30.09.2011 - 04.10.2011
I was very fortunate in the recent Chinese National Day holiday to be invited by my Chinese friend and former student of mine Lon’s wedding near Longyan in Fujian. Naturally I also saw this as an opportunity to jump on the bike and pedal out there for a few days. This region of Fujian is particularly famous for it’s ‘Tulous’福建土楼 earth building or round houses which are home to the ‘Hakka’客家 people or Kèjiā in pinyin. For more definitive information about these houses and people who inhabit this region you’re best bet is to wikipedia them http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fujian_Tulou and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hakka_people. It’s an area that I’ve ridden in previously before and I looked forward to the return trip with great relish. Being a mountainous region it really gives you, not only the chance you get up and sample some of that fresh mountain air but also to pit your wits against some fairly long climbs.
I’m still waiting on a few parts for my new touring bike so it gave me one final chance to take out my old and trusted companion that is my mountain bike out for what I guess will have been one final trip together. She’s really been a faithful old servant and we’ve put in a fair amount of kilometers together in and around Fujian, a real sturdy bike that has proved to be an excellent purchase and one that I’ve rarely had any problems with.
So, with a new rack attached and panniers packed up I set off on the Friday morning. Like I previously mentioned getting to these cool places often requires rather mundane rides through fairly non-descript areas and that is certainly the case of the 75km from Xiamen to the next largest city Zhanghzhou. Once out of Zhangzhou things begin to get a little better and one can begin to see the rich hilly forestation in the background. However glances from left to right while cycling merely offer a constant stream of, restaurants, repair shops, stores, factories, restaurants, stores, repair shops and more factories. The start of the Tulou trail I guess as one could call it really begins from the small town of Nanjng, a further 35km from Zhangzhou and the route into the mountains.
I’d decided before setting out that I wanted to camp during this trip, finding a suitable place was the next step. I’d ridden the road into the mountains before and could remember a couple of places which, while close to the road where still far enough away to pitch a tent. However time wasn’t on my side and as the evening began to draw in I still hadn’t found a suitable place for the night. In the end I was more or less forced to settle for a small area just off the road but largely concealed by trees. The good thing about the bivy that I have is that it’s very easy to put up and within five minutes the tent was up and I had water boiling on my mini-trangia stove. Pasta cooked, brew made and sun going down there really wasn’t much else for me to do. The option of staying outside the tent was taken away from me by the rather large numbers of small flies and insects who were full of intrigue for their exotic guest. So without further ado it was time to crawl into the tent. While the bivy is incredibly small and lightweight when packed it’s obvious downside is the lack of room inside. I’m sure as time passes and I get used to setting it up and more importantly sleeping in it this spatial issue won’t be a problem but this was only my second night in it and my lack of organizational experience clearly showed. I was very conscious of having stuff inside the tent with me when clearly there wasn’t enough room. I was bracing myself for a rather cold night so I packed a sleeping bag and also wore long pants and a shirt, which proved to be another mistake, after twenty minutes inside, the temperature was more akin to that of a sauna rather than the chilly night I had been anticipating. Once again keeping everything I needed such as torch and itouch close at hand was very important. I regret to say that on this count I once again failed hopelessly. I simply kept losing things which meant more moving around and increased sweating on my part! I’m sure if they were experienced campers observing they would have been shaking their heads in utter disbelief at the frankly comical scene unfolding in front of them. The upshot of this all was me getting so frustrated when not being able to locate my itouch that I fiddled extensively with the zipper growing increasingly annoyed before dragging myself out of the bivy, and striping down to my underpants to finally get some welcome relief from the intense heat. Having cooled down both physically, and mentally I decided the best course of action would be to start over again and besides I not sure if the sight of a tall foreigner standing near the side of the road in his undies would go down too well in rural China.
