Hangzhou to Suzhou by Bike

A few photos from my ride from Hangzhou to Suzhou via Xitang.  The roads were flat, there were no mountains to be seen and the air pollution was shocking.  I still enjoyed the hell of it!

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I met a fellow cyclist along the way. He spoke no English and I spoke no Chinese. Somehow we ended up riding together for two days.

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After 135Km and about 8 hours on the road we arrived in Xitang.

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The second day of riding was painful as a result of the bike not being set up correctly after its cargo trip from Australia (my fault). However it was only 70km to Suzhou and it helped having a mate along side to keep me charging. Thanks Hua!

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First Thoughts on China

Snow In Hangzhou

My first day in Hangzhou. Snow!

I’m going to keep this brief and narrow it down to three main themes: generosity, frustration and extreme contrasts.  As a caveat, I want to say that I realise I am making sweeping generalisations, from one month’s experience, about a massive country, and therefore most of what I write is complete rubbish.  Nevertheless rubbish is the fertilizer that nourishes the blogospehere, so I feel as though I am just doing my part.

Generous People

For the most part the Chinese have been so kind in helping out a foreign brother.  On several occasions random people have spent hours out of their day assisting me with the trivial things (phone account, setting up the internet etc.) that one must do when they first arrive in a new country.  I’m not sure why they do this? Perhaps there is a cultural element?  Anyway to find that out would require research which is not going to happen because this is a blog not an essay (I’ve got enough essays due as is).  I can say though, with very little conviction, that this would not happen in Australia.  The best you could hope for is to be pointed in the right direction.

The generosity of the Chinese is especially evident when you travel through the smaller towns and villages where a foreign face is still somewhat comical. On several occasions during my bike ride from Hangzhou to Suzhou, I was invited into a family’s home or their restaurant for a meal.  Each time I offered to pay, but this was always politely turned down. Not only was this an incredibly kind gesture, especially as these families were far from rich, but it was also quite nice to sit down and have a meal in a Chinese home.  In regards to why they do it, I would say that it seems to just be a random act of Chinese altruism. They didn’t get anything from it apart from mild amusement at my horrible attempts at speaking Chinese.

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The kind owner of a small street cafe who invited me in for lunch.

Frustration

There’s a lot to like about China, such as the history, the people, the culture, the cuisine etc., but my first few weeks setting up my life here were painfully frustrating.  I want bore you will all the typical problems you will experience in China – there’s enough blogs out there about that.  What I will say, though, is that if you have a problem, and trust me you will, expect to be passed from person to person before doing a complete circle and arriving back with the person with whom you started.  Quite often that person will then solve your problem.  It’s a huge waste of time and energy and leaves you wondering ‘why wasn’t it solved the first time round…?’

Extreme Contrasts

China is a land of stark contrasts, the most obvious of which is the state of the natural environment.  The natural environment can be incredibly beautiful in China. For instance the lakes and mountains around Hangzhou are exquisite and for the most part free from pollution. This all changes, however, when you leave Hangzhou and get out into the industrial belt that runs between cities.  The pollution from the ubiquitous factories, smelting yards, and light industries is beyond anything you could imagine.  The waterways are choked with filth, the air is thick with smog, and rubbish is piled on the sides of the road in every direction.  It makes for unpleasant, not to mention unhealthy, cycling.

 

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Another extreme contrast that one cannot avoid, especially in Hangzhou, is the gap in wealth.  Hangzhou is a one of the wealthiest cities in China.  I’d hazard a guess that there are more Ferraris, Maseratis, Bentleys and Lamborghinis in Hangzhou than the whole of Australia.  There are serious amounts of money flowing around this city, but there is a sizeable underclass that seems to be missing out.  This is not a criticism of China and what they have achieved; it is merely an observation that you cannot avoid in Hangzhou. 

Overall I will say that while my first few weeks in China have been more difficult than I had expected, it is hard not to be excited about spending a year or longer in this crazy (in a good way) place.

The Trip

The donkey that will be carrying my sorry arse.

