Saturday, 24 December 2011

84. On the Red River: Christmas in Hanoi

The last days in Guangxi took us along national road G322, cruising through a landscape of rolling cane fields by day and camping under a couple of solitary stars by night, punctuated by short and friendly encounters with people harvesting the cane or manning the food stalls. Twenty kilometres before the rather lively border town of Ping Xiang, we were stopped by the roadside when a Japanese cyclist, Naotsugu, rolled up behind us. He'd passed us by two days previously but he didn't spot us and for some reason I hesitated to shout, and he sailed on by. Somewhere along the road we'd overtaken him and today our paths crossed again. We rode on together to town and shared a room for our final night in China.

By midday on Sunday 18th December, we'd covered the final 20 km to the frontier and passed through the impressive colonial-era archway at Youyiguan Pass that had separated French-ruled Indochina from the Middle Kingdom. An imposing modern metal edifice marked the official end of our stay in China and at the last checkpoint the stone-faced guard turned and looked at us as we pushed our bikes into Vietnam and gave a warm smile and a child-like wave. Another friendly official processed us into Vietnam and we rolled down to the frenetic border town of Dong Dang, with motorbikes ferrying large cardboard boxes that were stacked precariously on the pillion seat and screamed downhill in a kamikaze attack on pedestrians and free-range fowl.

Before steering towards the capital of Hanoi, we decided to spend a couple of days exploring the hills and backroads around Langson province and we headed northeast to That Khe along Highway 4. Built during the colonial period and closely following the border with China, Route Coloniale Quatre was the lifeline linking the garrison towns from the coast, to Langson and up to Cao Bang and later became the site of important battles between the French forces and the Viet Minh in the late 40s and early 50s. The most important of these happened on 3rd September 1949 when a convoy of French forces (the term French including in this instance North and West Africans, pro-French Vietnamese and foreign legion units as well as French themselves) was attacked by the Viet Minh guerrillas who had been perfecting their ambush strategies along the mutilated limestone landscape and densely forested slopes in the previous 24 months. The 100-truck convoy was attacked on the last leg of its route to Cao Bang and over half of the vehicles were destroyed. When relief troops arrived the following day, only four wounded soldiers were found alive.

The RC 4 ambush was just the climax of many ambushes on this road but it marked a turning point in French tactics that led to bases being established that were supplied by air rather than the treacherous land routes, but ultimately were to fail too, most famously at the battle of Dien Bien Phu where the Viet Minh demonstrated to the rest of the watching world that it was possible for guerrilla units to transform themselves into regular army units and take on colonial forces and achieve victory, albeit with vital support from a newly Communist China.

Last days in Guangxi province 

 Leaving China at Youyiguan Pass border gate into Vietnam

On Highway 4, first day in Vietnam 

Getting Christmas dinner ready 

After a couple of quiet and relatively peaceful days in the hills of Langson, we left our room in the industrial city of Thai Nguyen yesterday morning with tender heads after having been invited by a group of men to dinner at their table the previous evening. Through an almost impenetrable language barrier we toasted our thimble-sized ceramic cups of free-flowing rice wine to anything and everything whilst feasting on a wide-ranging assortment of fried crustaceans, pork, tofu and vegetables. It didn't help our empty stomachs and gradually fading heads that rice is apparently reserved for the post-toasting phase of the meal when the damage has already been done. Concentration was quickly forced back, however, on the busy ride into Hanoi with ear-splitting horns on overtaking trucks and buses keeping us focused on the narrow road as motorbikes weaved past in an endless stream of dust and bedlam and the occasional English vulgarity. Traffic ground to a halt on the outskirts of the city and our two wheels once again proved themselves at being much more versatile and efficient as we steered our way through the gridlock and over the Red River on Long Bien bridge and into the mayhem of the colonial-era Old Quarter streets where we are taking a few days off.

On the streets of Hanoi...

Merry Christmas!

Hanoi, Vietnam
Pedalled: 54,828 kilometres

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

83. Tailwinds in Guangxi

Stepping groggily into the early morning darkness of Guilin, after a 12-hour journey on the sleeper bus up from Shenzhen and Hong Kong, a blast of cold wind and rain quickly had us digging for warmer clothes. The city wasn't the warm one I had left just ten days previously to go down to Zhuhai with Mark and then meet Ellie in Hong Kong. In our absence, the wintry northeast monsoon had arrived. The rest of the day was spent preparing for our departure the following morning and chatting with an international consortium of cyclists at the hostel. Our warmshowers host Phil in Hong Kong had described Guilin and Yangshuo quite accurately as China for beginners. International and domestic tourism has been embraced in this region of the country with its beautiful karst landscape being the primary draw card.