Prior to setting out I’d informed one of my Chinese friends of my intention to camp. I should point out at this point that camping has yet to catch on with the natives and my insistence of staying inside a tent was often met and furthermore is often met with utter disbelief. Amongst the numerous warnings of the impending dangers that I faced was my personal favourite when one student informed me “You can’t do this, there are pigs that will eat you in the night!” I’m sure there are wild boars, who can, unquestionably be aggressive mammals, but I think the chances of them fancying a bit of human though are rather slim. Once I’d put the thought of human eating snakes, wild crazed boars and zombie like Chinese farmers interrupting my sleep I did manage to get my head down for a fairly decent nights kip.
My relative inexperience in touring on a bike once again showed in the morning as it seemed to take me an eternity to pack up everything and get going. It did get me thinking though “what is the rush?” I woke up around 5:30 and was away by 7:00. Perhaps this is just a product of the way we live our lives, we’re constantly in a hurry and it’s something I will have to change in my mindset. I’m guessing I will be spending around 8-10 hours a day riding depending on weather, terrain etc, that’s going to leave me with a lot of ‘down time’ How will I occupy these other hours?
The best part to the next day was spent working my way to my friend’s hometown while passing Tulou after Tulou. I ran into a couple of other cyclists a Polish guy and Brazilian chap. I love meeting other cyclists along the way and I’m sure when I’m on my trip it will be welcome relief to meet others and perhaps share some riding time together. Solitude is nice and it’s one of the reasons I love riding on my own but a bit of human interaction doesn’t goes amiss from time to time.
I arrived in my friend’s hometown of Gaopizhen in the early afternoon. Despite having lived in China for going on seven years this was to be only my second Chinese wedding. Lon is an old student of mine and he and his wife Lin have both become good friends. In fact I felt rather honored to have been invited to his wedding and was given a room in the huge apartment block which seemed to house his entire family. Lon had told me to expect to experience a traditional Hakka wedding but nothing prepared for his statement that I was required to get up at 3:00 a.m. to take part in one of the wedding rituals in his old village not far away. So, at 2:30 I was awoken and ushered half asleep into a car and headed out into the pitch dark of the countryside, down a bumpy old dirt road before finally arriving at the house in which he grew up. Inside relatives were busying them preparing a table of offerings. Firecrackers of the industrial sized nature were placed in close vicinity to the front door and what I assumed was red paint splashed liberally over the step into the house (at least I hope it was paint!) This is a particularly popular time of year to get married and at least I wasn’t the only person awake at this ridiculous hour judging by the sound of firecrackers going off nearby. I made slightly awkward broken Chinese conversation whilst we awaited the arrival of Lin and generally tried to stay as concealed as possible. In some respects I couldn’t help feeling a little bit goofy and out of place, I’m sure this was just me being over conscious. The firecrackers were set off and with them any evil spirits firmly told where to go and then Lin arrived. She was shepherded into the house and into a back room, she resurfaced 5 or so minutes later and within no time I found myself back in the car and back at the house. I have so say ever so slightly unsure of the surreal events that had just taken place.
The rest of the wedding was much as one would imagine, plenty of feasting and plenty of drinking. Luckily enough my impersonation of a professional sportsman/cyclist seemed to mean that I wasn’t involved in the customary downing of as much alcohol as humanly possible that usually accompanies such events. It was a massive relief to be honest. I’ve never really been a fan of the Chinese way of drinking. The Chinese custom is to ‘Ganbei’ drinks, which literally means ‘empty glass’ Being a foreigner it’s often seen as a challenge by many locals to take it upon themselves to see how much you can drink. In fact, the ability to drink a lot in China is often seen, particularly by many men as a real badge of honor and the refusal to drink with another person is often a sign of disrespect. Thankfully on this occasion my fellow diners at my table had little interest in seeing me hammered drunk.
