“I’d rather cry in a BMW car, than laugh on the backseat of a bicycle”. These, of course, are not the words of Francesca, offered in return to Sam’s courting gesture that the two of us cycle across the world. But they are words that now grip the burgeoning Chinese middle classes in their soul-searching identity crisis, as super-fuelled capitalism seeps into every nook and cranny of modern life. They are words that have come to epitomize the seemingly unquenchable materialism of the post 1980’s generation that prizes celebrity and wealth over the more traditional Chinese values of honour, integrity and respect for one’s elders.
These words are those of Ma Nuo, a young and eager contestant on China’s biggest TV dating show, If You Are The One. Words uttered with no sense of shame to her bewildered, naïve suitor. Fortunately for Sam, Francesca was never deterred by her co-adventurer’s proposed impecunious pedalling plans. And away we went. Ma Nuo may not be the most profound commentator you will find on the state of modern Chinese society but her words, and desires for the future, do encapsulate much of what we saw and experienced throughout our 2½ months rumbling through present-day China.
This former colossus of communism has embraced the Western urge for personal enrichment and commercialism to the max. The verbs “to buy” and “to sell” in Mandarin probably tumble from a babe’s lips not long after “Mama” and “Baba” have been learnt. But, boy, are they a hard working nation, not limiting themselves to daylight hours, whether it be flogging imitation tat in the towns and cities or grinding away at the soil in the rural areas, where every square inch is put to some use. (This made searching for camping spots a long and sometimes hopeless task).
Shops invariably opened early and remained so until late into the evenings and we were struck by the apparent equality in the workplace. We cannot comment on the upper echelons of society; the board rooms, committee meetings, or political hierarchy etc; but road construction sites were heavily populated by women toiling at the earth and rock; the wheels of city buses were firmly in the hands of hardy Chinese ladies; and the markets and shops were predominantly tended by women. While we frequently slid past roadside diners full of gorging, puffing Chinese men, no such downtime appeared to be afforded to women.
But as TVs, computers, new cars and those other trappings of modern life have found their way into the mitts of many of the industrious people of the People’s Republic, the pace of development has left some, particularly the rural ethnic groups (Dai, Bai, Yi, Hani, Naxi, Miao, Lisu, Hui, Lahu, Va, Yao, Tibetan, Jingpo, Blang, Pumi, Nu, etc. etc. etc. – in fact nearly 50% of the province is non-Han) that we came across in Yunnan, to blink bleary-eyed into the harsh, white light of the latest super super-market to open in their nearby booming town. Wandering around in traditional garb, as pumpingly crap dance music reverberates, these bewildered folk fondled one shiny product after another as if the magic, that must surely come with paying double or triple the local market price, might rub off on to their hands. They exited through the pearly sliding doors, proudly clasping the one small item (in logoed carrier-bag) that they had paid way over the odds for, feeling as though something important had just taken place.
Our super-market experience took place within a few hundred kilometres of China’s most southerly frontier, where Yunnan Province drops from the vertiginous Tibetan plateau and slides into the preposterously muggy and suffocating jungles of the borderlands cupped by Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. Banana trees jostling along our roadsides now, where once we were cheered onwards, Tour-de-France style, by beautiful pine trees.
As soon as our weary limbs were rested up, we jetted out of depressing old Shangri-La (Ha! What a shit-hole to build in such a glorious setting with its surrounding fields afire with crimson shrubbery) and began our trail southeastwardly. This final Tibetan outpost (or gateway, depending on your direction of travel) did not, however, signal the end of the high hills for us. We – no exaggeration – plummeted almost 2km vertically through the implacable rains to reach the mouth of the one of the world’s deepest gorges – Tiger Leaping Gorge.
Legend has it….. you can probably guess the rest. Whether an agile cat could have made it across is dubious, but what is certain is that that tiger certainly did not suffer from vertigo, like most foolhardy tourists who periodically tip-toe along the slippery, old tea-horse trail that is scratched high up into the gorge-side. All joking aside, it is rumoured that a handful of careless visitors disappear over the edge each year, a fact not widely publicised by the Chinese government. Dangers aside, we loved this place, and were able to share the experience with Francesca’s dad, Laurence, who had generously come to deliver much-needed slabs of English Cheddar Cheese and Italian Gorgonzola. The locals gazed on bemused at the frenzied consumption of such prodigious quantities of unpasteurised dairy but we didn’t care. It was what we had been missing the most.
The bikes caught a breather as we plunged headlong into the chaos of a 7-day national holiday in the absurdly touristy (yet undeniably pretty) UNESCO protected, Lijiang. One of China’s old Ming towns, sprinkled with lovely Naxi locals in the kind of get-up that makes tourists want to spend their money. And they do. While the town did grate a little with its rampant commercialism (and 6 hour traffic jams), it became more alluring as the tide of Han tourists ebbed back to the east coast and we readied our neglected bikes once more for the roads southward. We waved good-bye to Laurence and thanked him once more for his cheese emissary duties, and soon we were bobbling into the charmingly cobbled old town of Shaxi.
Shaxi is everything that Lijiang and Dali (the equally popular tourist hotspot) should aspire to be, and aren’t. Tranquilly set among gentle rice paddies and forgiving hills, we could easily have stayed longer in our converted horse-pen of a hostel, but an itch was surfacing. An itch to leave China and sample new roads. We had periodically crossed the paths of other cyclists (mostly in Central Asia) who had spoken of this same itch. An itch that, while appreciating the joys of China, nonetheless tires of the inability to communicate (i.e. asking for a bowl of rice and being presented with a tooth-pick), and baulks at the incessantly nauseating boom of drunken Karaoke that belched out from each hotel we appeared to select, and itches to conquer the kilometres rather than be conquered by them. This itch was coupled with excitement too, at the prospect of Vietnam and our transition into South East Asia.
Our final days in China took us onto the laser-straight south-easterly diagonal Red River road that eventually flushed us out through reams of tumbling centuries-old rice terraces, the Tropic of Cancer, all those banana plantations and increasingly poorer valleys to Hekou: our ultimate port of call in this vast and complex nation. A painless border official and a wheeling of bikes across a bridge and we were in Vietnam.