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3 April 2013

Did you know – China is a big country, with a surface area of 9,596,961 sq km and an estimated population in 2010 of 1,341,335,000 people.  Population density is 139.8 per sq km.  Beijing is the capital city with a population of 15,594,000.  Average population growth for the country is only 0.4%, of which 2.9% is urban growth and -2.9% rural growth (or decline). Urban population is about 50% and there are about 108 males for every 100 females.

We are in China, finally!  It actually feels unreal to finally be here.  We were very keen to visit China on our first trip and disappointed not to be able to do it.  It does also feel that we’ve really cheated to get here – we’ve worked so hard over the last few months, everything building up to getting through the mountains in Northern Laos and China and making it to Kunming.  Now we are here, a mere 2 hour flight from Vientiane, all done in a blink of an eye, compared to days and days of hard slog we would’ve had coming over the mountains.  Still, at least we’ve made it.

We landed on time in China and were greeted by what looked like a brand new airport.  It was big, but hardly anyone around.  We quickly got our bags and bikes, loaded it all on a trolley and headed into the unknown once again.  The difference to what we were used to was immediate.  The place smelt like a massive China town, quite funny actually. All we could smell was Chinese five-spice coming from somewhere, but there were no food stalls or restaurants in sight. 

We eventually figured out that we will be able to catch the airport express bus into the city.  The taxi was going to cost us about RMB250 – 300 if we were lucky, compared to the RMB 50 per person for the bus.  We managed to get our bikes into the luggage hold of the bus without any problems and were set to go.  We were plonked down in the middle of a busy city – luckily I tried to find the GPS point for the place we booked to stay for a couple of nights.  Turns out we were actually only a couple of kms away from it.  We re-assembled our bikes and packed them right there in the parking lot.  We didn’t really have a choice to be honest.

We spent a few days exploring Kunming and again felt like we were in a gigantic China Town, it was so funny!  All we are used to is China town in London and the smells you get when visiting there.  Amplify that a few times and you get the idea.

We very quickly realised that the communication would be our main hurdle, something everyone told us about when visiting China.  We had no choice but to find a little dictionary to try and make life easier for us.  We haven’t come across anyone speaking any English, besides from the people working in the place we stayed at.  The dictionary was also the essential tool when we wanted to order food.  Speaking of food; it is again mostly rice and noodles – noodle soup for breakfast but also dim sum (dumplings) and steamed buns which are very tasty.  At some eateries, all the ingredients are displayed in a large fridge.  All you need to do is to point at what you want and they prepare a dish for you.  We never really knew what we would be getting.

While in Kunming we visited the bird and flower market.  Even though it’s called the bird and flower market, there were lots more on sale, mostly tourist tat as well as different types of pets like puppies, bunnies, hamsters, snakes, spiders, fish and even multi-coloured frogs! 

Our plan was to stay in Kunming for a few nights to try and figure out what we want to do next and also try to figure out what route we will be taking.  Accurate maps for China are very hard to find.  There are a few local maps around, but very hard to read because of lack of details and off course, all in Chinese.  For the first time in all our travelling, we had to rely on just the GPS and the route planning I do online.  We didn’t have a backup plan.

It took us a little while, but eventually came up with some kind of a plan.  My achilles was feeling a bit better so we decided to pack the bikes and head east.  Our first day on the road was a shocker.  It was easy enough to get out of the city, but there was a lot of road works and it had rained the night before so instead of being dusty it was muddy and the locals were driving all over the place.  We had to dodge trucks, buses, cars, scooters, other bicycles and pedestrians and fight our way through parts of it.  To make things just that little bit more difficult, we very soon realised that all the scooters are electric.  This is great for the environment but makes it a little harder for us on the road because you can’t hear them coming past you and we can’t look in our mirrors all the time.  We did eventually get used to this and changed our riding style a bit.

My achilles was ok, but not in great shape.  As a precaution, I started taking some anti-inflammatory tablets to try and prevent it flaring up too much.  The second day out of Kunming entailed lots of climbing – it wasn’t big climbs, but lots of up and down.  We climbed just over 1000m and also clocked up 9000km for the trip!

We managed to stay on smaller roads and the ride was a lot better than the day before with all the road works.  It was a long day and just as we started heading down a long bumpy gravel road, getting close to the small town we wanted to stay in, it started raining. Not a little drizzle, but heavy downpour with thunder and lightning…the works.  It was a mad dash to get our rain gear on and make it to the centre of town where we looked for a bit of shelter.  We were standing in the doorway of something that looked like a shop-house, or just someone’s little house when the woman came out and asked us if we wanted to come inside.  We quickly changed the conversation to one of where we could find a place to stay.  (We met a couple of Chinese cyclist in Kuala Lumpur and one of the guys very kindly wrote down a few key phrases for us).  No problem she said, and was on the phone to someone.  A few minutes later, a car appeared and told us to follow them.  A short ride later and not too wet, we ended up at a hotel.  No way in hell would we have seen this place.  It was big, but set away from the road and looked like normal apartment blocks.  We quickly got out of the rain and went to look at the rooms.  The place was very good.  Spotless rooms, nice comfortable bed and very nice bathroom.  Without a doubt, probably the best value hotel on our whole trip.  This place cost us RMB50 (about £5).  It was probably also the coldest we have been since starting the trip, the temperature got down to about 12deg!

