Tuesday, 30 December 2014

sun, moon, rain and fog

We have lovely sunshine as we follow country roads through farmland steadily up into the foothills.  By a stand of sunflowers we get chatting to some local tourists  - it turns out Jessica is back from the UK on holiday and visiting her aunty and uncle who invite us to have a tea in a local cafe.  Already this has set the mood for our cycling - we take it nice and slow and dawdle a lot. 

There's a big cafe scene in Taiwan which gives the country a western feel.  It makes for a happy change from China.  There are also convenience stores in every town so if you can't afford to sit in a cafe you can at least afford a coffee or a choc-ice in a 7-11, which is also handy for wi-fi.  But for cycling hobos there are also the luxuries of tourist information centres, bus stops, benches and picnic tables and roadside temples.  There are also plenty of little restaurants serving good cheap food.  It's ideal.

Late in the day we start thinking about camping, turning down one spot because it's still too early and then finding ourselves in a narrow valley. climbing, with lots of banana and palm plantations.  Several people had told us that in Taiwan you can always ask at a police station about camping and that they are very responsive, often offering use of their toilets, showers, and even, in one small place, dinner.  So when we reach a tiny village with the sun already setting we ask at the local police station about camping in the little park by the river.  The policeman looks amused and says no.  So, angry for having bothered to ask instead of just camping, we continue up the road and camp behind some banana trees only metres from the road.  It is, undoubtedly, our worst pitch of the trip.  The next day is brighter as we reach Sun and Moon Lake - a pretty little lake in the foothills surrounded by forested mountains. 

There are villages at either end of the lake, a bike path around one side, footpaths into the surrounding hills and lots of boats ferrying people to and fro.  There's even the obligatory cable car taking tourists up to a view point to catch sunrise/sunset.  It's clearly a popular spot for Chinese tourists - we recognise them from their clothes - Chinese fashion being rather particular.  And groups wander the streets together, herded from bus to restaurant to shop to bus.  We join all the tourists on rented bikes heading around the lakeshore and find ourselves a sunny spot away from the roads before camping when everyone else has gone.  

Christmas Day begins with clouds on the hills.  We continue our circuit of the lake and stop in the southern village which is aboriginal.  Taiwan's aborigines live in the central mountains and on outer islands, presumably settling here to escape the Chinese migration from the 1600s onwards.  (It is widely thought that most austronesians originated from Taiwan way back when.)  Thankfully, the locals here are not all in native costume for the tourists, but are running restaurants and hotels.  We find one to eat in and one to sleep in.  We want to Skype our families and we don't want to do it from a 7-11!  By the afternoon it's raining so we're glad of the accomodation and our conversations with our families leave us with the usual mixed emotions.  

in case you feel you are lacking any

We want to continue southwards through the hills.  The country roads are steep in places but have less traffic than the main roads, so it's slow going some days.  And the rain continues off and on.  On the bright side it remains warm so even if we're a bit damp in the tent we don't need to wrap up.  Somewhere we cross the Tropic of Cancer - it's the first time we have camped in the tropics and it seems like a perfect time of year to do it.  The land is lush and thick with foliage.  

Taiwan has a population density higher than that of China, with 20 million people living on an island the size of Switzerland, but thankfully it also has a lot of mountains and forest, so once you escape the western coastal plains it's not built up at all. 

Frustratingly we find ourselves climbing switchback roads in the mountains in cloud and mist.  Our eyebrows are dotted with beads of condensation.  We pass tea plantations and endless palm plantations and occasionally get vertiginous views back down the valleys we have left behind, before reaching a pass and descending down into another one.  

