Christmas on the Road

When I started out this year, I knew I would see a lot of strange things, and have plenty of different, unusual experiences. I didn’t really think too much about where I would spend Christmas. I didn’t even know which country I would be in, until a few days ago. But being flexible has its rewards. We (Sally and I) reached Beihai on December 23rd, and ended up in a nice, but too expensive hotel. Since we wanted to stop for a couple of days, we decided to move.

Riding around town looking for another hotel, a passing cyclist told us to check out a bike shop, that had an associated cycling club. So we went in to take a look – cyclists can’t resist wandering into bike stores, even when they don’t really need anything. You never know, sometimes there might be something you didn’t even know you needed. But anyway, a phone call was made, and a Chinese-speaking American came along, to do some translation. It turned out the staff wanted to invite us to their Christmas party. Why not? So we agreed to go along. We were told to turn up at the shop at 6pm, from where we would get a car out to the place the party was being held.

We had no idea what to expect. We were a bit concerned that it could turn out to be a Jesuit missionary affair or something like that, and we would end up sitting around a fire singing Kumbaya, and celebrating midnight Mass. All well and good, but not quite my cup of tea. But let’s just go along and see what happens.

It turned out to be a big party, with everyone issued Santa hats, a big feed – with a huge Chinese-style scrum around the buffet table, and later a few beers. Not too much drunkenness, just a few cans and a bit of fun. There were various party games, bike demonstrations, musical acts, and presents for the kids. Here’s a few pics, with a nice close-up of me, and shots of me doing press-ups, as a penalty from one of the games. We had no idea what was going on most of the time, but everyone was very nice, and we just went with the flow.

We had been told that there were a few other foreigners who would be there, but we only met the 3 Aussies later on in the evening. No problem, all the Chinese people were lovely to us. Beihai has a nice relaxed feel about it – foreigners are unusual here, but not completely unknown, so you get lots of “hellos” from the groups of schoolchildren. You get the feeling you could live here.

Two more days of riding, and I should be into Vietnam. We met a pair of Swiss cyclists the other day, who had been on the road for three years. They had just come out of Vietnam, and didn’t have anything nice to say about it. They were glad to be back in China. This tallies with what others have said about Vietnam, so the plan is to not stick around, but to zip into Hanoi, then probably 2 or 3 days’ ride south, and I’ll turn and cross into Laos. Sally is taking a different route to me, going into Vietnam a month later, so I’ll be back to riding by myself. Probably not for too long though, there’s bound to be plenty of other cyclists kicking around in South East Asia.

Hopefully everyone has had a nice Christmas with family and friends, and not too much stress. All going well, the next report should be coming from Vietnam.

Laowai once more

You know, at one stage I thought I’d never want to hear the call of “laowai” ever again. And yet…after a nice long break in Hong Kong, eating Indian/Turkish/Western foods, reading/watching English-language media, not being stared at…I started to miss China.

So the bikes were packed up, and we rolled onto the ferry to Macau. Pretty straightforward, but we went on a Sunday, so it was busy. We hadn’t been well enough organised, so we hadn’t booked tickets in advance. Result: Two and half hours to kill to wait for the next available sailing. No big deal though. The bikes didn’t need to be checked in, we just rolled them on ourselves, paying an extra HK$20 for the privilege. Easy.

Macau was busy, with people everywhere, and hotel prices high. It’s an interesting place though, and while the architecture was very much European, it felt much more Chinese than Hong Kong. It was a slightly odd moment riding out of the ferry terminal, and wondering “which side of the road should I be riding on?” Obviously you work it out soon enough – in a superb piece of political idiocy, you drive on the left…unlike China, which Macau is directly connected to. Obviously some daft historical reason for it, similar to Hong Kong.

Was a bit weird seeing plenty of well patronised churches, and European architecture. In our search for Macanese food, I ended up eating ostrich, for the first time on this trip. Does that count as Macanese? I also had a weird dish with dumplings in a thick, semi-sweet sauce. A little strange, but nice.

Good to get back into China after that, although I wasn’t sure about it at first – I’ve seen multiple vehicles waiting for the green light before turning right. Very strange. Not Chinese at all, normally they have the “turn right at any time you feel like” rule. Must be a bit different here in Guangdong (Canton) – too much contact with those foreign devils.

Smoggy conditions too, by the end of yesterday I was coughing and spluttering, the familiar tightness in the chest – how do these people breathe this air every day? Huge brutal looking factories around, pumping all sorts of dust and crap into the air. A few interesting things too, the Diaolou were a bit odd – a strange mix of European and Chinese architecture, built by returning overseas Chinese.

