Around the world by bike
(2 795km - 60days - 27 January – 28 March 2014)
27-28 January - Keelung, Taiwan – Xiamen, Fujian, China - By boat
The Cosco Star was much larger than expected and appeared more a cargo ship than a ferry, with the result there weren’t many people on board. The interior was quite luxurious. Cabins had six bunk beds to a cabin, but I was the only person in my cabin. There wasn’t much one could do, as the ship rolled wildly, and it was best to stay put.
Arrival in Xiamen, China was around 9h30 the following morning and came with an uncomplicated entry into China. I changed the last Taiwanese money, drew a few more Chinese yuan and was set to see what the area held.
was further located on an island with the same name in the province of Fujian and connected to the mainland via a five-kilometre-long bridge. A ferry ran to the nearby Gulang Yu island (it couldn’t have been more than a few hundred metres), but the long ferry line made me give it a miss and instead I headed to the nearest hostel. Hard copies of anything, including maps and guidebooks, were increasingly difficult to find, forcing me to invest in a smartphone, finally. Much of the day was spent trying to set it up and becoming familiar with it.
Although the internet and Wi-Fi were available, Facebook and other social networks were blocked. Skype worked, and one wasn’t completely cut off from the outside world.
A stroll downtown revealed a busy and modern city with a large and modern department store on about every corner. Line-shops were selling all the latest gadgets and brand names; there sure were no trace of the extreme poverty of three decades ago. The town was busy and hectic but well organised and as clean as a pin, not even a small piece of paper could be seen anywhere.
Albeit the coffee culture took root in China, it remained a tea-drinking nation. Tea shops and tea houses abounded, and shops were stocked with beautiful tea sets, mostly quite costly. It appeared the Chinese favour tiny teapots, barely large enough to hold half a cup of tea.
BaiJaiCun Hostel turned out pleasant, with comfortable rooms as well as dorms and a cosy lounge area. Its location was right next to Zhongshan Park, an old and well-established park where old men played card games under large overhanging trees, and one-child families strolled or took peddle-boats on the canal. All in all, a delightful place to hang out.
The next day was spent exploring the city and a relief to find, amidst the concrete jungle, a real China, a place where people carried their wares in baskets dangling from the ends of bamboo poles. In these places, shopkeepers sat on the pavement outside shops, sipping tea from delicate china.
Wandering about, one could find the strangest things; one being a market selling what looked like bits and pieces from about every endangered species around the world. Gosh, there were even things closely resembling rhino horn - maybe it was.
I found myself firmly entrenched in the land of chopsticks and tea, both sold in abundance at markets and hoped my proficiency with the chopsticks would improve. Being a port city, the fish market was another interesting place, where almost every sea creature imaginable was on sale. A favourite appeared to be sandworm jelly. Sandworms were boiled into a jelly mould said to be rich in collagen. Wrinkly as I was, I gave it a miss.
29 January - Xiamen – Zhangzhou, Fujian - 90 km
What a frustrating day it turned out in this new country. My late departure was due to the assumption it would be a short and easy ride to Zhangzhou. Unfortunately, most of the routes tried came with No Bicycle signs and it took most of the day hunting for alternative ways.
Cycling into big and busy Zhangzhou was after dark but, luckily, I found budget lodging right in the centre. Frustration in finding routes made me vow to buy a GPS. By the time the panniers were offloaded, lack of food made me scurry to the nearest food stalls, and on my return I curled up in front of the TV.
30 January - Zhangzhou – Yunxian - 101 km
The following day was much better as Zhangzhou was on the G324 and best to stay on it. Everything was a bit larger than life in China. The G324 was considered a small road and, therefore, allowed bicycles, but it had three lanes in both directions and was in excellent condition.
Although a mountainous area, the gradient was even and cycling a pleasure. The weather played along, and it became a T-shirt and shorts day. Chinese New Year was being celebrated and a noisy affair as the route led past firecracker shooting villages and continued past vast tea plantations and tea houses. With about 30 kilometres to go to Yunxian, a large mountain came into view, but the Chinese took no prisoners, and if there was a mountain in the way they dug a tunnel. I was fairly happy about that.
Yunxian had a hotel right in the centre of town, next to the park, which in hindsight wasn’t the best location. Being Chinese New Year’s Eve, fireworks started as soon as the clock struck midnight, and continued throughout the night. It wasn’t the shoot-in-the-sky-type crackers, but the machine-gun-type which one could buy in big rolls, closely resembling ammunition for a machine gun. You only needed to light the first one, which then sets off the whole caboodle - bang, bang, bang, bang, bang and so it went all night. I understood it a traditional practice to make as much din as possible to chase off evil spirits.
31 January - Yunxian – Chaozhou, Guangdong - 122 km
On leaving, the morning mist was still laying low over the city and the streets eerily quiet and covered in red paper from the nightly firecrackers. Even the usual breakfast establishments were still firmly shut. Chinese New Year was celebrated over 16 days and the first day of the new year was a time to honour one’s elders, and families visited the oldest and most senior members of their extended families. The road was, therefore, quiet and it wasn’t a bad day of cycling as the weather was good and the route flat.
