Wednesday, May 12, 2010


To summarise, my bike was in Nepal, my brake pads in Vietnam, my tent in Singapore, my pack in Hong Kong and I was in China.  How did I manage to spread myself so thin?

And what's worse - when walking to the Chinese border, seemingly located in the centre of the town of Mon Cai, I realised just how hard it is to carry panniers in your hands: you have to lift them up as the thin handles dig into your fingers, then hold your arms outstretched so the inward-leaning bottoms don't get entangled with your legs.  And don't get me started on asymmetrical weightings!  I was also forced to wear my cleated footwear everywhere which crunches and scrapes over all paved surfaces.

But despite these encumbrances I ambulated my way into the Great Nation of China.

And what a nation!  It felt like I was in the only 'real' country I've ever visited - all the others seem like a couple of towns separated by bits of country-side in comparison (okay, maybe not India - but that's more like Europe than a single country, or what Europe would be if it had lost the crusades).  China is immense.  It's a truism to say there are a lot of people in China, but what's hard to realise is that these people are not just represented by sacks of flesh, but by the human infrastructure congealed around them.
One justification for spending the last few months bumming around the world not achieving much is to figure out what I want to be when I grow up - should I stick with the construction industry, lash out into a cushy engineering design job or do something totally different like inventing a machine that manufactures tailored universes for the rich and then get myself into the speculative real estate market?  But one thing that's tipping the scale for the status quo is that what I find most exciting about new places is checking out the mega-construction projects going on.  Stuff temples, palaces and musea - I want to see freeway projects, half-constructed metro systems and spindly skyscraper scaffolding sacrilegiously puncturing the heavens.  And, largely thanks to China's trillion dollar stimulus package, there is a lot of that - my bus ride to Nanning transported me into the future so thoroughly I was tempted to ask directions to the sky-tube terminal for a nearby floating city.
I spent the day in Nanning blundering around in amazement at the massive metropolis I'd never heard of whose CBD is the size of Greater Cranbourne.  I was also still shocked that my hotel room came with its own computer terminal.  Compared to South East Asia the wealth here is mind-blowing.
Another truism about China is its authoritarianism and bureaucracy.  It seems to thread its way through all levels of society - even the hotels lock you out of your room electronically if it's one minute past the check-out time (once I'd just had a shower and had to borrow money for the next night while clutching a towel).  And the railways!  Each station is the size and grandeur of an international airport - Nanning's had a huge LCD screen with a looped Communist Party video instructing young nerds how to pick up chicks, or so it seemed without understanding the dialogue.  The bureaucratic infrastructure for the railway network is immense, with a reported average of 10 million Chinese traveling by train at any one time.  And they feel they have to check your ticket SIX TIMES.  Once upon entering the station at the metal detector for the waiting rooms (which are each the size of concert halls), another when boarding commences, a fourth time at the entrance to each carriage, twice on the train when the conductor swaps your ticket for a magnetic tag so you don't wander off before your designated stop, and finally upon leaving your destination station - just to be safe.  On one trip an armed police officer even went through the carriages and scanned everyone's National ID Card.  Luckily I was exempt or they would have discovered my Counter-Government Activities.
But they sure are nice about it.  In Nanning, when for the first time in my life I actually missed a train I had a ticket for (never trust 'Windows time'), a staff member with excellent English saw my distress and exchanged my ticket for the next train - apparently it's common practice to get a full refund even after the train has departed.
My destination in this case was the karst-city of Guilin and marked the beginning of my totally inept 'drunkard's stumble' across southern China, panniers in tow.  Here I discovered China's love of underground cavities and unnecessarily large dogs.  A PVC-pipe raft floated me down the spectacularly scenic Li River to the even more karsty town of Yangshuo while I suffered under the effects of a rice wine frenzy forced upon me by some Chinese tourists the previous night.  My companions for this journey and beyond were three Scandinavians: a Helsinki girl called Paivi who came with bonus Chinese skills and two Swedish guys called Henrik and Matthias.
We spent over a week in Yangshuo and in that time managed to achieve almost nothing.  We went on a couple of bike rides, watched DVDs by the terabyte, and launched ourselves on a night-out from which the recovery required the next two days.  Individually I also went on a walk to the top of Moon Hill which is a karst mountain with a gibbous hole in it, I got to another geohash that involved hours of getting lost and crawling through damp undergrowth and was sent on an epic quest by my dad to find a cafe he went to in 1994 called Mickey Mao's (I discovered it had been renamed Minnie Mao's).
