I awoke early and pulled back the curtains to reveal a grey morning. Light rain was creating a pattern of rings on the water gathered on the flat roof of the building next door. When we emerged into the parking lot I shivered slightly in my shorts. A complete change from the blazing heat that we’d experienced for the past few days.
Also to change that day were the conditions of the road. We’d been following the G210 ever since we left Nanning. We continued following it up the valley. The scenery was pleasant if unremarkable. In the afternoon we reached Guizhou province. The road which for the whole time we were in Guangxi was wide with a decent shoulder and a good surface suddenly narrowed and became broken and potholed. A short time later we encountered a section with deep craters. Trucks slowed to a crawl trying to negotiate it and we weren’t much quicker. After that the whole route to the town of Mahweizen was being improved. Two walls were being constructed by hand from rock and concrete and the space in between would be filled and surfaced later. What an incredibly labour intensive and back breaking way to build a road. They were even mixing the concrete by hand!! It made riding the bike feel all the more easy.
A few kilometres further we reached our destination for the evening and soon found a great place to stay in a hotel run by a lovely family. But before we could check in we had to be checked out by the police. We hadn’t had any problems in any of the places we stayed at in Guangxi. I don’t know if there are different rules there or if the police are more relaxed or the people are more relaxed or a bit of both. But throughout our time in Guizhou either the police would come and check us out or inform the hotel that we couldn’t stay there. In one place they even wanted us to go to the police station. We refused and said they would have to come to us, but they never did. In my 4 previous visits to China I never had the police come to my hotel to check me out. I don’t know what is different this time. Maybe because we are bicycle touring so staying in some very small places that don’t usually receive any foreign tourists. Or perhaps it’s because Kim is Vietnamese. Or it could be that they’ve tightened things up a bit recently. Whatever the reason it’s a pain in the arse. The last thing you want to be doing after a hard days cycling is dealing with the police before you can even get a room for the night. So that evening two officers arrived, asked us a couple of questions, took photos of our passports and visas and left.
Next day it was even colder, around 8C and a light drizzle was falling. I was bitterly regretting not getting the zip fixed on the leg of my convertible shorts/trousers. I guess I could have ridden with the one good leg attached, better to look ridiculous and be half warm. But it was at the bottom of my pannier and I couldn’t be bothered to find it. That night I sewed the leg on and it stayed on for more than a week.
The road was lovely. Really quiet and through some delightful limestone scenery. But the going was tough. The roadwork’s continued and in the rain the road had turned to thick gloopy mud which sprayed everywhere eventually jamming up inside my mudguards and stopping the wheel turning. I tried forcing it out with a stick but it just jammed up again a few kilometres later. Eventually I reattached the mudguards with a bigger space between the wheel and that seemed to do the trick.
And so we continued for the next few days. Lots of hills, and lots of downhills. We were climbing two or three thousand meters everyday but we never got much higher than 2,000m. We jealously eyed the expressway which followed the same course but avoided the ups and downs on a series of bridges and tunnels. However the scenery was stunning which made all the exertion worthwhile. At the highpoints a jagged line of forested mountain peaks would extend off into the distance. Then we would descend following the course of swift flowing rivers running through delightful forested valleys. At other times the scenes would be more pastoral and we’d watch the changing cultivation patterns in the fields. One day we saw endless rows of grape vines all newly planted to feed China’s new found appetite for wine. China now has the second biggest area of grape vines in the world. On other days it was corn or sugar cane.
A couple of times a day we’d come to an industrial town with chimneys skewing smoke into the sky. More often than not the factories stood idle, the brick chimneys crumbling, windows smashed and roofs sagging. Testament to the rapid change going on in Chinese society. We often ended up staying in these places as they were the only places big enough to have hotels. One evening we were too tired to continue and were forced to stay in a smaller town. There were only two guest houses in the place. We chose the marginally better one of the two above a restaurant. There was a couple of hard beds with stained duvets on them and a battered old TV in the corner. The owner spent several minutes endeavouring to get it to work but it never produced anything more than a purple flicker. There was no heating and it was freezing. The water heater in the bathroom proudly announced the water temperature was 20 degrees. Needless to say I didn’t have a shower. We ate dinner and then went straight to bed taking advantage of our new sleeping bags to insulate us from the cold.
Earlier that day we had passed our first Chinese coal fired power station. It appeared in the distance belching fumes into the sky and grew and grew as we grew closer until it dominated the skyline above the town of Fuquan. More than 60 % of China’s greenhouse gas emissions are produced by the burning of coal, and not just from the production of electricity. Many households are also dependent on coal for their heating and cooking and of course it is used in a large number of industrial processes. The sulphuric aroma of burning coal hangs in the valleys and often heralds an approaching town before you even see it.
China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of coal. The cities of Beijing and Tianjin and Hebei and Shandong provinces burn more coal than the whole of Europe. If China is serious about cutting its greenhouse gas emissions then it needs to get serious about cutting its coal use. And it has started. It has already closed 18 gigawatts capacity of the most polluting power stations and a further 60 GW are planned. The problem is that it is mostly being replaced by more coal power. Cleaner coal power perhaps but it will still be responsible for producing many millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide. And China needs to cut its carbon emissions massively if it is to have any kind of future as I pointed out here.
Of course burning coal is also one of the major causes of the air pollution which blights the country. Many cities are covered by a haze of smog and residents can go for weeks without seeing the sky. It’s estimated that in 2010 air pollution was linked to 1.2million premature deaths. So quitting coal wouldn’t just be good for the climate. As people become more aware of the hazards posed by the air they breathe there is a growing mood for change. Under the dome a recent documentary exposing the sources and dangers of Chinas pollution problem went viral and was viewed over a 100 million times in a matter of days. The government initially unsure of what to do with a film which at times is very critical of the toothlessness of the regulatory authorities did nothing. This probably reflects the tensions within the bureaucracy, which at least partially recognises that something needs to be done. Two weeks after its release it was removed from all websites but the conversation has already started and could perhaps lead to lasting change.