With it being hazy, the landscape was typical of old pictures one saw of China with misty mountains in the background. There was much rubber-necking, and I feared them dislocating their necks the way they spun around to gaze at the foreigner. Later that same day, a chap pulled up and informed me he had never seen a foreign woman cycling in China, hahaha.
The good conditions made pushing on to Chaozhou, but finding accommodation was a different cup of tea and took almost as long as the day’s ride. As could be expected over New Year, everything at a reasonable price was fully booked. The most inexpensive places only catered to Chinese citizens and not foreigners. In the end, there was little option but to settle for a more expensive abode as it was becoming dark and searching for accommodation one of my pet hates.
Good use was made of the luxury room and all that was available. After a hot and strong shower, a walk downtown revealed dumplings and beer. With my bounty bagged, I returned to my abode and settled in front of the TV.
Each culture has its own idea of a bed and what it should constitute. In China, the beds were rocks hard, and it seemed the fancier the hotel, the harder the bed. The bed was so hard my hip went numb, and I contemplated getting out the sleeping map.
1 February - Chaozhou
Chaozhou was a historical and cultural city well known for its ancient temples, and the day was spent exploring. Early morning, less expensive digs were found at an inn located in an old building down one of the alleys. On my return to the fancy Chaozhou Hotel to collect my stuff, I giggled as it appeared the staff didn’t know what to do with a person on a bicycle. The porter looked awkward (although keen) trying to help load the bike.
With the lack of Western tourists, it wasn’t strange to feel like the main attraction (other than the ancient temples of Chaozhou). It didn’t put me off, and I braved both the crowds and stares and set out exploring the alleys and temples of old Chaozhou. The effort was well rewarded as the buildings dated back to the Silk Route days. Most remarkable was the Guangi Bridge, originally a 12th-century pontoon bridge, and although the current bridge was from a much later era, it remained a pretty sight. Not quite the bridge over the River Kwai but interesting, nevertheless. A large section of the old city wall, and its gates, were still intact, making interesting exploring.
Paifang Jie (Street of Arches) with its abundance of street food was the place to head to for supper. Moon cakes were plentiful and immensely popular but I hadn’t yet developed a taste for those strange cakes. One thing you didn’t find in China was the western-style fortune cookie or the western version of Chinese food, for that matter. What a relief!
To me, China was a land of contradictions. Everything was off the scale massive, yet, they drank tea out of kiddie’s tea sets. They were conservative yet modern. Construction took place at a tremendous rate; however, there was an old world with narrow lanes where locals still used pedicabs (albeit electric-assisted).
China’s one-child policy seemed a bit of a myth. I’m saying this as it wasn’t uncommon to see people with more than one child. Although there were campaigns encouraging people only to have one child, most people had more than one. It appeared that only one child received free benefits. Parents had to pay for the other children’s education, healthcare, etc. and it somehow seemed fair to me. If and when a person was, however, from a one-child family, they could legally have two children, who will both receive free benefits. Families from minority groups could have more than one child, but people who work for the government were only allowed one child.
2 February - Chaozhou
Chaozhou was very touristy, and rightly so, as it had an interesting history dating back to the Maritime Silk Route trade era. Chaozhou was most famous for its opera, a traditional art form dating back more than 500 years and based on local folk dances and ballads. Clowns and females were the most distinctive characters in a Chaozhou opera, and fan-playing and acrobatic skills were more prominent than in other types of performances. I didn’t see a show but found a tiny shop which made gowns, headdresses, etc. for the operatic stage.
Gongfu tea, first drank back in the Song Dynasty, was still in high demand and remained an important part of social life in Chaozhou. Local teahouses played Chaozhou music which included string instruments, gong and drum, all very soothing.
3 February - Chaozhou – Cheonan - 93 km
Again, the weather was excellent, maybe winter was over, or perhaps only a warm spell, but I wasn’t complaining. My route still followed the G324, which resulted in it running through built-up areas much of the day. It wasn’t scenic, but at least it wasn’t mountainous either. Only once did I take an alternative route but landed up going around in circles and thought better of it and stayed on the G324 until locating a GPS.
The development in China was mind-boggling, but it seemed to enhance the experience when finding the “Old China”, although these finds weren’t around every corner. One had to look carefully, but you could still see pedicabs carting people to and from the market at a pittance. The food was reason enough to encourage anyone to visit China. The veggies were fresh, crisp and tasty, dim sum, noodles, dumplings, wonton soup and more. The bike was hardly offloaded and I hurried to the nearest stall - best not to ask what was inside - the food was delicious, and that was all that counted.
The 7 Days Inn impressed with its quality of finishes; pity the Wi-Fi was less than acceptable. At least, it allowed for uploading a photo to my Photo of the Day project, but then it died.
4 February - Cheonan – Lufeng, Guangdong - 111 km
The route to Lufeng wasn’t very scenic, as the first part of the day ran through a built-up area. The countryside wasn’t much better as the fog was hanging low and one could barely see anything.
