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Ros and Paul Whitelegg
"Whiteleggs on Wheels Through China for Starfish"

Ros and Paul Whitelegg's story of cycling through China for Starfish Charity.

copyright © Ros and Paul Whitelegg, 2003

Whiteleggs on Wheels - Update Two

Thursday 17th April - Kunming, Yunnan Province, SW China - written by Ros with contributions from Paul


We left Yangshou 3 weeks ago knowing that we had about 1600km to cycle across rural China to reach the City of Kunming. Route finding is rather a complex process, which I leave to Paul, who gets to indulge his passion for maps. He starts off with a big fold out map that we bought in the UK that has key towns and roads with the names in English. The next step is the map book that we bought inHong Kong that has a lot more detail as well as the main cities having names in PinYin (Romanised Chinese that we can read more easily). The final step is another 364 page map book that we bought in China that has loads of details including road distancesbut only has Chinese characters. Little relief is shown on any maps so we really have no idea about the day to day topography. Having planned the route in theory that then leaves us with the practical issue of finding our way in and out of urban areas and along the right dirt track in the countryside, not to mention the difficulty of following Chinese road signs that are mostly just in their characters. All part of the adventure and gives us plenty of opportunities to have a conversation (well maybe more have a point at the map book and a gesticulation session) with the locals - three hours of Chinese lessons hasn't quite given us a conversational level.

Meeting the locals¡­

We passed several blissful days cycling in gorgeous rocky limestone countryside that gradually gave way to rolling hills and then mountains. These steep sided two thousand meter peaks are however, no match for Chinese farm engineers who, over the centuries, have cut terraces into the slopes providing farmland that soars from the valley floors thousands of meters into the clouds. The terraces are so beautifully made that it almost looks as if this is how nature intended the land to be. I was rather bewitched by the order and structure of it and insisted on visiting some that involved a detour from our route - something that runs against my lazy nature. Boy did I have misgivings when 800m above us (vertically that is) we saw the road winding its way up the mountain, not a happy prospect at the end of a long day on the road. I was then suddenly surrounded by 3 women dressed in traditional costumes and a Chinese film maker with big cameras wanting to take photos of me in cycling kit, with these women from one of China's 55 minority cultures. This tribe has hair to their ankles that is elaborately arranged on their heads. I then asked for a place to stay as I was definitely not going up what seemed an almost vertical ascent. One of the women excitedly offered us a bed in her lovely traditional wooden home for 20 Yuan (less than 2 pounds). How could we refuse? We were treated to a meal with the family that was cooked over an open fire in the kitchen, which very cleverly is made from a couple of long thin pieces of wood. I did note however, that the rice was cooked in a pressure cooker. Being a little taller that the average Chinese, Paul and I both managed to bump our heads on the piece of pig that was hanging over the eating area, slowly being smoked by the fire.

By now we were cycling along a road that meandered its way with the river up the mountain valley passing through numerous villages inhabited by Chinese "minorities". This gave us plenty of opportunity to observe the many variations of traditional dress and an insight into the daily lives of a medieval agricultural community where almost everything is still done manually. Being a steep sided river valley, there were many stone paths winding up the sides of the mountains up which the people have to walk (climb) everyday to get from homes to river to fields carrying heavy weights on shoulder poles. Watching the comings and goings of the flat-bottomed wooden boats up the river was fascinating and one of my favourite memories is of a boat gliding on the glassy water early in the morning as the red morning sun rose up over the mountain behindit, with the surrounding terraced fields reflected in the water.

If the life of living off the land ever seemed a romantic idea this thought was very quickly put to bed and we decided we would definitely not like to be poor and have to live like this. The people did not seem to be a smiley as in Guangdong province and we did not receive as many of the usual "hellos", particularly from the women. This is however, an area where many men buy their 'kidnapped' wives due to a shortage of marrying stock. The men were a lot more friendly and often seemed happy to have a chat (or rather talk at us) for a while. It's nice having this interaction.

