Not quite according to the script

The plan was to ride across the causeway bridge to the island of Xiamen, and from there get a ferry across to Gulang Yu. This area was one of the first treaty ports in China, and is supposed to be a nice quiet little island, with colonial architecture, ideal for a few days rest. It had been recommended by both Chinese and Western people I’d met, and I was looking forward to stopping there. The road from Fuzhou down to here along the coast was absolutely appalling, way too busy, with hundreds of minibuses driven by people who have never driven a vehicle until last week, and get paid by the horn blast.

Roadworks for 20km at a stretch too. The Chinese have built thousands of kilometres of roads in the last few years, and maybe they’re getting good at it – although I still think they have some fundamental design issues, since they don’t do things like drainage properly, which is going to cause them major maintenance problems over the next few years. But anyway, the thing that they seem totally incapable of is traffic management during roadworks. Rather than thinking about how they are going to keep the road open, and minimise disruption, they just go ahead with whatever they’re planning, and let the traffic work out what it wants to do. So if they’re working on a dual carriageway, rather than putting in a contraflow, and completely renovating one side before switching over, instead they get a large jackhammer to tear up both sides of the road for 10km at a time, leaving traffic to bump its way over it. Not much fun on the bike.

So I got into town, and made my way down to the ferry terminal, looking for somewhere to buy a ticket. “Mei yo, mei yo!” the girl came running up to me shouting. Hmmm. Try going another way – but she’s onto me, and it seems will not let me board with my bike. Crap. I look around, and realise that there are no other Chinese boarding with bikes, although you are allowed a cartload of random stuff. Now what do I do? I had planned on staying at the hostel on Gulang Yu, but it seemed I couldn’t get there. I had read other cyclists’ accounts of staying there, but they didn’t mention any problems getting over there. I hang around for a while, hoping that there will be a shift change, and I can try my luck with a different attendant. But no luck, so I go in search of a hotel.

Dear old LP had their budget accommodation starting at 200Y per night – way too much. But I manage to find a Chinese hotel for less than that, although still a bit overpriced for what it is. I’m crap at negotiation, but it’s important to do some in China with most things, especially hotels. The usual trick is to go in, ask the prices, then turn away – this usually results in them running after you and offering better prices.

This seems a nice town, and I could stay here a few days, but I think I’ll make a push from here to Hong Kong tomorrow – maybe 6-7 more days riding. I could get the ferry from here, but I think I’ll ride it. I’ll head inland though, hopefully get some respite from the traffic along the coast.

Quick notes – RSS and Photos

Just a couple of quick things – one is that I’m sorting out some China photos, but don’t expect them to all be uploaded any time soon. They are taking forever to upload from here, with frequent connection resets. So if you are following any links from my China photos page, don’t be surprised to get “file not found errors.” At least I’ve got them sorted now, and I should at least get all the HTML parts uploaded.

Secondly, you may notice I’ve added the RSS subscription link to my pages. I’ve always had the RSS stuff in the background, but for some reason or another, I never got around to adding the links. If you use RSS, I’d appreciate it if you could confirm that it’s all working OK. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, don’t worry about it!

UPDATE 22/2/8: I’ve finally added the necessary meta tags, so that if you’re using a modern Internet browser – Firefox, Safari, IE7 – it will auto-detect that there are RSS feeds, and show an appropriate icon for adding the feed to whatever reader you use.

Start of a New Career?

For some time now, the exploits of Jan “Hollywood” Slatter have had me consumed with envy. Repeated requests for television and print interviews is just sickening. Surely he’s no more handsome than me? But at last I have got off the mark, with my first television interview, for a regional TV station! I was stopping in Pucheng, a small city off the tourist trail, where very few white people ever visit. I ran into Rock, a local who thinks he is probably the only person in that city who speaks English. He showed me around the town, and sorted out getting a decent haircut at his friend’s hairdressing salon.

Rock works at the local television station, and so the next morning as I was riding out of town, a car pulled up alongside, with a TV camera sticking out the window. We then conducted an interview at the side of the road, followed by footage of the tollgate officials giving me a cup of tea, before I rode off into the distance. With a bit of luck at some point I’ll get hold of an online copy of it. I really need to do a print interview as well though, so I can get something in Chinese about what I’m doing printed out, to show to people.

