Tuesday, 11 November 2014

new china

Rolling through the outskirts of Nanjing we pass industrial plant after industrial plant.  There're no smoking chimneys or belching pipes - it's all nice tidy light stuff with gated entrances and landscaped surrounds.  The traffic isn't heavy either, but it is steady.  The sun soon disappears behind the now familiar white/grey cloud that seems to blanket all of urban China producing a dull flat light that makes everything seem a little dreary.  And it is in parts.  The land is flat and we're motoring along a two-lane highway, beyond the airport, out into southern Anhui, stopping only for another great lunch at a roadside restaurant where the woman patiently works out what we want to eat before getting the chef to crank up the burners.  In the late afternoon we come across water.  Lots of it.  Everywhere.  Rivers. Canals. Rice paddies. Ditches.  The road narrows as we run along a dyke from village to village.  The light is fading as are our hopes of finding any dry land to camp on.  In the dark we clamber about some rice paddies looking for a flat dry spot.  A lot of the harvest has been cut but is still lying in the fields waiting to be gathered.  Finally we settle for some dead land just off the road, but with some cover on both sides.  The trucks and tractors and three-wheeled vans continue to rumble past as we get to sleep.  It rains all night.  In the grey morning we let the tent dry out enough to pack it away.  In the mornings we don't care who sees us camping.

it's not that wet

The rain stops and starts all day and we splash our way southwards through villages big and small, all with trademark main street 3-storey housing blocks.  These are standard across the country with a ground floor that can be a shop, a store room, a workshop and upstairs the home.  Unfortunately it gives so many places a generic look - like an English high street full of all the same chain stores.  The street scenes are always busy with people, clutter lying around everywhere, cars, scooters and those three-wheeled thingummies.  As we pull into a town in the late afternoon we opt to find a hotel where we can dry out the tent and all our clothes.  There seems an oversupply of hotels in China - most look empty in these ordinary towns.  We find one easily and settle in happily.  In the morning as we ride out of town we see that someone has plans for the place - there are about twenty tower blocks being constructed on the outskirts.  The new wide boulevards are already finished, complete with signs to.....nowhere.  There's a lot of empty land around too.  
The horn-beeping has started to get to me.  I had blanked it out until I read our friend Chris' brilliant blog about cycling in the west of China.  It seems that every driver has to beep their horn at anything that moves.  Or anything that doesn't move.  If you are beeped at, then you beep back.  The reason for this is obvious when you cycle here - absolutely no-one has any road sense.  Pedestrians all seem to have a death wish.  Vehicles pull onto a road without looking.  Gert explained the rules to us - if you are in front, by any tiny
 distance, then any manouvre is permitted and if anyone hits you it is their fault.  And it doesn't matter if you are joining a road from the side.  The worst are the bus and truck air horns.  Some sadistic pleasure must be got from giving a quick blast in a cyclist's ear just as they pass by.  One day we pass a series of driving instructor's cars, all along the same stretch of road.  There are two students in each car. One is driving.  The other is urging them on to beep their horn.  And beeps mean points and points mean.....well, nothing I suppose.  China is so corrupt though, I should imagine it's quite easy to pass your test here.  You're driving along a little road when the test inspector slaps his hand on the dashboard.  Emergency stop? No, just hand over an envelope stuffed with cash......

hey, great idea!

ahh, now I remember
Riding towards Xuancheng we stop for lunch in a little village.  There's a frisson of excitement amongst the punters sat round a table when they realise two laowai have just pulled up on bicycles.  Laowai is the word we hear sometimes when we walk down the street - it translates roughly as Old Big Nose but means 'foreigner' and isn't derogatory.  At least I hope it isn't.  The restaurant only has two tables and one of them is taken by grandma whose watching a gameshow on TV.  The punters have finished eating and move into the room next door for some post-prandial mahjong.  

We have a great lunch, stuff ourselves with rice and plates of I can't remember what and drink a gallon of green tea.  The mother, who did the cooking, comes out to see we're okay.  Her daughters appear and one of them has a smart phone and a smattering of English.  She's a teacher in the city.  Photos are taken.  Pops appears.  We are invited to play mah jong.  And when we come to pay the bill, the mother refuses.  Her daughter translates: she is happy to feed us.
a gaming culture?

We are now in Anhui province which has a population of about 60 million.  It's one of the poorest provinces, principally because most of it is given over to farming, rather than industry.  When we approach Xuancheng we get a surprise: tower blocks and cranes as far as the eye can see.  The city is expanding, taking over the surrounding farmland.  We only want to skirt the city but our road takes us towards the centre until we can finally extricate ourselves and get on our little green road again.  Green?  That's the colour of the secondary roads on our map. But this road is brown, with the mud from construction work.  Half the road is newly-asphalted while the other half is bedrock and mud.  We pull off to the edge of a tea plantation to camp.


Next morning we ride through the mud for a while.  Gayle's bike has developed an irregular clacking sound, which sounds like her back wheel hub.  Or is it the bottom bracket?  When we can, we slip onto the unfinished and closed-off sections of road that are flat to escape the trucks and traffic on the filthier stretches.  The day is miserably overcast again.  Everything has the washed-out colour of a classical Chinese watercolour, but the scene is more  L.S.Lowry when we pass yet another construction site. 

the Mansion of the Gods
but not yet
It's hard to comprehend who will live in the new appartment complexes that are being thrown up everywhere.  Even if there is a steady drift from rural to urban living, who could afford it?  House prices are apparently increasing in China as demand outstrips supply.  At the same time there is a steady growth in the middle class.  Car ownership is growing but thankfully hasn't made the traffic unbearable yet.  Most people seem to make do with an electric scooter or, if they're a farmer, one of those three-wheeled thingummies.

When we reach Jingxian even Gayle is wondering about the awful sound from her bike.  We either need to stop for the day so that I can strip down the wheel and/or find a bike shop. After asking in a restaurant, we are directed to a Giant bike shop which turns out to be quite small.  I ask the man in the shop if he has a new bottom bracket for Gayle's bike, but he has hardly any spare parts.  It seems to be normal here.  However, he checks it over and thinks it's okay.  So then we look at the hub on the back wheel.  There's a little wobble on the axle so he strips the hub down and we take a look at the bearings.  On one side they are completely worn down.  I ask if he can replace them but he doesn't have any.  Another man is sent out to get some.  He returns with bearings that are smaller.  Our man starts to put them in, but I protest.  Luckily, there's a spare wheel in the shop and they remove the bearings from that to use.  It's taken a little over an hour and meanwhile Gayle has been cleaning up the bikes and chatting with the man's wife.  She tells Gayle that they have both been cycle-touring in China and her husband had toured in Qinghai, in the west.  They don't look the type.  But what is the type?  How much for the service? Nothing, the man indicates with a smile and outstretched hands.  In the end we buy a new saddle to replace Gayle's "handmade in Italy" one - it had literally started to fall apart from poor construction.  Well, what do you expect from cheap Italian crap? The new saddle looks much better and is, er, an Italian brand, made in China.

no more clacking
We roll out of town silently towards Huangshan - Yellow Mountain - in search of another Green Road....

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