We’re 12 days deep in China and that might seem like nothing but it’s been enormous. Our original plan deflated because Jorja got a 1 month visa instead of 3. 30 days is a joke for a country this huge and interesting, maybe too short to bother going into China at all. But we’d paid and had already flown to Vietnam so we adapted. We researched ancient villages and scenic areas, working out a route between them, but we didn’t make our first stop before abandoning our new tourist concept. China likes to make you pay for entrance to the popular areas and we realised the town we were riding toward was a tourist trap so rolled past it and turned into the hills further west with no idea what was ahead of us. That’s where we feel most comfortable, with no expectations, no real destinations, and no one telling us to pay 15 Yuan to take a picture in a scenic spot.
We were halted for an hour at the border crossing, the immigration police perplexed as to why I would have a 7 year multi-entry tourist visa, asking how much I paid for it. It would have looked confusing, suspicious even, an Australian, a Canadian both with separate kinds of visas that were issued at the same time in South Korea. They asked us how we’d met, (suspicious) not married? (suspicious) what our jobs were (never heard of it! SUSPICIOUS!) why we were here (suspicious) searching our bags full of camping gear and knives (suspicious). They talked in groups while we sat smiling at nothing, trying to look like law abiding tourists. Eventually they let us through and we were in China! Piece of cake. There were instant changes to Vietnam with relative order and peace on the street despite there being many more people and high-end looking shops with fashionable clothes. We got money, gas for cooking, and some Mantou (plain steamed bread) to have our eggs on in the morning, and that was our first taste of China.
Seeing Vietnam had made me question what a 3rd World country is. I thought it was just based on a measurement, GDP or life expectancy or infant mortality. Turns out it comes from the Cold War, (Us=1, Them=2, everybody else=3) there aren’t good definitions and nobody uses 2nd World anyway which makes the system binary and a fancier way of saying good/bad. When I think of 1st I think gold and 3rd bronze. But the bronze countries don’t stand on many podiums, they get called developing even if they’re retrogressing and we put their music in a ‘world’ category. It’s so easy to be patronising when the people to call you out on it have no voice. Vietnam measured in most ways is a crap country but it was a hilarious, exotic, and fun loving country to cycle through.
The first couple days here it felt like we had walked into a wild party and someone danced up to us, smeared mud on our faces as an introduction and went off prancing into the jungle. Our first night we slept under a motorway escaping the rain that had started as soon as we crossed the border, huge banana leaves amplified the rain to a roaring racket. We didn’t get much sleep as the mud crept under our tent and we waited for an Asian tiger to slash our faces. Yunnan quickly turned mountainous and food became frequent and cheap; cheaper and more frequent than all of our trip thus far. 30-40 Yuan for a meal that fills both Jorja and I, about $7 Aus. However the downside is that 2 or 3 hours later it comes running out our bums. We still enjoy eating the meals, and trying to break through the shock we see on peoples faces, whole tables turned and staring at us, children standing 2 feet away looking at their parents then back to us in confusion. We laugh at lot, smile, and say the only things me know over and over: nǐ hǎo or xiexie, hello and thank you. Soon we have a group of people giving us tea, pointing at our freckles, giving us babies, and then waving goodbye.
The Hani (Yuanyang tribe) women work hard, doing what the men can’t be bothered doing, who instead sit around looking at their phones, drinking booze, and hawking loogies. The women are strong, proud, welcoming, funny, and infinitely more impressive than the men, with black, white, royal blue and vibrant coloured trimming worn as traditional clothing which they kept beautifully clean. One day I was sitting down in a shady lay-by when a women in her 80s came out of the brush behind me like it was mist. Barefoot with cloth tied around her shins she had a pile of wood strapped to her back towering over her head. We had a conversation without understanding but while smiling and she took off down the hot road in midday sun muttering and laughing. In a blog online about the region it described a tourist asking a working woman who was carrying rocks up a hill where all the men were. She replied they were lazy and just sit around drinking and smoking, and that’s exactly what we saw.
The further into the hills we went the more medieval the towns became. One night we camped on a disused rice terrace looking out across a valley to other hills and could see 10 house villages dotted around with thin smoke streams rising from them. We had ridden uphill from morning to evening and covered only 30km. After we got into our sleeping bags fireworks started directly across the valley. I imagined my ever enthusiastic and meaning-finding friend Chris Mullens, knowing he’d see them as a sign, as a celebration for having gone this far and I imagined him there beside me soaking it in. When I woke up the next morning there was a cloud like liquid cotton flowing through the bottom of the valley making us feel 10,000 feet high.
