Guangdong - Days 2 - 6


Day 2 – Day 3: Zhaoqing

Setting out in reasonable time from Jiangmen, I discovered that this was a much bigger city than it had seemed as I rode into it the night before.  It was a hot and dusty morning on the route I had chosen, which crossed the Pearl River and then turned north through the heart of the city.  I bowled along pretty quickly and made good progress for most of the middle of the day.   I was aiming for a city on the Pearl River called Zhaoqing which according to my map (and the internet) was only 108km.  I seemed to be making good headway up till lunch though when I rested I realised the heat was taking more out of me than I’d supposed in the morning.  I still hadn’t got round to buying suncream and my left calf was getting pretty badly burnt again.  My lunch was not very substantial – and it turned out – completely inadequate for the energy levels I needed to finish the day. 


With at least 40km still to go, my energy levels were so low, despite having some cycling sugar snacks (like eating wallpaper paste at the best of times), that I could feel my body deteriorating – “bonking” as it’s known in the trade.  Although I was certainly very tired I was sure I could make it before dark and I stuck to my planned route which took me on a more rural road for the final 30km or so towards Zhaoqing.  Whether this was a mistake or not, this did show me some very different landscape to anything I’d yet seen.  Extremely rural, the road was quite basic, made of concrete, set on a dyke that was elevated above undulating paddy fields on either side.  Set back from the fields, the ground rose to two ridges, lined with woodland.  The evening sun was beautiful as it lit up the soft array of green colour that filled the landscape.  Unfortunately this was more or less lost on me since I was feeling increasingly spent.  I just wanted to get there.  As I asked each succeeding collection of villagers how far it was to Zhaoqing and they would always respond with a distance that was at least 20km further than I had estimated.


I quickly learned that using what I took to be precise pronunciation when asking directions, “Dao Zhaoqing”, (pronounced "Jow-ching") was met with bemused looks and blank faces.  But when I barked out the words with a couple of syllables that bore only the vaguest resemblance to the way I thought they should be said, I would be met with a beaming grin and an encouraging wave of the hand in the direction I was headed.  This was my first lesson in provincial Mandarin.


Eventually I rolled exhausted into Zhaoqing - a bustling city of 4 million odd souls - shortly after the sun had gone down.  Doing my best to avoid getting run over by the impatient lorries in the final furlongs of my ride, the main drag in Zhaoqing seemed like a sweet haven after my race against the sunset that was like something out of a Gothic horror novel.  I found the hotel easily enough.  It was pretty basic but adequate.  I started to feel better when I was standing under a hot shower.


The natural result of having pushed myself beyond my physical limits was that I needed to feed myself  immediately. Instead, I became pre-occupied with trying to contact Christian to let him know that I had arrived safely with little or no mobile coverage.  The receptionist said I could try to make a call from their desk so I made my way down to the lobby.  On the way, my body went into a very unusual form of hypo-glycaemic(sp?) “episode”.  So much so that as I approached the desk, I couldn’t so much as ask them a question.  Instead I just drew up a chair and leant my head against the cool marble stone of their desk and began sweating profusely.  I’m not sure that this was the surest way of convincing these Chinese people that we guailo’s (“foreign devils”) are anything other than their clear inferiors. 


Nevertheless, I did manage to convey Christian’s phone number to the receptionist and she dialled it and then after a moment or two gave me the phone in one hand whilst I clasped my head with the other.  All I could manage was to gasp out the words, “hello – hello – hello…”.  This was into his voicemail.  When, eventually a little later, we did speak, Christian said to me, “Theo, you silly idiot, what the hell have you done to yourself?”  Well, quite.


I managed to gurn down a few indifferent dumplings which the hotel management produced from somewhere, and a bottle of coke.  Although I hardly felt well, it seemed that the worst was past.  I went to bed shattered, but had a terrible night’s sleep with repeated cramps in my legs which would awaken me with a stab of pain, a throbbing headache from dehydration and an absurdly hard mattress. 


I awoke in the grey morning and opened the curtains.  Thick, heavy, impenetrable downpour.  My spirits plummetted.  This was a real low.  In fact, it was THE low of the trip so far.  How was I going to make it to Xi’an if the weather was going to be like this all the way?  Perhaps I had left my departure date too late and winter was already moving in?  It was quite distressing to be so demoralised and in such a physical wreck after only two days.  One thing was clear – I wasn’t going to be doing any cycling that day.


