What I think of when I think of China

Trying to summarize our 100 days in China (not including Hong Kong and Macau) is a tough challenge, but I will try my best.

Firstly when I think of China I think of the size of the country, it’s massive, we all know this, but once you start cycling through it, you realise how ginormous it really is. As we painfully saw what felt like minimal progress each day as we inched our way across the map, we started to wonder what had we let ourselves in for. In the end we covered a grand total of 5,265km (nearly half of our total cycling distance so far). As Andy mentioned before, if we had taken the G30, the longest road in China, from the port we arrived in to where we exited it would have been 4,243km but we had other plans. We wanted to avoid too much cold weather and in doing so we decided to do China in 3 parts. Each one very different and increasingly more fun and beautiful.

G30 from Lianyungang to Khorgas (not our route)

The enormity of such a country, brings great changes in weather, landscape, people, food, etc the list goes on. Our first leg over in the East was a great introduction to learning about China, finding our footing and getting into a rhythm. As it is the most populated area with the highest levels of manufacturing, combining these two things also meant the highest levels of smog we encountered. I’m sure during certain times of the year the conditions improve or deteriorate depending on the weather.

We didn’t have the best weather with quite a lot of rain but as we were staying in hotels every night it wasn’t too bad. So far that doesn’t sound too enjoyable, but on the whole it actually was. We were embracing the chaos and trying to join it rather than go against it. Just like the ducks below.

All the preconceptions we had of this country and people were changing. The worst trait we struggled with was the noise levels, people are so very loud. As I said in the preconceptions blog post, if that’s the worst thing then we’re doing pretty well. People were kind and helpful, food was always delicious, hotels were comfortable and cheap, but we were still keen to get a move on and get to Hong Kong to see Sam, Shell and baby Bowie.

Our second leg, coming out of Macau, we felt happy to be returning to familiar China. The country where anything goes on the roads and we could cycle up the road on the wrong side.

Once we’d managed to get out of the industrialised area of the Pearl river estuary it became far more pleasant. We didn’t need to cover as much ground so we took a more leisurely approach. We took our time to do a few touristy things and enjoyed better weather and nicer views than the first leg.

We even had a day on a golden sandy beach.

It wasn’t long before we would be getting into Vietnam. Then with the unexpected turn of events we headed home to be with family. With changing our plans and needing to get to an airport quickly we were impressed at how efficient and good the train services were. It helped when times were stressful enough.

Our third leg was going to be our longest with the highest expectations. We anticipated beautiful landscapes and big differences in food and people. We were not disappointed. If anything we couldn’t believe some of these places were real. We had the most stunning weather pretty much throughout the whole of this leg. The landscape changed dramatically as we rode north from Laos. At first we thought we would be missing out, not having the time to travel further west towards the Tibetan Plateau where most tourers head to, but we couldn’t have been more wrong. From a few other tourers who were travelling at the same time in that area, they were having rain and much colder weather. From what we’ve read they loved it, but we felt happy with our decision. Sometimes a picture doesn’t do a place justice and we felt this on a few occasions, every day the scenery was breath taking (it needed to be as the climbing was relentless).

I feel lucky to have traveled through Yunnan, Sichuan and Xinjiang Provinces. The people we met were the friendliest we encountered during our time in China. The food was probably the most delicious (but it was all pretty damn good). The scenery and weather by far the best. It was an incredible time that neither of us will forget.

Now for some general thoughts on our time in China. The roads, for the majority of our time, were brilliant. Wide enough to feel safe from the traffic, smooth and well maintained, usually the gradient for climbs and descents were good, but when they were bad they were really bad! We definitely had our fair share of ‘ummm where did the road go’ moments.

Made worse by rain. Luckily the muddy days were only in the first leg of the trip.

We know we will have much harder roads ahead in Central Asia so we are under no illusion that the roads in China were pretty easy to ride on. The traffic in China flows well and we did feel safe riding, apart from when there is a crash or roadworks and all drivers are shortsighted and push forward to try and get ahead. Being cyclists we could usually make our way round and avoid the hours of waiting the other drivers were facing.

We have felt really safe in China. Maybe if we had camped more we might have felt a little vulnerable at times because of the level of noise and interest Chinese people have in foreigners. At first I felt like people were being nosey always coming over staring and asking questions most of which we couldn’t understand. I guess it can feel a little intimidating and of course it’s very un-British to act in this way.

Soon we realised people were just interested in what we were doing and always said great or gave us a thumbs up. As with any new country it takes time to adapt to your new surroundings and accept how things work. It has definitely helped me living in Japan to understand this and I think I would have found this trip much harder had I not lived abroad. Anyway as I have said before, the people of China, I think, are very misunderstood. Judged on preconceptions we have of a nation when most of us have never even visited the country. Andy and I will be telling anyone that will listen how kind and generous Chinese people are. We have loved meeting people from a fair number of Provinces in China, we just wish we could’ve communicated more with them. Gestures and smiles only go so far. Here are just some of the lovely people we met.