Ellie's first day back on the bike marked the end of a five month sabbatical from her Brookes saddle and barring occasional forays across downtown Tokyo and then a tentative return to cycling in Norwich and Brighton, it has been a more or less continuous break from her Surly Long Haul Trucker since we rolled into Sandra and Nigel's front yard in Vancouver in early July. While a combination of physiotheraphy, her mother's cooking and the odd medicinal pint of ale ensured her broken elbow a swift recovery, Ellie developed a frozen shoulder in her injured arm while she was undergoing physiotheraphy. It's a painful condition that is generally treated with a combination of analgesics and physical theraphy. While cycling itself is not necessarily too painful, any sudden jolts can cause a lot of pain. And since what appears as a beautiful road on a map in China can become a free for all mudfest and rocky horror show in reality, it was vital that our initial route be carefully researched. Once we had porridged and packed and with Ellie downing a couple of preemptory painkillers, we set off from Guilin in our convoy of six with Jonathon and Cynthia from Canada and Maarten and Lina from the Netherlands. I hadn't looked into the road we took and unfortunately, despite being a beautiful karst landscape of conical peaks, it also turned into the roughest road I'd witnessed in China and we bounced our way along the ever deteriorating rocky road and finally made Xing Ping an hour after nightfall. Ellie suffered a lot that afternoon and for her not to say I've had enough or get the next bus back to Hong Kong says a lot about her determination to persist with this cycling folly as well as the incomprehensible timetables.

We spent the next three days in the Yangshou area, hiking a river, floating back down it, and doing unloaded forays into the pictuesque surrounding valleys where the water buffalo grazed on the cut rice stalks and farmers prepared the intricate dykes and channels that would fill their now empty paddy fields with water when the rains come again.

Fortunately the roads improved as we were blown southwest from Yangshuo, bound for Guangxi's provincial capital of Nanning, we covered the few hundred kilometres in five days riding and a rest day in Laibin. There were some bumpy backroads through the cane covered hillsides of cental Guangxi but both Ellie and her shoulder appear to be settling into life back on the bicycle. Once we collect our passports from the Vietnam consulate tomorrow afternoon, the end of this part of China is just 200 km away as we head for a communist Christmas in Hanoi. I'm not sure I'll be shedding any tears as we get stamped out but it has been a fascinating couple of months and while many aspects of culture and politics are, of course, as inscrutable as when I arrived it has been a wonderful insight into how life in eastern and southern China is evolving at this important period in the country's history, where the pace of change is so fast in many respects and yet so stagnant in others. The western expanses are calling to be pedaled but we'll have to wait for a warmer climate, both phyiscally and politically, if we are to cross through Tibet anytime soon.

Nanning, Guangxi, PRC
Pedalled: 54,267 km

Monday, 28 November 2011

82. Farther along China's backroads: from Hunan to Guizhou and into Guangxi

"A peasant must stand a long time on a hillside with his mouth open before a roast duck flies in." - a Chinese proverb quoted by Paul Theroux (1988) Riding the Iron Rooster

Three weeks ago and my last day in Changsha. I meet up again with Phoenix and Diana, a couple of girls whom I had met the previous weekend through Canadian Mike. Together with a couple of their friends we walk along the promenade that overlooks the much depleted Xiangjiang river. A long dry spell since the start of the year and excessive reliance on the river to supply local domestic and industrial needs has led the river to fall to a record low level. The foundations of the bridge that span the wide alluvial plain are in clear sight, protruding from the dessicated river bed in which they are bed. A rusting hulk is tied up to the bank beneath the recently constructed temple built to honour one of China's most revered poets - the Tang dynasty bard Du Fu, who died in the city in 770 A.D. Large red and yellow banners are tied to the side of the vessel while a recorded message is broadcast on a crackling loudspeaker and lambasting local authorities for failing to deal with the situation of declining water levels.

A few hours later, Mark arrives into Changsha airport from Denver and a few short hours of sleep after that and we're on our way out of Changsha. Our first few days riding together takes us westwards across Hunan province, mostly along the S308 that bisects the province in an unbroken but also often unsealed line. Soon after leaving Ningxiang we pass through coal mining areas where the presence of modern vehicles is often the only addition to a centuries old Dickensian scene of a black-coated earth. Red-brick coal stacks stand on surrounding slopes, bellowing acrid smoke into the damp air and ensuring the smog is hanging thickly around us is constantly replenished as our tyres find their way through the black sludge on the road.