The Chinese were quite friendly, and the ones who could speak English usually stopped for a chat. A friendly guy on a scooter pulled up and we chatted for a while. I enquired about a map of Guangdong Province and he said to follow him. We found a map at a bookshop, which he paid for - how kind of him.
On arriving in Lugeng, the road passed an inexpensive-looking place (Long Tan Hotel), and I decided to stay. Interestingly enough, every room (even budget ones) came with a sealed comb, toothbrush, toothpaste and shower cap.
This day marked the fifth day of the Lunar Festival or Chinese New Year and, officially, the end of winter and the first day of spring, and tradition to eat spring rolls on that day. There were a few taboos as well: no sweeping the floor and no use of scissors. People again were shooting firecrackers this time to scare away poverty but I thought the noise enough to scare away poverty and wealth. The news revealed 108 million people travelled by train during the first week of the holidays and I was happy in a very un-touristy part of China.
5 February - Lufeng – Huidong, Guangdong - 135 km
Although drizzling, it wasn’t cold, and it seemed the cold front brought a tailwind. With that in my favour, I pushed on and made the best of the good conditions. Nothing much came of the rain and, by midday, the rain jacket came off.
My route led past vast fields of strawberries where one could pick your own. I didn’t pick any but did stop to take a photo or two. The traffic was irritating as vehicles drove on the wrong side of the road or turned without looking or warning. The random hooting served no purpose and defeated the object.
The sixth day of the New Year was to send away the ghost of poverty. People, therefore, discarded old clothes and rubbish and, at roadside shrines, people lit candles to lighten the road for the ghost of poverty.
At the first hotel in Huidong the receptionist ignored me. The Chinese seem to do that. When they don’t like a situation they ignore it, hoping it will go away. It worked, as I went to the hotel next door. When at a reception desk, one would think it fairly obvious what a person was there for, and a limited amount of questions and answers should conclude the deal. Theoretically, it should be easy. Besides that, the phrase “I want a single room. How much is it per person per night?” was written down and all they had to do was read it. The poor people got so flabbergasted when they saw a westerner it seemed they couldn’t even read their own language. At least with food, one could point to what you wanted.
6 February - Huidong – Zengcheng - 120 km
According to legend, Nüwa was the goddess who created the world. On the seventh day after the creation of the world, Nüwa created human beings from (obviously) yellow clay. On that day, with the divine power entrusted to her, Nüwa made the clay figurines come to life. I always surmised God was a woman. The seventh day of New Year, therefore, celebrated the event.
It must have been a day to stay at home as the road was dead quiet. As soon as someone could speak English, they soon would always ask the question: “Why are you travelling alone?” It was subsequently revealed that for the average Chinese person travelling alone to a foreign country was the most unsettling and terrifying experience they could imagine.
Although China was developing at a head-spinning rate, there was always plenty of water features, giving it a peaceful vibe. My hotel, therefore, came with a massive water feature. Water in front, mountains behind (they say) was one of the most positive feng shui layouts and an ideal situation feng shui masters have always sought. Most buildings, especially hotels, therefore had water fountains or koi ponds at the entrance.
7–10 February - Zengcheng – Guangzhou, Guangdong - 80km
On leaving, the route led past the city park, a large and impressive one and the greenery took the sting out of the concrete jungle. Although new and large developments were taking place everywhere, at least these developments included plenty of parks, large and spacious pavements and separate bicycle/motorbike lanes, making it all bearable.
The path west continued over the hills and past rural villages until reaching Guangzhou. Guangzhou, known historically as Canton (from the Canton Trade Fair), was the capital and largest city in Guangdong province. Located on the Pearl River, it had a pretty setting and was the third largest city in China with a population of 12.78 million.
Wow, it took forever to cycle to the hostel and on finding the Inner Ring Road I stuck to it like glue, hoping in doing so, it would eventually spit me out close to the hostel. On reaching the intersection which turned off the Ring Road to cross the river, there was no bridge, but a ferry which carted locals with bicycles across for a Yuan. I followed suit and found the ferry dock on the other side right at the hostel door. How lucky was that? The hostel had a pretty setting right on the Pearl River, the third-longest river in China with a length of more than 2,000 kilometres.
While offloading the panniers, it started raining, and it was pure luxury to curl up under a fluffy duvet. The presence of washing machines made doing laundry easy the following morning.
I went from shorts and T-shirt to all bundled up overnight. A cold front came in, and it became freezing with a howling wind and bucketing rain - the most dreadful weather. Happy as the proverbial pig, I watch the weather through the window.
With so much time on my hands, I took the plunge and ordered a Garmin, which meant staying in Guangdong for the next few days until it arrived. How long it would take was a mystery, but the weather was miserable and waiting not a big deal.
A break in the weather allowed exploring this delightfully different country. Old yet modern, conservative but up to the minute, frantically busy yet peaceful. I dawdled around the vast city which was downright placid and beautiful in the absence of the masses, who all seemed to have gone home to their families for the holidays.
