At the end of my last cycle diary, we had arrived in Zhuhai and planned to travel over the border to the Special Administrative Regions of Macau and Hong Kong. We managed to scamper around those two places in record time (9 days), and then we took the ferry all the way back to where we started in Zhuhai – once again staying with the same couchsurfing host and instructor of airline pilots, Echo.
We didn’t do much cycling during our brief stint in the SARs, so we began our third leg in China with a relatively painless 64 kilometres to get back into the swing of riding.
The ride was 650 km and took 11 days.
This is a really long post, so grab a cup of tea.
Map of the trip:
Zhuhai to Zhongshan (64 km)
Taking the road by the sea was a bit of a gamble; the waterfront area in Zhuhai – although decoratively concreted – was an unappealing mix of haze and floating rubbish during this May spring. To the right sat the hazy outline of Macau – grey, shapeless buildings with only the semi-concealed Grand Lisboa offering something other than a dismal rectangle – and to the left was an unfinished bridge leading from China all the way to Hong Kong disappearing quickly into the foggy murk.
But still we took the road by the sea, and it was a great decision. The bicycle lanes were smooth and flat, and a tailwind insisted on pushing us the whole way. Probably the most interesting distraction on this part of the journey was the beautiful, almost-finished Zhuhai Opera House rising from Yeli Island. Construction of the twin shells began in May 2010, and the facility is expected to be operational by August 2016. The larger, 90 metre high concert hall will seat around 1500 people, and the smaller, 60 metre high theatre will seat 500.
To juxtapose the elegance that only 2 billion yuan can buy, the harbour in front of the shells was filled with rugged boats flying Chinese flags, the fishermen parking rickety bicycles on the promenade and paddling out to fishy-smelling vessels. Ominous clouds topped the scene off.
There wasn’t too much of note for the rest of the day. Entering Zhongshan seemed to happen two hours before we actually arrived, but in this densely populated part of China that wasn’t surprising. The city itself was remarkably quiet considering its size, and we spent a fun hour (I’m not exaggerating) trying to secure a hotel room after we’d arrived at the hotel.
Zhongshan to Humen (70 km plus a ferry crossing)
The city of Zhongshan looked quite interesting, but we opted not to spend a couple of days exploring it and instead push on. Alas, the limitations of visas. The city, like so many others in China, was expanding outwards with gleaming, empty towers and signs that promised future high-end fashion and dining experiences. We passed through these areas in relative peace, occasionally finding a nice little path through a village or by a river.
This peace wasn’t to last – after about 15 km we hit a main artery: highway S111. For the next several kilometres we had to share the dusty, unappealing road with hundreds of trucks and buses. Ugly utilitarian towns passed by, and the brown, snaking rivers of the area required many bridges which we *snap*… what? What happened?
A spoke broke on Caroline’s rear wheel. A rare problem we had heard about but were totally unprepared for. No spare spokes. Not enough tools. Zero knowledge. Shit.
Spokes are way, way more important than most people realise. The little nipple things in the rim (I think they’re actually called nipples) can be tightened or loosened which creates or releases tension. If a spoke breaks then the rim suddenly loses all the tension in one area and warps, leading to a wobbly wheel. It was incredible luck that the breakage happened close to a medium-sized town. We slowly roamed the streets in the punishingly hot sun and after about an hour found a bicycle mechanic. He replaced the spoke and we watched as carefully as we could. There was absolutely no way we could have done it ourselves. Tools and YouTube videos would be required for the future.
After that drama we set off again taking as many quiet back roads as we could, but ultimately we ended up following the dreaded S111. It passed over bridges through a seemingly endless landscape of not-quite-cities. One such place was almost unbelievable: Nansha.
Nansha was like a game. The game is kind of like Sim City, but instead of zoning areas you are given fully completed buildings, bridges, parks, rivers, roads, fancy trees, and shopping centres. You may place these items with gay abandon anywhere you see fit – there is no limit to your budget and it doesn’t matter if the population sits at zero, you can just keep on playing, placing, constructing. You can lay out a perfect city before anyone even moves into it!
There. You’ve just spent five years and several billion dollars of endless in-game currency. Now, wouldn’t it be nice if people came to live in your city when it was finished? Well, no matter if they don’t. You can’t lose the game, so you might as well just keep on building.
