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Amelia Oliver

Amelia Oliver
"Travelling Around Central China By Bike And Otherwise"

Amelia Oliver's story of cycling through Sichuan, Chongqing and Hubei Provinces.

copyright © Amelia Oliver, 2003

Sichuan Province

After a week in Chengdu I set out on my bike to ride south and east across Sichuan Province. My goal was to make it to Chongqing, a port on the Yangtze River, and from there take a cruise through the famous Three Gorges, slated to be flooded in 2003.

Bicycles, along with trucks of rocks and other second-class vehicles, are not allowed on the highways in mainland China, so we take secondary roads. The roads are mostly paved and mostly good, and I've seen a lot of rural Sichuan. The countryside is hilly and green, and very densely populated. It is also entirely blanketed in fog (perhaps smog but I don't know), and, closer to earth it's covered with coal. I share the shoulder with many local cyclists and pedestrians, including masses of children in their school uniforms. About half of the time the road is lined with houses or other buildings, but a lot of times you do see big fields; it's not all built-up area. People seem mostly occupied with crushing big rocks into small rocks, or stripping bamboo and weaving it into baskets, or playing mahjong. Ducks are everywhere, and chickens.

In general the traffic is not too bad and I think China is a good place to travel by bike. People are very nonchalant about a whitey riding through their village, unless you stop and then they crowd around, but not in an intimidating way. They also always speak Chinese to me. When I don't understand, they write down what they're saying (in Chinese). I think this may be because while people speak different dialects they all understand the same writing system. Except me of course.

In the evenings I find a hotel by pulling over to some pedestrians and making a sleeping gesture: closing my eyes and resting my head sideways on hands pressed together. This works well and they usually point me on down the street, until I'm outside a hotel and then they point me inside. (The reason I can't recognize hotels is that it's often the same word as restaurant and shop, and the fronts all look like cafes.) To find food I stop at a restaurant - there are hundreds of tiny places along the roads - and make the Chinese eating gesture, which is like shoveling food into your mouth with rotating motions of your hand just under your chin (where you hold the rice bowl). Then sometimes they point to some dead animals and ask me to pick one to eat. Or they show me a menu in Chinese, which I still can't read at all. If I am not feeling adventurous I show them my notebook with the names of three dishes written down in Chinese. Two are shredded pork with greens and one is scrambled eggs with tomato. For a long time I had just the shredded pork ones so I was eating that every day. Then I was feeling adventurous once and got scrambled eggs with tomato, so I asked the girl to write it down. Now I can order that.

Two things about travelling in China: In the hotels, even the dives, they always give you thermoses of boiling hot water, for tea or washing or whatever, and it stays hot all night. This is great when it's cold. The other thing is that people hawk and spit constantly. It's all over everywhere, including the floors of cafes and the aisles of buses. I am not exaggerating.

After a couple days on the road I arrived in Leshan, a large town (over three million people) famous as the home of the largest Buddha in the world - even before the ones in Bamian were blown up. The fog/smog was so bad in Leshan that I barely got to see the Buddha. He is seated, carved out of a cliff at the point where two rivers meet. Carving him took 90 years, but the sculpture has lasted over 1000.

Dinosaur Museum

Two days southeast of Leshan is Zigong, home of a dinosaur museum. The museum is absolutely fascinating - I like that stuff anyway though. It's one of the richest sites in the world, because of the variety and quality of the fossils. Apparently 160 million years ago an assortment of dead dinosaurs washed downstream to this site, where they were covered in silt and their skeletons were perfectly preserved. The dinosaurs have Chinese names of course, like Yangchuanosaurus, who looks like T-rex. And the displays are great; they even have little models in front of the skeleton ensembles, showing what they might have looked like with skin on. Yangchuanosaurus holds another dinosaur in his mouth, and the model roars and moves and shakes its prey. That actually made me laugh out loud.

