Thursday, October 1, 2009

Sept 21 - 23: We love China! (Datong to Dabu)

Leaving Datong we were in for a beautiful ride . We knew the scenery would be great, at least until the Hanging Monastery, but after a month and a half in traffic-less rural Mongolia we were anticipating some problems with Chinese traffic. Turns out we had nothing to worry about - the first day gave us our first glimpse of the amazing infrastructure in China. Except for one small section of dirt road on the edge of town, all the roads we were on were beautiful asphalt, most of the time with huge shoulders lined with trees and people selling fruit by the side of the road. Every truck or car that passed seemed to slow down and move half the way across the wide road for us, even when we were many meters away from them on the shoulder.

The day's scenery was also amazing, but really emphasized how different this new country was from the Mongolia we had become so familiar with. Mongolia is so beautiful because of it's wide open unspoiled raw and natural beauty. This area of China is very beautiful, but you definitely couldn't call it raw and unspoiled. Its beauty is a man-made kind, or at least a man-nature joint venture. It's the terraced mountains and the gorges with mud-brick houses carved out of the walls. This makes perfect sense given the fact that China is one of the world's most densely populated countries (at least in this area of it) while Mongolia is one of the least, but it still is quite remarkable how well manicured all of nature here seems to be.

It was also fun after two months biking just the two of us to have some company.... with the five of us (us + Vianney, Morgan and Hugo) we looked alot more like a biking team than just a couple of honeymooners on bikes

The destination of our first day was the Hanging Monastery outside of Huanying. Because of being denied access to the Caves in Datong, this was our first experience of the (relative) expensiveness of Chinese tourist sights. Compared to food, which is averaging about $3/meal for BOTH Mike and I to eat until we're very full, and the max $15/night we are paying for what would be $80 hotels in Canada, paying a minimum $10 each time you see a cave or building or garden is pretty steep. Given that it's the only thing locals don't have to also buy for themselves, it makes sense... That said, the four hungry men I was travelling with at the time could still not help comparing the total 240 Yuan we paid for our 20 minute round-about to the 30+ large bowls of spicy noodle soup it could have bought...

The monastery itself was quite impressive, perched way up the mountain (word is that they kept on moving it up to keep it above the floods, but we think it was just done so the monks could get onto "MTV Cribs"). It is also quite tiny, we wondered how many monks actually lived there in its heyday, as it is only as deep as the buildings itself, there is no additional space carved out of the mountain at all...

This is how it was held up, looks like mud maybe?

Jen doing her best scary statue impression...

The next day was another great ride into the city of Guanling. Other than the great roads and scenery, I have to finally mention something else that continued into our second day biking. As noted in the previous post, we got a bit of gawking at Datong.... more than in Mongolia, but nothing totally outrageous. After one day in rural China, we learned what it felt like to be international superstars or something... The previous day when we stopped for lunch, a crowd gathered and our meal was followed by 15 minutes of picture taking - me with the women, Mike with the men, both of us with all of them, the French guys with the Chinese guys pointing to their beards and a variety of other combinations.

This guys really wanted to have his picture taken with Mike.

The crowd that had gathered outside the restaurant to watch us eat.

This did not turn out to be specific to one town. The next day when we stopped for lunch on our way to Guanling, we were absolutely crowded by what seemed like half the small town. They watched us order, watched us eat, talked with me and giggled at my mispronunciations, and of course, took pictures.... The food was amazing, this time we knew to make sure there were no chicken heads or feet in anything, and all five of us ate until we were stuffed for 43 yuan (about $7 CAD). When we tried to pay 50 yuan, the owner wouldn't let us - matter of fact, she only let us pay 40 yuan, even less than the already very cheap full price. After lunch, we had another photography and bike inspection before taking off, only to be followed by a couple of helpful fellows on motorcycles who wanted to escort us through the tunnel just outside of town, in case we didn't have lights of our own.

Us checking into a hotel and attracting a crowd..

Yet another crowd as we head into lunch...

The pic below is the one the restaurant owner wanted us to mail to her.

The third day of cycling was a little less scenic. The rolling terraced hills and mountains were replaced by some corn and sunflower fields, but mostly coal fields. Though we felt a little burn in the lungs the days before, it was inescapable by the third day. From the little time that we have spent in China so far, it is clear that they use alot of coal. We see more coal trucks on the road than any other type of vehicle, and the piles of coal such as the one below are in every field, home and business.

The lack of any empty natural space also made the prospect of camping less than interesting, so we were determined to find a hotel. Unfortunately, each town we passed said there was no place to stay, but that there were in the next village. So we kept continuing on, even though the places to stay in the next village were always not allowed to have foreigners stay with them, either. In China, especially the rural areas even right outside Beijing, there are alot of hotels for locals only. This became more and more of a problem as the sun started to set.... By the time we reached a house/store the edge of a small town called Dabu we were all tired and getting sick of being turned away so many times (albeit in a very friendly and sympathetic way), that I resorted to shameless begging. The nice thing about begging in another language is that the clumsy questions and requests definitely come off a little cuter - you could see they were amused. The downside is, it's still begging. But the family took it very well and, after first suggesting we camp out front of their house literally on the side of the highway, they warmed up and let us stay in the big dining room in the younger couple's house out back, complete with a locked-up courtyard to leave our bikes.

Us in our "hotel room" for the night. Although it may not look luxurious, we were really happy to have it!

Once they realized we weren't crazies they were super kind and welcoming, just like everyone else we'd met so far. They cooked supper for us and the young couple that slept in the bedroom right next to our dining room campsite gave us gifts of homemade good luck ornaments, an old Chinese coin and medallion they had, along with a picture of the two of them. We left the next morning having hid a thank-you note with some cash out back to avoid the standard argument over not letting us pay.... We felt a little sheepish at the cash instead of something a little less tacky, but we don't carry much extra with us on our bikes and we hoped that the note we left explained that well enough.

The group posing with the gifts they gave us.

All in all, our first impressions of biking in rural China are awesome - we love almost all of it. The pollution is the only downside, and considering it should be much better where we're biking next in the southwest of China, the short one- or two-week dose of it is more than made up for by the incredibly friendly people so far.

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