What has happened so far:
Since I am not riding BAMBOO full tour I would like to share with you somebody else’s view of the tour from Shanghai in China via Hong Kong, Vietnam, Laos to Phnom Penh, Cambodia:
Beforehand I would like to mention that there are a couple of things about this BAMBOO RIDE 2013 that makes this tour very different from my Tour d’ Afrique 2011:
Obviously the main difference is ASIA IS NOT AFRCA🙂 It is also obvious that this tour seems to be way(!) easier to ride. This is based on the general characteristics of the tour (it is fairly flat, mainly paved and at least the first half should take place in fairly enjoyable weather conditions) and also based on the general level of development (though Laos and Cambodia are both on rank 138 of the current HDI and hence way less developed than Egypt, South Africa, Botsuna and Namibia but those 4 countries haven’t really made TdA so hard). While long distance cycling in southeast Asia has become very popular among individuals there is only a very few and eilte group of cyclists that crosses Africa from top to bottom individually.
When I made my decision to do something out of the ordinary I was aware that crossing Africa individually was out of my reach. I simply lacked the experience at that time (additionally my mother would have needed an all around the clock professional mental support during this crossing which would have risen costs significantly). Though riding in a group at an given pace with rules to obey set by „an authority“ (which Sharita certainly is) did not look all that appealing to me, it offered some advantages too: group spirit !
And in this regard the fabulous GROUP of TDA 2011 did not disappoint me. Furthermore riding Africa from top to bottom made me become a member of a small thus heterogenous group that has only one matter in common – the love for cycling. That „group“ is not only restricted to my TdA „vintage“ 2011, it also expands onto all vintages of TdA. The fact that I know people all over the world that share my passion has enriched my life tremendously:
Last and not (?) least Africa was a race and I was riding it full tour while Asia is not held as a race and I am only riding 40% of the full tour. The race factor was a big part of my personal African trip. Not that I am super proud of my podium place: No, I was proud to prevail in some additional stress that racing added to a tour that is hard enough as it is as an expedition. The constant mental and physical stress added by an eventually insignificant race and the constant fear of missing valuable encounters with the beautiful people of Africa was like a „red theme“ of my Tour d’ Afrique 2011. After all I am very proud of myself that mastered that stress pretty well.
This stress is gone in Asia – I even pretend that I don’t give a shit about EFI😉
Riders that only ride parts of the big tours are the so called sectionals. While some of the sectionals integrated seamlessly into the group others felt like an outside body. My own interest to new SECTIONALS was limited at times as I have to admit. After all I would not recommend to ride Africa as a sectional (though exceptions usually prove the rule) but I am quite optimistic that this rule does not apply to Asia.
Since I am not riding BAMBOO full tour I decided no to spare the full experience to you. Hence I am making use of the above mentioned „asset“ by quoting Gerald Coniels „facebook diary“ – Gerald is an Tour d’ Afrique ALUMNI and he wrote an excellent blog in 2010 that I followed very closely in my own preparation for 2011. He then published an also excellent book with the titel „The slow way down“ on his tour that I can certainly recommend. It can easily match a professional writer’s effort on Tour d’ Afrique. I have referred to Hardy Grüne’s book several times before over which Geralds book has one advantage: it is in English and hence addresses a wider audience.
Gerald is my prototype model of an enthusiastic cyclist that regards cycling as some sort of philosophy of life. He is a Frenchman that speaks (suprisingly .-) excellent English. He lived all over the world (South Africa, France, Finnland) is married to wife from Finland that seems to support his cycling enthusiasm (at least once in a while) and he is a father of adult children .
His entrepreneur career in IT seems to provide him with some lets call it „effective degrees of freedom“ to persuade his own cycling happiness. In that he combines the hardships of long distance cycling with what the French are known for: their excellence in „la dolce vita“ – so you will most likely find Gerald in a severe one-handed fistfight with his EFI-Status* while holding a bottle of Chateau Margeaux in the other. I enjoyed his view of Bamboo 2013 – he is straight out with an -as it seems to me- reasoned opinion on things he encounters:
*EFI – means every fabulous or more likely every f*cking inch and is awarded to those riders in Africa that manage to cycle every inch of the tour every day
CHINA – Start in Shanghai by Gerald Coniel
2 days into the trip, we are now 200 km south of Shanghai. Cycling through Shanghai is something to put on your bucket’s list if you are looking for a bit of excitement… Chaos is a light word to describe how complicated the traffic is in this monster city. The rule on Chinese roads are simple: there are no rules! Everyone just make way for himself and cyclists are way down the ladder of moving vehicles. To be fair, there are plenty of cycling paths in China, so you are safe from the cars while riding on these. The problem is crossing the enormous intersections where traffic just goes any possible way. The real danger for us cyclists are the electric scooters. They are by far the number one method of transport here and these guys use the cycling lanes. Unlike the trucks and cars who keep on hooting all the time, electric scooters are totally silent are move really fast. They overtake you at full speed on relatively narrow bike lanes, so you really nee to keep riding a straight line. The problem comes in when scooters start riding against the traffic or when cars decide to also pull in the bike lanes…. Today we already had 2 accidents and 2 of our cyclists are in hospital… Nothing life threatening, but it highlights the difficulty of cycling on China’s busy roads.