At some point we tire of the fog-bound hills and decide it's time we looked for the sun again.  We head back westwards and literally as soon as we descend into the flat farmland of the plains the sun appears.  And to our surprise we find that although the land is cultivated, it isn't crowded.  We enjoy riding past the old farm houses - one-storey buildings around a courtyard with distinctive curving rooftops.  We make our way over to salt flats, and amongst the oyster beds - seawater fields of mud.  In the villages women huddle around mounds of the shells, breaking them open to retrieve their flesh.  The back roads are pleasantly quiet as we ride happily towards Tainan.

good ol' bamboo

Monday, 22 December 2014

ni hao China (Republic of)

The ferry journey over the Taiwan Strait is a bit rough.  Gayle can't sleep and the ship groans and creaks with the roll of the waves, the sudden swoop upwards and subsequent fall as the ship bounces across the sea.  It's a nice feeling to reach dry land and because there's only about 60 passengers on the ferry (it's mostly cargo), we are soon through immigration.  We are stamped in, visa free, for 90 days and in the smart clean arrivals hall we set to with breakfast and trying to get on-line.  We are hoping to meet Ryan in Taichung before he heads off to Taipei to catch a flight home to Tasmania.  We met Ryan about two years ago in Tunisia and thanks to the wonders of Facebook, have discovered that our paths are crossing, briefly.  Very briefly in fact.  By the time we get into the city and get on-line we learn that he is about to leave by bus.  It's almost by chance that we eventually sight him at the train station looking out for us.  He looks well and not too unhappy about flying home.
Ryan and me

Our first impressions of Taiwan are all positive.  There's nothing exotic or crazy about the place - it seems very normal and clean - and reminds us of Thailand a bit.  Streets are full of projecting signs and shop hoardings, people on motor-scooters. The traffic follows the road rules.  Nothing like China.  It's all so normal but so refreshing too.  Other cyclists told us it would feel like a holiday being here after China and they might well be right.  At traffic lights a young student asks us if we need any help.  Where are we going?  To the train station, we reply.  Although the route is fairly clear he waits for us at a couple of tricky junctions to navigate us through.  His English is perfect. 

Gayle and Jean
Later on we meet Jean who has kindly offered to be our Warm Showers host.  We are her very first guests and we immediately hit it off (which is a good job really, because she goes off to Cambodia the next day on a short break and leaves us the keys to her flat).  Over wonderful beef noodles we learn a little about each other.  Jean's so friendly and tries to help us out with our immediate problem of getting on-line using Taiwan's wi-fi hotspots.  She works in audio engineering for a local firm.  She has been to China with work and remarks on the difference in working attitudes.  Here in Taiwan they follow the five-day week.  In the office in China the office staff work from 8am to midnight - because that's what the boss does.  And they have no week-end.  This is regardless of the demands of the work.  It's worth noting that Taiwan businesses have invested heavily in China in recent years, probably to the detriment of Taiwan. We don't see Jean off the next morning at 5.30am but we hope to meet again before we leave Taiwan.

er...didn't get their names
The premier of Taiwan has just resigned following heavy losses in local elections aross the country.  His party, the Kuomintang, is the legacy of the nationalists who turned up on the island back in 1949 after Mao won the civil war in mainland China.  The KMT did badly in the elections because the Taiwanese don't like their policy, ironically, of strengthening ties with China.  The economy is also stagnating.  Taiwan was part of the Qing dynasty empire until a war with Japan saw them losing and ceding Taiwan and the Okinawa group of islands to Japan, in a similar way to how the British took Hong Kong following the Opium Wars. The Japanese spent fifty years in Taiwan and the island developed quickly, with planned cities and population growth.  The Japanese left in 1945 and when the KMT arrived the Taiwanese might have had mixed feelings.  It's remarkable to consider that the martial law instigated by Chiang Kai-Shek lasted until 1987 in Taiwan - the longest period in modern world history.  We asked Eddie in Xiamen about the KMT leader and he said that nowadays no-one saw him as a hero.  The Taiwanese are proud of their freedoms now and fear any kind of deal with China.
nor theirs

Taichung is the bike manufacturing city of the world.  But that's no use when you're looking for wheel parts that no-one stocks.  Here there's a cycling scene with fast light road bikes.  In the city there are plenty of bikes around too, but the scooter rules.  Riding around you sometimes feel you've slipped into a mod rally.  After a few days getting ourselves acquainted with the country and planning our route, we move south through the urban landscape to Yuanlin and stop the night with Chris, a young American who has just started teaching English at a 'cram' school.  It's interesting to hear his experience of starting out here.  The 'cram' school is after-hours private lessons and seems as big here as it is in Iran.  Chris has done some cycle-touring across the States and now has a folding bike to use here.  

