07 March 2007 - 25 March 2007

Arriving in China, and the town of Pingxiang

On the 07 March we completed our main goal of reaching China! We crossed the border from Vietnam in the rain and freezing cold, but were extremely happy to have done so.

The feeling on crossing the border, and to actually be cycling on Chinese soil, was euphoric. It didn't matter that it was freezing, raining and grey, China would have seemed beautiful to us whatever the weather. We had a brand new, wide, quiet road to cycle on, we were surrounded by gorgeous views, and we had just achieved a goal that had seen two years worth of planning, and 9 months on the road. We were pretty pleased with ourselves.

We had expected our first stop, Pingxiang, to be a grimy, gritty Chinese town, but it was actually very pleasant. Much bigger than we had expected, but that is probably going to be true for everything in China. We had trouble getting a hotel. We hadn't changed money at the border, knowing the exchange rate would be rubbish, and now the only foreign exchange office we found was closed for 2 hours. We were soaked and freezing. No one in any hotel we found spoke a word of English, and they wanted money for the room up front. Trying to explain at a hotel that we needed to change some, but the bank is closed so can we pay later please, was difficult to say the least. It took nearly an hour of miming and pointing in the phrasebook before we were allowed into a room (but not allowed the key, just in case we didn't pay.)

Ordering dinner later was no more fruitful. The first place we tried was staffed with giggling women who could not seem to control their laughter for long enough for us to try and order. And that was just at the fact that we had arrived and sat down in the restaurant. The hilarity seemed to double at our attempts at Chinese and the fact that we were largely relying on a phrasebook to communicate. After about 10 minutes it was clear we were getting nowhere, so we left feeling a little humiliated and a bit downcast. The next place we tried was run by a woman who seemed a little more sympathetic to our plight. We managed to order okay, and had a fantastic meal. In much better spirits we began to plan our route in China - our fist aim being to get to Nanning, a few days to the north...

Xi'an and Beijing

The weather remained grey, cloudy and drizzling but nevertheless cycling in China was immensely enjoyable. Even on the expressways (which we were not supposed to be on, but generally didn't realise until they actually became expressways) the traffic was very light. The maniacal driving in China that we had been warned about only really manifested itself in the towns.

After some cycling in Guangxi and Shaanxi provinces we arrived by train in Xi'an, which had always promised to be one of the highlights of the trip. We liked the town immensely - the perfect mix of old and new. We had beautiful clear and crisp weather for the first couple of days, and we were still so buoyed by having arrived at our destination that we were relentless in our sightseeing. We made the mistake, as we always do, of booking a tour to go and see some of the major out-of-town sights, namely the terracotta warriors. We were so bored and restless, and annoyed about being taken to a jade factory, even though we know that this is where all such trips end up, that by the time we reached the warriors we weren't in the mood to be impressed. Plus they had been one of the things that had become so built up in our minds that the reality was bound to disappoint. And so it did - you cannot actually get very close to them, and view the army from walkways above the figures which makes them appear smaller, when one of their most impressive features is that they were created life-size. The room the main lot are housed in is badly lit, and tour guides, generally, are a pretty dull lot. We felt a bit guilty that we had found Xian's mighty city walls far more awesome than the things we had really come here to see.

Another day, another train, this time to take us on an overnight journey to Beijing. We are by now used to putting the bikes on various modes of transport, but the trepidation of leaving them in the care of others and worrying if they will arrive at their destination, never quite goes away. The Chinese rail system is very efficient in this regard though, and although they travelled on a different train than us (Richard could barely sleep at this) everything turned out fine. Xian station, though a grand example of utter chaos and surging masses, is nothing compared to the massiveness of its bewildering Beijing equivalent. With our bikes not arriving for another few hours, we had naively assumed that maybe with the Olympics a year away, and Beijing being a capital city used to visiting tourists, that writing the address of our hotel down in pinyin would be enough for a taxi to get us there. We ended up being dropped at Tiananmen Square because our driver couldn't understand anything else, and then stopping about 25 other taxis, that also understood nothing else. It took the pity of an English-speaking tour guide, the intervention of the doorman of a major hotel, several kindly proletarians, and about 2 hours for a taxi to transport us where we wanted to go.

After Xi'an, we are now much too savvy for all the tour guide stuff, and negotiated Beijing's sights under our own steam. This involves rather a lot of walking and thousands of subway stairs, not to mention spit-dodging, and it would seem that these things require leg muscles other than those we normally employ when cycling, since we were tired and aching after a few days of it. Although we were visiting in the winter 'off' season, it still appears as if half of China is also at each of Beijing's attractions at any one time, but mostly in Tiananmen Square. What on earth it will be like next summer is almost beyond imagining.

The Forbidden City, despite half of it being alarmingly run-down and the other half shrouded in scaffolding to ensure that it isn't come next summer, was still remarkable. And the Great Wall was breathtaking (the view and the climb.) Most amazing of all though was that we were able to book our plane tickets to Munich in person, quickly and efficiently. Not a bit of bureaucracy, fuss, unnecessary forms, unruly crowds, spit, or overcharging. We were speechless.

After all this time we are quite excited about returning to Germany, if not about flying there. The Far East is a wonderful part of the world - wonderful people, wonderful food, wonderful sights. But they just don't do proper sausages.

Finally, thanks to the BBC for another article.