The surprise so far is how few bicycles we actually saw. Chinese people have got rich enough now to buy either cars or electric scooters. This will probably change as we head for the countryside, away from the rich coastal region. But for now we still have another 130 km before we really get out of town.
Since leaving Shanghai, we have just driven through city after city after city. All extremely dirty and ultra polluted. This is the worst 300km stretch of the planet I have ever seen. As you pass by some huge industrial complexes, the air is so polluted that it burns the lungs when riding along. People seem to think that ditches are refusal sites, so most places have rotting rubbish lying along the roads we ride on. Needless to say that the smell is disgusting. It is hot and humid here and as I arrived at the hotel, I realized that I was covered by a thin layer of black dust, probably coming from the air pollution, sticking to my sweat.
China is a giant construction site. Everywhere buildings are coming up, roads being built and trucks delivering building materials. The place looks like a trade show, 2 days before the opening. It is absolute madness! Not much to tell about Chinese people. Except for a few, they make little efforts to communicate with us. They just ignore us. It is a bit awkward, I have to say. No one speaks a word of English here. I find that even the hand signals that we are used to all over don’t really work here. Food has been „interesting“. Today in a petrol station, I bought a chicken feet wrapped inside a vacuum plastic. It was chewy and had a very strong pimento in it. Another delicacy was a chocolate looking ball also wrapped in a vacuum plastic that turned out to be a boiled egg in black tea. Later on at lunch I order a soup and as I scooped, the head of a chicken surfaces… Well, I was hungry and the soup was quite tasty.
On day one, I had a big scare. I managed to forget my camelback at the very first stop. It was a petrol station where I had stopped to buy a cold drink. Only 10 km after leaving the station, did I realized that I had forgotten my back bag… It contained my money, credit card and ….. Passport! I turned around and rode the fastest 10 km of my life! I was already bracing myself for having to leave the tour as losing your passport while cycling in China might not have been such a good idea. Luckily, a fellow rider who had actually done the Tour d’Afrique with me and is also doing this tour recognized my bag and picked it up. From now on, my passport will remain in the assistance vehicle.
We are a group of 35 people doing this tour, mostly very experienced riders who have done plenty of these tours. Despite the relatively high age level, it seems like a solid group and should be good fun to spend the next few months with
CHINA – To Hong Kong by Gerald Coniel
So here I am, sitting at the desk of a comfortable hotel room somewhere high up in the middle of Hong Kong. (Unlike China, Hong Kong does not censure Facebook, so I am finally able to post some update myself instead of Jaana doing it on my behalf!) I have just completed the first 2000 km of my 3 months long Asian cycling adventure. We started in Shanghai 3 weeks ago and I have had the opportunity to cross parts of China most Westerners never get a chance to visit. I can tell you that given the amount of estonishement and surprised looks we have received all along the road, it is absolutely clear that very few foreigners make it that far inland.
So what are my impressions about China?… Well, China is probably the first country that leaves me completely cold, without any particular emotions. I can’t say that I hate China, but I certainly don’t like it. We have all seen science fiction movies where mankind has come to a point of no return where life on earth has become unbearable with frightening scenes of mega cities and hardly any kind of nature left. Movies where humans and robots can hardly be distinguished, where every possible aspect of joy as we know it is completely gone. For the last 3 weeks I feel I have become an actor in one of those bleak movies…. Everything I regard as quality in my life has suddenly gone missing, from being able to breath an air that will not burn my throat to enjoying the sounds of silence. Instead, we have been trying to survive the madness of Chinese roads and cities. Riding a bicycle through modern days China has proven to be a real challenge. Surprisingly and against popular believe, there are very few bicycles left on Chinese roads. That was maybe 10 or 15 years ago, but China has got rich and nowadays, most people either ride electric scooters, motorbikes or cars.
