This one has taken a little while! The penultimate blog post from our expedition, put together part-time on weekends and snatched hours in the evening. Wishing everyone a merry Christmas – ours may be a bit warmer than the Kyrgyz hut we spent it in last year in no-man’s land …
It was March, and we were nearing the end of our journey. Since leaving London on a rainy day last July we’d cycled 16,000km – crossing three deserts, wintry mountain ranges and the sights of the odd hunting rifle, wolf and wild dog to keep us on our toes. Now just over 1,000km separated us from the top of Victoria Peak, Hong Kong. The hard stuff was surely behind us: no more snow, altitude, night-time rides or exhausted sprints. We had a week of gentle countryside riding to get out of Guangxi province, then a final week on the road through the megacities of China’s Pearl River Delta before reaching that famous skyline – the skyline which had totally taken over our waking thoughts and was beginning to creep into our dreams as well. How many times we’d both had bizarre nightmares to do with beard shaving and waking up back in France (“Noooooo!!!”) I couldn’t tell you. But now Hong Kong was just around the corner.
Reaching Yangshuo and the famous karst peaks around Guilin had coincided with the 8-month anniversary of our expedition, and now we made the most of being in civilisation again to party. There hadn’t been too much opportunity to do that over the last couple of months up on the Plateau or across the Taklamakan, so we emphatically made up for lost time and surprised our livers which had been happily processing tea for months. The evening began with fake Chinese brandy (never a good start) and continued with many losing rounds of dice that is the standard drinking game amongst Chinese men. It ended with me going backwards over a table and cutting my lower back, so all in all, probably a good idea that there had been limited alcohol in the mountains and desert. I woke up the next day with sheets bloodied and head pounding, feeling very sheepish. Lobby then discovered that the rim of his back wheel had split, the same thing which had happened to mine in the Pamirs. The beauty of China was that a new rim was just a short bus ride away (and not the three-day hitchhike it had been in Tajikistan!). But between us we were certainly in no state to push off just yet. The last leg hadn’t begun very auspiciously.
When we did get back on the bikes, we rode through scenery which could have been out of Jurassic Park: towering karst mounds loomed out of the haze, home to a motley collection of birds which gave chase in a half-hearted teasing sort of way. By accident we crossed into Hunan province to the north, and suddenly orange trees stretched as far as we could see, and farmers hanging bags from spades over their shoulder gave us toothy grins as we overtook them. Further on teams of workers transplanted rice, backs bent at an agonising angle in the paddies so all we could see was the top of their conical straw hats over muddied gumboots. Roadside eateries were full of card-playing men in big groups; the more boisterous of their wives joined the men’s tables and held their own, but most decided to sit apart and rocked their babies to sleep, who were strapped to their backs in little bundles. It was a pretty relaxed scene. However as this was now southern China people spoke a range of different incomprehensible dialects, so we generally had very little idea of what was actually going on. Everything was hot, misty and humid.
The partying which had started at Chinese New Year continued all around us as we crossed into Guangdong, our last Chinese province. Banquets sprung up in minutes and extended well into the road, round tables surrounded by colourful plastic stools heaving with suspicious-looking food. Red ribbons, confetti and firecrackers signalled yet another countryside wedding, while a sterner (but equally drunken) funeral band could be heard a few streets away, accompanied by a procession of family and friends all dressed in white cloth. Food was at the centre of all this merriment and our waistlines were finally allowed to balloon from the skeletal shapes they had been trimmed down to. Guangdong is the province of deep fried wonton, deep fried dumplings and sweet and sour pork. We poured the leftover oil at the bottom of fried dishes into bowls of rice and washed down the thick mixture with rice wine.
As we headed further south the weather system changed to become very humid, and hot again. Neither of us could remember when we had last felt too hot on the bikes, but all of a sudden we were in single layers, lycra wet with sweat and beards trapping glorious moisture which didn’t freeze to our faces. This was an amazing feeling. The walls and floors of houses we passed dripped in condensation and the heavens would open once a day to drench us in a warm downpour. The Guangdong farmers blamed their odd weather system rather dubiously on the southern wind and felt the need to apologise regularly on its behalf. Our bike chains would grow orange rust overnight, so mornings involved scrubbing them down with our cloths, now permanently damp. But there was little that could wipe away the grins now pasted onto our faces: all this meant the end of winter, a winter which had seemed to drag on for so long, and which had been quite tricky to negotiate. Extra bike maintenance was a good trade-off for being able to feel our fingers again! Lobby, who had had a lot of circulation trouble in the mountains, was jubilant.
