The People's Republic of China
Covering approximetely 9.6 million square kilometres, China is the world's second largest state by land area. With a population of over 1.3 billion it is the world's most populous country. For the past seven days, I have been cycling my way across two provinces on my way from Hong Kong towards Southeast Asia. Covering a distance of around 700 kilometers, I was able to experience all walks of Chinese Life, yet I find it increasingly hard to grasp everything that China is into one concluding statement. Luckily, a dinner conversation last night spiced up with some Korean food helped me do just that. An English teacher at the local University where I am staying at right now explained China as 'an ancient society, trying to modernize too fast by leaving half of its population behind.' China is polarizing. It is fascinating. It is changing. Fast-paced and yet family-oriented. China is everything and yet nothing. You either like it or you never return. With only about two days left in China, I definitely know that I will be back.
My route took me from the ferry Terminal of Macau, a former Portugese Colony that returned to China only in 1999, to Zhuhai and from there along country roads, through old villages and into the industrial wasteland of China towards Yulin. On my third day of cycling through China, I was able to meet up with two other cyclists from the U.S., Brendan and Nick, who joined me on my leg to Nanning. We had quite the experience as we made our way across rural roads that were in bad conditions, trying to find food to eat, dealing with broken panniers on Brendans bike, trying to find suitable camp spots, and finally dealing with bus company rules and the dangers of Chinese traffic. For example, as we made our way towards Nanning, we realized that we had spent too much time in the mountains and would cut it pretty close with getting to Nanning to apply for our Vietnamese Visa before everything closes for at least five days over Chinese New Year. So at first, we tried cycling like crazy people covering as much distance as possible to make up for the time we had lost. However, bad road conditions and unexpected climbing made our mission seemingly impossible. Therefore, we decided to catch a bus from Yulin to Nanning. Which, honestly, made me feel much more comfortable anyways, especially because traffic was increasingly bad the closer we got to Nanning. It is amazing to me that really the Chinese World does not seem to care all that much if you are alive on a bicycle or not. This is fine as long as one is on bike paths. However, as soon as there is no designated space for cyclists, you really have to stand your ground to make it in Chinese traffic.
Wild Camping in China
Even though I was told that it would be impossible to camp in China and that I should just stick to cheap Hotels that would run around 10 Euros, I decided to stick to my ways and try out camping. My first night, I found an amazing camp spot along some hills just 50 km outside of Zhuhai, and on my third night, Brendan and Nick joined me as we camped just outside of a town called Chunwanzhen. Though I must say that Chunwanzhen has to be the firework capital of China, as we had to deal with loud sounds of fireworks all night. We also camped next to a grave yard and saw many abandoned buildings, so from my experience so far, I can recommend wild camping in China.
What surprised me the most about China is its incredible infrastructure for cyclists. In a sense, China succeeds in providing a great infrastructure for long distance cyclists without intending to do so. Its bike trails and wide shoulders were created as a response to the fact that most poor people in rural China as well as bigger cities rely on the bicycle as the only means of transportation.
Therefore, most other cyclists I met were poor people. Yet it was not only poor people on bicycles that I would meet on bike trails, there were water bufallos, cars, scooters, perdestrians, dogs, and even two forklifts driving on bike lanes. The diversity of people and transportation vehicles sure kept me company in a great way.
China - The Land of the Honk
Besides its beauitful countryside that I was able to enjoy, especially while cycling the remote mountains in southern China, I also experienced the vast pollution that is created by the strive to develop China's ancient civilization. After linking up with Nick and Brendan, we made our way past piles of trash everywhere on the side of the road. I only learned a few days ago that recycling is pretty much useless in China, because poor people rely on going through trash on the side of the road for their survival. After having gone through the piles of trash, they are usually set on fire. Therefore, it made for some pretty tough cycling days to ride past (burning) trash, especially around bigger cities that had to deal with bad air due to air pollution. However, even worse than the air pollution and trash along the road was the constant level of noise everywhere. Chinese people constantly honk. Its the most bizarre thing. They honk to tell you they are passing. They honk to tell you they are annoyed by you. They honk to greet someone. They honk to tell you they finished passing you. They honk because the sun is shining. They honk before intersections. They honk on curves. They honk because they like to honk. They honk for no reason. They honk ALL THE TIME.
Guangxing Province and the city of Yulin are the dog eating capital of China. This is an important piece of information that could have potentially saved me from the traumatizing incident of eating Dog TWICE without knowing. Okay, the first time I had no idea it was Dog and the second time, Brendan, Nick and I were unsure but also extremely hungry cyclists who did not want to be rude. Here is what happened: I had cycled all day one day until I finally saw a place that served food. However, the menu was in Chinese and it did not have any pictures, so I walked around to see what other people were eating and pointed at something that looked good. Sure enough, they did not understand what I wanted to eat and brought me something totally different. I ate it anyways and only later found out it was Dog meat. A few days later, Nick and Brendan introduced me to google translates offline app, that would translate Chinese menus. Genius!!! However, instead of getting Duck we sure enough got Dog and ended up eating it. I must say this, I like Chinese food but it is definitely not my favorite. That's why I am looking forward to entering Vietnam in a few days, because I heard that the French influenced Vietnamese Cuisine a great deal.
Cha Bu Duo
I would like to conclude my blog about China by talking about something that also came up at our dinner conversation last night. The
Chinese workers love to use the phrase "cha bu duo" (差不多) which directly translates to "not very far off (meaning approximately or roughly)" Unfortunately, in almost all case it usually works out to be not even close, in otherwords, "cha tai duo" (meaning way too far off).... at least in our western sense of understanding the world. Workers see no need for exact matches and approximations are always seen as “close enough.”
In fact, at times it almost seems like Chinese workers pride themselves on their ability to do things as “cha ba duo” as humanly possible – as if there is some secret, unspoken competition to see just how far you can go while still getting away with it. Will they accept 80% correct? 70%? What about close but not exact?
People seem to get away with a lot of things in China; and, while this leads to a certain simplicity of life, it is tough to get used to.
Chinese people are also very family-oriented. It seems like grandparents mainly take care of their grand-kids while the parents are at work. Respect for elderly people is an important factor of Chinese society. Furthermore, I experiences the kindness and openess of Chinese people. Even though hardly anyone I met so far speaks English at all, they will always try and help. They are very curious, they know no boundaries when it comes to taking pictures, as they will come up to take a selfie as I am eating. However, Chinese people always have a smile for you and even though I could hardly communicate with anyone there was always a shared experience of mutual curiosity that needs no words.