The first thing you notice about China is just how big everything is. Mong Cai is a pretty prosperous looking little town there’s obviously plenty of money to be made carrying shit across borders. The buildings are pretty big by Vietnamese standards but they are nothing compared to Dongxing on the Chinese side. Huge apartment complexes rise up into the sky alongside shiny blocks of offices and shopping malls. The route we took along the coast was marked as a minor road but turned out to be a 4 lane highway. The first town we got to was huge but still tiny by Chinese Standards. Again huge apartment complexes, offices and shopping malls. The road we took out of town was six lanes and that wasn’t even the expressway. On the outskirts of town whole mountains were being ripped down to create more room to build more houses. Further along the road more mountains were being demolished to create the building materials to construct those houses.
Earlier we’d crossed the border without a hitch. I was thinking that a few questions would be asked of a couple riding bicycles into China. But the only problem we experienced was dealing with the extremely rude an unhelpful Vietnamese border guard when we were trying to work out how to get our bicycles into the building up a flight of steps. He came over, looked at us and completely ignored our inquiry despite it being made in Vietnamese. And people wonder why most tourists never return to Vietnam.
Finally in the afternoon we reached the edge of town and the smooth, flat 6 lane road suddenly gave way to a narrow, bumpy 2 lane road and we were in the countryside. It was quite a contrast to the gleaming modernity we had just left behind. Gently rolling terraced fields planted with vegetables were being tended by sturdy looking farmers. They had a novel method of planting rice which I hadn’t seen before. Rather than the backbreaking technique that I saw throughout South East Asia of bending over and planting each seedling into the ground they would stand up and throw each plant into position in the soft mud. They seemed to be pretty accurate and it looked a lot quicker and much less tiring.
This being China whenever there was something valuable to be dug out of the ground someone was digging it out. So every few kilometres there was a mine or a quarry or a factory. Many of them old and abandoned looking. Late in the afternoon we turned on to a narrow country road. There was hardly any traffic and the fields glowed in the afternoon light. It was beautiful. We lingered for a while taking photos but night was coming so we pushed on to the next town to find a hotel for the night.
We booked into a nice business hotel. It was a couple of dollars more than we were used to paying, but much nicer.
Within seconds of my head touching the oh so soft pillow I was fast asleep. What seemed like seconds later but must have been several hours there was a loud banging and shouts of POLI POLI POLI. I awoke blearily and stumbled around trying to get some trousers on in the dark. Still the banging and shouting continued and I’m thinking what do the police want at 4 in the morning. Finally I get myself in some kind of presentable state to reveal a rather drunk looking guy at the door who was very startled to see a fat, bald and hairy foreign guy instead of the expected female companion. He muttered something and staggered off to find the correct room. Relieved that I wasn’t about to be interrogated I returned to that oh so comfortable bed.
Next day was a series of sharp but steady inclines as we rose up to the plain on which Nanning is situated. The countryside was pleasant and the road relatively quiet. At least until we approached the city anyway. Our target was to ride 105km per day in order to cross the country in 60 days so we couldn’t hang around for any sightseeing. By late afternoon we had crossed the city which is pretty small, at least in comparison to most other provincial capitals, but still has a population of around 3 million. They are currently building a metro system and there were some diversions in place which made navigating rather tricky. However Nanning is one of the best cities in China for riding bicycles. Due to its mild climate bikes and their electric cousins are very popular in the city so there are plenty of cycle lanes and other road users are accustomed to sharing space with those on two wheels. We found a place to stay right on the northern outskirts of town.
The following day we faced our first real climb in China, but the road was a four lane highway so the incline wasn’t too steep and a strong tailwind soon helped us over and on to the broad valley at the top which we followed for the rest of the day. There were a fair few other cyclists on the road, all Chinese and they didn’t stop to chat just acknowledged us with cheery waves. Most were heading in the opposite direction but a young student on a folding bicycle was heading our way and caught up with us after lunch. He was from Shanghai and had caught the train to Kunming and had been riding around south west China for a month. It was pleasant to have someone else to ride with although his English was pretty basic so our communication was limited but Kim’s Chinese is pretty good so they were happy to spend the afternoon chatting. Later we were joined by another rider and our little peloton made good progress as the valley narrowed, became more scenic and a little hillier. We rode through typical Chinese karst limestone landscape with outcrops of jagged rock jutting out of the fields. We were all heading for the same town and we bade our farewells at the main crossroads and went off to find a bed for the night.
The next day was a monster. The summit of the biggest hill we had tackled so far was at the 100km mark so if we wanted to meet our daily target it would have to be crested. The day started innocently enough, we continued up the same valley as the previous day. It was flat, the sun was shining and we still had that tail wind to help us along. Around lunch time the climbs began the road curved out of the valley and we had a stiff climb into the next. And that was how the day progressed following a valley for a while and then another climb. The sun was still shining and it seemed to get hotter all the while. For the next couple of days as we saw from the weather channel we were in the hottest part of China, experiencing highs of 36C. In Vietnam we were used to it cooling down from around 3 but here it seemed to get even hotter. As we moved north the days were getting longer too and as we were on Beijing time we had gained an hour in the evening. Which was handy as it was getting late by the time we reached the bottom of the big climb. The road was still good so it wasn’t super steep, although it was steep enough. It was just a long hard grind to the crest of the valley which we eventually reached after a few stops to admire the scenery and get our breaths back. The view from the top was sublime. The setting sun lit up the forested peaks arrayed in front of us we paused for a minute to take it all in and then hurried in a race to beat the setting sun and find a room for the night.