After a week of riding we were approaching Guiyang the capital of Guizhou province but the road was the worst we had encountered yet. The road was being upgraded for most of the 50km into the city and it had been raining the night before turning the road into a muddy mess. As we approached the city the volume of traffic also increased appreciably. There was one really steep section. A thick slime of mud concealed a layer of uneven stones. So you were slipping and sliding and bumping all over the place when huge trucks were crawling past also slipping and sliding and spraying mud everywhere. We even encountered a traffic jam going into a cemetery!!! It was the first weekend after the grave cleaning day so it was extra busy. The car park was busy and there was a line to get in. Drivers in China are not exactly patient and a couple of people had tried to jump the queue blocking a truck coming the other way and causing total gridlock. There were a couple of police further down the road but they were blowing their whistles ineffectively in the wrong place. We zipped nonchalenty up the road but it must have taken an age to sort out for those stuck in their metal boxes because a Porche that we had passed in the queue passed us when we were miles up the road. It was a relief when we finally arrived in Guiyang.
I don’t like Chinese cities. I hate cars and dislike shopping malls which seem to be their major components . But more than anything I find them depressing. Most Chinese cities are new. They have pretty much bulldozed everything and started again. So they could have built anything. Perhaps the most important lesson learnt over the past 70 years in city planning is that if you want a liveable, safe, unpolluted city with a high quality of life don’t plan your city around the motor car. So of course what does China decide to build? … In Chinese cities the car is king. And Queen and Princess and Prince. Six, eight, ten lane roads carve their way through the city. Pedestrians are relegated to a narrow strip at the fringes often fenced off to prevent you crossing the road. To do that you are forced underground or onto bridges. See a nice looking cafe or shop opposite you can’t just nip across the road to check it out. You have to go up to the next intersection cross the road and then come all the way back again. It almost feels like you are imprisoned. The machines really have taken over the city. People are just a mere after thought. Even the transit systems are thrust out of the way either above the road or underground so as to inconvenience the cars as little as possible. Yet the traffic jams are horrendous. But of course the motor car is prefect for the new China. Capitalist, individualistic and very profitable. Great for the 1% not so great for the 99%. But perhaps most importantly of all cars make the prefect status symbol. Of course status is important in all cultures, but it is a particular important in Asian societies. Hence the predilection for gaudy ostentatious houses or ears, necks and hands dripping with gold and nothing indicates your worth as a human being better than a shiny black car with four interlinked silver rings or an inverted peace sign on the radiator grill. However the problem with status is that its helping to destroy our planet. Consumer capitalism has cleverly exploited our need for status so that our value as human beings is determined by the things that we buy rather than what we do. So now people feel compelled to change their phone as soon as the latest model comes out even though their current phone still works fine. Or change their wardrobe every 3 month according to that seasons fashion. In Asia expressions of status have got so extreme that people sprinkle Rhino horn into their drinks or eat critically endangered pangolins not because they are delicious but because their very endangerdness makes them ridiculously expensive. So I got to thinking about alternative status symbols that weren’t so damaging to the environment. I came up with the idea of large golden penises which could be worn on the forehead. That way you could tell at a glance exactly where on the pecking order the person lay. The bigger the dick, well, the bigger the dick.
On top of that I find Chinese cities rather soulless. They are so new and shiny and sterile that it’s like being in an airport all chrome and plastic, except with lots of cars. Occasionally you’ll stumble on an older area, with more character and individuality but these are few and far between and mostly in the process of being demolished to make way for more sterility.
There are a few redeeming features. They usually have a few open spaces and parks although it feels like some of them are more to revel in the glory of the communist party rather than places for people to enjoy. They are often austere open spaces with the “peoples” government headquarters a prominent feature. But some of them are lovely. Leafy and green and full of people exercising, or playing music or wooing their lovers. And the other great thing is the food. It is delicious and varied. Each province has its own style of cooking and special dishes and it’s great to experience them all as you go along. However for me these upsides fail to outweigh the downsides. The countryside is far far more beautiful than any park and there is delicious food to be had everywhere and it’s usually much cheaper in smaller places.
Guiyang was no exception and just to make matters worse there was no bicycle infrastructure whatsoever. I only saw one cycle lane the whole time we were there and that lasted barely a couple of kilometeres and didn’t go anywhere useful. Even entering and exiting the city by bicycle proved to be a challenge. It is surrounded by hills so many of the access roads run through tunnels in which bicycles are prohibited. So just to get into the city we had to cut through a forest park up a massive hill. And to exit the city we had to ignore the no bicycles sign because there didn’t seem any other way to get there.
Giuyang followed the usual template of a Chinese city. Lots of wide unfriendly roads, lots of shopping malls and lots of shiny new buildings. All of which seemed to be in the Neo Classical late 19th Century European style except they were brand new and had an inferior build quality – the marble and granite was just a few inches think, covering the reinforced concrete below. It’s a shame that Chinese planners and developers don’t have the confidence to use their own rich culture and history to forge a unique style of their own but have to rely in cheap imitations of someone else’s. We wandered through the fumes and came across the river and central square with a striking bronze sculpture as the centre piece. The large statue of Mao which must have at some stage occupied a central position had been moved to a corner by the road. Reflecting perhaps the changes in attitudes within the country as they rush to embrace capitalism. We spent a couple of days wandering the city, recharging the batteries after a week of tiring cycling and sampling the delicious local hotpot. It was nice to have a rest, but I was eager to get back on the road.