As our boat pulled into Manzanillo on the Pacific coast I was just thrilled to be back in the tropics. Such a contrast to the autumn and winter of Asia both weather wise and culturally. We were back to the sunshine, palm trees dotting the skyline, people ambling around in skimpy vests and suntanned complexions... no one was going to be pinching my brown arms in horror here. Woo hoo! Also notable was the high percentage of men sporting moustaches c.1970 and a marked increase in body mass which shocked us to the point of gawping*. Not cool I know but coming from asia where for months we've been surrounded by people of slight stature (I was in the XL category) to see Mexicans is a real sight to behold... they are L>A>R>G>E.
*I also think I caught a bad case of the 'gawp' in India and haven't quite managed to shake it yet.
Whilst in Mexico the one attraction I really wanted to see was the Monarch butterfly reserve. Every year millions of monarch butterflies migrate south to overwinter in the forests of Michoacan and around Mexico City where they hang around in the fir trees, wait for it to heat up, have a huge mating frenzy, apparently a bit of a spectacle, and then they migrate back north to Canada again. It takes about 4 generations for the population to the complete trip in one direction, scientists are baffled as to how they manage it, how do they know where to go?! With this goal in mind we left Manzanillo and headed in land with the aim of making it to the old colonial city of Morelia which is just a day or so's ride from the Monarch butterfly reserve.
STEP 1. locate where the road should go to link up towns
STEP 2. find the highest hill (preferably a series of hills) in the vicinity
STEP 3. reroute the road to take in all potential views from the top whilst checking out wildlife in low lying areas
If I had a pound for every time James ranted 'For god's sake why couldn't they just build it up the valley, it's so stupid!' I could probably fund another year of bike travel.
for my smile, as I will explain later, but it did make me smile). We also happened to time our visit with a special celebration involving fireworks over the catherdral. Many of the cities catholic churches were so ornate they looked as if they had been iced rather than built, we even had the surreal experience of visiting one particularly over the top pink and gold confection during mass to then have it descend into some kind of mariachi party. The plaza was filled nightly with street entertainers and balloon sellers. And we went for cocktails in possibly the most beautiful bar I have ever been in. Balcony of Angels was situtated on the top floor of a huge old building open to the night sky and views of the cathedral roof, with cocktails we could actually afford to drink and lovely company. All in all it was so perfect we stayed an extra day.
Riding a bike long term can really cut you off from the world beyond your field of vision. We rarely hear news or speak to other travellers (we just don't end up in the same places). Its probably for the best in many respects as we have a tendancy to ride right through trouble blissfully unaware with no ill effects. In Morelia we had a bit of a 'will we, wont we make it' situation due to reports from fellow travellers that the road we needed to take (and the entire village of Angangueo we planned to ride through) had been wiped out in a devastating flood. There were also rumous that it had potentially devastated the butterfly population. We had heard nothing about it beyond a snowbird commenting on how it had been unseasonably rainy. Whilst we had experienced some of this, being trapped in the tent in an unglamorous field for 36 hours by torrential rain, being saved from hunger by a kilo of strawberries I bought from a roadside vendor (which at the time J had been laughing about how we'd never be able to eat them), we'd had no idea there were landslides and evacuations afoot. However the tourist office reckoned that whilst there had been damage the road was passable. So we headed off hoping for both roads and butterflies.
Whilst in Mexico city I managed to meet up with my old Stokie flat mate who was teaching out there for a drink which was a very nice surprise indeed. We aslo went to a pulque bar. Where cantinas can be slightly seedy mexican men only bars the pulque bar was like a student piss up. Pulque has been around since pre hispanic times, was drunk by the Aztecs who limited its consumption as it made people act a bit crazy, from a people who commited human sacrifice on a massive scale to keep the sun rising daily, I had to wonder - just how crazy can it make you?! We thought we'd give it a try. As it turned out I rather liked it (surprise, surprise) it tasted very much like the magoli of South Korea but james wasn't so keen, he said it reminded him of a brew he used to drink when he was living in the jungles of Peru that was fermented with the spit of toothless old ladies... it seemed to affect his enjoyment, god knows why, he can be so bloody fussy some times.
