CYCLING CHINA (3)
(1003km - 25days)
26 October - Qinzhou – Nanning – 127 km
The price of my room included breakfast, which was a rather interesting affair. Loads of stir-fried veggies with chili, boiled eggs, and soy milk was the order of the day. With a belly full of Chinese food and enough heartburn to make me feel like the fire-breathing dragon, I searched for a road that would lead me to Nanning. Getting out was rather easy, but soon the dreaded roadworks started again, and it was slow going through potholes and muddy ponds. It did not take long for both me and the bike to be totally covered in mud. Again, there was not much I could do but try and avoid the biggest holes and stay out of the way of the trucks as much as I could.
Fortunately, everything comes to an end, and I was back in the countryside again. Although very scenic, I thought it a bit sad that so many of the old villages were now abandoned as the occupants had moved to the city in an attempt to elevate poverty (which it did). Cycling into Nanning was quite a mission as not only is it home to 7.1 million people, but there were also massive highways, flyovers, and roadworks, and then there was me trying to get into the city centre.
People stopped to photograph me; others hung out of car windows with mobile phone in hand trying to snap me as they drove past. Gosh, haven't they seen a "Big nose" on a bicycle before? It took forever to get to the city centre and, halfway there, my GPS directions stopped working! Arghhh! Eventually, I arrived at the hostel, which was conveniently situated right in the city centre. Unfortunately, it was on the third floor. I was in no mood for schlepping my stuff up the stairs, but there is little I can do about it. After a few huffs and puffs, I was comfortably ensconced in my nice room.
27/28/29 October, Nanning
I had plans of doing loads of things, but in the end, I wasn't able to do anything. I had to make up my mind in what direction I wanted to go; it made the most sense to take a train to Beijing and cycle south to Xiamen, where I left off last time.
Armed with a note from the hostel as to where and when I want to take the train, I took a walk to the train station. It was large and busy, like most places in China, but eventually I had a ticket. Unfortunately, I could only get a top bunk, which everyone warned me to avoid. Once that was done, I took a bus to Yangmei, an old village on the outskirts of Nanning. The bus ride took 1.5 hours for 25 kilometres, giving an idea of the condition of the road! I walked around for an hour or so, and as the last bus back to Nanning was at 4:30 p.m., I soon had to start heading back to the bus station.
The following morning, I loaded the bike up and cycled the short distance to the train station. Fortunately, I already had my ticket as, although there are about four or six trains a day, the trains were all full. Getting the bicycle on the train was also a fairly painless affair. The baggage area was in the next-door building where they weighed the bike and bags and placed all the panniers in one large bag. In the end, I paid about as much for the bike and panniers as for myself. I was warned that the bicycle may not arrive at the same time as me and that I should then go back to the collection centre the following day to collect it. I rearranged my panniers and took one with all I needed with me, keeping in mind that the bike and panniers may not be there for a day or two.
The train bunks were like most trains, stacked three high with the top bunk having no window and very little head room. As everyone is lying down, there are very few places to sit except for two passenger foldout chairs and a little table with the result that one is very much in the public eye. Not only did everyone in the vicinity want a photo with the foreigner, but they seemed to come from the other coaches, as well. Word must have spread! In the end, I climbed to my bunk and pretended to sleep, giving myself a break from the photo shoot.
At the end of the coach was a large urn with hot water, which was in high demand as the snack trolley came around every so often, loaded with cup noodles and other popular Chinese snacks. It was all terribly well organised, with each bunk having a set of snow white linen, and the cleaning staff came around on a regular basis, mopping and sweeping the passage.
I slept well as the train ran smoothly, and I hardly knew I was in a moving vehicle. The following day went by uneventfully as we chugged our way past beautiful scenery, flying past way too quickly to my liking. We arrived in Beijing after 5 p.m., and by then it was already dark.
