China is BIG. That’s why we took a 3000km train ride, two bus rides that amounted to about 1310km and the distance covered by us cycling takes the bronze with approx. 1120km. The latter number includes about 40km uphill where somebody took us and our bikes in their car. Dainis and Laura will also insist that I cycled smaller distance because I used to go up hills by holding on to some lorries, I managed to grab onto while they were passing me. Let them do it, I’m not going for the gold here.
But while Dainis is trying to figure out what he has to say about Laos, I thought that I still have to share some happenings, revelations or just random stuff about China and us.
China is the best for camping anywhere. Or just sleeping anywhere for that matter. There are so many people all around, all the land is reclaimed but that does not mean it’s hard to find a space where to spend the night undisturbed. A bamboo grove right by the roadside, a cultivated field, a ramshackle shed next to a rice field etc. Locals won’t come at you with questions why are you here or try to evict you even if it’s obvious that the place is private property. We did not feel unsafe anywhere either. Of course, we took the precaution to lock our bikes together for the nights and keeping our belongings close to our heads while sleeping but that’s just common sense – better safe than sorry. One night we stayed on a pipeline support bridge. Turned out that the pipeline is not the only one crossing the bridge – it was more often than not used by the grape field workers. But no one really cared, we just moved our stuff and arranged our sleeping mats in a way that people could get past us. And when it finally seemed that someone is coming at us, that was only a friendly worker who brought us a massive grape bunch.
Pesticides – everywhere. You can see people with the spray hoses in their hands and the chemical containing containers on their backs everywhere. But one thing that made us truly realize the scale of how widespread they are – shops. We were going through a lot of small villages, middle of nowhere, some had grocery shops, some not, but the one shop they usually had – the pesticide shop. At first glance I thought they were pharmacies and I thought that that’s nice – although you can’t buy bread or your beloved instant noodles in the village, you can still get some medicine if you get sick. NOT. The medicines in this shop will not help you with anything but dying or serious health problems – we are all aware of Roundup lawsuits! These shops also are a real contrast to the surroundings some times. All the other buildings may be shabby shacks but this one will be bright, tidy and sterile looking, almost as if from another dimension.
Fruit trees are growing bags. We were quite surprised to see trees that had some kind of bags instead of fruits hanging from their branches. Turned out that all the fruit are thoroughly packed in those bags. I can’t imagine the amount of very tedious work required to do that in vast mango plantations. We were speculating that they pack the fruit so less of the chemical stuff would land on them. Most likely they were waterproof paper bags (hey, feel like ordering a million?) and the main reason for their usage could actually be protection against fruit flies and other pests. And this way, they are in fact reducing the amount of chemicals sprayed on the trees. Later, in Laos we found out that the fruit also get ripe faster if they are put in a paper or textile bag.
Anyway, chemicals or not, if you are in a place where some fruit are at their high season, you got to use that, and eat a lot of those fruit! First, we got excellent mangos, after – godly pineapples. And you can get them for cheap!
Of course usually people desire for more than just fruits in their diet so, they go to the shops for more. But shops are no good in China. If you want real veges, meat and other goodies, you must visit a farmers street market. They are mostly available only in the mornings, in our case that meant that we had to carry around our groceries the whole day of cycling but that’s just how life is. Other option was to try to find something in the shops but their range was usually from instant noodles to plastic-like sausages.
Bitter gourd. Just don’t buy it. It’s bitter.
All the travel blogs say “Going to SE Asia, leave your cooking gear at home, it is cheaper to eat street food than try cooking for yourself”. But I think that is a myth being kept by western travelers. I’m not even talking about rich tourists here. The same cyclists, budget travelers they are, if originating from countries like France, Germany, UK, USA etc. will still have a different view and understanding about the prices as us – ‘poor Latvians’. Their budgets are still usually bigger than ours and their level of ‘OMG, that’s so cheap’ sits higher up than ours. I’m in no way trying to say that eating out in Asia is expensive or that the difference with cooking for ourselves is that big. Still, if you go to markets, if you are aware about how much things cost and if you bargain, it is cheaper to buy produce and to cook for yourself. Also, then you can cook and eat as much as you want and not be limited to portions that are sometimes not big enough for cyclists J.
Well, we used to lunch at ‘restaurants’ though. But sometimes it wasn’t as simple as it may seem, without a local host who would hold our hands. Our first priority always was the price, of course. If there are pictures with prices on the walls, than that’s good but often there is no such luxury. More often than not all that we were presented with was ‘The Closet’ – that was our nickname for the showcase fridge that is usually an integral part of food places in China. Basically, you just stand in front of it and sort of point towards some frozen stuff that is in it and then they go and cook it and bring it to you along with the rice. As the plates are for the table no for the person, we had a lot of trouble understanding how much things cost and if they mean the cost from one person or just for the table.
To honor our dear friend StašānToms, we used to feast on some baozi’s as well, I liked them the most from our group, I think. But one of the times, on a rainy 5th July afternoon, even I was not ready for what happened when we were taking bites out of a very big steamed baozi goodness – we sunk our teeth into a chunk of half melted sugar. Turned out, they don’t necessary all have a meat filling. There’s different types!