Later that evening I paid my respects to Lon’s father and was invited to ‘take tea’ with him some other friends and relatives. What ensued was me doing my usual ‘dui dui dui' and knowing nodding of the head. ‘Dui' in Chinese literally means yes and it seemed that I not only agreed with everything they were saying but also understood everything. In these kinds of situations I’ve always found that a good old-fashioned smile and nod of the head goes a long way. In fact my Chinese isn’t that bad and, generally speaking I can understand most of what people say, however in this instance they were speaking the local Kèjiā dialect which as far as I’m concerned bears no resemblance whatsoever to Mandarin Chinese.
I set off early the next morning wanting to get a good days riding in and also looking forward to exploring some spot to camp in as opposed to my first night. The last day’s ride was supposed to be a formality. It started with a short descent into Nanjing before getting back on the rather humdrum roads, which would finally lead me back home. I’ve always found that as a holiday draws to an end the eagerness to get home increases. I knew what was ahead of me having ridden those roads before and with that in mind there was an extra zest in my riding that morning. In fact I made such good progress that by the time I reached the outskirts of Zhangzhou I was even contemplating arriving back home at my apartment at around 2. This is where things took a turn for the worse. Bad calls are a fact of life and this is where I mostly certainly took one. Instead of taking my usual route back, 75km which would have had me back at home and sipping a nice cuppa by 2 o’clock I decided to take the 209 Provincial Road. My thinking behind this was based on the fact that it was a) it’s a little bit shorter and b) I could then also hop on the ferry and enjoy a nice relaxing sail back into Xiamen. How wrong was I? I’d ridden this road previously with my friend Donald and it was unremarkable to say the least then. Nevertheless I was buoyed by the fact that I might be cutting 25km off my trip; I suppose this is what you get for cheating! The road was a total mess, dusty, dirty and inhabited by huge monstrous trucks with their ear-splitting horns. After about 10km I knew I’d made a mistake. Not only was I dealing with the awful traffic, dust and potholed roads I was now riding into a seriously strong headwind. Could things get any worse? Well yes, as a matter of fact they could. Having covered a mere 20 Km’s I became aware of a slight ‘sagging’ of the back wheel and a quick check over my shoulder confirmed my worst fear………a puncture. I pulled the bike over into a small park but it was now midday and the heat was beating down on me. Panniers off, rear wheel off, I decided to simply replace the inner tube, already fearful that I was making slow progress and wasn’t going to be back at my expected time. Once I’d fixed the wheel, had a sit down and grabbed a snack, the combination of the midday sun and tiredness suddenly kicked in. My early morning enthusiasm had waned and I knew I was now facing a pretty tough afternoon ahead of me. I’m sure many others will concur that rhythm is so important when riding and once you break that, it’s hard to get it back again.
The closer I got to the sea the more the head wind picked up. The last 30km I think I can quite honestly say were the hardest I’ve ever ridden. The later part of the 209 is currently under construction and it’s basically just a bumpy sand covered road with boulders of varying size scattered along it. Wave after wave of trucks passed transporting huge rocks from one place to another. The wind became so bad at one point that I was actually forced to get of the bike and walk for five minutes before summoning up one last burst of energy.
In many ways, and certainly in a masochistic way I was thankful of this, after all this was just a taste of what I’m certain to face in the future. Having read Christopher J. A. Smith’s excellent book “Why don’t you fly? – Backdoor to Beijing by bicycle” it reminded me of his experiences crossing the Gobi desert. I’m in no way trying to compare my passing a 10-15km stretch of windy and dusty road to that of crossing a vast inhospitable place such as the Gobi desert but it’s certainly given me food for thought. I’m please to say thought that it hasn’t dampened my enthusiasm for such a task; on the contrary challenges like this are the drive behind this trip. Whether I will think this while facing such conditions next year is another matter!
I finally arrived at the ferry port and was relieved to see a ferry ready for boarding and imminent departure. It was 6 o’clock by the time I set food in my apartment, a measly 4 hours behind my scheduled arrival time. After such a horrendous and torturous afternoon on the bike there really was only one way to sign off the holiday, extra large pepperoni pizza and an ice-cold coke, a perfect ending to a, for the mot part, enjoyable 475km 5-day trip.