Currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand (06/12/2013) - 31200km cycled

7 Nov 2013

Cycling the Middle Kingdom: the best and worst of China (Part 1)

Posted by Will

I am now in Vietnam and have been for over a week. There’s far too much to tell already: leg-sapping weather, suicidal motorbikes, a stray-dog incident, rice-liquor nights with the locals and food as yet unsurpassed. However before I start the diary for South East Asia I thought I’d have a look back at the best and worst of China. I hardly honoured (or shamed) the country with a single word on this blog – I found myself far too all-consumed with bureaucratic problems. Now, I look forward to sharing my views on China. Many people say you either love it or you hate it. I felt both at the same time.

p1060438-800I’ll post the ‘best’ today and the ‘worst’ tomorrow. Even the most dedicated fans’ eyelids would start drooping if it all came in a single entry.

Best

- Food. There’s no other contender for first place on the ‘best’ list because Chinese food is quite simply ‘the business’. Street-food abounds, ranging from motorized carts carrying vats of steaming noodles to rickety old bicycles wheeling woks of roasted chestnuts. Basic street-side restaurants feed the majority of the Chinese population and generally consist of a few tables surrounded by tiny stools, a corrugated roof-top, a large stack of unevenly sized chopsticks and a friendly face in the middle taking orders over the cooking. My staples were ‘chow mien’ (fried noodles) and ‘baozi’ (steamed dumplings with different fillings) in the north and kung pao chicken (spicy chicken with peanuts and rice) and mee-shay (mixed noodle soup) in the south. I ate almost all my meals in these kinds of places and although most of the time I could have eat about four times more I was never disappointed by the taste.

The nature of my trip means that finer dining isn’t often on the menu which a shame as far as China is concerned because classier restaurants have a much wider choice, pictured dishes and descriptions in English. One evening in Beijing I was taken to dinner by Fan and Ang Da (who I have mentioned in a previous post). We ate Peking Duck – perhaps my favourite dish all over China – accompanied by a huge variety of salads, oily breads and soup. Flicking through the options available in that restaurant gave a flavour of how sophisticated Chinese cuisine is at the higher end.

Last but not least my single favourite snack in the Chinese repertoire: jiang bing. I’m not sure that’s how to spell it and after 2 months am still not sure how to pronounce it but this little beauty, introduced to me on my first morning in Beijing, is a crepe-style egg pancake, cooked fast over a hot circular base and curled into shape by a wooden instrument twirled as expertly by the ladies who serve them as a fancy-tailed conductor at the Proms. Add a lettuce leaf, handful of chopped cucumber, layer of hoisin sauce and if luck a few strands of raw potato (for crunch) and there it is: an all-in-one breakfast solution for the hungry cyclist.

p1060233-800p1060123-800

- Difference. This point will no doubt be on many other blogger’s ‘worst’ list since the differences between China and the ‘western’ world (and probably everywhere else) are vast and at times infuriating. I have never visited a country with a daily way of living so far removed from my own. In China, one realizes cultural difference is relative – that while life in the Middle East might seem a world apart from home there are actually many fundamental similarities. In China almost everything changes. Counting on fingers is no longer understood, nor is basic sign language, simply uttering the sound of a word isn’t enough – the tone has to be pitch-perfect too, slurping food with one’s nose in the bowl is encouraged and behaviour considered selfish almost everywhere else (think parking your car in the middle of a 3-lane highway) is silently tolerated.

Despite the countless times I stamped my feet in frustration I still judge the cultural difference to be part of the best of China. Where else can one walk down a high-street and fail to see a single latin-language character? Shops advertising world-famous consumer brands like Samsung, Microsoft and Sony all passed me by in a blur of lines, shapes and dots, as did sign-posts and warnings for restricted areas …

p1060505-800- Cities. It is well-known that Chinese cities are enormous and the hear-say isn’t wrong – cycling into Beijing took well over half a day. With over 100 cities over one million people, there are plenty of urban hubs to choose from. But a second seemingly well-known fact, that Chinese cities are all the same, is not correct. While I didn’t have time to get to know the smaller cities I can certainly say that Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu and Kunming all have their own distinct atmosphere. There are always fresh regional foods to try, slight alterations in people’s appearance, new parks and temples to explore and different ways of doing things. I enjoyed the cities as vast representations of the human diversity alive and well in China today.

Chinese cities are comfortable too, especially comfortable after cycling half a year in remote parts of the world. The elation I felt arriving in Beijing to a clean, modern apartment surrounded by a thousand lifestyles and all the spare bicycle parts I could imagine was chiefly due to the absence of those luxuries in the preceding months. A week ago I pleaded for the peace and solitude of the Kazakh steppe and similar which is all perfectly reasonable when surrounded on all sides by watchful Chinese but not when dirt, sand and bad bread are entrenched in daily life. There are times when I need a proper city – places to do and buy anything – and there is no question that China answered that call.

