Just like in relationships, it’s also possible start off on the wrong foot when getting acquainted with a country. Perhaps one party doesn’t put forward its best face, and you end up not much liking each other.
So it was with China. We met her at one of her least attractive moments. Our first glimpse was not of picturesque villages and pastoral farms, rather of blackened buildings, squalid streets and pollution spewing factories.
Expecting the worst
It was with low expectations that we boarded the Cosco Star in Taiwan for the overnight voyage back to the Mainland. Taiwan had been, well, fun. China was just plain hard work.
Thanks to the calm seas of the Taiwan Strait, we awoke surprisingly refreshed after our night at sea. There had been no puking outside the cabin during the night, and the toilets and passageways could be navigated without having to watch one’s step.
As we docked in Xiamen and the friendly Cosco Star crew bade us goodbye, I felt energized and optimistic. Ready to take on China for a second round.
Ready for raw sewage and heaping piles of rubbish. Ready for maniacs behind the wheels of coal trucks edging me off the road. Ready for swarms of scooters weaving in and out, hawkers darting unexpectedly onto the road and feral dogs giving chase.
My kind of surprise
Sure, we got some of that. But what we also discovered was a land of almost enchanted beauty. I don’t want to wax too lyrical here, but some of China’s landscapes are stunning. Amazing, awe-inpiring, jaw-droppingly beautiful.
It just takes a little effort to find the magic.
Actually, finding your way anywhere takes a fair amount of effort in China. Roads criss-cross the country like the varicose veins in my over-worked calves.
Give me space
After the thick succession of coastal cities, all I wanted was to ride anywhere with a population density lower than that of Manhattan.
We set out in search of Hakka Houses. That is the roundhouses of the Hakka people surrounded by what is reputed to be some of China’s most beautiful rural scenery.
Maybe not the best way
Now, I’ve never been much into planning. A peek at the Lonely Planet for some not-to-be-missed highlights, a cursory review of a few bicycle touring blogs and a brief glance at the map and I’m ready to hit the road.
This approach, needless to say, has its shortcomings.
In the case of the Hakka Houses, the downside is that we managed to stumble upon exactly one Hakka House.
At least one advantage
The upside of the lets-not-really-plan approach is that we wandered into some far-flung villages on our quest to find the Hakka Houses. Stunning villages, I might add, where the locals stared in awe at the very presence of two foreigners on bicycles in their remote corner of the planet.
Most villagers were friendly and our efforts at Chinese (still pretty much limited to Nín hǎo and xie xie…hello and thank you respectively) were meet with appreciative smiles. Others scowled. “Foreign Devils,” they were probably thinking.
Here’s what it’s like
In your average provincial market in China, most everything is for sale. You’ll find chicken feet and duck liver sausage for the hungry, hoes and plant seeds for the industrious, ancient remedies for those fretting about their health and everything from hand-knitted slippers to shoddy knock-offs of trendy attire or those in search of clothing.
I’m just afraid not many sales took place once we pedaled into town. Everybody was too busy gawking to think about consuming.
In the countryside, villagers painstakingly tend tiny plots of land. Watering is done note with an intricate irrigation system or even a high powered hose. It’s done by hand. Buckets of water balanced on broad shoulders are brought to distant fields and then sprinkled on thirsty vegetables.
I hope it lasts
It has been great fun exploring this side of China. A side of China I love. The quaint side where life passes at a slower pace. I’m sure obnoxious China will rear her ugly head soon enough. So for now, I’m making the most of the bucolic beauty that surrounds me.
I’m glad I didn’t give up on China. Let first appearances color the entire relationship. China and I will be together for several thousand more kilometers and I only hope my fondness of the motherland grows stronger with each turn of the wheels.