Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Answers to a Couple of Your Frequently Asked Questions

We've been getting a few questions fairly regularly so I thought I'd do my best to answer some of them in a blog post.  Here it is!

So far is the trip living up to expectations? Or did you even have any expectations?
I’m not sure that we had many expectations, except that we were expecting to love it.  The two other (much smaller) bike tours we’ve done in the past we’ve really loved, so we were really looking forward to getting started.  Four years in Korea had been enough and we were both definitely ready to move on to something else so the combination of leaving Korea, moving onto something new and going back home made the build up pretty exciting.  I think it is living up to expectations so far, and more maybe.  People often focus on the potential hardships in a trip like this, saying things like ‘what if…’ and ‘what about…’ but they were never really thoughts we had ourselves.  The sense of freedom you get from pedaling yourself to your destination each day, which can be as far away or as close as you feel like, is very liberating.  Also, nothing has gone wrong so far, so there has been nothing to worry about or to try and fix, it’s just been a case of keep pedaling and eventually we’ll get home.  Every so often I think ‘Oh my god, we are going home!’ and I burst out into a big smile.  Life is good.  We eat, cycle and sleep.  We are constantly exposed to all manner of new things: sights; sounds; smells; tastes; and interactions.  What’s not to love?! I went off on a bit of a rant there but in short, yes, it is living up to expectations, we are having the time of our lives.

How far are you going each day? Are you taking breaks?
The rough plan is to cycle 100km per day for five days a week and have two rest days.  In reality, it hasn’t really been like that.  Firstly, the Korean leg was three days, all under 65km per day.  Then, leaving Qingdao, we also took our time and were slowed a bit by a sore knee (mine) and a dose of jippy belly (Nicks). We cycled about 80km for 4 days, and had two days off.  Then to make up time, and kilometers, we cycled about 660km over six days to get to Xi’an.  And now we're still here, four days later, having a grand 'ol time for ourselves before getting back into it tomorrow.  Now that we’ve started to cover 100km a day, I’d imagine that we will continue to do that unless the terrain or weather stops us but I’m pretty sure it will more or less balance out in the long run.  Five days on and two days off is the aim though. Oh and also, we are pretty strict about taking breaks throughout the day, stopping every hour for about ten minutes for a quick snack and a bit of a rest for our bums and thighs!

Do you think you are on schedule? Or ahead? Or behind? Or do you even have a schedule?
I’m not really too sure to be honest, we haven’t given it much thought.  The total distance from Qingdao to the Kazak border is about 4800km so, on the above schedule, that would be 48 days cycling plus 18 days rest, or 66days total.   We’ll also have about a weeks wait for the Kazak visa when we get to Urumqi, which will bring it up to 72 days.  We have a 90 day visa for China though and I’m quite sure we’ll use it.  This country is fascinating and it’d be a shame to rush on to the next place just to get home faster.  We aren’t under any great pressure to be finished.  In fact, I’d say as we get further into the journey we’ll want to slow down, to make it last longer, to delay the return to life off the bikes!

How have you and Nick been getting on?
The same as we always do!  We were two eejits before we started Bike Back Home, and we are still two eejits now.  We’ve both had one meltdown so far, over stupid things, and I’m sure we’ll have plenty more but they are all part of it.  As long as we take it in turn to meltdown we’ll be fine!! Mostly though it's business as usual, lots of laughing and joking!

Are you knackered all the time?
No actually, not half as bad as you might think.  In saying that, each day, by the time 4pm or 5pm rolls around we are both ready to be done for the day.  A quick meal and straight to sleep at the end of the day but when the alarm goes off then at 6am the following morning we’re usually raring to go again and it always feel so nice to be back in the saddle and on our way.

What have the locals been like in the places you’ve been to so far?
Amazingly friendly.  I’m writing this from Xi’an which is a massive city, so obviously things are a little different here but in general the people we’ve encountered have been inquisitive and exceptionally friendly, often times going out of their way to help us and always doing their best to interpret the gibberish we are speaking and the wild gestures that we are chucking about the place to explain what it is we are doing and where we are going.  It makes a big change from what we were used to in Korea where the norm is to keep your face as expressionless as possible and try not to show any emotion.

What has the sanitation (toilets) been like?
It’s varied pretty wildly.  There have been a surprising number of public toilets all along the way.  They are, however, a bit of a lucky dip! Some are (almost) sparklingly clean, and others are beyond description.  The bathrooms in the guest houses and hotels we’ve been staying in have been similarly varied, although, never bad enough to warrant not using as can be the case with the public ones.  The one common theme, no matter the look, is the smell, which can be pretty overpowering and wouldn’t exactly encourage you to bring your book into the bathroom with you!

How do you manage to find places to stay each night?
With difficulty at first but we’ve since learnt the Chinese characters for hotel and inn which are pretty easy to spot.  There seem to be tons of places to stay in each town, no matter how small, and we generally just chose one that’s fairly central.