Now let me describe you in a few words what riding a bicycle on Chinese roads feel like. As you leave in the morning, the first thing that comes to your mind is the basic instinct of survival and that is „try not to get killed“… I have to say that the odds are definitely against you here. Riding a bicycle in China requires a completely different set of rules and your safety depends very much on how quickly you are able to adjust. (I know this sounds like the Darwin theory, but it is so true!) Three of our riders have already been sent home with serious injuries for lacking to observe the aforementioned rule while a few more are just limping their way to recovery and are currently riding the luggage bus…. Before I describe the cacophonie and the recklessness that goes on, let me state a couple of things. 1) I haven’t seen a single driving school in China, 2) most cars and therefore drivers are brand new. 3) in 2000 km I have hardly seen any traffic police presence anywhere. 4) about 30% of all roads are currently under some kind of reconstruction. 5) the ratio of trucks versus cars on Chinese roads is far higher than anywhere else in the world. 6) never make eye contact on the road in China with any other vehicle. It is understood by other drivers as „you have seen me, so I have right of way“
Now, about the cacophonie. This is really the big deal here. Chinese drivers don’t use their brakes, they hoot instead. Hooting is probably the wrong word but since I don’t know any better, it is the only way I can describe it. The horns these vehicles have been fitted with are probably 3 to 5 times louder than anything you have ever heard. It makes our firetrucks sound like children toys… From the small electric scooters to the huge construction trucks, everyone hoots all the time! It is so bad that I am convinced that most Chinese people are technically half death. When these trucks pass you and hoot at you, your ear drum instantly starts whistling. Some of these horns are so powerful, you can feel the physical impact on your chest as you ride. Since there is absolutely no respect of any rules on the roads, everyone overtakes anyone else, curves or not, visibilty or not, the rule is the one who hoots the loudest is the one who has right of way. Never mind if an incoming scooter carrying 2 small children without any kind of helmet has to make an emergency escape into the incoming lane to avoid being crushed by 2 trucks chasing each other. Such scenes have become part of our routine and are not even able to raise my blood pressure anymore…
China is a giant construction site and not just in the few big cities you know off. Everywhere we have been, the same sights of mega property developments. The saying „build it and they will come“ takes a whole new meaning here. We have seen endless amount of brand new cities raising from the fields with 4 lanes highways, high speed train tracks huge billboards selling the dream of a great future, and yet, all this totally empty!…. Giant shopping malls and enormous avenues planted with trees are being built evrywhere and it is the strangest feeling when you ride past these development as they are like ghost towns for now. The only positive sight to it is that crossing these ghost town areas offer a short relieve from the traffic maddnes.
If you have a slight interest about ecology and our planet, China will revolt you. What is going on here is beyound disaster…. I have seen many countries where the ecology is deffinitely not a priority. They are usually poor countries and it can be accepted that between feedding your children and saving the planet, the choice are limited. But China is surprisingly richer than I had imagine. This means that most people are already consuming a lot an therfore liitering a lot of plastic packed goods, from water bottles to prepacked food. In this regard, I have to confess that I find most Chinese people’s behavior totally primitive! They just throw all their litter right in the streets or even worst straight into the rivers if there happens to be one nearby. I still have this shocking scene in my mind of this old woman walking slowly toward the bridge over a small river. I had just stopped there to take a picture. She carried a plastic bag which turned out to be a rubish bag and she simply threw it into the river, right in front of me before slowly walking back towards her house whcih happend to be…. along the river! Another shocking example was this fancy house being built along a small mountain stream with a nice terrasse hanging above the water. Only sore point in this rather romantic plan was that all the left over building materials had been thrown into the river straight in front of that house. So from this expensive terrasse the view down was a junkyard underwater!…. Pathetic! Unfortunately, littering is only the top of the iceberg. Chemical polution, noise and the very little area left of forest all mean that China is not a very healthy place to live. Did you know that it is not safe to drink water from the taps anywhere in China!? Over 2000 km I can count on my left hand the amount of wild birds I saw in China so far. The only snakes I have seen so far were all swimming inside a glass jar of alcohol and the few birds were for sale in cages. I guess that as you go more into the mountains there will be some wildlife, but everywhere else it is game over…. And if you think that Northen China is any better, well I have bad news… Some of fellow cyclist have recently done the silk route cycle from Istanbul to Beijing and they swore that polution in the north is many times worst that what we are experiencing here…. Hard to imagine….
