A little detour

Posts from July 2014

A little detour

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Since leaving China I’ve sat with my cat and a bad cold by the fire at home in Paihia, been reminded of what a New Zealand winter feels like (urgh!), caught up with friends (usually over some kind of chocolate item), flown to Vanuatu, been ziplining over an 80 metre canyon (definitely some peer pressure involved there), snorkeled among florescent blue fish and seen my beautiful big sister get married to a wonderful man.

I have also, just when I’d stopped looking, been offered a job. A pretty awesome job in fact, a short term contract with an organisation that I’ve dreamed of working for for quite some time.

So, like all of my plans, the cycling one is being modified. I’ve decided to think of the China leg as a warm up for the big journey to come.

Anyway, there’s nothing like a little 3 month detour to Wellington in between the Tibetan Plateau and Kazakhstan, right?

Erakor

Comments

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    Kayleen Zalazar

    Thanks for sharing! http://www.trackbanger.com - posted on December 12, 2014

    rbphoto

    Hi Pam! China certainly was amazing! I can highly recommend it and can't wait to go back to explore it further. France looks beautiful too, and very cycle friendly from what I gather? Happy cycling! - posted on December 6, 2014

    Pam Rumball

    Great to find you on WOW. I love to bike too, France is my favourite place so far. But China looks amazing. I hope to follow your adventures. Cheers Pam - posted on November 25, 2014

    rbphoto

    Thanks Karim - very glad you enjoyed the blog. Yeah, I was very surprised about the tyre problems. I actually asked for a replacement, given that it was less than a month old, but no success unfortunately. Your trip sounds like a great one. I can't wait to cycle that part of the world. - posted on September 23, 2014

    Karim

    Very interesting blog.(stumbled on it on cgob).I have a question. How on earth do you get 4 punctures in a day? I read you went for the shwalbe mondial so that's why im asking. Cheers PS. I cycled some of the same route as you plan, up to Edinburgh from Tehran(my route went to Italy and round Sicily)in 2007 and i can tell you that you will love this route.feel free to contact me with any questions and i will gladly answer have the longest of discussions on this topic(cycle touring)Happy travelling and fun :) - posted on August 10, 2014

    Aika

    right) - posted on July 28, 2014

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My China

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I didn’t know much about China before I left. The China I had heard about before my trip wasn’t always a good one. I’d heard from a few that it was an interesting place yes, but I’d also heard endless stories about scams, eye-watering pollution, hot crowded cities, unfriendly people, stomach cramping food, human rights abuses… the list goes on.

That certainly wasn’t the China I experienced.

My China was one where middle aged women danced in the streets at dusk.

Dancing1

 

Where I was given endless cups of tea,

tea

And where I went 24 hours without being allowed to pay for one meal.

 

My China was one where the cities were crowded, yes,

xian crowded

But outside of the city, there was plenty of space to go around.

spaces

 

I never want to see ‘dan chow fan’ (egg fried rice), the only meal I could order without any difficulty, again in my life. But otherwise, my China was one where the food was as diverse as it was delicious,

orange cake

sticky rice

bread

Although considerable effort went into avoiding certain things,

Like too much of this,

chilli

Or intestines,

Intestines

Trotters,

Trotters2

Dog,

dog

And, my own, um, creations.

gross creation

 

My China was one where not a day went by without at least one thumbs up as I went by, and more often than not, numerous “Go Go!”

 

My China was one where I met lots of cyclists,

biker on road

with cyclists1

All Chinese and every single one either heading to or returning from Lhasa.

with cyclists2

 

My China was polluted in parts, yes,

pollution2

But most of what I saw,

Thanks, I suppose, to the almost daily rain I experienced,

thunderstorm

Was green,

Long building

Yangshuo

terraces1

With the occasional treat of a beautiful blue sky.

blue sky

 

My China is one where I often sat down for a rest and some morning tea, looking out at views like this,

castle houses

stalls on road

 

Just sitting and thinking.

tents and reflection

epic view 1

rafiki and view

 

My China was one where motorcyclists wore balaclavas,

biker1

Women wore traditional dress,

tradl clothes

And I wore everything I owned.

wrapped up

 

My China was one where I visited countless bike shops,

bike shop

Where both Rafiki and I were, at every single one, welcomed warmly.

bike shop guy

 

My China was one where the roads were often atrocious, but never boring.

One where roads were full of obstacles,

road block

pig

Some more visible,

cows on road

Than others…

cows in tunnel

 

My China was one where there were gates for tools,

tool

One where prayer notes were thrown from windows.

flags on road

 

My China was one where, despite the sneaky police tactics,

police car

The overtaking on blind corners was cringe-worthy,

overtaking

And there were a few accidents to be seen,

accident

But overall, I felt far safer than in cyclist-hating Auckland.

 

My China was one where I got insanely itchy itchy bites, calloused hands and ridiculous tan lines.

Tyre 1

 

My China was one with hills so brutal,

gps climbing

That many a cyclist cheated,

cheaters!

But one with wonderful characters to be met over ever hill,

sewing lady

hotel staff

Around each corner,

Tibetan woman

And every bend of the road.

Group of guys

painter2

 

My China was one with horses,

staring horses

Cows,

cow

Cats,

cat

Massive yaks,

yak big

And fluffy little yaklets,

yaklet1

 

My China was one where I was welcomed into homes,

2 outside house

One where I stayed in some beautiful places.

bright room

But mostly in places with ‘o’clock’ rooms,

under door

Not so clean windows,

window

And places where I learned not to look under the furniture.

bones

 

My China was one of parades,

parade

Temples,

temple

Prayer wheels,

prayer wheeleeeee

And monks.

monastary2

 

My China was one where I learned what switchbacks were,

switchbacks

Over,

And over

And over again.

 

 

My China was one where I stopped often for yak yoghurt,

yog stop

To be eaten with honey bought a cheerful woman in a roadside yurt.

honey

 

My China was one where the roadside was lined with prayer flags,

flags on road2

Waterfalls,

waterfall

Sheep shearing,

shearer

Brick making,

brick place

And yaks, oh wonderful yaks.

yaks and reflection

 

My China was where my bike breaking resulted in being adopted by a Tibetan family in one of the most beautiful places in the world.

