My last road in China took me from Dali down through Yunnan province to the Red River, which I cycled along for about a week to the Vietnamese border. This was the final, farewell tour of China and, just like any other day here, it involved that combination of continually alternating frustration and amazement. Only this time, as the border grew closer, with the added rose tint of nostalgia as my extended stay in the Middle Kingdom drew to a close.
My Christmas present to myself was to get back on the saddle, feeling fully recovered after a bout of food poisoning and 10 days inhaling the smog of Chengdu. After the freezing temperatures on the Tibetan plateau, it was fantastic to be riding once again in shorts and t-shirt and to be riding for the first time on level terrain. After a short climb out of Dali, I spent the next few weeks riding down a succession of long, wide valleys full of banana plantations that were surrounded by hills carved out by rice terraces. This was the cycling I loved, where you can amble along at an almost effortless, steady pace on a wide and quiet road where you can zone out, take in the surroundings and let your mind wander. Cycling Zen.
Yunnan is where the lion’s share of China’s ethnic minority groups can be found and the first valley out of Dali was home to the Hui minority. Minarets, a strange sight in China outside the predominantly muslim Xinjiang in China’s Northeast, soared above most towns in the first valley I rolled down. The first town, Weishan, was a tasteful and quiet old town, was full of Yi women donned wide black turbans going to sell their wares at the market rather than selfie stick wielding tour groups. Picture a classic image of old China and sloping tiled roofs, drum towers, and streets lit by red lanterns probably comes to mind. This town was the spitting image of this, as are many ‘old towns’ that have sprung up across the country, but in Weishan the shops on the main street were grocery stores and barber shops for locals, not souvenir shops for tourists. On every other wooden building was plastered the obituary of its previous inhabitant and the main street was full of coffin makers. Death, rather than tourism, seemed to be the big business here. The extravagant clothes the women (and it only ever is the women) wore in Weishan and so many other unremarkable of villages I passed seems a display of pride in cultural heritage rather than a contrived show for visitors. There is definitely something much more genuine about Weishan than the bigger, busier Dali, the latter of which has, over the years, transformed from a place on the backpacker circuit to full-on caterer to the exploding domestic tourism market in China that’s main drag resembled Oxford Street on Christmas Eve.
Leaving Weishan and heading south, the weather continued to get warmer and the views were gradually getting more tropical. The ground changed to the burnt orange colour that I remember from travelling around South East Asia while more and more plants were extravagantly in bloom despite it being December. Even if you disregard the view and the weather, when bananas cost 10p for half a kilo you know you’re getting close to the tropics.
While everything slowly began to look more South East Asian, but there was no forgetting that I was still in China, AKA the world’s largest construction site. In many of the valleys I followed there were 6 lane highways being built and at the top of any hill I could see in the distance huge scars in the landscape being dug out by JCBs and earth moving trucks scuttling back and forth along roads like worker ants to provide the raw materials for China’s relentless construction, throwing up dust clouds wherever they went in the process. Sharing what should have been quiet roads with these dusty trucks that pass you with little consideration of your desire not to be flattened or covered in dirt was reminiscent of my time crossing the desert in Kazahstan, an experience that sits in my memory as fondly as root canal treatment. I failed to understand the logic, or even necessity, behind a lot of the construction I saw in China, from empty skyscrapers to these huge new roads in a relatively quiet part of the country. If the old road was barely used, who needed 6 lanes? On another occasion I saw a bunch of workers planting tress two meters under some power cables and failed to understand the long term thinking behind this. I’m no economist, but maybe that’s how a planned economy works: infrastructure has been a huge factor driving China’s economy and how else do you keep people in jobs unless you have trees to pull down in a few year’s time?
Something have struggled to deal with, however, is the staring. No other country I have cycled through has a disarming smile, a little nod, or even hello been received with a completely blank, gormless expression on peoples faces as their heads slowly turn a full 180 degrees to watch you pass. At most you hear the muttering of ‘laowai’, but that was about it. I’m sure a passing foreigner is an odd and rare site in some small villages but in every other country I have visited the locals have proved capable to perform some elemental interaction with another human being. This can get quite uncomfortable and rather lonely experience when you’re travelling solo and loneliness is an inappropriate feeling to have in the world’s most populous country. It’s really one of the main foibles I have about China and the feeling of always being watched can put you in a really defensive and uncomfortable mood.
But then there are the occasions I did actually interact with someone that changes all that. Maybe its as simple as someone’s hand sticking out of a passing car that’s giving you the thumbs up. One car that passed me stopped a little further down the road, the people got out and asked me if there was anything that I needed, that I was very welcome here, and proceeded to give me a kilo of Bananas. The ease of camping here was another joy; just asking someone to camp on their land is usually followed by offers of hot water, food, or even a shower.
Whenever something good like this happened in China, I felt so guilty for all those complaints and negativity I had fermenting in my head for hours or even days beforehand. After any positive experience, my frame of mind was reset, all was forgiven, and the cycle started again: Inconvenience, complete astonishment, frustration, a positive event (or any meal in China), complete adoration of this amazing country and then process would begin all over again.
After a few miserable days of cycling in the rain I was joined by Scott & Sarah, two Aussies who had cycled from the UK to Chengdu and endured a year of working for the same English language school as I had (you can check out their blog here). Similar interests (food with a little bit of cycling on the side) had been the basis of a good friendship over the year and it was great to ride with these guys for the final days of a emotionally polarised year in China. We enjoyed a fantastically flat road to the border in the sunshine together and collectively endured a bout of food poisoning from what was supposed to be our blowout, farewell feast of Chinese food. Joy and frustration.
I am still no closer to deciding whether my time in in China has been a great or terrible experience; it’s probably a lot of both. By the end, however, one thing was clear: In spite of itself, in spite of it’s own chaotic, inexplicable, and often frustrating nature, China had become my comfort zone. I’ve certainly figured out how to get by here and, as a result, travelling through the last few hundred kilometres just seemed a lot less interesting or eventful. It was as routine as those repeating cycles of amazement and frustration. I guess 443 days in any country would make you curious about what lies beyond its borders, so crossing into before entering Vietnam, country number 19, couldn’t have been better timed.