The Chinese Burn

I was scouting for a place to camp behind a thin disguise of bushes when I saw him approaching; the mounting dusk made a tapered silhouette of a bicycle and rider. In Hunan province what makes for a subtle wild camping spot is also a popular toilet, and I had been busy estimating if my tent would fit in a patch of grass scattered with strewn toilet paper.

I flagged him down.

‘You speak Chinese?’ came a disembodied voice from the gloom. I shook my head.

‘You sleep in bushes?’

‘Uh huh’

‘Here? In these… bushes?’

It was impossible not to notice the en suite amenities. ‘Well, maybe’.

‘I think…’ he began, with some precision, ‘you should come with me’.

Without another word we pedaled off together, car headlights sending him to life, a young bespectacled Chinese man on a mountain bike with two panniers. Liyan had cycled from the southern coast and was heading to Xian to spend the looming new year with his family, this journey for Spring Festival, Chunyun, is the largest annual migration of people on earth.

That night we found a guesthouse and sat eating bamboo shoots and tofu while the owner, a wrinkled gem-eyed woman, chattered away to Liyan and tossed me fast, exuberant glances as if my presence was the best thing to happen here all year. I asked Liyan to translate.

‘She says you have a big nose, but she likes you’.

‘Tell her: ‘I like her too. But her nose is too small’’.

He translated.

‘What did she say’ I asked.

‘She said yes’



We all sat for minute, pondering nose sizes.

Liyan and I were, in many respects, a consummate pair. Liyan could read road signs, navigate using his GPS, discuss the whereabouts of cheap hostels with strangers, order soup without chicken feet in it, barter, make phone calls, jokes and conversation. He could, in short, do most things expected of an adult human being. I, on the other hand, could issue goofy grins and shout ‘wo bu hui shuo Putonghua!’ (I don’t speak Chinese!) into the anguished face of anybody who wanted to know something basic about me, like my name or nationality. He must have thought himself very lucky to be part of this dream team.

You do enter a kind of uneasy deal when cycling with another, questions inevitably simmer up – will they be faster or slower than you? When will you split up? Will they indulge in gratuitous singing, or road rage? Will they seed the slipstream with farts? Will they pack up every morning and then ponder the whereabouts of their toothbrush before unpacking pots and pans, toothpicks, weather predicting instruments, ipads, assorted underwear, accumulated pamphlets, intravenous adrenaline, and harmonicas, and half an hour later declare ‘Well look at that! It was in my pocket all that time! Now then, where did I put that map?’

Luckily Liyan was a great companion and did none of those things, and I was glad when, after two days, he suggested we ride together for another five. We shared that gluttony that is particular to cyclists and I was able, finally, to eat at places without picture menus, and without guessing which item was not the disquieting ‘Manual Cat Ears’ I found once on a rare menu with translation. Evenings we spent in night markets, or bent over hotpots in eating houses, shoveling down fresh fish and vegetables. He ate faster than anyone I have ever met, faster even than me. I give him exaggerated looks of incredulity when he slurped his last noodle, and for two people with little language in common, this mimed punchline was an ongoing joke.

But Liyan is not unusual, China is racehorse of a nation – everyone eats fast, drinks fast, speaks fast. The country’s rise to riches has been famously speedy, skylines explode into being, fashions zip into life and die again. Watching Chinese arrive in buses is invigorating – after a coach journey most people take up to half minute to gather themselves, stretch, collect their belongings and depart the bus, but in China it’s like someone has threatened anyone remaining on the vehicle in 30 seconds with ice buckets and electrocution. After a 10 second charge, the entire thing is derelict, or else contains a solitary tourist, wondering what just happened. For a perpetually impatient soul like me, one who believes that anyone who walks too slowly in the street should be promptly removed from society, ideally by air-evacuation, and left on a remote island set in shark infested waters where other blundering somnambulates now live out their torpid days, China is bliss.

