Monday, April 25, 2005

Hengyang, Hunan, China (Day 70, 11469 km)

Oh no! Not only is this border right on the edge of a town, rather than out in the country (which somehow makes it feel like people there would be a lot better informed), both the Vietnamese and Chinese archways are built like fortresses and, although there was a wide road between the arches, the gates were closed and there seemed to be only people crossing on foot. I didn't feel like I stood any chance at all of getting through here!

Ah well, best get it over with... And at the same time keep praying... I was again grateful for the carbon-copying Vietnamese arrival/departure cards, because by this stage I had filled out a few. They seemed to yet again have slightly different paperwork requirements for my bike, but again it was not really an issue – after they'd gotten over the number of cancelled Vietnamese exit visas in my passport, they opened the gate, and I was allowed to ride my bike through, down the wide stretch of nowhere (I'm not sure who pays for the maintenance) and park outside the Chinese building.

Well, the border wasn't very busy, and in no time my passport was stamped, and I was into China and free to continue on my way. Except I don't think they'd noticed I had a bike, and that was still very much on the other side of the closed Chinese gate!

So I went back into the building and casually asked if they'd be able to open the gate for me so that I could wheel my bike through. Well, of course it wasn't going to be quite that simple... The nice lady wanted to know if I had permission, and I told them of course, and showed them my carnet, and how it gave me permission to travel through all these countries...

She was helpful, but wasn't entirely sure, not having seen such a document before. In any case, she decided things needed to be bumped up a notch and got on the phone to her superior. At the same time, my chances seemed to shrink even further – now they were starting to really look into it, surely there was little hope? But the people at this border seemed quite relaxed – maybe this is usual, or maybe it was just a Saturday morning thing. But there seemed to be a healthy work atmosphere, with a bit of teasing going on, relaxing everybody. While she was waiting, she sent a lackey to get a little round red stamp and pad, and for the rest of the discussion these sat tantalisingly on the table in front of us. That stamp could authorise my paperwork! But would it?

Pretty soon along came the boss. After he'd finished doing his tie, and put on his cap, I shook his hand, and allowed her to explain the situation. Discussion ensued, and more thorough browsing through my passport, almost giving the impression he understood its contents.

Then came some questions – "How long would I stay in China?" Well, I planned to catch a ferry from Shanghai in exactly one week's time. "Where would I stay tonight?" – I decided to be specific and chose Nanning, the next major town – Chinese borders don't seem to like “Where ever I get up to when the sun goes down”.

A bit more to-ing and fro-ing and I kept praying. Now the boss led me off back the way I'd come – even though my passport still showed me being in China, we went back out the building into no-man's land. Then I understood – he wanted to look at my bike. Ok, there you go. I didn't know why, but he seemed to want to see what was in my tankbag and panniers. I figured doing what he wanted was wise, and started unpacking them, but he seemed satisfied with a rather cursory search, and I didn't have to more than half unpack anything.

It was starting to dawn on me at this stage, but it only really hit when he rolled aside the gate, and motioned that I should wheel the bike through to the other side. We then went back inside and I sat down again while more discussion went on.

The nice lady took over the forms again, having produced the magical “Declaration Form” as well. It took a few more minutes, but eventually the tantalising red stamp was utilised, first on my carnet, and then on both copies of the Declaration Form, along with a bit of good-humoured teasing when she didn't seem to know quite what the date was. I was told to look after my copy carefully, as I would need it when I tried to re-export the bike. And after that, I was free to go!

So there you have it – were you expecting something more clever or spectacular? It certainly wasn't anything special that I did, and I'm not really sure why it worked for me on that day, and so few others, but I gave the glory to God, and rode off into China, carefully, but at the same time making sure I didn't hang around long enough for them to change their minds!

I found it a very non-emotional and surreal time, yet in many ways it was the defining moment of the trip, as I had never had a clear strategy for getting into China, and I now felt confident of being able to complete the entire “Hamilton to Japan” journey. I had always assumed that once I was actually in China, things would be much easier, and this turned out to be the case – maybe because everybody in authority assumed that I could only be there because I was allowed to by somebody else, so it must be alright!

The first item of business was to put on all my motorcycle gear (I had ridden the 8 km to the border without my suit, gloves and boots so that I would cause less of a stir at the border). Then I needed to change some money. Of course this was a bit of a challenge – I'd forgotten that only one or two different kinds of Chinese banks are authorised to change money, but after a few phrasebook conversations, somebody got me to follow them on their scooter to the Bank of China, and I was soon on my way with enough yuan to be able to fill up my tank and last me until I had found my feet in this, the eighth foreign country of my travels.

Very soon I began to notice people using their indicators. Not only were horns and headlights used for purposes other than intimidation, after dark I regularly had people dip their lights for me too! This made a nice change, and was not expected, given my memories of far northern China.