What turned out to be our last cycle day was also the nicest in terms of scenery – we cycled through to Luoping which is an area known for its rape seed / canola fields.  Unfortunately we were about 2 - 3 weeks too early for the flowers but it was still beautiful seeing green terraced fields all around you.  We also had some really long down hills which was great!  The anti-inflammatory was probably doing more harm than good.  My achilles was feeling ok because of the painkillers, but I knew I was doing more damage to it.  For the first time ever, it was also a bit swollen, and I could feel the fibers of the tendon moving when I move my foot.  It was a sad day for both of us, but a situation we couldn’t ignore. 

All of the sudden everything has changed, we were now ordinary travellers, the only difference being that we travel with weird luggage and a bicycle.  We decided to get the train from Luoping to Nanning, another big city closer to our final destination, Hong Kong. We bought our train tickets the day before without too much hassle.  Our main concern now was the bikes and if we will be able to take it on the train. The woman who sold us the tickets assured us it will be ok to take the bikes on the train.  I think she was under the impression we could fold the bikes.  We got to the station around 2230 for our midnight train, getting ready for the overnight train.  Luckily for us, the woman who sold us the ticket was also on duty that night.  She soon realised that we can’t fold the bikes and that we have a lot of luggage.  The staff at the station helped us get the bikes in the train and we settled in for a night on the train.  The beds were surprisingly comfortable and we had a decent sleep although were woken up by the smell of cigarette smoke and pot noodles!

Nanning is another busy provincial city but we found a great hostel where we left the bikes for a week to head up north to visit the pretty town of Yangshuo.  The scenery in Yangshuo is lovely – lots of karst mountains surrounding the town.  We have been feeling sorry for ourselves because we can’t cycle – traveling by bus and train is definitely not for us!  We miss so much on the way and speed pass everything, not experiencing the sights and smells on the way.  While in Yangshuo we took a short boat trip down the river in between the mountains – it was beautiful.  There was a fair amount of river traffic with all the local tourists going up and down, taking photos of absolutely everything they see, including us!

Coming from Africa and being aware of all the problems the authorities have with wildlife poaching is something we are well aware of.  We now also have a much better understanding as to why they have all these issues.  We were walking around the city of Nanning and came across many guys with makeshift ‘stalls’ on the pavements selling all sorts of animal products. The most shocking of all was that every person had at least 3 or 4 tiger paws they were trying to sell as well as loads of horns, bones and who knows what else.  All of this happened in broad daylight on a busy road in the middle of the city.  They were very keen to sell some of the tiger paws to us while we were taking photos.  The police don’t care that they sell the animal products, because it’s not actually an illegal thing to do. Seeing first-hand what actually goes on and how easy it is to find these things, make you realise what a daunting task the wildlife authorities actually have trying to protect the wildlife in countries of Africa and around India.  I do take my hat off to what the authorities achieve, but feel it is almost like fighting a losing battle.  It will take years and years for their mind-set and attitude to change, and I’m sure it will be all too late by then.  I really do hope we’re wrong, but somehow I doubt this.

Travelling with bikes and not being able to ride them turned out to be a pain in the butt!  First we had to book our train tickets to Shenzhen, then we had to buy tickets for the bikes to go as cargo and leave them at the station, then we had to lug our extremely heavy bags around.  We made it to Shenzhen after another overnight train.  Once we got there, we had to find the cargo area to collect the bikes – this turned out to be simple enough except for the fact that someone had broken my Ergon handle bar!  We were not impressed – we paid a lot of money for the bikes to be transported carefully but they just don’t care!  I made a scene and tried to make life difficult for the poor guy at the depot, but knew nothing would come of it.  Everything is lost in translation and their mentality is not the same as western society.

Hong Kong

Did you know – Special Edition; we set off on our trip with only about 500km on our bikes.  We certainly changed that very quickly.  Some interesting facts about our trip – we were on the road for 278 days and we cycled for 50% of the time (139 days). We cycled a total of 9,129km in the 139 days, averaging 65.68km per cycling day.  We each only had one puncture.  Jacques had one accident on the bicycle when hitting the bull in Thailand and we had a second accident in Laos on the motorbike when the cement truck almost took us out.  In both instances, we were very lucky and escaped with very minor injuries.  We saved 3,286.46 kg of CO2 emissions comparing to if we had to do the trip in our Landcruiser.