The day we were due to leave Mexico City we got up, ate breakfast and I cracked a tooth. Ismael and Caty had arranged for a group of friends to ride out the city with us, as it was Caty had to take me to the dentist, interpret for me, arrange a discount and wait with me while I actually had my wisdom tooth extracted. They both then insisted we stay an extra couple of days. I will be eternally grateful for their kindness and patience. www.warmshowers.org... sometimes there for the nasty things in life.
In the end, despite the tooth finale, we just loved it.
The closer we came to the border the stranger Mexico became, interesting landscapes were replaced with ranches, population was sparse and the towns became more spaced out (distance I mean) and shadier to be in. We felt ourself in the presence of the U.S. border long before we got there (Mexico's border zone seems to be about as wide as the length of Britain). But we knew we were in the zone when the sights of armoured tanks and military convoys were commonplace. Its a curious feeling to have a man with a massive machine gun in one hand waving at you from the back of a tank, you feel kind of obliged to smile back. In towns we'd often see teams of Mexican troops, armed to the teeth in pairs sneaking through alleys as though they were on a raid. We never saw one thankfully but it was disconcerting none the less, but like most social problems you're unlikely to come to harm except by accident in crossfire or by venturing out after dark. As it was we just rode and rode, trying to get the miles over with and beyond being tucked up after dark it was all fine.
Reaching the border I had real mixed feelings. All the way up the Gulf Coast I had been developing a real sense of going home. We were out of the tropics and about to head into a land where we could, for the first time since leaving home, communicate with ease. I was sad to leave Mexico and its beauty. I was also sad to leave behind me all the exoticness of our travels so far (the warmth, the landscapes, the languages, the food, the wildlife, the people). In so many ways I was all up for staying in the tropics and on the road forever, but then again, I miss my family and having friends who know you and love you is a thing of value beyond measure, I was also becoming blasse to experiences which would have blown my mind when we set off, so it was probably time to come home. And so with an equal mix sadness and excitement we crossed our final border to the U.S.
Sunday, 21 February 2010
Our boat from Japan docked in the busy port city of Busan, where international ferries come in and our cargo boat would later depart. We decided to take the bikes on the train directly to Seoul to get to Mike and Hayon's for a much needed rest with the idea of riding back south. Although unbagged bikes are technically not allowed on the trains, the guys behind the counter ran around in a typically helpful Korean fashion and sorted it out so we could take them on.
You'd be surprised how many doughnut shops there are. The Korean's aren't big on sweet desserts (they're mostly made of rice in various guises) but there are doughnut shops everywhere. As it was had I not been otherwise subsiting on a diet of Bibimbap* (steamed rice, veg and chilli sauce) accompanied by the phrase 'Goggi NO!' and side orders of kimchii (pickled/fermented cabbage) at every meal the doughnuts may have led to me snapping my bike when I got back on.
*I say I mostly ate bibimbap except for an accidental order of fish offal soup, possibly the worst thing I have ever attempted to eat, I couldn't, if we want to save the world's fish stocks we should feed this to people until they´re cured of the desire to consume sea life, 3 bowls each should sort it out.
Food update over, Seoul is a thriving modern city and makes an excellent base with its beautiful old temples and palace complexes sitting happily alongside modern art galleries and excellent museums as well as its proximity to the DMZ. They were also really going for it in the festive lights department (Korea is, surprisingly, predominantly Christian). The main thing I was surprised by was the huge American military presence there. The north-south war is officially ongoing, they're just having a long cease fire and the bases are overflowing with American soldiers, to the point where they have their own part of town, their own bars, shops and everything else a westerner may need to feel at home, its pretty bizarre in an otherwise very Asian country.
We took a trip to the DMZ where we wandered down huge tunnels running deep underneath the 4km exclusion zone, which the North Koreans dug to try to infiltrate Seoul. Fortuntely they were discovered just shy of their mark, apparently the North Koreans tried to pass them off as coal mines by rubbing coal dust on the walls, hmmm.
After resting, repairing, eating, drinking, visiting beautiful temples & museums, banging drums and setting my panniers on fire on a ventilation pipe (now euphemistically referred to as the great fire, all hail gaffa tape), and generally vegging out we were ready to get riding again. However the weather had other ideas. By mid January the snow was still a foot deep on the sides of the roads, which had you seen the average Korean drive you'd know this was where you'd want to be. So we had to bundle our bikes on a bus (after a mad 8km dash, skidding through the snow, to the other side of Seoul) and head south to Andong in the hope of a thaw.