The museum is built right over the richest part of the fossil site, so you can look down and see where the excavation work continues. Upstairs they have a beautiful treasure room (it looks like a sculpture gallery) where they display the jewels of the find - complete skeletons of tiny rare dinosaurs, a huge intact carnivore skull, a clutch of eggs, a fossil of skin. Stuff that advances science. The Chinese tourism touches are: they show a horrible-quality Jurassic Park III, you can have a CD made of your child running from triceratops (it looks like they're in a computer game), and they are building a giant Disneyland-style dinosaur theme park across the street.

Cycling from town to town I follow the routine the Kiwis used when we were riding together. Usually I get up at 7:30 and hope to be on the road 9:00. I have lunch around 1:00 p.m. and keep riding until around 5:00 p.m. In a day I cover around 90 km - it depends mostly on the quality of the roads and how hilly or flat the terrain is, and also on whether the wind is behind you or in your face. By comparison, when we were climbing over the Himalayas there were a couple of days when we covered less than 20 km, and our average day on the plateau was 45 km. Altitude played a big role in this.

The Chinese road atlas I have is great - the only real problems are that they are building roads so fast that often my planned route has been changed or (worse) is under renovation or construction. There are road signs everywhere, so I've managed to learn a few Chinese characters just by using my maps. The secondary roads all look the same on the map of course but in reality they range from perfect pavement with separate bike lanes to troughs of mud full of big sharp rocks. They put the rocks in there on purpose; traction for the trucks and local buses. Most of the time I'm riding on two-lane paved roads, winding through farmland and brick or concrete-block villages.

Police Visit

It took me five days to ride from the dinosaur town to Chongqing, the river port. The last night before arriving in Chongqing I was visited by the police. (Until very recently much of China was closed to foreigners, and rural cops don't really like independent foreigners romping at will around their towns. The laws aren't at all clear even now and it may be that some areas are still off limits.) They didn't waste time and arrived about 30 minutes after I'd checked into a hotel, while I was in the shower. Of course the hotel had no way to tell me that the police were here so they had a wait while I got clean. This is much better than in Tibet, where the cops barged into the room in the middle of the night. These guys were two - a big one in a leather jacket and buzz cut, and a smallish one in glasses, and they brought a smarmy teacher to interpret. They just wanted to see my visa (newly extended) and to have me fill in a registration form. They also told me I shouldn't leave the hotel, for my own safety, they said. Then we all had a banquet in the hotel restaurant with the hotel boss and his son. It all smacked seriously of the Soviet Union. The cops left the banquet early but of course I had to stay and make rice-liquor toasts, translated by a young PLA (that's People's Liberation Army) captain whom they brought in to interpret - the cops had not invited the first interpreter to stay for dinner. Unlike Russia they didn't get sloshed, didn't sing folk songs or dance, and the party broke up around 9:00 pm. The food looked delicious but I was trying to be polite so I didn't eat much. Once a matronly woman came in and scooped a delicacy out of a bowl for me - a fish head, with gill covers and fins. I think you're supposed to suck the soft parts out, but I can't do that yet. Certainly I can't do it gracefully with chopsticks.

Chongqing Municipality

By the time I made it to Chongqing I'd decided that I didn't need to cycle through any more of rural central China. Especially the last bit had been extremely coally and grey. I was filthy - even greasy - when I arrived in the city. Having never been to Hong Kong or Shanghai, I imagined they are what Chongqing is striving for: shiny skyscrapers packed in tight and swathed in flashing neon. Perhaps New York is like this too. Chongqing is built on hills, like San Francisco, and there are no bicycles. I felt like Country Mouse riding into the city; I could just shake my head and say wow... People are dressed stylishly and you can buy beautiful things and walk around late at night. The city is very different from the countryside, and this is Western China, supposedly much more humble than the Eastern cities.

Yangtze River

Cruising down the Yangtze River (called the Chang Jiang (meaning Long River) in China) through the Three Gorges is one of those things visitors to China feel they should do. Especially since the Chinese are building the world's largest dam just down river from the Gorges, and in mid-2003 the water level will rise 135 meters and turn the Gorges into the world's largest man-made lake. By 2009 the water is expected to rise another 40 meters. The boat trip from Chongqing to just above the dam site lasts two days.