My bicycle was not on the same train (something I had expected), so I went in search of a hotel near the train station. I walked and walked but could find nothing at a reasonable price, and to my frustration, the cheapies did not allow foreigners. What made matters worse was that it was not the central train station (which I thought it would be). Instead, we stopped at Beijing West, 10 kilometres west of my intended destination. I also discovered that Beijing is an expensive mega city, easily on par with Europe and America. In the end, I opted for a taxi ride to the hostel I had in mind from the start. Interestingly enough, the first two taxis wanted 200 yuan (which I though was a bit steep), so I made my way back to the taxi stand at the train station where I managed to get a taxi at 50 yuan. Even a bed in a dorm was more expensive than what I normally pay for a room! I also made the shocking discovery that it was already too late in the season for this part of the world. It was cold and in my skimpy clothes I was ill-suited for this climate. Fortunately, the room had heating, and I slept well.
31 October/ 3 November – Beijing
My priorities had changed, and first thing in the morning I was off looking for cold weather gear. With teeth chattering, I found The North Face and requested their warmest jacket they had in store. Thank goodness for a translating app.
Another unpleasant surprise awaited me as I wanted to pay as both my cards were declined! I was in utter shock and took a brisk walk back to the hostel where I contacted the visa office. The verdict being that I have incorrectly entered my pin too many times. That was weird because I know that number by heart. The result was that the card was blocked, and to make a long story short, it could not be rectified. The debit card still worked; the only problem was that most of my money was on the credit card, which I used as a debit card. By then, it was fairly late, and I headed off to the train station to collect the bicycle and panniers.
On cycling back, freezing as it was, I managed a frozen half-smile as I realised that there I was cycling in Beijing with its 23 million people, and I felt small as I cycled past the famous or infamous Tiananmen Square. It was marvellous, absolutely marvellous! I ducked and dove through the traffic back to the hostel and tried the debit card again. At least this time, it spat out some money, enough to pay for a rather expensive goose down jacket. With money in my wallet and a warm jacket on my back, I could breathe a sigh of relief, and for the first time in 24 hours, I felt relaxed in spite of the cold. I donned my new jacket and gloves, grabbed the camera, and set off on a walkabout past the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. What a remarkable city it is!
I finally packed up and cycled out of Beijing. I had all the warm clothes I could possibly wear, from beanies to gloves and from a down jacket to thermal underwear. Leaving Beijing is not interesting, but at least it's easy with wide cycle lanes on most streets. My idea was to follow the ancient Grand Canal of China. I therefore headed to the "start" of the canal at Tongzhou Canal Park.
The Grand Canal is a vast waterway system running from Beijing to Hangzhou further south constructed in the fifth century BC onwards, creating the world's largest and most extensive engineering project before the Industrial Revolution. By the 13th century, it consisted of more than 2 000 kilometres of artificial waterways, far surpassing the next two of the world, the Suez and Panama Canals. The canal was placed on the UNESCO's World Heritage List in 2014, and although I did not think one could cycle right next to the canal all the way, I wanted to give it a try and expected to see many interesting and historical things along the way.
After about 30 kilometres, I reached the official start/finish of the canal and found a lovely cycling path for a good stretch along the canal. The air pollution was so bad, though, that one could hardly see anything. In fact, the air quality was so poor that I could hardly breathe and had a blocked nose despite using a nasal spray. I was seriously considering a face mask like what most Chinese use around here. I'm sure it is just a matter of time before I get a lung infection. I left so late, and the travel was so slow that I only did about 80 kilometres before stopping for the night. With it being winter, the sun went down fairly early (around 17h00), and I did not want to push my luck too far.
4 November – Anping – Tianjin – 80 km
I was in no particular hurry as I anticipated another short ride to Tianjin. It was, however, even colder than the previous day, and it was extremely foggy. I doubted whether the traffic could see me, and I made myself as visible as possible and stuck as much to the side of the road as I could. The fog never lifted, and I could only see a few meters ahead. It was bitterly cold, and I tied plastic bags around my feet and hands to try and keep them warmer. As can be expected in weather like this, there were a few very bad pile-ups, with traffic backed up for kilometres and kilometres. For once, I was happy to be on a bicycle as I weaved my way through the backed-up traffic and was soon on the open road.