Days later we saw a town up in the clouds ahead of us after a particularly tough morning. The climbing, diarrhoea, and humidity hit us hard. We decided to try to get a shower and have an early day. After walking around feeling limp bodied and brained a charismatic teenager with purple hair astride a motorbike, completely out of place, showed us to a house after we sleep mimed to him. A woman was sitting in front of a huge flat screen TV with a mini IV in her arm and one hand loosely wrapped in dark and dirty bandage. How could she have the IV but not proper bandages? Not looking at all bothered by it she asked grandma to show us to a room, it was clearly just their house. We flopped down on the bed content with watching the town from the window, wobbly with exhaustion and both having rolling stomachs. 2 minutes later a man in a blue suit and black shoes was in the bedroom handing us cigarettes and encouraging us to follow him for food. So much of the time we are doing guesswork and we concluded he was a restaurant owner but it turned out he was something of a mayor and owner of the house we were in. There was a steep road spiralling up through the town and the mayor paraded us along. There was a blind corner we hadn’t seen behind earlier and once we rounded it the town came to life as if they were all hiding behind the wall. It all could have been from hundreds of years ago. A pervasive squalor seemed to have grown over everything like a stifling muddy fungus. There were scrawny dogs creeping around acting liked they’d been kicked a lot, even the children’s faces were dirty like the fungus had reached them too, staring up blankly with snotty noses. Chickens and chicks ran about the legs of the people with a dead one in the street ignored and trodden on, there were houses without doors with water buffalo tied up outside, windows that were just square holes without glass, small fires burning inside homes, and wrinkled faces looking out from blackened kitchens just like our pensioners in Canada or Australia gazing out at a garden from a nursing home window. There was a pig pen so dark we wouldn’t have noticed it under a house but for the clean pink snout sticking through an iron fence into daylight. Walking at the mayors pace was slow and the fungus I imagined seemed to be crawling up my ankles. All that but there was still laughter and lightness too. I was thinking of the wealthy people who’d roared past us in Porshes and Mercedes, comparing what their owners live in with what was in front of us now, walking up the spiralling road almost to the crest of the hill. It seemed like there was a tension too strong to last and a lot of what I’d seen was confusing. Surely the inequality and corruption will become too blatant to continue, the peasant will march on the cities and the order will be shuffled. But I can imagine Chinese Dan, cycling across America, confused by much of what presents itself from the side of a road. Maybe I’d see prison yards with only black people in them and remember hearing about the 60s and 70s and civil rights or rotting trailer park towns and think about The American Dream and all the contradictions that could make the US seem like it was about to tip over just how China seems bound to tip over too.
Jorja took photos and we laughed with people laughing at us, waving hello to babies whose mothers would move their arms for them to wave and hello back. After a few minutes we were led inside a home to a room filled with people and food. Around one table a group of women from 20-90 years old and at the other a group of men all around 40. They welcomed us and poured moonshine and motioned for us to start while they laughed and talked without eating. We picked at the tamest vegetable options among many kinds of wet and crunchy mystery meats. The questions in Mandarin and responses in English got boring and we settled into speaking confidently in different languages to each other, cheersing and taking moonshine shots with instant refills. My neighbours, wiry and friendly, trying to show me how things were done would drop things into my bowl that I hadn’t intended to eat. I’d find myself with 6 pairs of eyes watching me lift food to my mouth, watching me chew, and waiting for approval. The mayor had a belly and round face unlike every other person in town and started seeming more like a gang leader than mayor. We hit a few places around town, each time thinking it was the last, rubbing our bellies with satisfaction had no effect. Eating became more of a gesture, taking a couple corn kernels and eating what was dropped into our bowls, jorja leaving the food in the bowl, more forceful in her polite refusal. I was getting drunk by the 3rd home and everybody at the table was having a great time. A plate was brought out with a two black claws, way too big and dark to be from a chicken and with nails long enough to be from a bird of prey but looking worryingly like a hand. Among the claws I saw a boiled chicken head and then before I had understood what I was doing there was a chicken brain in my mouth and someone said, ‘creamy’ and the cigarette smoked swirled in my face and the big bottle was filling up my shot glass again, the room seemed to tilt, and I imagined spraying vomit across the table. Everyone was pleased I’d eaten the brain.
There were some disturbing realities in this town, the treatment of women; unable to sit with the men, they shuffled in a seen but not heard kind of attitude. There was poverty up close and personal, food that was rotting and strong mentholated spirits to get drunk on. The final house we were led to was quiet, as if the gathering of men and friends on this Sunday afternoon didn’t reach their house. We were led in, bending into the mud filled room, and a single, painfully thin, youngish man was sitting, swaying and letting spit gather in the sides of his mouth. Lonely in front of a couple of sad and wet dishes. He was very drunk and the conversation wasn’t held with a smile from either him or the mayor. We tried our best to refuse the offers of food, the charcoaled small fish with eyes burnt out of the sockets, green and brown yolks of eggs, 10’s of flies all flying around the dishes. We were both uncomfortable and wanted to give his mother who was serving us everything we owned. Her son was a drunk, and she moved us both even as silent as she was.
The whole town had welcomed us, everyone smiling and waving, trying to get us to come eat at their house. It was the start of Chinese generosity that has pulled us along through challenging days. I never expected it. I had preconceptions about these people that were way off. The ignorance exposure tour continues.
The next morning a rooster was crowing so close to the window it felt like it was standing on my pillow, neck skin dangling just above my ear, I could visualise the vibrations inside it’s throat. It was another morning confused by what happened the day before but, as always, grateful for the interesting experience. We loaded up and waved goodbye to the mayor and the woman with the IV and bandage after strongly refusing the offer of more food up in town. We went to the shop and got chocolate biscuits for breakfast instead.
It’s strange thinking back to that time with so much happening since. They seem like the easy days but the days since have been just as rewarding and weird as they have been hard. This is Part 1 of 2 of the 12 days here.