Cycling wise, it has been a very different experience from the Tour d’Afrique. It has been a much faster riding with average speeds around 30 km per hour which means that I have been reaching the finish lines between 11 and 12 each day. With very few photo opportunities ( each town looks very much the same in China, in other words dirty, noisy and nothing to write home about). I have been doing some fast rides with very few coke stops. The other factor is the heat, it is extremely warm here and the idea to be on the road after 12 is not appealing. We usually start riding at 6h30 in the morning and by then it is already well over 20 degrees rising quickly to 25 and then over 35 before midday. There has been a fair amount of climbing, especially the last 10 days which in a way has been nice. We are now enjoying a 3 days brake in Hong Kong and Macau before jumping on our saddles again. We still have 7 cycling days in China before crossing into Vietnam. So if the Chinese authorities get hold of this mail before I am in Vietnam, they might ask one of their truck drivers to make my death look like an accident… He he…. Well don’t worry, by now we have become real experts at survinving Chinese traffic so we are like the local chickens, hard to kill! (And probably just as hard to chew)
Lastly a word about Chinese people. Here, it is mixed feelings. Absolutely no one speaks a word of english, except for some teenagers who are now learning it at school. Everything here is so different that even the international sign language does not help you much. Globaly I would say that Chinese are the most individualist nation I have ever met. (Strange isn’t it? Where did all the red book rules and advises go to?) Two days ago, I witnessed a fire truck trying to make its way through the traffic and absolutely no one made the slightlest effort to move and make way for the fire truck. They are definitely rude (at least according to our Western society rules), speak laud, spit right in front of you, smoke anywhere, even in the lifts and are not the friendliest people on earth. But then one morning, this cleaning lady runs through the hotel lobby, panicked and looking for the owner of the 500 Rmb I have forgotten in my bedroom. (This was probably the equivalent of 2 weeks of her salary). Or these 4 young men who spent 10 minutes washing and cleaning 2 of our bikes and gave us back half of the 2 euro fee for the job. We had wrongly understood that it was 1 euro per bike but they had meant it for washing both and insisted on returning half of the money!… Or this 10 years old girl who suddenly pops up at our table and helps us to translate the all Chinese menu. She was having lunch at another table next to ours and when she saw that our waiter could not understand what we wanted to eat, she rushed to help, speaking a very nice English! Yeah, in remote China, things that you take for granted like pointing at the picture of a menu are not always obvious. On the road we swop smile with kids sitting at the back of scooters or the odd cyclist desperatly pushing on an old rusty chain. We are on the same side here, like fleas fighting our ways accross a herd of angry elephants…
Anyway when reading this some of you might wonder why I am doing this. Well I certainly won’t do China again, not on a bicycle or any other way, but untill you do it you don’t really know and despite all the challenges, the last 3 weeks have been once again a great yoyage of discovery and if anything, it certainly makes me appreciate my Finnish and French countryside more than ever! The world is a great place, but after China, I can conclude by telling you that some places are definitely greater than others!
Until my next update Cheers!
CHINA – update from Macau by Gerald Coniel
A quick update from Macau. I wasn’t planning to do a write up from my rest days in Macau, but what have witnessed here is worth writing a few words.
Macau is situated across the bay from Hong Kong and can be reached either by land from China or by fast shuttle boats from Hong Kong in about an hour. It has the world’s highest density per square kilometer with 20600 humans for each square kilometer…. The old city center is a Unesco site, hosting historical buildings built by the Portuguese and now completely surrounded by a forest of giant casinos… But if if don’t look up and keep your eyes focussed on the marble cobble stones streets around the remains of St Paul’s cathedral, then for a moment you could imagine being back in old Europe…
Technically this old Portuguese colony was given back to China in 1999 at the same time as Hong Kong and is now China, but it’s not quite like that… It is still run like a separate country with border posts and it’s own currency, the Macau Patacas. In 2012, Macau was the world’s fastest growing economy according to the Economist Intelligence Unit. But since it is part of China, such stats are a bit misleading, like mentioning stats on California instead of the USA. (Although they would never be anywhere near as good….)
The irony about Macau is that it’s economy is based on gambling which by the way is forbidden in China. Now you start to get the picture. You don’t bite the hand that feeds you especially when the food is good… Incorporating Macau into communist China must be for the guys in Beijing a challenge as delicate as breeding cats inside a bird sanctuary….
Here are a few more stats about Macau: The Venetian Macao, owned by the Las Vegas Sands, is the largest casino in the world, the largest single structure hotel building in Asia and the sixth-largest building in the world by floor area. I am actually sitting right in front of this massive structure having booked myself in the 4000 rooms Sheraton right across the street from the Venetian. Here is the view from my window.