I hardly stopped as there was no need for water stops and there were no photo opportunities along the way, so I pulled my new jacket tight, put my head down and headed straight for Tianjin where I believed they had a lovely old town. During the foreign era, the British and French settled in, joined by the Japanese, Germans, Hungarians, Italians and Belgians. Each concession was a self-contained world with its world prison, school, barracks and hospital, the result being that the old town is littered with impressive Western architecture.
After booking into the Three Brothers Hostel, I took a walk around the Wudadao area with its charming European-style houses. The old town stood in sharp contrast to the modern city with its KFC, Burger King and McDonald's, and for a second there, I had to rethink whether I was in America or China. Soon, it got too cold for me, and I headed back to the warmth of the hostel where I was the only person in an 8-bed dorm — bliss!
5 November – Tianjin
Waking up at 9h30 made me decide to stay the day and explore. I had to make peace with the fact that the old China is no more and that the new China is westernised, modern, sleek, and funky. Young people sat sipping coffee in hip-looking cafés, and white-dress wedding stores abound. I walked and walked, looking to see if there were still signs of the old China, but except for a view small lanes tucked in behind Walmart, McDonald's, KFC, Carrefour, and Starbucks, there was (sadly) no sign of it.
The riverfront (which forms part of the ancient Grand Canal) is now a modern high-rise business area, and one can't help but think about where it is all going to end. At least the few side roads provided interesting and cheap eats; I made sure that I had my fill before returning to the hostel and the more expensive shops in the old town. There is nothing quite like a bowl of steaming dumplings in a dark, low-ceiling hole-in-the-wall eatery in China.
6 November – Tianjin – Cangzhou – 110 km
It was a miserable day on the road. Yes, sometimes I must remind myself that there are days like this. At least the weather was marginally warmer, and around midday, I could lose the down jacket. There was no sign of the ancient canal, and I cut a straight line to Cangzhou. The entire way remained busy and built up, except for about 20 kilometres through sad-looking farmlands, the highlight being one or two forgotten villages where old men shuffled along past corn drying on the road and villagers stared at me, mouths agape.
It was a day of corn and trucks, and I cycled through a large town, easily 20 - 30 kilometres in length, consisting entirely of truck repair workshops. Cycling into Cangzhou was not a pretty sight either, with dirty graffiti walls, half-built high-rise apartment blocks, abandoned residential areas, and the ever-ongoing roadworks.
It was getting late, and I wanted to find a room. The first three hotels did not rent rooms to foreigners, and the only one I could find was a rather expensive international hotel. I needed money, but the first bank wanted nothing to do with me and spat my card out again, something that always gets me nervous. Fortunately, the second bank was kind enough to give me a few bucks, enough to pay for my expensive room. It was a rather fancy room, I must admit, large as a dance hall with just about all the mod-cons one could wish for in a hotel room. I had a quick shower and then popped across the road to get food. The food was dirt cheap and delicious, something that always makes up for a not-so-interesting day on the road.
7 November Cangzhou – Dezhou – 117 km
I don't know why I slept so late; it must have had something to do with the cold. It was 9h30 by the time I left, and it took nearly an hour to do the 10 kilometres out of the city centre. Again, like the day before, there was little of interest along the way, so I gunned it to Dezhou - not that I could gun it; a better description, maybe, would be that I picked up the pace a bit. LOL.
As it was cold, I didn't stop as often as I usually do. At first, I was concerned that I might not make it to Dezhou before dark - not that it would have been a big deal if I didn't, as I could pitch my tent just about anywhere. It is, however, nice to be in a room when it is this cold. Fortunately, the going was good, and I arrived in Dezhou in good time.
It has become a bit of a pain in the ass to find a room here in China, as most of the cheap hotels don't rent rooms to foreigners, and I, therefore, must go from hotel to hotel, checking first if they allow foreigners and, secondly, what the room rate is. Looking for accommodation is one of my pet hates, and this shopping around at the end of a day leaves me a bit long-lipped. Today I was lucky: The third hotel allowed foreigners, the room came at a very reasonable rate, and the receptionist could even speak a bit of English; what a bargain! I dropped my bags and headed straight for the dumpling stand. I typically ordered so much food that it is assumed that the food is for two people as I always get two sets of chopsticks!
