This is the second chapter in our cycling lives. The route took us 12 days (including some multi day stops) and covered 639 kilometres. To read the first chapter, Nanning to Yangshuo, click here.
We have now cycled 1089 km. Argh.
Map of the trip:
Yangshuo to Mengshan (87 km)
Strobe lights woke us at about 3 a.m. in Yangshuo. They were accompanied by overhead explosions and water slamming against the windows. Hours later we strapped the panniers to our bicycles – a surprisingly difficult activity that involves using a screwdriver as a lever – and set off in the pouring rain back the way we had come from. It was Monday morning and the week-long tomb sweeping festival was over. Holidaymakers had returned to their respective cities to work, and local residents had returned home to the tourist hub of Yangshuo spilling out of buses. Their holiday had involved getting away from the masses.
After an hour the rain stopped falling, and in no time at all we had ridden the 40 kilometres back to Lipu. Here we ate an accidental mountain of snow dessert (written about here) then carried on a new path towards Mengshan. Just beyond Lipu was another stunning array of limestone karst formations, but after we passed those we saw no more and the road became reasonable without too many difficult hills or holes. Highlights included a temple built into a rock face, an overturned truck that had ploughed through some trees into a paddy field and flipped onto its side, and a cooling drizzle.
Mengshan to Taiping (85)
Hello, hardest day of my short cycling life. It had been raining heavily all night and was still going strong when we left our little hotel. We covered ourselves in already semi-wet waterproof things, and then we cycled over the Mengshan bridge, ate pao, cycled 5 minutes out of the city, went through a deep puddle which killed Caroline’s computer, and then Caroline ran over a bit of glass. We had our first puncture.
Back in New Zealand I had a bicycle which kept getting punctures. I patched up tubes, changed the tubes completely, changed the tyre – but in the end it was something in the actual wheel rim that kept causing the leaks. During this annoying episode of my life I got quite used to changing tubes, so our first puncture in China wasn’t too big of a deal. What made it a little dreary was the pouring rain and speeding trucks spraying us with water.
All fixed up we carried on, but most of the cycle seemed like a never ending loop of the same scenery; terrible roads, large puddles, and steep hills. Terrible roads, large puddles, and steep hills. Terrible roads, large puddles, and steep hills. When we arrived into Taiping we were both exhausted and miserable. It was a busy, unpleasant town, and we cycled around for about an hour trying to find a hotel. Eventually we settled on the first (and only) one we’d seen due to a lack of obvious options.
The day was redeemed with a fantastic dinner. We’d seen this style in a few towns in the Guangxi Province, and it may be unique to the region: outside the restaurant was a huge ceramic pot. This huge pot was filled with lots of small ceramic pots containing different herbal soups. Diners could choose a flavour from the menu which was then retrieved from the mothership with a grabby tool. We chose mushroom soup and a side of fried rice. China once again delivered in the food department.
Taiping to Wuzhou (99.3 km)
This was officially our longest ever ride, but it was mostly flat with the exception of one giant hill at the 40 km point. The road was dusty with a generous helping of juggernauts, and we had to wear face masks to keep the pollution out of our nostrils. One interesting and somewhat scary section was a tunnel about 20 km from Wuzhou. It was thick with smog from the rumbling trucks, sparsely lit, and uphill. Getting out the other side was, quite literally, a breath of fresh air.
We stayed with our happy couchsurfing host Zelda, whom I wrote a little bit about in my last post. What I didn’t mention was the evening that we went out with Zelda’s teaching friends to eat dim sum dessert.
Wuzhou to Deqing (80 km)
This was a rather easy ride. It was long and hot, but it was flat and the roads were excellent. Nearly the entire ride followed the Xi River on our right side and looming mountains on our left.
Now this is interesting. I procrastinated writing this post for a few days, and reaching this point in the narrative I honestly could not remember anything about the town of Deqing. I asked Caroline, and she waited for a moment before admitting to not remembering anything about it either. But how could that be? Had our memories been erased? Had we found ourselves in some Spirited Away situation?
Then Caroline said “Ohhhhh, it’s that one, remember? We stayed at that little hotel and it was really empty – and there was that roundabout?”
Ah, yes. The roundabout brought it all back to me. All along the road that day there had been billboards displaying a grand, ornate Chinese wall, towering heavenward, impressive and ancient. Was it some monument of a dynasty past? A grand relic guarding the path to a recently rediscovered wonder? No. It was a small, new, unimpressive concrete frame on a roundabout. If you’ve ever seen the movie ‘This is Spinal Tap’ then you will understand me when I say stonehenge. I didn’t take a photo of it.
