Monday, 15 December 2014

bai bai China

is it for real?
Our continuing descent takes us past some grimy industrial places and dusty villages.  Now and again all the foliage is covered in the dust from some construction or quarrying or manufacturing process.  We're not even yet out of the hills.  We realise we have two days of riding through what will probably be an industrial landscape.  Sure enough, now we're on the flat, close to the sea, the roads get busier and a little bigger, and the only thing to see is construction, new build, road-laying, factories of all sizes and squeezed in amongst all of this a bit of farming too.  Mind you, it's never a dull moment. On a stretch of new road a gang of women are out planting the verge.  Wherever a new road is laid, there's always a bit of landscaping that goes with it - hedging, trees, flowers even.  They do make the effort for it to look nice.  There is plenty of work to be had keeping it all trim and tidy too. 

don't waste your rice!!
We have to cross through Zhangzhou, a big city about 80km before Xiamen, and we stop for lunch and then look for a hotel to save ourselves trying to camp later on.  It means that the next day we have a fairly easy ride to our final destination in China.  Xiamen, once known as Amoy, is on an island.  It was China's first Special Economic Zone when Deng Xiaoping began to expand and develop the economy.  Taiwanese businesses began investing here and the city is a wealthy one.  Our road leads through a huge industrial estate along the way and we thank our lucky stars that we have managed to avoid this kind of thing on our journey in China.  The image of China as being a polluted and environmental disaster region is probably quite accurate.  Most of the rivers are polluted and the air in bigger cities can be awful.  The reason for this is rapid economic development and the industrial production that drives it.  But the pollution really belongs to the consumers who live in the developed world, not the Chinese.  Companies prefer to manufacture here because of low labour costs and minimal safety and environmental controls.  It makes me think how English cities would have been during the Industrial Revolution.  What has surprised me most while we've been here is the profligate use of water and this will have to change soon because I doubt that China has enough water to waste on the grass verges of expressways.

To reach Xiamen island we find ourselves crossing a huge suspension bridge which has signs saying no scooters, no bicycles.  It's a dual carriageway arching high over the water and we ignore the signs because we just can't see any other way to get to the city.  There are two other bridges and a tunnel on our map.  (It turns out that there is a ferry, but we saw no signs for one.)  Cycling into the city we get a sense of Xiamen's history just by the downtown architecture.  Amongst all the concrete, steel and glass of office blocks, hotels and shopping centres there are winding streets with old facades.  Instantly we notice how the locals are dressed - people of all ages in trendier fashions.  As Amoy, the city was a major port and trading concession with the west and there is a sense the city still has an outward-looking feel.  It makes us think of Hong Kong or Melaka a bit.  Along the south coast of the island there runs a beach with new tourist development and a big promenade area full of people on rented bikes and wedding couples come for photos.  

We find a hostel in one of the "villages" that has the feel of a holiday resort - nearly all the houses are five-storey guesthouses.  But at this time of year it is predominantly locals in the shops and cheap restaurants.  At the hostel we are welcomed by Xiao Fa and Eddie.  Eddie is a young Taiwanese businessman who lives nearby - and his English is excellent so we get a great chance to plug him with questions.  Eddie tells us that he came to China to start his business producing cosmetic face masks because Taiwan was too competitive.  Here in China things are still developing and it's cheaper.  He also tells us that as his parents only moved to Taiwan as young adults he was often referred to as an outsider or in-comer.  This is the term given to Chinese in Taiwan who arrived with the Kuomintang when the Communists finally won the civil war in 1949.  The origins of most Chinese Taiwanese lead back to the migrations in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Eddie asks us whether we like China and why.  The answer is easy for us - yes, because of the people.  We've spent 8 months in total in China on our travels and there's always something new for us to discover.  With our very little Chinese we have managed to get by ordering food and finding our way and getting a room - all these things are challenging if you don't know any Mandarin.  We can't have a conversation though, and this is most frustrating, because it would really help to understand the people much more.

