbed 28,000 metres. That's about Everest three times and an average of 2,500m a day. Hardcore! Still, the roads weren't too steep and we made good time.

As we rode towards Kunming, a big city in the South, we saw the biggest annual human migration in the world: 200 million Chinese people rushing home to be with their families for Chinese New Year. For many people it is the only time they see their families each year and they cram all their gifts onto scooters and ride for days to get home. We watched a news report about a group of cyclists riding back for their holidays. Six out of ten made it without incident and everyone considered that to be a good result. We made it to Kunming for our New Year celebrations, only slightly hampered by a storm, landslide and some really atrocious Chinese roads. 

In Kunming we stayed in our first backpacker hostel in ages. Some foreign English teachers had joined the mass migration for their holidays and come south for balmier temperatues. Ben, Daniel and Balin had come down from up north where it was -25 degrees. They were very pale and wore their down jackets despite the sunshine. We hadn't got ours out yet. Another cyclist arrived, Neil from England on a world tour in aid of Oxfam. He's raised quite a lot already, mostly from generous Sheiks he met in Central Asia. His blog is on facebook under the name of "I were right about that saddle though". We spent most of our nights in a great little bar called Moon Dog, run by two Germans, one of whom had cycled there and never left. They were both married to very understanding Chinese ladies who didn't mind that they didn't get home until six am each morning.

It started getting chilly on our way up to Chengdu. We climbed up into snow topped hills through freezing headwinds. At one point I was climbing in my thermals, cycling top, fleece, shawl and raincoat and I was still frozen. At the top of the highest climb we were enveloped in a thick cloud which reduced visibility to a few feet - we could just make out the snow and had just enough time to dive out of the way of the trucks as they came looming though the fog. Very unfairly, just as we'd congratulated ourselves on reaching the top, it started raining. We had all our rain gear on but our thick gloves and shoes were soaked immediately and our hands and feet went numb. The road was all shitty and broken up and it's probably the least fun I've had on a 25km descent. Thankfully we came to a tiny village before our strength (and the road) crumbled entirely and we found ourselves a freezing room and watched our breath rising as we tried to sleep.

A couple of days later we rolled into balmy Chengdu and didn't roll out again for a whole month. Jules had been concerned with his pooing situation (there was blood in it) since we arrived in China. We had been to various hospitals where he'd had various tests and been given various anti-biotics. Chinese hospitals are generally hectic, crowded with the standard unbearably squalid toilets but with "Lawai" (foreign devil) preferential treatment blood, stool and urine tests can take as little as ten minutes including the results. However one might wish they would take a little more time over them when the doctor diagnosis a sinus problem from bloody stools.

It was time to go to a Travel Clinic - a very expensive one but with foreign doctors. While we waited a bit longer than ten minutes for test results we holed up in the wonderful "Simm's Cozy Garden Hostel". This enormous hostel has the friendliest staff who actually wanted to be friends with us, the biggest collection for bootlegged DVDs (about 2000 and a DVD player in each room to watch them on), a nice garden, cheap bar and weekend regulars in the form of English teachers Denise and Cat who took us out and showed us a good time.
Piglet in the supermarket

Drying spinach or something

Life... Don't talk to me about life

Chengdu is a nice city and not too big by Chinese standards, only about 15 million people and growing. There was a literary festival on at a bookshop/bar called The Bookworm. We went to see Lionel Shriver talk which was interesting, although I think I was the only person who'd read any of her books, including the compare. That same evening in the bar part of the venue we watched a jazz band. As I looked at the singer it dawned on me that I knew him! He was a regular at the Lion and Lobster pub where I worked in Brighton! He wasn't really sure who I was at first but I blame that on the fact that he was always drunk whenever I served him.

Gil Goldman gets his ears cleaned at The People's Park

Tea tasting

The cool way to pour tea

Sugar art


Everyone gets a lolly

Mao keeping an eye on everyone

After a couple of weeks and a rather scary diagnosis for Julian of Crohn's disease we decided that even the foreign doctors weren't quite up to solving the mystery of Julian's poos so we hopped on a plane to Hong Kong to see some REALLY fancy doctors. We stayed with Phil Sams, (a man most capable of guesting on and hosting his own chat show), the Yorkshire born Couch Surfer who hosted us on our last visit to Hong Kong when I was still rehabilitating from my broken ellie-bow. He was a great host and we had fun cooking together and watching old movies. He even took us to school with him to "help" in a couple of lessons.

Julian had done some research and found a doctor who was both a gastrologyst and specialised in tropical medicine. His practice was in the really fancy part of town. While we waited for the appointment we wandered around what must be the most beautiful shopping plaza in the world. It really was beautiful. When I went to the loo I recognised the hingeless toilet doors and realised the building had been designed by Thomas Heatherwick, the British man who designed the Olympic torch among other things. We had seen photos of the hingeless toilet doors in an exhibition at the V & A.

Bendy doors

The nicest shopping mall in the world

After a week or so the very posh doctor told Jules the diagnosis of Crohn's disease was rediculous and to be sure to see good doctors next time. He gave Jules yet another course of really hard core anti-biotics and sent us on our way that'll be 800 pounds thank you very much. We said goodbye to Phil again and as a parting gift I hid easter eggs all over his flat. He didn't really get into the spirit of the hunt and I don't think he's found them all yet. He wrote to us to say he'd found the one I put in his shoe but only after he'd put it on and walked to the bus stop.

Phil and Julian at the bus stop
Back in Chengdu with brand new three month visas and a whole month further behind the winter (would we ever wear our down jackets again?) we got ready to depart. We couldn't leave without visiting the pandas however. I wuv them. I'd bought myself a snazzy new camera to replace my little one which had given up the ghost for the third time, and I made good use of it. I took 300 photos of pandas. Here are just a few:

Red panda on the run!

Sneaky panda

Nimble eater

Wrestling youngsters

Fat daddy panda

Chillin' wid me homies

We were joined by Mark for the first day on the road again. Mark is an English English teacher in Hong Kong. Highlights of our day together were pigs ears, Shiting River Bridge and sharing a room with a glass walled bathroom. Our legs were a little stiff that day but it felt very good to be on our way once more...

Pig's ears, my favourite

Shiting River Bridge!

No comments:

Post a Comment