The donkey that will be carrying my sorry arse.

‘The Slap’ is a book my mother once read about a father that slaps a child (not his own) for misbehaving.  It’s a story that thoroughly explores the morality of using violence to punish a child.  The Trip, which is my story, is similar except the story is about punishing an adult, on a bicycle, and it explores insanity rather than morality.   Both are grandiose tales of small life events.

The Trip hasn’t actually happened yet.  It will though and it will be brutal, violent and unforgiving.   The Trip will be all this because it will be done on bicycle by a horribly unfit and underprepared man – me!  This, when combined with my rudimentary knowledge of bicycle mechanics and terrible map reading skills, leaves the door of failure widely ajar.  To make matters worse I will be cycling in the frosty chills of winter and for the most part up and down mountains.

I must be honest and say that I have done the bare minimum of planning for The Trip.  I know roughly the route I want to take and my ‘research’ on crazyguyonabike.com tells me that I should avoid the ‘G’ roads (highways) where possible.  Google maps have been instrumental in planning the route and helping me to avoid the dreaded G roads.  The Trip will be approximately 700km and will wind its way from Hangzhou around the Xin’anjiang Reservoir and then across to Tunxi and Shexian in Anhui Province. I plan to complete it in 9 days and allowing one of those days for rest.

Getting back to my lack of planning, there’s that old cliché that goes something like, ‘failing to plan is planning to fail’. While I believe there is a chunk of truth to this statement, it can also prevent people from picking their sorry arse up and starting something new and exciting.  I mean if I was to wait until I was fully prepared for The Trip it would most likely not happen.  Months of dieting, training and reading up on bicycle mechanics is pretty low on my priorities list and requires far more dedication than I currently possess. It might be insane but I figure it is best to just go for it and hope for the best!

For those of you who are interested in doing something like this, I highly recommend crazyguyonabike.com.  The website is brimming with stories of people who have just gone ‘you know what stuff it! I’m taking 6 months off work and cycling across the world’.  Quite a lot of those people are older, fatter and less prepared than me. This is greatly reassuring. Honestly, their stories are amazing and have been a huge inspiration for my trip.

On a final note, cycle touring is a fantastic way to put your troubles behind you while traveling through potentially beautiful places.  It is also far cheaper than more traditional means of travel and you have the added benefit of getting fit while you do it!

Perth: The Good-Looking City. So Why Am I leaving?

The beaches in WA are amazing!

My home is flat-out good-looking.  The people are good-looking, the beaches are good-looking, the weather is good-looking, and the average income is also good-looking ($78 000 for full-time workers). It’s a sexy city that recently came in at 9th place on the NYT places to go list of 2014.

Life is easy in Perth – and I believe this is taken for granted by those of us who grew up here.   I know I’ve been guilty of this crime at times, but I am at least aware of it.  The thing is, though, if you have spent most of your adolescence in an environment resembling paradise, you often yearn for the complete opposite – i.e. a chaotic, overpopulated, polluted, dirty, loud, dangerous and difficult environment.  Put simply, you want a challenge! It’s analogous to the son of a rich man who turns down his father’s money, and the offer to get into the family business, to instead start his own small enterprise as a merchant of high altitude, wet-hulled Sulawesi coffee.

When you have everything so close to perfect, there exists a nauseating insecurity in the back of your mind constantly reminding you that you are not experiencing the challenges of the “real world”.  A little devil on the shoulder, if you will, mercilessly spewing vile words into your pale ear, “you wouldn’t cut it in the real world you precious, milk-sopped wimp.”

Well f*ck you little devil man, I’m heading to China on a Polo-esque (Marco that is) adventure of discovery and debauchery!  Where every moment is a fight for survival against melamine contaminated milk, modern-day hieroglyphics, and Mongols on horseback.

So where is this brave intrepid traveler going to be based in China? Will it be the dirty, corrupt, densely populated megalopolis of Chongqing on the banks of the violent Yangtze River? Or perhaps the sub-arctic, heavy-industrial heartland of the north of China, where many a good man has perished by choking on frozen smog and black acid rain?  Umm no.  Sadly my university has no partnerships with institutions based in the ‘adventurous’ parts of China so instead I will be based in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province.