So-so riding the first couple of days south-west from Hangzhou, but things have been really nice once I crossed the border into Fujian province. Not nearly as much money here as in Zhejiang province, but less industry and fewer vehicles has made for some great days out. Riding down the G205, a national highway, feels like a backroad after some of the busier roads. Just a nice concrete road winding down through a forested valley, tracking a clean wide river. Small rural villages, just nice and pleasant. Another surprise though at Jian’ou – after checking in, I got a knock at the door – rather than the usual “massage happy ending” proposal, the hotel owner had gone and gotten his English-speaking friend to make sure that I was happy, and I didn’t need anything. If I needed something later, they would give him a call to help sort it out. How nice is that?

A bit of hilly stuff over the last few days has left me feeling a bit more tired than usual, so I’ve had a half day today, and I’m stopping in Nanping, a nice city at the confluence of two rivers. I might take the day off tomorrow too, will see how the legs feel in the morning. Trying to download the 157MB update for my iPod is taking forever anyway, it could be a while…But by all accounts the city/riverside is beautifully lit up at night, so should be nice.

I was going to go in a straighter line to Hong Kong, but since I’m liking this province, I’m taking the advice of locals, and tacking southeast to Fuzhou, and I’ll follow the coast around from there, via Xiamen, to Hong Kong. Perhaps 10-14 days, I haven’t really worked it out. As usual, I try not to plan too far ahead. Frequently when I wake up I’m not even sure where I’ll sleep that night. Here you can get away with that. Someone asked if I was worried about getting lost, but it really doesn’t bother me much. Obviously if I was in a remote area I would need to take more care, but then there would probably only be one road anyway. Worst case here, I’ll end up in some town I didn’t plan on stopping in. But no problem, I can get back on the road soon enough. Perhaps that’s part of why I’m so happy in China – it’s not just that I’m enjoying China for being China, but it’s that I’m just in a good rhythm, and feeling completely comfortable with what I’m doing.

Cocktails, watches, lakes and leaves

Shanghai was lots of fun to visit, but the pollution’s fairly heavy, and I’m not sure I’d want to live there. At the suggestion of a friend, we went up to the 87th floor of the Shanghai Hyatt, to the extremely fancy bar, for cocktails. The best time to go is around dusk, to watch the city lights take effect. I was wearing jandals (that would be “thongs” for my Australian readers), and was told that I could only stay until 18:00. No worries though, we couldn’t afford to stay too long anyway, at 90Y per cocktail, plus 15% service charge. Outstanding views though, well worth it.

A bit tricky getting out of the city, heading out through the French Concession area. They don’t hate bicycles the way they do in Qingdao,but they don’t make it too easy. Bikes aren’t allowed on the main roads, so I needed to tack back and forth around the main road leading out of town, trying to keep it in sight. It actually wasn’t too bad getting out of the city, it was as I got out to the industrial areas that I got a bit lost, with a few deadends, and bemused locals wondering why I’m riding down the road that they know has a massive roadblock 500m down the line. Eventually found the G320 highway that I wanted, and I was rolling.

It was good to be back on the road, and back into places where tourists are quite uncommon. It was starting to get quite annoying in Shanghai walking around the main tourist areas, and being constantly asked if we wanted to buy “watches/bags/shoes/jackets/DVDs.” You stop saying “no” and just ignore it. When wandering around the fakes market, we had one guy following us for about an hour. It all got a bit creepy. I didn’t think much of the quality of the fake watches, so gave them a miss. But perhaps I should have bought one, my Polar watch stopped a day after leaving Shanghai…

Next big stop was Hangzhou, which is a very nice city, one of the premier tourist sites in China. The mist that was hanging around probably made the West Lake even more picturesque. The hostel was in a flash part of town, right next to the Lake, over the road from the Porsche dealership, etc…not cheap though. It was just as well we did lots of walking on the first day, as the second day the rain kicked in, so we just stayed inside most of the day, watching “Band of Brothers.” Digital TV in this province is cool. One other note is that most hostels have a huge selection of DVDs (all copies of course) that you can pick and choose from, to watch in the evening, or on a rainy day.

Walking back from the Wushan Lu tourist centre, with all sorts of stalls, statues, etc, we came across one of the most outstanding sights I’ve seen so far in China. A man was up a tree, madly shaking the branches. I couldn’t quite work out what was going on – was he trying to shake something out of the tree, like fruit? No, it wasn’t a fruit tree. Watching for a while, I worked it out – he was shaking the branches to try and shake out the leaves that would be going to drop off over the next few days. They were then sweeping up the leaves. Rather than wait, they were trying to accelerate the process. Of course, this was being done at 9:00pm, in the dark, no safety equipment, not even a ladder. Ah, China.

