Rural China Kicks Our Butts

By Jane | November 9, 2013

7,538 km so far.

One of the big challenges of cycling in China is navigation. Correct, up-to-date, detailed maps just do not exist. Google Maps are pretty good, but Google sites are throttled in China, meaning, if they load at all, they load very slowly.

Plus, even Google can’t keep up with the new freeways being built and old roads being uprooted by condominium developments.

We ran afoul of this difficulty again today in the suburbs of Changshou.

Here’s a little technical how-we-do-it stuff.

Stephen was navigating using a route we’d created in RideWithGPS, which uses Google Maps. We then exported the GPX track – which is really just a line on the map – to PocketEarth. The PocketEarth app uses Open Street Maps which are terribly incomplete for China, so the track we’d created pretty much just ran through open white space on Stephen’s map. That is, his map showed no roads, even though the roads are there on Google.

To follow the track, we switch on the BadElf GPS to locate us, and then, guessing which roads will take us in the correct direction, we try to make the blue “us” dot go along the line.

Stephen’s note: Thanks Roger L. Easton, inventor of GPS!

Of course, I also have my woefully inadequate 1:2,000,000 paper maps, which are mostly only helpful because they provide the Chinese characters for the town names, so we can understand road distance and directional signs.

Construction Time Again

All of that is a long way to say: we got lost.

Where our road should have been was just a massive construction site. By the looks of things they are building scores of new condos to sit empty beside the empty ones that have already been built.

We rode up and down each road in the development, hoping that one of them would go all the way through, to get us back to the route. We cycled up to dead end after dead end, and I’m sure the local people wondered what the heck two foreigners were doing riding up and down their go-nowhere streets.

As we were riding around, I notice a strange tick in my pedals. I looked down to see a small plastic bag caught in my rear derailleur. The bag had lodged itself in deeply and was preventing things from spinning at all.

I sat down on the sidewalk in the midst of the construction, and using my pocket knife, tweezers, and all of my patience, I managed to pull the bag free strand by plastic strand.

A glimpse of the old ways of living, BC (before condos).

A glimpse of the old ways of living, BC (before condos).

There was a grand waste of half an hour that could have been spent getting un-lost.

Back on the bikes, we’d run out of roads to try, and I was ready to give up and turn around. Stephen, persistent creature that he is, decided that a bumpy, half-concrete half-mud path across the construction wasteland was a good idea. I briefly contemplated going on strike, or at least putting my foot down about fool’s errand routes that take you right back where you started, but by the time I decided which tactic to take, Stephen had already disappeared over a small hill.

Darn him. I knew he wouldn’t come back for me, at least not for a while, so there was no choice but to go forth.

The path came out on a ramshackle shopping street – after the modern construction site, it was like we’d travelled back in time. The road didn’t look like it would lead anywhere of much use. But then, in a few minutes, it connected with a bigger road, going in generally the right direction.

Yup, this is the road we’ve been looking for for the last hour.

It has to be said, Stephen has done a remarkable job of navigating our way through the world, and he’s been right far more times than he’s been wrong. I should probably stop grumbling to myself about his decisions and just follow him blindly from now on.

Stephen’s note: Thanks, and, yes, you should. ;)

Shaking Hands And Kissing Babies

So far in China, we’ve mostly stuck to the National Highways or the Provincial Roads, but today we were on a County Road. It was much smaller and less well paved, but also almost devoid of the honking trucks and busses we’ve come to detest. It also took us off the main industrial routes, and up into rural farmland, where the air is slightly cleaner and some of the views are spectacular.

Every inch of the land around here is planted. Rice, cabbage, soy beans, various greens, and root veggies seem to be the crops of choice. Farmers do everything by hand here – there’s no way to get any kind of tractor or even a water buffalo into these boggy patches of terraced land. Farmers were out hoeing, weeding, watering (from buckets), or harvesting the crops. Today, for the first time, I also saw people spraying pesticides, from small jerry cans they carried on their backs.

The other thing the county road brought us that we haven’t seen for a while is hills. Hardcore steep-ass leg-busting hills. Nasty brutish hateful hills.

At the top of one of the more hellish climbs, we passed through a small village where a wedding was being held. About 40 people sat at tables lined up outside one of they typical hole-in-the-wall restaurants here, and a man was just cutting the wedding cake. Stephen rang his bike bell in celebration as we passed.

A little further along, we found a restaurant of our own in which to stop for lunch.

We were served bowls of soft, fluffy tofu (a regional speciality), a small plate of green hot sauce (for dipping), and as much rice as we could eat.

This soft tofu tasted better than it looks. Really, it was delicious.

This soft tofu tasted better than it looks. Really, it was delicious.

After our meals were finished, a number of mothers gathered around us with their children in tow. We are really in the middle of nowhere, and I’m guessing it’s been awhile since they’ve seen any tourists. Parents all seem to want to make sure their kids gets a chance to see the strangers.

This baby was our favourite one in the village.

This baby was our favourite one in the village.

We make nice, playing peek-a-boo with the babies, chatting incomprehensibly with the parents, and smiling our faces off. When Stephen starts looking at the map on his iPad, all the women from the restaurant gather around him to make sure we go in the right direction.

Advice on our route from the local women.

Advice on our route from the local women.

This was one of the friendliest villages we’ve been to, and we kind of wished we could linger there.

The Fu King Hills Are Alive

After lunch it was just more fu*king hills. The elevation profile we’d looked at yesterday didn’t seem so bad, but the reality of it today just makes us want to scream. Part of the problem is the air. It’s much harder to climb hill after hill after hill when you’re breathing questionable air through thick smog masks.

As a consequence of all this altitude, it’s 2:30pm before we even reach the halfway point. We are both done in. We make a quick decision to hang a sharp right towards Fuling, a town much closer than our original destination.

This takes us into the most beautiful part of our day.

The hills and valleys at the top of the mountain are all terraced and planted.

It is incredibly fertile here, and they must get several harvests per year.

We see elderly people bent almost double from the weight of the huge baskets they carry on their backs. The baskets are filled with the fruits (and veggies) of the day’s harvest: soy bean vines, yams, and giant marrows. Seeing people working so hard to earn their meagre living makes us feel a little less sorry for ourselves about the hard work we’re doing for frivolity’s sake on their hills.

Haystack or tiny hut?

Haystack or tiny hut?

Kids are all on their way home from school, and we shout and wave to scores of them as we ride along. Finally our downhill comes, but it’s not nearly enough to make up for all the uphill work today. We ride towards Fuling, crossing the mighty Yangtze on an equally mighty bridge.

The mighty bridge into Fuling, Chongqing Province.

The mighty bridge into Fuling, Chongqing Province.

Just as we think we have arrived, we are confronted with the worst uphill yet. It’s a long, slow, painful grind up busy streets into the city.

Hotels are hard to find, but we finally score one with a soft double bed. Unfortunately, it also has a view of the main street, which will be bloody noisy tonight.

But we don’t care, because we are safe, healthy, and happy – and we have a warm place to sleep tonight.  

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  1. Pingback: How To Find Yourself (and Make the Most out of Being Lost) | My Five Acres

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