From Andong we biked through the freezing temperatures (where by lunchtime we couldn't get a drink as our water had frozen in our bottles) heading south to Gyeongju, centre of the Shilla Kingdom and a beautiful city too, teeming with ancient Royal tombs, palaces and temples and one of the loveliest hostels we've stayed in yet.
From there we made a slightly less chilly route south along the industrial hell that was the coastline complete with nuclear power stations to Busan where we continued to check out temples, eat bibimbap and kimchii, get James innoculated for yellow fever (which no one beyond the Captain of the boat checked), and were thoroughly cared for by couchsurfers and climbers Alan, Nikki and their ex-street dog the lovely Mitzy, as well as meeting their many varied friends for burritos, to get us in the mood and remind them of home.
Catching a cargo boat across the Pacific is not something I would normally choose to do, it just happened to be the cheapest (though still scarily expensive, you´re looking at approx 90 euro's per day) way to cross to the New World without flying.
However I have to admit that it was just great, seriously, I loved it. I've worked on boats in a few previous trial careers so I wasn't expecting to be thrilled by a trip on a container ship, its not exactly what you'd call glamorous. But actually it was a top quality experience. A cruise it wasn't, there were no bouncy hostess types around to try to make my day great, you are left to yourself to make your own entertainment. However the crew were really lovely, genuine people, up for sharing a beer and a chat in the evening when they weren't working just because it was good for them to have new people to talk to and swap travel tales with.
Whilst on the boat we saw pilot whales, lots of dolphins frolicking around, the odd turtle and sealion sleeping on the surface, curiously they sleep on their sides...to keep one eye out for the great white scary ones below we reckon, and numerous sea birds when we were closer to shore.
Our cabin was possibly the nicest room we'd stayed in for a very long time and as my sea sickness pills seemed to turn on my inner doormouse I made full use of the bed sleeping around 12 hours a day until I gained my sea legs (10 days in). We were well fed and James was beside himself with the range of cheeses available and bacon for breakfast, I was happiest to welcome the return of toast, muesli, salad and chip butties. There was only one other passenger on board and just to blast my preconceptions of the average cargo boat cruiser Emiko was not over 70 and a boat nerd, she was 25, from the States, very lovely, had been travelling around and was on her way to meet her mum in Ecuador and just fancied the idea of not flying and having a good look at the pacific along the way, so perhaps WE are the average cargo boat cruisers after all.
We also had a party/BBQ on board a couple of days out from Mexico (complete with a whole roast pig). Having not danced for a while I took full advantage, drank a few beers, danced til dawn (had most of the crew up at one point or another). James also took full advantage of the moment and at the front of the boat and under a beautiful moonlit sky lighting up the ocean he asked me to marry him.
So there you have it, we arrived in Mexico, we did not sink, did not get eaten by sharks, did not get hi-jacked by pirates, we both enjoyed it loads more than we would have imagined, the crew were lovely, we ate well, slept well, wildlife watched, talked, danced, got engaged and drew a little closer to home. All in all twas more than I ever would have expected from a trip with a heap of cargo. I highly recommended it, you never know what might happen.
Saturday, 23 January 2010
I loved it, loved it, really really loved it.
When I first dreamed this trip, before I decided I wanted to loop the globe my destination was Japan (I had vague notions about heading back on the Trans Siberian Express or something). I wanted to go to a country where everything was just so alien to me that I would be completely thrown and could revel in the other worldliness of it all, where the language was so different I would never be able to even begin to guess what was meant by anything that was written or said. I looked forward to the challenge of the supermarket, the home of manga, a land where even the toilets are hi tech, where small is beautiful and everything works on the basis of hyper politeness and following the rules, where adult manga happily coexists with hello kitty and where the kids dress up as cartoon characters and amazingly don't get their heads kicked in.
But ultimately the reason that I loved Japan was not because it was so alien but because it felt so much like coming home. A hyper clean, ultra polite, super colourful, techno logic home maybe, but still very much home.
