China… it had never been a country I had a burning desire to visit. However, when the opportunity presented to spend my July school holidays cycling with my Dad through China I was willing to take up the challenge. What I quickly discovered is that China is big… so large that it is impossible to see it all in one trip. This being said, we set a cracking pace to cycle 550 kms through beautiful landscape in the south before travelling overland to Beijing (via X’ian). China is hard to describe because few generalisations are very accurate – it is a land of diversity – linguistically, culturally and geographically. And depending on where we travelled, China was impoverished or opulent, polluted or pristine, densely packed or nearly isolated. For the first time in many years, it became a country that challenged me daily and had me questioning my confidence as a seasoned traveller of several continents. Joining World Expeditions cycle tour and allowed me to visit places I would have had trouble accessing as a solo traveller. The southern regions where we cycled is quite simply a visual feast for the eyes and the soul – a region of China where glorious sunshine beats down on paddy fields and picturesque villages set within a wall of magnificent mountain ranges and where traditional towns suck you in to their winding streets and everyday burst of activity. In many of these places we were the only foreigners – our white skin and big noses being snapped up for a photo opportunity. After a day of cycling we would roll in to town, unpack for the evening and then meet for a shared meal. This important part of the day allowed for us to share experiences of everyday occurrences that were culturally very different for us. And Tar, our wonderful tour guide, bridged the language gap… very much needed when trying to order a tofu dish without pork!
Food… everyone’s favourite topic! In China there’s not much that goes to waste, and that includes Chickens feet, not just spared out of thrift though... they’re a wildly popular snack and delicacy, Supermarkets in China can be an eye-opening experience. In one ‘village’, the local supermarket stocked live chickens and should you want to purchase chicken for dinner that evening, one is simply pulled from the cage, beheaded and plucked before your eyes. Food though, is also an avenue for connection. I grew up in a family where we had our own individual plate at meal times. In China, each person has a bowl of rice and eats directly from shared plates in the middle of the table, creating a communal feeling to be shared with all.
Our cycle adventure commenced in the southern city of Guangzhou (China’s 3rd largest city - formally known as Canton) in the Guangdong province of South China. Most of this province is dominated by back roads and gave a good introduction to rural China. However, the rural backdrop of rice fields, mud-brick huts, and farmers attending their fields is one that is quickly changing as burgeoning economy of modern China filters to even the smallest of villages. Crossing over to Guangxi Province we continued our cycle through Yao minority village’s en-route to stunning limestone pinnacle landscape of town of Yangshuo. However, the scorching temperatures of 40 degree days had me seeking refuge in the air-conditioned support vehicle whenever a hill climb loomed in the distance!! On completion of the cycle part of the trip we boarded a plane for Xian. This old walled city, the capital of Shaanxi Province, is a vivid example of old and new China as the modernised new city bustles around the quaint, winding lanes of the Old Quarter. Xian is most arguably famed for the thousand of Terracotta Warriors, who stand outside the tomb of Qin Shihuang, were uncovered in 1974 by peasants digging a well. Each warrior stands over 6 feet tall and has different features and characteristics. Some stand in a vanguard with crossbow and longbow bearers; others hold spears, daggers and axes at the ready. They are accompanied by dozens of horse-drawn carriages and enormous terracotta horses. The sight of the warriors arising from their muddy grave, some intact, others still submerged in the ground, is an extraordinary one.
In all honesty, I can’t sell China as being a perfect travel experience, free of worries… a place for a relaxing holiday. This is a place you travel, a place to experience… and yes, a place to be challenged. English is sparse... even in the big cities. However, I can say that it was an adventure and I came away with a new appreciation for a country full of a wonderfully rich history. My advice… if you want an adventure and a chance to immerse yourself in world’s biggest, oldest (and possibly soon-to-be the most powerful nation) on Earth, give it a go – it won’t be easy but will be rewarding.