8,599 km so far.
Today China put her worst face forward.
In The Dirt And The Dust
For a start, leaving Zhanjiang was tough. Scooters are an epidemic in this city, and people drive them more recklessly and aggressively than we’ve seen in other parts of the country. They also drive them everywhere: sidewalks, crosswalks, bike lanes, scooter lanes, and on the street. A scooter can come at you from any direction, so you really have to be paying attention to avoid collisions. The secret is not to panic. Keep cool and carry on, and the scooter will avoid you.
It takes a lot of brain power and energy first thing in the morning to maintain nerves of steel.
Zhanjiang boasts the mother of all roundabouts, a huge thing across which cars, busses, and scooters zip haphazardly. It put me in mind of the Arc de Triomphe, without the arch. We’ve encountered a few of these beasts over the last couple of days. They’re always easy to get into, but not so easy to get out.
Today, a woman on a scooter came across my lane from the left, and stopped suddenly right in front of me, right in the middle of the roundabout. Gadzooks, lady! Watch it. I almost ran her down, but a big swerve to the left saved me from having to pick up a flattened scooter lady from under my wheels.
As we got to the outskirts of town, I was looking forward to a quiet ride on the S373, which should have been a nice country road.
Instead, we found Zhanjiang’s industrial district.
There were miles and miles of factories, all spewing fumes and adding to the general smogginess of the air. There were sky-high stacks of sugar cane outside the factories, and Stephen tells me that means they are cane-powered, which is better than coal, I guess. We had been getting used to slightly cleaner air as we got closer to Hainan, but today that was a distant memory.
Heavy trucks loaded with all sorts of items rumbled by in both directions, and so did plenty of busses, which seem to blast their shrill horns at every opportunity.
It’s a pretty grim scene, and it reminded us why we found riding through Shanxi and Shaanxi so depressing.
Not long into the country, we rode by a major accident. A large truck had turned on its side, right in the middle of an intersection. Oil was leaking onto the road, and the truck’s lights were still on. Best not stick around.
We also saw several huge garbage fires, spitting hot and oily flames from their mouths. Things on fire today included insulation, a mattress, a sofa, and mounds of household waste. Never have I appreciated more the garbage men and women we take for granted at home.
To top off this melee of noise, dust, and dirt, the road disintegrated into a bumpy, holey mess as soon as we got out of town. The asphalt is just not up to the job of handling the huge trucks that run this route. So we rattled along, our bikes and our bones shaking with every pedal stroke.
Eat To Live, Live To Eat
At lunch time, things started to look up.
For the past few days we have been discovering the China our friends had warned us about: the one that would starve vegetarians. For the past five lunch and dinner meals, we’ve had tofu, greens, and white rice, all tasting suspiciously like they were cooked with meat or doused in meat juice just before serving. People understand “bu chi rou” just fine, and it doesn’t surprise them, but they just don’t have a variety of veggies in their restaurants. They just have greens, which often means lettuce – not our favourite thing to eat stir-fried, and not packed with the nutrients we need.
While still in industrial land, we noticed a few food stalls where the workers and truckers obviously eat, but decided we just couldn’t stomach eating right outside a factory. We kept going until we hit a small town and found a little restaurant that was using coal to heat its woks. We parked our bikes against a stack of coal bags and went in to inspect. They had several baskets of veggies on display, including eggplant, onions, red peppers, and green hot peppers.
Hallelujah! I wasn’t sure if we would ever see veggies again.
In minutes the staff were cutting up our veggies and tofu. I watched as the chef prepared the sauce for our dishes. He added about 9 different ingredients into a huge ladle, including hot sauce, a little MSG, a sticky molasses-like concoction, and several things I couldn’t see. He really knew what he was doing, because both dishes he served us were complex, tasty, and very different from each other.
It was the best food we’ve had in weeks, and it came out of a grimy little place by the roadside in a town whose name we don’t even know.
Arriving in Leizhou is like riding into Deadwood.
The road is concrete, but it’s covered with so much of the local red earth it might as well be bare dirt.
Chickens peck at the ground alongside the road, old women on rickety bicycles trundle by, and men sit in front of their no-frills buildings smoking bamboo pipes. I could imagine Wild Bill Hicock and his gang riding into town at any second.
Then suddenly, we rounded a bend and were in the middle of a giant boulevard running alongside a beautiful lakeside park.
Hundreds of mini-cabs swirled around the area, all waiting for their next fare. Mini-cabs here are three-wheeled contraptions with a little box at the back where the passengers sit. They’re actually pretty cool. Maybe we’ll ride in one tonight.
Getting a hotel has been so easy since we’ve been in the south, with most of them accepting foreigners, offering reasonable prices, and employing English-speaking staff (!!), that we were not prepared for today’s hassle. It was an hour-long round of too crappy, too expensive, no foreigners, no rooms, no WiFi shenanigans, until we finally found a place that would take us.