Chris with Gayle
 From Yuanlin we want to head into the central mountains of Taiwan and escape the built-up western plains so off we go along smallish roads and onto a bike path set up for tourists.  Our first night camping in Taiwan is in a tiny little park, along a bike-path, between villages.  We hide behind a weeping willow, happy to find a place with seats and a bit of grass.  After nodding off around 10 we are woken by car headlights.  We unzip and look out to see red and blue flashing lights.  Busted!  What do vagrants in Taiwan get, I wonder?  We get out to greet the fuzz and they see we are not Taiwanese.  Are we okay? Aren't we cold?  Do we have any questions?  They tell us that their station is just two miles down the road if we need anything, and then they leave.  How about that?

morning after the non-'bust'
something the police forgot to mention....

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.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

not just another day in China

wake up and smell the coffee
We start the day by drying off the tent and making a brew.  Sometimes it rains early morning, but with the new chill in the air we are getting condensation on the tent, so it can be wet inside or out.  Happily the sun is fairly reliable and we are usually on the road by 9.30.  We pass through villages and small towns.  In one town there's a huge screen at the junction of the two main roads with speakers blaring.  A film is being shown, and ignored it seems, featuring a mad car chase through a city.  Around the corner villagers have set out their stalls to sell their produce at the market.  Food prices continue to rise in China.  Having become a net food exporter by 2002, China is now the world's largest net food importer - a rapid but unsurprising turnaround.  Each year more and more are leaving the villages and moving to the towns.  Farmland is appropiated for industrial and urban development.  When this generation of farmers have gone who will want to work the land?  It all looks very labour intensive.  We get a bit nervous camping on land - careful not to disturb tree saplings or rows of seedlings planted out.  We often see men and women carrying buckets of water on a yoke across their shoulders to their fields to then ladle it out over each plant in the field.  More often than not, we are camping on tracks.

still around
Our road is now following a river downstream so it should be all downhill, but isn't.  We stop for an early lunch at midday - locals seem to eat lunch by 1pm, so if you want hot rice it's best to do the same.  The restaurant is out in the middle of nowhere - between towns.  We are the only customers.  A young woman shows us the meat and vegetables in the chiller cabinet and we suggest some combinations for stir frying.  Do we want it as a soup? No. And just a little chilli, please! Family restaurants like these can be hit or miss - sometimes the food's excellent, the people are really attentive and inqusitive, others just bring the food and point you in the direction of the huge rice steamer sitting at the back of the room.  There are no frills - you eat, you go.  We eat as much rice as seems decent - much more than the locals.  But we always clean our plates - unlike the Chinese.  It seems the etiquette is to over order the food and never finish it off - is it a show of wealth? 

So far, so normal.  Gayle sets off up the road before me as there's a hill ahead.  I dawdle a bit.  As I set off I approach the climb on the inside of a bend in the road.  Two big trucks are coming in the other direction and then a small minivan overtakes them on the bend.  The hard shoulder is really narrow here - and there's a concrete barrier so there's nowhere for me to go.  It's not the first time this has happened but I don't like feeling so vulnerable.  As the minivan hurtles close by I express my disgust with two fingers and continue plodding up the hill.  A few minutes later a van draws alongside of me and a young man opens the side door and starts talking to me.  I'm not sure if he's offering me a lift.  But he's shouting.  All Chinese shout when they talk.  No, he's really shouting and he looks a bit angry.  And then I realise who they are, just as he pulls out a short steel bar and whacks me on the backside with it.  It's them.  They go past Gayle and then stop.  The bar didn't really hurt me - we were both going at the same speed I guess, and my arse is kind of fleshy.  But now I'm slightly afraid.  Why are they so mad?  I'm the one who nearly got run over.  The road is deserted - no-one else around, although I'm not sure it would make any difference.  The Chinese tend to stay out of things that don't concern them.  We know this because we had just heard about someone beaten to death in a McDonalds and none of the customers or staff tried to intervene.  This disturbing thought crosses my mind.  The van is doing a U-turn and coming back.  I shout to Gayle to get off the road.  She is trying to photograph them.  They drive by and the young guy hurls an empty beer bottle at me.  He misses by a mile.  They've gone.  I am so angry but feel powerless.  Gayle is understandably a bit jumpy when we carry on, because so many vehicles pass close by with a beep, but we figure that if those goondas really wanted to hurt me, they would have stopped the van and got out.  Good job they were in a hurry.  We don't say much for a while that afternoon.  Afterwards we decide that a) they must have been drunk and b) I shall no longer express my disgust with hand signals, but just swear under my breath.