Having heard stories about bikers getting this far and then having problems with a local constable, I felt like it was a priority to be as inconspicuous as a tall, white, blond-haired, leather-suited person on a noisy, overloaded trailbike can be. Nonetheless, I very quickly found that most people here were just as friendly to this unusual foreigner as they had been on the other side of the border.

I was also pleasantly surprised to find that I had not lost my (very basic) Chinese vocabulary nor my ability to read commonly-used characters. This boosted my confidence and meant that by the end of the week I had had a number of fairly satisfying phrasebook conversations.

The first fun interaction I had was with the petrol pump attendant who wanted to know if I had any US dollars. I showed him one, and agreed to exchange it with eight of his yuan, about the going rate. I'm sure that counts as illegal money-changing, but I decided it was a good-will gesture, and that as China is so unlike such multi-currencied countries as Indonesia and Cambodia, it would be enough of a novelty for him that he would probably keep it as a souvenir.

Anyway, it was time to press on and get as many kilometres as possible between me and the border – I had this notion that once I was more than a few hours' ride away, if I was stopped I might be less likely to be sent back. I also figured that once I was over halfway, then maybe sending me on would be their best bet. Thankfully neither of these theories were tested, because having the bike impounded seems like it might have been a more likely result.

Without too much trouble I found myself on what seemed like an expressway of some kind, and made excellent progress for about 60km, due to the excellent road and very light traffic. This included going through a couple of toll gates, each costing 1 Yuan (about NZ$0.20), following a similar system to the Vietnamese where motorcycles pay only a nominal fee and trucks have to pay (comparatively) lots.

Abruptly this road came to an end, and when I took the road that seemed to follow on naturally, there was a problem – signs everywhere showing that this is an expressway (obviously the other one had been something different) and motorcycles are prohibited. Nonetheless, I had been in many places where signs either didn't mean anything or meant something different from what I thought, so I decided to put it to the test, and road up to the tollgate, where the attendants' sign language made it quite clear that I was not allowed.

This became a recurring theme throughout my journey – the first patch of road was obviously something technically a little different from an expressway, because it hadn't been a problem, even at the toll gates. But on pretty much every other expressway entrance I rode past, there were signs banning pedestrians, bicycles and tractors, as well as motorcycles. Given the range of "motorcycle" in China it is understandable, but the Japanese system of only prohibiting bikes smaller than 125cc seems fairer to me.

It was a pity not being allowed on the expressways, as the expressway system in China is excellent, and I was in a hurry. But I suppose it also meant that I saw much more of the countryside than I otherwise would have. And the numbered regional roads were mostly very good too, however their quality ranged from the “40 km of ploughed-up roadworks with piles of rocks” type to the “lovely surfaces with sweeping curves, good bridges and passing bays” variety. The other issue was that one never quite knew when one would turn to the other. It seemed like the signs in some towns had been put up before new road diversions had been finished, and only a few of these were covered, or had a marked detour, so sometimes I'd lose the road on my way through a town, and have to take a few crazy back streets before finding it again by accident (with the help of my GPS for direction). Roads are just one of the many areas where China seems to be investing amazing amounts of effort and money – I suspect that if I were to repeat the trip in three years, that most of the bad patches would be unrecognisable.

Just over 100km into China, near the (unmarked) Tropic of Cancer, my bike's odometer hit the 50000km mark (40000km was reached up the east coast of Australia just south of Rockhampton and the Tropic of Capricorn) and I pulled over to take a photograph. Although the road was in an isolated stretch, I happened to stop right next to some road workers, who wanted to know why I had stopped. No language was needed for this one – I just pointed to my odometer, and they smiled and looked suitably impressed.

I had been very fortunate with the weather until now, having had only one rainy day in Thailand and one drizzly day in Vietnam, but the first three days in China evened things out a bit. The first wasn't that heavy, and as it only began in the late afternoon, I considered that I had achieved enough for a single day, and asked around to find a hotel in the next small town.

The hotel owners were friendly enough, and were keen to engage me in plenty of phrasebook conversation. They also helped me find dinner, and an Internet cafe – unfortunately the cafe was the noisiest, most bustling one I had yet come across, and I was obviously the best exhibit they'd had all week, so I found it really tiring and irritating trying to do any correspondence with at least ten people clustered around watching my every move.

I knew I was in China the next morning when outside my hotel window came the sounds of activity and I looked out and saw a crew of builders engaged in construction work. Everywhere you look there are buildings shooting up – China is certainly the place to watch. But unfortunately, as most who have been to China know, the results of the construction are often quite an eyesore. It seems like even the small towns are trying to become big centres of industry, yet the overall impression is just of town after town of drab and dingy, hastily-built and rapidly decaying structures. It took quite a while before I encountered some of the more favoured cities which looked like they had actually been able to afford an architect and a coat of paint, and I have to admit they looked quite attractive.