Shortly after Nansha was the Humen Ferry. There wasn’t much information online about this ferry crossing, so we went in blind. For about 2 km leading up to the ferry area, hundreds of trucks lined the roads carrying crates bound for Hong Kong and northern China. As we neared the terminal, various people waved and smiled pointing us in the right direction. With all these helpful, smiling people, it was impossible to get lost. We had to push our bikes up a narrow ramp running along a staircase which involved removing one of the bike panniers, but the casual atmosphere kept it stress free. We missed a ferry as we reached the top, but only had to wait for five minutes for another one to show up. Apparently they cross with extreme regularity.
We pushed our bikes onto the upper deck with about 20 other passengers, and the trucks rumbled into the lower deck. The crossing took about 15 minutes, and at the other side we simply cycled off the boat, down the ramp and back onto the road. Nobody asked us to pay anything. In fact, nobody at all seemed to have to pay. Perhaps the truck drivers pay a set fee, and any random person who feels like crossing can climb aboard without being charged.
The rest of the cycle was a nightmarish road of ruts, heavy traffic (all the freight trucks from the ferries) and sandy dust. The outskirts of Humen were run down and rubbish filled, and the road only became reasonable once we neared the heart of town. The city was the most chaotic we’d witnessed in China with heavy traffic, loud speakers blaring music that sounded like it was in fast forward, and a generally shambolic feeling.
Once again after a rough day (and it was quite a day), we found food that was so delicious it made us forget all our troubles: Sichuan beef noodle soup. Oh my.
Humen to Huizhou (111 km)
Day 3 officially became the longest ride we’d ever done, and it is a cycle neither of us would care to do again. There weren’t many distinguishing features on the road between the two big cities, and we never managed to leave the industrial concrete goliath behind. The main issue, you see, is illustrated below:
As you can see, in order to get away from the soul crushing towers and polluted roads we had to first navigate our way through the heart of the madness. The feeling of this cramped part of the Guandong Province is like some very large person in the sky threw five city-sized waterbombs filled with liquid cement at the earth, and now they’re all seeping into each other.
It was the hottest, most truck-heavy, most oppressive cycle we’d done. People on the road here were a far cry from the polite drivers of the south. The horns were constant and jarring, everybody cut off everybody, and anything smaller than a car was piloted by a nonchalant angel of death in human form. Off the road, thankfully, people were still very friendly towards us.
The highlight of the day was a ten minute diversion though a tiny old town filled with ramshackle and abandoned houses. They were beautiful and peaceful; the occupants had probably moved to big city apartments, leaving these homes to crumble away.
We arrived close to dusk in Huizhou and since the city was so large, we decided to use Agoda to book a place to stay. In a moment of tired confusion, we booked (and paid for) a hotel – part of a chain of hotels called 7 Days Inn – that was 25 kilometres away. We thought it was a different one only 2 kilometres away. We rode to the closer hotel and proceeded to play dumb for the next hour. Eventually we paid a second time, sent a begging letter to Agoda for a refund on the first hotel, and had an email back granting said refund. Nice one, Agoda.
Huizhou to Heyuan (86 km)
Hooray! After all my bitching from yesterday, we finally made it back into semi-rural China. Plenty of the road was still a highway with towns wanting to become part of the gargantuan cities, but we managed to find a few roads with no traffic, no new empty towers, and a whole lot more more buffalo.
One diversion from the highway took us through a small stone village where toothless old men grinned gummy grins. The village sat on a riverbank, and we cycled alongside the water for about an hour before the concrete road abruptly became a muddy rock one. Caroline decided she would push her bike most of the way, but I wanted to see if I could ride through it. Turns out that yes, I could, but the moment I hopped off to take a photo I planted my foot deep into a mud hole.
From there on, for the rest of the day, I kept clumsily tripping over things. People who know me will know that this isn’t unusual, but for some reason today was a particularly bad one. I tripped up stairs. I tripped down stairs. I tripped over nothing at all. My leg buckled because of a tiny indent in the footpath. I walked through some ‘do not cross’ tape because I was looking up at something. Caroline was very amused by all of this.
Back on our dirt road I parked up with a gang of chickens to wait for Caroline. They were very curious.
