Nowhere Fast

By Jane Mountain | January 10, 2014

8,071 km so far.

Today was one of those days when things go exactly as you had expected they would – and you totally had expected them to all go wrong.

Our plan was to get up early, go to the railway station (that we’d travelled right across the city to get to last night), and hop on a train to Maoming, which is fairly close to Hainan. At least the getting up early worked out all right.

The Only Rule, There Are No Rules

We should probably have guessed when the guards at Guangzhou East Railway Station wouldn’t let us wheel our bikes into the expansive ticket hall that we might not be in such a bike friendly zone. Still, after yesterday’s confidence-building train ride, we tried to stay optimistic.

I stood watch over the bikes while Stephen ventured inside to see what he could find out. The good news: it was student training day at the station, so there were plenty of English-speaking students behind the desk to help. The bad news: all the trains going our direction are sold out for today and tomorrow, except a train that would get us into Maoming at midnight. We’ve already done one midnight arrival on this trip, and that was plenty, thanks very much.

Besides, they told Stephen pretty definitively that there is absolutely no way we can take our bikes on the train. It didn’t matter to them that we had just taken our bikes on a train yesterday. It didn’t matter that we know they offer a luggage shipping service that will take our bikes. It didn’t matter that other cyclists seem to have no problem getting their bikes on the trains in China.

They definitely would not take our bikes.

Much needed waffle break, Guangzhou.

Much needed waffle break, Guangzhou.

This is typical of the train service in China. The trains themselves are run very efficiently, and tend to leave and arrive precisely on schedule. However, the rules for boarding with bikes seem to change depending on what day, what station, and what staff member you speak to. Even in the same station on the same day, several people have given us different instructions. The short of it is that, just like on airplanes, no one really knows what the rule is regarding bicycles, so they just make something up that sounds right to them at the time.

At least that’s what we think is happening.

Bus Or Bust?

Our next stop was the long-distance bus station. After walking around in circles for a while trying to find it, Stephen finally asked a guard who pointed us in the right direction. The only way into the station was up a series of three flights of stairs. There were bike ramps alongside the staircase, so we decided to go up. The ramps being steep, and my bike being heavy, I lost control of it almost immediately. A kind man took pity on me and pushed from the back all the way up the stairs.

People all over China have surprised us with their community spirit and the helping hands they offer not only to us, but to the other people around them. It really is a generous culture.

Thank you kind man! I couldn’t have done it without you.

Stephen’s note: I would have helped, but was trying to manoeuvre my own heavy bike up the ramps.

The bus station forecourt was being torn up with jack-hammers, so I stood in the noise and the dust watching the bikes while Stephen went inside. I pulled out my trusty earplugs to drown out the worst of it, and tried to do some route-planning while I was waiting. There was a long line, but after some time, Stephen returned with more bad news.

The bus we wanted leaves from another station altogether, a few kilometres away. Whether we could get our bikes on it was anybody’s guess.

We moved away from the jackhammers to discuss our options.

  • One, we go to the next bus station and try again.
  • Two, we start riding.
  • Three, we stay put for the night and ride in the morning.

Realising that even if we could get a bus today, the ride would probably be long and horrendous and not arrive until midnight, we decided not to keep trying our bus options. We booked a night at a hostel across town, and will start again tomorrow.

More Errands Done

This decision gave us a chance to tie up a few more to dos.

First up, lunch. There are lots of Chinese vegetarian restaurants in Guangzhou. The only problem is, they are almost all in malls or up on the second floor. We are cautious about leaving our fully-loaded bikes out on the street, even though China is the safest country we’ve ever been to. Still, it only takes one dishonest person to steal our stuff. So, I left Stephen loitering in a park while I went to get take out from a nearby veggie restaurant.

Public nuisance, Guangzhou.

Public nuisance, Guangzhou.