As I was watching the bikes outside one hotel, a little boy and girl, who couldn’t have been older than 5 and 7, rounded the corner and spotted me. I looked up to see them standing a few feet away with their mouths open, staring. The boy couldn’t have looked more shocked if I had taken out my magic wand and conjured a unicorn for him to ride.
I gave them big smile and a wave and said “Nihao! Hello!”. I guess I was looking particularly scary today, because their eyes grew wide wide wider, and, protecting her little brother, the girl backed slowly away, never taking her eyes off of me. When they were a safe distance away, they scurried around the corner out of sight.
I laughed out loud as I imagined the conversation around their dinner table tonight. “Mommy, we saw a tall white ghost today.” “And it talked to us.” “Yes kids, I’m sure you did.”
Just When You Thought The Post Was Over
After seeing the town of Leizhou once on our hotel hunt, I really didn’t have the energy or desire to see it again. But eating is a must when you’re cycle touring, so we ventured out again an hour after we’d checked in to try and find some food.
Our first stop (after a 2.6 km walk) was the local temple, where we hoped to find a temple restaurant. We didn’t, but we did find a monk in one of the temple shops. We asked him, through the use of our flashcards, where to eat in town. After much discussion between the monk and the three people working in the shop, packaging up incense, they came up with a solution.
They wrote down the name of the place for us, and as we were trying to decipher what was said, a man who spoke some English offered his help.
He took us over to the street, where mini cabs and scooter cabs were waiting. He tried to give instructions to the drivers but they didn’t know the place. The English speaker and the driver went to talk to the monk for clarification. Before we knew it, we were on the back of a scooter, flying through the busy roads and dark alleys of Leizhou. The driver had to stop a couple of times for directions, but eventually he took us to an alley outside another small temple.
Right next door was what could have been a vegetarian restaurant if only it had been open.
We paid the driver and told him we’d walk around and see what we could see. He seemed concerned we’d get lost, but we reassured him and went on our way. A minute later, he drove up beside us to point the way back to the centre of town.
In most countries, guys that driver little scooter and mini cabs are not the world’s best people. They often try to cheat you and demand more money than you agreed at the beginning. In China, they drive around until they get you where you’re going, and then they take care of you even after you’ve paid (less than a dollar) and said goodbye.
Feeding On Fido
After a little walk up the street, we came to a line of street food stalls, and though we could see the closest ones all had animals hanging from hooks out front, we decided to see if there was anything for us. As we got closer, we noticed something odd.
There were small mammals hanging in front of all the stalls. They had long tails, long thin legs, and sharp white teeth. Canine teeth. We realised the entire street was filled with food cart after food cart selling dogs. Intellectually, to us, eating one animal is just as bad as eating another. We don’t think there’s much difference between eating pigs, or cows, or donkeys, or dogs.
Emotionally, there was something especially horrifying about seeing all these whole dogs hanging from hooks.
The wet sound of a cleaver hacking apart flesh and bone, when one stall owner chopped a dog in half for his customers, sent us scurrying out of there as fast as we could. We realised, on the way home, that almost all of the food stalls we had passed had dogs on display.
Just when you thought you’d seen everything.
Finally, after much searching, we found another branch of Chain Mart, the grocery store we’d stopped in last night. A little exploring took Stephen to an entire freezer of vegan meat substitutes. We were pretty sure we could unfreeze these using boiling water and a little time, but were much happier when we also found a shelf full of room-temperature packaged vegan meats.
The display cases were branded Whole Perfect Food, a company we hadn’t heard of before.
But here, in this small town where dog meat is a speciality, their products were in abundance. There were several other brands on the shelf as well, and many varieties, including black bean steak, spicy pork, chicken gizzard, and salmon slices. We bought one package for tonight, and a few more to carry with us. We also managed to find one variety of pot noodles that didn’t have meat flavouring. Score! Dinner is served.
As we were shopping, we met two young teenage girls who came over for a chat. We walked with them back towards our hotel. They told us, in excellent English, that we were the first foreigners they’d ever spoken to.
Stop and think about that for a moment.
First, we are the FIRST foreigners they’d ever met! Imagine! Also, although they’d never spoken to a native English speaker before, they were perfectly capable of carrying on a conversation with us. I don’t know who’s teaching them English, but they are a lot better than the French teachers I had at school.
After all the day’s excitement, it felt great to crawl into bed with a pot of vegetarian noodles and say goodnight to China.
Soundtrack: Brakes, Give Blood | The New Pornographers, Mass Romantic | Atoms For Peace, AMOK | Calexico, Tool Box | Candi Staton, Candi Staton ♥