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

8 Nov 2013

Cycling the Middle Kingdom: the best and worst of China (Part 2)

Posted by Will

Yesterday, I described and explained the ‘best’ part of cycling in China in a buoyant post full of enthusiasm and sparkling adjectives. Now it’s time to sum up the ‘worst’. The current entry is as downcast as the previous one was optimistic, the aim being to capture the simultaneous feelings of joy and loathing that followed me through China. If you haven’t already read yesterday’s post I suggest you do so before continuing … [read here]. Otherwise China may very well seem like one enormous pit of endless suffering.


- ‘Lao-wai’. It’s the Chinese word for foreigner and I heard it everywhere, be it in the street, on the bicycle, amidst the Terracotta Warriors, at the foot of the Giant Buddha, in the cab of a hitch-hiked truck or over the waist-high walls of a public toilet cubicle. This annoying two syllable sound was deployed in many different ways but most commonly as a single, monotonous word utterance with the only explicable purpose of confirming to all those around that there was indeed a foreigner passing by. The repeated use of ‘lao-wai’ between groups behind my back was all I seemed to hear in the otherwise incomprehensible Chinese babble. I even had a child no more than 3 years old stop his tricycle in front of me in a Beijing hutong and exclaim with pointed finger: ‘lao-wai!’. The word was by far my number one bugbear while travelling in China.

The vigour with which the Chinese were willing to bestow the ‘lao-wai’ label was irritating and ultimately disappointing. I never imagined I would be able to blend in like a local nor did I expect to be treated like one, but being so continually reminded of my foreignness didn’t allow even a second to pretend. In China, even when people were hospitable, I was always treated like a foreigner.

Linked with the ‘lao-wai’ phenomenon were the stares, photo requests and sudden bursts of hysterics that accompanied my walking into any vicinity. I suppose that in a land of almost 3 billion eyes it’s hard not to be stared at. However, there was hardly any attempt at discretion on the part of the gogglers. I didn’t mind the staring as much as other travellers, perhaps I’m used to it, but I couldn’t forgive staring as an excuse for not saying hello. That happened all too often: the unpleasant combination of dumbfounded staring and intentional silence.

The desire to take my photograph often grated but I did my best to satisfy the endless stream of willing participants. More infuriating was the general inability of grouped young people to control themselves while having a conversation. Young men would pinch and poke each other through bouts of frenzied laughter while girls giggled furiously with cupped hands over their face. In Iran, the humble cyclist travels like an intellectual celebrity … in China, like Brad Pitt.

p1060663-800- Weather/air pollution. I’ve bundled the two together because they’re both inextricably linked. In short it comes down to this: I hardly saw the sun in China, either because the weather was too foggy or the factories were too close.

Contrary to popular belief, I found Chinese air pollution less pervasive in the cities than in the countryside. Perhaps that’s because I expect the countryside to be a crystal-clear expanse of field and forest – an expectation crushed to dust in China. For ten frankly horrible days I cycled from Beijing to Xi’an under a cloud of factory air, the sun penetrating the smog for less hours than I have fingers. In the more concentrated parts I could taste the bitter smack of chemicals on my tongue. At night, I was forced to place my camp strategically between clusters of factories so as not to have to breathe in the foul air.

The air pollution died out as I cycled south and west but was quickly replaced by heavy rain. China can’t be blamed for the bad spell of weather that plagued my ride through Sichuan and Yunnan but nevertheless I felt keenly the prolonged lack of decent sun. All the midday periods I had hoped to spend snoozing in the shade of a Chinese poplar were to remain fixed and unspent in my imagination.

- Crowded. I’m a rather picky tourist really, not fully in my element unless I have the place to myself. Jean-Paul Sartre summed it up, even though a tad too forcefully: ‘hell is other people’. I don’t mind spending time with the people I know or the people I want to know, it’s those ‘other people’ who get in the way so much. China is so full of those kinds of people that it’s often hard to enjoy the surroundings, no matter how beautiful or historic. Take Tiananmen Square in Beijing for instance. There’s no doubt it’s important for its grandeur, history and view of the surrounding buildings but when there’s no escaping elbows in the back and the incessant squawking of tour guides it’s near-impossible to take in the atmosphere.  As far as I’m concerned, that square could be flanked by the Eiffel Tower, Taj Mahal, Sydney Opera House and authentic remains of Machu Picchu and I still wouldn’t give the thumbs-up.

crowdedbeijingFurther symptoms of the great density of people were felt on the road. I spent too many days with the roar of traffic in my ears, an endless stream of cars passing in both directions, my pit-stops at tasty eateries offering no respite from the deafening noise and ceaseless bustle. Even having a pee caused trouble. After almost two years of cycling I’m not shy about going in front of a stream of cars … but it’s a whole different story when there’s a good chance I’ll hit someone’s bowl of noodle soup.