Liyan had a bandaged hand from a side-on altercation with a car, which I took as a reminder of the dangers of Chinese roads until daylight came and I saw him cycling. At crossings he would set into a dream-like drift, seemingly unfussed about the horns or fast approaching battalion of revving metal and glass. Glancelessly he would plough straight through red-lighted interchanges, other times he would weave about without any obvious desire to go anywhere, looking vaguely upwards as if suddenly struck by a fascinating fact, or pondering the location of his house keys or the name of second cousin.

We cycled northwards through wintered farmland, the road bound by a procession of leafless elm, flaunting bird’s nests in their naked upper reaches. Azure-winged magpies made dipping flights from tree to tree. Liyan rode ahead, his poncho wind-whipped and wizard-like. From remote villages there came an echo of fireworks, perhaps for a new baby, or a new business. Sometimes the white bullet trains to Beijing dissected the road and in towns and cities at sundown we cycled by women performing Guang chang wu – a kind of public square dance, popular with Chinese grandmothers.

Chinese public messages of road safety

A muddy-faced Liyan!
Falling off his bike was a recurrent problem for Liyan who was unbalanced and had only rear panniers, and even after a wobbly near-accident he’d flash me a ‘that was close smile’ and then promptly fall over sideways. The hand injury was beginning to look less like poor luck, and more like a lucky escape from something much worse. He hadn’t told his parents about his bike ride – ‘my mum would worry’ he told me. As I watched him crash into a curb and spill onto a group of scattering pedestrians, it was becoming easy to sympathise with her. It had been a sharp turnaround, perhaps we were destined to look after one another, even though I was still essentially a big baby that was his responsibility to feed and put to bed and lead around.

The cold was smiting now, burying into me with a wind from the north, a whispered warning from Mongolia. We crossed the Yangtze by boat, it took a whole ten minutes, but its massiveness was lost in a cold mist. A wind pinched the water into wavelets, seeped through my base layers, and made icicles of our fingers and toes. The banks of the Yangtze ran up to a high shelf: the previous height of the waters before the three gorges dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric project, and a controversial one. Only China could relocate 1.2 million residents to accommodate it.

On the other side of the river we drifted off onto a slim road, the width of a bike path, which cuddled the northern bank of the Yangtze. Hoopoes sunk their beaks into the earth for worms. I’d last caught sight of one in Turkey, and seeing them again was like a call to home. At Jingzhou we cycled the walls of old city where allotments abutted the moat and a confusion of brickwork houses.

‘Very nice!’ I shouted.

‘No we go very east, not very north!’ Liyan scolded.

My Chinese wasn’t improving so we relied on English, and Liyan showed his curiosity and generosity in his three favourite expressions: ‘have a try’, ‘have a see’ and ‘my treat’. If he couldn’t find the English word we’d use an iphone app, which didn’t always come up with the right solution. Tent became ‘Praetorium’ which I didn’t bother to correct because I enjoyed that my tousled green Nylon bit of tat is now blessed with the epithet given a General’s tent within a Roman encampment.

Chinese meat markets lend a certain reality to dining

The road through Hubei and Henan took us through flat agricultural country, the towns stuck with tower blocks and ambiguous looking shops. The wind from the north picked up and brought thin snow to the sky which rushed and stung our eyes. I was suffering from it when we pulled into a town to find an eating house. We passed an olive green bin, the size of a small car, the contents were burning and in the wafts of smoke stood a man, rattily dressed beneath a thatch of matted hair. His face was entirely black from filth and soot, like some Dickensian chimney sweep, with only two thin white slits marking where his eyes were. He didn’t look at us as we passed by. We ate inside, shivering with every mouthful and rejoined the road, but as we passed the bin I stopped dead. The man had climbed inside, flames licked, his eyes had closed, smoke billowing from his clothes. I left my bike and ran towards him, sure he’d suffered to the point of burning himself alive, but as I got close those thin white slits cracked open and I realized that although it was a desperate act, he wasn’t being burnt to death, he just needed to be closer to the flames and could endure a singeing. We told a local shopkeeper who came over and hauled him out, but the tramp just stood there sheepishly, waiting until we were gone before he could clamber back in.

