Little Trouble in Big China

It was time to make my escape from Macau. I hopped on my bicycle and made my move for the border. I felt a bit bad leaving Dave in hostile waters. We were told we would need to purchase insurance before the boat left Macau, something Dave would attempt to avoid. Now that we had made friends with the Customs folks I figured it would work out somehow. All good.

I currently had more nerves surrounding the Chinese border. Of all the countries I would visit I knew there was a high chance of the Chinese refusing me entry. I had, however, been informed that I could walk across the border, and I had obtained a 7 year multiple entry visa for China while in Hong Kong. Things were in my favour.

The border post was a massive building with few windows and no clear entrance. It wreaked of bureaucratic pomp and spectacle. It wasn’t easy to know where to go. Then I saw them… Escalators and elevators.

I saw people with large bags getting diverted from the escalators to the elevators and my heart felt like a rock. I spotted an empty flight of stairs to the side of the escalators and moved toward them as determined and inconspicuous as possible, as if I knew exactly where I was going. Of course I was the only 6’3” white guy with a fully loaded bicycle within hundreds of km’s, so I stuck out like a sore thumb.

A security guard looked at me with surprise at first, then smiled, then pointed me towards the elevators. I smiled back and nodded confidently as if to say “don’t worry, I got this” as I pretended to easily lift my fully loaded (and terribly awkward to carry) bicycle onto my shoulder. I confidently (on the outside) carried the 70kg on my shoulders and up the two stories of stairs. I made it up quickly. “The force” had prevailed. Temporarily relieved, I was concerned about what I would face next.

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There was no clearance procedure from Macau. For some reason that made sense to me (it is part of China now). Just an entrance post into the most populated country in the world. I was in the foreigners line, one of two, out of the 50 or so other booths. There were teenagers in front of and behind me, they seemed a bit nervous. That made me feel a bit less nervous. I snuck a photo. I was expecting to get drilled with questions. Where was I staying? What was I doing? etc.

I approached the counter smiling and relaxed. I used my two words of Mandarin and then continued in English with the apparently fluent female Chinese border guard. She asked me where I was going and I replied with the name of the nearest city. She stamped my passport and I entered my first communist country (if you can still call it that).

Sort of. I still needed to go through Customs. Everyone was loading their bags onto a conveyor belt to get screened though an x-ray machine.I approached with my bags strapped to my bicycle and looked at the officials, they signalled me to continue on without looking into my bags. I pushed my bike past and entered into a massive square. I pulled out my camera and spoke a few quiet and self censored words, with an intense suspicion I was being watched.

I didn’t want to draw too much attention to myself in the first minutes in China so I hopped on my bike and rolled away from the border to a nearby ATM. Successful withdrawal! I had some Renminbi! (Chinese Yuan $$$). I wasn’t expecting it to be so easy.

I found a young cyclist who escorted me to a nearby bike shop where I bought a jersey and a fourth spare tube, just in case. I was keen to get as far from the border as possible and out of this rapidly developing city with big highways and construction projects everywhere. The roads more than handled the traffic so the riding wasn’t so stressful. It did take a long time though, almost four hours. I was still on a highway but had escaped to a more rural setting with large gaps of rice paddies between the massive factory/apartment complexes. I wondered what they were producing and what the migrant workers who occupied them had left behind in their home towns.

I wasn’t sure where I would end up that night. The same fine gentleman from MAD DOGS Cycling Tours, whose bike I was riding, had supplied me with a route map from one of the tours he offers. It was nice to have an idea of where I might find accommodation.

 Want to do a similar ride to me but wth more comfort? Check them out.

Want to do a similar ride to me but wth more comfort? Check them out.

I would soon run into a rather large obstacle. A toll bridge for cars and trucks only, restricted to both motorcycles and bicycles. Stupid. I figured I could sneak by the toll gates if I hid behind a big truck and didn’t look back. I would then have a few km sprint to cross the bridge before they could rally a car to stop me. It was feasible.

I made my move but I wasn’t committed enough! I opened myself up to them stopping me when I responded to their shouts and looked in their direction. I wasn’t yet comfortable defying Chinese authority. I’m not sure I’ll ever be. It cost me a 50km detour which usually I wouldn’t blink an eye about, but I was already behind schedule to meet my brother Rein in Hanoi.