The city of Heyuan was big (once again) by New Zealand standards but relatively small by Chinese ones. We decided to give our legs a little rest, and paid for two nights in a low key hotel nestled in a motorbike selling district. All the top Chinese brands were available: “Ymanha”, “Mo-to”, “Hyky”, “Dayun” – you name it. Also for sale were tiny little electric cars that you just wanted to cuddle, and angular green 3-wheeled half-motorbike half-ute things that looked like they could drive through a tree without spilling the coffee in the drink holder.
On our day off we took an interesting bus ride to a 600-year-old Hakka village. I wrote a whole post about that trip HERE.
Heyuan to Zijin (65 km)
This was a shorter ride, with a light sprinkling of hills including one very horrible uphill and one surprisingly long, steep, and very satisfying downhill. Apart from leaving Heyuan, the ride was almost entirely rural and very refreshing after the chaos of the previous days.
Breakfast was our current favourite: cheong fun (rice rolls). Every area seems to have a different twist on these cheap, tasty rolls, and now that we were getting more into Hakka territory our breakfast was served with long, fat, semi-spicy capsicums and small hot chilies. Our dinner the night before had also been a Hakka affair: claypot rice served with as much stuff as they could balance on top – the same long, fat capsicums but filled with pork, slices of Chinese sausage (one of the few things Caroline doesn’t like), chicken, duck, fried tofu, fried tofu jerky, and a large slab of tofu filled with pork. Apparently filling tofu with pork is a traditional twist on dumplings, because historically wheat was harder to come by in the Hakka regions. Caroline learned that from this recipe!
Full of spicy goodness, our ride seemed to fly by. I thought about the glimpses we were having into the lives of people whose farm houses we were passing. Traveling the way we do, we would never get to know any of these people. We would never be accepted into their inner circles or treated in the same manner that they treat each other. Saying hello to person at the side of the road might elicit a polite smile, a confused stare, a happy wave, or a beaming hello, but never the kind of harsh, jovial offhand comment in which the people would playfully insult one another. We were strangers. Friendly, no doubt, but strangers all the same. We were part of a short, unique transaction: we got to stare in wonder at them, and they got to stare in wonder at us.
Zijin, which is an insignificant dot on the map, was a city of 700,000 mostly Hakka speakers. To put this into perspective for our friends back home, Wellington has a population of 204,000 people. Zijin was considered a mere county town, but it would still have a higher population than Wellington even if we borrowed everyone from Christchurch too.
China: a mind blowingly large place.
Zijin – Wuhua (104 km)
This was another big day for us, and the distance wasn’t the only challenging thing. The hills were back in force, starting almost immediately with 10 km of constant climbing. From there it was continuous ups and downs, and one very ugly stretch of ruined road containing far too many trucks. The trucks were hauling wet sand, and as they rolled, water gushed into the many cracks and potholes turning the dust into slushy mud. The trucks returning from the other direction were not dripping water, and so one side of the road remained sandy and dry. These returners kicked up clouds of dust which mixed into our mud party. All this happened over climbs and descents. Glorious.
On most days at about the 3/4 point, we stop at some little store to get cold tea drinks. Usually the owners will be happy and surprised to see us, and more often than not they will try to sneak some photos with their phones. Often, a few guys will sift over and stare at us while we drink. People make their toddlers, many of whom are shocked at seeing their first real live white person, wave and blow kisses at us. One guy pulled his unimpressed baby off a motorised duck ride and stuck him on my lap. He then took photos from different angles.
During our rides between Nanning and Macau, we passed and occasionally befriended many other cyclists. On these far reaching roads of rural Guangdong we didn’t see any other cyclists at all – not even Chinese ones. This made our crazy, laden, Rolls Royce bikes with two strange riders – one that might be from China and another with a hairy face that was probably American – stand out even more. People were almost crashing as they drove past us. One woman froze in horror while crossing the road acting as though she’d seen an approaching tidal wave. I almost hit her.
Apart from hills and trucks, the scenery was as lovely as the past few days. The rice was growing well in sprawling fields, luscious green and waving gently. The homes were a mix of utilitarian stone squares and crumbling earthen brick huts, elaborately tiled and slowly degrading back to the mud they came from.
