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Spoke Notes Stamp

Peter Snow Cao
Spoke Notes

November in Yangshuo
Copyright © Peter Snow Cao, 1998.

Skip to:   Travelogue Index | China in October | November in Yangshou | Road to Taijang | Killing in Kaili | Grinding in Guiyang | Out in the Boonies | Land of Eternal Spring | Dali in December | Tiger Leaping Gorge | Doing Dali Again | Train to Guangzhou | Goodbye China!


Yangshou is one of those little pockets of Western backpacker culture, Chinese-style, which provides the road weary with some of the treats of home. Plenty of other Westerns, banana pancakes and rock ‘n roll. It is also a great place to share information about the road ahead, what to avoid and what not to miss.

"Big Nosed Foreign Devil"

The translation of the big block Chinese characters on a T-shirts worn by Westerners in Yangshou.

We met one person who was a gold mine of information. William Lindesay, from England, had spent the last few years walking around China. He is the author of Alone on the Great Wall  that describes his experiences walking along the 2,400 km of the Great Wall. Now he was collecting information for a book about Mao Zedong’s Long March that started in 1935. He was searching for survivors who would be willing to talk about it. Nearly his entire journey has been through closed areas. While walking the wall he was stopped by the PSB 7 times, detained for a week in a police compound, fined and expelled from China. He told us that the first time you are caught in a closed area in a province they make a note of it in the capital. The second time, you get caught; you get fined and/or expelled. He has his films and diary confiscated, his diary read and he was questioned about missing pages he had taken out and put in his shoe. His diary was returned, but the film was not. He asked us if there was some way to hide film on the bike.

"You wrote reams of pages on your diary, now write more self-criticism."

The policeman's comment to William Lindesay when he wrote a three line self-criticism after being caught in a closed area.

About mid way along the Great Wall he was caught a second time in one province, his passport had a big red stamp put in it to give him a only few days to leave the country. Will went to Hong Kong, and got a new passport right away. He then went to the China Visa office and asked for a visa to China. The officials asked him would he like the normal service three days, or same-day express service. "Express, please," he told them.

"I was over the moon"

William Lindesay after being expelled from China for travelling in closed areas he applied for an express visa in Hong Kong and got it in 6 hours.

He went back into China complete his journey. On relating his tales he said, "The greater the hindrance, the greater the adventure. " Will walked over 90% of the Great Wall’s 2,400 kilometers. After he complete the journey he was quote in China's English language newspaper, The China Daily, "I couldn’t have done it without the help of the Chinese people."

Peter and Rainer in Yangshou

After getting such a powerful inspiration, we were ready to, as Will said, "Travel like a fugitive." When traveling closed areas we had to be sure not to stay in hotels since the PSB is notified whenever a foreigner checks in. Will suggested staying at farmers homes at night whenever possible. He told us the way he would do it would be to first ask for some water, and then sit there looking very tired. Most times the farmers would invite him to spend the night. However, he said, "You earn your keep." Meaning that the effort it takes to entertain the family was fairly substantial. But if the farmer is unwilling to take you in, he suggested camping out in an inconspicuous area.

All this thinking about traveling through the closed areas has me excited and nervous about the upcoming journey to Kunming.

Will talked about the Chinese mentality of doing forbidden things. He said that people generally only did unlawful things because they don’t understand the laws, not because they deliberately want to break the law. He described their method of correction by having him write a self-criticism and asking him, "Do you see the error of your ways?"

Another one of Will’s comments on China, "Anything written in English is interesting in China."


China is so enchanting at times. The people are so friendly out on the road. So many people give us big smiles, waves and call out, "Hello." Occasionally we meet a grumpy person, like our hotel receptionist both last night and tonight. I think they must be unhappy with themselves or their jobs. The receptionist told us there were no 16-yuan rooms, only 32-yuan rooms. Then we tried to find the government hotel, but were unable to. When we went back the receptionist told us the room would now be 64 yuan. But in the end she showed us one for 24 yuan. The hassles with the hotels makes me wonder if it is worth it. But then after today's ride through the fantastic countryside, I realize it is. Tomorrow begins our second venture into the closed areas.