Tarred Roads vs Mud

It all seemed to be going rather well despite the further 2 days of rain that didn't really dampen our spirits or pace. However, all good things come to an end and so did the lovely tarred road. I have always liked cycling on dirt roads as although one goes slower so do any cars and I always thought it was a much nicer cycling experience. As with the idea of living off the land, this notion also involves much romantic delusion. We hit mud immediately. Not just a bit of dirt, but deep glutinous, all-engulfing treacle. We valiantly (stupidly?) tried cycling but it clogged up between our brakes and wheels and we were forced to push for a while. We were caked in the stuff as well, it looked like my legs had a mud pack on them. All the bumping around made one of my bags fall off, this really makes me cross, and that is an understatement. After the third time Paul decided that he would sort it out for me as I think he has now realised if I have a happy life then his life too is much happier. He did have to work hard on that day. Later in the afternoon, with the temperature in mid-30s he really had to coerce me into having a fully clothed dip in the river, for which I was also very grateful. That evening we ended up camping and Paul went a step further to cheer me up. It was really hot and Paul was sitting naked in the tent filtering water (one of our lovely wedding presents we are happy to be using again) into our water bottles, when he asked for a cloth to wipe up the spilt water he was sitting on. It was only then that he realised he had in fact been sitting on a slug for the last 10 minutes.

Over the next few days road conditions worsened to a mixture of sand, gravel and large rocks that any decent rockery would be proud of. The uphills increased in frequency and in size of ascent. Just when we thought things couldn't get worse, on rounding a bend the road was blocked by a huge landslide! I couldn't believe it. Having heard about a tourist getting killed in a landslide, I was happy to just stay where we were until it was removed - rather unrealistic since it would have taken days. Paul crossed to the other side and convinced me it was safe to carry the bags and bikes over, which, much to the amusement of the workers clearing the debris, is just what we did. Thank goodness for bicycles as no cars or buses were going anywhere, although amazingly 3 men followed us with poles on their shoulders carrying a motorbike over!

Besides clearing the landslides, there were lots of road works being done and if we thought that farming was a hard manual job, then road building is even more so. On these minor road construction projects practically everything is still done by hand- including smashing up rocks into small pieces. Women as well as men work as labourers. They don't sleep in hotels during the work, they sleep on site which means some wooden frame encased in plastic sheeting with a wood or brick platform inside to sleep on and a makeshift kitchen next door. Given the understandably slow progress of the roadworks they must live like this for months and months.

To cheer myself up as we went along this difficult stretch, I found myself singing "My Favourite Things" (it must be called something like that) from the Sound of Music. I can never remember words to songs but came up with my own favourite things .....the first one that sprang to mind was sipping champagne (with family and friends), sunsets on Clifton, birds singing in nature and TARRED ROADS. I decided tarred roads going uphill would be bliss compared with these rocks. Well, be careful what you wish for........

We found the tarred road again but we also found mountains. For the next 8 days of cycling we climbed between 1200-1400 meters every single day. You have got to love gears! We also descended over 1000m every day which is really something you have to force yourself to enjoy when you know you are going to have to spend 5 hours recovering the altitude you descended in a quick half hour. So, I sang my little song and thought that this was good training for the Himalayas.

Passing through the mountains we saw newly planted rice, tea and wheat growing, along with patchwork terraces of yellow, white, red and purple flowers. Almost every single bit of land seems to be cultivated. Even in the middle of boulder fields crops are planted in the few centimetres of earth between the rocks. We had left the river by now and the land was far drier. I did wonder where they got their water. It was obviously not on tap for sanitary purposes as you could tell where the line of the villages ablution facilities were long before you saw them. Sometimes the stench of shit (excuse my chinese) and ammonia gets right up your nose, particularly when the pig sties and manure heaps occur in close proximity. At one of our overnight stops the "hotel" toilet (hole) was located right next to the chicken coup, so in addition to swatting theflies biting your exposed bits you also had to watch out for pecking chickens. Still at less that P2 per night for a room you can't really complain.

China - a very affordable holiday destination (if you avoid eating the meat)!

Speaking of which, for those interested we are finding China half the price of South America even though at the moment we are staying in "hotels" almost every night rather than free camping. The food is delicious and great value in little road side cafes and even in big towns when we stay in good quality hotels we average about GBP8 per night for accommodation and food half of this. China would be an affordable destination for South Africans.

While the food is generally good, you have to be careful if you don't like to eat offal, dogs, rats or many other unusual (to us) dishes which are very popular in these parts of China. The butchery side of cuisine is also very much in your face. One lunchtime I was pulling up into a town behind Paul and saw him checking out the local restaurants / stalls for something to eat. He was moving towards one when he stopped and decided otherwise. There was a man outside lifting a dog out of a cage with a long pair of pincers. He forced its head down onto the pavement outside the restaurant and with a blade slit its throat, letting the blood spill into the road side drains. The other caged dog, pissed itself and whined horribly, it knew what was coming next. We did need to eat but found a safe option from a road vendor, where we could clearly see that we were eating - potatoes and noodles and only that. Later in the day we passed someone skinning a dog and the next day witnessed a similar pavement abattoir scene involving two whole cows! While Paul continues to not eat meat, I have also rejoined the vegetarian community.