This normally atheist nation seemed incredibly open to the “opium of the masses”. Religious stats seemed a bit of a slippery fish. Still, it appeared approximately 30% of the adult population followed Buddhist, Taoist, Christian, Islam or other beliefs and the remaining 70% considered themselves atheist. It must have been a highly active 30% as there appeared a temple around every corner. But then China had always been the cradle of religious philosophies like Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, the three philosophical teachings which played a significant role in shaping Chinese culture.
Although a big and modern city, somewhere there had to be an old part as Guangzhou had a rich history dating back to the ancient Silk Route days. It didn’t take long to find narrow, winding streets where there were still small, dark and dusty workshops with coppersmiths bent over their work, oblivious of me.
I operated in low gear as there was no rush and I suspected the Garmin was going to take a few days to arrive. I strolled past antique shops with the most exquisite ceramic vases, beautiful furniture and jade carvings, along tree-lined canals and past old colonial buildings, constructed by the British and French in the 19th century after being granted permission to set up warehouses.
11-12 February - Guangzhou
Again, I took to the streets, and it was a day of finding small but interesting things. Down a narrow lane was the humble house of the Father of Chinese Railways which was quite interesting. Down another path was the union for actors playing martial-arts and acrobatic roles in Cantonese opera. Interestingly, the house next door was the ancestral house of Bruce Lee which was not surprising, as his father was a Cantonese opera actor.
At one of the temples was the most exquisite ivory (albeit politically incorrect) carvings. Whether or not one approved or not, you couldn’t help but stand in awe of the incredible detail. Sadly, my photography didn’t do it any justice. For the record, ivory trading in China wasn’t open to everyone. At the beginning of that year, more than six tons of illegal ivory were destroyed by the government. Ivory trading was legal, providing it came from a government-registered dealer, and each carving had to carry a certificate of provenance.
The Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, built by the French after the Second Opium War, was made entirely of granite with two massive towers, each standing 48 metres high. On my way back, I stopped at the supermarket but still found shopping challenging. Taking pictures, while already standing out like a sore thumb, was equally difficult. Although, sometimes, it felt when in a different culture, one was only different once. Everything you do (acceptable or not) was written off as being a foreigner.
The temperature plummeted to a mere 7°C, and best to stay put until the weather improved. Quite unbelievable how the weather could change. Frozen solid I was wondering what happened to my resolution of “Never to leave the tropics ever again”. The strangest thing was the hostel wasn’t equipped with heating and like a fridge. Fortunately, my sleeping bag came in handy and I thought it time to head south.
13 February - Guangzhou
Nothing came of the Garmin ordered, and a taxi ride took me to a large centre selling electronic equipment. One was bound to find something there and locating the Garmin stand, easy. They didn’t have the one I was looking for, and in the end, I bought a more expensive one with loads of features I would most likely never use. The store owner was kind enough to load the China map in English and the rest of the evening was spent fiddling the Garmin and I had my doubts about this expensive toy.
14 February - Guangzhou - Jun’anzhen - 82 km
I was like a child with a new toy and couldn’t wait to fit it on the bike and start riding. From time to time, checking the map to see if it was leading me on the right track, LOL. I didn’t quite trust it as yet. It worked like a charm and peeped every time one had to change direction. It took me to a place by the name of Junanzhen, which had a hotel, and the rest of the evening was spent downloading the day’s information. Quite a magical little thing.
15 February - Jun’anzhen – Chikan, Kaiping, Guangdong - 101km
I clipped in the Garmin and continued through the countryside, and what a charming countryside it turned out to be. The way led past ancient-looking villages and along canals until reaching the Kaiping district.
The landscape around Kaiping was most remarkable as there were several small but old villages housing fortified multi-storey towers which were constructed in the 1920s and 1930s. The towers (known as diaolou) served two purposes: housing and protecting against bandits. These towers weren’t exactly ancient - the oldest was barely over 100 years old, but they were quite remarkable. The towers were scattered around the countryside, and the plan was to visit them the following day. There were approximately 1,833 Diaolou still standing in Kaiping, 20 of the most symbolic ones were inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
16 February - Around Kaiping - 40km
The story goes something like this: In the mid-19th century things weren’t going too well in the region. Slavery was outlawed in most western countries, which created a need for cheap labour. Many people in the area were recruited. Good pay and working conditions were promised. In reality, however, workers were made to work as labourers under terrible conditions. Of the millions of Chinese workers who left many died, and only a few became wealthy and returned. They brought with them wealth and exotic ideas. They built these towers to protect their families from bandits, flooding and Japanese troops.
17 February - Chikan – Yangjiang - 95km
On leaving Chikan, the weather was foggy and not much to see along the way. The going was easy, and with the breeze from behind, there was no reason to stop. A few towers were sprinkled around, but besides that, there wasn’t anything happening. With the iPod stuck in my ears, and to the tune of good old “Brucey”, I stepped on the pedals and cycled the 100 kilometres to Yangjiang.
18 February - Yangjiang – Dianbai - 105km
The mornings were always foggy, and after attaching the flashing light, donned my bright yellow rain jacket and continued in a westerly direction towards the island of Hainan where the climate was rumoured to be warmer. It started raining, and although it wasn’t cold, I decided to pull into Dianbai.
