CHINA, 25th March – 4th April 2018
It was hard to believe that we were still in China. Right out from Zanhuang we were cycling on small, peaceful country roads, on a route I’d spent the previous evening planning. It took us first through the last of the foothills, and there was perhaps a moment of apprehension on Dea’s part when a slight navigational error had us clambering through thorny bushes to find our way back to a road, but before long we were down on the flat plains, cycling on small paved roads that crossed a seemingly endless sea of rice fields. There was almost no traffic on these back roads, and what there was drove with a care and a lack of honking that we had not experienced on the main roads of China. We had for a long time been concerned about reaching these populated eastern regions of China, yet what we’d now found was better than we ever could have prayed for. Against all odds, it was actually really rather enjoyable cycling.
We were hoping to make it to Qingdao, the coastal port town where we could catch a ferry to South Korea, in just one week, and with a little over 700 kilometres to ride we had nicknamed this task the Power Week. I even came up with a slogan for Power Week, which was really just to say “Power Week” in a powerful way, then stick my clenched fist out in a powerful way, then make a grunting “Urgh” sound, in a powerful way. “Power Week, Urgh!” I would say, powerfully. Dea had her own version of the Power Week slogan, which was quite a lot like mine, but was more like “Power Week, Yeah!” and a bit more upbeat, but still very, very, powerful.
Well with such a positive slogan you’ll not be surprised to hear that the first two days we made good progress. Despite all the rice fields we managed to find a place to camp the first night down by a canal, and on the second we ended up in a town and decided to stop in a hotel, so that I could make some more directions for us. The GPS on our phones were no good in China, so I had to resort to the (relatively) old fashioned method of studying Google maps and writing down every turn. The back roads were great for cycling, but not very direct, so it was all ‘Go 2.4 kilometres, turn left, go 500 metres, turn right, etc’ which took many hours of work to cover all of the 500 kilometres that still separated us from Qingdao. Still, the previous couple of days had proved that it was worth it, to get away from the main traffic and actually enjoy cycling in China.
The next day, however, one of the roads I had planned for us to take was unusable due to being in the process of being resurfaced, and we had to make a detour on some other roads. As we were doing this, following some very small and pleasant roads, we came across another obstacle. Blocking our path now was a plastic water hose that was pumping water out from a pond on one side of the road in order to flood some rice fields further away on the other side of the road. There was no way around this hose, and, despite it appearing rather a cheap and flimsy thing with many little holes in it spurting water out onto the road, we thought it fine to ride over it. I bumped over without any issues and continued cycling, leaving Dea behind to take this rather nice picture of the situation I have just described:
I rode onwards, but after a while I realised that my darling companion was no longer behind me. I stopped and waited a while, but when she did not soon appear I backtracked to find out what was going on. I found her back at the hose, in a rather upset state, along with a farmer man who was trying to plug a fresh hole that had appeared in the hose. “I broke it Chris, I broke it,” Dea said, visibly concerned by the trouble she had caused the farmer man. The tear in the thin plastic had probably been caused by Dea’s front crankset teeth as she bumped over it, and the farmer man’s attempts to plug it were in vain. He turned off the water pump and, realising there was no way he was going to be able to fix such a hole, he solemnly cut completely through the hose with a shovel that he had in his hands.
We both wanted to make amends if we could, but the solution to me looked a fairly simple one. It appeared easy enough to reattach the freshly cut end of the hose to the pump, and these hoses, which we’d been seeing plenty of distributing water to the paddy fields, were hundreds of metres long, so it seemed unlikely that the loss of a couple of metres was going to unduly affect the farmer man. However he did look upset with us, and there was no means of communication, and things were further complicated by the arrival on the scene of a young guy, who could speak a very few words of English. With us unsure of what to do, but still standing there looking concerned, and the farmer man still looking upset, the young guy tried to build a bridge between us, by saying the word “Money, money.”
Although the damage to the hose could not really be said to be our fault – one should not really block a public road with a hose and expect that hose not to be run over (and we would see many other hoses over the coming days, where the farmers had built ramps out of dirt to allow safe passage over them) we nevertheless felt obliged to offer the farmer a little compensation. And I was indeed reaching into my wallet, when the young guy began to demand 200 yuan, about £25. This was clearly way over the odds, the whole flimsy hose was surely not worth that, and I unfortunately rather lost my cool at such an audacious attempt to take advantage. “No chance,” I said, and simply cycled off in anger. Leaving the scene was rather premature, however, as Dea was not quite ready for it, and before she could get away the young guy grabbed hold of her bike by the spare tyre, and refused to let go.