Tibetan whanau

 car window

My China was one where even my attempted rebellion, when I tried to sneak onto an expressway, resulted in a wonderful meeting,

policewoman

As well as being allowed on to the most beautiful road. Cheers to that!

cheers

 

My China was one where I climbed mountains by bike,

mountain2

And on foot.

Mountains!

 

My China was one where monks checked out the view along the way,

monk in car

But, given the scenery, who could blame them?

road2

 

My China was often exasperating,

One which occasionally reduced me to tears,

And sometimes drove me crazy.

out of control

 

But mostly my China was fascinating,

Full of incredible people and wonderful experiences.

 

My China, I have to say, was awesome.

Comments

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    rbphoto

    Thanks Val! :) - posted on December 6, 2014

    Val

    Hey Rachel...just love your China! Clever, funny, whimsical....great little read and loved the pics. Val - posted on December 4, 2014

    rbphoto

    Thanks Simone - great to hear you enjoyed it. I would love to go to Tibet - it's definitely on my plan for the near future! Happy cycling and keep in touch if you head to Mongolia and Xinjiang - I'd love to follow your adventures! :) - posted on September 23, 2014

    Simone Gendron

    Hello Rachel, and thank you for this wonderful tribute to China! I have been to both China and Tibet several times, and cannot wait to go back. For me it is a magical place, and the warmth of the people..amazing. ps.. found out about your blog on the WOW website. I've just done small bike trips, but my dream for years has been to bike thru Mongolia and Xinjiang Prov.... one day, it will come! Enjoy the rest of your journey, and thanks for sharing! - posted on September 18, 2014

    James

    Hi Rachel, that's a great post. All the best. I'm enjoying following your travels, and I'm stealing location ideas for my own travel. - posted on July 16, 2014

    Wendy Hopkinson

    Amazing Rachel - thank you for sharing with us !!!! - posted on July 15, 2014

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All part of the adventure

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Ever since the first day cycling when, like an idiot, I let myself get so dehydrated that I blacked out briefly on the side of the road, I’ve tried to convince myself that these unplanned and generally unwanted moments are “all part of the adventure.”

This week, I have to say, has been packed full of such moments.

Like when I arrived in Danba after cycling for 90km, sweaty and muddy, to find that there was no water.

Wet wipe ‘shower’? All part of the adventure.

wet wipes

Or when I set out from no-water Danba to discover this was the ‘road’.

Pushing my bike for 4km in 15cm deep sludge? All part of the adventure.

sludge

Or when I emerge, sludge-covered, onto a nicely sealed road only to find, 2km later, that the road had completely collapsed into the river.

Spending a few hours heaving my bike and bags in alternate trips up a slippery hill through spiky plants? All part of the adventure.

broken road

Or when I tumble back down to the road and cycle for about ten kilometres before being informed that the road is impassable due to a giant landslide.

Waiting at a police checkpoint in the freezing cold for five hours while a digger arrives? All part of the adventure.

police checkpoint

Or when I set off the next morning (after still no water for showering), and ride for an hour before reaching this.

landslide

Pushing bike up and down a rocky hillside goat path? All part of the adventure.

me11

Or when my chain unlatches on a road covered in landslides.

chian broken

Scrambling around the road looking for these tiny pieces while glancing up at the looming, loose rocks? All part of the adventure.

chain pieces

Or when my headlamps battery runs out just as I head into a creepy dark tunnel.

Riding through slimy darkness with freezing water dripping onto my back? All part of the adventure.

tunnel1

Or when I reached a small town and checked into this weird guesthouse set up for tourists,

stupid house

Only to have the police come at night and tell me I can’t stay in this town.

Five phone conversations with an English speaking policewoman who tells me I must go to the nearest big city as foreigners aren’t allowed to stay in small towns? All part of the adventure.

 

Or when I decided that if I’m not allowed to stay in small town guesthouses then I’ll camp instead.

Camping at an altitude of 3500m with a temperature of around 1 degree? All part of the adventure.

campsite

Or when I wake up from my igloo only to discover that in my haste at stealthily hiding my bike in the trees I have managed to snap the derailleur, rendering the bike completely unrideable.

broken bike

Standing on the side of the road in the freezing cold trying to hitch a ride for myself, a broken bike and a pile of bags to the nearest town? All part of the adventure.

roadside2

Or when I ride my vaguely fixed bike with its now five and a half gears for 130km over hills and grasslands, only to have the wind pick up to an insane headwind for my last ten kilometres, slowing my progress to snail pace.

Inching across grasslands with absolutely no shelter from the wind? All part of the adventure.

grasslands

Or when I finally arrive in town that evening, exhausted, to find that there is absolutely no accommodation due to a public holiday.

Sleeping in a windy attic mahjong room with in a bed with unwashed bedding for an exorbitant price? All part of the adventure.

mahjong room

 

Well, at least it’s never boring…

Comments

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    Brita Marti

    Xxxxx - posted on July 8, 2014

    IJnte

    Trust me, you will laugh when you look back on moments like this. Indeed it's part of the adventure and part of your journey. Embrace it and trust that everything will be ok. You rock girl!! Amazing stories and super nice pictures!!! Good luck with cycling to Xi'an! - posted on July 8, 2014

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The value of human interaction

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I looked out my window yesterday morning and groaned. Rain.

I’ve ridden in rain a lot since coming to China, but riding in freezing rain at 3700m is very unappealing. I gazed around at my bright room and considered staying another night, but the idea of descending 2000m was too tempting. I wanted to be able to breathe normally again, to laugh without needing recovery time in between.

Grumpy, I loaded up my bike.

A Chinese-American woman came out to see what I was up to, asking lots of questions about my trip, apparently impressed by my energy. Soon she was joined by the Tibetan woman who owns the guesthouse, my answers translated into Manderin for her by my new friend.

jya d

Feeling less grumpy, I set out in the now thankfully light drizzle, turning to return the waves of the two women standing at the door.

My GPS read 7 degrees but with a strong wind, it felt much colder and despite my two days rest, I made slow progress, the altitude making the incline feel ten times steeper. Within minutes I couldn’t feel my toes and I tried unsuccessfully to wiggle them in an attempt to regain feeling. My double gloved fingers were clumsy, struggling to change gears as I inched over the rolling hills. With gloomy rain clouds up ahead and the knowledge that I had another mountain pass to climb before starting my descent, I felt miserable.