How are you communicating? Is there much English spoken?
No, there's hardly any English spoken.  We gesticulate and we use a translator we downloaded onto our phones. Also, before we left, we made some flash cards with basic sentences on them in Chinese, Cyrllic, Persian and Turkish so we use them too.  We’ve both been learning a bit of mandarin on Memrise in the evenings too, which has been really helpful.

Did you go and see the Terracotta Warriors while in Xi’an?
Yeah, we did.  We were a bit put off by tales of huge crowds, and like every other major tourist attraction in the world, we knew that we’d never get to see it any better than we already had on the internet or T.V but they were actually very impressive and I’m glad we went.  We went early in the morning, and on a Monday, which I think helped with the crowds because when we were leaving it was much busier than it had been when we arrived.  It costs 150RMB (€20), a price that probably excludes the vast majority of the Chinese population, which we didn’t like.  Fine for tourists, but such an amazing historical find like that should be accessible to everyone. 

What’s the next leg of the route like? Will there be many big cities or will you be more rural from now on? How long will it take to get there?
The next major destination is Urumqi in the far North West of the country. Our route to get there will be about 2700km and take us well over a month.  When we leave Xi’an we will be heading through some pretty big mountains, and will have at least one pass over 2500m.  After a city called Zhangye, we’ll be heading almost directly north to the Mongolian border before turning west and coming into Urumqi from the north. We’ll be following the G312 almost the whole way from here to Urumqi and once we get there we’ll be nearly ⅓ of the way home!  As far as cities go, I’m not too sure.  Google maps so far has been almost no help when it comes to town or city size and places that look like they will be little backwaters turn out to be fully fledged cities so who knows.  I can’t imagine that we won’t pass some big cities though, we’ve passed so many so far, I doubt it's going to change now into wild open expanses with no big urban centres.

What about China in general? What's it like?
Where to start....China is mesmerising.  It is both what you'd expect in terms of the amount of people, the level of construction, the industry, the obvious environmental damage, the food, the general exoticness of the place but it is also full of totally unexpected things, so much so that I often have to remind myself that I'm in China.  It's unlike anywhere else I've been in Asia.  It is both very modern and very underdeveloped. There are literally all sorts of people, of different ethnicities and cultures, different dress, different mannerisms. Actually that seems to be the general feel of things...there is just more in each category.  For example, on the roads you would expect the usual bikes, motorbikes, cars, vans and trucks but there are also a whole manner of different vehicles.  There are trikes, three wheelers (like tuk tuks of Thailand), things that we call pope mobiles ('cause that's what they look like), three wheeled vans or pick up trucks that carry so much stuff that they look in danger of toppling over and you'd wonder why on earth they are built with three wheels instead of four.

The roads in China are amazingly good. But having just said that, they can be a little like the public toilets in that you don't quite know what you'll get until you see it.  They can be smoothy surfaced with a wide hard shoulder/lane for small vehicles for kilometres and then, out of nowhere, can turn to a muddy, stoney, bumping track.

There is industry and signs of 'modern advancement' everywhere you look.  So many chimneys, so many factories, so much construction.  All that means it is also by far the dustiest, dirtiest place I have ever been.  After a day on the road, we are filthy, covered from head to toe in black, grimy dust.

Owning a big, fancy-looking, western-made car seems to be a sign that you've made it.  Even in the smallest towns, houses that look like they wouldn't have hot water can often have a brand new VW Passat, or the likes, parked outside.  Big SUV's with tinted windows and aggrressive drivers aren't uncommon either but often it doesn't make sense, the amount of them means owning such a car can't  just be the reserve of the wealthy.  It must be pretty easy to get a serious amount of credit here and people don't seem shy of jumping on the bandwagon and trying to pull themselves up the social ladder that the entire world seems to be scrambling up in a desperate attempt to who know's what! The Chinese seem to be no exception in that regard.

The damage being done to the environment is overwhelming.  Anybody who thinks that the actions of humans isn't having a drastic effect on the world around us should be forced to take a trip to China and experience what unchecked economic growth and industry can, and does, do.  I don't know how many river beds we have cycled over that have been bone dry.  Sometimes they are small, steep valleys that should have raging torrents flowing down them, and sometimes they are wide, meandering valley floors that should have huge, slow moving, giants of rivers in them, but all are empty, or reduced to a minor trickle.  What's even more shocking is that they have obviously been this way for years because the river beds are now being cultivated.  There are also houses and roads in them, even factories.  The Chinese aren't expecting the water to start flowing there again any time soon.

Most of what I have just typed seems overwhelmingly negative but that hasn't been our general impression of the country.  In fact, it's been quite the opposite.  We are loving being here.  The people are so friendly, the food is delicious, and most importantly, the truck drivers (of which there are thousands) give us oodles of room when they overtake us! It is constantly interesting, with strange and unusual things every which way we look.

I could go on and on but at the same time it's also hard to know what to say (write!), there is so much.  We have seen so much, and so much that doesn't make sense to us and our western viewpoints of the world.  We are both wading through books on modern China at the moment in an attempt to understand more of what we are seeing and experiencing all the while hoping that we will meet someone sooner or later with decent enough English so that we can get a Chinese perspective on all we are experiencing.