Early Days in Hunan


As any of the old masters worth his salt would probably tell you, a great masterpiece should demonstrate mastery of both light and dark, brightness and shadow.  And the story of a journey is surely no different.  After the bright intensity of climbing the Dragon’s Backbone, the way was about to become just a little colder, a little darker, a little less friendly, a little harder.


On probably the only occasion I have been truly presumptuous on this trip, I set my alarm for 5am so that I could watch a glorious sunrise over the hills to the east.  But it never came.  Overcast and dull. 


Feeling just a little short-changed, I took this as my cue to press on with my journey.  After breakfast, I mustered my pack-porter team and started the short walk down into the village, back to the road.  My hosts were clearly a little upset they didn’t get two nights out of me, and had tried to encourage me to wander the fields and hilltops instead of leaving.  On a beautiful day, I would have done it, but I had itchy feet to be off. 


The reason behind this is that I have always been concerned that at some point the weather is going to turn against me.  If I could minimise my time in the saddle fighting through snow blizzards (if it should come to that), then I would do whatever I could to ensure that. 


It was certainly a colder day and I was wearing a thermal cycling jacket for the first time as I began rolling down the mountain I had spent the previous afternoon crawling up.  Although, I was 25km into the park, I must have covered that distance in 45 mins, free-wheeling most of the way.  I left the park and joined the main road at the junction by the friendly diner, turning north. 


The road was more or less descending with a few uphill stretches but no actual climbs.  It followed alongside another river and overlooked the agricultural land that covered every bit of space on the river floodplain.  I passed small fields which were dotted with little hayricks, neatly bundled up with tops that came to a point like a labourer’s sun-hat.  I looked down and saw 15 or 20 villages knee-deep in the river re-building a stone bridge across a little ford, piling up rocks to form the three or four foundations that would span the distance. 


I had at least 100km to go from that point so really I was pushing on.  However, I did start to notice more of the agriculture through this and the next few days.  The most striking thing is that everything in the fields is done by hand.  It was actually quite grounding for me.  Whenever there was even the hint of complaint in my mind about the task in hand, I would pass another little old lady up to her knees in mud, hacking at something amongst the clods of earth with a blunt looking tool, and I’d say to myself, “Don’t you dare……”. 


Quite quickly I came to the last big town in Guangxi province called Sanjiang.  After a wrong turn or two, I was heading west following the river Cui again.  On the road were dozens of small sawmill businesses.  The whole place smells of sawdust and freshly cut wood.  I pass huge piles of differently shaped planks, stakes and poles.  You name a particular cut of wood, I seen it that afternoon.  The big river is sky blue but doesn’t seem to flow.  There is no river traffic at all.  Pretty soon I understand why.  Occasionally the entire river valley is dammed up with farmland and fields.  The whole valley becomes one big irrigation system, saturating the crops in the paddy fields, only for the river to re-emerge further on.  Of course, any river traffic would get nowhere.  But as a result, this big river seems strangely lifeless and obsolete to me. 


Route 321 finally comes to an abrupt and inauspicious end shortly after its 736th milestone.  I have now come to the boundary into Hunan and I turn north on the new road, Route 209.  Crossing the bridge over the river Cui, the signpost says 42km to Tongdao, my destination.  Looking at my watch I think “no problem”, but this proved to be a little pre-emptive since most of this was uphill. 


Almost immediately, the mood of the road changes.  It starts spitting with rain.  Everything about the landscape feels like a provincial backwater – this is remote.  There are more sawmills as I continue climbing up a steady gradient till I realise I am coming to some kind of pass.  There are cattle roving around freely at the top, meandering carelessly across the road in front of the odd car or bus that passes that way.  I stop at the top and move up a level in my clothing, pulling on another thermal top and a woolly hat under my helmet.  An old man walks past carrying a bundle of logs on his shoulder.  I say hello and he looks at me.  Not a flicker of response in his face.  He just carries on his way.  It’s now cold and I’m getting hungry again.  I eat more of the jellied sweeties I bring along as sugar hits – I swear I’m going to have rotten teeth before this trip is out!


