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. 8 Comments

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.

p1060755-800Worst

- ‘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 … [read more]

7 Nov 2013

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

Posted by Will. 5 Comments

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 … [read more]

2 Nov 2013

Mad dash out of China

Posted by Will. 9 Comments

I cycled out of Chengdu quite unwilling to go, fed up of moving on and knowing that the steep slopes of south-west China waited for my weary legs. My first point of call: Xichang, a small city with a visa extension office where I hoped my race to the border would end with a fresh new Chinese sticker for 30 days. And all the time, that single lonely remaining page in my current passport brought up fresh fears that a new passport wouldn’t arrive for me in Kunming, that I would be forced to fly, that I might even miss seeing my family at Christmas in Thailand.

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A few easy kilometres of flat, densely populated land were soon followed by the painfully steep, sharp bends that I now know characterize Sichuan country roads. The natural sights were correspondingly beautiful with high cliffs tumbling down to chocolate brown, snaking rivers below and gleaming terraced rice fields worked by crinkled old village-folk. The usually faultless Chinese asphalt cracked and in some places disappeared completely. That left a thick layer of mud for the odd passing truck to splatter both body and bike-bags … but I really didn’t care. I enjoyed myself immensely on those few days to Xichang, for the first time able to escape the factories, smog, smoke, dust and debris of industrial China. Villagers invited me to eat where the evening’s game of Mahjong was being played, kids waved excitedly while walking back from school on the hair-pin roads and camping became a pleasure again, the land open to my choice of pitch.

One of those days, around mid-day, I left a village and began yet another section sloping upwards into mist. The road started out smooth with a handful of dotted huts and cattle-sheds. However, several thousand pedal-strokes and heavy breaths later and the way continued up sharply, showing no signs of a downhill. This mountain seemed higher than most. A full four hours later, now 5pm, gravel and mud abound, no more than 10m visibility, a car every 15 minutes at most and a 15 degree drop in temperature, I shivered and sweated in my thin cycle shorts, devouring two packets of sesame biscuits I had luckily picked up earlier in the day. The mist meant complete disorientation and with the cut-up, damaged road barely leading the way I had no idea how high I had climbed, where I was or most importantly … [read more]