8 November – Dezhou – Ji'nan – 127 km
Lately, the best part of the day seems to be in the morning when I leave when all the markets and stalls are in full swing. Steam from the dumpling stands rise thick and high in the cold morning air, while people in warm coats gather around, rubbing their hands together in an attempt to keep warm. I could not help myself and had to follow suit to the great amusement of the locals. They chatted away, but, of course, I did not understand a word of Chinese, so I followed their example and rubbed my hands together while smiling at them.
I set off, with my steaming bag of dumplings, in the direction of Ji'nan. Going was slow as I was into a slight breeze, and I did not appreciate getting a flat tyre along the way. The most common cause of flat tyres, for me, is riding over exploded truck tyres. Their insidious steel wires will work their way through most tyres, and today, I found no less than two of them stuck in the tyre, even Schwalbe tyres. The Schwalbe tyres are excellent but a real pain to get on and off. Eventually, the new tube was in and the tyre was back on.
I continued past large areas of vegetable farms and past a few brand-new towns not even on the map as yet! I wonder how many trees have been planted in China in the last ten years or so. I'm wondering as most roads are lined with trees, and each town has a number of huge parks. Then, there is the very impressive Great Green Wall, which will eventually consist of nearly 90 million acres of new forest in a land stretching 2,800 miles across northern China.
In any event, it was already late by the time I cycled into Ji'nan, and once again, it was a massive city that took forever to get through. I was looking for the Chengbei Hostel but could not locate it. After looking around, for what felt like forever, I eventually found a room at the Home Inn. By then, it was already dark and cold, and I was starving. No sooner had I settled in and I was off to the closest restaurant and spent the next two hours eating!
9-10 November – Ji’nan
I stayed put as I desperately needed to do laundry and pick up a few things from the supermarket. I also went in search of the hostel, which I found, but it also did not accept foreigners, despite being listed in the Lonely Planet.
It was also with great sadness that I learned the outcome of the US election. Not that I’m at all interested in American politics, or that I care which political party or person runs their government, to me, the picture is far bigger than that. I was sad that so many people back a person who is clearly hateful towards others, racist, and chauvinistic; the fact that Trump is backed by the KKK is an indication to me that there is something seriously wrong with this world. I know that nothing will change, and I know that American politics will not affect me and that what they do in their country is their own business. Still, it saddens me that so many people backed a person who boasts about violating women. For me, as a feminist, this is truly a sad day for all women. I have lived under an apartheid government for far too long and, quite frankly, I am sick and tired of racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and sexism, and I’m equally tired of people who practice them. I have, however, never met anyone who claims to be any of the above. I have, however, met plenty of “but” people, always stating, I’m not a racist “but” or I’m not homophobic “but”, and I will, therefore, include the “but” people in the above list! It feels to me that we are going backwards, and soon, we will be burning women at the stake again.
In a sombre mood, I packed up the following morning, but once outside, I encountered a 35 mile an hour wind. There and then, I offloaded again and planned on waiting the weather out. There is no need for me to cycle into such inhospitable weather, and I, most likely, would not have made it to my next destination. Instead, I wandered around the very shiny new city of Ji'nan with all the brand names one can imagine, but mostly spent my time in the allies of Ji’nan, where I sampled as much as I could of their interesting and delicious food. Completely stuffed, I returned to the warmth of my hotel room to check on the weather forecast, which did not look all that promising for the following day.
11 November – Ji’nan – Taishan – 80 km
I had no intention of staying another day in Ji’nan and was happy that at least the wind had calmed to some extent. It was a slow day travelling into the wind. Fortunately, it was not far to Taishan. Taishan is one of the very few sacred mountains in China, and it is said that it has been worshipped since the 11th century BC! The area is, therefore, a major attraction and tourist destination, and I was not sure if I was in a mood to walk up the mountain in the cold.