Ok, what I have learned in China is that „forbidden“ does not mean that it does not happen. If I had not read that gambling and prostitution were forbidden in China, I would have never guessed it! Since leaving Shanghai, I have seen in every city people playing cards and other games with piles of money thrown on the streets gaming tables. This obviously is simply the tip of the iceberg as I can imagine that plenty more takes place behind closed doors. As for the prostitution, the amount of sexy looking young girls offering „massage“ in most cities speaks for itself. That’s how China works, there are the rules and the reality. Again, there might be a slight difference of definition between gambling and playing cards or sex and a „happy ending“ massage. Who am I to judge on this anyway? I guess that it is the only way to keep this fast growing giant country together. Strict rules on the one hand and a very evasive way to read these rules on the other.
Just like Hong Kong, Macau is yet another social and economic model the Chinese authorities can play and test with. Even crossing mainland China we have witnessed new social models being created from scratch, like new cities being developed from zero. It feels almost like entering a computer game when crossing such developments. It is certainly the only place on the planet where test models are being launched at such a scale. Not everything is wrong with that and I am actually curious to see what will work and what not. I guess that despite all my dislike about China, I will have to come back in 10 years and see it for myself. When China does something, it does it at full throttle it seems. For example we crossed some new cities under development where they were planting trees at a scale I have never seen before. Ten of thousand of trees (actually big ones) were being planted all over this shiny new and still empty city that didn’t even have a name yet (at least not on my map). Have you ever played the computer game „Civilization“ ? That is exactly what Beijing is doing in real life….
I realize that many of you had a good laugh at my facebook picture where I look like a giant standing next to these Chinese people. Well, let’s not laugh too soon…. Yes Chinese people are very short and yes I have felt like a giant, but here again, just like the Chinese economy, this is all changing very fast. Chinese teenagers have already caught up with us and are way taller than their parents. It took us in Europe about 3 generations (with the exception of the Dutch) to grow about 20 to 25 centimeters taller. Well, here they’ve just done that in…. one generation.
To conclude on China and Macau, if you still have a doubt about where the money of the planet is, well do yourself a favor and catch a flight to Macau. Macau makes Vegas look like a village of hillbillies! This place is the epitome of glitter, luxury goods and easy money. What is even more surprising is how young the customers are. Last night I sat at the October fest party on the 4 th floor of the Sheraton. I cannot describe how unreal it felt to be surrounded by hundreds of Asian „kids“ drinking Paulaner beer singing along a Bavarian band in their lederhosen shorts and eating Eisben with Sauerkraut…. Just like with their cars and other goods, it seems that the germans have been very good at exporting!
Asia is definitely the place where it is all happening, whether you like it or not. Well, if they start drinking French wine and eat German white sausages, we might still have a chance to rebalance our hailing trade deficits…. He he…
For now I am just gonna head back to my room and enjoy a last night in silk sheets before sticking that hard saddle back onto my sore bum….
CHINA – Final Wrap Up by Gerald Coniel
After riding almost 3000 km, I am about to leave China and enter Vietnam. Even if it would take years to get a comprehensive picture of China (by which time it would be outdated anyway given the pace at which this country is changing), let me share with you my impressions on this gigantic country.
At first China throws you completely off your marks as nothing works like in the Western world, but after staying in 30 different cities and crossing hundreds more on my bicycle, the curtain of mystery has faded slightly. Having visited regions of China only recently opened to foreign visitors we have had the opportunity to be the one of the first Westerners they ever met. Traveling to remote areas of China is still a relatively complicated exercise, but if you are prepared to tackle the mad traffic, the horrible roads and the communication problems you will be rewarded by experiencing some of the most unexpected situations in your life.
Imagine being in a bakery shop and having all the female staff handing me their smartphones after dialing their relatives, insisting that I exchange a few words in a language they obviously don’t understand. Or this restaurant owner so proud to have served us that he wanted to have our picture with him and his staff. Or this entire „fast food“ restaurant abandoning all tills simply because they al want to photographed with us. That is what happens when you enter remote cities of China! I won’t even mention the shops were sales staff would run to the entrance screaming and waving as we would walk pass. At least, now I know what it must feel like to be Georges Clooney….
As I said, nothing seems to work like in the world we come from and sometimes the most simple things in life turn out to be a real challenge, like trying to ask for more than one menu at a table of 8 people. How do you explain that after cycling 140 km we are starving and a substantial amount of time could be saved by giving each one a menu instead of one per table. The same thing goes for ordering food, you might order it individually, it will systematically be served as one global meal for the whole table, hence the need for only one menu…. Usually we order food by the photos as there is not much help from the Chinese text or the poor english translation. None of us dared ordering the „Fried German Sexual Harassment“ offered on the menu of this fancy restaurant a few days ago.. Usually, when the meals come to the table they are often so different from what they looked like on the picture that no one can really tell who ordered what, so we end up sharing, just like the Chinese do…
After 5 weeks, we have also made tiny progresses in Chinese. By now, most of us are able to order a beer and go as far as insisting on the luxury of it being cold. We have also become good at reading the traffic and mind guessing the crazy bus and truck drivers. Unfortunately I got that one wrong yesterday and had to make an emergency exit on the road side to avoid being crushed by an incoming bus overtaking another one. This was my first crash of the trip but luckily I cleared that one with just a few bruises.