19-21 February - Dianbai – Zhanjiang - 113km
The stretch between Dianbai and Zhanjiang was effortless cycling, albeit still misty and with light rain at times. There wasn’t anything of interest, and I played with my electronic toys, of which there was a growing number. None, however, did me any good, and the fancy Garmin was still to find me a place/route that was meaningful. Google Maps on my phone seemed to do a better job at finding things.
It turned out another 120-kilometre day, and on reaching Zhanjiang, the road reached a large bridge crossing a river, where cycling wasn’t allowed. My trusty Garmin pointed me to the ferry port where bikes and motorbikes were ferried across and onto a cheap(ish) hotel. I, subsequently, discovered it wasn’t a river but an inlet of the South China Sea.
There was a desperate need to do laundry which called for staying another day. Unable to find a laundromat, I started doing the laundry, but hotel staff came to the rescue. With the lack of communication, it was unclear when the laundry would be returned. Shopping, typically, took double the time than anywhere else, and it took nearly the entire day to find the few items needed.
As my abode was right opposite the market, it made easy popping in to find a bite to eat. Convinced there was dog meat in the dish, I went without supper instead.
22 February - Zhanjiang – Leizhou - 60km
Fortunately, the laundry came back in time, and as the internet stated a ferry operated between Zhanjiang and Hainan, I went in search of it. There wasn’t much information about the boat and no sign of it; maybe, it didn’t exist. From the port, a small road led further south in the direction of Hainan, but as already late, I didn’t think I would reach it before dark and settled for a night in Leizhou.
23 February - Leizhou – Haikou, Hainan Island - 105km
I hadn’t seen any westerners since my arrival in China a month ago and, therefore, found it not unusual to get a few stares as I was completely different from the Chinese, in about every way. My every move was scrutinised and the fact that I was travelling solo not something they could wrap their heads around. While they didn’t say it, it appeared they felt sorry for you, you could see it in their eyes. Why someone would want to take a vacation to a foreign country by themselves wasn’t something the Chinese understood.
People on scooters could cause accidents the way they swung around to have a look, and people in cars slowed down while holding up their toddlers to get a glimpse at the strange woman. Stopping in a village to get a drink was always something of a circus. Some were curious, and others were scared, some came closer, and others kept their distance, some pointed, and others giggled. A little boy summed it up nicely - he looked up in surprise, and all he could utter was, “WOW”. His little sister was completely dumbstruck; her eyes went big, and her mouth fell open while quickly retreating a few steps.
Not having spoken to anyone in weeks, I feared losing my voice. With the iPod blaring in my ears, I sang along at the top of my lungs. I sped off over the hills while bellowing the lyrics of “Cocaine” and “I Shot the Sheriff”. I got a few more strange looks, but I threw in a “Ni-hao” and a wave and continued belting out the lyrics of songs from yesteryear. And to think, all while completely sober. LOL.
24–28 February - Haikou, Hainan
The time came to do the dreaded visa extension and I paid for two nights at the Banana Hostel. First thing the following morning, I hunted down the Public Security Bureau (PSB) and couldn’t believe I’d been in China an entire month. Locating the office was easy, but the counter closed and was told to come back after 14h30. They required a note/letter of sorts from the hostel, and after obtaining the necessary items, I cycled back to the PSB. There was a fair amount of “form-filling-in”, and after being photographed and fingerprinted, was told to collect the visa in four days. Fortunately, there was plenty to do on the island.
More worrying was there was something wrong with the bike, which needed sorting out before continuing.
I stayed in Haikou and did little except wander around the old part of the city with its multitude of antique shops – interesting indeed. It also gave plenty of time to play with the macro lens.
Four days passed and, eventually, time to pick up the visa. Walking back, I followed my nose down crooked alleys and curving streets. The smell of fresh dumplings and roadside barbecues hung in the air while old men played board games in parks with cigarettes dangling from their lips.
1 March - Haikou – Wenchang - 109km
Hainan was a popular cycling destination amongst young people, and I encountered many college kids en route to Wenchang. The ride was unimpressive, and even the so-called beach area was horrible with far too many high-rises and too much dust from even more developments being constructed. It was a windy day, and the first time in a long while I had to battle the wind.
2 March - Wenchang - Bo’ao - 66 km
The following day, a short and pleasant day of cycling led to Bo’ao, through small villages and past farmlands where crops were ready for the picking. Fish farms were going ten-to-a-dozen, and many small shrines lined the road where devotees burned incense to their preferred deities.
As the island was popular as a multi-day cycling destination, I again met a few local cyclists cycling around the island. Bo’ao had a cheapish room, dumplings and beer, making it a good place to overnight.
3 March - Bo’ao - 50 km
After 25 kilometres, I looked for the GoPro but couldn’t find it. Convinced the camera was left behind, I cycled back to the hotel in Bo’ao. Once there, of course, there was no sign of it but I stayed the night, only to find the camera in one of my panniers!