Later on we stop in a town to restock our food and on the way out a young man with a smart phone waves and asks to photograph us.  Towards sunset we come to another town, bigger. Growing.  We get a glimpse of heavy industry down the valley.  It takes ages to get through the town and the light is fading.  Our road out of town is going towards a gorge - never the best places for camping with a cliff on one side and a river on the other - but happily the penultimate building in the town is a hotel.  Nice, new, affordable.  We stop and unload and while the family try and work out how to record our details on the police website, as all hotels are obliged to do, we are invited to sit down and take some tea.  Mum pours us green tea in tiny porcelain cups while 8-year old Son and Dad try and decipher our dates of birth.  A couple of men join us for tea and one speaks a little English.  Not enough, but he gets out his smart phone and we use a translator to ask each other questions.  Mr.Zhang is very friendly and welcomes us to Fujian and China.  He wants to know if we have eaten, where we have come from, where we are going, what do we do etc. At one point he offers "This is safe hotel.  We are all Hakka people."  I find this strangely reassuring after the events of the day.
in safe hands

Thursday, 4 December 2014

country road

The S202 is the country road we take southwards through Jiangxi and over the mountain pass (there's always a mountain pass) at the provincial border with Fujian.  Now it's the S205, but who minds?  By pure chance we have found ourselves a lovely back road that takes us through more wonderful landscapes.  There are hardly any trucks and this makes it even more enjoyable. The hills can be hard and make the cycling slow but the reward is a different perspective of the land.  As everywhere we've cycled since Nanjing, all the land is being used.  What would be a little valley with a brook running through it once upon a time has been shaped into rice terraces that are naturally flooded by the spring higher up.  Channels have been dug to direct or divert the water.  How old are these rice terraces?  The rice harvest is in - grains are laid out on the road and in yards to dry in the sun.  The stubble in the fields is being burnt before the fields are ploughed by ancient looking minitractors with paddle wheels that help them navigate the mud.  There are ducks in every village and spread over the paddies.  The farmers have to come and herd them home at the end of the day and we watch this daily chore enacted at sunset while we wait to camp in the corner of a field.

We pass through Wuyishan Scenic Area where the hills are full of strange rock formations and dramatic sandstone cliffs.  This is tea country and home of oolong tea.   Inevitably it seems, the local town is now a full-on tourist resort with ongoing construction all around.  It's November, mid-week, and busy busy busy.  Happily we find a little spot to camp in amongst tea and fruit tree plantations just out of town. Unhappily we don't notice the bramble on the ground in the dark and in the morning discover a lot of holes in the ground sheet.  When I say a lot, I finally count 63 when I get round to repairing it.  I can just imagine Gabor shaking his head at us and muttering "idiots" at our carelessness.  The trouble is trying to find a good spot before it gets too dark to see what you are doing and before sundown there are plenty of people around working. After five o'clock there's a rush hour when the roads become busy with electric scooters and motorbikes as everyone heads home.  Ah well.  

there's gold in them thar hills
The tea plantations in this region look fabulous and it seems some of the local leaves are worth their weight in gold, or more so.  Who'd have known there would be such a lucrative market?


dying for a cuppa
Arriving in Taining on another warm sunny day we decide to take a room and have a pause before continuing across Fujian.  The road has become noticeably hillier and we want a rest.  Having been hot the past few days we are relieved to find it cool, almost cold when we continue.  The rain we could do without.  Fortunately we pass through a town with a cheap hotel at the end of the day just as another downpour turns ugly.  Having cheap hotels here can really come in handy but we're in danger of getting nesh.  However, we might as well take advantage, as we won't have this luxury when we move on from China. £10 gets us a large room and bathroom, wi-fi and air conditioning - handy for drying out our gear and laundry.  Oh, and a kettle.  What luxury.  While Gayle is taking a scaldingly hot shower I surreptitiously check our route on the map for other opportunities to hotel it.......