From here the situation quickly worsened. Dea got angry with the young guy for holding onto her bike, I got angry with him for making Dea angry, and he got angry with us for not paying our debt. We were suddenly in a very hostile situation, each side shouting things that the other side could not understand. Finally, however, the young guy gave up and released Dea’s bike in order to let us go. But as she went to ride off he aimed a frustrated kick at her bike, stamping his sole down onto her rear pannier and causing her almost to lose balance. I couldn’t let that behaviour go, so even though we were at that moment free to leave, I went back and confronted him. I couldn’t accept him taking a kick at my girlfriend and the two of us were now getting close to exchanging blows. Luckily it didn’t come to that, because I don’t think I was wearing my helmet. Instead I remembered that I didn’t know how to fight, and even if I did I was outnumbered, and one of them had a shovel, so I tried to calm things down, explaining that if he’d only step out of my way, I’d be happy to just leave it after all, and cycle off. But the young guy now was not going to let me leave. Every time that I moved to try and go he stepped in front of me, and it was impossible for me to move forwards. It was amazing how easy it was for him to stop me cycling just by standing in my way. It reminded me of that famous Tianaman Square image, with the man holding up the line of tanks just by standing in their way. More men were beginning to arrive and, with them only being able to hear one side of the story, it seemed things were only going to get worse for me from here. I decided the only course of action now was to buy my freedom, so I offered 50 yuan to the farmer man, which he took only too happily, and the young guy finally stepped aside and let me pass.
It was a most unfortunate and unsavoury incident, and one which could have been avoided perhaps with a little more tact and understanding. We’d been a little quick to lose our cool, but as I said to Dea afterwards, it was perhaps simply an inevitable consequence of being in such a difficult country for so long. I remembered in the final days of my first crossing of China back in 2014, the heated arguments of my brief time riding with another cyclist, Alex. It was just like all of the frustration, all of the difficulties, all of the “Aaaargh!” moments you have inside of you just have to come out to the surface eventually.
But we were soon back putting the power in Power Week in more constructive ways. On Day 4 we cycled 136 kilometres, crossing the Yellow River along the way and continuing to follow very enjoyable roads. My route was turning out to be a great success, so it was with some distress that we awoke on Day 5 to a most awful headwind coming from the east. I had planned for us to continue in that direction, but through the open fields we’d have no protection against the winds, so we soon decided to abandon my carefully planned route and instead move south-east on the shoulder of busy but tree-lined highways. This meant we were able to cycle a respectable distance and stay on target, but wasn’t much fun. We ended the day camping next to a highway, thinking we’d found a decent enough spot in between a row of trees and bushes, until the streetlights came on and bathed us in light. Strapping bin liners between the inner and outer tents provided a satisfactory solution to that problem though. God, I love bin liners.
With the help of some gas station wifi we were able to return to small roads the next morning and rejoin our original route, the both of us still going strong and still saying “Power Week, Urgh!” Two more 100+ kilometre days and we found ourselves at last in Huangdao, on the shore of a large round bay. From here we knew that there was a ferry across the bay to Qingdao, and our long ride across China was effectively at an end, and what a great feeling that was! It was six p.m. On Day 7, and getting dark when we located the ferry terminal. We were hoping to hop on a ferry to Qingdao and settle into a hostel, maybe even find some pizza to celebrate in the slightly touristy town. So you can only begin to imagine our disappointment to see the ferry terminal all dark and locked up. A local man in a shop confirmed that there would be no sailings this evening and that we would have to come back in the morning.
But there was destined to be a happy ending to our Power Week still. We ate eggs in a little restaurant with a wonderfully friendly chef, then as we cycled away from the ferry terminal into town looking for a hotel there was one that soon caught our eye. It was an absolutely huge building, lit up in a most extravagant way. The Fusheng Hotel was not the kind of place we would usually stay in, being so big and fancy, but we’d ended up in a couple of similar hotels back in Xinjiang, and I thought I’d go inside and try my luck all the same. 318 yuan was the asking price, which remained way out of our price range, even when a discounted rate of 218 yuan was offered. I went back outside and prepared to leave with Dea to look for a more affordable option when the English-speaking lady from reception came outside. “I have spoken to our manager,” she said, “and he would like to offer you a room for 150 yuan.”