One important lesson we’d learned over the last 8 months was that if a section of riding felt too easy, forces beyond our control would usually ensure we suffered as a consequence. If the road improved, the weather gods would give us a headwind. A big downhill section? Make it hail. Distance done by midday? Food poisoning. So it was that within the last 5% of our journey our bikes decided they’d done enough, and tried their best to chuck in the towel early. Our front panniers, the bane of the expedition, basically snapped off completely – requiring some inventive bending of screws, aluminium and swearing to force them back into place, as well as our last lengths of duct tape. We cycled the next hundred kilometres or so peering down anxiously at our handiwork to see if it lasted, dreaming up the worst possible demise we could inflict on the useless bits of metal once we were safely up Victoria Peak.
My back tyre, which had been intact since Turkey 12,000km ago, emphatically blew out outside a wedding ceremony. It was so loud that I thought I’d been hit by a firecracker, the combined weight of me plus luggage exploding a tiny pinprick in the inner tube and emptying the air chamber in about five seconds. This happened again at the end of the day only a few kilometres later, which prompted a much lengthier repair job with the help of the local hotel owner’s kids. They provided bucket, water and huge enthusiasm, revolving around my overturned bike with their school bags strapped to their backs, mouths gaping open. Communication had become difficult again now people spoke Cantonese as their first language: kids were the easiest to talk to as they took compulsory Mandarin classes at school. Mesmerised they asked about every step of the repair process, holding tools for me and fitting the inner tube themselves. Where were we going, they asked. I told them, and they pointed down the road. “Hong Kong is that way!” they shouted, and giggled. It was exactly that moment when it hit me that, yes, this was it. We were close. Out of the hundreds of times we’d been asked this same question over the last eight months, these Chinese schoolkids were the first to give us a proper answer, instead of the international you-are-both-bloody-crazy look. Hong Kong, which had pushed us halfway around the globe, really was around the corner.
Our run into Hong Kong was across the urban sprawl in South China’s Pearl River Delta, which is known as The World’s Factory because it contains huge manufacturing bases for the world’s electronics, clothes and textiles industries. It is a sprawl of faceless city after city after city, each one specialising in a certain product. Apparently there is one city which churns out most of the world’s Bic pens. If you have a chip or a piece of clothing which is “Made in China” the chances are that it comes from the Pearl River Delta. It is no wonder then that Guangdong is China’s richest province, because from what we saw the south was entirely paved in concrete and Progress. We joined big lorry convoys once more and a cacophony of horn-happy drivers who did their best to curtail our journey only a few hundred kilometres from the finish. Luckily we managed to escape the chaos for a couple of days on the outskirts of Guangzhou, staying at a Chinese boarding school called Yinghao where Lobby used to teach before university. An oasis of calm, for which we were very grateful, before our renewed onslaught towards Guangzhou and Shenzhen. I’m not sure what the immaculately dressed Chinese schoolkids made of two hairy sweaty foreigners in lycra!
The next few days were a blur as we sped south in a whirl of traffic, skyscrapers and ridiculous city planning. Lobby outdid himself once again by navigating us through hell without blinking, underpass, overpass, roundabout, all on a silly scale. In just five minutes in a district of Guangzhou we saw more foreigners than we had seen for the last 10,000km! Culture shock began to hit hard. Next we headed for the Guangzhou velodrome, built for the Asian Games of 2010, where we met the British consul-general and were taken round the track by a team of Chinese athletes – a totally surreal experience. They could pick up their feather-light bikes with just one finger and took the 80 degree bends at 80 km/h. Our 50kg beasts struggled on the flat! As we returned to our accommodation that evening we found that the building next door had been flattened by a demolition crew, mounds of broken tiles and cigarette butts in place of what had been a pristine construction at breakfast time. We set the alarm early the next day, just in case our building was the next to go. Shenzhen lay ahead, our last stop in mainland China.
It’s fair to say that our last kilometres on the mainland were a controlled panic of narrow car crash misses and navigational nightmares. In the space of 40km we witnessed three smashes, including one motorcyclist who didn’t look good at all. Traffic ground to a halt across all 12 lanes, in a snake dozens of kilometres long, the ambulances stuck wailing behind huge trucks the likes we’d seen in Western China. We were starting to see Hong Kong number plates, and would have fist-pumped the air for joy had we not been so preoccupied with survival. I got a nudge from a van which clearly assumed it was in the Formula 1, so I decided to plug headphones in and trust in other powers as the noise from car horns intensified on the outskirts. The grey disorderly purgatory of Shenzhen loomed at dusk, and we ducked into a cheap hotel halfway up a high-rise, nerves frayed by the bright lights, noise and stress.
“Where do you go tomorrow?” the elderly receptionist asked in remarkably good English. Forms had to be filled in and passports handed over now we were so close to the mainland border.
“Hong Kong,” we replied.