My first challenge to the authorities occurred on the outskirts of Qingdao. I pedalled past the no-cycling signs onto the wide-shouldered highway that led to the new Jiaozhou Bay bridge that spans over 20 km across the bay and onto the Shanghai road. As I approached the toll-gate, the uniforms tripped over themselves to get out of their booths and block my entrance. Arms flailing they cornered me and crossed their forearms indicating there was no way on Confucious' green earth that I was going to get past. A young, spectacled girl emerged from behind the taller young men and started to explain in good English that bicycles weren't allowed to cross the bridge. I pulled out my map, explained where I was going and asked for an alternative route, the only option being to cycle around the entire bay and add an extra 50 km onto the journey, which I was hoping to avoid. There was much discussion and questionning. Where are you going? Shanghai. No way! More discussions and pointing at the national road on the map that I should have been following. Well this way is much quicker so you can go this way but don't tell anyone. And with that I passed by the barrier and was sent off with waves, smiles and shouts of good luck onto a brand new highway across the bay.
With my first thirty-day visa ticking away, a tailwind and the tabular agricultural rice baskets of Shandong and Jiangsu provinces stretching ahead of me to the south, the cycling was fast and easy and I covered almost 800 km in the first six days cycling. Even the busy highways were fine to cycle on, with generally a very wide shoulder and plenty of other people pedalling along and acoustic motorbikes gliding silently past with their battery-powered motors. Less silent were the buses and trucks that use phenomenally loud air-horns to plough their way through the lesser mortals. And everywhere I was met with stares and sometimes smiles. One evening in the town of Guanyun, the owner of the binguan where I was spending the night, treated me to dinner with the family and insisted I kept pace with the stiff rice-based spirit he kept filling my glass with. After an hour's interrogation through an online translator about my income and my views on communism versus democracy we drove down to the People's Square, narrowly missing many cyclists and pedestrians enroute. In light of the full moon the city's plaza took on a serene look, the bland unpainted concrete softened by the street lights and the rubbish hidden in the shadows. People were dancing and a couple of brave souls tried to teach me before realising it was a lost cause. The hotel owner was very enthusiastic and as he grabbed whichever lady would dance with him, I wandered over to a group of traditional musicians who had a huqin and sanxian (Chinese lute) and a lady was accompanying them.
In Chuzhou, the birthplace of the darling revolutionary Zhou Enlai, my arrival apparently appeared on the radar of the local authorities and within an hour a couple of plainclothes officers were standing by a tree opposite the hotel I was staying in looking pretty suspicious. As I returned to the hotel I was cornered by a serious looking man in his fifties and a young girl who spoke flawless English and I was asked to show my documents with all the details carefully noted along with questions about where I had come from and where I was going.
Leaving Chuzhou the following morning there was no sight of the police and I headed south out of town along the Grand Canal, the world's longest at almost 1800 km and a waterway that opened up a link between the Yangtze and the Yellow river, the latter in the thirsty northern central plains and the river itself is now so stretched that it fails to flow to the sea over 200 days a year. While barges still ply the canal in their droves with loads of coal, gravel and sand predominating, the canal is also the proposed means to transfer water from the Yangtze up to the northern urban centres of Beijing and Tianjin in a controverial scheme that is a continuation of ambitious hard engineering projects to solve environmental limits that the rapidly developing eastern provinces keep breeching. The pace of growth in the towns that I have passed through is astonishing, with most of the urban areas looking like a stage set in the works. I stop for lunch of noddles and eggs and not for the first time in the past few days has my money been refused, the owner asking for a photo instead.
On the outskirts of Yangzhou I get lost and end up arriving at a little village in the dark where the three guesthouses refuse to rent a bed for the night to a foreigner, that they are not registered to host. While most places I have approached are happy to take a chance, no one would here and so I get directions for Yangzhou again and head off on a thirty kilometre night ride. On the way into the city, three young guys on motorbikes pull up and offer to bring me to the hostel I am looking for and an hour later and with 213 km on the clock for the day, I get a dorm bed for 20 yuan (2 euro) and meet the only other traveller staying in the hostel, Italian Alessandro, and we go for a meal of noodles and grilled vegetables at a nearby place where the young owner chats to us in English, while we compare our first impressions of China.
The next day I cross the Yangtze river by ferry and ride to Nanjing, the former capital of China. I spend a couple of days thinking about the routes ahead, trying to decide whether to go west or south and compromising by going nowhere, taking another day off to wash the dirt and dust off Rocinante and ponder the memorial for the Nanjing massacre when the Japanese army killed an estimated 300,000 people in 1937 during their occupation of the country.
Pedalled: 51,544 km