I got sold a deal that promised I would pay for second class and get first, and it actually worked out. I even had my cabin to myself except for occasional rats. We saw the Three Gorges (well, the middle one), and the arguably-more-spectacular Small Three Gorges, a six hour excursion on smaller boats. Perhaps more impressive than the scenery were the destroyed towns along the river. Any building below the 135-meter line has been bashed into rubble. This means entire streets, towns and cities, the homes of millions of people. A project like this would never be possible in a democratic country. Everywhere people are picking through the ruins, salvaging metal mostly. The whole thing is a muddy mess. New towns are being built higher up the hills.

Tourism is huge in China - I mean Chinese tourists travelling around their own country. It's mostly mass tourism, the kind where you wear a badge and follow the guide and his loudspeaker, and every tourist site is decorated with kitsch and food vendors. My boat trip on the Yangtze was like this. There was only one other Westerner on the boat, but luckily she was a cool person. I was happy to be able to communicate with someone. At 5:30 in the morning the first day the radio came on (you can't turn it off), announcing that at 6:00 we will all go on a tour of whatever town we were in. They don't announce it just once, either. Even though it was pitch black outside, almost everyone went. The second morning they woke us up at 5:30 again - we were passing through the first Gorge. Again it was pitch black, but the boat turned on a spotlight beam which lit up spots of the banks as we cruised by.

We passed the third Gorge in the evening after dark, and the cruise ended late at night at an obscure dock an hour's drive out of anywhere. Amazingly, I actually got them to put my bike and all my gear onto a free bus to the city. It was the very last bus though; only me and about six peasants who were also loaded with baggage.

Hubei Province

The main reason I had wanted to end up in this part of China (a province called Hubei, exactly in the center of the country) was that my parents had arranged for me to spend Christmas week in a hotel nearby. They had exchanged their timeshare for a week for me at a partner resort in the town of Ezhou, Hubei. It took me a day to ride to Ezhou. The main feature of this ride was that I actualy saw wild land that wasn't being used for anything, in China. It was sort of shrubby and hilly, mostly covered with tall dry grass.

Around 4 p.m. I rode into Ezhou, a mid-sized industrial town. I can't understand why anyone would build a real luxury resort in this place. Of course the security stopped me when I rode onto the grounds, because everyone else there is a nouveau-riche Chinese man or their tacky-expensive consort, and they arrive in Mercedes not on loaded touring bicycles. I was pretty muddy too. But to give the staff credit, they checked me in with no problem and gave me a good suite too. I ran a bath and laughed and said "I can't believe it!" They whole situation kept me laughing for the entire week I was there. I'm not complaining though, because it was nice. I think the resort is mostly used for banquets and overnight parties - it's not like they have restaurants with English menus or anything. The food was Chinese buffet, but much better of course than what I'd been getting on the road. And we dined to music; shopping-mall-style renditions of the Western favorites Happy Birthday and Here Comes the Bride.

I can't imagine why any foreigner would ever come here, let alone at Christmas. I wondered if any foreigners ever even pass through Ezhou, but that question was answered by the head of the municipal office for foreign contacts, who paid me a visit in my hotel room (she did call first). Hubei has several foreign investment projects, she explained, and asked if I was interested in investing; many Westerners are investing in China these days. I wonder what they must think - every tourist can just decide to open a bottling plant? Still, that's pretty proactive.

After my week at the resort, during which I did absolutely nothing besides walk around and send emails about Tibet, I decided I needed to get back on the tourist trail and meet other Westerners. And I wanted to be somewhere warmer in January. That meant heading south, but I couldn't stomach cycling for two weeks through cold rural Hubei and Hunnan to get anywhere. So I got on the train to Guangxi, in time to celebrate New Year's in the tourist haven of Yangshou.

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