Finally I have mastered the art of eating rice with chopsticks, thanks to this little How To video on YouTube.

We want to ask about Taiwan and Eddie tells us that the Taiwanese are less shy about speaking in English, not afraid of making mistakes like the Chinese, and so appear much friendlier.  And the food's better.  Better?? Less oil, he explains.  As if to prove it we are twice invited to eat with them in the evening - Eddie cooks. It's delicious.

a bit blurry after some beers - with Eddie, Xiaofa, and a Manchurian demonstrating the correct way to hold two fingers in China

While we're here we meet up with Todd, an American teaching at the university here.  He has just returned from his third trip touring Taiwan by bike and has offered to fill us in.  We meet at the campus, a lovely spacious green zone, and he gives us a map marked out with good cycling routes.  It's a really thoughtful gift.  We ask about teaching English and living here.  Todd's Chinese is good - he's been here for 4 years.  When we ask about the teaching he is critical of the university policy of insisting that teachers have a masters degree - rather than focussing on how well they can teach English.  He thinks that the students are not well-treated.  He does a lot of testing for students planning to study abroad - this is now a well-trodden route for Chinese students who can afford it.

second-hand bookshop

Our time in China is drawing to a close.  We have tickets for the ferry to Taiwan.  We excitedly board for the overnight crossing with a tour group of Chinese, and two more cyclists - from Chengdu.  There's the usual excited tour of the boat to take in the views and find our cabins (compulsory) and a comfy seat to while away some of the journey.  My anti-seasickness tablets have a mildly hallucinatory effect.

Goodbye China.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

round the houses

Gayle's not convinced but I think we're going downhill.
"Look - I still have to pedal"
"Can you not smell the sea?"
after 30,000 km this Marathon XR is retired

After nearly two months in China we are finally nearing the coast.  There's about an inch and a half on my map.  Annoyingly the road still has some ups as well as downs.  We spend a good afternoon coasting mainly down through a series of unpretty towns and then spend the following morning going back uphill.  But now we're off the main road and passing through small villages with tulou houses so we're very happy.  The people in this region are Hakka - migrants long ago from the north - who settled here in the hills and then built themselves fortress houses to protect themselves from clan disputes.  There must have been constant warring judging by the number of these houses.  The buildings are made from rammed earth, with bamboo and even glutinous rice!  So large and so sturdy are the constructions that they have survived for hundreds of years, although they are slowly disappearing behind new build.  Th-th-th-that's progress, folks.  UNESCO has been on the case to protect some of the finer examples.  As we pedal up and down the hills we come across individual tulou houses tucked away here and there.  It's all very peaceful and pretty.

some can house hundreds

Looking for a camping pitch Gayle is sent on a recce up a dirt path on a steep hillside.  She reports back.  There's family graves, there's trees, there's one spot which requires a little weeding, it's a big push.  Up we go to a carved out terrace big enough for two or three tents. Or for a family grave.  It's hidden from the houses down below.  We sleep well until at some point I awake with a start to hear footsteps on the path nearby.  It must've been the soles of the dead - I don't hear them again.

the 'king of the tulou' - tulou means mud building

The largest Hakka tulou in the area and a cluster of other tulou has the usual large tourist complex built around it.  There are still families living inside the big multi-storeyed house.  The tulou is circular (others are rectangular or horseshoe) and inside the circle is another circle of rooms and then the ancestral hall.  Tour groups are herded through at breakneck speed - there are other clusters to be visited including one on a mountain which neither of us can face cycling up!

The truth is we are tired of the many hills and eager to reach Xiamen on the coast.  As it turns out our road is taking us through more villages with tulou anyway.  And then it finally happens - after a climb ending in a tunnel we emerge into a long and deep valley with a humungous descent.  It goes on so long we finally have to stop to camp in someone's bamboo plantation.  The climate suddenly feels sub-tropical and much of the hillside is given over to banana trees.  We fall asleep content, knowing we have no more hills to climb.