That was when a car pulled over in front of me and a group of people got out. Among them, a woman in a white wedding dress. Certainly not what I had expected to see. We were in the complete middle of nowhere. The only things in sight were yaks, Tibetan script carved into the hillside and the occasional motorbike carrying either a monk or a cowboy. I stopped to congratulate the couple who, it turns out, married a few days ago in Chengdu but had travelled (a full day each way) out here for a newlyweds’ photoshoot. After a few jumping photos of the three of us (them in their elegant outfits and me in my rather less elegant rain gear), I peddled off, leaving them to pose together among the yaks, and feeling much less miserable. How could I not?

couple1

I rolled into the next town and stopped for some fried rice, mainly in an attempt to defrost my toes. The two men running the place found the whole concept of me on a bike both fascinating and hilarious. I told them I’d cycled here from Hong Kong and they gave me a simultaneous thumbs up. Given the giant bowl that my fried rice came in (I had it for breakfast, lunch and dinner), they clearly thought I needed fuel.

With more waves, I pushed on toward to the dreaded pass, which I’d read was cruelly steep. Shortly after, I heard some loud “hello!”s and stopped to greet these three.

three guys

With lots more “hello!”s, I made it up the pass and was even offered a lift four times by one man who clearly couldn’t understand why anyone would actually choose to ride up on a bicycle. The fact that he first saw me as I was on the roadside, bent over my handlebars, gasping for breath, could explain why he found my “Thank you, but I’m happy cycling” response rather unconvincing.

On the way down I met these guys. Far from the severe looking bunch they seem in the photograph, they were very friendly and with gestures they told me that the rest of the way to Danba was downhill. I responded with a grin, indicating that my legs were too wobbly for anything else. As if to prove that last part, I failed to lift my leg over my bike when getting off and promptly fell into a bike/Rachel mess on the road. They all rushed to help me up, got together for a photo and waved merrily to the crazy cyclist-who-can’t-control-her-bike as I set off for more downhill.

4 guysAfter zooming downhill for another ten kilometres, I saw these two. They’re walking to Lhasa. You know, as one does. They said it’ll take them two days to get to Danba, my destination for the day and one I’d reach in less than two hours.

hikers2

After enjoying another hour of brilliant downhill I was just thinking how I wouldn’t ride up to the pass from this side if you paid me. That was when I saw these three, who are doing just that on their way to, yep, Lhasa.

3 cyclists2

I then rode past the most incredible looking villages, where the houses were built like castles, complete with turrets. They also win the prize for the most wavey (I’m an English teacher and I say that’s a word) people, with not just the children but groups of all ages giving me a big wave and a smile as I went past, whether it was from among crops near the road or the top half-built castle-houses.

Near Danba I passed two more hikers, also heading to Lhasa.

hikers1

After a few kilometres of roadworks of a bog-like consistency, I reached Danba and checked in to the first hotel I found. There was no water, so it was a wetwipe ‘shower’ for me. Lovely. In the reception area I met this woman. I was admiring her amazing headdress when some of her friends gathered around. From the gestures and giggling that followed, I gather that a guy across the road wearing a brown shirt rather likes her. Can you blame him?

headress1

I went to bed, not the cleanest I’ve ever been, but far from the grump I was when I got up that morning.

How could anyone remain a grouch when there are so many wonderful humans out there?

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In search of a yak

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I have a thing about yaks. How could you not? They are, clearly, the coolest animal in the world. Something about the scraggly hair (very similar to mine at this point) and the ‘and what do you want?!’ expression. Ever since I started planning this journey I was determined that yaks would feature. So, I set out from Chengdu and headed Southwest, towards the Tibetan Plateau where, as numerous books and blogs promised me, I would find some of these wonderful creatures.

For the first few days the scenery was disappointingly yak-free.

Instead, I saw lots of Chinese cyclists, all heading to Lhasa.
Me with group1

I found a campsite and had my first ‘wild’ camping experience. Terrifying but wonderful. Too tired to attempt to use stove, I settled into my tent for a dinner of peanut butter and lychees. In the morning I set out along the river again,

dam1

and stopped for a steaming bowl of fried rice (with a rather large amount of lard) at the next village, cooked up by the lovely lady on the left. Her and her friend (who was also enjoying some lard-rice) had a wonderful giggle at the sight of their photo.
ladies

With the lard taste still in my mouth, I set off again.
River with flower

Still no yaks, I wound my way up, up and up for hours,
Road winding up

Passing beehives,
beehives

And honey (and Redbull) stands.
redbull

At the top, always fashion conscious, I donned this elegant attire and set off through a 4km tunnel, sharing it with noisy trucks, speeding buses and fumes, lots of fumes.
tunnel

I emerged out the other side to see this,
view1

and I stopped to have a gesture-chat with this guy
farmer5

farmer2

Who had some very nice, albeit non-yak animals.
farmer4

I woke up the next day, certain that today would be the day. Yaks here I come! I left town,
luding

And went through yet more tunnels,
tunnel out of Luding

Past lakes,
reflection lake

Prayer flags,
Flags

And truck washing stations
Truck station

Before eventually reaching Kangding, at 2600m, where I pushed my bike, bum sticking out like a duck, for 500m up a so-steep-cars-can’t-come-up-here path to one of the coolest hostels I’ve ever stayed in. But still no yaks.

The next day I planned to sit around, edit photos, catch up on emails and rest my aching legs.

But then I heard about a hike that starts just behind the hostel. Rest day shmest day… Off I went. Three wrong turns later and I was bushwhacking my way up through wet, spikey plants. Absolutely soaked, after an hour I finally found the official path. Trudging uphill, I had to stop regularly to catch my breath, I mean, to admire the view.
kangding from above

After two hours of steep uphill plodding, I emerged into the grasslands at the top to find some friends from the hostel, who, somewhat reassuringly, had also got ridiculously lost.
Mountains!

It was over 3300m at the top and the only sound was that of the bells around the horses’ necks.
horse3

horses2

No yaks in sight, but it was worth every second of the uphill slog.
mountains with stones

I hobbled into town that afternoon, stocked up on supplies from the last supermarket I’ll see for a few weeks and had my first taste of yak butter tea.

yaktea1

yak tea2

Can’t say I polished off the entire jug…

The next morning I was up at 5 and on the bike by 6.30am. Today was mountain pass day!