Although the day did not provide interesting cycling, it is always a delight to cycle into a typical Chinese town. The hostel I had in mind was, fortunately, situated right in the heart of the old town, with all the temples traditionally visited by pilgrims, before heading up the mountain in close proximity. The narrow lanes were lined with food stalls spewing steam and heavenly aromas, but by the time I had a shower and ate it was already too late to look around, so I'm considering staying another day.
12 -13 November – Taishan – Qufu – 73 km
The weather man predicted a slight tailwind and warmer-than-usual weather, and I wasted no time in hopping on the bike and heading to Qufu. It was a pleasurable ride, and soon I reached Qufu, hometown of Confusions and a UNESCO world heritage site.
The old walled city is beautifully restored, and the youth hostel is in a lovely old building. I dropped my bags and took a stroll around town, first to the Kong Mansion. Interestingly, Confucius's family name was Kong Qiu, but he was also known by the honorific Kong Fuzi. I understand that the Latinised name "Confucius" is derived from "Kong Fuzi," and was first coined by 16th-century Jesuit missionaries to China. In any event, the Kong Mansion, although stunning, is not where he lived (I think, seeing that he lived between 551–479 BC!); it is, however, his ancestral home.
I also made a turn at the Temple of Yan (521–490 BC), said to be the favourite temple of Confucius. Soon, I was getting hungry as I had not eaten since breakfast, and it was time to go in search of my favourite dumplings.
While eating, I checked on the Facebook comments from my American friends about the recent election; it made me realise that I will never make a good American. So many of them stated that they would support their new president, and I'm gobsmacked and can't believe that one can trade one set of personal values for another in the space of a day! I'm saying this as I have lived, nearly all my life, under a government whose values and beliefs I did not share, and I would never have supported them just because they were in power. I don't see it as my duty as a citizen of a country to support the government in power as it is completely random where one is born, and your country does not define you. I'm obviously not patriotic, but that is a totally different issue as I am not for patriotism either, LOL.
The current political situation in my country is equally interesting as I do support the current political party and have voted for them, but I do not agree with or support our president as I believe that he is not reflecting the values of the ANC and is not doing good for the country. I think he is corrupt and dishonest, and I will never support him or anyone like him. I, therefore, find it difficult to believe that one can go from one set of values to supporting someone with a completely different value system.
I spent another day in Qufu as there was so much to see and I just loved this little walled village from ancient times. I must have taken about 200 pictures as the light and the colours were beautiful. I also found a pharmacy where I could get some nasal spray as my nose seemed to be constantly blocked. I also managed to put some more data on my phone, all things not so easy if one does not speak the language.
14 November – Qufu – Tengzhou - 66 km
I was in no mood for cycling, and it took me forever to pack up. It was already late by the time I cycled out of foggy Qufu. Fortunately, it was a lovely warm day with no wind, and it was a pleasure to be out. Even so, I seemed to drag my heels (figuratively speaking) and made slow progress. This part of China is planted under so many trees that it feels like I'm cycling in a forest, making for some lovely scenery and colours. In Tengzhou I called it a day, as there is no point in cycling when I don't feel like it.
15 November Tengzhou – Tai'erzhuang – 93 km
About 40 kilometres into my ride, I spotted a sign for Tai'erzhuang ancient village. There and then, I decided to throw a sharp left and head in that direction to see what it was all about. It was once again a lovely ride, and the village turned out to be a pleasant surprise.
Tai’erzhuang, located in the centre of the Beijing – Hangzhou Grand Canal, was established in 221–207 BC. The town was mostly destroyed during the famous or rather infamous Battle of Tai'erzhuang in 1938; most of it has, however, been reconstructed, and today, it is a popular tourist destination. I sought out a rather inconspicuous-looking hotel where the male receptionist was sleeping behind the counter. Once I woke him, he was in total shock to see a foreigner standing in front of him. I handed him my passport, which he gave one glance and returned it. Without me being able to speak a word of Mandarin and him, obviously, not a word of English, there was a lot of OK, OK, OK, and hands-together bowing! What a spectacle we must have made! In any event, it was a nice room if one overlooked the soiled carpet and the hair on the bathroom floor. The price was right and the bedding clean, so no complaints there. Right outside the hotel, I found a lady making and selling a kind of crispy pancake with stir-fried veggies inside, which came with a glass of hot soymilk, all for 8 yuan!