Camping became tricky too. After all that time in Russia and Mongolia where I could pitch my tent at a moment’s notice, I suddenly had to plan my evenings carefully to ensure I wouldn’t end up in urban sprawl at day’s end. Several mornings I peered out of my tent to see a group of villagers no more than 10m away, working the fields with scythes and machetes. To their credit they were always extremely pleased to see me, albeit with a handful too many ‘lao-wais’. At times I was left cycling through darkness, trying hopelessly to find a few square metres of unoccupied land for my tent.

- Litter. Another unpleasant reminder of the extensive Chinese population is the amount of litter that lies strewn beside the roads and scenic areas. It defies belief how oblivious the Chinese are to the impact of each person chucking an ice cream wrapper on the floor. Standard practice is to discard rubbish wherever one has need to discard it, even if that place happens to be a national park. One morning I cycled into a government-designated scenic area, a steep and rocky canyon, and a traffic jam emerged at the entrance to the first village. I pedalled through the line of stationary cars and saw no fewer than three occupants chuck their instant noodle pots, two ditch plastic bags and one charming individual squat, grunt and defecate on the asphalt. He hadn’t even bothered to take a walk into the trees. Presumably these people were queuing to see the unique natural beauty of the area so it is quite unfathomable as to why they would want to quite literally shit on it.

nolitteringnospittingThe guilty list of litterers goes on and on. Children tear off their sweet wrappers and drop them to the pavement without a word from their parents. Restaurant-goers throw their used napkins wherever’s most convenient and hock up indigestible pieces of meat to the floor. Shopkeepers fly-tip their bins in ditches behind their stores, vegetable-sellers discard rotten produce along the road and endless bottles, cans and other detritus are thrown from car and truck windows. The result: roadsides for kilometres littered with disgusting waste and picturesque villages ruined by mounds of festering garbage.

Sorry for the damning report but I’m afraid it’s true. I can only offer the silver lining that big city streets tend to be spotless. However, I suspect this has far more to do with hordes of cleaners and sweepers than the city-dwellers’ behaviour.

- Spitting.  A brief point because thankfully I’m running out of bad things to say. Following on from the hygiene practices spelled out above, the Chinese are fond of spitting, adorning all manner of objects lovingly with phlegm-heavy wads of sticky yellow goo. Their favourite target, the street, understandably because it’s easy to hit. When they feel like a challenge though they’ll lean over and take aim out the window. Even worse than the spit itself is the noise it takes to produce: a terrible undisguised hacking sound seemingly rising from the very depths of the soul. In China it’s all too common.

Word has it that the government is trying to crackdown. It’ll almost certainly be unsuccessful though given how deeply rooted the practice is in everyday life. While the Chinese people were unprepared to protest over an undemocratic takeover of power earlier this year I suspect they will be significantly more riled if the higher pleasures in life are taken away from them.

So those are my ‘best’ and ‘worst’ lists from China based purely on my own experience. Visiting another part of China would doubtless lead to very different results. The wilderness of Western China could never be described as crowded for instance and I doubt there’s much air pollution or litter there either.

The conclusion I’ve reached: I enjoyed resting in the cities and disliked cycling through the countryside. There were exceptions – that is just the general rule. The cities are clean, comfortable, cosmopolitan and contained the Chinese less likely to descend instantly into fits of uncontrollable laughter. By contrast, the countryside felt polluted in all respects and largely devoid of Chinese willing to interact on a level playing field. Do I want to go back? Yes, just not with a bicycle. I’d much rather be city-hopping.

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9 Comments already on “Cycling the Middle Kingdom: the best and worst of China (Part 2)”
  1. 6:28 ampermalink
    08 Nov 2013


    Re staring. As I read your comments on staring I remembered similar experiences in India and similar reactions. HoweverI have since been told that it is considered a way of showing respect. Makes it much easier to accept!

  2. Will

    7:51 ampermalink
    08 Nov 2013


    In which case I’m giving them far too much respect … I usually stare straight back!