The next few kilometres I watch as Dong villages with their distinctive dark stained wooden boarding appear in front of me, and then fall away behind.  The landscape is filled with individuals bent double at their different tasks in the soil, tilling, chopping, burning, digging.  It all looks very hard work and the land doesn’t look like it gives much back to them in return. 


Occasionally I pass so close to a worker on the road, I feel I should say “ni hao!”  In Guangxi, this was usually met with a friendly grin and a cheerful “ni hao” or “he-rroooo!” in return.  Here, nothing.  Blank.  Even the dogs are unfriendly – on several occasions I have to stand up in the pedals to speed up as a vicious looking mongrel comes tearing out of a driveway onto the road barking and snapping at my heels.  I almost expect to see a blind boy playing a banjo on someone’s front porch – but I guess it hasn’t quite come to that. 


Well, I just push on and on.  I pass some monumental civil engineering works where a new motorway is being built – soon no one will have to pass through this slightly sad little region.  The Dong minority will be exiled to its quiet little backwater and kept hidden in the shadows. 


The last 20km to Tongdao come for free.  Trundling more or less downhill, the road re-joins the river that keeps disappearing underground under rice terraces or even a trout farming operation at one point. 


Having made no plans for staying anywhere I just find my way into the centre of town and stop at a gas station and ask for directions.  This was one of those occasions where I was providentially supplied with a very obliging guide on a scooter again, who led me through the centre of town to the main hotel. 


Tongdao is the definition of nondescript.  Dark little streets, seated astride of the same river, there is nothing really for an outsider to see in this town.  Except …normal life in an average Chinese provincial town, which I suppose is itself of interest. 


I pushed my bike up to the reception desk, behind which were stood “three little maids from school”.  I began with my customary gambit asking for a room, how much it would cost etc. but all I was met with were giggles and blushes.  Whenever I tried to say anything, one of them – I would like to say the most irritating of the three who I will call the Blusher – would wag her finger and shake her head, as if to say “there is no point you even trying to speak because we can’t possibly understand you.”  Quite tired after cycling 130km that day, I found this a little trying.  They at least said they had a room, though it was quite expensive.  And they needed a copy of my visa so I was led off a couple of blocks with the Blusher to make a photocopy.  When I got back to the desk, the other two little maids said in triumph that they had found someone to translate.  They then presented a diminutive little man, probably around 25, wearing a cream jacket, and an old pair of cords, standing blinking like a mole behind his enormously thick glasses. 


“Hello,” I said.  “So you speak English?”  He looked at his feet, let out a little stifled cough, looked up again and said “Aarrr, Yes, Ay-a, speak-a, Ung-lisss.”  “Hmmm,” I thought. “Not sure we’ll go straight to discussing Shakespeare just yet.”  “OK, great.” (Very slowly) “I don’t think I need you, thank you.  I just go to room now.”


This hotel didn’t have a lift and the stairs were through a plastic fly door outside.  I came to these and realised I needed some help pushing the bike up four flights.  The thing weighs about 60 kilos.  Before I’d even thought to ask him, Moley was at my elbow.  “Oh!  Hello.  Can you help me?”


After much sweating and grunting from me at the front end, and possibly the faintest of support from Moley in the rear, we came to my room.  It was only then that I realised Moley was in fact a guest in the neighbouring room.  Thanking him for his help, I unlocked my door.  Opening the door and wheeling the bike inside, I was surprised to turn and find Moley standing there in my room right behind me.


“Errrm…..thank you again for your help.  I would like to just eat and sleep now.”  He looked up at me and went red in the face.  Then he looked at his feet, almost in shame.  “I want to…”

He stood almost gasping for air with embarrassment.  For a moment, I thought he might cry.  “I want to apologise for my velly poor English.”