It was a steep uphill out of Kangding where my promised ‘view of snowy mountains’ was nowhere to be seen.
view of snowy mountains

I stopped for some fried rice at a cyclist guesthouse, where piles of fluro bags indicated that groups of Chinese cyclists were overnighting before attempting the pass.

cycle guesthose

cycle guesthouse 2

I thought about staying, knowing most cyclists choose to break the climb in two, but the idea of dragging out the uphill riding at altitude over two days was too painful, so I set off into the clouds,
car in clouds

Depositing any rubbish in the bins provided like a ‘well-behaved bicycler’.
well behaved bicycler

The clouds finally cleared to show some more non-yak creatures,
cows in valley

goats

I wound my way up the endless switchbacks, my mouth open in a grimace like one of those scary theme park clowns, sucking air in as I peddled up,
moutnain switchbacks

accompanied by a few other cyclists, whose luggage, or rather lack of it, I gazed at enviously.
cyclist on switchbacks

We were all going at the same snail pace, or we were until I saw some fluro zooming past out of the corner of my eye. He was truck surfing, holding on to the back of a truck and whizzing up the mountain. I’m not going to deny the temptation. It would be easy to find something to hold on to and you’d be at the top within minutes. But no, I was determined to make it there under my own steam, even if it meant inching up at what was now less than 5km an hour.

Those last ten kilometres of high altitude climbing were one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. A powercut at the hostel meant that my phone was turned off, with the last bits of battery life saved for an emergency, so there was no music or podcasts to distract from my screaming lungs. Stopping to drink water left me gasping for breath, my legs were running on empty and the sweat pouring down my face would quickly turn cold whenever the sharp wind blew in my direction.

By 4000m, visibility was back to almost zero, making my yak finding dreams more and more unlikely,
visibility 0

and I had to stop every 500m to get my heart rate back to normal. Well, and to ration out a packet of M&Ms from my handlebar bag.

But then, at about 3pm, 8 hours since leaving Kangding, I turned what felt like my thousandth switchback and there it was!
pass1

The summit! Zhe Duo pass at 4298m!
monk at pass

Soon there was a group of us,
group at top

and, given the near freezing temperature and the icy wind, the others kept pointing at my bare legs in amazement. One guy who’d been pushing his bike up a particularly steep part as I cycled past, arrived a bit later and came up to say “You are very strong!” With my wobbly legs and even wobblier emotions, I felt far from it. We stood around, snacking (there were a lot of snickers bars in sight at the point) and putting on more and more layers.

eating at top

With my legs finally covered, five layers on top and a double-glove combination, I set off down the hill. Within minutes sharp icy rain was flying into my face.

I raced the rain cloud down and soon was off the dark rocky mountain and into the open grasslands. But the real question was: where were the yaks?

I hurtled down at around 50km an hour (sorry Mum!)
downhill with clouds

and suddenly, there they were! Yaks! By the hundreds!
yaks!

Aren’t they gorgeous?!

Ahhh, my life is complete.

I continued downhill in the with a big grin on my face,
me grinning

riding past beautiful houses,houses1

yak farms,
yak farm

stopping often to look back the way I’d come,
truck with mountains

and pulling over to strip off my layers and buy some yak cheese,
yak cheese

before getting back on my bike and rolling down in the glorious sunshine, chewing on the weird tasting cheese, in absolute awe my surroundings.landscape1

landscape2

My beautiful, yak-filled surroundings.

yak landscape1

Arriving in a tiny village an hour later, I was given a room in a Tibetan-style home, where I collapsed into bed, snuggled up under four heavy blankets, pigs snuffling outside my window, and went to sleep with a big smile on my face.

Comments

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    sally wells

    Yay Yaks, Yak cheese and Yak smiling fan..this looks to be such a special part of your journey..Bloody Marvellous..you literally and photographically reached new heights..so enthralled by your efforts :) Sally x - posted on June 28, 2014

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But why?

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“Wow, you must really love cycling!”

Most people assume, upon hearing of my journey, that I am an avid cyclist. Far from it. In fact, I’d say the least important element of my trip is the cycling. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy the physical aspects, the challenge of riding uphill for hours on end, the satisfaction of knowing that I have made my way from X to Y purely by leg power (and Snickers) and the thrill of zooming down a rare perfectly smooth road. I do. But this journey is about more than that.

Since finishing high school I’ve spent a lot of my time overseas. At 18 I flew to Ghana, backpacked around West and East Africa before finding myself in Burundi just as the capital was put under a curfew. I’ve studied politics at a French university and Arabic in Jerusalem, taught English to Masaai in Tanzania, been welcomed into homes in the largest urban slum in Africa, eaten tajine in Morocco and amok in Cambodia. In all of these places and others, despite all the differences of language, culture and religion, I’ve experienced hospitality, generosity and kindness.

A couple of years ago I found myself in New Delhi and somewhat fell into an internship with a human rights organisation. Within a week I knew I was in the right place. Human rights combined all my passions: people, politics, health, research, languages, international affairs. Within a few months there I applied and was accepted for a masters of international law at the University of Edinburgh, knowing that I needed a more solid background if I was to properly understand the field. Being particularly passionate about the rights of refugees and asylum seekers as well as the rights of women, I chose to write my dissertation on sexual violence in refugee camps. Last July, I moved back to New Zealand to do an internship with Amnesty International. In my spare time I volunteered for an organisation that helps refugees settle into life in New Zealand. I was paired with an Iraqi family who are without a doubt, despite all that they’ve been through, the warmest people I’ve met.

When I was diagnosed with a thyroid condition late last year, I spent a few months lying on the couch. Couch time makes for great thinking time. I thought about all the horrible things that I’d read about during my studies, the campaigns that I’d worked on during my time at Amnesty International, the unspeakable things I’d heard from refugees who had fled to a safe but difficult life in New Zealand. All things inflicted by other people.

I thought of how most negative things come from lack of understanding, a fear of the unknown, a fear of the ‘other’. And I thought that maybe, if people know a little more about each other, then perhaps the world would be a more tolerant place.

So I decided to cycle across the world, to see things for myself of course, but also to show things to others. I want to share with you the warmth that I feel when someone laughs with me at my pitiful attempts at Mandarin when I stop at a roadside peach stall or grins and gives me the thumbs up as I inch uphill over potholes. I want to show you that the woman I meet while sheltering out of thunderstorm wants the best for her children, just like the mothers I know. I want to share with you what it feels like when the owner of a roadside foodstand pushes my hand away as I try pay for my $1 meal. I want to show you that it’s not ‘brave’ of me to travel alone because people, on the whole, are good.

