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

Monday, 17 October 2011

79. From Qingdao to Nanjing

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.

Nanjing, China
Pedalled: 51,544 km

Saturday, 8 October 2011

78. The slow boat to China

China emerged out of the morning fog yesterday after crossing from Incheon on the Korean penninsula and arriving in Qingdao eighteen hours later. The majority of the passengers were traders involved in bringing an eclectic array of items from cartons of Yakult to machined steel pieces across the Yellow Sea. Boarding took a couple of hours and at both ends I was told I couldn't cycle the couple of hundred metres to the boat but would instead have to squeeze onto the overloaded bus with the loaded bicycle. People helped out though and found enough space to part for the bike. Once aboard, most people broke up into small groups playing cards and by ten o'clock lights were out and most drifted off to sleep. Arrival in China was relatively painless. I think I had enough stereotypes of officialdom built up that I fully anticipated a laborious and thorough grilling but instead an almost smiling lady stamped my passport after carefully reviewing it and then I was waved through customs and exempted from having to xray all the gear once again. Marvellous. The first foray around Qingdao proved that alas while people were very friendly and eager to help, like many previous places, they don't like to admit defeat with my alien pronounciations and gesticulations so I was sent on several wild goose chases around the city before I narrowed down the area I was looking for.

Qingdao, an old Germanic concession, whose chief legacy is the internationally famous Tsingtao brewery, is a popular spot for both domestic and foreign tourism with its promenades and sandy beaches. I caught the tail end of Golden week, an important holiday period, when one of the largest annual human migrations takes place as many of the 1.35 billion head on holiday or home to visit family and friends. The first two days have been taken pretty easy, exploring the streets and pots of Qingdao and enjoying the friendly people as well as their impressive ability to overcharge. The variety of food reflects the size and diversity of the country although my appetite was tempered somewhat by an article I read on the boat yesterday about the recycling cooking oil industry in China whereby an estimated ten per cent of all used and discarded cooking oil in the country is rescued from sewers, reprocessed (which I am not sure what that means), and then sold back at bargain prices to restaurants and food stalls. The Great Fire Wall also seems to be blocking access to my regular blog site so updates have to be sent unedited and pictureless via email for the moment. Thanks for perservering.

Qingdao, China
Pedalled: 50,786 km

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

77. Seoul searching

Leaving Busan, I pedalled north to the cities of Ulsan and Gyeongju that together form a large urban industrial region in the southeastern corner of the country. The latter city was the original capital of the Silla kingdom, lasting almost one thousand years, it was one of Asia's longest dynasties and some of the most important archaeological remains and temples are found within the city and the surrounding hills. Most notable was Bulguksa temple, one of the most famous Buddhist temples in the country and regarded as the crowning achievement of Buddhist art and architecture from the Silla period.

Bulguksa temple - the Blue Cloud and White Cloud bridges

With Chinese visa considerations in mind, I decided on a shorter, more direct route to Seoul than the meandering route up to the northeastern corner that I had originally intended to follow. Autumn had arrived as a stowaway on board the ferry from Japan, evenings now warranting a fleece or two and on the fifth night of camping in South Korea I found the fly-sheet had frozen inside and out with condensation and dew. It's hard to believe that it was just a couple of weeks since I was complaining to myself about the heat at night in the tent in Japan and now I am putting all the clothes I have on again. While there was only one day of rain in South Korea, with the rest being blue sky days, the yellow orb has lost its power and now merely serves to provide light rather than much warmth to compete against the Siberian winds blowing icy air down from the north. Nonetheless daytime temperatures are near perfect for cycling, still climbing up into the high teens at least and best of all a dry atmosphere with no humidity. Gone are the days of smelling like a wet dog after a couple of nights cycling and camping. Shivering at 3 a.m. in the maize sack, however, I'd take the wet dog days anytime.