“There, there my lad.  Could happen to the best of us.  Now be a good chap and be off, would you?  Thank you, thank you.”  This said as I led him by the elbow to the door.  “Xie xie ni!”  More scuffling feet as Moley retreats behind the closing door. 


I’m left shaking my head for a second or two, before stripping and getting under the steaming hot shower that I have needed for about 4 hours. 


When I come out, towel around waist, there is a knock at the door.  I open it.  There is the bespectacled Moley again.  “Can I help you?” I say. 

A beaming grin breaks across his face.  “I know how we can communicate,” he declares triumphantly.  “By computer!”  WHY, of course! The answer was staring us in the face all along.  Why didn’t I think of it?  “Listen, much as I would love to sit half naked and walk through a few early learning phrases with you on Babelfish while my stomach is growling, I really really just want to eat and then sleep.  Understand? Mingbai?”  He looks at me meekly, and then tries to walk past me into the room. 


Oh dear.  OK – new tactic.  I block his path – “buyao, xie xie, bu yao laotianr xie xie!” (“Don’t want thanks (that phrase again!), don’t want to chat thanks) as I push him past the doorframe into the hall.  As the door closed in his face, I was surprised to find not the slightest trace of remorse on my conscience. 


That night I ventured out and had a look around.  The main street was full of busy shops selling smart clothing and electronics, and all the usual high street paraphernalia.  At one end of the street a collection of a dozen or more street-food vendors were set up, with cooking oil fizzing and spluttering away, preparing a colourful spread of fried snacks.  Not brave enough to trust these, I tried to find a half decent canting. 


Eventually an inquisitive shopkeeper asked me where I was from.  After a brief exchange I told him I wanted a good restaurant.  He and his son walked me to one which at least gave me a beer.  The food was pretty poor by comparison with most other places I’d eaten in so far, and hugely overpriced.  I am always a little suspicious that restaurants make up the price when they see me coming, and to be honest, I’d be none the wiser if they did.  Most of the time it’s very cheap and I am getting a good idea of how much everything should cost, but this place definitely over-stepped the mark. 


I was too tired to care much.  I went back to my room.  I tip-toed gently past Moley’s door, half-expecting him to leap out and attack me with his furtive grin. 




I doubt anyone in Tongdao slept sounder than I that night.


Run Out of Town

Quite physically tired after the previous two days’ riding – I had covered 240km in two days, a lot of that uphill – I decided I would try to catch up on some writing.  As Moley had pointed out, there was a computer in my room, and I figured I could finally put some time into sorting out my website which at that point was a mess.  As I went out of the hotel, I told the “three little maids” (who were manning their post again) that I wanted to extend my stay by a day.  They said OK, though my presence seemed to cause the usual flapping. 


I walked down the street a few blocks for breakfast until I came to the familiar sight of a cylindrical tower of steaming dumpling baskets.  The smell of chillies and tea burst onto the street.  Within seconds, the gravelly-voiced owner of the place had sat me down at one of his tatty-looking Formica tables, amongst an odd collection of other men – businessmen, tradesmen, surly-looking teenagers  - evidently I had come to a popular place for a morning feed.  The baozi (dumplings) were exceptional.  He then served me up a bowlful of chillied noodles with a fried egg on top which were just as good.  All for 4 kuai – 40p.  I could see why he did a good trade.  From my little table I watched the townspeople walking briskly in the cold morning air to work. 


“There may not be much to this place, but I couldn’t be much more immersed in China than here,” I thought to myself.  I walked back to the hotel with a bit of a spring in my step, thinking “OK, it’s not Guilin for beauty, but here am I, getting on with it…….coping”.   (More or less).


As I sat down at my table, turned on my computer, stretched out my hands and metaphorically cracked my knuckles ready to type – a knock at the door.  Oh, not again….


Expecting to see my neighbour, instead I am met by the Blusher – in civilian garb.  She blushes.  Then speaks.  “You need to come with me.” 