So, that’s why I’m here, with calloused hands and horrendous tan lines, cycling from Hong Kong to Scotland.

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Chengdu Fine Dining

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You’re hungry. You cycled 90km today and the last few hours involved peddling your way through city madness in a furnace-like heat. It’s nearly 6pm and you haven’t eaten since you stopped for some fried rice mid-morning. Once you reached the hostel you were distracted by exciting things: a washing machine, a shower, other foreigners. But now, as you walk towards the supermarket, you suddenly realise that you could easily eat an entire yak, something you may well do in the coming weeks. Going to a proper supermarket for the first time in weeks is dangerous enough on its own, but going with this kind of hunger, well, that would be bank-breaking trouser button-popping insanity.

So you turn down a little alleyway. It looks promisingly busy. There must be food. There is. Well, kind of. Stall after stall of meat, suspended in the air by sharp hooks.

Meat1

Wondering why you turned you back on vegetarianism, you press on. The hanging slabs of fatty meat are replaced by buckets. The buckets splash. Or rather, the huge fish crammed inside splash. The turtles are less aggressive, paddling every so often in their little plastic world. The stall owner grins as you peer into the next bucket, intrigued by the slim, slime-green snakes.

Eventually, you reach a t-junction and you turn right. You walk past shoe shops, repair stalls and everything in between. Another right and you see it. A trolley, loaded with trays of vegetables and meat, a gas bottle and wok at one end and wooden handles at the other.

You approach. The mans greets you with a “Hello” and a smile as he ties his dirty apron. You’re early. He has only just finished setting up. You point to the fat rice noodles piled in a plastic bag. He nods and starts chopping cabbage. He turns on the gas and fries the cabbage at full heat, simultaneously scraping the wok with a metal brush. He tips the cabbage into the rubbish bin; the cleaning process is complete. You point to onion, what you hope is pork, cabbage and assorted greens. He nods. You point to the bowls of various forms of chilli and say “bu la”, waving your hands in front of you. He nods again. He ladles in some oil. You cringe slightly at the amount but relax when he tips most of it back out. The meat goes into the pan and flames erupt past the man’s head. He calmly flips the wok, ignoring the flames only centimeters away from his face. He grabs handfuls of your selected vegetables and chucks them in. Flip. Flip. Flip.

Flip1

He adds a few dollops of a thick dark sauce. Flip.

Sauce1

Generous amounts of garlic and spring onions are next. Flip. Flip.

Wok1

Your mouth is watering. He picks the noodles up with giant chopsticks, shaking them to get the correct amount.

Noodles1

Flip. Flip. Flip. He tips the contents on the wok into a container and squishes it closed. The whole process took a total of 3 minutes. He moves to grab some plastic-wrapped disposable chopsticks but you shake your head. After over a month in China you have your own. You hand him 10 yuan (NZ$2) and he gives you 2 back in change. He holds up his hand, “Bye!” You thank him, take your dinner and continue down the alleyway. You can feel the heat of the noodles in your hands and the smell is incredible. You consider taking your dinner back to the hostel and eating it in the garden area, at a table, like a civilised individual. But you are not civilised. You are a hungry cyclist. You sit on the steps of a nearby clothes shop and dig in.

Fine dining in Chengdu.

 

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    Wendy Hopkinson

    Rachel - your blog updates are incredible - your photography beautiful. What an epic adventure youa re having! - posted on June 19, 2014

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Goodbye Guizhou

|

Distance to date: 1875km.

Punctures so far: 4.

Number of times given a spoon when eating with chopsticks: 11.

—————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

A few days ago I said farewell to Guizhou province. For an area that I chose merely as a way to get to Sichuan, it proved a wonderful surprise. I covered 872km and rode 10,654m of ascent, riding in from Guanxi in the Southeast and crossing into Sichuan in the Northwest.

I certainly felt every one of those 10,654m and grew to seriously loathe this sign,

Uphill sign

But the views were amazing.

Terraces1

Mountains4

Road2

The road conditions generally ranged from bad to horrendous…

mudpools1

With some more like bmx tracks.

Offroading

Including patches that were so pot-holed and bog-like that I had to push Rafiki through the sludge.

Muddy shoes

And of course, I got four punctures in one day.

Flat tyre1

Sometimes the road was lined with trucks,

trucks

Sometimes with dragons,

Dragon

And at other times, with noodles.

Noodles hanging

I saw people carrying much more than myself,

Massive load

And lanterns being lit,

Lantern2

With ten diving straight into the river before one finally sailed off into the sky.

latern1

I passed beautiful traditional houses, like these in the south,

Houses1

houses2

And completely different white ones of the north.

White houses

People were preparing the rice paddies for planting,

cow

Or transferring the rice, often in the beautiful clothes particular to the many different ethnic minority groups of Guizhou province.

Layers of rice paddies

I arrived in my favourite town so far, Leishan, with it’s elegant wooden buildings and green river.

Leishan1

The parade the next day just topped it off, with endless groups of schoolchildren marching past.

parade1

Parade3

Parade2

I discovered these delicious creations (some kind of rice patty thing stuffed with kidney beans and other goodies),

Rice patty thing 2

And also their sweet cousin, which is stuffed with brown sugar – bliss! The lady selling them found my return for more (4 in total to be exact) rather amusing.

Rice patty lady

 

And, most memorably, I met some lovely people. Like the two guys at the hostel who introduced me to Guiyang hot pot (the chicken being somewhat tastier than the cow stomach…),

Stomach

Couchsurfer, Chang, who took me to a local noodle place where I confess I ate a few noodles before I had to race to my bag to find a yoghurt to put out the flames in my mouth.

Chang and I

My cute little friend at the corn roasting stand,

GIrl with corn

The kind man at the hotel who helped carry my bike inside and waved away my embarassment at the pools of mud it made on his beautifully mopped floors,

Hotel guy 2

The super smiley cyclists I rode with for a little while,

Cheerful cyclists

Or the guy at another hotel who gave me a sticky rice triangle, part of the dragon boat festival celebrations.

Hotelguy

I won’t miss the rocky roads or the constant climbing,

me91

But I’m so glad that I picked Guizhou.