Over the next ten days, however, as we pedalled farther west across Hunan and then into Guizhou and Guangxi provinces, the roads generally became quieter and the scenery more impressive as we had  friendly encounters with the Dong ethnic minority who live in the hills of south eastern Guizhou and northern Guangxi.

Two weeks and around 1100 km after leaving Changsha, we pedalled into Guilin city in northern Guangxi. I left Rocinante in the care of a hostel there and Mark and I took an overnight bus down to Zhuhai, where Mark was working for a few days before flying back to the States. Last Tuesday I walked across the border into Macau and spent the morning there before catching the ferry to Hong Kong and meeting Ellie at the airport. A warmshower's host, Yorkshireman Phil, has hosted us for the past few days while we got our new Chinese visas processed and had a gander around Hong Kong. Tomorrow morning we'll cross back into mainland China and go back to Guilin to continue on our southerly trajectory.

Tuen Mun, Hong Kong S.A.R, China
Pedalled: 53,696 km

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

81. Old cyclists never die, they just fade away

Over the past three years there have been several cyclists mentioned here, some met only for a day or an evening, others for a week or months or who knows how long! Those few regular readers who have been braving it out at this obscure corner of the blogosphere since the early days might be curious to find out what happened to those with whom I have shared the road, spaghetti a la spam and my tent with.

Recently returned from a cycling trip to Cuba, I got a reply from Kirsty to one of my forum posts, about cycling through Europe shortly before I left home. Autumn was arriving to Edinburgh and Kirsty was hoping to flee south with her comprehensive Oxford English-Spanish dictionary in tow. We met in Santander and stayed with my first couchsurfing hosts before setting off on a cake-fuelled journey across the northern Spainish mountain ranges, following fellow pilgrims into Santiago de Compostela, where Kirsty and I parted ways and she returned to Scotland to continue implementing government policies on sustainable transport. A couple of months later I got a message saying that she had been cycling to work as usual when a 32-ton truck ran over herself and the bike. Another few inches and she wouldn't have survived but as it was her leg had received the majority of the injuries and two years of operations and physiotheraphy were to follow where Kirsty was gradually able to begin walking unaided and ultimately begin a very gradual return to cycling, the pyschological impact of the accident lasting as long as the physical injuries. We caught up with Kirsty in southern Mexico for a couple of days earlier this year.

Already cycling partners from a month long tour of the Atlas mountains and Draa valley in Morocco in 2004, my cousin Mark arrived into Lisbon from Denver and we rode the final Iberian leg over to Tarifa, before I took the ferry to Tangiers. At that time the end point of the journey was to be somewhere in west Africa and one day on a quiet Andalusian road I remember telling him that I rather liked this cycling lark and whether he thought I should commit career suicide and keep on pedalling. As one of the more responsible members of the clan, with a secure job and a nice house, I valued his opinion. "Hell yes" was his reply. Recently Mark had planned to join us in Japan but first had to bail out at the last minute after a leg infection forced him to cancel his trip. A few days later Ellie broke her arm. You would think I'd been praying for solitude. Mark is due to join me here in Changsha in three days time to tour Hunan, Guizhou and Guangxi provinces together for a couple of weeks.

Perhaps in every journey of this nature, there comes a point when it seems like a good idea to go home, or go somewhere else, but forget about cycling. My moment came after just two week's into Morocco when I sat at the edge of the Sahara in the oasis town of Erfoud, thinking that I'd had enough. The first couple of weeks had been a shock to the system, the solitude of an alien language and culture were threatening rather than provoking curiousity and over the first couple of weeks as I moved south over the Middle Atlas and into the desert region I gradually felt more apprehensive about spending so much time ahead alone and pedalling the remote route ahead across the desert to west Africa. By the following morning I woke up with a resolve to find a cheap ticket out of Marrakesh and on my way to the internet I met Gernot again. We had met the evening before and had some food together. Although in his late fifties Gernot showed no sign of the middle-aged spread and ate a spartan diet of olives and figs as he covered a couple of hundred kilometres a day on his lightweight bicycle tour of the country. A veteran of the hippy trail to the Himilayas in the sixties and seventies, Gernot listened to me over a sweetbomb of mint tea at breakfast as I outlined the reasons why I thought I should go home. He talked about his own experiences in Asia as a young man and the inspiration he had from his hiking through various parts of the Himilayas for months at a time and now life as a husband, father and business owner where he could only hope to come away for a couple of weeks each year on his pedalling adventures. He pointed at my still largely blank notebook and suggested that it would be a shame not to fill it. Sometimes we meet the right person at just the right moment. I sent Gernot a postcard when I arrived to Cape Town.