The town of Wuhua was small and had a similar feel to other Chinese towns of its size: big enough to have bakeries but too small to have malls, KFC, and Gong Cha. We spent a very relaxing hour listening to Radiohead’s new album (first impressions are good) and then took our regular evening stroll to hunt for food.
We accidentally ordered brain soup.
Wuhua to Fengshun (72 km)
One word: mountain.
The cycle from Wuhua to Fengshun will forever be remembered as the first actual mountain we had to cross. We awoke to blue sky (which is a lovely sign back home but a terrifying one when you are about to spend the day cycling), ate a typical breakfast of cheong fun and soya bean milk, and hit the road.
After about 20 km we reached a little town that was surrounded by mountains. I looked around hopefully for some kind of level road snaking through the valleys, but the tell-tale sign that a climb was coming were the power pylons leading up into the hills. The mountain happened in two stages. First, we climbed up to a reservoir and stopped next to two barking dogs. One was tied up, and it was clearly the angry one. It pulled on its chain and screamed bloody murder at us. The untied dog barked along half-heartedly but didn’t approach us. When Caroline picked us a rock to threaten it, it ran for cover.
The second part of the climb was the most physically challenging cycle we had done thus far. I had salty water pouring from everywhere except my tear ducts, and Caroline had it coming from there too. The road seemed endless; every turn revealed more uphill. A few hundred metres from the top we found a waterfall, so we parked up and bathed in it to cool off from the merciless sun.
At the top, a gate was being guarded by two stone elephants. I thought this might be the end of the uphill slogs but I was wrong. The mountain took a few short dips and climbs and didn’t seem to want to reward us with a long period of downhill cycling. After several kilometres we came to a matching gate. This time the elephants were facing away from us, and it was hard not to notice their large, stone testicles. This gate signified the end of the mountain and the start of the downhill section. I’ve never been happier to see elephant balls.
The downhill was steep and carried on for five kilometres. By the time we stopped at a shop in the village below, we both had aching hands from braking so much.
Despite our suffering, this was one of the most beautiful and scenic rides we’d done. On the mountain pass there were almost no cars, and the punishing blue sky bought with it wonderfully unobstructed view; the sort of clear-day view we hadn’t seen since central Vietnam.
The rest of the ride was mercifully flat, and we decided to spend the night in the most expensive hotel we’d stayed at during almost two years of traveling: $30 at the Qian Jiang Hot Spring Hotel. Livin’ large in bathrobes.
Fengshun to Jieyang (29 km)
Seriously. This cycle barely warrants explanation. I’m not being cynical, but absolutely nothing of note happened on the ride. We rode a very short distance through an endless suburb. Then we ate dessert for lunch.
We spent a couple of nights in Jieyang, and most of that time was spent feasting on dumplings, steamed rice baskets, noodles, and Taiwanese desserts. We also took a ride out to some of the old structures around town, but our hearts weren’t really in it. Most of the ancient temples were in the middle of dirty intersections next to KFCs, and any awe they may have once inspired was lost in the dust and honking.
During our stay, I watched several YouTube videos and read some online info about changing bicycle spokes, and then we went to the local Merida shop to buy all the things required to perform that particular surgery. They weren’t selling the tool to remove the cassette (the cassette is the layer of cogs on the back wheel), but sold us one of the used ones from their own repair bench for cheap. They also sold us a 2nd hand chain whip (a chain whip is another component used in the removal of the cassette, but it can also be a good deterrent against dogs/children). We also got some spare spokes, spare nipples, and a spoke wrench. In some twisted way, I’m actually hoping that we break another spoke soon so I can try out these new tools.
Jieyang to Shantou (49 km)
This was the last cycle on the third leg of our Chinese tour. I wish I could say that it was marvelous in some way, but it was simply a longer version of our previous ride; essentially a never-ending industrial suburb utterly lacking in natural or man made beauty. We passed wastelands waiting for new developments, factories making granite counter tops, the brick towers of brick-processing pants, and pigs being hosed down in crates. The road contained honking trucks and buses, and the heat of the day radiated up from the black, freshly sealed tarmac. We only stopped once on the cycle and took the following photo:
The reason we’d come to Shantou is that Caroline’s ancestors originally came from there. We plan on spending a few days snooping around, possibly trying to uncover some of the history around their migration. If we find anything, I’ll put it in the next post.
And thanks for making it this far!