As for the millions of electric scooters flying all around us in what seems to be absolute chaos, well it is amazing how quickly one can get use to disorder and eventually understand that even in the mess there are some rules, but certainly not the one we have been brought up with. When you first see this traffic, you think that millions of people must get killed each day but we have actually hardly seen any accidents. (Don’t get me wrong there are horrible crash scenes here too, but you would expect plenty more when you first look at what is going on). If you ignore the hooting, Chinese drivers are surprisingly calm. It doesn’t mean they are friendly, but in 3000 km of riding I have not witnessed a single case of road rage or aggressive gestures. Everyone just seem to run for its own space without much interaction with others. Don’t expect any friendly behavior either, it is clearly every man on its own.
Chinese people are definitely not aggressive and it is surprisingly safe to walk anywhere, even in parts of towns where you wish you had taken your Wellington boots, so dirty it is. Usually when you venture into real dodgy looking streets, people are more shy but always friendly enough to ask you some questions in Chinese. They obviously have no idea that we don’t understand their language so when you respond to them in english, they just laugh loud or shake their heads. In 5 weeks here I have hardly seen any drunk or aggressive behavior, except for the hooting on the roads from trucks.
China is the tale of two countries, one deliberately modern building 21 century towns faster than it can dismantle the vestiges from 50 years of hard core communism while the other one gives you the sad impression of a failed society where everything is run down, dirty and polluted. Crossing from one to another often only takes a few steps. Leaving this brand new giant shopping mall where every shop is branded in English and sells the latest fashion on the planet, you are just a few street corners away from narrow middle age looking streets where people prepare their food on the pavement on coal fires. With rubbish lying all over the country and blatant pollution everywhere, it is clear that China is growing faster than it manages to process the waste it generates. This could be a very different place in 20 years and hopefully just like the rest of the developed world, they will get their act together. But for now what we have witnessed day after day is simply shocking!
The good news about China is that unlike Africa, they seem to have an efficient educational system. Kids and teenagers here look pretty smart and are really well looked after. These kids are already behaving like anywhere in the first world economies. They spend their time typing on their smartphones ( yes, most have one), have the same haircuts and wear the same fashion as our European teenagers. The difference is that Chinese teenagers are far more polite and friendly!
So finally a bit of good news about China…. But hold on, if these kids are smart and educated, who will produce all these cheap goods that we are totally depending on?… Certainly not them…. Well, don’t worry, Walmart customers are still safe for the next couple of years. Apparently, there is a human reserve of a few hundreds millions of farmers desperate to move to the cities…
Finally, a short story that took place 3 nights ago. We stayed in a small town deep in the mountains where the old communist demons could still be felt everywhere you looked. Riding through the ridiculously oversized central avenue large enough to host a full blown army parade, it suddenly felt like stepping 50 years back in time. The smoke from the burning rubbish abandoned right on the streets made the air even more unbreathable than usual, giving the place an apocalyptic feel. Judging at the way most buildings looked, the word „maintenance“ had clearly not made it yet that far inland. Sadly our hotel which had no power or water as we checked in was a typical example of that. Probably built 30 to 40 years ago, some of the left over building materials were still lying in the courtyard. Looking at the size of the trees and vegetation that had grown over, it was clear that since this hotel had been built, no one had ever bothered to attempt cleaning such an obvious thing as building rubbles. As I was shown to my room, a rat jumped across the corridor! This gave the definition of a „rat hole“ a whole new meaning…. I could go on about how disgusting the place looked like, but that’s not even the point I am trying to make here. The only part of the hotel that looked decent and maintained was the second floor which turned out to be a full scale brothel. This might surprise you but in a country where prostitution is illegal, most hotels have a floor dedicated to „massages“ as they call it. Just siting in the hotels lobbies and looking at the „massage therapists“ in their sexy outfits and high heel shoes reporting for duty, you don’t need much imagination to understand what is going on. Luckily, there are also plenty genuine massages treatments available and we do make use of them, but before choosing a massage you need to be quite clear about what your requirements are!