Well, Sichuan, it’s fair to say that the bar has been set very high.

Gucci

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    Sara Watson

    Wow! It sounds like your trip has been amazing so far. With plenty of 'ups and downs!' You inspire me former neighbour. Go well. Ooo - posted on June 13, 2014

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My Guizhou angels

|

I woke up the morning after what I shall now remember as Puncture Day to find my front tyre flat. Again. I wanted to throw my bike into the nearby swamp. Instead, I pumped up the tyre enough to wheel it along and followed the directions of the hostel receptionist to a nearby Giant shop. The man at the shop spoke no English, and my Mandarin is limited to food items, so I made do with pointing at the main problems: the ever-deflating tyre, the missing chain ring bolt and a missing screw holding up my rear rack.

While the bicycle magician went over these things, and fine-tuning others, I sat there, feeling completely out of my depth, wondering what kind of idiot would head off on a journey where you’re completely dependent on a 2 wheel machine but knowing nothing about how it works. He worked on my bike for almost an hour. I starting thinking about how much this would all cost and hoping I had brought enough cash. Eventually, he stood up, pointed at my bike and gave me the thumbs up and a big grin, which I returned. Legend.

I bent down to pick up my wallet, only to hear him speak English for the first time. “No money! No money!”

Already emotional from the previous day’s events, this was almost too much. I could feel the tears that I had so successfully prevented the day before welling up. I said thank you about fifteen times, before hopping on my revived bicycle and peddling off.

A few days later, Guizhou kindness struck again.

I rode a bumpy and hilly 105km, reaching the city at around 6pm, far later than usual thanks to the endless climbing throughout the afternoon. As per usual, as I neared the city, it started to rain. I had imagined a small town, one where you ride down the few main streets and easily find a hotel within ten or so minutes. Instead, I rode into a city, with shops everywhere, delicious smells wafting out of endless eateries, but no hotels in sight. After asking a number of people, I finally located a hotel along one of the main streets. I knew by its shiny floors that it was going to be far out of my price range, and it was. I returned to roaming the streets in the rain and now darkness. I found another hotel, again too expensive. But an hour later I returned, telling myself that I have to sleep somewhere and I’ll make up for the costs in another town. Upon my return I was told that the rooms available an hour ago were now gone, using Google translate to tell me that there were no rooms in the city because of college exams.

Back out into the rain I went, feeling rather desperate. I was tired, having been on the road for 12 hours now, and I was wet, cold and hungry. I had been searching for a hotel for two hours by the time I stopped and asked yet again if there was one nearby. The two young guys I asked pointed in the direction I had come from, saying something I couldn’t understand. They held up an umbrella, to which I said thank you and pointed at my raincoat, indicating I was fine. No, that’s not what they meant. They popped up the umbrella and stepped out, gesturing that they would show me the hotel themselves. As we turned the corner ten minutes later, I realised that we had arrived back at the hotel I had just come from. I stopped, gesturing that it was full. Noting my slumping shoulders they grinned, gesturing down the road. A few turns later and we were at another hotel. This one did have rooms, but looked for a long time at my passport, clearly unsure if I was allowed to be there. Not to worry, one of my two friends got out his ID and handed it to the lady, giving my passport back to me. In seconds I was checked in. The two young guys helped me carry my bags up the endless stairs. One then passed his phone to me and I found myself talking to their friend, a young woman with excellent English. She asked me what else I needed help with, offering over and over again to help with anything that I might need. I assured her that I was now fine and asked her to please convey my immense gratitude to the two guys standing in front of me. One wrote the woman’s phone number down on a card, clearly telling me to call if I had any other problems. And then, with a cheerful  wave, they were off. Just like that.

 

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    Kirra Watt

    Wow! Amazing hospitality. - posted on June 9, 2014

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Punctures and Pollyanna

|

I’ve never had a puncture before. Not in all my years of riding bicycles. Not when I cycled from Paihia to Kerikeri aged 15 to go to the school pools. Not during my short-lived attempt at cycling touring in Holland. Not when dodging the cows, tuktuks and who knows what else when cycling to work in Delhi. But I always knew the day would come.

That day was yesterday and what a day it was.

It began rather early, 4.38am if we want to be precise about it. The voices of the group of men in the hallway came straight through the walls. I suppose it could have been worse, given that the hotels I’ve stayed at all offer ‘o’clock’ rooms. The fishbowl room that I was given had only one window, a large, zoo style one, which opened onto the hallway. Perhaps the receptionist was hoping that I would keep the curtains open and provide some kind of freakshow entertainment? Ooo, let’s watch the muddy foreigner eat her Snickers bars (yes, that day it was plural).

So, after attempting to sleep through the boisterous conversation outside and the regular slamming of doors, I got up at 5.30 and started packing my things. I drank my second to last earl grey tea bag which I had, after years of sniggering loudly as my Mum put her teabag to the side to reuse later, used once the night before. I was on the road before 7, thinking that I could make it in good time to Guiyang, some 90km away.

recyled earl grey

Ha. After about 500 meters I started climbing and two hours later and I had barely covered 20km. I stopped for a bowl of noodles on the side of the road, much to the amusement of the group of women sitting at the plastic table. They pointed at my legs. I had rather hoped that the mud was so thick that it might pass as a tan. Apparently not.

I pressed on. Well, up.

Finally, I reached the top and began a glorious decent. The “whheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee” turned quickly to expletives as I began swerving like a drunkard. From one side of the road to the other I wobbled, wondering whether it was better to hit into the barrier or go for the ditch. Just as I had made up my mind that the barrier was too low and the cliff beyond it spiked with big rocks, the road levelled and squeezing the brakes I wobbled to a halt. Getting off my deathmobile, I saw the problem at once.

Flat tyre1

Yes, I am quite the Sherlock.

At that moment, a drop of rain fell onto my chin, shortly followed by another on my hand. Soon, it was absolutely bucketing down. To top it all off, a loud boom of thunder echoed nearby.

It was all rather comical. Here I was covered in mud, staring at my very first puncture, in a thunderstorm.

