Sunday, 13 March 2016

Leaving Qingdao and Hitting the (Chinese) Road

Once we got all our IT issues (basically the fact that the Chinese government block almost every form of social media, making communications as we know them, virtually impossible) sorted out in Qingdao, we were eager to get on the road again and begin our Chinese leg of the trip. 

On Wednesday morning, the 2nd of March, we packed up our bikes while being watched intently by many passersby and people peering out from numerous nearby windows.  We cycled down to the local ferry port to get across Jiaozhou Bay so that we could start heading west and not have to navigate our way through the city.  There was a middle-aged Chinese man on his bike also waiting for the ferry when we arrived and he took us under his wing, showing us where to leave our bikes on board and offering us hot water – it was pretty bloody cold out.  When the ferry arrived to the other side of the bay, a whopping ten minutes later, the same man cycled with us.  There was no real verbal communication between us, understanding that the language barrier couldn’t be breached, but he just followed along beside us for about 20km before drifting off ahead, never to be seen again!  Later that evening Nick got an email from the man's daughter with the photos he’d taken of us and saying that his experience with us had left him a very happy man! Our first impressions of the Chinese people in general have been very positive.  Everyone’s been so friendly and kind and getting that email just solidified our thoughts on them. 

We stopped at 11:30 for lunch.  In our bid to head off early we’d skipped a proper breakfast for some bits and pieces from the nearby shop, which had been a mistake.  I don’t know how many times we’ve to learn the same lesson: skipping breakfast is not an option!  Anyway, we stumbled upon a buffet style restaurant so we loaded up our plates, and bellies and felt a whole lot better!  My left knee had been quite sore, actually very sore, especially going up hills, even slight ones, and as we ate and looked out the window at our bikes Nick suddenly realised that my saddle position was far too far back.  He changed the position of it, and almost instantly my knee felt better, and I felt more natural on the bike too.  Not sure how or why my saddle had been in such a weird position and why I hadn’t noticed something felt off – maybe I just put it down to all the extra weight – but I instantly felt more comfortable on the bike and Nick was chuffed with his handiwork so we both peddled off into the afternoon chuffed with ourselves! Small victories, simple lives!

We cycled as far as a little village called Liuwangzhen that day, a distance of 65km.  Not the 100km we are hoping to average on a daily basis but not bad for the beginning of the trip.  Before we left, lots of people were asking us about training and we’d always said the first few weeks would be our training, and so they are.  We are not pushing ourselves at the moment, and aren’t putting ourselves under too much pressure.  We have a three month visa for China, and from what we’ve seen and experienced so far, it’d be a shame to waste it!

Liuwangzhen, like many other towns we cycled through that day, and the days since, was a strip of buildings on either side of the main road.  These small, rural towns seem not to vary too much.  They comprise of rows of two storey dwellings, the bottom floors of which are all garages or workshops, industrial type warehouses.  With closer inspection there is usually one restaurant/eatery and some kind of general shop selling all sorts of things and also nothing at all.  By and large there is nothing else.  No coffee shops, no choice of eating establishments, no hairdressers, no parks or playgrounds, no pubs or bars, often no post-office or bank, no offices or small businesses.  The community seems to be based on farming and farming alone.  The fields are all tended to, there are lots of animals (cows, goats, chickens, geese, even rabbits) and there are lots of workshops to buy, sell and fix all sorts of farming machinery but outside that, there seems to be nothing else, no social outlets, no public amenities.  They are strange towns that seem lost, stuck in time, and without a main road going through them it appears as if they would be totally cut off and forgotten.  Lots of these towns also have unused and unfinished developments.  Apartments or houses that look new and in better condition to the ones being lived in, but they are vacant and look to have been vacant since their construction.   They are derelict and it’s hard to imagine what they were intended for.  Where they built to house the younger generation, who instead of staying in their rural towns are flocking to the cities? Were they built for farmers who come to town to sell their wares to re-settle in? To draw people to the area?  Or to keep people from leaving?  They add an eerie element to these towns and only heighten our curiosity about this country, how it works, what makes it tick, what life is like for the average citizen, if there even is such a thing in a country with a population of over 1.4 billion people.


Anyway, that first night since leaving Qingdao, we stayed in one of these towns.  We had to ask quite a few people where we could find somewhere to stay, it not being at all apparent.  The place was run by an elderly couple who took great pride in their meager surroundings.  They didn’t have much, but everything was scrubbed as clean as could be expected and looked after with great pride.  They had wifi and hot water, but no heating.  They locked our bikes into their little courtyard and covered them up with a blanket for the night.   Apart from having to sleep in multiple layers to keep the cold at bay, we couldn’t have been happier.  The accommodation the next night, in a town – or really just a busy crossroads – was similar, but this time run by a younger couple and their teenaged son.  We were equally welcomed and made feel at home.  We asked the women where we could get food and she motioned us to sit down and that she would cook us something.  She pointed at various things, we nodded enthusiastically and then out came a plate of vegetables and a whole chicken; head, feet and all!  A grand bit of protein to repair us after a day in the saddle!

We've now been in China for over two weeks.  It seems longer in some ways, it's hard to imagine that this wasn't always the way we lived.  We've started learning some Mandarin so that we can read signs and menus and spot hotels.  We are both pretty good at charades now, miming out what it is that we are looking for.  We have keen noses for the best street food stalls around and have become dab hands at spotting people trying to take sneaky photos of us, and posing for them eliciting great excitement!

So far, the most we have cycled has been four consecutive days and not the five that we are planning on doing once we getting fully accustomed to it all but we are trying to ease ourselves into it and listen to any little niggles we have so that we can address them and they don't get any worse.  Getting enough sleep really has been the main thing though so far (for me anyway!), and after 4 days we were both in need of a day off...so we took two! One to fully relax and catch up on sleep, the other to clean our bike chains and to do some blog stuff.  We're about 600km from Xi'an now, the first our of big milestones really, where we'll take another two days off to explore the city and check out the famous Terracotta Warriors. 

*My internet connection is terrible at the moment, I've been trying to upload photos to this for ages but it's not happening, next time folks!