“Travel has a way of stretching the mind. The stretch comes not from travel’s immediate rewards, the inevitable myriad new sights, smells and sounds, but with experiencing first-hand how others do differently what we believed to be the right and only way.”
Day 201 – 16,559km
Beyond the basic questions I get asked on the road such as “Where are you from?” and “Where are you going?”, other common ones are how many km, how many days and how many countries have you visited? I cared far more about these figures at the beginning than I do now.
In the first 60 days of this trip, I covered over 6,000km and went through 12 countries. In the past 140 days, I have covered almost 10,000km and crossed two countries. Which is the real travelling here? Perhaps a bit of both but much more likely to be the latter. Kazakhstan and China are two of the largest countries in the world and I’m pleased to have crossed them both. However, what I’ve found most interesting is not the distances but rather the depth of understanding one gathers from traversing through a whole country over an extended time period.
My last post was about the environmental changes that had such a significant impact on my mental state. It was about the transition from enduring to enjoying and the passing of winter. I purposefully ignored almost all of the other aspect of China, namely the social and cultural distinctiveness.
A Welcome Contrast
Prior to my arrival in Gansu Province (see map above for info), my previous experiences of China had been two visits to Tibet when I was climbing Everest, and one visit to Xinjiang (I will write a post about it in due course I promise). In terms of socio-political thoughts on China, therefore, mine were, quite honestly, contemptuous. I was assured things would change vastly the further east I went. I did have a belief that they couldn’t get much worse than Xinjiang so was reassured on that front.
I said in my last post that part of the joy of cycle touring is witnessing the gradual physical and social transitions. I stand by that but the contrast having crossed the border between Xinjiang and Gansu was quite stark. Having been hassled, stopped and interviewed by the police and internal affairs on a daily basis in Xinjiang, I was free to roam in Gansu. There was no longer barbed wire lining the roads and the era of camping under bridges had thankfully concluded. I took huge gratification the first time I found a secluded spot in the wintery harsh ground of the Gobi Desert. I called a friend in the UK and he could sense the relief as I felt liberated from the harassment. I have not been stopped again by the police since I left Xinjiang.
China should not be judged solely by the 1984-Esq police presence in Xinjiang and Tibet. The wider awareness of mistreatment in both those places, especially the former, does, however, need more worldwide awareness. Yes, they are a big factor because I find it hard to ignore my perceptions of any country that allows such oppression towards their own people but that insight can come another time.
Bustling and Busy
It is a country of over 1.4 billion people, a sort of figure that seems inconceivable until you see the urban areas. I visited the city of Chongqing and, if you include the surrounding metropolis, it has a population of 30 million. Staggering. Seemingly insignificant towns on the map emerge in the distance and one’s location requires double checking because an array of multi-story buildings rise high into the sky representing the home of millions. It’s quite a case study of maximising ground space for the sole purpose of housing a rising population.
A vast percentage of the country is urbanised but the rural areas, although far less obvious in the numbers, still indicate a significant mass of people. Unlike in many places I’ve visited, namely Kazakhstan, where I could cycle for days without seeing any significant settlement, in China, it was constant. One village blending into another, and another, and then blending into a town and then a city. It was an entirely logical sequence but there was almost no let off. The non-highway roads follow the valleys and rivers. Finding a camping spot should have been easy with so much land to choose from but, in reality, turned into quite a creative challenge. Almost every square foot of vaguely flat land was being farmed and represented somebody’s livelihood. I had a few close shaves dashing off into the morning chill without being seen and prepared myself for another round of hide and seek the following evening.
The small towns were bustling and fun. A consistent variety of street food, loud music, shouting, pooping cars and pyrotechnics were the norm. Every town was unrelaxing to cycle through for the foreboding feeling that someone, or something, is about to do an entirely unexpected movement without warning. However, I began to adapt. Again, it could not have been more contrasting to Kazakhstan in winter where there were multiple doors and an apparent dearth of life from the outside but warmth and hospitality within.