We found a guesthouse and Liyan explained that 20 cm of snow was forecast for next 48 hours and the night temperature would drop to minus 10. He convinced me to stay for one day, to wait out the blizzard in this one-street town because ‘too cold for praetorium!’ It was a good decision in hindsight, but at the time I was thinking of the worse weather in store further north, to hunker down here seemed lazy and gutless, though I’d seen Liyan fall off a stationary bike on ice-free roads too many times to argue. Plus he said ‘To chop a tree quickly, spend twice the time sharpening your axe’. It is impossible to argue with a Chinese person when they invoke proverbs, and there is one for every situation.

We only left the hotel once to find vendors battling the freeze, touting pigs heads dusted with snow. We bought ear muffs and retreated to the room where Liyan boiled coca cola and ginger in the kettle and I fitted ice tyres. We set off the next day onto a road slick with black ice into which my metal studs drove and stopped me sliding. After five days of falling over in almost every hotel lobby and at every traffic light, Liyan pedaled all day on ice without a tumble.

In Henan province hairpins delivered us past a ski resort and to a village in which the scores of hotels were closed for winter. ‘Too terrible! Too terrible!’ Liyan shouted, breathing into ice cold hands, but even so he wanted to continue into the night for 60 km on ice, and this time it was me that convinced him to stay, so we found a guesthouse at last and huddled about a coal burning stove in the kitchen. Liyan got back into the proverbs: ‘Keep feet warm at night and live a long life’. So we bathed our feet.

It was goodbye in Luoyang, Liyan was to ride west to his village near Xian where he wanted to surprise his father on his birthday and planned to stay for the Chinese new year. I needed more cold weather gear from Zhengzhou and then I’d head northwest into Shanxi and Inner Mongolia.

‘I worried about you’ said Liyan

‘Don’t be worried mate, I’ll be fine.’

He walked out, but I harassed him down the hall with questions. ‘Liyan, how do you say rice?’

‘Liyan, tell them the wifi is broken!’

‘Liyan ask what time is check out!’

Alone in China, again. I consoled myself with a newspaper I found in English. The Chinese Daily had the usual barrage of GREAT NEWS! Apparently China is nothing but a booming utopia, misunderstood by foreign devils. Headlines sparkled with news of a strong Yuan, new rail links, successful businesses. Anything negative was always accompanied by a subtext ‘But don’t worry – it’s under control’, be it air pollution or corruption. Japanese bashing always gets a place too, an old resentment the Chinese media like to inflame. I once heard the comic Jon Oliver say that CNN was the worst C word in the English language, perhaps he was not acquainted with CCTV, China’s state run TV news channel which is an endless promotion of corporations and a raging sluice of unthinking optimism.

But there is significant bias in western media too when it comes to reporting on China, a kind of counterpoint to Chinese media in its perpetual negativity, obsessing over China’s restrictive censorship laws, Tibet and human rights violations. I’m not suggesting these issues don’t deserve attention, but clearly a bias does exist, and if China’s media censorship is a factor in fostering anti-Western sentiment, maybe it also fosters anti-Chinese sentiment in the West.

In Zhengzhou I took a side trip by bus to Nanjiecun reputed to be the last bastion of Maoist collectivism. The main square has a statue of Mao, not the young wind-blown poet with a glint in his granite eyes I seen in Changsha, but an older, balding Mao, mid-salute, surrounding by the portraits of Lenin, Marx, Stalin and Engels. At the edges of the square speaker blared out communist slogans, which faded as I walked the streets out to fenceless fields stretching towards a lone power station and noodle factories. But capitalism had encroached too much to ignore; even these reactionary parts have escaped the undertow and drifted off with the current. It wasn’t clean, or all that quiet. The guards around Mao’s statue are gone, and the town gate, once a clean division from this world and the fast- paced capitalist one outside, was messy with a troupe of vendors and touts and tourists in electric buses. In the end it was less of a 1950s anachronism, or a celebration of China’s past, than a comment on how far China now is from those days.