All going well, perhaps another 5-6 days on the bike from here to the Vietnamese border, and a new country at last! Was thinking that Christmas will be in Hanoi, but it now looks like I’ll just be a little short of there. Oh well, since neither country is Christian, I shouldn’t end up getting stuck at a closed border on Christmas Day.

Eh? Are we still in Hong Kong?

We rode off the ferry from Central to Mui Wo, past a huge sea of bikes, along a bike path, and carried on along the coast, quiet little roads, no hassle, very few cars, nice little beach. We just looked at each other and realised we were both thinking the same thing: “This place is like paradise after Tsim Sha Tsui, how long can we stay here?”

I’d met Sally, an English cyclist doing something similar to me, and we wanted a break from the pollution/hassle of downtown Hong Kong. So we got the Star ferry across to Wan Chai, then a slow ferry to Lantau. It’s about twice the size of Hong Kong Island, but with only a fraction of the residents. Few cars, plenty of people on bikes, hiking trails, nice beaches, large amounts of forest, but also a few Western-style restaurants near the ferry pier. It seemed very quiet, with far fewer people than I expected. We got an apartment not far from the beach, and proceeded to do…well…not much really. Just sat around on the beach a bit, even reading the Sunday paper (!) Even found a bar that served a Weissbier – how good is that!

We did try going for a ride over to one of the other beaches, but the ride out of town was about a 10% gradient for 5km, so we decided not to repeat that experiment. Just a nice relaxing break for a few days, before coming back to the bustle today. A couple more days here, then back into China – may give Macau a miss this time, go straight into China. We’ll see what happens.

This goes with that

Lawnmowers and bicycles. Key cutting and shoe repair. Those things that shops always seem to combine, for some historical reason. But in Hong Kong there’s another pairing you might not have thought of: High-brow foreign affairs journals and vibrators. Yep. Pick up a copy of “Far Eastern Economic Review” and a sex toy from the shelf right below. I was wandering along the alley next to “Chungking Mansions” and came across a newstand. Looking for a copy of The Economist, I was somewhat surprised to see a row of sex toys. One of the interesting changes from China is that they openly sell porno mags on the street, which is no big deal. Interestingly in China, things are available, although I think that it may still be technically illegal, as the stores tend to be discreet.

All part of the different scene I’m in for the next few days. I stopped in Shenzhen for a couple of nights. Another one of those cities that dislikes cyclists, putting the bike lanes in the middle of very narrow footpaths packed with pedestrians. Silly really, but some parts of China see bikes as “backwards.” I would have thought that since Shenzhen is right next to a place that was controlled by foreigners for over a century, then they might not blink at the sight of me. Not to be though, when I stopped to fix a puncture just a few kilometres short of the hostel, I soon had a crowd of at least a dozen gathered around, holding the bike, checking the tyre pressure, that sort of thing.

Didn’t think all that much of Shenzhen really, as a friend put it, too “artificial” – the place only really exists for political reasons. I was amused when walking around, to see large banners proclaiming the Chinese crackdowns on piracy and fake products. All well and good – but every three feet I was accosted by someone offering me “DVDs/shoes/copy watch/handbags/jackets…” Ah yes, welcome to China. Except of course if you did express an interest in a fake product, you got taken to a non-descript apartment in a nearby building, as they can’t openly display the fake products.

I crossed over into Hong Kong, annoyed at having to take my front wheel off to take the KCR train. You have to take the train over the border, there’s no choice. But taking the wheel off seems to achieve little purpose other than making the bicycle more difficult to handle, especially with luggage. But anyway, I got through to Tsim Sha Tsui, where I have a nice little windowless cell. At least it’s cheap. And even better, Sally (another cyclist) and Em and Yan are all here, so I’ve got good company.

I had read some out of date info that indicated that I could not get visas for Laos or Cambodia at the borders that I wanted to cross at, so I’ve got an agency doing Vietnam/Laos/Cambodian visas for me. Turns out that I could get those visas at the border, but I still need to get the Vietnam one. It looks like I’m going to be here for a week or so now, to get that sorted out. A good rest though, and it will give me a chance to do some side trips, maybe see some of the other islands.

On a completely unrelated note, I have recently been listening to this podcast: 12 Byzantine Rulers. I highly recommend it for anyone even vaguely interested in European history. Think that the Roman Empire fell in the 5th century? Rome may have, but the Empire continued on for another 1,000 years. The thickness of the walls of Constantinople directly influenced the course of world history. I actually wish I’d listened to this between my visits to Istanbul, but I’m very glad to have been inside places like the Hagia Sophia. This series brings to life a somewhat under-reported period in world history, and is very easy to listen to. Well worth spending your time on.