As it was still early, a short stroll led to the beach which had a temple with rich colours, textures and light. The deities were, however, enough to put the fear of God into anyone. Ambling back, I stumbled across a delightful little coffee shop housed in an old, traditional stone house. Out back was a nice, leafy garden with wooden tables under large umbrellas. Inside, the cafe was chock-a-block with antiques and arty bits and books. Last but not least, the coffee was served in real china.
4 March - Bo’ao – Xinglong - 95 km
The many cyclists encountered all seemed on their way to Xinglong. I followed suit, as there was said to be a hot spring and it sounded pleasant. Not feeling too well - it must have been something I ate - I pushed on to Xinglong. On cycling into town, the same cyclists from earlier that day had already found budget accommodation and showed me where to go.
Xinglong was over-developed and touristy, and I didn’t even go in search of the well-known hot spring as I could imagine what that would be like. Seeing I’d pick up a knee problem, I spent the evening indoors.
5-7 March - Xinglong – Sanya - 118 km
There wasn’t much one could do about the knee, and although the map indicated a hilly stretch, I cycled over the mountains. The strange thing was the knee was 100% while cycling, weird.
A pleasant cycle led past rural villages and farmlands before hitting big and busy Sanya with its 20-kilometre-long stretch of beach. I headed straight to Dadong Hai, where the map indicated a hostel. Backpacker Hostel turned out pleasant and tucked away behind high-rises and slap-bang in the middle of the action - a real haven.
The following day was spent doing close to zero, only wandering to the beach and around the corner for food. The area was extremely built-up and, surprisingly enough, the dominant languages, both spoken and written, Chinese and Russian. With sunshine all year round, temperatures hovered around 25°C, even in January and, therefore, immensely touristy. The area produced pearls in abundance and they were sold everywhere. Giant clams were considered endangered, but the shells were sold at all the shops.
Sanya was a cool place with interesting people to talk to, and another day was spent in town. Still concerned about the knee, a knee-support-thingy was purchased. I rubbed it in with locally purchased Chinese lotion and slipped on the tight knee guard, which was most likely made to fit thin Chinese legs and not my stompers.
8 March - Sanya – Huangliu - 103 km
The place was extremely popular with thousands milling about, and I couldn’t get my head around the hefty entrance fee to such a fake and artificial setup. I, nevertheless, joined the madness, snapped a few pics, and then made a quick escape. It needs mentioning that at the centre of this spectacle stood a 108-metre-tall Buddha statue on a man-made island, larger than the Statue of Liberty!
The rest of the day was more “normal” – past small hamlets until reaching a welcoming-looking guesthouse with a few roadside food stalls and I called it a day.
It, again, turned out a pleasant cycle through a scenic countryside past small traditional villages where farmers still ploughed the field in old-fashioned ways. Changjiang offered accommodation right on the main road, which signalled the end of the day’s ride.
These new and large cities weren’t as daunting as they appear from afield. Seeing they were well planned, things were where one expected them to be. The roads were wide and the traffic flowed freely, and with a separate cycle- and motorbike lane, cycling wasn’t difficult at all.
10 March - Changjiang – Jialai - 116 km
Time was spent packing up before pointing the bike back in the direction of Haikou, and again meeting other cyclists as well as a journalist who took a few shots and asked a few questions. The scenery was particularly lush and green and I thought it a tree-planting project, as there were trees everywhere. The authorities thought it a good idea to beautify the road with dense and colourful plants, making it a pleasant day. Not thinking one would find accommodation along the route, it came as a surprise to stumble upon a small village which had 50-yuan rooms.
As was the norm by then, I popped across the road to get a take-away meal, as eating under such intense scrutiny remained uncomfortable. While waiting for the noodles, they didn’t take their eyes off me for a second. It was quite embarrassing being stared at like that. They didn’t even blink while inspecting my feet and hair and were shocked by my uncovered arms, which had been clearly exposed to the sun.
11 March - Jialai – Haikou - 108 km
In high spirit, due to the perfect weather – overcast but not cold, I set off. The way ran past many small and scenic villages where I stopped to buy lunch but ended up carrying it with me to Haikou (due to the staring) where the Banana Hostel was again my abode of choice.
12 March - Haikou
Outside Haikou was a volcano park and, although not expecting much, I still went exploring. According to geologists, the last eruption occurred about 13,000 years ago. One could walk up to the old crater rim which overlooked the countryside. In the distance, one could see other craters and there were said to be about 36 of them.
Far more exciting was the nearby Rongtang village; a historic, lava-rock village built entirely from volcanic rock. The town was constructed almost nearly 900 years ago. Rongtang was largely abandoned, but a few elders still live in this unique historic village. Besides, there were old lava tunnels. A 90-year-old lady (all bent over) offered to show me the tunnels. With homemade torch in hand (bamboo, cloth and paraffin), we set out exploring. Many of these caves were interconnected and were used as hiding places from the Japanese during the war.
13-14 March - Haikou
The days came and went, and I hung around the hostel, not doing very much. A crowd from the Hash House Harriers (mostly Australians) were in town for their annual get-together - they were a jovial bunch.