Deqing to Zhaoqing (97 km)
This was another flat, relatively easy cycle. The roads were busy and dusty, and passed through similar scenery to what we’d seen for the last few days: little industrial towns of red brick with sashes of red and gold Qingming calligraphy beginning to fray at the edges of the wooden doors, barges carrying wood and coal down the river towards Hong Kong, the occasional gang of uppity chickens, brilliant green new rice fields, and neat rows of cabbages and oranges. People stared in disbelief as we passed them – or indeed as they passed us in their faster vehicles. One car on the other side of the road cut off an indignant truck so it could u-turn and snap photos of the weird foreign cyclists.
We spent one night at a hotel in Zhaoqing, and the following morning we cycled to the heart of town to meet our couchsurfing host, Tim. Up until about a year ago, Tim was the lead singer/songwriter/guitarist of a band that was famous in his home country of Ukraine. After being signed to EMI his band, PanKe Shava, toured Europe for several years playing huge festivals and generally doing what musical celebrities do. And then for reasons that are very much Tim’s own, he packed it all in, disbanded, and headed to China with a guitar and $30 in his pocket. He busked on the streets for a while, and one day was invited to play a game of football by a local. He happened to be very good, partly due to the fact that he’d played on his national team as a youngster, and so he ended up being paid to play games. Soon he was offered coaching jobs. When we met Tim he was working a crazy full time schedule – every day – coaching kids football for a decent salary with an apartment thrown in.
Even though he was happy with his coaching, you cannot take the musician out of the man. We sat in Tim’s living room as he played us improvised tunes on his guitar (he had something in the vicinity of 30 guitars, he told us) and had us listen to selected recordings from his oeuvre while he moshed and played air guitar over the solos.
“Do you want to go for a massage tomorrow?” he asked us. Of course we did. Tim, as a full-time football coach, took at least three massages per week. “Do you want back or legs?” he asked. Legs seemed the most sensible choice after all the cycling.
The following day we entered the massage place. Caroline went off to the woman’s area and Tim grabbed my hand and dragged me to the men’s. I was given an electric thingy for my wrist which opened a locker, and a Chinese man hung around dolling out towels and accessories. This wasn’t just a massage place; this was a full-on spa. Suddenly, Tim was naked. “Take off,” he said to me and waved his hand at my clothes. He busied himself with giving various nude commands in Chinese to the serving man, and I disrobed, still utterly confused as to what was going on.
“You like to sauna?” asked Tim, and we went off to sit naked in the steam room together. After that we each chose a shower, then returned to the Chinese man to get towels. Dry, we were given paper underpants and gold trimmed pajamas to wear. Then we walked to an area filled with comfortable reclining chairs, enormous televisions, and many people bringing us platters of fruit and noodles. Caroline was already seated when we arrived.
“I think you can stay…” Tim thought about it, “…six hours. After that they charge you more.” The whole pampering session was 80 yuan each – $12.
Our massages were typically painful, but the ‘burning hot knives’ part didn’t happen until they reached our upper legs. The women giggled at our pain, and we laughed back as they tortured us. Laughing through pain. Odd.
It was strangely emotional leaving Tim. It happens sometimes with couchsurfing – you form a bond, you invest time in getting to know somebody, and then suddenly you’re gone. You may never see them again. The last thing Tim did was attach our panniers using nothing but his hands. I usually struggle to get them on using a screwdriver as a lever. When we commented on his strength, he simply said, “I am from Ukraine.”
Zhaoqing to Gaoming (66 km)
In my last (and first) cycling diary – Nanning to Yangshuo – I wrote ‘I know why people cycle: they do it for the downhills.’
Well, my sentiment changed after the cycle between Zhaoqing and Gaoming, because I came to understand the freedom the cycling gives. Sure, the motorbike gives you a similar kind of freedom, but it can be clunky; it can’t squeeze through as many barriers; you’re going further each day; the engine is ever-present. Cycling lets you get closer to everything. You can briefly connect with people as you cruise past. You can see the individual bricks. The gardens. The lives. You can almost take as much in as you can with walking, but you get the added benefit of tearing down hills at high speed if you so choose.
We navigate with Google maps (behind a VPN in China – god, the internet is horrible here. It’s amazing I can even get this blog happening), and it was on this cycle that we learned the joy of choosing to follow a ‘walking’ path instead of a ‘driving’ one. This put us on all sorts of wonderful back roads, through a vibrant little market village and over dozens of stone bridges; around snaking alleys lined with high brick walls and men happily yelling in groups over Chinese chess tables; over fish guts and crushed paper lanterns. I finally felt like I was seeing a China that I’d romantically envisioned as a relic of the past, and after passing through some the country’s infamous, gleaming, high rise ghost towns, it was refreshing to see people thriving and smiling in a place like this.
