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!

Riding the highest train in the world!

19 01 2011

With less than 3 weeks on our visas and with more than 2500 Km to go to the border with Vietnam we started to mildly panic. Our train out of Lhasa into mainland china (we can only start cycling again, on our own, in China proper) had already been delayed by a day with the un/happy consequence of us getting an upgrade to a soft sleeper (  To get across Tibet by land you have to go with a group and be on a group visa; ‘and you are SURE we can extend it?’ we asked our slightly too snappily dressed travel agent in Nepal; ‘Totally’ he crooned.. ’no problem’; ‘and you are SURE we can get our bikes on the train with us?’…‘Totally’ he simpered dismissively ‘no problem at all!’

The Lhasa to Chengdu train takes a mere 48 hours and runs across the Tanggula Pass, which, at 5,072 m (16,640 feet) above sea level, makes it the highest in the world.  Lhasa, however sits at a pithy 3,490m.  Now, we’d walked around a bit at this altitude – but we hadn’t really done anything strenuous. Not that cycling 6km to the station is strenuous, surely?!

The persistent cold had started to take its toll and the night before departure Liz had raging flu through the night. With Liz sweating like a spit roast and the niggling bike-on-train concerns nipping at our ankles we woke and set off early. After about 10 mins of cycling Liz started to lag behind, her pace slowing to a wobbly crawl which soon whimpered to a stop as she clambered off her bike and slumped on the sidewalk. Her breathing was shallow and light and she was fazing in and out.  We had to make the train! If we missed it, it might be days before we could get on another!  But with Liz’s lungs, legs, and will power folding panic/hysteria set in.  And the great thing about panic/hysteria is that it is highly motivational. After a brief rest, and much cajoling, bracing, and rallying we set off again, one little wheel at a time, for every turn of the pedals we coasted for a while, slow but do-able. Slowly slowly we teetered our way to Lhasa station.

Once through the security x-ray we hit our first ‘no’. ‘No bikes, not possible’ a smiley security lady informed us – ‘whatever’ a grey Liz grimaced back as we pressed on through into the compound. We found the holding area for our train; ‘No, No bikes’ the brusque ticket inspector snapped and shooed us back out the door… ‘here we go’ we thought. Eventually a random security guard directed us to the China Railway Express Delivery office.  So in we marched (Liz was exuding the pink glow of ill health that was making her look wonderfully unhinged) to a sea of baffled faces.  ‘No, no bikes. Fly. You will have to fly’. The fat-controller decreed before waddling off into his office.

A farcical debate then ensued with a slightly deranged Liz having to speak with not one but two English speaking ladies on the phone – neither of whom were anywhere near Lhasa or knew much about railway delivery methods.  Intermittently the fat-controller would swagger into the proceedings and plop unhelpful and dismissive dictats into the mix about planes and impossibilities etc. Liz was gritty with flu-driven determination, her eyes blood shot, her brow glistening, there was no way she was letting this one pass. Stubbornly we took the pedals off the bikes and prepared to start the conversation again… when (as is so often the case) an angel turned up…

The angel came along with 2 more western cyclists also hoping to get on the train to Chengdu.  They had said angel/guide with them. An angel/guide who spoke Chinese and English (hoorah!).  Suddenly the absolutely-no-ways and you’ll-have-to-fly’s turned into – ‘bikes on trains? To Chengdu? Sure! They’ll be there in 3 days, just fill out this form and pay us some money’… It took about 10 mins to sort the paperwork and we (and our bikes) were on our way to mainland China…. we hoped!

The Chinese eat pot-noodles. They eat LOTS of pot-noodles – thank goodness, then, for the little hot water dispensers available everywhere. Without them instant noodles could not be consumed at such a pace! Hoorah for hot water dispensers! They also served us well on our 48 hour epic train journey… we had a limitless supply of free hot water to drink! .. what a shame we didn’t think of bringing hot chocolate or, indeed, pot-noodles! *sigh* Good thing the buffet car did corking, fresh cooked (ish) meals, shame it was rammed full of smokers / smoke. No open windows in this weather and at this altitude. Joy.

A dull (though wonderfully warm) 48 hours later we arrived in Chengdu. Where upon we found out that we couldn’t extend our group visa. Super. Good to know that our simpering Kathmandu travel agent had stood up to our low expectations. .. and to top it all off our laptop broke – stamps of ‘lifeless’ and ‘doornails’ were clumped upon it by a day’s worth of Chinese techie geeks, so we brought a new one, and then to top that all off it started working again *sigh* but at least it was hot and sunny again, so we sent our winter coats home, and then to throw a cherry on them bananas it started to snow…. great. Roll on Vietnam.


4 01 2011

So much to say and no way to say it!! We are managing to sneak the odd naked blog through via a ztunnel portal! – China blocks EVERYTHING!! no facebook, no proper blog acess! SO sorry for not getting back to all the messages etc that we can’t get back too! ALSO we CAN’T extend our china visa (as we were promised we could!) so now we have to try and get on another flipping train to get us closer to the border! AND our laptop has a broken hard disk (how on earth you break one of those!??) AND our bikes are SOMEWHERE between Lhasa and Chengdu – on a different train to us!! (GULP) – there is a story in there but no way to type it!!! AHHHHHHhhhHHHh

it is getting warmer though .. nice.

*shifty look* so over and out comrades *secret comie wink* lots of love etc from under the lead/Red curtain!