16 November – Tai'erzhuang – Pizhou– 50 km
I first cycled through town to see the "ancient town" and was pleasantly surprised at what I found. I thought it would be only one or two buildings, but in fact, it was a whole village, mostly reconstructed but still a lovely place to wander around. The Battle of Tai’erzhuang took place during the Second World War and was an important victory for China over Japan who was trying to invade China at the time. Tai’erzhuang was an old city, situated on strategic railroad and canal junctions. This was the first major victory for Chinese in the war and it broke the myth of Japanese military invincibility. The result was that it was 13h00 before I was done.
On my way back to where I had left the bicycle, I wanted to check the map and discovered that I had left it in the handlebar-phone holder. Arghhhh! I'm such a "loskop." To my utter surprise, it was exactly where I'd left it!! I love China!!! As there was not much time left for cycling, I changed my route and cycled the short distance to the next town via some small country roads. Not a touristy area, by the looks I got! I also discovered that the Grand Canal is still in use after all these years - fantastic stuff.
17 - 18 November – Pizhou – Xuxhou – 80 km
In Pizhou I had a good look at my options as I was coming to the end of my one-month visa and had to extend it or get out of China. The flight tickets to South Africa, where I want to visit after China, seemed to be increasing by the day, reaching its highest around middle December. It looked the better options to fly out at this stage and return to China later in 2017.
I was out of time to reach Shanghai in time for my flight and decided to take the train, something that sounded easier that what it turned out. It was, in fact, better to cycle to the next town, that was much larger, and catch a train there. Off I went and it was a pleasant ride with a slight tailwind, making for easy cycling. Xazhou turned out to be a massive city and not all that attractive either. I cycled straight to the train station where there were plenty of hotels to choose from. I settled for the 7 Days Inn and then it was off to the train station to buy a ticket. I took a soft sleeper, slightly more expensive but I thought it a good idea to be a bit more comfortable.
The following morning I took the bicycle and panniers to the baggage department where, once again, it was weighed and booked in. I paid a bit more to stay in the room until the evening and around 20h00 headed for the train. Once there, I discovered that my train was actually 9h30 in the morning and not in the evening, so I don’t know what all the fuss was about the sleeping car. Fortunately, I could change the ticket to a later train but this time could only get a seat and not a sleeper.
It was a rather uncomfortable ride in a very full train. At around midnight I asked the conductor if there was a sleeper available and I was in luck. There was, at first, much talking over the two-way radio with everyone in the coach looking on at the foreigner now causing such a disturbance. Then I was led off to another coach where I could stretch out until the morning.
19 November - Shanghai
We arrived in Shanghai at the ungodly hour of 5h00 in the morning and the streets were still eerily quiet. I caught a taxi to the hostel in downtown but once there found that they were still closed. There was, however, a night watchman and I could sit in their restaurant area until staff arrived.
Unfortunately, the hostel was fully booked and by that time I had enough and took a room at the hotel around the corner. I never had a burning desire to visit Shanghai but what a pleasant surprise it turned out to be and to think I nearly missed it altogether. I walked the short distance to The Bund, a former concession area and today home to some lovely art deco architecture. Originally, The Bund was the place where most of the concession era trading took place; from rice to opium, it all happened here, it was the “Wall Street” of that time. I walked back via East Nanjing Road where the first department stores in China opened in the 1920s. Today it is a busy pedestrian mall, home to some of the world’s leading fashion names and a massive Apple store.
All that was wonderful but I still had to collect my bicycle from the train station and as it was only about four kilometres away, I took a walk here and cycled back. The search for a bike box started and with the rapid development in China the first three bike shops were long gone. Fortunately, I found a Giant store down the road and arranged with them to box the bike for me the following day. How I hate flying! I will much rather be cycling.