Back on the road now, heading southwest towards Hong Kong. Not sure exactly what stops I’ll make along the way, will just keep on riding, see how things go and what I find. With a bit of luck, the light rain/drizzle will clear up soon enough.

The Epitome of Capitalism

Just a short note to say that I have arrived in the epitome of capitalism, in the most capitalistic country on Earth – yes, that’s right, I’m in Shanghai, and the end of the G312 highway, that I first started following at the Kazakhstan border.

I enjoyed Nanjing, but unfortunately the one thing I specifically wanted to see there, the Memorial to the Victims of the Nanjing Massacre, was closed due to construction. So I jumped back on the bike, and rolled on towards Shanghai. There was a mix of riding along the way, some boring industrial corridors, but then some lovely riding along the Grand Canal. Watching the barges cruising up and down reminded me of Germany. Except a lot dirtier of course. Suzhou was nice enough, but all get a bit artificial now. A real highlight was finding two places selling Erdinger Weissbier – both helles and dunkel, and one had bottles, the other a tap! Not cheap, but the 50RMB (about 5 euros) was worth it for my first wheat beer since Austria.

I have said before that China continues to amaze me every day, and today was no exception. I was wandering around the Yuyuan area, which was overly touristic, and had had enough of it. So I headed off down a side street, and came across someone setting fire to a rubbish bin. A flag went up, a whistle was blown, and someone came sprinting down the street with a fire extinguisher, put the fire out, and ran back. A couple of minutes later the process was repeated. There was some sort of drill going on, and staff were being timed in how quickly they could respond to a fire. Ah, China.

And for today’s Chinglish quiz, I’d like some guesses as to what this means: “Point profess your excellency seat.” Answers on the back of a postcard please.

Can’t believe I forgot these

Not quite sure why I didn’t think of these the other day, but here’s some more CCP that I thought of while riding into Nanjing:

  • Roger that, 193643! Qingdao has six beaches. When naming them, the council was looking for names that would reflect their individual nature, famous figures from the area, historical events, the beauty of the Chinese language, and the great imagination that the Party has. So, in no particular order, we have:
    • Number 1 Bathing Beach.
    • Number 2 Bathing Beach.
    • Number 3 Bathing Beach.
    • Number 4 Bathing Beach.
    • Number 5 Bathing Beach.
    • Number 6 Bathing Beach.

    Seriously. Everything is like that – bridges, schools, factories, etc. Everything is just a number, not a name. But it gets worse. If you go into a Post Office, or come across policeman, shop assistants, whatever – all their name badges simply have a number, and not a name. Objects I can handle, but I find referring to people by number deeply disturbing. I’m not sure if this is a Communist thing, or if it goes back further – I suspect it’s Communist.

  • Turn it up to 11! Everything in China is done at maximum volume. People who are sensitive to noisy environments will have a rough time in China. It’s not just noisy traffic and car horns, it’s everything. Talking on your phone in the middle of a restaurant? Well, it is a mobile call, and the other person might be a long way away, so better to shout as loud as possible into the phone. Chatting to the person at the other side of the table? Why not shout at them instead, in case they miss something? With construction work taking place over approximately 97.5% of China, it also adds something to the aural mix. Not a lot of peace and quiet here…
  • Facemasks as fashion accessories. You’ve probably seen footage of Chinese people wearing facemasks, especially during SARS outbreaks. But what you might not realise is that they are quite commonly worn, almost exclusively by women, to try and filter out some of the crap in the air. Interestingly not so much in the really polluted places like Lanzhou, and Coaldustville, Shanxi Province. But where they are worn, they’re not always plain white surgical masks. I’ve seen all sorts of colours, and even crocheted ones. Don’t think they actually do much about filtering the air, but I guess they make people feel better. I see them as a sort of silent protest against the rape of the environment too.
  • “Happy Birthday To You.” China is the only place I’ve ever seen street cleaning machines that blare out loud tunes as they meander along the roads, blasting jets of water into people’s houses. The washing machine I used yesterday that played a tune on startup was quite a novelty to me too.
  • Chav China. I don’t know who made this decision, but every school in China has tracksuits as their uniform. So when you are riding through a village around lunchtime, you are suddenly surrounded by hundreds of Chavs on bikes. Very disconcerting. I think someone visited England, saw all the shellsuits, and decided that would make for a good uniform. Dear oh dear. (PS For my much beloved Scottish readers, I am aware that the correct term is “Neds,” however I prefer the alliteration.)