Daren and Tatjana appeared out of the sand in southern Morocco and together we spent six weeks crossing "the biggest sand pit in the world" and into tropical west Africa. A week or so after we teamed up we were on the desolate highway about 80 kilometres short of the Moroccan (Western Saharan) border crossing with Mauritania when Daren was knocked off his bike by a passing truck that was being towed by another. A few kilometres on was the last settlement before the border and it consisted of a small hotel, restaurant and petrol station. The newly appointed doctor had just graduated from medical school in Casablanca and regarded his penance stoically, counting the days when he would be able to return to a proper position back in Morocco. He offered Daren some aspirin, the only medicine available. As a nurse, Tati was acutely aware of the risks from the symptoms that Daren was feeling and it was clear that Daren should be checked out further. So the following morning we stuck out our thumbs and hitched a ride in a beat-up old Mercedes with a friendly Mauritanian guy heading back up north, the 300-odd kilometres to Dakhla and the nearest hospital. At the military hospital in Dakhla, Daren was given some pain killers and anti-inflammatories but the doctors felt that his head injury was otherwise not too serious and after a few days rest we were back on the bikes. Daren and Tati continued on and arrived back in the UK last year having circumnavigated the world the pedally way. They had opened a new culinary world to me in utilising local ingredients for impressive one pot stews as well as instilling the value of a fundamentalist approach to wild camping.

German Sven had joined the three of us during our journey south across the Sahara and continued on through some of west Africa's most troubled countries. He returned to Germany for a couple of years and his dormant blog started to send me updates again recently as he left Europe for the Middle East and the crossing to Asia. We may meet on the road.

And then there was Piotr. Having met initially in Mauritania, then again at the Guinea embassy in Dakar, we agreed to meet for Christmas in Guinea. Unfortunately the Guinean president died and the military stepped in to take over the morning I was due to enter the country, being alerted by the BBC world service as I ate my breakfast in Guinea Bissau. So I went around Guinea, through western Senegal into Mali and didn't hear from Peter. A month later he missed me by twenty minutes when I left Mali's capital Bamako. A couple of week's after that and still unaware he was anywhere nearby, a couple of men pulled up in a battered car on a road leading into Burkina Faso's capital of Ouagadougou and told me to sit and wait for my friend, he would be coming down the road. Who was this friend? I had spent most of my first week in Burkina in a toilet and I didn't recall too many friends that would be coming down the road. Fifteen minutes later, a dirty Polish cycling shirt rolled into view. As we sat in the shade of a tree in a small village, while young kids chased giddy goats around, I asked Peter what he thought about cycling to South Africa together and for the next six months we crossed central Africa and reached Namibia. We planned to split for a few days while Peter headed to the coast at Swakopmund and I took a more direct route to Windhoek and a few days later, when Peter didn't show up at the appointed hour I headed on across the Kalahari into Botswana, leaving a message for him. I didn't think it unusual not to hear from him, email was a penance he avoided at all costs, apart from essential communication with home and to let his patient girlfriend know that he was still alive. Months later though I received a message from him explaining how he had broken his foot on his way to Swakopmund and a farmer had taken him in and made him rest and then given him work. When he finally cycled down to Cape Town, his bike was finished and he had decided to return to Poland. We exchange messages about once a year and the last time his girlfriend was expecting a child. If we go back through Poland we'll drop by and say hello.

Peter and I met Rune in Cameroon's capital, Yaounde, as we played the visa game. Rune was a genuine Norwegian giant who had started his journey in Bolivia where he had been working at an orphanage and decided to go cycling and fundraising for it. I made a note about the orphanage in Cochabamba and Rune told me to contact him if I made it to the Bolivian city. A year later I would find myself staying there for a month and then meeting Ellie a couple of days before I started cycling again. When I met Rune he had already been cycling two years, including crossing Canada in the winter and he'd come through some of the more troubled parts of west Africa with some good stories. He hoped to catch up with us in Angola but he wanted to go further inland via the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which I was happy to avoid in the rainy season as well as the unstable security situation in many of the provinces at the time. Unfortunately Rune was there at the same time as a couple of his fellow countrymen were on trial, accused of mercenary activities and diamond smuggling and in one of the areas he went through the local authorities decided to arrest him when they saw his Norwegian passport and then beat him quite badly, including breaking his hearing aid during one beating. A couple of weeks later, staff at the Norwegian embassy managed to secure his release and he was flown home, his first visit in several years.

