Saturday, November 9, 2013

China: First Impressions

So it’s definitely not love at first sight, but my first two days in China have made quite an impression.  First of all, I should mention that I can’t get on Facebook to post a daily photo, sorry, the government has it blocked, as well as Blogger, so my friend  “Vichenze” is helping me out and doing the logistical part back in socialist Spain!  Thank you!

I’m not one to get nervous trying new things. In fact, I usually throw myself into new situations without thinking twice.  I do admit, though, I was anxious for my China travels.  I fell in love with Hong Kong even tough it was such a densely populated area, however, I didn’t attempt to bike more than a kilometer on the islands.  My warm shower host in Hong Kong gave me some good advice to bypass the Hong Kong mainland border crossing and the Pearl River Delta. You see, the Pearl River Delta (PRD) isn’t like other deltas.  In Catalonia we have the Delta d’Ebre, which is filled with wildlife sanctuaries, paella restaurants, and rice patties.  Perhaps the latter sight is the only commonality between the two river deltas.  China’s PRD is one of the most densely urbanized areas in the world and China’s main hub of economic growth.  There is a dense network of highways with all sorts of tunnels, bridges, and toll sections making it a cyclist’s worst nightmare.  I could only imagine what this area looked like until I actually arrived.

Pearl River Delta

The plan was to take the ferry that would strategically place me the furthest west of the delta as possible.  Of course, I managed to hop on the wrong ferry, and I sailed to heart of the western PRD!  As I started cycling, all I could think about was avoiding the major highways.  For the first 50 kilometers, I must have actually progressed east to west a good 10 kilometers, but my bike computer showed 50.  I kept going in circles trying to find what I thought was a less main road, and ended up in a maze of huge roads in a dense urban area.  Tiny faint gray lines in google maps, that would be dirt roads in European countries, are actually four lane highways in China.  It wasn’t until 200 kilometers into my riding here that I finally found some “country roads”.  Today I did the majority of my riding on roads that were so small, a car would pass maybe every 500 meters, where as 500 cars would pass every 100 meters on the other roads.

Needless to say there is smoggy air and the trash everywhere in this region of China. After riding for about 20 minutes, I noticed I had a bunch of grit in my teeth, like I had eaten something sandy.  My mouth was closed but all the pollution was coming in through my nose.  That same evening I purchased a facemask to use, like I saw the majority of the natives using on the roads. The facemask actually serves two purposes for me; it keeps me from breathing the polluted air, but I can laugh all I want underneath it and no one will think I’m crazy or disrespectful.  You have to laugh here in China, be flexible, and take everything with a grain of salt.
My company on the road

I’m definitely not alone on these Chinese roads, there are handfuls and handfuls of cyclists.  Bicycles come in all shapes and sizes.  People ride tricycles with heavy loads on the backs, moms and dads cycle with kids on the back of their bikes, and I’ve also seen husbands with their wives in a little cart off the back.  Some bikes have mini motors, there are public bike rentals (like Bicing in Barcelona), and there are bikes converted into mini stands selling foods, bikes carrying cages of chickens and ducks,….you name it and you’ll find it on a bike here in China.  In fact, I feel a little foolish on my proper touring bike with panniers and all, because there are people carrying a lot heavier loads with bikes that have wobbly tires that look like they might break down at any moment.  It reminds me of hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro with my high quality gear carrying a light day pack.  In front of me, my porters were carrying three or four times that load without any technical gear wearing sandals and didn’t even use a backpack.  To tell you the truth, since everyone is riding a bike, I blend in and don’t get stared at as often. 

The honking continues, however, and even more so than in any other country.  Cars, motor scooters, trucks, every single one of them that passes honks to let me know they are coming.  I appreciate them watching out for me, but it gets old fast and sounds like a symphony of honks out on the highway.  I thought that I wouldn’t get any of those “horny honks” from men, and I expected the Chinese culture to be pretty reserve, but it took a total of 1 day to get hit on pedaling.  Today a man on a motor scooter slowed down to pass me, smiling, and making some sort of hand gesture I couldn’t understand. I passed him, and then he drove up to my side again.  This time he was babbling in Chinese and using his hands frantically to gesture picking up the bike and putting it on his motor scooter.  I couldn’t help but just laugh at him and I kept saying “no, no” with a big smile on my face.  For a moment, I remembered the man in Turkey, but luckily he left after babbling back to me a bit more.