After losing another lens cover, there wasn’t much one could do but take a walk down-town to find another one. The trail was a pleasant one through the old quarters and city park. The parks were large, lush and always with plenty of water, making them peaceful places to stroll and watch people do Tai-chi. With the rainy weather, the pavements were lined with hawkers, selling colourful umbrellas, steaming pots of corn-on-the-cob, and rice in banana leaves.
15 March - Haikou, Hainan – Beihai, Guangxi - By ferry
On leaving the hostel to cycle to the port, I ran into a German couple on bikes. We chatted a while before I realised they had a small child in the trailer. Their 4-year-old daughter was quite happy sitting in the trailer listening to stories—what a remarkable family. I could barely get myself up the hills, let alone pull a child and trailer.
Instead of taking the same ferry back to the mainland, I thought it more interesting to go via Beihai, slightly more west and saving me backtracking the 150 kilometres to Zhanjiang.
Surprisingly, I was somewhat of a celebrity on the ferry. Apparently, the article of a few days ago was in the paper and it appeared everyone knew I was South African but mainly that I’d sold all my possessions. My newfound fame got me a cabin all to myself and, being an overnight ferry, we only left at around 7 p.m.
16-17 March - Beihai, Guangxi - 6km
The ferry arrived in Beihai, dead on time, but on leaving I couldn’t locate the bike lock key. Give me strength, where could it have gone in such a small cabin? There wasn’t anything to do but cut the lock. In the process, I met two German girls on bikes who were waiting to catch the ferry to Hainan. They had been travelling for the past year and a half. They started off hitchhiking but somewhere along the line bought bikes and continued their travels by bicycle. Clever girls. From the port, it was only a short distance to 21 Degree Hostel, which was right in the old part and a nice place to stay.
Beihai had a wonderful old part and a busy river and fishing harbour, making interesting sightseeing. While wandering through the historic quarters, music coming from an open doorway called for an investigation and I was promptly waved in—what a pleasant thing to sit there and listen to them rehearsing.
The following morning, fog and a howling wind made it best to stay put. The market was, as always, a fascinating and colourful place. The veggies were fresh and plentiful and, as could be expected, no Chinese market could be complete without its woks. It’s only the seafood which was a bit out of the ordinary, as they seemingly ate the strangest sea creatures. Then, on the other hand, it could be bait. The oysters weren’t eaten raw (like barbarians do - LOL) but cooked on coals with a sprinkling of spices.
The Chinese food was delicious, always super fresh, and the vegetables crisp and tasty. You could pick your seafood from the tank, which was then cooked in whatever manner you prefer.
18 March - Beihai – Qinzhou, Guangxi - 106 km
After leaving, the fog slowly rose, revealing small and quaint fishing villages. On my one side was the ocean and on the other an inlet or river with scenic and busy harbours. The path eventually left the coast and slowly headed inland through dense forestry plantations and past sawmills and other wood-related works.
At a traffic light, I stopped next to a lady on her tricycle. I said “Ni-hau” and she said “Hello” and we both laughed as we knew these two words were the total of our foreign language vocabulary. She continued with the conversation in Chinese, and I replied in English: “Yes, I am going to Nanning and am from South Africa.” One never knows, maybe that’s what she asked. The light changed, and we waved each other goodbye like old friends.
19-20 March - Qinzhou – Nanning, Guangxi - 127 km
What a day it turned out. Shortly after leaving Qinzhou, the road started deteriorating as it headed inland over the mountains to Nanning. Soon, it turned into a muddy, potholed road, to such an extent that, in places, it required pushing the bike through thick mud.
Covered in mud, I slowly battled along, fearing it would be impossible to reach Nanning that day. As if this wasn’t enough, a bee stung me right on the jaw. What was up with him? I was of no threat to him at all. Halfway to Nanning, a restaurant with an outside tap allowed spaying the bike down, but soon the chain and gears were all clogged up again.
This condition prevailed until about 30 kilometres from Nanning, and I cruised into Nanning at around 18h00, covered in mud and dead tired, only to find the hostel had closed down. Give me strength! Not having eaten all day, I was in no mood to look for another one and booked into the first hotel spotted.
The following morning, and feeling refreshed, I cycled to the nearby Green Forest Hostel where a room was more expensive than the hotel (I could have taken a dorm room, which would have been way cheaper but had an evil plan😊). At least there were people to talk to, and I could do laundry and wash my muddy panniers (in the shower). It turned out Spring Day and a good day for doing spring cleaning. The main reason staying at the hostel was, however, the fact they arranged Vietnamese visas at no added cost. Vietnam was within striking distance, and the plan was on heading that way. After handing in the passport, all I had to do was wait.
21 March - Nanning
With plenty of time on my hands, a stroll into town revealed an outdoor store, and the intriguing thing was instead of the usual light-weight knife, spoon and fork set one used for camping or hiking, the shop sold chopsticks and a spoon. Now, why did that surprise me?