I heaved my bike and bags to the closest building and sheltered under the eaves. I could see shoes at the door and hear a television playing inside. Hoping that no one would emerge and demand what I was doing on their doorstep, I got to work. I located the hole, patched it, pumped up the tyre to check, found another hole, patched up before pumping it up to check once again. I checked over the tyre but found nothing responsible for my descent of doom. “Let’s be glad that I had somewhere out of the rain to stand” I thought, in true Pollyanna (an honorary member of the Banfield whanau) fashion. I waited out the worst of the rain before popping my jacket on and heading off again.

Fixing the first of yesterday's four punctures

It was slow progress. Hill after hill and after hill. By lunchtime I had reached the next big town, Longli, but was still 50km from Guiyang. I devoured another bowl of noodles and an ice tea before setting off. Ten minutes later and my tyre was flat again. I pulled into a construction site just as the rain increased to a road-flooding level. Hiding under what I hoped was a solid first floor and fully aware that a construction site is likely to house many tyre-puncturing within its cluttered floor, I fixed puncture number three.

Construction site1

Off I went, cheered by the sounds of ‘Send me on my way’ (the song of Matilda, one of the best movies of all time) and the satisfaction of actually fixing something.

An hour later and that satisfaction had deflated to match my tyre. Puncture number four.

By now, the torrential rain had washed off the mud previously caked to my bike (and myself) and finally I located the problem: multiple evil shards of glass were wedged firmly into tyre.glass1Despite having pulled into a little side road, fully out of sight of anyone on the winding national road, a couple soon pulled up on a motorbike. Thinking they might be wondering I needed help, I cheerfully said hello and laughed in a “I have this completely under control” kind of way. Already intrigued by what was going on, the crazy bike lady cackling away sealed the deal and they propped up their motorbike and got off to watch. I checked over the tyre very carefully, inside and out, before fixing puncture number 4 and putting the bike back together. The couple, whose help comprised of offering me an oily cloth to wipe my hands on, were fascinated by my puncture repair kit, passing the items between them, particularly interested in the glue. Well, if I can’t be an impressive bike mechanic, at least my predicament can provide some amusement. “Let’s be glad I had some smiling company while fixing my fourth puncture.” They seemed very pleased for me when the tyre was back on looking innocently plump. Here we are, having a grand old time in the middle of a muddy forest.

Couple and I in woods

By now it was late afternoon. The road continued to deteriorate, offering gravel-filled mudpools,

mudpools1

and culminating in an impossible-to-push-my-bike-through-without-mud-oozing-over-the-top-of-my-shoes swamp.

swamp1

My main reason for heading to Guiyang is because one of my four chain ring bolts (the name only known because I sent a photo of it to a friend) has fallen off. The other end of it, now unattached, tends to get stuck to the inside chain ring. Sure enough, a few kilometres after puncture number four and I had to stop for about twenty minutes and use my favourite method, the ‘how many tools can I use’, to unjam it.

But still, all was hilarious in my mind. I stopped for some fried rice, which further improved my spirits, and was quite cheerful, despite my horrendous appearance, as I sat for a little rest just outside of Guiyang.

A bit muddy after a long day cycling over potholes

I made my way into Guiyang feeling pleased, given that it was already 6pm, that I had for once booked accommodation in advance.

Two hours later, after numerous phone calls to the hostel describing where I was (rather difficult when you can’t read anything), I gave my phone to a random man on the street who described my location rather more accurately. It turned out that I was nowhere near the hostel. 20km away in fact. The photos I had taken of the google map location turned out to be of the wrong one. Obviously…

After an hour of wandering around looking for a hotel and finding only a humongous shiny Sheraton, I decided to get a taxi to the hostel. So, I piled up my muddy panniers and took my front wheel off, figuring that this would make it look highly transportable. Apparently not. By the time more than twenty taxis pulled in, took a glance at the bike sitting there absolutely caked in mud and zoomed off, I had gathered a small audience. By this point the day had lost its hilarity and I was trying desperately not to cry, although I’m sure this would have added further interest to the already ridiculous scene. I continued to stand there with my arm stretched out and Another one pulled up and seeing my bags, popped the boot. Before he had a chance to see the bike and zoom off, I had stuffed it into the boot and was already loaded up the back seat with my bags. It was after 10pm when I finally pulled up at the hostel.

A cup of sesame porridge, an amazing shower and a friendly conversation later and Pollyanna had returned.

But let’s be glad that days like today don’t come around too often.




Comments

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    rbphoto

    Carmen! It's so great to hear from you! Seeing your comment gave me a HUGE smile :) I'd definitely love to come to Spain sometime soon. Big hugs, Rachel - posted on June 13, 2014

    Carmen Sara's mam from Spain

    Dear Rachel, I love your blog and your beautiful photos, ¡you are MUY VALIENTE¡ If tou have in maind coming to Spain, you can have Sara's room and we'll help you in any thing you need. Good luck, we will be foloing you through your blog. MUCHOS BESOS DESDE ESPAÑA¡¡¡¡¡ - posted on June 12, 2014

    rbphoto

    Thanks very much Bob! I was very lucky to have had such a great send off from Hong Kong by the lovely Ferorsa. - posted on June 9, 2014

    Bob Scott

    I discovered your blog via our mutual friend Ferorsa. It is a delightful read and great photos describing an amazing and courageous adventure. - posted on June 9, 2014

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Beautiful

|

Today was pretty rough, from the industrial landscape and air pollution,

airpollution3

to the continuous increase of both temperature and gradient, the gross taste of the water in all three of my water bottles and a minor bout of food poisoning in the which made me think I might be sick over the side of my bike.

There was, however, a moment that made it worthwhile. When I pulled over in a small dusty town, hoping the upset stomach had passed and hoping to find some food to fuel the next 60km, a woman stepped out from behind her stall and beckoned me over, grinning. She cooked up a steaming bowl of noodles, to which I was free to add whatever I chose from the line of bowls on the next table. She kept staring at my bike and then back at me, smiling and chattering away to me in rapid Chinese.

After I paid and just before putting my helmet and gloves back on, we had this conversation (in Chinese):

“Thank you. Very good food.”
“You’re welcome.”
“Excuse me, may I take your photo?”
“Me?”
“Yes. Beautiful.”
“Not beautiful.”
“Beautiful.”
She takes off her apron and pushes back her hair.
I take the photo.
I show her the photo on the back screen, point and say “Beautiful.”
“Thank you.” She says, smiling. She stands outside her stall and waves as I pedal off. I can still see her when I turn around at the intersection.

