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