So here we were in this rundown hotel, hoping that there would be no earthquake that night as it was pretty clear that this already collapsing structure would not hold much tremors. Just before dinner, at our daily rider meeting, we were told that the police was going to come and verify that all the married couples booked in the hotel had a marriage certificate. We have a few couples on the Tour and of course the last thing that would come to your mind as you pack your bags is to take a marriage certificate…. Now we were truly back in the hard core good old communist era! How ridiculous was this situation. Inside a hotel where there seemed to be more prostitutes than actual hotel customers, we were being asked to produce marital certificates for the only genuine couples here…. Anyway, we were all advised to give our passports again at reception and the organizers did a good job at keeping the police happy.
Last night we had again a crazy experience. As I came back to my room a rather „different“ business card had been slipped under my door. I was so tired that even the inviting and explicit picture of an attractive woman did not really manage to do much for my blood pressure. After all, this was common practice in China and such cards were often discretely dropped next to your bed by the cleaning staff. But this time , it seemed that the girls were desperate for business and around 1 am at night, everyone got a phone call in their room! They were simply canvassing all the hotel customers, using the hotel room to room phone system. Well, once you overcome the anger of having been woken up at night, you realize that such tales are part of what makes traveling so interesting and at breakfast most of us had a good laugh.
China is complex, contrasted and complicated and I can’t say that I have enjoyed the 5 weeks I have spent here, but it has certainly fulfilled my large appetite for exotic experiences. Once again, traveling on a bicycle has proven to be the richest and most enhancing way to discover a country! This will certainly go down as some of the most unpleasant cycling I have ever done but what does not kill you makes you stronger and probably wiser in this case. It certainly made me love my French country side clean air and quiet roads more than ever!
Vietnam is next!
Cheers to you all where ever you are reading this from in the world!
VIETNAM and LAOS by Gerald Coniel
A brief summary of Vietnam and Laos
As we finally kissed China good bye, the moral of the 40 cyclists doing this across Asia Tour picked up significantly. Entering Vietnam was a relief for everyone. I have to admit that 5 weeks of perpetual construction works, noise, crazy traffic, heavy pollution and hard to swallow food had taken its toll on each one of us…
The madness wasn’t quite over yet as the border post between China and Vietnam resembled a giant termite nest with thousands of people loaded with as much goods as their back could carry, crumbling on top of each other to get through…. I knew China exported plenty to rich countries, but what I didn’t know was that it exports plenty as well to poorer countries. Moving slowly up the rather disorganized queue while pushing my bike and bags towards the Vietnamese immigration officer, it was amazing to observe how much stuff was moving through this border post. And just like with the rich world it was only going one way, out of China! From clothing to electronic goods, it looked like these people had just ransacked a local supermarket. How does China do it? I am not sure to have the answer, but the fact is, they can produce goods cheaply and efficiently enough to be attractive even for poor countries like Vietnam…
As we made our first pedal stroke in Vietnam, each one of us was suddenly pointing at street signs we could more or less read and even understand like „Coffee“…. The 5 weeks in China had made me realize how deprived unalphabets are. I could suddenly read again! Wao!…
We were all enchanted to be back in a country closer to our Western culture. Vietnam had restaurants and bars that looked like the ones we were used to, it had beer on tap, real coffee and so on!.. Unfortunately our excitement was short lived as the long stage took us through some of the most polluted part of the country. On our route that day was Vietnam’s largest open air coal mine and let me tell you, it wasn’t a pretty sight!…. We were not pretty either after finishing a 180 km day, literally covered by a black layer of coal…. Imagine what the people who live there breathe on daily bases!…
As always in life, after rain comes the sun and the few rest days we enjoyed in Ha Long Bay really made us love this little corner of the world. Yes, Vietnam’s road sides are terribly dirty and litter is everywhere, but the country is absolutely beautiful and the food, the people, the vibe are just way better than in China.
The capital, Hanoi was another pleasant surprise. Often mentioned as Asia’s nicest capital it really hit the spot and everyone had an incredible time in the busy streets of Hanoi. Hundreds of food street sellers filled the air with delicious grilled meat flavors while the young people of the capital flirted along the many lakes that make this massive city so unique. Hanoi is buzzing! With no real official public transport, the most popular (and efficient) method of moving around is the scooter. Five millions of them hurl down the streets of the capital…. It is absolutely mind blowing!… Good luck for crossing the main streets!… What made Hanoi so pleasant for me were the leafy avenues bordered with beautiful colonial buildings. Finally a bit of culture and history! In China there is so little left of any sign of history that you could easily be fooled to believe that the world was created 50 years ago….