I’m now in Nanjing, after some fun with some unplanned expressway riding on the way in here. I was sure I was going to get thrown off, and indeed I wanted to get off the epxressway, but it took ages to reach an exit. Not that the police cared, they just left me alone. It’s a nice city, except I’m back into pollution, after some lovely riding down here, through nice countryside, with lots of waterways and lakes, and some nice riding along quiet country roads. No more of that as I head to Shanghai though…

CCP:Chinese Cultural Practices

I’m on the road south from Qingdao to Nanjing – thankfully a much more interesting ride this time, I’m quite enjoying it. I’m staying in yet another no-name, identi-kit town, where no Westerners ever come. I sit in the restaurant, eating my noodles, and in the background I can hear people practising saying “Where are you come from?” Finally someone has the courage to come and ask me. I reply “Xinxilan” – NZ in Chinese, no point saying New Zealand, people don’t know it. That’s either all they want to know, or (more probably) know how to ask, for they then go and sit down again, and I hear whispers of “xinxilan” being passed around to anyone within 50m who wants to know. Ah, China.

But anyways, I’ve being meaning to write something on various Chinese cultural practices – things that the Chinese do, that amuse me, and/or I don’t really understand, nor probably ever will. I would like to stress though, that I am thoroughly enjoying China, and nothing here should necessarily be taken too seriously.