Instead I got up and had a little walk around town.  The hotel stood before a big open public square which was situated in front of a lake.  A mountain rose up from the far shore and there were old people and visitors walking around its edges.  I took a turn along the footpath but even that felt beyond me.  I ate as much as I could during the day, but my appetite had completely left me and I hadn’t yet figured out how to find decent restaurants or indeed order enjoyable food.  I did manage to set up a Chinese mobile phone for myself which was a positive step and by the end of the day I was feeling ready to move on in the morning.


Days 4 & 5 – Deqing & Wuzhou

Taking it very easy and trying to shake off the despondent thoughts of the day before, I set out gently along Route 321 which follows the course of the Pearl River upstream to the west.  I’d gathered together quite a collection of provisions to ensure the same wouldn’t happen again.  I only had 80km to do so I could take my time.  It was a warm day – sunny but not too hot – and I was following the dual carriageway, taking care to stay well out of the way of the noisy trucks that tear past with apparent abandon blaring their horns. 


The Pearl River is an impressive sight.  At least 400m across at that point, it was filled with an armada of broad-bellied cargo boats of many shapes and sizes ploughing up and down to the various trading towns along its length.  Quite a display of bustling commerce.  The road was relatively easy-going – the gradient was never too much and I made good progress, passing little towns and rice fields along the way. 


I arrived in Deqing (“Dur-ching”) in good time around 4pm and found my hotel (the only one in town) immediately.  Deqing is much smaller than either Zhaoqing or Wuzhou and was really only a waypoint en route.  So I didn’t venture out from the hotel.  I still needed a bit of rest, and just ordered food from the restaurant in the hotel. 


This duly arrived, delivered by two giggling ladies, who were amused (but perhaps none the wiser) at my mangled Mandarin.  It became clear that the “point and shoot” approach to ordering from the menu was evidently best dropped as soon as possible – a great encouragement to learn more vocab.  On this occasion it produced the ubiquitous “green vegetables” (lu-se shu cai) which look extremely unappealing but are so smothered in garlic and MSG that they actually taste rather good.  These were accompanied by a dessert that looked like solidified gelatinous soap (and didn’t taste too dissimilar to that either).  Anyway, it all got ate.


During this fabulous refreshment,  I managed to have a conversation with my mother who now had my Chinese mobile number (the miracles of skype!).  It was good to speak with her.  Still quite tired, I fell asleep on my bed listening to an audiobook recording of A Tale of Two Cities, read by one Frederick Davidson.  I will say more about this book in another section of this website: “Thoughts From the Road”.  Solid as Dickens’ prose may be, this gentleman’s solemn and sonorous tones were obviously not entirely conducive to sleep, and I awoke fully clothed around midnight, dreary headed.  As I put myself to bed, I was amused to notice that during those few hours I had had not one, not two but no less than six “calling cards” of certain “ladies of the night” (as Dickens might call them) thrust under my door.  I was not aware that Deqing was renowned for the beauty of its fairer sex, and the pictures on these cards did nothing to persuade me otherwise.  Certainly I am willing enough to contribute to the local economies of the towns through which I pass, but perhaps in other ways to those suggested.


I began thinking about the scale of the task ahead.  I reflected on the pitifully small indent I had made on the map that day, and the great distances I had yet to cover.  My head started to spin and I became a little overwhelmed.   Was I really up to this?  Not only physically, but emotionally.  I  managed to reel back in my imagination and had to discipline myself to focus only on the next day.  Achieving the distance I set myself each day, reaching my daily destination.  This could only be done one day at a time.  Patience as well as endurance would be required. 


The following day was very similar landscape as I continued to follow the Pearl River valley.  I covered the 95km to Wuzhou quickly, bowling along around 23 or 24kph – this with around 25-30kg of kit on board.  As I approached that city, the sides of the valley rose up higher, and the river seemed to cut deeper and begin to narrow.   Very occasionally, one could see a multi-tiered pagoda set high on the ridge crest towering over the landscape.  There was no doubt this was China. 