After Leaving Hanoi our experience of Vietnam changed, the countryside got really poorer and the further inland we went, the more dirty and dodgy it became. The last two cities before we crossed into Laos were 2 of the worst stop overs of the Tour. In this part of the country no sign of mechanized farming could be seen. Here all is still done using water buffalos and ox. Everywhere, people were friendly and more engaging than in China. I was invited inside houses, offered tea as well as local home made strong alcohol. Not necessarily the best liquid to have while cycling in 35 degrees heat, but I simply tried to be polite and did the usual mistake of downing the horrible snaps in one go which my host understood as „I like it very much!“. Two snaps later, I could hardly tell the difference between a water buffalo and an ox… I had already ridden 100 km and was starving, so the alcohol had gone straight into my blood stream… Anyway, got some great photos and made a new friend… If only I could remember his name…
This Northern part of Vietnam offered us some of the most scenic rides so far. Crossing the small villages and rice fields on tiny quiet country roads reunited us with the joy of cycling through exotic landscapes. This is what we had come for!
Approaching Laos, sharp and tall mountains appeared in the horizon. The next couple of stages would give our tired legs a good go. No one knew anything about Laos, so it was really exiting, almost like taking off for a new planet! To get to this new planet, we had to go over a pass which meant a 20 km climb before reaching the border post situated right on top of the mountain. The night before I pulled my travel book on Laos out of my bag and finally got to learn a bit more about this country. The capital is called Vientiane and it has only 8 million inhabitants for half the size of France, making it one of the least populated place in this part of the world! I liked it already! Crossing China, we had slept in many cities that had more people than Laos! With a third of the population living on one dollar a day, it is one of the poorest nation on earth.
Sadly this country was more known for the Unexploded Devices that still lay all over the place than for its majestic untouched forests. (After all that might be the reason for the forest being untouched). During the Vietnam war, the Americans dropped 9 million tons of bombs over Laos. That is the equivalent of a B52 dropping its bombs every 8 minutes during a staggering 9 years! And the irony is that Laos was actually neutral! The idea was to prevent China from reaching South Vietnam and cut the supply corridor between them and Vietnam.
Exited by the idea to enter a new country and enchanted by the amazing beauty of the rain forest I was crossing, I literally flew up the 20 km climb. It was early morning, the temperature was still very cool and for the first time in 6 weeks I could hear something that had gone missing! Birds singing! How beautiful was that! I would have never imagined that the simple sound of wild birds could make me so joyful! But it did. I was happy, my legs felt good and I couldn’t wait to enter Laos.
As I reached the border post, I was surprise to see that quite a few other foreigners, were also there queuing for immigration. Most were young people traveling with back sacks on board a large bus, but this was the first big group of westerners I met since leaving Shanghai in the most awkward place, on top of a mountain in the middle of a rain forest!…
The friendly smile and relaxed attitude of the Laos immigration staff was a good premise. We had entered another world. The good news about a 20 km climb is that it usually comes attached to a just as long decent…. As we let gravity pull us down, I had one of these pure moments of joy were you just feel happy. Here I was, flying down a huge hill, surrounded by magnificent mountains and on my right hand side was a perfectly clean river flowing with crystal clear water crushing its way through giant boulders! It was the first clean river of the trip! It had taken 4000 km but finally some clean water! Oh, and did I mention the air!?… I was now breathing pure, clear air filled with oxygen instead of dirt particles and chemicals…. I wonder if Chinese people are even aware that such air does exist!
As we started making our way through Laos, I realized that this mountain range was much more than a simple border. We had entered another Asia. People looked completely different here, they no longer looked Chinese but rather Malay. Their behavior too was different, they were calm and spoke quietly and the women wore beautiful long dresses covered with shiny decorations. There was something zen about this country. Along the way, everyone was greeting us with the famous „Sabaidiii“ ( „hello“in Lao). Even the litter along the roads had dropped significantly! (Although, it would pick up in towns). Laos was a great positive surprise! As I cycled through surreal sceneries of virgin rain forest and magnificent mountains, I thought to myself, „this country is the best kept secret in Asia!“
Well, given the amount of foreigners I have met in the last couple of days, it is no longer such a big secret it seems. Laos is probably what Thailand was 20 or 30 years ago.
We are now heading straight south towards Cambodia following the Mekong river. This means no climbs for a while but the temperatures are just unbelievable, reaching 40 degrees in the afternoon. Needless to say that I have picked up my cadence and made sure to arrive at the finish line before 12 each day.
Have a look at the pictures bellow, they are from the last few days. There are plenty more on my facebook page for daily postings.
Cheers to all of you where-ever you are on this small planet.
So from now on you will get to read my view of the tour. We will get to Ankor Wat in 2 days – an 310km a pretty tough „cold“ start in 32°C and 90% humidity – let the show begin !