A cool thing about the hostels was they were mostly well located, close to about anything. The Green Forest was no exception and, most of all, close to the night market – my favourite eating place. The only negative thing was they were located on the third floor, and one had to schlep the bike and panniers up two sets of stairs. Here, as in other countries, they refer to the ground floor as 1st floor, then 2nd floor and then 3rd floor, whereas at home we normally say ground floor, 1st floor, and then 2nd floor.
I eagerly awaited the opening of the night market to get my bowl of wonton soup. It was understood the literal English translation of the word “wonton” was swallowing a cloud; quite an apt description when looking at the dumplings floating in the soup, and they were delicious.
22 March - Nanning
Determined to get pictures of modern Nanning, I enthusiastically started down the pedestrian mall, past lines and lines of designer stores.
China was an amazing country, and I was in awe of its achievements. They managed to raise over 400 million people out of extreme poverty in 20 years - 14 years ahead of their 2015 target date. People are quick to point out the negatives when it comes to China, but their success in the battle against poverty was undeniable.
Back to my story of the day – there were opportunities to capture modern Nanning, but behind MacDonald’s, the Pizza Hut and KFC, was a tiny alley. I weakened and headed off down the dark and narrow lane. The area was a fascinating one, where people still pushed building materials in three-wheeled carts, laundry hung on lines strung across the cobblestone lanes, and traditional single-storey dwellings were adorned with red lanterns. Interesting-looking doorways led to unknown destinations and sagging tiled roofs, crooked windows and doors made far more interesting pictures than the modern structures. Great was my excitement when, by rounding a corner, I found the local silversmith hard at work, melting and pounding tiny silver pellets into fine jewellery.
My passport with the Vietnamese visa came back, leaving only three more places for visas, meaning an SA Embassy had to be located soon to renew the passport.
As the day wore on, I wasn’t entirely sure going to Vietnam was such a good idea. Having already cycled Vietnam, the only reason going there was to pass the time (waiting for the weather to improve) before heading to Shanghai, located in the opposite direction. The more I looked at my options, the more apparent it became it was going to be a costly diversion.
23 March - By bus
On waking, I was still not 100% sure which direction to go. The first stop was at the train station to enquire about a train back to Xiamen, where I started and from where the plan was on heading east. It turned out there was no train (or at least not one on which one could take the bicycle). I’m convinced there was, but it involved a change of trains and could have been too much for the Chinese to explain in their limited English.
This was all too much trouble, and better to head out of town in the direction of Vietnam. In the process, the road led past the bus station. I stopped to enquire, and by 14h30, was on a sleeper bus back to Xiamen. How was that for a change of plans? Actually, it wasn’t a change of plans, as the idea from the start was to head west to Nanning before returning to Xiamen and then cycle on to Shanghai to catch a ferry to South Korea.
The bus was comfy with (small) individual beds (barely wide enough for me), but at least one could be horizontal. Exactly how long the ride was going to take wasn’t clear, and all settled in for the (anticipated) long haul. Said to be an express bus, it hardly stopped. It only stopped once at around 20h00 to grab a bite to eat and we were soon on our way again.
24 March - Tong’an, Fujian - 20km
At around 7h00 the next morning, the bus driver unceremoniously dropped me at the side of the highway, and I felt somewhat abandoned being dropped like that.
Far too tired to cycle onto the next town, I opted for the shorter 20 kilometres cycle to a nearby hotel. I put all my devices on charge, had a shower, found something to eat, and had a quick nap.
25-26 March - Tong’ an – Quanzhou, Fujian - 90 km
The next day was effortless riding to Quanzhou, and what a large city it turned out. It took cycling quite some time before eventually reaching what was known as the old part.
My second month’s visa was to expire in three days and I thought it a good idea to extend it in Quanzhou before continuing, but the person dealing with the visa wasn’t in the office and I was told to return the following day.
The old part turned out interesting with several beautiful temples. Again, the parks were pleasant and well planned; they were so large, people were running, walking, boating, and there was even piped music. In the less than three-kilometre walk to the old mosque, there were three parks.
The following morning, it was back to the police station – this time to be told they didn’t do visas at that branch and I wondered how they didn’t know this the previous day. They kindly gave me a lift and then pointed me in the direction of the visa office.
Sadly, once all was in place, I was informed they couldn’t extend an already extended visa. Now, what was that all about? It was subsequently found that Quanzhou was notoriously problematic for extending visas.
I could have tried at another town but was running out of time and couldn’t waste another day. My best option (or so I thought) was to retreat to Hong Kong and apply for a new Chinese visa once there. At the bus station, a ticket was purchased to Hong Kong. The bus, however, only left the following day at 21h00 and I understood it would reach the border after 10 hours.
With all the formalities done and dusted, there was still time to go exploring and, in the process, found an old mosque. The Qingjing Mosque was an old mosque built-in 1009 and the oldest of its kind in China.
27 March - Quanzhou
I was operating in low gear as there wasn’t much to do but drink coffee and visit old temples. Eventually, the time came to board the bus; fortunately, it was a “sleeping” bus, with little bunk beds, and one could lie down quite comfortably.