Just 50 kilometers, mind you, but the memory of our ride from the Hong Kong airport to the city center was still fresh in my memory. Too fresh. Suffice to say I was thankful to arrive in central Hong Kong with all my limbs attached.
No, we’re not suicidal
We opted for the safest way out: the Xulong Ferry.
On our day of departure, we were on the bikes and headed for the pier as soon as the sun’s first rays hit the tops of Hong Kong’s skyscrapers.
Biking Beirut was bad, cycling Cairo even worse but taking on Hong Kong traffic by bicycle is nothing short of suicide.
Fortunately, we had a straight shot down to the ferry landing.
Chaos reigned. Buses were darting in and out, crowds surging and nobody could direct two beleaguered foreigners to the Xulong Ferry ticket office. After much rigmarole, we got our tickets.
Another tangle with an escalator
Next, we teetered our heavily-laden bicycles on a series of escalators. Escalators and bicycles go together about as well as soya-sauce and chocolate ice cream. And Hong Kong’s escalators tend to be of the steep variety. You’ve got to hold on tight and brake with all your might so that the bike doesn’t lurch out of control and take down a dozen Chinese tourists.
Finally we stumbled into the ferry boarding area. The lounge was deserted except for two foreigners gazing out at the skyline, now bathed in a soft pink light.
A sailor in a crisp white uniform lead us on to the gleaming ferry, a few last-minute Chinese businessmen rushed on behind and then we were off. All 12 of us on a ferry built for hundreds.
I let out a sigh of relief. Hong Kong was behind us. Surely cycling on the mainland would be simpler. I mean, China is a land known for its throngs of two-wheeled commuters.
Our first taste of the mainland
While I never set eyes on a single cyclist on Hong Kong Island, there were plenty of people pedaling on the mainland.
In fact, dedicated cycle lanes criss-cross most of metropolitan Shenzhen. If it weren’t for all the electric scooters commandeering the bike path, I’d have felt relatively safe.
The scooters were a silent menace. Sneaking up from behind and startling me as soon as I sank into some, “Wow, we’re in China” reverie.
A reality check
Indeed, we were in China, but not exactly the real China. More like a Disneyland China where the streets are swept clean, littering is frowned upon, a modern metro system ferries office workers to their jobs in some of the world’s tallest buildings, and your typical cyclist is on a fancy foldable bike and not one of those rickety single-speed behemoths more often associated with the developing world.
Actually, that fairy-tale China was a lot easier to face than the full-on China we’re currently enduring.
In Disneyland China—the special economic zone of Shenzhen—our Australian hosts David and Adele showed us a world in which foreigners are at ease.
We visited tidy parks and impressive memorials, dined on delicious and hygienic vegetarian food and easily circumvented the Great Firewall of China through the couple’s VPN (virtual private network) service. Access to sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are blocked for your average Chinese, not so for savvy foreigners who can afford the monthly fee for a VPN.
I know we’re not supposed to say such things, but…
In the real China, things are slightly different.
First and foremost is the absolute filth.
I know, I know, it’s not nice to point this out. Perhaps it’s not politically correct to comment on the stench of raw sewage that wafts up from the waterways, the public toilets that are covered in human excrement and the piles of reeking rubbish that line the roadways.
But I assure you, that’s reality in this heavily populated part of China.
Cycling with the masses
We’ve probably never ridden in such a congested region of the planet. After four days on the road, we’ve hardly got a glimpse of greenery. The eastern seaboard is China’s economic powerhouse and a real concrete jungle.
One bland city blends into another as we attempt to navigate the confusing network of roads. Signs in English are few and far between. Much time and effort is expended trying to match the Chinese symbols on our maps to those written on the road signs. Most often we have but a vague idea of our actual whereabouts.
Just talk louder
Fearful of getting hopelessly lost and ending up in Shanghai instead of Xiamen, we flag down a passerby at every intersection. This is a feat in itself since many Chinese ignore our pleas completely and cycle past as if we’re invisible.
As soon as a kind soul stops, we point to the spot on the map with the name of our desired destination written in both English and Mandarin. Then we wait.
Our Chinese helper studies the map intently. Then there is usually pointing followed by a barrage of Chinese which I can only imagine is detailed directions to our destination. Of course, it’s all just gibberish to us.
When we fail to respond to all that Chinese, our helper repeats himself. Only louder the second time.
Finally we pedal off into what we have gathered to be the right direction.
It’s an exhausting process.
Why we don’t give up
So far, cycling in China has offered few rewards. Frankly, I’m just thankful to have survived China’s chaotic roads and crazed drivers. Thankful for all those near misses.
The one saving grace has been the food. China’s food is the absolute best we’ve sampled in the entire 65 months on the road.
Each evening we hop in the shower, wash off a layer of thick grime and head out for a feast.
Whether it’s simple stir-fried noodles, grilled tofu and golden needle mushrooms or braised eggplant and beans, we’re guaranteed a delicious meal.
With a satisfied stomach I’m somehow able to forget about the rigors of riding through China and drift off into a peaceful sleep.
In the morning, a frenetic China is up early to greet me. Horns blare, scooters swerve, buses barrel along at alarming speeds, pedestrians dart out into traffic unexpectedly, hawkers saunter across the road oblivious to the chaos surrounding them and I yearn for the solitude of the Yukon.