There was a slight drizzle falling, and I delayed starting a little hoping it would dissipate. After some thunder (odd for 9:30am!) it lightened a bit. I decided to brave it, and it cleared up before lunch. That morning I discovered that my speedometer had stopped working (50000km must have been enough) and later I noticed that another of my left pannier's mounting brackets had failed, leaving the pannier wobbling out a bit around corners. The bracket was an easy fix on the side of the road, but I didn't investigate the speedo problem until I reached Shanghai.

This was primarily because I felt I was behind schedule and wanted to catch up. I had gained entry into China a few days later than I had planned, but still wanted to catch the Osaka ferry from Shanghai seven days after arriving, which meant I had to cover just over 2800km before then. So unfortunately a lot of my focus in China was just to cover as much ground as possible – I ended up riding long hours, and often finished after dark. Yet, just like on the rest of the trip, unexpected things happened, and I have a few memorable and positive experiences from China too.

One of these was that afternoon, after being stopped for about half an hour in a queue of traffic waiting for a couple of earth-movers to widen or stabilise a section of the road. I was rearing to go again, and ended up choosing the wrong road, but didn't mind; instead I tried to take side-roads in the direction shown by the gps, hoping to get back on track eventually.

Well, it didn't work, but along the way I had a delightful tour through a few picturesque and unspoilt Chinese villages. No grimy brick buildings here, but wooden thatched structures, alongside the river and rice-paddies. Of course, the further I got up the river, the more the road deteriorated, and I began to doubt that it came out the other side. But still I continued, enjoying the beautiful surroundings, but also finding navigating the rutted and muddy road surface a fun diversion from my serious goal.

I continued down for some time, until I reached, and crossed, this ford. Actually it wasn't quite this simple, as I lost momentum in the middle, and had to rely on a friendly villager (I think the guy in the middle) to help push – together with his efforts and mine, the bike was able to grip and run up the other side. However, the sign language I was offered seemed to make it clear that the road didn't go much further and that I should turn back.

I retraced my steps, crossing the ford without trouble this time, and having enjoyed my “off-road” experience, continued towards the next town. Unfortunately it was getting late, and it was here that the road degraded to a 40km long stretch of ploughed-up roadworks. This road was corrugated and covered intermittently with rough gravel, and not nearly as much fun as the muddy clay one I had travelled on before, especially as I navigated it all after dark.

The following day was the wettest of the entire trip. It was only drizzling when I went through another picturesque mountain pass, but after that the thunder kept rolling around, and I was totally soaked and shivering when I decided to have a break at the next petrol station.

I wasn't trying to make a performance of it, but once I'd taken off and wrung out my gloves, and removed my boots and poured the water out of them, the attendants had seen an opportunity to show kindness, and decided to get involved. By the time I had started drying my hair and face they had sprung into action, and gave me some hot water to drink. Next they tried to persuade me to have a shower and clean up, but I signed that I'd just get soaked again, so I'd save it for the end of the day. So instead they took me to a side room where they had a fire going, and gave me a hot lunch while I sat and warmed up. Bless them. It was a lovely experience, quite a bit different to what I'd expect in most Western countries, and at a time when I appreciated it most.

That evening was my first in China where I tried to stay in a reasonable-sized city (Hengyang in the Hunan Province), and I such trouble finding accommodation I decided to stay in smaller towns as much as possible for the rest of the trip. I suppose bigger towns end up having areas for different things, but also people are far more likely to point you towards the well-known (and expensive) hotel than the non-flashy, cheap one. After asking many bystanders for directions I eventually paid a taxi-driver to lead me to some cheap hotels, and his second attempt found me a place to rest my head.

Money doesn't go as far for accommodation in the big city, and, while the hotel was no more expensive than other places I'd stayed, its facilities were fairly basic and run-down. The shower being on another floor was no big deal, but the light switch being on the outside of the room was one of a number of signs that made me think that this used to be either a barracks or school dormitory. Probably the highlight of my stay was getting my bike up and down the front steps, the most challenging entrance of the trip.

Being in an obscure area of the city meant that this was one of the few places where it was too far to walk to the nearest Internet cafe. I had a bit of fun with the taxis both on the way out and on the way back, as both drivers were of the mindset I found common in the more competitive countries that they should first tell me they understood where I wanted to go, in order to get me onboard, and later see if they could actually figure out my destination.

While out looking for an Internet cafe I stopped for a snack. By that stage I was used to drinks (even canned) having lumps (of fruit?) in them, but I was caught out by the chocolate-coated ice-cream that I bought. In my country if it's chocolate-coated it's sure to be real ice-cream, not a sorbet, but more importantly, the nuts embedded in the chocolate do not turn out to be sunflower seeds!


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