Quite why they were so keen to have two utterly filthy cyclists stay in their luxury hotel I cannot say, but it was a very nice way for us to end China. And the generosity of the hotel owners certainly did not end there. The next morning as we were about to leave for the ferry we were asked to wait while a lunch-pack of fried rice and coke was prepared for us. Then, just as we were about to leave, a red envelope was handed to us. In China there is a tradition of giving financial gifts in red envelopes. “It’s a present,” we were told, “from the manager.”
“What is it?”
And sure enough inside there was three 100 yuan notes.
“We wish you a good journey!”
Such unexpected kindness so close to the end of China lifted our spirits so much, which was a timely boost to morale, because when we got to the ferry terminal we found it to be still closed. There was a heavy fog in the bay, and that, no doubt, was stopping the ferry from running. We waited and waited for hours, until someone came and told us that there would be no ferry today. Dejected we headed back to the hotel and rather awkwardly asked if we could stay another night. We could at least afford it now.
The next morning the hotel phoned the ferry company for us, and reported that there would again be no ferry running across the bay due to the fog. It was no surprise. The fog seemed to be mostly due to smog from the large number of surrounding industrial complexes, and we held out little hope that it would clear. Our alternatives were uninviting. There was a tunnel and a 42-kilometre long road bridge across the bay, but neither was open to cyclists, leaving us with the prospect of a 70-kilometre cycle around the outside of the bay to reach Qingdao on busy and unpleasant streets. It was something which did not appeal to us in the least, not now we’d got used to the idea that cycling across China was over. Although I thought it unlikely, Dea spotted a gap in the fog and insisted the ferry might still run today, and her optimism dragged us back to the ferry terminal one last time. And miracle, of miracles, it was actually open. A few other people were there buying tickets, and a small passenger boat soon did arrive. We quickly got our tickets and loaded our bikes onto the front of the boat, before it zipped our relieved bodies across the bay in no time at all.
Though it was a with a huge sense of relief that we disembarked in Qingdao we were at first a little disappointed with what we found. Lots of traffic, narrow streets and big buildings did not make for a great cycling atmosphere, but luckily it was not far to our intended destination, Wheat Hostel, and when we arrived there the gate was opened by a friendly young woman who beckoned us into the brightly painted and nicely decorated courtyard, as if welcoming us in out of the nasty outside world into a safe and homely location. And what a lovely place it was too, with a real effort clearly having been made to make it nice and with the woman, who could speak some English, making us feel very much at home. We noticed that there were pictures on the wall of a man with a touring bicycle. “That’s my husband, the owner. That’s him when he cycled to Tibet in the 1990s. And those other photos of him are from his walk around China.”
We were invited to have lunch and then later dinner with the family, including the man, Vito,who it turned out had spent around six years walking all over China in the early 2000s before meeting his wife and settling down to this hostel project. There was a sense of mutual respect and understanding between us as a result, even though he spoke no English. He’d experienced so much kindness and hospitality on his own travels and he wanted to repay that to those who also travelled by their own steam. We enjoyed the experience of being in a Chinese home, enjoying real Chinese food, and we were so happy to spend this time with such kind, generous people. It made for such a wonderful ending to our long China story.
The next day we planned to take a rest day before taking the ferry to South Korea the following day. In the morning we met a fellow traveller at the hostel, a Frenchman named Julien who could speak Chinese and had only recently arrived in the country to practice the language and travel with no fixed itinerary. We invited him to join us as we headed out for our long-awaited pizza at a tourist-restaurant. Although having a proper conversation for the first time in months felt a little awkward, we talked to him about our own way of travelling and maybe exaggerated the joys of cycling in China a little, for a few weeks later we would hear again from Julien that he had got his own bicycle and was cycling himself.
The pizza was great, and so was wandering down to the seafront together. Qingdao is an old German port, something that was evident in the architecture and the layout of the town. In certain places it almost felt like we could have been in Germany. Down at the seafront we took a walk out onto the pier, and then went down to a beach where Dea and I dipped our feet in the water. This was it. It was the end of China, a goal we had dreamt about for weeks and months. When we had first decided that we should continue to cycle east, riding all of the way across China had been an idea we’d like to achieve, but that neither of us felt very confident we actually would achieve. From the freezing cold nights camping at minus twenty, the heavy snow, and the police obstructions in Xinijiang, to the long stretches of Gobi desert, to the terrors of truck-filled highways, the challenges of the mountains, the difficulties in communication and cultural differences, China had tested our resolve as only China can. But somehow we had made it. Somehow we had stuck to our task, and somehow we had done it. We’d cycled the whole way.
China, we beat you!
Zanhuang – Qingdao
Distance cycled: 732 kilometres