Location Unknown

Toward the end of the day, we were looking for a place to stay, either camping or staying with a family. As night was falling it started to rain and we came across a group of 20 huddled under a saw mill shelter. I arrived first and stopped to look and was invited in. Rainer showed up about 10 minutes later. Shortly after that he pulled out his Chung-ge and played a few games with the guys. Then we were invited to join a family for dinner and a place to stay. This seemed to be too easy.

The house was a traditional farmhouse with the animals sleeping under the house and the living quarters upstairs. We showed the family our phrasebook, which they found very interesting. I showed them a picture of my family and they showed me pictures of theirs. We inspected each other’s bikes, theirs a Ying-Guang seemed to weigh about 50 pounds. Our guidebook said they would last 15 years. They were very heavy duty, a long wheel base, 28" wheels, mechanical rod-driven brakes, virtually nothing to go wrong.

We had a feast of a meal with 6 or 8 different dishes, plus a bowl of Chinese liquor. Our host showed us the usual way, that is toasting each other by raising the bowls, though not touching each other, slurping a little and then eating a few bites or having a bit of broth. This went on for quite a while, maybe 45 minutes. The way you indicated that you were finished was by moving away from the table. After dinner Rainer played a number of games of Chung-ge and we inspected the bikes again. We also read the phrase books, asking a few questions like how much Rainer's bike cost. I told them 700 yuan. They said their bike was 200 yuan. They gave us one of their bedrooms and we flipped to see who got the bed. Rainer won.

"You earn your keep"

William Lindesay on being the guest of a local Chinese family. He was referring to the necessity of providing entertainment to satisfy their curiosity about you, the foreigner.

We got off to a late start, about 9:30 AM, after a breakfast with our family. Before we left the mother took a 10-yuan note and showed it to us and then put it in the baby's pocket. I understood that to be a suggestion that we donate money to their family, so we did.

While eating at a restaurant the cook killed and bled a chicken right in front of us. It was an interesting sight for lunch.

The next night we were invited to spend the night with another farmer. While we sat outside writing in our journals and waiting for dark, the family brought us some hot water to bathe in a basin and then (again) a large wooden basin for washing our feet. The washing of the feet before bedtime seems to be a tradition among many Chinese. I guess that is because the feet get so dirty during the course of a day’s work. The family later invited us inside and then to dinner. Afterwards the father wrote down many questions about us, our countries, where we have been, how far we have come, etc. The son, 15, a middle school student acted as our translator. They seemed genuinely pleased to have us as guests.

The next morning we were sitting out in front writing in our diaries while the mother did the washing and the father prepared for the day's work. The son and his friend inspected the bikes and played with the horn and bell. It is a gray misty November morning; I feel it is getting cooler every day. Today we should begin our journey westward, as most of our trip in China has been northbound. It looks to be quite mountainous. The parting translated message from the son was "I hope when I grow up I can travel to your countries." We tried to pay them for their hospitality but they would not take it. So Rainer tried to give the boy a T-shirt, but the father would not permit him to accept it.

God Only Knows Where

First time camping in China. It seems incredible, but we found a spot to put up the tent that wasn't in a house or somebody’s rice field. It is only on a small footpath between a small village (which is incredibly noisy) and the "main" road, a single lane dirt road. I feel like Bilbo Baggins travelling through the land of Mordor trying to keep from getting in trouble. We made the untimely arrival in a big city right at the onset of darkness and our route out of town was not as self-evident as it usually was. So we had to try and ask for directions, difficult at best. Several people seemed to indicate that we should spend the night there. How we wished we could. One man even said the way to where we were going was back in town. Apparently he was taking us to a hotel. We thanked him and turned around down incredibly bumpy road. We checked several possibilities before finding this place. Then it started to rain.