This was cycling life in China though. Often I craved the solitude and simplicity of the Kazak Steppe to think and reflect. Instead, I was rarely alone and everything seemed complicated. The famous paradox of feeling alone in a crowd seemed to strike a familiar note. I have fumbled my way through the language barrier since leaving England but in China, it proved a hindrance. My go-to option of Google Translate became troublesome due to the Chinese internet Firewall. From southern Gansu to the Vietnam border, there were sometimes English subtitles underneath street signs but for the first few thousand kms, I remained puzzled. Roundabouts, street signs, shop names, ordering from a menu, food shopping – things that should have been relatively straightforward became regular and unwelcome hurdles to overcome on a daily basis. Add other necessities like adding roaming data to a Chinese SIM card or explaining I needed new brake pads for my bike required even more creative solutions.
I don’t think my sister would forgive me if I didn’t mention the food. And it was chart-topping stuff pretty much the whole way through. Most people wax lyrical about Sichuan food. Much of that stems from the sheer number of tourists that visit there above other parts of China as well, but it was superb. As it was in Gansu, Guizhou, Xinjiang, Guangxi and Chongqing. Whether it was the noodle variations, the range of vegetables available, the street food, pastries or array of spices, it will be hard to top but SE Asia could be a strong competitor! I predominantly lived off fresh fruit (mandarins and bananas mainly) I found in the markets, street food and small cafes. It was cheap, colourful, interesting and varied. When I ventured into a small café, I would stare vacantly at a menu and randomly point at a dish. I never got the same thing twice which made the lottery all the more interesting.
Come On Feel The Noise
So many things kept my mind busy but rarely, and frustratingly, it struggled to relax. If it wasn’t the driving style – manoeuvre, maybe signal, maybe mirror – then it was the regularity and intestine-churning sound of the spitting everywhere. If it wasn’t the fully laden Tuk Tuk drivers going to and from the market, then it was the conversation enacted at least 10 decibels louder than anything I’ve heard. We’ve all got a friend that seems to go tone deaf when speaking on the phone and speak disproportionately loud: it’s that, almost all the time. My only theory for this is closely related to another cultural phenomenon that amused and alarmed me in equal measures: pyrotechnics.
The link being that a lifetime spent in that close proximity to noise and pyrotechnics is also one where it is necessary to speak louder to be heard but also results in reduced hearing. I was fortunate to have a friend who could answer many of my random cultural questions thanks to her living there for a year – thank you, Fran. The simple answer is that in China, fireworks are thought to scare away evil or bad spirits. A further explanation was threefold:
1. Especially during Tomb Keeping Festival, but in fact, all year round, it is common to release fireworks near the grave of an ancestor to wish their spirits peace in the afterlife. Much like we would lay flowers, in China, they use pyrotechnics. Same same but different. It means often the ground near a grave is charred and littered with firebox streamers. An extension of this is that of a funeral which can easily be mistaken for a local carnival, celebration or wedding – nb white is the colour to be worn at funerals. There are no warnings and then suddenly BOOM, the red exploding tape on the side of the road will erupt alongside a few boxes of fireworks. It’s certainly a “pulse-raiser”.
2. Fireworks make an atmosphere more renao which roughly translates as “bustling with excitement”. This could explain the propensity for loudspeakers on top of cars and Tuk Tuks with messages and music. The idea of silent reflection and solitary wandering is a rarity opposed to the norm. This aspect sort of surprised me given the history of Eastern Philosophy that I’ve read so much of. Needless to say, the continued noise and hassle was not, for me at least, the most peaceful, but, as was often the case, I had to remind myself that I was the foreigner in their country.
3. Chinese New Year. It was on 5th February 2019. It was the Year of the Pig and, when I realised that latter fact, it, once again, explained the regularity of pigs heads in the market and whole dead pigs being bathed and washed in villages I pedalled through. Chinese New Year was a lot of fun though and a great time to be in the country. The tradition is to return to the rural areas with your family and the Spring Festival follows. It was a period of smiles, warmth and sunshine as I made my way through Sichuan; the best time I actually had in China. Families of all generations and villages spilt out onto the streets and a rare sense of happiness seemed to be present that I had not witnessed before.
Life in the Zoo
I listened to a remix of the Radiohead song ‘Creep’ by Gamper & Dadoni (Link here). It’s a great remix but the lyrics by Thom Yorke resonated with how I felt people viewed me in parts of China.
