Goodbye China… phew!

26 01 2011

The counting of first and last impressions is a tricksy calculation.  If our China experience was a job interview it would have begun with China stumbling in late, spilling coffee over the chief executive’s new suit, followed by an almightily hock and spit-fest, after which China would proceed to re-arrange the furniture to its whim.  Starting in Tibet, with a catalogue of NO’s and can’t-do’s showed us China at its most aggressive, paranoid and pompous. All the hard working Han migrants, who are just trying to make a living, suddenly become cruel economic aggressors; the clumps of grinning Han Chinese tourists posing in front of the Potala Palace apparently ignorant of the atrocities of March 1959, apparently oblivious to the overwhelming and heavy military presence, apparently unaffected by the clear and distinct economic divide between them and the thousands of impoverished  Tibetan pilgrims who are falling their prostrations all around them.  Apparently unaware of the Tibetan proverb ‘Beat a Chinese long enough and he will talk Tibetan’. The red Chinese flag flutters high and heavy over us, its stark red arrogance impossible against the blue sky, it is more than hard for us to imagine giving China the job.

Moving on into mainland China it became hard to shake the lingering stench of ‘apparently’s’ from our every perception. Everything became refracted through our Tibet goggles; ‘wow, no snipers here!’, ‘ooo we can cycle?’, ‘A China Lonely Planet for sale in a Chinese bookshop!?!?!?’

China was hard for us. It was a hard country to cycle through. We rely heavily on the great directional tool of The Ask. When the map is dodgy, the road doesn’t exist, we need accommodation – we Ask. This has worked well in Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Dubai, India and Nepal. But in China… not so well.  In China people positively and actively run in the other direction if a move is even flinchingly made to shimmy in their direction.  Obviously this is not all of the people all of the time – in one town a woman kindly walked us to a hostel, in another one smiled at us… but this, for us, has been very much the exception and nowhere near the rule.  However as we ventured further south and away from major cities we did encounter pockets of hospitality – notably in areas where minority peoples are dominant.

One cold blustery afternoon we wheeled into the small-ish town of JieJie, to be confronted by a HUGE mosque and the call to prayer doodling out into the greying sky.  We were totally unprepared for such a blatant expression of religiosity – surely this is China, is this allowed?? And suddenly we noticed that all around smiles were peeking out from under head scarves and from within bearded faces, that people were actually trying to catch our eye and wave at us…  were we still in China!?  The tuk tuk drivers fell over themselves to help direct us to a local trucker’s hostel, where we were cheerfully picked up and deposited in a sparse but perfectly clean little room. And as we ventured out for food – a generally harrowing and complicated experience thus far in China, we nearly fell over as two women actively beckoned us in and actually worked with us to try and decipher what we might like to eat… helpfulness… in CHINA!??? Surely we had fallen into some parallel Muslim China where strangers and travellers are looked after and welcomed, in some bizarre enactment of civility and basic human good-nature!

Sadly none of our general China grump was helped by the fact that China is, at present, a building site. Mapped roads don’t yet exist, or are being remade, new towns are being thrown up all over the joint, and thus the roads were basically mud.  We couldn’t get on the main highway as bikes aren’t allowed anyway we wouldn’t have wanted to, so we were following smaller parallel local roads. We were off-roading, through freezing, wet, foot deep mud tracks, on our not-at-all off roading bikes practically all the way to Vietnam.  And we were not alone; the massive and excessive road tolls in China meant that we were sharing our mud flumes with dubiously maintained ten tonne trucks which were also enjoying slipping around and generally sharing the mud splattering merriment. Joy!

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