Arriving in Japan felt like coming home because of the little things: people queue, everyone drives on the left and actually follows the rules of the road, no one tries to push you out the way or run you over, drivers allow each other to pull out, no one stares at you cos you're weird... how rude, there's no smog, the rivers are clean, the roads are good and despite people telling us otherwise people DO speak English (though you might need to initiate the conversation). Its easy. Things work. People are polite... really polite and generous too. Obviously it helps if you are polite and kind in return but I like it, I like manners, they're underrated. I think its nice to be nice. I can see how for some people it could get overly fluffy at times which is why Japan is the home of kawaii = cute but hell, give me fluffy cute ;-D over pushy, rude }-( any day, at least you can have a laugh at it if it all gets too much, there's always something to make you smile even if its just the best sushi you've ever eaten or a trip to the toilet.
When going to Japan we were a little worried about costs (to put this in perspective we have a daily budget of £9 per day... a melon in a supermarket can cost £20, the cheapest rooms in hostels about £30 per person). So before we went we stocked up on basic foodstuffs in China so we could cook for ourselves, we needn't have as food is not actually that expensive at all and you can get great sushi for less than it costs in London (or really cheap if you go to the supermarket at the end of the day). We were also not too worried about accommodation whilst we were riding in the countryside as we live in a tent, but maybe not so good in the cities. And so we got into warm showers and couch surfing, this was a turning point. Through people we met on both these sites we learned and accessed a lot more than we ever would have done on our own. Japan is a country which could be quite difficult to fully appreciate if you didn't know someone who lived there. Signs are rarely in English so its hard to tell from the outside the difference between a restaurant/bar/strip joint (they're fond of curtains over windows and doors regardless of how innocent the proceedings going on behind).
It was also heartwarming to meet people who not only let us into their homes but frequently left them open for us to wander into, total strangers, all their gear there, without even meeting us (the kind of thing your mother would warn you not to do). Admittedly there's no one safer to let into you home than a cycle tourist, they're never going to nick your stuff, they don't want the extra weight.
Here's to K who we barely even saw who just leaves his door open to anyone whilst running around helping the homeless of Osaka in his spare time; to Jun who took us in in Nara, awed us with his epic 4 year Alaska to Tierra del Fuego bike ride, showed us round the primeval forest and politely ate the driest fried egg sandwich in the world cos I made it for him, what a gent; Will and Chrissie in Numazu at the foot of Fuji, who helped us devise routes, took us for filthy ramen/tasty sushi, introduced us to the pleasures of sumo and plum wine and took us for our first great pint of ale since leaving home, may all your dreams come true; and a final hip hip to Fuminori in Tokyo, who's not even on warmshowers or couchsurfing but who still left us the keys to his apartment in his mailbox without even meeting us, took us sake and shōchū sampling, had James eating raw horse and squid guts (the man's one step away from roadkill I tell you); we are humbled and thank you all, our door is open... when we get around to having one over a tent flap.
There are also cyclists moving easily through the streets on such a huge scale that it gives me hope for the future. Osaka had an instant positive effect on me. Though there are no major sights here its a great place to find your feet.
Kyoto is also where most of the Geisha in Japan live but because they live very secluded lives its pretty uncommon to see one. Wandering down to the Gion district we happened to wander into a quiet street, just admiring the houses when not one but about half a dozen Geisha emerged from doorways on their way to their evenings appointments. Spotted, I felt like a twitcher of humanity.
Before reaching the foothills of the lovely Japanese alps, we had to cross from Lake Biwa to Nagoya, a trip we wanted to complete as quickly as possible to reach the main alpine attraction. To get there we had to ride over a pass where the problem of not being able to read Japanese became apparent. As we made our ascent along the 'scenic' route we could see lots of signs which meant nothing to us but as everyone was overtaking us up the road and no one said anything we pressed on. Only as we were approaching the peak, having ridden uphill for a few hours, did a lady stop us to tell us that on the other side the road was "not there" and "washed away". To which we thought... "pants".
As it got dark we pitched our tent to the edge of the deserted road, made dinner, giving some to the ancestors just in case. After dark a couple of motorcyclists came through from the direction we had come attempting the same thing. After much toing and froing their friends joined them, 2 got through 2 turned back, we felt encouraged by the fact that they hadn't all returned, they must have gotten through (or dropped off the edge!). As it happens they had not only made it but had built a small bridge over the most precarious bit making it safer for us, I was never so grateful.