I rolled into Wuzhou in the mid-afternoon.  Although I had a hotel booking I wasn’t very sure (or worried) about exactly where it was to be found.  Pretty quickly I got lost and was just wondering how best to ask someone for directions to my hotel, when I heard the toot of a horn behind me and a man on a scooter gestured for me to pull over.  Through a combination of sign language and some pigeon Mandarin we managed to establish that (i) he admired my bike, and (ii) he was offering to call my hotel to find out exactly where they were.  Once he’d figured that out, he set off on his scooter with me in tow behind him.  He led me off into the city centre past bustling shop fronts, greasy looking mechanic stores and fruit stalls, across little canals and along leafy avenues.  My sense of direction is normally pretty good, and I soon had the impression he was leading me in a big circle. 


Which indeed he was.  For a minute or two, I lost sight of my leader, only for him to reappear, this time on a bicycle.  His chance to ride through town with me on a bike apparently delighted him and for him, this was irresistable.  I hadn’t quite gathered this much from our conversation.  So he led me back almost to the first building of the first street I had entered when I arrived in town.  No sooner had we got there, than he bade me farewell, and disappeared again into the heavy traffic.  I blinked after him dumbly.  Extraordinary episode.  It felt almost as if he’d been dumped there solely for the purpose of leading me to my hotel.  This was the first, but not the last time that something like this has happened on this trip to help me out.  All I could do was mutter my thanks upwards to “Him what provides”, as I walked into the hotel smiling.


It was a beautiful hazy October evening, and the sun was falling into a warm orange glow.  Running along the top of the levee is a sort of concrete rampart, along which old people were strolling in the fading sunlight, and young people were jogging or walking along holding hands.  I went for a wander to the west and then dropped down onto the street level below, where a market stretched along the inside of the rampart wall.  The stalls were filled with all sorts of ordinary looking stuff for the townsfolk, but it was the first time I had noticed proper Chinese tea shops.  These are crammed with tea of every conceivable leaf and flavour, spilling out into the street off their wooden shelves in barrels, sacks, tins and boxes.  The fact that I am so limited on carriage space makes decision-making at markets wherever I’ve been very easy.  Simply, I buy nothing.  I just enjoy looking at what’s on offer instead. 


I ended the evening having a delicious open-air dinner in one of the outdoor restaurants near the wall, listening to Dickens’ Tale enfold in my imagination.


Up and Over into Guangxi - Day 6

This was the day I would be leaving the river valley and heading north for the first time.  This felt like progress.  Although I had no fixed destination I had an idea of where I wanted to reach before the day was out.  Almost immediately upon leaving Wuzhou, Route 321 (which I was to follow to its conclusion nearly 600km later) began to head up into more hilly country.  Outside of the town, the road surface deteriorated quite rapidly into broken up fragments of asphalt and concrete.  So much so that I began to wonder whether I was really on the right road.


I soon reached a toll gate where I confirmed that I was indeed going in the right direction.  From this point onwards, the road really began to climb in earnest.  Winding up through the red earth and wooded slopes of the landscape, up and up it climbed and my speed was reduced to barely walking pace.  With no respite in sight, I began to be swamped with negative thoughts about the past, my failures and disappointments.  How could it be that here I found myself alone and toiling up these mountains in the middle of China?  What is it in me that seems to reject everything good that comes to me and brings me to this place of isolation?  Where could I have been if had made different choices for myself?  Where should I have been?


These questions were not so much despairing as irritating.  Like flies buzzing around my head, they could easily keep up with me as my progress slowed with the uphill going.  This was, thankfully, the last time I have been troubled by such thoughts.  But as much as my mental uphill struggles tried to drag me down, the physical challenges of the climbing I found exhilarating.  Although there were sections of up and down all through the day, there were two substantial climbs, both a little more than hour each.  At the top of each crest I could look back at the folds of ridges falling away to the south, to the great gulley where I knew the Pearl River lay, just out of sight.  It was a beautiful sight.  I didn’t realise it at the time but I was actually crossing over the watershed from Guangdong province into Guangxi province. 


By late afternoon, I knew I was nowhere near where I hoped to reach.  This was a small town called Taiping – where once the Taiping Rebellion was centred.  The Taiping Rebellion was a widespread civil war in southern China from 1850 to 1864, led by a heterodox Christian convert Hong Xiuquan, against the ruling Qing Dynasty. About 20 million people died, mainly civilians, in one of the deadliest military conflicts in history.  (If you are interested, you can read more about this here.)  The Flashman purists reading this may recall the characters of the American F.T. Ward and "Chinese" Gordon who cross Flashy's path in Flashman and the Dragon.  Both of these men were instrumental figures in eventually defeating the rebellion with the so-called "Ever Victorious Army".