As a reward for our suffering, China offered us a chance to spend a night in a China Tobacco Corp tobacco curing facility. Well, we made our chance by just stopping there, they had a huge sheltered space, and we just started to boil our noodles there. As it was Sunday afternoon we really didn’t expect any workmen appearing there. But they did. As this is China, it’s just logical that the story unwrapped with us being invited to join their sitting at the meeting hall, getting treated with some beer and cigarettes and being allowed to stay the night there in the room. That’s how we got to get more closely acquainted with the cigarette smoking customs in China. They use a large pipe, some kind of a giant bong, and they stick the most ordinary cigarette from a packet into it. The pipe has some water in it, and you just inhale your normal cigarette through this hilarious setup.
Fun fact of the day: The use of a water pipe for smoking tobacco was introduced in China during the late Ming Dynasty (16th century). Simple country people used the homemade bamboo bong, while Chinese merchants, urbanites, and nobility boasted a fancy metal version. Our friends for that night had a metal one. Just sayin’. That leads us to the next fun fact – China National Tobacco Corp is a state-owned manufacturer of tobacco products, virtually a monopoly in China, and is the world’s largest manufacturer of cigarettes. Although Marlboro is the most popular brand, 7 out of top 10 most popular brands belong to China Tobacco. 43 out of 100 cigarettes made in the world are produced by China Tobacco! In 2012 their revenue was bigger than that one of Apple!! Further reading on Bloomberg and here.
Two days after this we woke up in a corn field and Dainis’ camera did not work properly anymore. And that was only the start of the day, later on our way the road itself was no more. It was gone. This is another thing that makes travelling in the rainy season more adventurous – roads tend to be blocked or washed away by landslides or furious water streams. If we would have come to this part of the road in a car, we would just shrug our shoulders, turn back and search for another road. But that was not an option for us. We would have to cycle back at least 20km on the same road we came by, maybe even twice as much. And that would be only the start of it – the alternate route would be considerably longer than the planned one, maybe a day or a couple of days longer. The times was not on our side, so we decided to get creative. We needed a way to cross a river and after some trial and error and inquiring locals we found one – a ford! The current was strong and the water in places up to our knees but we did cross it and we found the continuation of the road that was, luckily, no more buried under the hill. It all happened on and around Yunnan’s 222 Sheng Dao or 222 Provincial Rd.
Sun. You got to hide from the Sun. I found out in China that you can get sunburnt on a thoroughly cloudy day when sometimes it even rains. And I had my shirt off for a limited time only. On another day I got some kind of Sun poisoning or heat extortion – I spent the whole day with a complete lack of appetite, big headaches, aching bones, weakness and finally a fever during the following night.
Our second to last day in China, I was drifting somewhere behind Laura and Dainis, as usual when I got caught up by two other cyclists – Patrick and Kevin. I found out that Patrick is 56-year-young Belgian who goes on cycling trips every year, and the next one is always longer than the previous. This year – London2Sydney. And they were not taking their time like us – Patrick had a plan to finish the whole trip in 135 days, as he did. So, for them the average distance cycled in one day was around 175km. I had a question = doesn’t this kind of a trip take all of the fun out of it? On which Patrick had the response – “This is not fun, this is cycling!” Their trip was different from ours in multiple ways – unlike ours, it seemed like a race, a race to prove something to someone, mostly to Patrick himself, probably. They cycled with twice as less gear as we had and they stayed and ate in hotels a lot – so no worrying about cooking, buying groceries etc.
Chinese like building bridges and tunnels. There are a lot of them and some of them really impressive. No complaints about the bridges, in some parts the view from motorway bridges was just amazing. But on our last day in China alone, we had to go through 10 tunnels, that is on a stretch of 84km. Most of them were really short and didn’t require illumination but some were quite long and pitch dark inside. Quite unnerving if your good torch was stolen on the train in Kazakhstan.
I managed to get through the longest one (3,2km) by holding on to a truck. In hindsight, I can’t really figure out what would have been safer – going in the overwhelming darkness and fearing the cars passing me or holding to the truck as I did, the case being that I don’t see any road in front of my wheels at all. I guess none.
Another thing that Chinese like a lot are motorcycles. Probably it is the only reliable transport in the rough mountainous terrain in places. With a bike you can get through spots where hardcore 4WD cars give up. But in the cities the most popular means of transport is the electric bike. They just ruled the streets of Chengdu. The downside is that you don’t hear them coming when you cycle, so it is easy to get startled when yet another one swiftly passes you by not observing any distance from you.
But we started observing the ‘30km law’ not to lose one another in China and forward. Whenever 30 kilometres have passed since the last meeting point, we stopped and waited for everyone to catch up. It also solves the possible case when someone passes another one of us unknowingly and then starts to cycle faster thinking that he must still catch up with the rest of the group. But actually just making it harder for the rest of the group to catch up with him!
To conclude all this, Chinese at work. One guy works, he has the work boots. Second guy jst parades along in his sandals. In the end the bossman comes and checks the painted lines. Strikes a pose if all good.