We had to pre-book our accommodation for Hong Kong because we knew it would be hard to find something decent and we knew Hong Kong was very expensive.  Even harder for us, the lack of space in Hong Kong was proving to almost be a ‘show stopper’.   We were extremely lucky, through connections on the traveller’s forum, we made contact with an Scottish guy living in Hong Kong.  John (and his wife Margaret) very generously offered for us to leave our bikes in his warehouse.  A great offer we couldn’t turn down.

We decided to cross from China to Hong Kong by train and not the ferry as we initially planned.  It would’ve been a 30km ride to the ferry terminal, and we already arranged a time to meet John in HK.  The train was definitely a lot quicker, but really a hassle with the bikes and luggage. You have to take the front wheel off the bike in order to take it on the train.  This is easy enough, but what makes it harder is the fact that we still had all our luggage on the bikes.  You have to carry the front of the bike - not the easiest thing to do when the bike is fully loaded.  Not too bad for me, but poor Mandy had a hard time with hers.  We eventually made it to the other side and ended up at a station about 4km from the warehouse where we would meet John.

John we are so grateful for all your help, it really made things so much easier for us, thank you again.

Wow, Hong Kong is very different to China.  It is much more ‘westernised’ and a lot of the locals spoke English which helped – you can definitely see and feel the influence the British had on the place.  The accommodation is much more expensive compared to the rest of South East Asia, as well as full most of the time.  We had booked two different hotels because the first one only had a few days available. The second hotel was so tiny that we could hardly fit all our bags in – luckily we didn’t have the bikes with us!  I suppose the name should have alerted us to this fact – Mini Hotel!

We spent our time doing the sights of Hong Kong one of which was taking the sky train up a steep mountain to The Peak.  The view of Hong Kong from the peak is meant to be spectacular but unfortunately when we got to the top it was very misty and we could hardly see anything.  We knew our timing to visit HK wasn’t the best in terms of weather, but really didn’t have a choice.  Luckily the weather was better when we went to see the night lights of Victoria Harbour – it was beautiful, and something we always wanted to! 

The food in Hong Kong was great!  One afternoon we popped into a Yum Cha shop which is a traditional tea-house serving hot pots of tea and dim sum.  The one we went to was very local so no English or menus.  You basically sit down at a table with a free chair and wait for the lady to come round with the trolley of fresh, steaming bamboo baskets full of dim sum.  This place was so popular that the poor lady got pounced upon as soon as she left the kitchen with a new batch of baskets!  Mandy had to go up and fight her way through with everyone else to get us some baskets of dim sum.  It was quite an interesting experience.  After sitting at our table with two locals the guy suddenly spoke to us in broken English and was able to tell what we were eating – one of which was fish fat - we would rather not have known!  Still, it was very nice food and a nice experience.

Two other food highlights for us were Hong Kong duck and BBQ pork which was served with rice, soup and a very tasty green onion sauce.  The food was a bit more expensive that the rest of Asia but we could certainly see and taste the difference.

Life in HK really revolves around eating and shopping.  On the face of it, HK looks like a very rich country. Around every corner on just about every street will be some kind of designer shop.  Many streets only have designer shops, like Gucci, Prada, Louis Vuitton and hundreds of jewellery stores.  Most of the jewellery stores showcase the designer watches, quality Swiss watches like Rolex, Longines and off course diamonds, loads and loads of diamonds.  The biggest diamond we saw in the window of one of the stores was more than 9 carat.  Goodness knows what that would set you back. 

On our last day in Hong Kong we checked out of the hotel and met John who had kindly collected our bikes from his warehouse and took us to the airport. All of a sudden it was time to fly home.  We couldn’t believe the trip was over – it had gone so quickly.  On the plus side we were heading home to spend some time with our family and to meet our new niece, Annabelle.

Final thoughts

We liked most of what we saw of China.  Unfortunately, we only managed 3 days cycling there before we had to stop. Those 3 days were just about the highlight of the country to us.  The little bit we saw of the countryside was nice.  It was easy enough to cycle there – our biggest problem as planning our route.  We couldn’t find any reliable maps, and had to rely on our basic map set on our gps and also Google maps.  The food was generally good and accommodation of good quality too.  It was a bit harder to find a place to stay, but not impossible.  The people aren’t that friendly, but it wasn’t really a problem, they tend to leave you alone.  We ended up seeing far less of China than what we hoped to see.  We definitely hope to go back again to complete what we wanted to do.

Hong Kong was great, just what we needed to end the trip on.  Space is a problem in HK, which meant finding a place for your bicycle a problem.  HK is also busy and probably not the easiest place to cycle.  It was nice to end the trip with a bit of luxury and really good food.

On that note, it’s time to end our second trip.  We are busy planning the next part of the adventure.  Trip 3 will start shortly – this time we will be traveling on my motorbike (KTM 990 Adventure), starting in the UK, and heading towards Greece, going through Eastern Europe and coming back along the Dalmatian coast.  Watch this space, more to follow soon.