The longest surviving comrade on the road will be back out in three weeks time, 14 months after we started pedalling up those steep Andean hills out of Medellin in central Colombia.

Changsha, China

Friday, 28 October 2011

80. Westwards across the Middle Kingdom

Zhongguo, as most Chinese people call home, consists of two Chinese characters that translate to Middle Kingdom - a term that originated during the early Zhou dynasty when rulers believed they sat at the centre of the civilised world. According to historian John Keay, it must have come as quite a shock to the elite of Han dynasty around 100 BC to learn from the government-appointed explorer, Zhang Qian, that there were in fact other "great states" beyond the mountains that had developed writing systems and similar systems of living and commerce. The Middle Kingdom was no longer the centre of the world. Two millenia later and home to one in six of us, zhongguo is back centre-stage in terms of the pivotal position it occupies in achieving stability on a broad range of globally important issues. Since Chairman Mao's war on nature during the hey days of Chinese communism, when disastrous strategies that were adopted in the name of socialist economics during the Great Leap Forward, resulted in mass starvation and millions of deaths, a utilitarian attitude towards the environment and natural resources has persisted for the past half-century with economic development being the goal at no matter what cost to the environment.


The Yangtze river is the principal artery that quenches the thirst of eastern China with water from the Tibetan plateau flowing across the country to the delta region that is home to one in twenty people on the planet and forty per cent of China's economy. Although I followed the river's southern bank for several hundred kilometres upstream from Nanjing, the muddy waters were seldom visible. When they were, there was little indication to show the stress that the river has been put under in recent years. Dammed during the Three Gorges project and now at risk of being diverted northwards in the South-North Transfer Project, the river that was already failing to cope with pollution from heavy industries and cities along its banks continues to get battered. Contamination, along with over-fishing, has resulted in a massive loss of biodiversity as species such as the baiji, or Yangtze dolphin, and Yangtze crocodile face extinction. One day I saw a man wading through a small tributary of the mighty river with metal prods in hand that were connected to a car battery floating on an inflated inner tube. Fishing-by-electrocution being a common method employed to bring fish to the surface and obviously quickly decimates the fish populations. In his recent book When a billion Chinese jump, Jonathan Watts paints a bleak picture of some of the environmental issues that China is grappling with and he notes how "highlighting the decline of species was tantamount to criticising government policy and causing a loss of national face". Nothing new to the country, this lack of toleration for such criticism extends to many other issues from e-waste, to illegal land zoning, and the impacts of mega-projects like dams - to name but a select few.

Almost a thousand kilometres in eight dusty days plus one muddy one, took Rocinante and myself across four provinces, from Jiangsu in the east, through Anhui and Jiangxi, to Hunan. Although neighbouring the wealthier eastern seaboard provinces, Anhui and Jiangxi remain some of the poorest in the country with most residents either migrating out or else staying to eke out a living on the land through cotton and rice farming. Leaving the Yangtze at Jiujiang and turning south and then west into the hills of Jiangxi, roads became silent and old wooden houses appeared. People sat playing mahjong or cards, waiting for the rain to stop so that harvesting could continue. Many friendly encounters occured as well as displays of a culture of fear that persists when confronted by a hairy, bellowing laowai, or foreigner. People would often turn away when I asked for directions or produced my Chinese road atlas, although no doubt some of these encounters were as much the fault of my pronounciation or perhaps illiteracy on their part. Midday on the muddy day two men invited me to lunch with much mirth when they assured me that one of the dishes presented on the table was something we definitely wouldn't be eating in my country. I think in hindsight was probably a snake of sorts, or perhaps that's the just most optimistic option I can come up with.

I arrived into Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, a couple of days ago hours before a cold front settled over the region and in time to apply for a visa extension with the friendly Public Security Bureau (PSB) officer on the fourth floor of the grey skyscraper that housed the Entry and Exit department of the PSB. I'll have to wait five working days for my passport and then my cousin Mark arrives in from the States next week and we'll ride through Hunan, Guizhou and Guangxi provinces before he hands over the relay baton to Ellie who is flying into Hong Kong in a months time. In the dormitory at the hostel I am staying in I found outdoor gear spread across the room and spotting a duct-taped copy of Anna Karenina amongst the pile, I figured it must be a cyclist - who else has time to read such a tome? Charlie Walker has cycled out from England over the past 16 months and recently teamed up with German Michi in Vietnam and we spent an evening chatting and playing wonky pool on the skewed table. And all being hardened long-distance cyclists, we fumbled back to our dorm after three beers and a glass of Chinese baijiu.

Changsha, Hunan
Pedalled: 52,514 km