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At first glance the Chinese I came across weren’t particularly smiley or friendly towards me, but every time I stopped and gave them a chance to say hi, I quickly gained friends. I feel it is a bit rude to travel in a country and not speak at least a few essential words of the local language. I had spent some time while sailing across the Ocean learning Mandarin, which helped, but it’s a stretch to call it the local language in most parts of China. Most people will speak it, or at least understand it, but it’s certainly not the most common language in the South. Cantonese is, and I was useless with it.

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Even if I had studied Mandarin more, most people likely would have looked at me and assumed I was speaking a foreign language, instead of attempting to understand my weirdly accented and poorly spoken words. I’ve done it myself when someone spoke English to me with a super strong Vietnamese accent. This can be frustrating when learning a language, and is a common experience for many people. If you don’t look like you speak the language it’s that much harder to learn it.

As the sun was setting I arrived on the outskirts of a town and found two roadside hotels. Both were well above my budget at $30 and $35 a night. I briefly considered finding a place to sleep outside before I somehow managed to bargain one down to $25. It was hard to find budget accommodation without the language and no internet for most of my time in China. I once found a place for $10 which felt like a prison cell. I got little rest for the following full day of cycling.

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It was monsoon season and I was frequently soaked after cycling 150-180km, day after day. I didn’t find it hard to justify paying a bit more to have a dry place to sleep that week. Guilty pleasures.

China was where I would learn the Asian rules of the road (or lack there of). The most startling and at first annoying (actually it still is annoying), is the apparently stubborn, if not suicidal practise of never looking behind you or checking what’s coming your way when you turn on to a road. Someone described it to me as ski hill etiquette. It made a little more sense. Don’t concern yourself with what’s behind you, only with what’s in front of you.

I’d be quickly cruising down the shoulder as people on bicycles, motorbikes, cars, and even trucks would pull out in front of me without even looking. I’m sure people must get crushed frequently. It’s nuts and angered me at first. Partly because I would have to slam on my brakes and slow down, sometimes swerve into traffic to avoid them, and mostly because it just seemed stupid, and stupidity can anger me when I’m tired and not thinking very wisely myself.

Most of the Chinese roads I travelled on were silky smooth with big shoulders designated for motorcycles and bikes. 10km before, after, and during most of the larger cities there was a separated lane for bicycles that often had some trees for shade. I wasn’t sure if the planners were thinking in the past or looking to the future. Bicycles had recently all but disappeared from the roads but were sure to make a comeback in the near future, or so I hoped.

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I felt a bit out of touch with you when I was in China. Facebook and many other western social media sites are blocked. It may be your initial perspective to think it is ridiculous that they would censor a social media application. It’s true that the central government is known to be censorship crazy but in the case of Facebook and others it was simply a good business decision. That is what social media is after all. A business. Why allow companies to freely gather data on all of your citizens without having any control or profit from it. Apart from being a smart business move it made obvious sense for a government who prioritizes social control of it’s citizens.

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My new Chinese friends filled the void of my online social community. I had a WeChat account and my new friends were very keen on continuously communicating with me on it. I preferred to focus on the people who were in front of me, buying me dinner, and passing me a plastic glove to eat it with. This didn’t happen all the time but it was common in some fast food restaurants.

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My new friends would often make jokes with me (in Cantonese or some other dialect I didn’t understand). I would laugh because I’m sure I was the brunt of the joke, which was funny, and because their laughs were contagious.

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The common restaurant setup had a few massive bamboo steaming containers with many different little dishes inside them. They would lift up the big lid and you could pick and choose what looked appetizing. Noodles, rice, vegetables, mystery meats, and hot chillies were the norm. It cost $2-$3 for a decent meal. I’m sure it wasn’t the best food in China but it satisfied my cycling appetite. I avoided the chicken feet snacks you could find at any convenience store.

There was some very ambitious development taking place along the southern Chinese highway corridor. Small and dilapidated downtown’s were slowly being eaten by large apartment complexes. Rice paddies were transforming into big hotel strips with fancy shops and four lane roads with large intersections to nowhere. Literally. Left into a rice paddy or right into a grass covered hill. The road construction people were milking every penny of possibility. It was common for the four lanes of main road to be empty and all the traffic to be in the motorbike lane. I’m a bit scared of what may come when all those roads are actually used.

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I pushed on through the driving rain for 5 days and covered over 800km in a hurry. China flew by like a kite without a string. I barely got a glimpse of the culture that survived Mao’s unfortunate revolution. I made it to the dirty border town with Vietnam, wondering when I might return, and perhaps have an honest conversation without the looming fear of disappearing.