Our excuse for such laziness was that it was raining pretty much the whole time.  We were planning to take a hot air balloon ride over the town when the weather cleared up but we were informed that they'd stopped running it because five tourists had recently been killed in a freak accident.  They still hadn't taken down any of the advertising for the "Scenic and safe float over Yangshuo".  During all this lethargy I think we annoyed the hell out of our hostel staff - at about 3am one night after a bottle of wine and a few DVDs I tried to steal my own bag from behind the reception desk so we could draw a penis on the face of a sleeping Henrik with a permanent marker (apologies to any older relatives who'd assumed I'd grown into a mature person by now).  It was only then that I realised the staff actually sleep behind the reception desk.
In Kunming I celebrated the six month anniversary of my slow crawl across a small fraction of southern Asia and used the occasion for a reflection of what I'm really doing here.  Figuring out who I am and where I'm going all while enjoying the spoils of my previous life in a new setting is certainly a big part of it, but so is trying to read all the major science fiction novels written between 1958 and 1972.  So far I've learnt that I'm neither completely introverted nor completely extroverted.  I suppose I'm an extrovert on the outside with a gooey core of introversion.  In some places I've noticed a bad tendency for me to see the exterior world as merely a distraction from all the interesting stuff going on in my head or a book, but with my recent foray into the hostel circuit I feel myself getting energised by meeting people and forming groups and inciting parties like a social Prometheus (with similar consequences for my liver).  All in all though, like life itself, my trip really has no purpose.  When once I got stressed out if I didn't see everything there is to see in a place I've now lost all qualms about just doing nothing for a day.
Kunming is like many other cities in China, where the technological future has crashed landed into a traditional community like an alien spacecraft brought down by an RPG, remnants of old buildings and cultures crawling pathetically out from under the wreckage.  Despite this the streets are clean, with normal and recycling bins spaced every 50m, the signs and announcements often bilingual although charmingly Chinglish, and immaculately well thought out urban planning creates elegant public squares and integrated public transport.  They still haven't dealt with the rampant spitting though.  I've also noticed, much to my annoyance, that the swarm of motorbikes in Vietnam was transformed into a sedate river of cars as I crossed the border into China, but this is offset by the profusion of top-brand mountain bikes replete with hydraulic disc brakes (a thorough brake pad search proved that none would have suited my bike, much to my relief).
The following evening I, Paivi and a Canadian girl called Lauren took the sleeper train to the touristy hillside town of Dali, the main attraction of which was a tall glass of hot brandy chocolate, a ferry ride that proved to be frice as expensive as we'd been willing to pay and so didn't, and a chance to get up to Hadrian in my History of Rome podcast.  However, an unsung charm of Dali was the curiously Melbourne-like weather (or at least pre-1995 Melbourne weather).  Occasional gusts of warm wind interspersed with fronts of cold drizzle presaging an afternoon of sunniness and thunderstorms.
The next day we headed up hill to the northern Yunnan town of 'Shangri-La' at the beginning of the Himalayas, both a flagrant abuse of a fictional utopia and an epic place to be for people who like looking at mountains.  I nearly fell out of my seat and then out of the bus as the first of the towering snow capped mountains reared into view.  This was exacerbated by a small child trying to throw up on me from the seat behind (on my trip I've been shat on, pissed on and thrown up on several times by small local travellers - usually on buses so crowded the kids have to be distributed evenly to all available knees).
'Shangri-La' (from now on I'll call it Zongdian - its pre-money-spinner name) is really cold.  It sits at 3200m above sea level and on one morning snowed heavily.  None of the hostels provide heating so everyone had to sleep with all their clothes on.  After a day of sipping hot plum wine and tentatively getting a view from a small local hill Paivi and I booked a day hike up a proper mountain near the town.  Unfortunately, I was determined to try some yak meat for dinner the night before and felt like throwing up the whole of the next day.  In the morning we stopped off at our guide's Tibetan family home for some... yak milk tea.  It was so disgusting I almost explosively redecorated the interior of their spartan living room.
The hike itself was a beautiful and eerie icy wonderland, snowing the whole time.  Our trip was supposed to take us to the top of a 4200m altitude mountain but we stopped 200m short because our guide was 'cold' and made a fire instead.  Failed again to exceed my top land altitude at Gunung Kerinci in Sumatra.
Our descent marked the beginning of my ridiculous double back track across southern China to get my pack previously sent to Hong Kong and return to within hours of Zongdian to cross into Nepal for some real altitude.  Stay tuned for the next episode: Felix in Tibet.


  1. Dear Felix, I enjoyed this a lot. You seem to concur with my experience of China - when I lived there in the seventies it was like stepping into the past. Now it's like stepping into the future.
    However as an English teacher may I say that though I find "plumb wine" charming evidence of your devotion to your profession, I can't go past a misplaced apostrophe. Remember, when in doubt, leave it out!

  2. The thought of you crunching the whole way around China in cleats is hilarious.

    I also like your Prometheus analogy - very clever!