Gyeongju lunch
With almost 500 people per square kilometre, one of the highest population densities in the world, choosing small roads off the busy highways was a priority and I spent the first four days from Gyeongju sticking to backroads that traverse the eastern hills, before cutting across to the South Han riverbank that would lead me into Seoul. On the first night of camping I saw several hidden possibilities before deciding to pitch in a park beside a small village. I asked a young girl if she thought it would be alright and she said yes, before giggling and running into the house. The park was kitted out with toilets, shelters and benches and shaded by towering trees. As darkness fell and I sat reading by torchlight before having to build the house and set up the kitchen, a man emerged from the house and walked slowly over to me, bearing eight eggs which he handed to me with a slight smile and bow before turning to go back and watch the television that flashed from behind the curtains.

An old man was doing laps of the park in the morning as I climbed out of the tent at the late hour of seven o'clock. He said something whilst looking at the tent and then let out a big chuckle before resuming his tortoise paced outing. As I packed up, rain drops started falling from the grey sky above and didn't let up for the rest of the day, although for the most part it was fine Irish mist rather than the traditional Asian bucket bath. I escaped the worst of it as I arrived into the small town of Cheongsong, happily spending a couple of hours at the lively little market, eating sweet bean buns and watching a couple serving fresh raw fish straight from the bucket. Point, slice and serve with a good shot of soju. Later the rain died down and I headed on, choosing to pitch the tent inside one of the many open-sided wooden shelters that dot the Korean countryside, for use in the hot summer days, or cold rainy ones too. I wasn't long settling into my sleeping bag, congratulating myself on the peaceful surroundings and roof above me, with only the odd car passing every quarter of an hour on the little-used road I was on. Across the river the lights of a jeep appeared, bouncing over the rutted track, presumably heading for the lights of a nearby farmhouse. A few moments later a very loud gunshot though had me sitting upright and looking over at what they were doing, just one hundred metres away. They had a powerful lamp to spot game and evidently they had just missed their first target, as they moved on up the valley. Over the next hour, several more fully-laden cars and jeeps rattled up and down the valley with their lights searching for prey. So I laid low and hoped the soju-fuelled hunters wouldn't spot any animals popping up near me. Later on a police car came down the road with the lights on and allowed peace to return.

Rural South Korea, like rural Japan, seems to exist in a temporal vacuum in contrast to its hyper-urban settings that the young have been fleeing to since the 1960s in search of work and the perceived better life on offer. Almost all of the relatively small plots of rice, chillis and other vegetables, as well as the plentiful apple orchards, were tended to by hand by their aging owners. In many faces, the lines of hardship run deep, as these people survived the Korean war, which when it ended in 1953 had left both Koreas utterly devastated, with no economic infrastructure, millions of displaced and many orphans. The United Nations ranked South Korea as one of the poorest countries in the world at the time. Yet this Asian tiger has climbed since the 1960s to have the 14th largest economy in the world today. And all this as well as maintaining watch over its side of the most heavily armed border in the world today and a military that ranks, per capita, only after its northern neighbour in size.


Approaching the capital from the east, it's possible to traverse the entire city along excellent bike paths that line both banks of the Han river as well as surrounding tributaries, meaning that I only spent about one kilometre cycling along roads in one of the largest urban areas in the world. Earlier in the week I was escorted off the highway as a I circled the city of Wonju by a couple of concerned but sincere police officers who appeared to be much more of a hazard than I was, stopping suddenly in the middle of the highway with no warning lights to get out and tell me I couldn't ride the shoulder of the rather empty highway. Monday was a public holiday and crowds were out on the bicycle lanes in astonishing numbers, mostly lycra-clad and looking like a rebel pedalling invasion as it's the fashion to wear full-face cloth mask with dark sunglasses that are regarded as protection from the sun and pollution. I found my way over to Toki and Park's place in the satellite city of Gwangmyeong. Nestled down the end of a lane with a colourful traditional market that gradually gives way to semi-naked busty girls behind glass doors and neon-lit love motels, their flat has their bikes hanging from the ceiling that they recently rode through eastern Australia and New Zealand on a six-month tour of Oceania. I wash in warm water and then we go out to eat grilled seafood. On the way home we pick the best swimmer from an open tank and he's sliced up unceremoniously, headless and still flipping, into a bag which we take home to eat.

No more dog meat

Seoul, South Korea
Pedalled: 50,734 km