FIRST let me start by saying I love China – really.
The face splitting grins from complete strangers as they scream past you on the highway; the giggling girls holding out their smartphone and begging for a “selfie”; the endless noodle dishes that burst with very flavour known to man and even the cheerful toddlers running around with their bums exposed to the world to make squatting in the street a piece of.. well you get it.
All that and more has blown me away since we crossed the border from Kazakhstan a couple of months ago but while that love affair struck hard (we’re yet to leave Chengdu) there’s one thing that threatens to ruin it all – the pencil pushers.
In a world where fluidity and transparency (thanks to social media and the net) has exposed just about every secret known to man, China’s powers that be strive every day to defy it. You need a good VPN just to get around their extreme internet restrictions (they block Facebook, google and even Lonely Planet) and in recent years the paranoid suits-men have gone one step further in keeping everything under their ever expanding thumb.
They’ve all but crippled the intrepid traveller.
It feels a bit strange writing about this from the comfort of a modern Chengdu apartment so let me rewind to just a few weeks ago.
I’m standing in the icy rain of a dark and soggy street in yet another deceptively big Chinese city in the far west Xianjing provence.
For not the first time, or even the second time, we’ve been booted from a hotel. It wouldn’t be such a pain in the proverbial if we hadn’t checked in, spent an hour dancing in circles thanks to communication barriers, paid the money, hauled our panniers up several flights of stairs, stripped off our drenched kit and rested our aching legs after a big day’s ride. But the problem is we have, and now it’s late and it’s all because the flustered receptionist “didn’t realise” they couldn’t host foreigners. In fact, few hotels can.
Since crossing the border from Kazakhstan we’ve learned the hard way that just a couple of hotels per huge city (and only one for the smaller places) have that special tourist license and none of them are cheap. The first time it happened the police turned up to remove us, the second time the police were called before we could even reach the room and the third time – well – you’ve just read my rantings.
The worst part is we’re not even “hotel” travellers. We have a tent, and we’re not afraid to use it, but there’s two things that make stealth camping a bit of a problem in China. First of all, it’s getting cold (I’m talking frozen water inside your tent cold) and secondly, often finding a spare patch of dirt in the first place can be a challenge in the enormously populated People’s Republic.
The first few nights were easy – an apple farm, an ambulance station and even a crack house – but after reaching Jinghe and having the police escort us to a hotel, things got tough. After a day’s rest we ploughed on down the boring and bland G30 highway (affectionately nicknamed the Highway of Doom), stopping briefly to admire a miniature Great Wall of China and scoff down noodles, before pushing on.
The huge highway barriers made for pretty poor company and to our right a great bland desert stretched out for miles. The only choice we had was to find a hole in the fence and sprint off into the dusty sand in search of a camp spot and by 5pm, 90km later, we’d found one.
China had already taught us to feel paranoid and after a pitiful dinner of biscuits and water we lay uneasily in our freezing tents, ears strained for the sound of sirens.
Just a few days and about 300km lay between us and Urumqi and the following morning we scraped the ice off our tents and hit the tarmac. A few “towns” were dotted on the map and we figured hotels might be our best bet. Each night we wobbled into an enormous city and raced the scooters and rickshaws to the centre where we battled the hotel bureaucracy to find a recently priced pad and each day we inched a little closer to the capital of the north.
With 160km left we again hit the road, leaving a surprisingly posh hotel (for a pretty cheap price) as just a party of three. The Englishman Jonathan had motored on ahead to reach Urumqi a day earlier, but Bertrand, Scott and I preferred to take the “relaxed view” of just 80km a day.
With the rustic country landscape of the west dwindling the number of trucks belching big black clouds of smoke grew. They hurtled down the highway in droves with the pollution mixing seamlessly with the thick layer of smog making it feel as though our lungs were slowly turning to soot.
In fact everything in this part of China felt like the Twilight Zone. The military presence was so big you’d be forgiven for thinking a war was on and the “tiny towns” of just a few lines on our maps turned out to be heaving cities of a few hundred thousand.
The night before Urumqi yet another hotel fiasco had forced us to stay in a pricey, posh establishment with even a prim looking concierge and rather than whinge over the price we decided to lap up the luxury as a treat for what had been a pretty brutal 900km from Almaty. The lush bathroom even featured an enormous bath and as I sunk into the hot water it felt as though the weeks of icy cycling simply melted away.
A couple of hours later, while sipping cups of tea from under our fluffy white duvets, we heard from Will, an Irishman who’d slowly been catching our tail and who would also possibly meet us the following day to pedal into Urumqi.
The tough cyclist had his own epic tale of woe that included being beaten up in Mongolia, attacked by dogs in Turkey and mugged in Almaty and all of a sudden I realised just how bloody lucky we’d truly been. We managed to find the fearless yet quietly modest Irishman in a grim truck stop just after 3pm the next day and after together we smashed out the last 30km to our final destination.
Reaching Urumqi felt like a major triumph. It had been a lone, mysterious dot on the map since we’d pedalled out of Almaty but after weaving our way through the clogged up motorways to our small and overpriced hostel, it felt like the end of the line.
In reality it was huge, dirty and an explosion on the senses but even though our smelly little hostel was hardly the Hilton it was a welcome site.
