More than two weeks around China: of a different way of traveling, pandas and dépaysement
Since the moment we packed our bikes in Almaty we feel a little bit lost. After more than 8 months on the road, through seasons and countries, leaving the bike and keeping on going without them is weird. I have to say that it took me these entire first two weeks in China to get used to a different way of moving around. As I wrote on our Facebook page a few days ago: “on the bike the ‘in between’ was more important than what there was to visit where we stopped: we were on the road, living it. Now this ‘in between’ is not there anymore, we picked some interesting places we feel we’d like to see and we find solutions to go from one to the other. It involves a little bit more of planning (trains and rooms have to be booked in advance). So now we feel we are more tourists than travelers – if this distinction still makes a difference nowadays (which I’m not sure anyway) – even if we’ve met very few western travelers so far”.
I feel it as if traveling by bike creates a deeper experience and deeper connections (with people and places), not just because it’s your legs that take you everywhere. Being on the road, living it, listening to your body, this total independence: you decide where and when to stop, you pitch your tent or you find a host. It’s much easier to meet people, stop and chat, share a tea or a bottle of vodka (like on our last night of wild camping before getting to Almaty), or a meal or just a picture and a goodbye. We miss it. And you know what? We are already talking about where to cycle next! Because even if we enjoy traveling around China as we are doing, there is something missing, that feeling of being on the bike, carrying everything you need with you and just going.
China, anyway. It’s big, diverse and plural. The 40 days we have here won’t be enough to satisfy our curiosity nor to scratch the surface of this country, despite all the night trains we are taking. China hit the record of our dépaysement, for sure: in some countries hospitality was the way (Iran and Turkey!), in some other, the few words of Russian (and a couple shots of vodka) made communication flow. Here, language is a (great) wall: hard to find someone who speaks English and when somebody does, it’s quite hard to understand (and to be understood); a few times we thought they were talking to us in Chinese when it was English, just to give you an idea! Nonetheless, every time we needed some help – to find a bus, to get directions or just to understand something – the people in front of us have always been really helpful.
Our itinerary, so far: Beijing, Xi’an, (Lanzhou), Xiahé, Chengdu, Emei Shan. Coming next: Leshan, Kunming, Lijiang. After that we still have to plan.
There is too much to write about, and too much that’s lost in notes and thoughts so here’s just a list of impressions, sketches and things we’ve noticed.
#1 Construction works everywhere: buildings, streets, bridges, railways. Everywhere, literally. It’s no surprise, since China used more concrete in three years (2011-2013) than the USA in the entire 20th century, but seeing it with our eyes, wow. And yes, almost all of the motorbikes are electric in every city, and China is pushing hard on renewable energies. But still. Impressive.
#2 Talking loud: as Italians, we know about our attitude to speak loud. Well, if there is a challenge here, I guess that Chinese will probably take the gold medal over our Italian traditional loudness. (Please, let’s not make this challenge: I’m really sensible to noise!)
#3 Thousands-years old culture and traditions are hidden at (almost) every corner: Buddhist temples, Taoist temples, tea (such a pleasure for me, as a tea lover!). At the same time, (hyper)modernity is everywhere. A contrast? I don’t know. When we were walking the narrow streets of the Muslim neighborhood in Xi’an I felt I was in the movie Nirvana by Salvatores: a near future where ancient cultures, technology and humanity are mixing – as part of the same creature (as they actually are, I think).
#4 Security: overwhelming. Many young people (without any real trace of authority) are employed everywhere in the security business: airports, metro and train stations, shopping malls, touristic sites. No way you can get a train or bus ticket or enter a touristic site without your Id (or passport). When boarding the shuttle at Emei Shan national park they took our picture (that’s to say: facial recognition) and they checked it when we boarded the return shuttle. Scary.
#5 T-shirts: too many t-shirts have some pretended English words or sentences on them. Well, most of them are not English at all: just a random mix of letters that even if they give an English word, the sentence does not make any sense! We’ll try to keep in mind examples, since it’s hard to get pictures. We’ve also found some meta-fake brands: a faked famous brand t-shirt with the name and logo written with the font of another brand. Uh!
#6 Food is great… if you understand what to order! But if you do not like hot and spicy… maybe think of another country to visit! We love chili peppers and black peppers, so delicious dishes for us but sometimes even we (at least I) needed a break!
#7 Pandas… well, they are just so lovely!
If you want to take a look, the gallery on our Facebook page is updated every few days with new shots!