Teaching at the local school - English-speakers are celebs

In a small town called Quinlong, we were approached by a local Middle School English teacher (Chinese man) who invited us to his school that evening as the students needed to hear native speakers. We could not refuse. Having heard loads of noise constantly coming from schools as we passed them, it was intriguing to get to go inside. As we walked into the class expecting to do some conversation practice with a few students, we were greeted with loud claps and cheers from a class of 70. We were shown towards a raised platform at the front and then told to give the students a "lecture" on how to learn English effectively. We escaped with a telling a few stories about ourselves and then answering questions. This was repeated in three different classes, the last of which deteriorated into pandemonium as the final bell had gone and what seemed like the rest of the school was pressing against the half open classroom windows and door trying to get a glimpse of these foreigners and shout a few words of English at them. It felt like we were rock stars in need of some crowd control specialists.  In order to get into university students have to pass exams in English. Considering such a small percentage of students will have had any contact with English native speakers, it is admirable the level that is achieved.

However, on many occasions we have found that people seem to memorise certain phrases which gives the impression they can speak good English, but they are unable to understand any questions we ask, or indeed any of our responses. We really enjoyed the school trip and hope it gave something good back to the school. Our host teacher for the school evening was so lovely and wanted to take us out for a meal of the local food (the dog image flashed through our mind). Fortunately we had already eaten. As a thank you present we were each presented with a beautiful flower arrangement in a basket and a Chinese lucky ornament. This of course was very generous but not so practical for cycling with. Nevertheless, the next morning we strapped the flower baskets to our bikes, which was quite a sight, making the stares even more intense. We then proceeded down one of the infamous descents. My flowers lasted intact for 30mins and Paul's a bit longer, before we left them at the roadside for someone else to enjoy.

We have been thoroughly enjoying our trip so far, which has been very different from our South American experiences. There we started in the wilderness of Patagonia and spent many days seeing no other people. In China so far we have never been far away from other humans, even when we think we have found a quiet spot to eat a picnic lunch, we will hear a cough, look up and see someone picking some leaves of a tea bush or walking along a track with their water buffalo and plough.

This part of China is not for those seeking solitude. There is little concept of private space here, people live, work, eat and sleep together. There is not enough space to go round for it to be otherwise. Your business is also that of your neighbours. People rummage in your shopping basket to see what you are buying, they walk up to you to ask what you are doing and when you don't understand they talk about you with the rest of the crowd gathered around. Nor is China for the self conscious - there are 1.3 billion people in China, that's 2.6 billion eyes, which will stare at you if you go anywhere near them. We have got used to eating as if we are actors on a stage performing to a crowd (although the school was the first time we got a round of applause). In restaurants the favourite place to seat us is directly in front of the sofa where the staff and their mates will sit and watch us tackle the food - what will they do with the soup they wonder? Can they use chopsticks ? .... Big brother would be a breeze, at least on that show you can't see the millions of people that stare at you every week!

Kunming has been fun to have a break, enjoy the fruits (pizzas) of a large city, rest ourselves on clean linen sheets and prepare for the next stage - towards Dali, Lijang and then into Sichuan.

Whiteleggs on Wheels - Update One | Update Two | Update Three | Update Four

Starfish - Turning the Tide on AIDS

An old man had a habit of early morning walks on the beach. One day, as he looked along the shore, he saw a human figure moving like a dancer. As he came closer he saw that it was a young woman and she was not dancing but was reaching down to the sand, picking up starfish and very gently throwing them into the ocean.

"Young lady", he asked, "Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?"

"The sun is up, and the tide is going out, and if I do not throw them in they will die."

"But young lady, do you not realise that there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it? You cannot possibly make a difference."

The young woman listened politely, paused and then bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea, past the breaking waves, saying:

"It made a difference for that one."

Adapted from the story "The Star Thrower" by Loren Eiseley

Starfish was formed in response to the unfolding tragedy of children orphaned or affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic in South Africa. South Africa has the highest number of HIV positive people of any country in the world. By 2010, HIV/AIDS will kill as many as 7 million people, leaving 2.3 million orphans in its wake. (Source: UNAIDS)

Starfish was founded in London, England by a group of young South Africans and their friends in 2001. Motivated by our founding parable, Starfish believes that each of us can make a difference to the lives of the children of South Africa orphaned or affected by HIV/AIDS.

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