I hate getting take-out because of the huge amount of plastic wasted. At home, we’d bring our own containers to the restaurant, but we didn’t have that option today. Despite the waste of plastic, it was really nice to sit outside on the park bench and eat our lunch in the warm sunshine. The food we had today was the first Cantonese-style food we’ve really had on this trip, and the flavouring is very different from Central Chinese food. It is more similar to the food we’re used to from LA’s crop of authentic Chinese restaurants.

After we’d eaten, I was taking a few photos in the park when a security guard came over and asked (in Chinese) what I was doing. “Pictures,” I said. “Tourist.” He made it clear he wanted me to stop and told me we should leave the park. Or at least I think that’s what he was saying. I smiled at him and told him we would comply immediately. We were on our way anyway, so no harm in making him feel big and important.

Next up, haircuts. We found a good mid-range place and got the chop, which is a huge relief to me, because I was starting to resemble a tall mop.

Stephen's new hair.

Stephen’s new hair.

The hairdresser really knew what to do with my thick, straight hair and he totally went to town with the thinning shears.

Jane without mop for head.

Jane without mop for head.

My bike helmet is two sizes too big now! (Don’t worry, safety fans, I tightened it.)

Finally, we needed a post office. As part of our downsizing efforts, we are sending our camp stove and some other items back home. It makes sense, but it’s still a move I suspect we might regret one day. We couldn’t find a post office though, so we started our 10 km cross-town ride to the hostel instead.

Worst Bike Lanes Ever

Someone in Guangzhou clearly thought bike lanes would be a great move, politically. Sadly, it doesn’t appear that they gave a crap about cyclists or cycling. The bike lanes in Guangzhou are the worst we’ve ever ridden on.

Many of them are just part of the sidewalk, demarcated with a different colour of brick. As with this style of bike lanes everywhere, they are jam-packed with pedestrians, and there’s just no way a cyclist can get by. They also seem to be the ideal place for street sellers to set up shop, police to park their bikes, and magazine vendors to open their kiosks.

Bike lane, what bike lane? Guangzhou, Guangdong Province.

Bike lane, what bike lane? Guangzhou, Guangdong Province.

There are a few proper bike lanes, like they have in Beijing, fenced off from the road and separate from the sidewalk. These are pretty good, except that they start and end frequently and without warning, at a curved piece of fence. You actually have to backtrack in order to not get trapped. Totally useless.

Finally, there are bike lanes like the ones common in the US: a narrow strip at the side of the road designated for bikes. Where the lanes are open, they are filled with busses pulling in and out, wild taxi drivers, and oblivious right-hand turners. But, more often than not, these lanes double as parking lanes, and are jammed with parked cars.

Nope, Guangzhou is just not a biking city.

Post Hour

At the Post Office in China, when you want to send a parcel, you can just bring your things in, and a nice man will inspect every item carefully and then pack it all up for you. He provides the box, the tape, the cushioning material… everything. This would be great, and is very handy for tourists, except it’s not the most efficient system.

We had the misfortune of arriving not long after a man who had four humongous boxes of clothes, statues, and trinkets to send. Each one had to be individually inspected and then replaced in the box. This took a very long time indeed.

After about an hour, we reached the front of the queue and got our own parcel checked, packed, and wrapped. Mom, a China Post box is now sailing your way. Soon you’ll be equipped to cook out of doors whenever you want. I can recommend some nice camping spots on Saltspring Island, if you like.

Then Finally…

Tonight we ate temple food, which is the best, because it’s completely vegan and always inventive. We loved our waiter, who had a huge smile and a friendly manner. He showed us how to pre-wash our chopsticks, spoons, and bowls with the hot tea they brought us. We hoped they had been pre-pre-washed in a UV machine.

We ate far too much food, but decided it was necessary, as tomorrow we’ll need our strength: we’re finally getting back on the bikes for real!  

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  1. Comment by Cassie

    Cassie January 14, 2014 at 6:31 am

    Haha! Lol’d at “My bike helmet is two sizes too big now! (Don’t worry, safety fans, I tightened it.)” Nice new ‘dos, guys!

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