From Fuji we hoofed our way to Tokyo, the city to top all cities, where we ambled around checking out the kids in costume, rockabilies in the park and performance atristes generally bobbing around, doing bizarre stuff, and being artistes. We also took the time to fully verse ourselves on the latest Japanese fashion on the street...we just didn't expect the dogs to be wearing so much of it.
Beyond the splendid painted wooden temples of Kyoto and Nara many of the temples of Japan are natural beauties. They are built with a lightness and warmth of sun bleached pale wood and light paper frame windows, the shinto shrines equipped with bells for calling the gods and torii gates to signify you are entering a sacred space (sometimes its just the torii gate). The lovely Fuki ji on the equally lovely Shikoku Island was built in 718, still stands, is still used and makes me want to run around naked in it but fear not I reigned the impulse in.
Shikoku will also be memorable to me not only for the temples for which it is famed but also for its amazing coastal riding and the endless orange groves which scent the air.
Its also unforgetable for Uwajima's infamous sex shrine and sex museum. The sex shrine itself has been around for some time and is a working temple. The museum ajoining it though is three floors of floor to ceiling (and I include the ceiling) of sex related paraphenalia from around the world. When you see this stuff you've got to wonder about the guy who was collecting it, like how many examples of sexually explicit saucers featuring Geisha do you need man?! I have to admit Europe's representation makes us look a bit on the severe side, it was all s&m circa 1970's. At the end of our perusal it had James crying 'no more penis's'!
But in the end despite the deer, temples, castles, and shrines; the crazed kids and rockabillies in Tokyo's parks; the fashionable friendly people in the cities of cute and lovely; the nice roads and nicer drivers; the wildlife and mountians; my all time ultimate favourite thing about Japan has to be...
...the onsen. We loved the onsen so much that towards the end of our trip we were planning our route around where we could find an onsen rather than things to see.
Onsens have a space for showering and a communal bath for genrally soaking in, some are fancy, some are basic but all are perfect when you have been chilled to the bone, are caked in mud and are unconcerned about total nudity.
Some onsen have a 'no tatoos' rule to keep out tattoo'd gangster types apparently. This was a bit of a blow as I have 2 on opposite sides of my body which are fairly difficult to hide without looking shifty, but I was so cold I just brazened it and went in anyway, when I was finally rumbled I was just given a plaster to cover them... bit of a pointless exercise when sitting in steaming hot water but hey ho, I was just glad not to get turfed out before I was clean. As a special treat towards the end of our trip James booked us into a Ryokan which had private onsens. So we basically spent our time steaming ourselves to the cleanest we've been since leaving home and sitting around drinking tea on tatami mats.
In the end I was so thrilled with Japan that I was gutted to be leaving, it was just such a great place for cycling and a great place to be. But Korea beckoned and the trans siberian express remains an option, maybe next time there'll even be cherry blossom viewing over a nice spot of plum shochu.
Monday, 9 November 2009
China is indeed under construction at a level that would be difficult to comprehend had we not just ridden through it, over it and under it for months. I've had it in my eye's, my nose, my mouth, my lungs and (at the risk of sounding like a school teacher on the edge) up-to-here!
After what was probably the swiftest, most orderly entry to a country ever (no one else was trying to get in) through China's pristine, quiet border and riding along a lovely quiet road devoid of traffic the reality of riding in China took a few days to hit us. China is truly a country of yin and yang, one day it can be all great and lovely, all smooth roads, buffalo and rice paddies, next day you're having you bum spanked on shattered concrete highways (not aided by trying to break in new brooks saddles), choking on black exhaust fumes with the only view through the smog of smoke belching factories and machinery grinding the limestone hills to rubble and cement dust...
... and as if that wasn't bad enough the ice lollies tasted like wood chip. For me if there is a hell, this is it.
However, the colour of lowland China is mostly, sadly, grey...
The trees are grey, the grass is grey, even the rice is grey.
The sky is grey with thick smog and the red lanterns are dimmed to slate with a veiling of coal dust. Freshly washed laundry which hangs out to dry on hangers and railings is coated in a steady mix of vehicle exhaust particulates and grime until it looks more like the rags you see hanging from the back pocket of a mechanic than clothing.