- Infrastructure. The infrastructure in China may well be second-to-none worldwide. Of all the places I’ve ever visited only the USA could possibly claim to rival the range of high-speed trains, motorways, high-rise architecture, gigantic public buildings and more that China has built in the past 30 years. I saw roads passing through mountains like they weren’t there. When cross-country running as a child, whenever I came over the brow of a hill and saw another hill looming in the distance I would wonder why mankind hadn’t built a convenient bridge from my peak to the next. Imagination has become reality in China where no matter how deep the valley or seemingly impenetrable the mountain, Chinese engineers have found a way to force their way, quite literally, through the land.

Government headquarters are even more imposing than in Russia and many central city squares seem empty given their size. Tiananmen Square is one of the largest public squares in the world (although certainly isn’t empty – it’s chock-full of tourists). The skyline in Shanghai is apparently something to behold and the Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium stands symbolic of China’s mighty rise to power. In short, anyone with the internet and half a brain could find a never-ending string of ground-breaking Chinese constructions.

p1060433-800Why does this find its way onto my ‘best’ list though? Apart from being incredibly impressive visually, I enjoyed the convenience of a smooth transport network varying from prompt, clean metros to the widest cycle lanes I’ve ever pedalled, the largely pot-hole free roads connecting city to city, the guarantee of cheap, decent accommodation for young people and the legion of necessary, but in my case useless, bureaucratic offices (compare to Tajikistan where important permits can only be had in the capital city). As far as general ease of doing things goes, China is a level above all it’s surrounding countries.

- Cheap. In a land where a bowl of noodle soup goes for a Dollar, it is quite possible to cycle comfortably on less than $10/day. That said, in countries where the cost of living is low my peculiar psychology persuades me into thinking that I have licence to consume in overdrive. In China, despite rock-bottom prices I managed to spend even more per day than I did in Sweden or Finland! Why? Because that food is just too cheap NOT to be bought! More prudent travellers will no doubt be able to avoid this gluttonous trap.

The point is that China offers a great-value destination for travel, especially when considered next to the fact the food tastes good, services are plentiful, the tourist industry is developed and cities are historic and dynamic. While Kyrgyzstan might be equally cheap there are no high-speed trains to whiz one backwards and forwards between the numerous natural attractions.

p1060427-800(Other delights I could buy for a Dollar in China include: a plate of 6 steamed buns; a large chow mien; one-and-a-half jiang bing; 6 Nescafe instant coffee sachets; 6 city-bus tickets; 3 metro tickets; a puncture repair kit; 2 hours in an internet cafe; one-and-a-half jiang bing or a fifth of a night in a hostel dormitory room).


Before you start booking flight tickets here’s another reminder that the ‘worst’ will come tomorrow (in what will doubtless be an exceedingly uplifting post). As much as the above points warmed my heart to China, the ones to follow seriously compromise my willingness to return. To be continued.

Leave a comment

*

 

5 Comments already on “Cycling the Middle Kingdom: the best and worst of China (Part 1)”
  1. 4:46 ampermalink
    07 Nov 2013

    Vu Do Quynh

    Hi,

    If you’re passing through Hanoi before 15th of November 2013 and needs one or two nights accommodation for free (spartian comfort), write me.

    Best regards

    • Will

      4:16 ampermalink
      15 Nov 2013

      Will

      I’d like to thank Quynh for taking me out to eat twice for a variety of Vietnamese food. Three days ago, we went out for one of the most popular Vietnamese dishes ‘pho bo’ (pho: noodle soup, bo: beef), which turned out to be the best one I’ve tasted so far. Last night, we sampled Banh Cuon (thin rice noodle paper wraps with meat inside, topped with dried crispy onions) and Bun Thang (soup with chicken, egg, pork and a classic Vietnamese squeeze of fresh lime).

      He recounted many stories of earlier times in Vietnam and gave me a much-needed history lesson. I wish him all the best on his trip to France, starting this evening.

  2. 8:42 pmpermalink
    07 Nov 2013

    Sarah, Guy, Toby and Edward

    Love your new style of blog! Fasinating reading so far … can’t wait for the next installment. Am surprised you could move at all after that huge plate of noodles!! XXXX

  3. Will

    9:44 ampermalink
    08 Nov 2013

    Will

    Thanks S, G, T, E. I hope you enjoy part 2 which is now ‘out’.
    ps. I had two of those plates of noodles :D

  4. 6:08 pmpermalink
    08 Nov 2013

    Liv

    Loving all the pictures! That food sounds incredible, you have just made me very hungry. Can’t wait to hear about Vietnam, and the stray dog incident…. xx