I cycled across the Yellow River, China’s other great waterway, and into a strange world of caves and canyons bottomed by frozen rivers and farmed terraces. Wind turbines cut up the sunset. The land was arid, the colours waterless, though the cold seemed at odds with this vision of a parched and burnt land. I was looking out over the Loess plateau, part of the northern silk road, an expanse of silty soil left by ancient windstorms. Annually there are only 30 cm of rain here and in the porous yellow soil I could see the black spots of cave entrances, reinforced with brickwork. More than 30 million people are cave dwellers in China, most in Shaanxi province, and people have occupied these caves for at least 2000 years. 830,000 people were killed in Shaanxi earthquake of 1556 after caves collapsed on 60% of the regions populace, making it the deadliest earthquake on record. The caves are well insulated – ideal for a place cold in winter and hot in summer, but many are now abandoned as young Chinese set their sights on the city, offering me an array of easy bedrooms.
A young buddhist who was walking from Yunnan to a holy mountain

Traveling northward, dusky peaks rose patiently from the east, strung up over bristled beige crops, only to then sink again to a beige pimple, like an island spotted at sea. Sooty trucks rattled by, loaded with coal that fell onto the roadside and that China’s orange jacketed army of sweepers keep at bay with brushes made from trees. In a land made ugly by this industry, the blurry afterglow of sunset was beautiful – a stripe of misty indigo holding the silhouttes of factory chimneys. Phantoms of fine coal went with the wind, dancing over the road. That night I camped in a field, far enough from the coal trucks to settle into easy sleep, and that by morning was matted with frost. The morning was white with mist and fumes, taming the sun’s burn which leaked through rows of winter-bare trees.

I arrived by nightfall to the walls of the ancient city of Pingyao, a financial centre during the Qing dynasty. The next day I walked the town’s walls and padded it’s small streets of jinking electric scooters and yapping toy dogs, and explored Taoist and Confucian temples, but in this vision of Chinese antiquity someone had jacked up the house music on a sound system, and miles from the nearest ocean, surrounded by ancient tradition, I sulked briefly to the lyrics: ‘Sex on the beach, sex on the beach, yeah baby, let’s have sex on the beach’. But I was cheered up by the street signs, and marveled at the health shops advertising ‘Cupping’, and the overzealous sounding ‘Ear Mining’. Other signs said ‘beware of falling objects’, and were placed under clear sky, on top of the walls, which made me wonder whether this was in relation to a specific threat, or just general life advice. It seemed though there were dangers aplenty:

‘The senior, the children, the disabled and the pregnant women should have a guardian, to implement guardianship, in order to avoid some sharp-edged situations cause the damage’

Restaurant menus boasted ‘Pork Elbow’, ‘Lieng’s Oily Meat’ (easy on the oil, Lieng) and the seductive ‘Cow’s Tendon’s with coriander’.

‘What would you recommend?’

‘Well we have some sensational cows tendons today Sir’

‘Well, I dunno…’

‘They come with coriander’

‘Great! But hey, easy on the tendons, OK?’

Around the time of the Olympics great effort was made to correct menus Beijing-wide, to delete the likes of ‘Government-abused chicken’ and ‘Grilled Enema’. But Chinglish, and all mistranslations, are wonderful, not because it’s reason to laugh at someone’s mistake, but because of what it reveals of how staggeringly various, unwieldy and evasive language can be. Chinglish should not be a source of embarrassment, but one of pride.

I’m a bit behind on the blog, I’ve currently been braving the winter in Mongolia and have just crossed the Gobi. When I leave the capital Ulaanbaator I’ll be pedaling west through the rest of the country and back into China – into Xinjiang province, and then Kazakhstan.

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Comments (4)

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    As ever, your posts kick ass. I laugh. I learn. I toast you with a manual cat ear.


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    For a doctor you're a bloody good writer!
    Thanks again for another interesting, inspiring and humorous post…should be a great book when you get around to tieing all these together!


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    Good stuff,safe peddaling.


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    Hi man! I am following you since a lot time ago so today I was wandering around and just decided to post a comment to encourage you on the route and to ask you to keep going!
    Congrats from Spain
    Alejandro –


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