  • Spitting. This is a big one, so I should get it out of the way first. Despite what you may read in the LP, spitting is conducted by almost everyone, pretty much everywhere. Outside, sure. Inside, at a restaurant table – no problem. At an Internet cafe – why not? You work in a bank, behind a desk in full view of customers? No reason for you not to try and bring up a lung in front of the customers. Like others, I have wondered where this practice arises from – does it go back a long way, or is it more recent? Is it for some health benefit that I’m unaware of? Is it some way of coping with the pollution? Possible. Whatever, I can assure you that waking up to the sound of 5 men busily trying to out-spit each other is not the most pleasant thing.
  • Staring. Another biggie. From what I understand, this used to be much worse, and in places like Xi’an and Beijing it’s not really an issue. Anywhere else though, I frequently get large groups of people staring at me, sometimes open-mouthed. Thankfully not drooling like some people in Uzbekistan…Children are either fascinated or scared by me, pointing and (sometimes) screaming. Mothers run and get their children, to look at the “laowai.” People working at the side of the road call out to all their friends, to make sure they don’t miss a chance to stare at the funny foreigner. For some reason, different towns have quite different feels. Sometimes people just stare, but in other towns people gather round. E.g. last night in a small town, a large group of men interrupted their mah jong game to gather round, fiddle with the bike, and help me find a hotel. All very friendly, and completely understanding my inability to speak Putonghua.
  • Who needs nappies when you’ve got…well…everywhere to crap? I’ve seen more bare babies backsides than I ever thought I would in my whole life. Small children here have crotchless pants, and just go to the toilet wherever they happen to be. Mothers hold them up, recalling Thubron’s nice line about holding them “proudly steady.” For some reason they tend to avoid gutters, bushes, etc., preferring to make a nice little pile of poo in the middle of the footpath.
  • Team bonding. Now when I worked at Vodafone, they were all into funky/trendy/zesty ideas, but thankfully the HR department there never tried this one. Early in the morning, shortly before opening, some businesses get their staff out on the footpath, doing team exercises – I’ve seen China Mobile staff with a long skipping rope, others doing various calisthenics…all just a bit strange for me.
  • But that’s not to say that doing group exercise routines in public places is bad. You often come across tai chi groups in the morning, or sometimes ballroom dancing in the evening. Stranger ones involve doing ritualistic movements with a sword, or a ball and racket, where the objective seems to be to keep the ball on the racket, while twisting it about, around your body, through your legs, etc.
  • Going to the supermarket can be an experience in itself. Most stores have vast teams of workers, doing little of discernible value. They follow you around the store, and point out various items for you to buy. I must try getting one of them to hold my basket for me. The other day they were so excited to see a foreigner, that I had 10 people following me around the store. One young man was so excited he ran up to me, grabbed the item I was holding, and said “How much?” Dunno mate, you work here, not me. But then when you get to checkout, there’s only one girl there, no-one else doing the packing. The bags are hidden under the counter, and she must swipe all your items, then start packing them. You get some outraged looks if you try and start packing things yourself, and the bag is snatched away. I’ve given up trying now, I just stand there and let things take their course. I’m in no hurry. Which is just as well, since there is invariably a delay at checkout. I’m not sure why, but there is always some sort of problem. It’s not like the Turks, or Central Asians, where the concept of a checkout and queue is a complete mystery (they try going through backwards). A classic one is where everything is swiped, the total is rung up…oh no I can’t afford all that, take that one off. Except they can’t do that. The whole sale is cancelled, everything comes back out of the trolley, the food the baby has started eating gets yanked off it, and everything gets swiped again. I am not making this up.
  • Paying for items is also a challenge. It is very, very, very rare for the person who served you to also be the one you pay. In a department store, you will be given a ticket to take to the cashier. You pay them, then trek back to wherever your items are, stopping for sustenance as required, hand them the receipt, and they give you the goods. I once walked for 5 minutes, and queued another 10, just to pay $0.50 for a couple of pens. It was a bit strange trying to work this out the first couple of times, now I don’t even blink. I was a bit shocked in Hong Kong where I got something from a small chemist, and the man who served me also wanted me to pay him. Outrageous! There’s people out there need jobs, you know! It gets more amusing in smaller stores, where you have to walk 3 metres over, pay someone, then turn around and pick up your goods.
  • Driving. I’ve mentioned this before, but drivers in China simply do not have any concept of what safe driving involves. They are all absolutely convinced that their horn gives their car magic properties, and simply blowing it will automatically give them the right of way, and make it safe. Sadly, every day I come across the result of where both cars blew their horns. If only they could afford an Audi or black VW, as they automatically have right of way over all other vehicles. Of course, the head-on collisions between Audis indicate there may also be a problem with that theory, but never mind, China has its top scientists working on the problem (all those not involved with the Lunar orbiter, anyway). Development is underway on a 196dB horn, the most powerful yet!
  • Throw-away society. There is a complete absence of quality control, and so many things have all sorts of bells and whistles…but only last a few uses. Like the shower I had that had a radio, multiple lights, massage heads, all sorts. Except for hot water. And none of the other things worked properly. One of the neatest things is the dodgy food stalls, where rather than wash the plates, they just stick a plastic bag over the plate. After you’re finished, they just throw the bag away. Presto! Clean plate. Students/bachelors take note. Now you can look like you have proper crockery (for when Mum comes around), but still not have to do dishes.
  • Fireworks – of course, being the inventors, they have a pretty incredible array. But there’s still something strange about sitting at the side of the road, watching a truck go by, with workers throwing hundreds of double happies over the side, making a huge roar along the road. Right now it sounds like light arms fire outside. In one town it sounded like something heavier – a whoomph, was followed 10s later by a dull boom. No-one even blinked.
  • The packaging revolution. I’ve never seen such incredible levels of packaging, for so little product. A classic example might be a box of biscuits, where the biscuits are individually wrapped, then placed on a tray, then stuck in the box. And under no circumstances should the contents ever, ever match the photo. That’s why I now tend to buy international brands, or things in clear packaging. One good thing is that all packages will have a small nick in the side, so that you can get them open easily. Otherwise some packages would not be openable without the aid of pliers and a cutting torch.
  • Jobs for the boys. And girls. If something can be done by 2 people, why not hire 5 instead, and have most of them standing around doing nothing for most of the day? I watched a group of men digging up a tree stump the other day. One was swinging the pick and doing all the work, the other four were…watching. Oh and the driver – of course you need a dedicated driver – was just sitting in the truck, waiting to take them back to wherever they come from
  • Women are tough. Real tough. Women here do everything – all sorts of hard physical labour, breaking rocks, roadwork, tough field work, everything. I wouldn’t want to mess with them. At least here the men also do some work in the fields, not like some countries, where women do all the field work, while men just sit around drinking vodka.

I would like to emphasise how much I am enjoying it here though, and the Chinese people continue to amaze me. They are so full of life, and have so much energy, incredible for people who have had so much done to them. In some things, like their night food markets, they really know how to live.

I’ll add some more things as I think of them out on the road.