To get us into the mood, here is a collage I've assembled from photos of various vehicles I saw in China (Vietnam had a similar range). The ones in the top two photos are all taxis, whereas the rest are farming and commercial vehicles.
Waking up in Hengyang, the weather was fine, and I made good time that morning. I was low on money, and confirmed once again that “Plus” and “Visa” cards are no good in most Chinese ATM's. Eventually the Bank of China saw me right again, and I had a wholesome lunch of KFC. It seems to be the norm to have a statue of the Colonel outside, at least in Thailand, China and Japan. Maybe it's like that in the US too?
I made fairly good progress the rest of the day, although the road surface and traffic conditions varied a little, and finished for the day at a nice hotel in Shanggao, in the Jianxi Province. As these places probably mean little to the reader, it was now Tuesday night (4 days down, 3 to go), and I had passed the halfway point through China – on track, but still with little time for contingency if the road turned bad or my bike had mechanical issues. At worst, though, it would just have meant waiting another week for the ferry, but I was keen not to have to do this.
This hotel owner was the friendliest I met – not only did he help me find dinner, but he sat there with me and we had a good phrasebook conversation while I ate. (Although I think one phrase the Lonely Planet people could have left out was “Who are the Chinese leaders you respect most?” I certainly had no idea!). He also neglected to charge me for doing my laundry, and was happy to take me down the road to show me where the Internet cafe was, sit there for an hour while I checked my email, and then pay for it at the end! He seemed intent on more conversation, but eventually I had to ask him to leave me to sleep, as I was very tired. I would definitely stay at his hotel again – not for the complementary salted watermelon seeds, but for the welcome I received.
As an aside, I found most hotel bathrooms in Asia a little odd. Of course one expects the squat toilets, but actually most of the hotels I stayed in through Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and China had “Western-style toilets”. The problem with this is that in an Asian bathroom the shower is normally in close proximity to the toilet, and one ends up getting a wet seat, not to mention wet toilet paper.
Of course, things actually worked a lot better when there was a more traditional setup - squat toilet and no paper, just a little shower head to wash oneself off with. Then the only things one has to worry about are the small problem of how to dry oneself after using the shower head (do you take a towel with you?) and the biggie - what if you drop the soap in the hole when having a shower?
In the end I came to the conclusion that in trying to provide convenience to their guests, the builders hadn't really understood the Western way of having a separate shower cubicle, and that their halfway-there results actually ended up being less convenient than if they'd just left them alone.
Almost all rooms come with a comb, many with shampoo and soap, some with a small towel, a few with toothbrushes and toothpaste, and one with a pack of condoms. Cost doesn't always seem to be the determining factor in the luxuries provided. Of course I already had everything I needed, so these things were mostly wasted on me, although it was good to be able to keep my towel dry when possible, and to stock up on soap and shampoo when I could.
The next day's riding very soon met with a surprise, as directions from some locals led me accidentally to an expressway entrance. For once I didn't see any signs banning motorcycles, so I continued past the gates and, when nobody ran yelling after me, figured this must be one of those “special” expressways and continued on my way. What with an immaculate road surface and light traffic, I started to cover ground quite quickly, but I couldn't help but notice the lack of other motorcycles on the road.
The expressways have few exits, and are very well signposted in English, making for easy travelling. After twenty minutes though, I felt I'd been cheeky enough and thought I'd better take the next exit in case I got pulled over. But when nobody seemed to get upset as I passed the tollbooths, I turned around again. Checking again that there was no sign prohibiting me, I continued on my way.
From time to time I passed roadworks, and the workers would stop to stare at me, but whether it was because I was riding a motorcycle on the expressway, or whether it was just because I was a red-and-blue-suited foreigner, I couldn't tell. Every so often there would be a petrol station, and I didn't receive any reaction from them, so I remained uncertain, until suddenly I heard the wail of a siren and saw flashing lights behind me. I started pulling over, but the police car just kept on going. Over the next few hours I saw a number of police cars on the expressway and none of them seemed to bat an eyelid either, so I kept riding for about three and a half hours, mostly at 100kph.
At that stage that section of expressway came to an end, and just after I passed through the final tollbooth, somebody finally took an interest in me. He had some sort of uniform and was following in a vehicle, and seemed to be indicating that I shouldn't be continuing down this road, but taking the turnoff. Once I obliged, he followed, and wanted to ask me something, but after realising the communication difficulty, he waved me on my way.
For the rest of the day the road continued to be excellent, and I clocked up over 600km, my furthest since the Australian Outback. But I'm still not sure if I was meant to be on that road or not.
