The past week or so has been a nice tour from Nanning, China to Guilin, China. Two metropolises – a word that seems very easy to use here – in the south. I was held up in Nanning for a week before I could depart with another case of travel sickness…that kind of general nastiness that seems to occur every so often to remind you in a bad way that you are far from home. I stayed at a nice hotel in Nanning for a week, practically bed ridden, while my case of travel sickness passed.
Heeding some of the best advice I have gotten during this trip, I stayed for a long time in Nanning to allow the travel sickness to travel to elsewhere, and then I made a plan to take it slow once I got back on the bike in order to prevent a relapse. I knew that I must get to Wuhan by November 16 in order to meet my friend George – coincidentally, this is also my father’s birthday (who is also named George – happy birthday Dad!). There was no way that I would make it to Wuhan from Nanning on 20-30 mile days in a week. That is okay – I took this as my perfect opportunity to have an experience with the much-publicized rail system in China. My plan was to make it as far north as possible, and then catch a train to Wuhan in order to arrive at McDonald’s by noon tomorrow to meet George for our journey to Beijing, roughly 700-800 miles north of Wuhan along highway 107… if memory, calculations and Google Maps are accurate. I am very excited for this meeting, and for the journey to follow – cold, rainy, snowy, grey, windy, and unpleasant though it may be. It will be great to share the company of George the Cyclist for a few hundred miles on the road, to do some wild camping in China with the master of the craft. I have been reading, when possible, George’s accounts of his own tour through China thus far, which include stories of sleeping in small patches of trees, under bridges, and even in a cemetery or two during weather of all kinds. I suppose there is a certain logic to camping in a cemetery when you are on the verge of death on a bicycle tour. It makes your burial that much easier when the time comes.
We will freeze our asses off I am sure, but it is going to be an adventure. That is all tomorrow though – there is still a bit of story to be told about the China I have seen leading up to today.
Up to this point I have ridden for roughly 350-400 miles in China since crossing from Vietnam at Pingxiang. Roughly speaking, there are 3 worlds here, but once I fly out from Beijing on the 26th (roughly speaking) I am sure that I will have discovered more. First, there is the world of farmers, who work almost entirely by hand. In that world, there are somewhat narrow roads running through quiet country. Roads are moderately crowded and under constant construction just like everything else here. Water buffalo, motor-tricycles carrying cargo, and bicycles ply the highways along with a constant traffic of dump trucks carrying the gravel, dirt, sand and rocks to support the ongoing process of paving the roads that run through the farm country. The farmers themselves wear conical bamboo hats, and somewhat rugged clothing to describe it over simply. A lot of people walking around on the highways. Foot-powered grass cutting machines are used by pairs of farmers to make small conical hay stacks. An amazing amount of labor is done by hand – everybody who is on foot is carries a pole over their shoulder that has a bucket or a basket hung from either end. Heavy loads (e.g. sand) are suspended from the middle. Two people carry one bag.
The second world that exists is a kind of medium-sized city (50,000 or so) to support the farms around it. Very square concrete buildings, wide concrete streets. The cities feel as though they were built instantaneously: everything looks the same, all the same age. Big brick apartment complexes on the outskirts house the people. All of it seems to lack character at first, but you do notice stuff like scooters with hello kitty stickers, gangs of kids wearing pleather jackets with manicured nails – male and female – and other signs that it isn’t this lifeless Brave New World that it initially seems. It is just that the buildings themselves are generic. It seems that there are enough people here that, if a system had not been devised to construct buildings fast, that there might, simply, not be enough buildings!! Perhaps there wasn’t enough time to manufacture character into some facets of Chinese life (i.e. the newest phase of infrastructure). In every corner of these medium sized rural cities, you see welding shops, tool shops, small noodle shops, farm equipment repair shops, small banks (titles like “Agricultural Bank of China” or something similar).
Finally, there are the metropolises themselves. These cities could be anywhere… They could be in Europe, in Japan, in the United States. Right now in Guilin, I know that the average person makes a lot less money than a European citizen or an American, but that has not stopped people from developing a city with huge bridges, dazzling neon lights at night (and in the day), jumbotron TV screens in the plazas, and so on. You can buy iPhones, plasma screen TVs, and laptops from the stores if you want to. People here swing the lifestyle by a combination of rising income and creativity.