“Do I? Where to?”

“You need to come to see police.” 

“Why? Is there a problem?”

“Yes.  There is problem. Yes,” she says, grinning, and blushing.  “Please bring your passport.” She is speaking in English.  At this point, I notice she has a crib-sheet in one hand.  She has written out a whole page- full of dialogue in Chinese characters with English translations underneath each line.


We trot along, down the stairs and out along a street or two, round a couple of corners and then cut through a restaurant onto another street, till we come to an unimposing looking building.  This is the police-station.  She leads me into a simple looking secretary’s office with white-washed walls and a double-post desk filling up the middle of the room.  A small man in an ill-fitting dark blue uniform enters the room from another office that joins from the side.  He looks about 45 with a round friendly looking face. 


He smiles at me and says hello.  Then asks for my passport.  I give it to him and he makes a photocopy, and then walks into his office and returns carrying a book.  He starts talking and the Blusher translates from her crib sheet.  “This is a closed area.  Tongdao is a closed area.  You cannot stay here.  You must leave now.”


“A closed area?  What do you mean?”  The policeman then passes me the book on an open page.  It seems to be some kind of statute book.  He points at the page - Article 37: “Aliens are not allowed to remain in closed areas without permission.” – the translation was there in English.  Then he starts saying (I can more or less follow him) “Tongdao is closed, you must leave today.”

“Can I get permission to stay from you?”


“You must leave today,” says the Blusher smiling.

“OK – I’ll leave.” Then in Mandarin to the policeman, “I am going north.  I want to go to Fenghuang.”

“No, Fenghuang is closed.”

“What about Huaihua?”

“Huaihua is closed.  Everywhere north is closed.  Guilin. Guilin is open. You can go there.”

“But I just came from Guilin.  Everywhere north is closed?”

“Yes.  Go to Guilin.  That is open.  Good for tourists.”

It’s at this point, I realise it was better to pretend I didn’t understand too much.

“So I cannot stay in Tongdao until tomorrow?”

“No,” says the Blusher, “you must leave today.  You understand?”

“Today?  OK.  I leave today.”  I turn again to the policeman.  “OK,” I smile, “I am sorry – I leave Tongdao today.  I understand”


He grinned at me.  She grinned at me.  We all grinned at each other.  We understood each other very well. 


Back in my room, I consider my options.  It is already 11 o’clock so wherever I go today it won’t be far.  I’d never heard anything about this being a closed area.  The thought of going back towards Guilin sickened me.  To me that meant failure.  I might as well go back to Hong Kong as Guilin.  I got out the map.  Could I do a detour to the east or the west?  There was nothing obvious.  To get anywhere near Xi’an I needed to go north on this road.  Anything else meant literally 1,000km detours.  My inclination was to continue north and just play the stupid foreigner if challenged – not a role that required the suspension of much disbelief.  I would avoid state hotels like this one where they ask for your visa and just ask for rooms in smaller towns.


I did want to know more about this closed area though so I phoned a friend.  My “fixer” in China is my good buddy John O’Loghlen, who has made his home in Beijing for the last 6 or more years.  He quickly put me on to a journalist friend of his whom he said was better informed about this sort of thing. 


We had an interesting discussion.  His immediate response was that the policeman was talking absolute nonsense.  The statute book he’d shown me is probably 20 years old and certainly out of date.  And there was no such thing as a closed area in this part of China.  In fact there are very few remaining in China at all – at least not in the sense that there used to be.  Tibet still requires a special government approval or pass to enter in as a tourist, but everywhere else in China is more or less open for a foreigner to visit.  He double-checked some resource he had and said that he could see the area I was in was a minority area.  He said that these could be sensitive sometimes, particularly if the local minority has caused any trouble recently as they sometimes do.  And perhaps this particular officer didn’t like the idea of a foreigner appearing out of nowhere and hanging around too long in his little fiefdom.  He said it was unlikely that the officer would follow it up so long as I just left town anyway. 