And by mid morning we too are coated in a layer of coal dust, cement dust and grit. Its been a grimy ride.
But there seems to be little coordination for these improvements, the roads being resurfaced are already good roads (you can tell because the construction workers leave random gaps where you drop down from the lofty 6 inch thick layer of new tarmac to ride on sections of old, perfectly smooth, unblemished tarmac for a few hundred metres before bumping back up to the (not really) improved section). The beautiful trees which line the old road edges providing shade from the intense heat of the sun are being felled to widen the roads a couple of feet which seems nuts when the only traffic using them are the trucks hauling aggregates for the construction of the road.
Meanwhile college education remains accessible only to those who can afford the fees, much of the population remains illiterate and the housing being erected is the same communist block reinforced concrete styling that in 2 years time will be damp and mouldy from exposure to the elements and have red rusty stains dribbling down the front from the corroding security bars on the windows; and all those new concrete roads being laid will be cracking under the weight of the aggregate hauling HGV's they were never designed to support.
OK. So that was the bad bit, the good news is that despite this you can find beautiful things in China and for much of our time we did just that. If you were on tourist coaches you could zip around from the great wall to historic villages and possibly even be able to say, as one traveller did to me 'Well, I thought there'd be a lot more factories!' (stunned I tell you, stunned I was).
There are little pockets of old China hanging on in the countryside though you do need a bike to see them without embellishment, or your own wheels at any rate.
Beyond these properties there are entire villages, including Little Likeng where we spent a lovely couple of days, which somehow remained relatively/miraculously unscathed. As a result rather than letting them crumble they have been saved as tourist destinations...'Visit Bygone China'.
There are also arts and traditions which have survived modernisation. On the road we witnessed traditional fishing going on including the bizarre cormorant fishing though this has all but died out (probably a blessing for the cormorants). For those who don't know the cormorants are raised by the fishermen as little chicks and are trained to hunt for fish which is what a cormorant does best, however the fisherman do this by tying a piece of string around the cormorants neck so it can't physically swallow the fish, so once the bird has caught a fish both are reeled back to the boat, the fish retrieved from the cormorants beak and the cormorant heads back out again to fish some more...I assume the birds get fed well at the end of the day.
In Yangshuo we hired a tandem to pootle round the countryside for a day. I had a romantic notion of the two of us working together, bonding, chatting happily as the birds flitted through the fields and the rivers meandered through the rice paddies. It is actually a testament to James's overall easy going nature that we are still together today. If you love someone and you both ride a bike DON'T get a tandem. We discovered that we both have completely different riding styles, which is a shame because on a tandem you have to do exactly the same thing and obviously we both wanted to do the same thing, just as long as it was OUR thing. The tandem was also designed for really just ticking along on tarmac, however a slight miscalculation on the map had us off roading on the tandem equivalent of a gearless shopper bike down trails that everyone else was taking mountain bikes over. It was a treat. Lovely. I'll leave it at that.
From Yangshuo we hoofed our way to Ji'an so that we could catch a train to Hong Kong to extend our visas. A word on Chinese cities...they're all the same, you know where the centre is as they all have ornate lampposts lining the main strip which is great if you're new in town. Chinese towns and cities have all been swiftly modernised, they tend to have really wide boulevards with trees, shops to satisfy every need and cycle lanes (teeming with electric bikes...they're great but a bloody hazard, a granny nearly took me out on one as she was doing about 30km/h but riding like she was doing 2.5), there are central parks and squares where everyone congregates in the evening to dance and chat, sounding good? Considering most people in the countryside are still dragging around handcarts and threshing rice by hand you can see why everyone's moving in. However whilst it all looks nice and shiny, if you take a look at whats going on higher up you can see its still the same rag tag mix of concrete its just that a new facade has been put over the front of the old buildings to make it all new and shiny!
Hong Kong is a city designed to never let your feet touch the ground...literally.