The couples that I saw in the countryside riding motorcycles in pairs, both wearing hard hats, carrying pieces of aluminum surely have their counterparts in Guilin. They save money by riding electric bicycles rather than driving cars, by doing their own home repairs, and by doing things that I would not think of because I did not grow up in China. What it adds up to is that families here can live lifestyles that are fairly similar to western lifestyles and that they can do it with a fraction of the income. I also saw this couple:
Jules and Jess are making their way around the world as well. They will cover 30,000Km over the course of 1.75 years (or so) on their way back to Australia. We crossed paths near Liuzhou, China where we had the chance to chat for about 10 mins. about our journeys. A roadside meeting with bicycle tourists is always a nice encounter, and this was too! It had me thinking for awhile, wanting to ask all kinds of questions, right up until I met the Solar Cowboy an hour later!! They gave me their Lonely Planet guidebook to China. I gave them my map of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam – a great trade for both parties I would say because they got rid of about 15lbs. of book and gained a map of their upcoming route, while I gained reading material to last for . . . ever.
Lang Lung (??) was a Chinese bicycle tourist headed in the opposite direction – I met him an hour after I met Jules and Jess. I am not an astronomer, but my stars must have been in alignment that day or something…because to have four bicycle tourists come together in one day is quite rare. Lang Lung had a solar panel mounted on the top of his cowboy hat which, I assume, was used to charge his legs. Lang Lung spoke about as much English as I did Chinese, so communication was based on smiles, laughs and photographs. I gave him my map of Nanning which I had gotten at the border of Vietnam. Hopefully his trip is going well!
All three of these worlds exist in a country more vast than I had initially realized. In the east, China has Muslim population near the borders of Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan in the frontier cities and villages, the largest of which seems to be Kashgar, though there are several others to the north as well. All of them are, of course, undergoing rapid development as well.
There is also Tibet which is now accessible – assuming that you have the permit – by rail from Beijing. 48 hours and about $60U.S. will get you from Beijing to Lhasa on a train that runs over permafrost on the world’s highest railroad over sections of track whose foundations must be cooled by massive refrigeration tubes in order to keep the permafrost frozen during summer months. The coaches have oxygen piped in so that passengers do not suffer from altitude sickness during the ride.
There will be high speed rail service linking Guangzhou (giant metropolis just N of Hong Kong) with several of the other major cities in China within the next five years – travel times will be about four hours. In other words – anywhere in S China to anywhere else in less than 4 hours by high speed train, within the next five years. Assuming that your destination is a major city.
It is, on the whole, a can-do society. When I walked into the Rural Agricultural Bank of China with a $100 bill and asked to exchange it – (not a service offered by this branch) – a bit of confused conversation resulted, with me writing down the figure 675 (the approximate number of Yuan that a $100 bill is worth) and showing a teller the symbol for “exchange” on my iPod, as well as my empty wallet to try to build sympathy for my cause.
After a moment, the teller took out his own wallet and debit card, handed it to the other teller, and she withdrew 675 Yuan from his personal account. He then took the $100 bill and put it in his own wallet, and handed me the 675 Yuan. Problem solved, the line of people behind me was moving once again and I was on my way, cash in hand. Good will all around – I was overwhelmed with his willingness to help me out, but also very impressed by the fact that a bank teller would actually do that. That he would even think to do that. But China is like that. There is kind of a national mentality . . . a kind of a buzz . . . that you feel here that people are just like “do it do it do it do it now now now now now…..” Or maybe I am just feeling that, and I am choosing to see things that emphasize that. Whichever the case, it is very easy to see those things in China.
It is kind of like when you walk through a job site, seeing the construction of a building, and you think, “wow…cool…it might be interesting to build a house or something one day…” China is that way, except that it is kind of like a job site on the scale of a nation. The biggest nation in the world. And you see it all working really well, and you see it on every scale, from a lone farmer working on an irrigation ditch to a series of 10 cranes simultaneously building 10 new apartment buildings at 2a.m. as they work ‘round the clock to expand a metropolis. I think that the fascinating thing about China is that, although nation building (hah! whatever that means…) may be happening in other places, you can really see it in China. It is very easily visible both on the ground to your eyeballs and in the news.