Will, who hadn’t showered or washed his clothes for more than a few days, took the first shower (without any arguments) and soon after we were meeting up with Jonathan and scoffing down as much rice, tea and (questionable chicken parts) as we could stuff in.
Jonathan was powering back on into the snow and cold the following day but for the three amigos (Scott, Bertrand and I) our only plans included a long sleep and a date with Facebook.
Urumqi was everything we’d come to love and loathe about Chinese cities. It was big, it was smoggy it was congested and it was chaotic. A gleaming motorway ran through the guts of the sprawl and crumbling shanties sat next to multi-level high-rises still under development.
I was well used to the juxtaposition that is China but this contrast seemed the most stark yet.
From here we had a couple of days rest and then a “leisurely” train ride south to Chengdu in which I (naively) envisioned myself reading, sipping on cups of tea and chatting in a nice and spacious lounge carriage.
For not the first, third or even hundredth time on this trip I would be woefully wrong.
Two days before the long ride south we trudged through light snow to bundle our bikes into the enormous train station’s freight room and then the day came for us to follow them.
Not long ago I read a disturbing bulletin about a “human stampede” in Tianamen Square, Beijing that cost the lives of dozens (all because some freebies where being distributed). I was appalled and shocked that people could turn into such mindless beasts and I remember wondering how on earth it could happen. Five minutes at Urumqi’s train station answered that.
The Chinese are bright, curious, friendly and colourful people but when it comes to queuing (or really just milling anywhere in a public place) they turn into pushing, shoving, frantic maniacs. When the train guard called passengers to the gate a herd of 300 Chinese (of which most were inexplicably carrying five-six feet of stacked buckets) raced for the train, shoving, trampling and literally running to get aboard.
I hung back in awe and when we finally managed to squeeze ourselves onto the cattle carrier I realised “why the rush”.
You’ve got to hand it to Chinese ingenuity. Rather than stick to the usual layout of sleeper trains these guys have added ambition to the square root of “epic population” to ensure your average train carriage can fit around 150 sleeping bodies. Add that to another 500 buckets and there’s barely room to fart. And speaking of which, if you’re not comfortable sleeping just 30cm away from an old Chinese man who coughs up huge, clunking, morsels of phlegm every minute while snoring and farting on the off beats then these sleeper trains really aren’t for you.
Suddenly cycling to a destination didn’t just seem infinitely easier, but infinitely more pleasant!
For two long, long days and two equally long nights we chugged south to Chengdu and when we finally hauled our aching, sweaty bodies off hell’s carriage the change struck instantly.
We’d left Urumqi amid a flurry of snow flakes and arrived in a balmy southern hub with even a whiff of humidity in the air (mixed in with the smog of course).
Feeling immediately more cheerful, we picked up our bikes, loaded on the panniers and pedalled off into the chaos of Chengdu.
Like most big cities in China there was a myriad of excellent bike paths. But like most big cities in China this meant you shared it with a terrifying horde of scooters and rickshaws.
We’d organised to stay with prolific cyclists Gokben and Nicolas (of Frogs on Wheels fame) and while it was just 10km to their door I wondered if we’d survive the ride.
Our Warmshowers hosts (Gokben is from Turkey and Nicolas from France) had also embarked on a world trip almost a year and a half ago but having reached Chengdu they’d decided to stay. It turned out this heaving city was one of China’s biggest for English institutions and they’d quickly landed jobs as English teachers for one of the largest companies.
Their French friends and fellow cyclists Charlotte and Eric (also taking a break from the bike) let us into the apartment and within minutes the seed had been laid.
Scott and I had long toyed with the idea of becoming ESL teachers in China but during correspondence with one particular company we’d been told we’d need to go back to Australia to apply for the work visa.
We immediately disregarded the plan but our severely dwindling funds meant we’d need to stop sooner or later and so we’d pinned our hopes on Canada sometime in January.
Both of us were loathe to stop (especially after conquering the Pamirs) but with scarcely enough money left for a plane ticket to the Americas we had little choice.
And then the “Frogs” turned our world upside down.
The company they worked for didn’t just pay a competitive salary, but gave you a high housing allowance and paid for and organised your work visa.
They were desperate for native speakers, we were told, and if we wanted, we could have an interview that day.
It almost seemed too good to be true but as we mulled it over the seed planted flowered. Working and living in China would give us a rare opportunity to truly sink our teeth into another culture and gain teaching experience (something we’d been desperate to do) at the same time. Even better, the decent salary would give us enough to make it from Alaska to the bottom of Argentina.
It was a perfect solution but all of a sudden I felt reluctant to stop. Over the past few days we’d talked over plans to cycle down to Hanoi, Vietnam, with Bertrand and when yet another “frog”, the bubbly and charming Tom (yolotour.fr), turned up it looked like possibly being a foursome.
But opportunities like these, we have found, don’t come knocking all the time and so after a few days of serious deliberation we settled on it, we would teach in China.
Long Rode Home would be put on hold for a year, our cycles would be packed away on a balcony in some high-rise and we’d swap lycra for tweed jackets and brief cases (in my vivid imagination anyway) to teach.
Life’s a fickle thing…