At first we just thought it was hell to walk around but that's because we were trying to do it at street level, but the street is for smelly cars. The people ambol along on flower trimmed covered walkways above the traffic and noise, protected from the glare of the sun and monsoon rains. Admittedly much of the walkway system cuts through malls so its a shopahlics nightmare/paradise. But effectively you can cross from one side of the city to the other without ever touching the ground. Whilst in Hong Kong we were graciously looked after by Jo, a friend of 2 cyclists we met in Pakistan. Jo was just lovely, inviting us into her home and colourful life, making our stay on Lamma and Hong Kong both pleasurable and painful (oh lord the hangover). We also got to witness the fireworks to celebrate 60 years of the people's republic. Watching from the avenue of stars we got to view the huge display reflecting off the glassy surfaces of the skyscrapers making them shimmer like a hollywood A listers dress. But its not just the sparkle which makes Hong Kong, it also has some of the most beautiful, compact parks I've seen and, because its so hilly, stunning forests and beaches cover much of the land so there's no forgetting you're still somewhere truly exotic.
After Hong Kong our China trip seemed to feel better than it had initially. Admittedly we still passed through some mad max style landscapes and at one point we actually went right through an otherwise closed off expressway construction site which lasted for about 6km and at the end we had the motorway to ourselves, its a surreal experience to ride down the middle lane of a deserted motorway, the occasional bit of litter blowing through, all we needed was some zombies to complete the scene.
We road on quiet rods through patchwork paddy fields and villages time forgot. We visited the impressive Tengwang Ge Pavillion, one of those rarities that is in fact origional, surrounded by beautiful gardens in Nanchang. We also experienced a great afternoon drinking tea at a traditional tea ceremony. Making tea is more complicated than you could ever imagine.
One of our last stops before leaving China was to visit the famed gardens of Suzhou. The gardens are impressive from their use of tiny spaces, constructed around properties, the gardens are interconnected with hallways which, along with the rooms of the houses, are fitted with windows which not only allow you to glance through to the next space but frame the views like classical paintings. The overall effect creates a maze of what feels like endless spaces from what is in fact very little. It was a fine closure to our Chinese expedition before our departure from Shanghai to Japan by ferry.
Overall China was definately an interesting country to visit. The contrasts between the polished to an idea of perfection tourists spots, the enormous cities and the forgotten countryside are extreme and telling. Some things were better than expected, we had thought that the trade in wild birds for cages would mean none in the wild, but we rarley saw a caged bird and the skies were not empty. However China of old is forever changed and you have to take it as it stands, neglected or theme parked as it is. The scale at which change is happening in China is awesome, who know's where it will be in 10 years time. I can only hope for something positive for the planet.
Saturday, 15 August 2009
I write this in a state of excitement and anticipation as I await the arrival of the fabulous Gill landing in Hanoi for a 2 week holiday on saturday night. What a trooper, its the wettest of the wet season, its a 2 plane journey (or 15 months by bike), temperature's averaging 36 degrees, and she's bringing various bike parts, her boyfriend, chocolate and wine, as another long term cyclist said to me the other day 'it'll be nice to have friends', how very true.
I was surprised to discover though that Vietnam is not as lush and forested as my imagination, and the odd war film, had led me to believe. Pressures of a growing population (there is a 2 child policy in force though what that means in reality I'm not sure), a tradition of slash and burn agriculture still practised by the hill tribes, the unsustainable (and often illegal) exploitation of timber products, combined with the persistant effects of the liberal dosing of Agent Orange the Americans gave the country, has left most of the once lush forested hillsides naked and exposed, its soil eroding and silting up rivers and its wildlife hanging on by a thread, or sometimes not at all.
I also did my advanced diving not far from Hoi An on Cham Island, keen as I was after my Koh Tao experience. As part of this I dived to 36m (where things start to get a bit dark) and did a night dive...I thought this would absolutely freak me right out, as I'm none too keen on the dark on land, but I just loved it, loved it, loved it AND i saw sea horses! They had their little tails curled around whip coral like they were holding on in the breeze, shrimps and eels look pretty darned cool at night too but sea horses...happy, happy, happy.
Our next 2 weeks will be spent touring Halong bay, Hanoi and Sapa as proper tourists with friends (yip!). Afterwards I'll be fitting good ol' Trusty with my newly delivered tyres, a brand new saddle and wearing my new padded pants, you have no idea the amount of time I spend thinking about, or trying not to think about, my bum. All being well and newly kitted up we will head north to China, Korea and Japan.
Ever onwards (with a new improved comfortable ride I hope).