Noodle lady

Beautiful.

Comments

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    Chloe

    Cool story, those moments are so special. Mmmm I love noodle soup! - posted on June 1, 2014

    Sarah ward

    Love. - posted on June 1, 2014

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Riding the G321

|

I am writing this while perched awkwardly on a chair. Let’s just say that sitting down, after 8 hours of sitting down on a bicycle seat, is rather unpleasant. Well, it is when the roads look like this:

Road

Apart from that, life as a muddy cyclist continues to be pretty great. I have now ridden about 970 kilometres, most of it along the same road, the once trusty, and as of today, now hated G321. 

Some of my favourite parts of those 970 include:

Cycling among the karst mountains near Yangshuo,

me1

Where the scenery was stunning.

Yangshuo1

The town itself had a pretty nice setting,

Yangshuo2

And although it was overwhelming in the streams of tourists milling about, it was nice to have a proper conversation.

It’s always great to meet other cyclists, like cowboy Song Rei,

Song Rei

Or these guys heading to Tibet (apparently the Mecca of Chinese cycling)

Cyclists!

Chinese food. Ahhh, yes, the glorious food.

Big bowls of rice noodles,

dw9

noodles

Delicious tofu (which the lady drowned in chilli which I sneakily scraped off around the corner), tofu2

And ice creams that cost 20 NZ cents. ice cream

I love wandering around town in the evenings and coming across interesting scenes, like a small group of people doing exercises turn quickly into a MASSIVE group of people doing exercises,

dw7

Or beautiful buildings,

Guilin1

Or a talent show,

dw6

Or an amazing bridge,

b5

bridge4

Or a lovely old man serenely doing water calligraphy on the street. He did offer me a turn, but as the only character I could think of off the top of my head is the one for ‘congee’, I declined.

cll2

call1

Or this amazing band. One of their songs was just incredible. I had no idea what they were saying, but just stood there enjoying the moment.

band

I have cycled far above the mist-covered hills,

ld2

Which is incredible, even if I often look like this at the top…

Me broken

It is particularly rewarding when, while recovering at the top, this guy walks past. He seemed to find me as interesting as I found him.

turtleguy

The trusty G321 has taken me through through little villages,

village1

Past rice terraces,

Longsheng1

And more incredible bridges,

Bridge1

bridge2

As always, there are some low points, such as my current sitting difficulty, but nothing that comes near to competing with all the reasons to get back on my bike tomorrow.

Comments

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    rbphoto

    Thanks Sarah! I am rather envious of the idea of soft seat cushions right now... :) Hope all is well with you! :) - posted on June 1, 2014

    rbphoto

    Thanks Liz! Great to hear from you. Hope you had a wonderful time in the BOI and the rest of NZ! - posted on June 1, 2014

    sally wells

    Methinks that Legs of Steel could be a good title for your memoir of this fantastic journey you are going on, and sharing with us as you head to the hills, and discover the natural beauty around you….Bloody Marvellous my friend..oh and the photos are Fabulous of course :) x - posted on May 30, 2014

    Sarah ward

    Hi Rachel, I'm cheering for you from the soft seat cushions of my couch. Loving the pictures and the blog, keep it up! - posted on May 28, 2014

    Liz

    Wow Rachel how fabulous! I love your comments about the exercise groups growing and growing. It reminded me of our time in Singapore when we were on route home from visiting your mum - we saw exactly the same thing.... take care but enjoy and experience x - posted on May 28, 2014

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The unspoken conversation

|

I speak no Mandarin. I don’t think I can even count ‘Ni hao’ given that this is usually greeted with silent stares. I put the staring down to two possibilities: I’m either butchering the tones (highly likely) or the sight of a muddy, sweaty, giant foreign woman on a bicycle is too surprising to muster up a reply (quite possible). Despite my complete incompetence with their language, however, the Chinese I’ve met so far have really gone out of their way to communicate with me.

One example of this took place in a town called Deqing. I arrived early afternoon after my longest ride ever (101km), found a hotel, had a much needed shower and ventured out for some food. After hiding from the torrential rain outside a little shop (and almost losing my hearing to the screeching metal workshops on either side), I came across a little restaurant. I was greeted by smiles and rapid Chinese, to which I used the excellent acting abilities that I developed as an English teacher to mime eating. I was given a seat and a menu. Unsurprisingly I couldn’t read a thing. Eventually I located the character for ‘beef’. So I pointed to that one. They didn’t have it. So I pointed to another one at random. They didn’t have it. Another one. No luck.

A young boy playing on the computer was sent over to help me, apparently the English speaker of the family. He stared at me for a while before running back to the desk and returning with a sheet of paper. It was an English-Chinese vocabulary list from school. Scanning the page, I passed over ‘household items’ and ‘in the classroom’ until I got to ‘food’. Jackpot. I pointed to the words for ‘rice’ and ‘meat’. The young boy looked confused.

Somewhat at a loss of what to do, I went back to the menu, staring at it as if the characters were going to magically become intelligible. At the table beside me, the schoolboy was now being served his lunch. It looked pretty good, so I pointed at it. The lady smiled, darted into to the kitchen and came running back out again holding up some vegetables. I nodded. About five minutes later, a feast arrived on my table. A bowl of rice and a steaming plate of meat and greens cooked in a wonderful garlicky sauce.

Feast

As I was getting stuck into my meal, the boy had left his meal and raced back to the computer. Shortly after, a printed page appeared on my table: “For the first time you come to China.”

And so began the unspoken conversation. My new friend, his food completely forgotten, would run to the computer, type my sentence into Google Translate, type his reply in Chinese, translate it, write his reply down in English and run back.

This continued for quite some time.

Convo

The conversation had an audience: the entire family. Dad came out from the kitchen to see what was happening, the two waitresses stood by giggling and Grandma sat at the table looking proudly at her grandson.

I learnt a lot about my friend. His name is Long Jian Hong, he’s twelve years old, has two sisters and his favourite subject at school is maths. He showed me what my name looks like in Chinese and tried, very patiently, to teach me how to say a few phrases of Chinese.

Name

I could so easily have been seen as a burden, but they really went out of their way to welcome me warmly. So far, this has been the norm rather than the exception. After a photo session which involved me posing with a range of family members for a variety of cameras, I left the family, reminded of what this trip is all about: the people.

Me and friend

Me and lady

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