China now has its own reconnaissance drone aircraft. The airplanes are Chinese productions from start to finish – designed and built in China. China also has female pilots in its Air Force as well after it started recruiting female pilots a few years ago. It also has a lot more control of the press than other nations – and perhaps I fall a bit prey to that in thinking, “Wow…China=awesome.” The two annoyances to travelers – and locals – in China as far as I can tell, are squat toilets and internet censorship. This means that it is not possible to access large portions of the internet – including blogger, twitter, facebook, chunks of wikipedia, and anything else that Chinese police are concerned might lead to dissent. Paradoxically, it is the censorship itself that is leading to dissent. Whatevs…not a huge amount of dissent… I certainly have not seen any resistance while here. Nobody seems to be pulling me aside and ranting the way they would in the Middle East, the way they do in the U.S.A. There is, doubtless, resistance – but I am not your expert about its nature or about where to find it. Humorously, the most scathing, acid material I have found has been in the Lonely Planet Guide to China which is rants about the lack of resistance and makes a tiring number of stabs at the communist regime and its destruction of various architectural wonders during the 20th century. Again – I am not your best source of info here. But the Lonely Planet seems to be fairly disappointed by the lack of resistance. Then again, sometimes the Lonely Planet is not exactly your best source of info either.
At the last time I checked, they had not yet censored www.seizetheworld.com, which is good. We’re small enough to fly under the radar. Notwithstanding China’s new fleet of reconnaissance drones. I suspect that, in time, internet censorship will go away in China. The kids who I see cruising around on their mopeds and scooters, listening to headphones, holding cigarettes with their perfectly manicured nails in pleather jackets – i.e. the future ruling class of China…I think? – is not a group that I could imagine censoring the internet. Afterall – these are probably the very rebels who maintain facebook profiles under the nose of the Chinese Internet Police. And I met one such person who asked me about the bicycle tour, and after a few minutes of conversation, she told me that she had a facebook profile and that she would add me as a friend. I said, “awesome! I will definitely look out for the request!” Not, of course, remembering, until later that I had no idea how to access facebook in China. It seems likely that it is only all of the Chinese people in China under 25 who know how to break through censorship to access facebook, chat rooms, online gaming, etc. in China. I am, unfortunately, not among those millions. So – facebook will have to wait until I reach Japan. In a way, China is fun, because it is kind of like a great puzzle. Few people speak English once you leave the tourist track outside the cities – in the cities it is now quite easy to get onto the Lonely Planet hostel/restaurant route and meet tons of English-speaking Chinese people. This is amazing to me, because it means that travel in China can, if you so desire, be just as easy and luxurious as travel in Europe. Perhaps more so in ways. It is certainly cheaper. Once you leave this track, however, few people in China speak English, and written Mandarin is utterly different from English. Thanks to the Public Security Bureau, you get to work on the puzzle without help from large chunks of the internet. The nice thing is that you are not deprived of basic cyclist comforts such as super-cheap hotels and noodles, smooth pavement, etc. So, as you work on this great, fascinating puzzle, you can at least do so in the comfort of an environment that is an enjoyable place to be.
So – the ride from Nanning to Guilin was a ride full of these thoughts. A relatively easy cruise on good pavement for the most part. I stayed at hotels at night. I did not camp at all, but found hotels – they cost about $7 or $8 U.S. here, and during my last 2 or 3 weeks on the road in Asia, I am really, really taking it as easy as I can especially after my case of travel sickness. I have continued to work my way through various Isaac Asimov books on my iTouch – Pebble in the Sky, The Stars like Dust, Foundation’s Edge, Foundation and Empire – good for reading in a place where conversation is rare and where I have been sick and/or tired during much of the past two weeks. I camped on my first night in China on a sugar cane farm, but that was only one of 2 or 3 nights spent camping since my arrival in Bangkok a couple of months ago. I also figure that it’s best to play it safe…there are lots of sugar cane farms here that offer camping possibilities, but I am concerned that an itinerant Panda Bear might wander off the reservation in search of some more interesting cuisine and decide that I might make a good meal. During the coming month as I make my way to Beijing, and then to Tokyo and around Japan, I am focused on staying healthy and making it back to Seattle in good shape. And alive.
On November 26, I meet my friend Ian, who will fly in to Tokyo, and then we will enjoy a tour around the Japanese home islands – likely from Tokyo to Kyoto! Ian is a good friend and also a director of the Seize The World Foundation, which makes this doubly exciting, because he has been a great help along the way, and now it will be amazing to be able to share some of the adventure on the road with him after so much work on the project from afar! We then fly back to Seattle together where I will meet my Aunt Betsy and her husband David to stay for a week. More details coming on all of that…