Most of the traffic I saw in China consisted of trucks of varying sizes and small motorcycles. There were relatively few private cars, many of which were European - VW Passats and Santanas, as well as a few Citroens and other brands. I hadn't thought previously about the limitations of the left-hand-drive/right-hand-drive issue as relates to Japan and China. But if I were a far-sighted Japanese car company, right now I would be building as many factories in China as I could afford to.
Of course all of the expressways in China are toll roads, but many of the regional roads have regular toll booths too. The vast majority of these have a narrow fenced path around the far right hand side where motorcyclists are intended to slip by, so I ended up paying few tolls indeed.
I originally found these tollbooths quite concerning, as I feared that somebody with authority might start asking the wrong questions. There also seemed to be checkpoint areas along the road, which were even more alarming. However most of these were unmanned and the ones that were stopping people seemed uninterested in motorcycles. I had also heard that interprovincial travel in China required special permission, so I was expecting big internal borders between every province, but on my travels through six provinces, I encountered none. So up until this point I had had no problems at all. However tonight things were going to be a little different.
I was pretty tired by the time I arrived after sundown in the small and seemingly nice enough city of Tong Lu. After hunting around a bit I checked into a small hotel in a peaceful sidestreet, and went off to find some dinner. Although I'm not used to peas and carrot in the patty of my KFC burger it wasn't unpleasant and probably fools the health-conscious consumers into thinking that KFC is a healthy choice. After dinner I went in search of an Internet cafe, and after checking my email, I returned to my hotel.
This hotel was one of those (not uncommon in the region) where you don't get a room key – when I returned to the hotel, I had to ask the proprietor to get out his bunch of keys, go up the stairs and let me in. However, for some reason he didn't seem happy to do this. Not only that, with the help of my phrasebook his sign language seemed to indicate that I could no longer spend the night there!
Well I couldn't understand what had changed, but I wasn't impressed with this – I told him I was very tired, and asked him to let me in, so I could go to sleep. He refused, saying I had to wait until the police came! Well, my phrasebook has a good section on “dealing with the police”, so I was able to ask him what I was accused of (included are a range of options from “murder”, “robbery”, “possession of illegal substances”, “traffic violations”, “disturbing the peace” and the like, all the way up to visa-related crimes, and “anti-government activity”). No, it was nothing like this, and I was urged not to worry, as they would be here soon. So here I am standing in the hotel foyer, next to my NZ-registered bike, waiting for the police... and contrary to advice, starting to feel a little concerned.
Well, they came soon enough; an older guy, who was in charge, and a younger lady, who had quite serviceable English, so we were in business. It turned out that the only problem was that this particular hotel wasn't a designated “foreigner” hotel, so I couldn't stay there. Well, that would almost seem reasonable, except that I'd now been in China four nights, and only one of those nights had I stayed in anything that could be called a “foreigner” hotel – they have “Hotel” written outside in English, and are usually more upmarket. Besides, the only likely reason this could have become a problem is because the hotel owner had a twinge of conscience after
Well, the usual passport-fossicking went on. I told them I wouldn't have minded if I'd been refused entry upfront, but that I wasn't going to be kicked out after three hours, when I had already off-loaded and it was already late at night. They were very sorry, but I must move hotels – they would help me. I pleaded with them to allow me to please just stay one night, hoping that then they'd clear out before becoming interested in my means of transport.
The situation was definitely not hostile, but they wanted to know all the usual things - Where had I spent the previous night? Where and when had I entered China? Where and when would I leave? Nobody had heard of Vietnam, even when I showed them the Vietnam visa and Chinese entry permits, and they couldn't quite conceive that I could be travelling alone from place to place across China.
Then somebody noticed my bike.
The registration was taken, and the head guy went off with that and my passport details to run all sorts of checks, while I contemplated my sins, and what I'd do to stop my bike being impounded.
Negotiations and clarifications continued on my sleeping arrangements, but my primary concerns were still with my bike. However, strangely enough, no more mention was made of it, and when the guy came back, he had a book full of “Temporary Residence Registration Permit for Aliens” forms (I had encountered these on my previous trip to China when my hosts also had to get one). After one of these was painstakingly filled out, I was allowed to stay the night, with the semi-reluctant hotel proprietor as my “host”.
It was strongly suggested that I not leave the hotel again that night, to which I expressed my displeasure, saying that it was a hotel not a prison. I think I felt safe enough at this stage that nothing bad was going to happen, but in hindsight, maybe I should just have smiled and nodded at this stage. Anyhow, it had been a long and tiring day, so after politely letting the proprietor know in phrasebook Chinese what I thought of his conduct, I drifted off to a much-needed sleep.