He gave me some advice about staying under the radar, at least in towns.  Obviously on the road I was about as difficult to find as a haystack in a stack of needles.  Apparently in days gone by when foreign correspondents were not supposed to leave the city-limits of Beijing, they would travel by third class transport and when they arrived in a place they would look for the local “Sauna”.  These establishments often have pink neon lighting above the entrance (funnily enough I’d noticed one as I cycled into Tongdao) and usually have three levels.  The ground floor is a bar and lounge area.  On the second floor, you can pay to have a massage.  And if you go up to the third floor, you will find a brothel.  (Reminds me of a joke I once knew.)  Anyway, he said, on the second floor you could hire the room in which you get a massage for a few hours in the night, have a night’s sleep and move on the next day, no questions asked.  Of course, you don’t have to sleep with the girls if you don’t want to.  (Very nice of him to let me off, I thought, being more St Francis than Sir Flashman these days.)


Perhaps George MacDonald Fraser once reported from Beijing, I don’t know off the top of my head, but this wheeze certainly appears in Flash for Freedom and Flashman and the Redskins and for just that reason – to keep a low profile.  It was certainly an idea.  They wouldn’t check my passport there.  The only problem I could see was that it’s one thing turning up with a small rucksack and getting a massage and a few hours’ kip.  Quite another with a bike and the amount of clutter I carried with me.  I thought I’d hold this idea in reserve.


My preference was to find private rooms for rent or very small and cheap hotels where they often didn’t bother looking at your passport and checking the number.  And I did have my tent just in case.


The main point was that I was perfectly within my rights to be there and everywhere I intended to go to the north.  So if ever I was challenged, my new friend offered to bring the full force of the international media behind me so that I could go exactly where I needed to – and this was more than enough reassurance to confirm my decision to carry on.


So within the hour I was pushing along into a cold northerly headwind back alongside the river.  I wanted to get 80km north to a town called Jingshou.  The same slightly hostile feeling was there as I rode through these communities.  This was mentally quite a tough ride.  I felt very much an alien in the land.  I had to put on more clothes.  The landscape was bland for the first time in a long while and the road was often in poor condition.  Again the question started to creep into my mind – was it going to be like this all the way to Xi’an now.  If so, it wasn’t going to be pleasant.  I’ve sat through some utterly miserable experiences with the weather in my rowing days, in those bitter winter months on the Fens in England when your hands are so cold they’ve turned purple, and the oar is breaking ice every time you drop it in for another stroke.  So far, this didn’t even come close to that.  But I could only imagine it would get worse.  (Happily, I was quite wrong about that though I couldn’t have guessed that just then.)


With no friendly faces and not many shop fronts or restaurants, I just gritted my teeth and carried on until I climbed up on some kind of plateau or wide open valley.  These really were purely agricultural communities by now.


Well before dark, I rolled into the muddy little town of Jingshou.  If I ever write a book about 1,000 Places Not to Visit Before You Die, this would be second only to Minsk on my current rating list.  I will say very little about it other than I found a hotel with a room at my second time of asking, in which the desk was manned by three children and their mother.  I quickly won them onside by handing over more or less a full packet of Oreo’s which they set to with a will.  And nothing was mentioned about the delicacy of my passport, where I was from or where I was going, which suited me admirably. 


Setting the air-con to roasting hot, I went to bed early resolving to get up at the crack of dawn and put as much distance between me and south Hunan as I could.  I had another long ride ahead of me in the morning.

Comments (1)

Said this on 9-1-2011 At 08:31 am

Theo...first let me start by saying your journey is starting to resemble, "The Pilgrims Progress." :-) Now to a slim picking of encouragement ... "No pain, no balm; no thorns, no throne; no gall, no glory; no cross, no crown." and.. "The LORD God is (your) strength; He will make (your) feet like deer's feet, and He will make (you) walk on (your) high hills." Habakkuk 3:19 <>< God help you <><

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