The landscape has been phenomenal, ok maybe not so much in the Eastern part (I’m sure it once was). We have seen so many beautiful places that we didn’t know existed here. Most people who come to China visit the main tourist sights over in the East but there is so much more to China. If anyone plans to visit then please add Yunnan and Sichuan to the list. China being China, nothing is untouched. Even as we cycled through the final part to the border there were still buildings, farming, power cables, every corner of this country has some human impact. Mostly this didn’t take too much away from our experience. It also meant that China is a very convenient country to travel through. Just when you need a cold drink to give you an energy boost you can usually find one, a lonely restaurant at the right time or a hotel to rest in. It has definitely all added to the stress free time we’ve had here.

Now I couldn’t not talk about the food. We have eaten well and enjoyed all sorts of dishes. At first we were quite apprehensive about going over to the fridge and pointing at ‘stuff’ but whatever ‘ stuff’ we pointed at was always turned into a delicious meal with as much rice and tea as you needed. The tea, so many delicious types of tea to suit the food or that were famous in the area. As many of my family and friends know I sure like a cuppa, we have definitely made the most of it.

Further West there seemed to be fewer restaurants like this and more with actual menus! Thanks to Andy being able to read a few key dishes and Chinese characters we had lots of great food. We definitely enjoyed the spicier food in Sichuan, famous for it’s peppercorns that leave your tongue and lips tingling (in a good way).

In the West there has been more Uyghur food of kebabs and flat breads, delicious with a cold beer.

The food is very cheap and of a high standard. We will miss the food from China, especially as we have been told food in the coming months won’t be that good.

Not only has food been cheap here but considering we stayed in hotels (of a decent standard) nearly every night this has still been our cheapest country so far. One place they do inflate prices are at the tourist attractions. That didn’t stop us toward the end of our time in China when we did quite a few excellent day trips. We were on a tighter time schedule for the first half of our third leg to get to Leshan and get our visa extended, after that we had plenty of time to take things slower and see some of the sights. You might have guessed I absolutely loved the pandas but the Great Wall was a winner too.

When we did take buses out to the sights it was always Y1 (10p) to any stop, so cheap. We had decided in advance we didn’t want to rush and be doing 100km days every day to cover the distance so we decided to enjoy our time more and get a train. Even the train was fun. Traveling through the desert, seeing the dramatic landscapes.

The highlight of China is a hard one as we experienced so many different things. As you can probably tell the final leg was our favourite. We had a lot of ‘I can’t believe this is real moments’. One being, cycling through the Dado Gorge (the one which was closed to foreigners), another was only yesterday waking up next to Sayram Lake.

Not cycling, but seeing the Pandas and going to the Great Wall were amazing too. Many brilliant memories.

The worst thing has definitely been the smog and dust. We struggled wearing masks so most of the time we didn’t. It was more of a problem in the East but with all the roadworks everywhere there was always dust in our eyes. It was pretty crazy how much dirt came off us when we washed at the end of the day.

We feel quite emotional leaving China, and feel lucky to say this as we’ve read many other blogs where they were so glad to be leaving. I’m sure traveling through at the wrong time of year would have made our experience far less enjoyable, I think (thanks to Andy) our plan worked well with timings. China is an incredible country which has a lot to offer anyone. It’s extremely affordable and we would love to return in the future.

Some numbers…

Total days in China – 100 (Leg 1 – 26, Leg 2 – 15, Leg 3 – 59)

Where we slept – Hotels – 85

Camping – 3

Train – 2

Warm Showers – 6

Total distance – 5,265km

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10 thoughts on “What I think of when I think of China

    • Thanks Matt & Casey. Such a busy place with so much going on to try and summarise. Maybe we’re romanticising a little as the last leg (& what’s freshest in our minds) was just incredible but we love the fact that we’re leaving wanting to come back. Thanks for the message.

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  1. Thanks for this great post. Wow. So good!

    I’m an Aussie living in Shenzhen and am starting to do some bicycle touring. But a little more small-chunks. A couple of provinces at a time. And yes I can confirm that the more mandarin you have, the better the experience. So learn-up and do some other rides!

    My next will be following a similar path from you through Sichuan/Yunnan, but in reverse! Yes call me lazy…. I’ll pick the mostly-downhills over mostly-uphills where i can… hahaha

    I just found you blog and will read more/all with interest.

    Cheers,
    Peter

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    • Better late than never – sorry Peter, I only just spotted your comment. Thanks so much for reading. No doubt it’s quite an experience living in China, we had such a good time there. We’ll definitely return at some point! Enjoy the cycling, Sichuan and Yunnan really does have some of the best scenery.

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