Due to my expressway escapades of that day, I was now comfortably within a day's range of Shanghai and decided to squeeze in a visit to the city of Wuxi, a slight detour to the north. For me the only reason to visit was that it is the Chinese sister city of Hamilton, New Zealand, and I wanted to see what it was like. (Originally I had hoped to liaise with the Hamilton branch of the New Zealand China Friendship Society to do my motorcycle trip from Hamilton to Wuxi, and to possibly use this as leverage to smooth my passage into China, but this never eventuated) There is a plaque in Hamilton commemorating the sister city relationship, and as a footnote says that there is a similar plaque in Wuxi, I thought it might be fun to try to track it down and take a photo of it.
The road to Wuxi passes near the shores of Tia-Hu (Lit: Great Lake), the third-biggest freshwater lake in China. It has an area of 2428 km2
, which is four times bigger than Lake Taupo, so it's possibly the biggest lake I've seen, although it's only 1/34 of the area of Lake Superior – now that's
a lake! Interestingly, Google says Tai-Hu is only 2.6m deep at the deepest point, whereas Lake Taupo is 164m deep!
After an otherwise fairly uneventful trip I found myself in Wuxi. I had few plans other than "going there", but, noticing some tourist signs to a "tourist garden", followed them to see where I'd end up.
Soon I found myself outside the entrance to a garden that left me with a slight sense of deja vu. One thing that seemed different, though, was the the payment kiosk to the left of the entrance, and the tour groups being shepherded about by megaphone-wielding guides. Although it seemed like these gardens might have an entrance fee, I was unable to ascertain whether that was just if one wanted a guided tour, so I bowled on in anyway, and showed myself around.
Near the end of my wanderings one local proudly informed me that this garden was the best in all of China – while this sort of proclamation made me as sceptical as usual, it was definitely a fine garden, and certainly quite reminiscent of the one so far away it was trying to imitate, although on a far grander scale... I took my time wondering around soaking in the peace and taking photographs, as well as listening to a trio of young ladies give an excellent performance on their traditional Chinese instruments.
But by the time I thought I'd explored every nook of the garden, I still hadn't spied any Hamilton-mentioning plaque. I found a garden attendant with excellent English, and, although they eventually understood my meaning, they had never seen such a thing – helpful phonecalls were made to various tourist agencies, but they unearthed no further clues. This didn't concern me greatly, of course, as it had just been a mild interest.
By the time the garden staff had given up searching for this foreigner's plaque, it was after 5pm, and time to start looking for a hotel. I obtained some tentative directions and was about to set off when two young men noticed my bike and started taking an interest in it.
They had figured out that I was a long distance traveller, and were interested enough to ask me questions and ask if they could take some photographs with me. They seemed nice enough, and I happily obliged. But after a while it seemed time to move on, and I asked where I could find a cheap hotel. I was unprepared for the answer:
“If you don't mind, you are welcome to stay with me.” He seemed genuinely friendly, and told me that he lived alone, and if I didn't mind the mess he'd be very happy to have me. He said that his friends enjoyed travelling and liked to meet travellers. This turned out to be quite true – they had been on numerous mountain-biking trips. His friend had even toured through Tibet and they were all planning a return visit in a few months.
Well of course I accepted, and enjoyed wonderful hospitality from a genuinely nice Terry and his friends. I used his shower and Internet, after which he took me out for a quick dinner before we went out for the evening with his friends.
It turned out to me one of those chance meetings that leads to rather unusual experiences – Terry works for the local television station, and through his work had managed to score free tickets to hear visiting Taiwanese pop singer, Chyi Chin. Normally these tickets are 380 Yuan, or about NZ$60, but that night the international act was free.
It didn't matter that I didn't understand a word – the atmosphere and sounds were still most enjoyable, as well as watching the excited but restrained crowd – the police presence was quite strong. It must be a tough job policing such an event – keeping a crowd happy, while still under control. This involves regularly “allowing” infatuated teenage girls to run up onto the stage and present their idol with huge bouquets of flowers and warm embraces, before being dragged back down to their seats. Or in one case a sideways hug and a stolen snapshot, which he dutifully smiled for.
After the concert and obligatory encore, we left the attractive new indoor stadium and eventually found a taxi to a brand new “Westen style” bar, where we conversed a while to an eclectic mix of tunes (including "Puff the magic dragon") before heading off to bed. All in all an unusual, interesting and satisfying day.