I call Chinese babbling, because I really don’t understand anything people say.  The funny thing is they talk to me and repeat themselves in Chinese like I am going to understand them after the third or fourth time of hearing them say the same thing.  I answer back in English telling them I’m clueless and then they repeat themselves again.  The conversation goes nowhere but it is quite amusing.  Yesterday I resorted to drawing pictures and writing numbers to try to maintain a 5 minute conversation at dinner.  Communicating is a challenge.  The word hotel for instance doesn’t even ring a bell with them, so I have tilt my head with my hands together under it, and make snoring sounds.  I wish someone could videotape this interaction; it’s quite the sight.  You’d think the snoring sound would give it away, but they still look at me like I’m crazy.  Maybe snoring makes a different sound in Chinese. 

Road signs don’t really help that much

While English was written everywhere in Hong Kong, in China it is no where to be found.  Yesterday, there was no way to identify the building as a hotel, I got really lucky and went exactly to where someone pointed after making my gestures.  Today, I rolled up to a massage parlor first, thinking it was a hotel, and then found a travel agent. They were able to call a hotel and give me directions, which basically said go straight then turn right- very specific directions in a city of 100,000+ people.  I got on my bike and pedaled straight and found streets off to the right every 20 meters. As you can imagine, I abandoned that mission and kept cycling through the city.  Enping is enormous city even though it hardly shows up on Google maps. Eventually someone was able to gesture to another hotel close by and a car honked and pointed when I was in front of it. 

Industrial sightseeing on the road

crops squeezed in between all the buildings

The scenery continues to blow me away.  China gives new meaning to the word “dense”.  Every piece of land had been developed and is in use.  Rice patties, crops, and fish farms are squeezed in between buildings and towering skyscrapers.  The streets are lined with stores, factories, restaurants and markets.  I thought the Italian Riviera was built up because the towns blended together for kilometers on end. Without realizing it, you went from one to the other and passed your destination without even noticing.  Here in China, it is the same, but instead of going from town to town, you are passing from one major city to the next.  A tiny little speck of a city on Google maps turns out to be a city with half a million people.  Getting in, out, or around is quite a task, and I have my GPS out every 5 minutes to make sure I’ve taken the correct road.  The name of the city on Google maps isn’t the same as the names on the Chinese road signs, and that is if they actually write them in our western alphabet. At least the bike symbol is universal and China’s cycle paths are on the side of any major road are well labeled.  But the bike paths are total free-for-all, shared by cyclists, motor scooters, and cars that want to make an upcoming turn.  Cars drive on the right, but I can’t figure out if bikes are different because they pass me on all sides both from behind and straight on, it is total chaos! 

Despite the chaos on the streets, the people I’ve interacted with are nice.  They are just as curious as I am.  Have you ever seen the way monkeys inspect one another at the zoo looking for lice?  I sort of feel like one of those monkeys.  As soon as I sit down out side a shop or restaurant, people immediately begin to hover.  There is no respect of personal space here.  Last night I sat down outside the restaurant to eat my dinner and do some journal writing.  I couldn’t believe the amount of people who approached me.  They started touching my journal and flipped through the pages.  When I stop on my bike to get a drink or some fruit, the same thing happens.  People of all ages come over and start looking at my bike, touching the panniers, curious to see what I’m all about.  Of course, trying to explain what I am doing is useless, we just don’t understand each other.

Today I stopped for some fruit.  There wasn’t really a “peaceful” place to eat it, so I sat down on the little stool at the store.  The family who ran the shop started to hover around and watch me devour the mandarins and so they offered me more, and then invited me to lunch right there on my little stool.  Luckily it was a noodle soup and easy to identify the ingredients.  Today, when I arrived at the hotel, I couldn’t figure out why the lady was telling me one price, but trying to take double that.  Behind me came a family, who luckily spoke English, and could translate for me the fact that hotels ask for a room deposit.  It turns out they were the owners of the hotel who had just arrived from Hong Kong and were coming to see how things were running.  I ended up getting the red carpet treatment and was invited to a delicious dinner and breakfast the following morning.

Kieran, Me, Peggy, and Johnson

I can’t figure it out, but I always have the best of luck wherever I go, that or I look so bad and desperate that people can’t help but lend me a hand!  I’ve got another week in China, each day filled with a million tales to tell!

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