Wikipedia loosely describes Hangzhou as a fairy’s fart on a lake.  For China, it is clean, safe, friendly and scenic.  It is the holiday destination of choice for Shanghai’s bourgeoisie.  It’s pretty much Perth’s sister city in China (Perth’s actual sister city is Nanjing – but you say ‘tomato’ I say’ tomato’). So anyway I suppose that means that the devil on the shoulder was right, I am a wimp!  Out of all the cities in China I have chosen one of the most stunning.  I figure all is not lost though, as it matters little what city you reside in, but rather how you choose to live in the city that counts.  And furthermore, let’s face it, as a Caucasian man with money I was bound to live a privileged life wherever I found myself in China.

This then leads the question of how to experience the ‘real’ China in Hangzhou.  I have several options.  The first, and the least appealing in my mind, is to never interact with expats in China.  When I see a white friendly face I roll my eyes and turn away because hey man you’re totally sabotaging my China experience dude.  I could not handle this approach because (a) it’s what assholes do; and (b) I can only go so long without a decent conversation, and given that I know only a smattering of the mandarin I would have to suffer through endless small talk conversations. No thanks.

The second option is to mimic the life of a typical middle-aged Chinese man.  I could get a job at a factory making the bathroom fixtures, such as plastic sink faucets for export abroad.  I would actually consider this option (for a few weeks at anyway) as it would be the most authentic experience of life as a middle-class Chinese person.  The problem, however, is that I would require a work visa (which I don’t have) and I would have to find a place willing to take me on which is unlikely.  It would make for an interesting blog post though…

The final option is to spend as much time exploring rural China as possible.  This is the option I will be taking.  Given that China was once the land of the bicycle – before cars became a symbol of status – I have decided to bring my somewhat fancy touring bike over to China with me, complete with panniers (luggage compartments), a tent and a sleeping bag.  I will travel the countryside (in between study), make camp on the sides of the road where possible and stay in cheap guesthouses where not.  It may not be the ‘real’ China experience but at least I will have my Polo-esque adventure and will laugh tears of euphoria to poison that scumbag devil on my shoulder.

Snowflakes in China

I’m sure there are millions of folks out there (or just Mum and Dad) salivating at the prospect of me starting a perfectly operational blog, but you’ll have to wait. This is my first blog and hence you can expect it to grow with me like a fungus on a moist platform of detritus.  You get the picture.

So I’m heading off on adventure to China! Aren’t I just a special snowflake waiting to dissolve into the salted roads of a dirty Beijing street — do they salt roads in China? Who knows.

Anyway, join me as I express myself to the world with all things related to China.  I intend this blog to reflect my personality, so it will be filled with pleasantries and optimism … Sarcasm and negativity will be banned and I will only put finger to keypad when gloriously sober…haaa. I will avoid the temptation to be cynical, and my spelling and grammar will be, always, perfect.  Feel free to correct my numerous mistakes in the comments section cause everyone loves a grammar Nazi…

Once I get this blog up and running all my beloved well-wishers (all three of you) will be able to get in touch with me via the comments section.  Constructive criticism is banned. Reconstructive criticism is welcome. Outrage is encouraged. I have no idea what I will be writing about yet; however I do enjoy riding my bicycle over long distances and I have recently bought bicycle shorts with padding so you know this shit is for real.  A friend of mine also purchased a 2×2 ft whiteboard which we intend to use as a mind map for fleshing out a post-democratic, post-neoliberal political system – so once we solve that I’ll post it to Edward Snowden and he’ll leak it to Russel Brand for me.

In all seriousness I hope some people can get some pleasure out of my future grumblings. I have been interested in China for many years now and as of the 9th of February I will be boarding a flight to Hangzhou to live there for a period as an exchange student.  China is such a wonderfully fascinating country that is changing, as we all know, so rapidly.  I hope to capture some of these changes and provide my perspective on what life is like in China.