Anyway, I began looking about for possible spots to pitch my tent (if it came to that) but after the first couple of bends after the second pass I caught sight of a little town nestled in the valley, no more than 10km away.  I breathed a sigh of relief as I was sure I could find a room for the night there.


Whizzing downhill at speed, I drew up on the edge of town within minutes.  The edge of town was formed by an odd jumble of agricultural buildings – silos, barns, conveyer tracks, threshing floors and concrete pads.  The staple crop seemed to be some form of spicy seed pod.  It smelt like liquorice though I have no idea whether that’s what it was.   But it was obvious the next day that this was the main crop for the whole surrounding area.


I approached a likely looking bunch of lads and asked them in my smartest Mando whether I would find a room (“fangjian”) or hotel (“binguan”) in town.  I was met with a crowd of toothy grins and loud guffaws as they vied to send me off in different directions.  I went into town, was sent back out, was told to try my luck in the next town which was 8km away, said one, or 25km said another.  Eventually the most wizened and smallest of the original bunch took pity on me and beckoned for me to follow him into town on his motorbike. 


As we went further into the heart of the town, we followed the grimy, dusty and muddy street passed the detritus of busy market life – litter, old fruit peels, animal dung, rotting vegetables strewn in the gutter, and of course that indefinable grey sludge common to all Chinese towns that seems to seep out of the refuse section behind restaurants.  God only knows what it is, but I have no great desire to find out for myself.


Truly the Chinese have much to teach us all about gawping.  I’m sure it is a lost art in England.  There is that moment when the old person or little child catches sight of the over-sized hairy guailo, bearing down on them with his over-laden bicycle, dripping with sweat and with curious electronic wires dangling from the oddest looking hat they’ve ever seen: their limbs freeze, not a movement more, their jaw falls open and their tongue lolls ever so slightly out of their gaping mouth, and whatever thought occupied their minds before is thrust out by the intrusion of a new singular and explosive thought, which must translate roughly as “What on earth?!!!” (or something ruder - I have yet to learn the actual phrase in Mandarin.) 


It turned out to be a perfectly good room – very cheap and comfortable enough – and the town was certainly one of the more truly authentic moments of seeing China off the beaten track.  They gave me a good feed and I felt happy.   I chuckled to myself that my journey had brought me to this curious little town.


Back in my room, I fell asleep at the infantile time of 7.30pm.

Comments (2)

Said this on 11-11-2010 At 04:41 pm
So wonderful to read, Theo!  Thanks for sharing your amazing adventure.  I look forward to reading more.
If you ever wake up feeling discouraged, read this prayer out loud ~ it's really great!
St. Patrick's Breastplate Prayer
I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through a belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
Of the Creator of creation.

I arise today
Through the strength of Christ's birth and His baptism,
Through the strength of His crucifixion and His burial,
Through the strength of His resurrection and His ascension,
Through the strength of His descent for the judgment of doom.

I arise today
Through the strength of the love of cherubim,
In obedience of angels,
In service of archangels,
In the hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In the prayers of patriarchs,
In preachings of the apostles,
In faiths of confessors,
In innocence of virgins,
In deeds of righteous ones.

I arise today
Through the strength of Heaven;
Light of the sun,
Splendour of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of the wind,
Depth of the sea,
Stability of the earth,
Firmness of the rock.

I arise today
Through G-d's strength to pilot me;
God's might to uphold me,
God's wisdom to guide me,
God's eye to look before me,
God's ear to hear me,
God's word to speak for me,
God's hand to guard me,
God's way to lie before me,
God's shield to protect me,
God's hosts to save me
From snares of the devil,
From temptations of vices,
From everyone who desires me ill
Afar and anear,
Alone or in a mulititude.

I summon today all these powers between me and evil,
Against every cruel merciless power that opposes my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Agains black laws of pagandom,
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man's body and soul.
Christ shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that reward may come to me in abundance.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when i lie down, Christ when i sit down,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through a belief in the Threeness,
Through a confession of the the Oneness
Of the Creator of creation.
Said this on 1-13-2012 At 10:13 am

What a great prayer! I love that prayer!!

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