Which we lost. We made it down into the valley fine enough in an exhilarating blur of greenery combined with the occasional dusk time insect. But there was nothing there, just the occasional tiny village with barely a shop never mind somewhere to stay. I knew there were some hotels where the road merged with another highway about 15km further on. About halfway dark fell and we were forced to carry on into the gloom trying to spot any hazards in the road in the light of a head torch while being mindful of not straying too close to the metre deep ditch which lay at the edge of the shoulder. Eventually we crested a rise and saw lights ahead and exhausted and relieved pulled into a truck stop a few minutes later having covered more than 120km and climbed over 2,000m. The place had certainly seen better days. The main restaurant looked almost like a ballroom with decorative mouldings around the wall and chandeliers providing the illumination. But most of the bulbs were gone and there was mould on the mouldings. A rat flitted through a hole in the wall while we were eating dinner, had a look around and scurried off into another hideaway. The sleeping facilities were even more basic. A couple of saggy beds, with dust gathering on the ancient furniture. The bathrooms were shared. The pipe hanging off the wall in the dingy showers. But the water was hot and I was so tired I think I could have slept anywhere that night.
Exhausted after our exertions the day before we decided to have an easy day and only cover 50 km. But it still took the best part of the day. We got up late and there were lots of hills. Pretty steep ones too. We rose up in a series of steps first climbing and then descending. The descents seemed as long as the assents but they can’t have been because we were steadily getting higher. Fortunately the strong tail wind that had been assisting us ever since we reached China continued and was perhaps even stronger than before.
There were a couple of bridges spanning the steeper sections sweeping high above the fields and forest below and they afforded amazing views across the valley. Suddenly we crested a rise and the valley opened up. A sharp forested ridge ran up each side, rising to the occasional peak. On the peaks and on some of the peaks jutting out of the valley itself chimneys from some industrial process rose into the sky. But the smoke had long since ceased emanating from them and they served only as monuments to a past that must have filled the valley with acrid fumes. It was another scorching day so we were relived to reach Nandan and find a place to stay.
Nandan was the biggest town we had been to since Nanning and it seemed to be expanding at a rapid rate. Like most places in China new apartment blocks were springing up everywhere and cranes poked out above the skyline across the city. Yet it seemed like a ghost town. The streets were largely deserted and there was hardly any traffic on the roads. Most of the businesses were shuttered. The only shops that seemed opened were corner shops, building supply shops and firework shops selling the firecrackers and other stuff used to mark the opening of new businesses etc. Initially I thought everything was closed because it was the grave cleaning holiday but even the day after the shutters were still down. It seems like nobody had moved to the gleaming new town yet.
Grave cleaning day is an ancient ritual dating to pre Buddhist times where the graves of relatives are cleaned and decorated and a ceremony carried out. A recent survey declared China the least religious country in the world, with more than 60% of respondents declaring themselves to be atheist. Yet the constant explosion of fireworks across the city as ceremonies were carried out at grave after grave across the city rather put paid to that claim. And ancestor worship is not the only ancient belief system which still persists. Chinese people are also incredibly superstitious as witnessed by the number of rooms we stayed in containing lucky number 8, room number 888018 in a hotel with only one floor being a memorable example. Or the number of people whose WIFI password is 88888888, not so lucky that I’m stealing your WIFI and accessing Facebook and Gmail to boot. Or the number of perfectly intelligent people who would pay extra for a phone number with an 8 in it or delay getting pregnant or indeed even have an abortion just to avoid giving birth during the year of the sheep because they believe they will have a weak character. But then again there are plenty of people in the west who won’t walk under a ladder or put up an umbrella inside. We humans probably find such irrational beliefs comforting, trying to provide order in a disordered world.
That night we were still tired after a week’s straight cycling without a break. It was also becoming clear that with the mountains to come it was going to be very difficult to cycle all the way across China in 60 days. Especially as we were now 50km behind our target. Previously we had planned that Kim would take the bus on some of the legs to give herself a break and I would cycle alone. We decided that actually enjoying the trip was more important than some noble goal of cycling all the way. And that completing the journey together was also important. So we decided to take a day off the following day and see how far we could get without pushing ourselves too much and then jump on the bus or the train to make up the difference.
We enjoyed a lie in for the first time in a week and then spent a slow day wandering around town. There was a hill with a viewpoint on top that afforded fantastic views across the city and the surrounding valley. It seems like somebody had been a little too exuberant with the fireworks which had sparked a fire on a nearby hill. Thick smoke was rising into the sky and the strong wind was fanning the flames. It seems like wild fires are on the rise in China as a result of climate change as changes in rainfall patterns and higher temperatures and stronger winds create ideal conditions to spark fires. Later we heard sirens across the city so it seemed like this one was under control. After dinner we returned to the hotel to prepare ourselves for getting back on the road the next day.