I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo.
What the hell am I doing here?
I don’t belong here.
I don’t belong here.
Introvert or extrovert, culturally sensitive or painfully ignorant, socially insecure or totally adaptable. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. It makes us human and makes our characters all the more unique. Perhaps arrogantly, but cycling day after day and the physical challenge was never a major concern when weighing up this trip. Socially, however, I knew it would force me into situations and places where I did not feel comfortable. Those have been some of the hardest and most frustrating aspects of this trip.
Large numbers of people I do not know, and cannot communicate with, staring at me day after day after day is something that will be hard to forget. Having groups of people walk up to me, stare, take a photo without warning, and without asking, every day, was not something I enjoyed at all. It made me feel insecure and unwelcome. I am hyper self-aware enough as it is when people watch me eat (read In Search of Sisu and you’ll understand why) but doing it in a foreign country with chopsticks and inability to communicate was particularly unenjoyable. I know it was never out of malice but it was just so intrusive that I often wanted to escape wherever I was and cycle away. It made me wary about stopping unless it was necessary. Having to do that every day…it was difficult.
Kindness of Strangers
In Kazakhstan, potentially due to the weather but much more likely based around their historic nomadic culture, I was welcomed by strangers, passed onto different people’s homes and stopped regularly by people offering me things to assist my journey. It was truly humbling to be the recipient of this form of hospitality and openness on such a regular basis.
Upon entering China, this came to a halt. In Xinjiang and Gansu, I think I was viewed as such a peculiarity that the thought of offering any assistance was far outweighed by the overwhelming desire to stop and stare. On two occasions, however, further south, the kindness of strangers did come to the fore and brought about a huge morale boost.
First was a simple can of Red Bull but the effort from the two local teenagers to get it to me was immense. They first saw me sat on the side of the road as they pedalled by and I thought nothing of it. When I finally moved about 15 minutes later, they were waiting a mile down the road with a can of Red Bull but, like in the panic of trying to grab a cup a water at marathon feed station, we failed to make a successful transfer. On I continued a little confused whether they wanted me to stop and buy stuff at their shop or simply make a kind gesture. These thoughts came to a halt when they caught up with me (says something about my cycling speed), handed over the can, gave me a thumbs up and turned around. So simple but so powerful.
A second was when I was buying some fried tofu from a street food seller in a small town. The Mum, for no apparent reason, invited me into her home with her family for lunch. There were four generations of us (it was during the Spring Festival) eating rice, tofu, spicy sausage, cabbage, lamb and tea before I was sent on my way with a bag full of fruit. Three-year-old children running around with balloons and great-grandparents looking after them; it was fun to see a family just being. Again, a small gesture that had a big impact.
Even as I write this now, I’m still torn how I view China. I was, and still am, appalled by what’s happening in Xinjiang. Ignoring how I was treated as a lone traveller, the “re-education” of Uighurs in the region is so profoundly wrong ethically and legally that my view of the country was always going to be slightly tainted. I will, however, fondly remember the stunning scenery with its steep valleys, rollercoaster mountain roads and treasure the greenery and warmth it brought me. The barmy fireworks and celebratory spirit around Chinese New Year was a pleasure to be part of in the rural areas and showed a sense of genuine joy that appeared to be lacking so much of the time. The few gestures of kindness from strangers were so unexpected that, they too, will remain with me and continue to give me hope about the inherent goodness of people.
China is a hugely diverse and proud country. I have travelled a long way across it and experienced much but remain hopelessly naïve in so many aspects. There is so much of the country I have not seen with its history, beauty and culture. If we’re talking comfort zones, then socially and culturally, China certainly nudged mine out a bit. Maybe it would have been different if I could speak the language, if I wasn’t alone or if I didn’t have a beard. But truly, I never felt comfortable in the country. I found it absorbing, fascinating, worrying and rewarding but never comfortable and never welcoming.
It was, however, memorable. And if this trip is teaching me anything, and I would like to think it continues to do so, then actually, describing something as memorable goes a long way. Regardless if the memories are joyful, dejected or getting through each day in a state of almost constant confusion. In the words of my favourite, Bob Dylan, “If you want to keep your memories, you first have to live them.”