As if to offset this unique experience, upon entering the Gaoming region from the north we found ourselves staring over fields of rice at the huge cooling towers of a coal plant. We followed the river and kept an eye on the far bank, seeing chimneys belching grey smoke and ever more cooling towers and plants materialising through the fog. There is a confusion in realising that there is something fundamentally wrong about this belching pollution, but knowing that we would be using the power it generated that very night for our air conditioning and phone charging.
Soon, we ended up on an empty 6-lane highway of newly sealed tarmac at the foot of some gleaming new empty skyscrapers. We cycled along this deserted development for about half an hour, and as we did the rain began to pick up. By the time we found a hotel an hour later it was pouring heavily and we were drenched. Everybody in the vicinity (not just the staff) were eager to help get our bikes up the steps and into the lobby. Such is the helpful nature of people in China that we keep meeting again and again.
Gaoming to Jiangmen (52 km)
This cycle was even more wonderful that the previous day. A light rain and dense mist blanketed the city, and we found our way to quiet a riverside road that ran along the bank. Very few people were on this road, and it was beautifully sealed and flat. A cyclist’s dream. We kept on following the river until Google Maps took us on an abrupt and excellent right turn down into a floating village. Aquaculture fountains gurgled and people smiled as we slowly rode past their stone and brick homes at the water’s edge.
The rain pattered gently and kept us cool, and eventually we reached a main road. From there we turned into a small city and after that it was all highway until Jiangmen – possibly the largest city we’d seen so far in the country. We were definitely getting close to the bustle of eastern China. We didn’t spend much time looking around the city; simply went out to eat dumplings, noodles with XO sauce, and milk pudding.
Jiangmen to Zhuhai (73 km)
The rain was quite heavy as we left Jiangmen at 8 a.m., and we warmed ourselves with a breakfast of dumplings. As of this writing, I am at a point in my life where I could eat dumplings for every meal and still find them irresistible. The most I’ve eaten in one sitting is 18, and I only stopped there because there weren’t any more left. I actually want some right now, but I should at least write a little bit more first. Mmmmm. Dumplings.
We had to cross some bridges out of town. One had a sign clearly stating no bicycles allowed, but it was either break that rule or ride and extra several kilometres to the next bridge. Halfway over the bridge we had to check our GPS (in the rain) because the road split in two. That was fun. The second, much longer bridge out of the city took us over the large Xi River and into a bustling market on the other side. From there we took some muddy, flooded back roads until we found a highway, then we had to pull our bikes over the median strip though mud while trucks screamed past honking and spraying us with water.
From there it was a smooth but uninteresting ride down a straight highway for about 40 km. There wasn’t a lot of traffic, the roads were nice and flat, and the scenery mainly consisted of neat rows of new plants.
After taking a turnoff towards Zhuhai, the rain became torrential. We cycled up and down gentle hills of road-rivers, through deep puddles and flooded car parks. At one point the rain reached ‘Malaysia monsoon’ levels and we could barely see, so we pulled up alongside a sack factory to take shelter for half an hour as the lightning crashed and the water flowed.
Post-storm, we rolled in to a petrol station to use the toilets and noticed that Caroline’s rear wheel was flat again. We pulled off the tyre and found a tiny bit of wire that had punctured though into the tube. We replaced it with a pre-patched tube only to realise that there was a hole in it that we’d missed, and so we had to take that off too and use our last new tube. Thankfully, that was okay.
Zhuhai, a ‘small city’ by Chinese standards with a population of 1.3 million people, crept up on us for a couple of hours before we realised we were already in it. The bicycle lanes were fantastic and we had no trouble navigating the complex route to our newest Couchsurfing host’s house.
Our host was once again lovely. Her name was Echo, and she was a native of Shantou which is the city where Caroline’s ancestors come from. She studied to be an English teacher, but eventually found a job doing something completely different – training new pilots in a simulator for the Brazilian-manufactured Embraer planes (I’d only heard of Boeing and Airbus). It took somewhere between 6 months and 1 year to become fully qualified to teach people on the simulator. All training was done on the job.
Echo told us that even though she’d like to be a pilot herself, China doesn’t allow people to become pilots if they’ve had lasik eye surgery – which she had. At this point in her life she was very interested in traveling, and worked a lot on weekends so she could accumulate extra days to add to her annual leave. She was very interested to hear about the places we’d been, and we were interested to hear about some of the paces she’d visited that we hadn’t seriously considered traveling to. Her photos of Bangladesh were unexpectedly beautiful and peaked our curiosity. We spent many hours chatting away in her apartment, and stayed for three nights.
The border to Macau was only four kilometres from Echo’s house, and so I will end this post here (if you’re still reading, well done to you).
Here is the very short post about the border crossing to Macau.