Cycling in the Middle Kingdom

Well, since I managed to last four months in China without resorting to using “The Middle Kingdom” – so favoured by typical all expenses paid “travel reviews” you read – I thought I would use it just this once. I have left China, but I thought I should just put a few closing remarks, on how to fit in when riding a bicycle in China.

First the bike. Ideally you would buy a cheap steel bike, then leave it outside in the rain for 10 years, preferably somewhere where cars can run over the back wheel a few times. If the back wheel doesn’t wobble, it’s not a proper bike. I’ve seen almost brand-new bikes with wobbly wheels. If you don’t have 10 years to wait, then go down to the local supermarket, and buy a shiny, folding, full suspension bike in pink, complete with rear rack, mudguards, stand, shopping basket, bell, glittery lights, and “sit up and beg”-style handlebars. All for about $30.

Fitting your bike: There are many ancient rules, based on the Confucian ideals, that should be followed when correctly setting up your bike. Basically they can be boiled down to removing the seat-post bolt, and putting the seat as low as it can go. When pedalling, ensure that you carefully position your heel over the centre of the pedal. This should result in having your knees in the optimum position, widely splayed out.

Now, which side of the road to ride on? Well, you could do what the traffic is doing, and mostly ride on the right – but as we all know, traffic rules only apply to vehicles with 4 or more wheels. Horsepower rating is irrelevant. So you just ride on whichever side of the road suits you best – maybe it’s easiest to ride to and from your destination on the same side both ways, saves crossing the road. But if you’re on the left, what about all the oncoming traffic? Just give them a bemused look, as if you can’t work out why they are all going the wrong way, as you plow straight through them.

Alerting other traffic to your presence. Of course your bike has a bell, which should be rung constantly. It doesn’t matter if there is no-one in front of you, ring it anyway. It’s part of the rhythm – pump the pedals, ring the bell. Perhaps you are lucky enough to be able to afford an electric bicycle. In this case, silently zoom up behind the laowai with the loaded bicycle, wait until you are just behind his ear, then blast that horn for all it’s worth. If you only have an ordinary bell, remember to tinkle it as you cut off that 18-wheel truck.

Traffic lights. Huh? What do they matter? You only have two wheels remember, they don’t apply to you. Go through the intersection whenever you feel like it. Especially if there is a large amount of traffic going across you. Glare at the cars – why are they in your way, when you’re trying to cross the road?

Clothing. No need for specialised clothing. High heels and miniskirt shouldn’t slow you down in the least. Unless it’s raining, and you should wear a rain cape, preferably with clear plastic window at the front for letting your light shine through. Not that it matters, as even if you do have lights, you never use them anyway.

Load carrying. The official load limit is 900kg for bicycles and 2,500kg for tricycles. Preferred loads are very long, and mounted sideways across the bicycle. Long hoes or scythes are good for this. That is of course unless you are carrying one of your friends on the back. Chinese cyclists like company, so easiest to carry a friend with you. On a similar note, if your friends should happen to also be on bicycles, remember that the maximum allowed number of cyclists riding abreast is six, and should not be exceeded.

Hills. At the first sign of any slope, get off and push. Chinese bikes don’t have gears, remember.

Finally stopping – brakes are never much good, so all stops should be done at a run, similar to starting really. If you are female, when you come to a stop, do not stand astride the bike. Instead jump off to one side of the bicycle. This is regardless of if you are wearing a skirt, or if your bicycle has a high top tube. The real reason is to scare the cyclist coming up behind you, into making an emergency stop. This will also help you to identify any impostors, who haven’t yet learned the rules to cycling in China.

No doubt there are more rules, but this will be enough to get you underway. I’m in Vietnam right now, around 150km south of Hanoi. The first 40km out of Hanoi were OK, as a new motorway takes much of the bus and truck traffic away, but it has been pretty unpleasant after that, and I’m not enjoying it at all. Too many speeding buses and trucks, all leaning on their horns, which I believe are louder than the Chinese horns. I think the deafness in my left ear will be nearly profound by the time I get out of here. Should just be one more long day of it though, then I’ll turn off Highway 1, and head west into Laos, and a bit of the unknown – the map doesn’t show too many places to stay for the first couple of days.


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.


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.


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.