The ride was fairly good, although we got off to another late start because of the Chinese farmer's custom of working 1 to 2 hours before breakfast allowing time for the rice and other food to be prepared. Today they were grinding the harvested rice, but had considerable problems with gas-engine driven grinding machine. I wished I could have helped.

From the map, it looks like we may be able to get to a hotel in an open city tomorrow. It would really be nice to have a bath and wash my clothes. I hope we can do it. It is probably 125 km or further over unknown terrain. With an early start we should be able to do it. I hope the road we chose is actually there. It wasn't on my map, but it is on Rainer's (an updated version). I want also to write some letters.

This trip has been very much an adventure. The cycling has been virtually blind with respect to topography, so we never know what is in store for us.

Middle of Nowhere

What a strenuous day! After awakening to 3 guys checking out our camp gear and suggesting we give them a donation (to which we pretended we didn't understand), we went down to the main road to find out about our plans to go to Taijang. Everybody we asked said there was no road to Taijang. Then some more people arrived and said it was impossible but later said it was possible, so we set out wondering what we were going to find. At the first big town, after a 12 km climb to the top of China (or so it seemed) we were quickly the hit of the town, surrounded by maybe 200 people at the little noodle stand in the street. It was rather intimidating, but still interesting as the snotty-nosed kids pushed their way to the front to get a better look. Several people had the deep cough of a bad cold and I was a bit concerned about my own health. The custom of using one's own chopsticks to serve yourself from the common bowls seems to assure that everyone will also share whatever infectious diseases are present among the group. Having such a big group of people around us made it a bit difficult to take care of needed business like getting food and water supplies. We tried to do the best we could and left town as quickly as possible.

After the first few kilometers, I stopped waiting for Rainer and went ahead to the next town. Along the way two guys walking on the road called out for me to stop and soon all the young school kids and their teacher joined us. They also said it was impossible to go further than the last town on the map. Then the guys indicated that they wanted some money. I told them I didn't understand and rode off. The road passed along the ridge of a range providing some exceptional vistas. When I arrived at the last town and went to the end of the road and asked about getting to the next town, they said it was not possible from there. I would have to go back to the town where we had lunch.

About 2 kilometers back I met up with Rainer and shortly later a group of six people who said there was a road from the last town. They also offered to give us a lift in their truck. That was very kind of them. The Chinese people are always so helpful to us.

The road leading to Taijang turned out to be extremely rough. It was the roughest road I have ever been on, virtually paved with large river stones making progress very slow; usually under 10 kph. It was a shame because it would have been a speedy decent otherwise. We only covered 45 km, of which 28 were actual progress in the desired direction, yet I am exhausted. The climbs were very strenuous. I would like to write some letters, but feel too tired to be coherent.

I am really amazed at how the Chinese have managed to take mountainous terrain and turn it into productive land. The areas we passed through today are virtually isolated from the rest of the world except for a daily bus and a few trucks. The lack of traffic has been really great for us. Today there was no dust problem whatsoever.

While passing through the villages, I often see small boys with a 12-18" diameter steel ring and a u-shaped pusher. They run around trying to keep the ring rolling. Seems like a great game.

A quiet peaceful evening, it seems like somewhere in New Zealand instead of China. This place is so enchanting, the people so warm, outgoing and friendly and the women incredibly beautiful. It is a fascinating place to see from the seat of a bicycle. We are in the foothills of the Himalayas and it seems odd that very few roads we are on follow the river courses. Each time I see a river I hope we can follow it for a while, but it is always too short and we end up climbing again. Today's climb was the longest yet, about 12 km averaging about 10% grade. I really feel like I am in the dark with respect to where or what we will find. The road atlas only shows the very large rivers and it is not of large enough scale to show the switchbacks associated with mountain passes. I guess that is part of the adventure.

On to  Road to Taijang

Skip to:   Travelogue Index | Introduction | China in October | November in Yangshou | Road to Taijang | Killing in Kaili | Grinding in Guiyang | Out in the Boonies | Land of Eternal Spring | Dali in December | Tiger Leaping Gorge | Doing Dali Again | Train to Guangzhou | Goodbye China!

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