  3. 1:04 pmpermalink
    08 Nov 2013


    As for the part 1 “best”, I have few things to say.It’s very kind of you to like Chinese food. In my opinion, most “Lao_Wai”(Forgive me- -)do not like Chinese rice and other food.I know You enjoy “baozi”(in Chinese 包子),”jian bing”or omelet (煎蛋饼),”chow mein”(炒面).And other similar food such as fied rice,other kinds of dumplings also teast good.
    As for the part 2 “worst”,I’m sorry I have nothing to do.I’m a Chinese,sometimes I have the same feelings as yours.Bad air,weather,mad people,ceazy drivers,so many rubbishs. Hey,you know many Chinese people do not have good educations, so they call you guys”Lao_Wai” without a Hello.As I can see,they not attempt to offend you.They just cannot think a better word to descibe you. They just curious about you. I believe most Chinese people are friendly,and willing to help others.Maybe they pay too much attention on you that you’re not get used to it.that’s all
    I hope one day that we can meet again.It’s wonderful to get to know you and your ambition.
    best wishes for you,
    from your friend Chen

  4. Will

    2:27 pmpermalink
    08 Nov 2013


    Dear Chen,

    Haha, I hoped one of my friends in China might call me ‘lao-wai’ as punishment for being so rude about China in this post. You’re right: Chinese people in villages were very curious and they didn’t have any intention of offending me. It’s just frustrating. I wanted to learn about the people in China but that’s so difficult when they alter their behaviour completely in front of a foreigner. It’s frustrating too when they, unlike you, are far more interested in taking photographs than holding a conversation.

    As far as food goes, China comes near the top of my list of countries so far. It better watch out though because Vietnamese food is already proving irresistible and nearby countries like Thailand and Malaysia have an excellent reputation. I’ll have to see as I cycle along! One thing is certain though: the jiang bing can’t be beaten!

    Good luck at university,

    N.B. I met Chen when he overtook me on his bike (yes I do get overtaken sometimes!) and he quickly invited me to stay the night in his university dorm room. We cycled together through the university compound, met his 5 room-mates, had dinner in the huge student cafeteria (unlimited rice and sauces for $1.30!) and at the end of the day I clambered up into the top-bunk bed that he had kindly given up to me. A true Chinese gentleman!

  5. 5:27 pmpermalink
    10 Nov 2013

    mike &mma rutter

    hi Willl
    we are in kampala – we get” mazungu” originaly a swahili word for foreigner had it shouted in most countries since we started often seems to just mean white guy as much as foreigner emphasis can make it a sort of greeting/ recognition or something a bit more unpleasant you get the feeling !!.
    You wouldnt like it here – crazy is not the word – theres a game of bluff played by all road users and if you get it wrong the consequences are not pleasant, its simply might is right and cyclists are not high up the mighty table.
    We developed a rule of thumb in west africa if when driving along a road pedestrians, cyclists run for cover you know the driving is bad the distance at which they run is the measure of how bad in some cases you only need to appear on the horizon to see people way ahead jumping into bushes.
    We have come across a few cyclists here including a dutch couple who had worked in malawi but purchased a bamboo frame from zambia they were heading to cape town to fit wheels and other bits and are intending to ride up through east africa home. given all the termites etc doesnt sound too good an idea to me.
    Just done gorillas & chimps which was fantastic – have a look at our blog.
    Must get on and read what you have been up to – not had interweb for a while.
    Uncle Michael & Aunty Emma

  6. 8:40 ampermalink
    13 Nov 2013


    Great story Will! Waiting for your updates.

  7. 9:57 ampermalink
    13 Nov 2013


    Hello William.

    Ive just read this post and loved being reminded of all these things.

    The most frustrating thing in China for me which, at one restaurant produced tears of rage was the half full plates of food left on just about every table in EVERY restaurant. I could have eaten like a king without paying a penny if I had the nerve. This would probably have produced flabbergastered looks from everyone which I was not ready for.

    Anyway, heres an article on it:

    Enjoy Hanoi big boi x

  8. Will

    5:35 pmpermalink
    13 Nov 2013


    @Graham: I ate mostly at side of the road restaurants where the general vibe was to gulp your food down as quickly as possible and get back to work. They ate their food in those places. I’m sure if I had visited more sit-down restaurants it would have been different as I heard your rage spouting out of so many other travellers’ mouths in China. Would I have eaten the leftovers? If Laurens was with me … definitely yes (he was a master at it in Bishkek). Otherwise no. By the way, how’s Tbilisi going?
    @Dimitris: thanks, update has now been posted!
    @Emma and Michael: I’m checking out your blog now.

  9. 9:31 pmpermalink
    11 Jan 2021


    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I really appreciate your efforts and I am waiting for your further write ups thank you once again. Ema Orson Currie