Why spend a trip to China cooped up in the ”aquarium” of a tour bus when you [sic]
There was one overriding question which had the Cantonese villagers utterly perplexed: why would eight funny foreigners come riding here on their swanky bicycles when they had their own minibus in tow? It was left to Mr Su – guide, fixer and, in this case, oracle – to provide an answer. ”It’s because they are overweight, and need to take exercise to get fit,” he ventured, diplomatically.
That made more sense; in the city everyone feasted so much. The city had everything, and no one would want to leave it voluntarily, surely, to get sweaty and muddy and tired. Happily, Mr Su had economised on the truth. He did not say that the visitors had motored as fast as they could out of the dusty metropolis of Zhaoqing, past the billowing dirt of the construction site which was trying to engulf Guangdong, and leapt aboard their mountain bikes at the first opportunity to swish downhill through the green riced valleys and suck in the sweet air that whistled past their cheeks.
The exhilaration which is a natural by-product of such a pastime is enhanced by the pleasure of seeing China ”over the handlebars”, in just the same way that so many residents do on their ubiquitous national transport.
The rhythm is slow enough to take in the countryside, there is no stuffy coach routine, nor the dependence on a railway timetable; simply the dictates of pedal power.
For a few blissful years in the 1980s the whole of China lay open to anybody on two wheels. These days, officials can turn back mountain bikers (definitely at Shenzhen, possibly at Zhuhai, perhaps further up the coast), but going it alone is a risky venture which, even after the border, will continue to dog itinerant – and thus illegal – cyclists’ treadmarks. The only sure-fire way to get across and take to the road is to go with an organised group.
The prospect is hardly daunting. Somebody knows the way. A coach takes you past the dodgy bits. A lorry follows to transport the bikes. Hotels are booked ahead. All that remains is to point the front wheel at the most picturesque parts of Guangdong province, slip into gear and push on.
Mountain-biking through Guangdong grants an instant buffalo’s eye view of Chinese agricultural life. As a biker, it’s easy to identify with others who are similarly mounted, although theirs are the home-grown versions, used as an all purpose workhorse.
OUTSIDE the towns and villages, there are few places not carpeted with the lush green sward of rice or vegetables, and there are few fields not being hoed or tilled or weeded.
For these farmers, knee-deep in the paddy, bowed down by gigantic loads, or simply squatting by the roadside, it is hardly a bucolic scene, so an octet of gaudily attired and mounted foreigners comes as a welcome diversion.
Guangdong’s greatest joke is not so much a one-liner as a one-worder. Its comic punch-line depends less on timing than on its mere utterance, and it can be delivered by resident or visitor at any time of day: ”Hello.” Its mere mention is guaranteed to transport whole villages into paroxysms of mirth.
”Hello,” scream urchins from behind a hedge. ”Hello,” bawls the motorcyclist roaring past. ”Hello,” replies the mountain biker, to fresh howls of laughter at the strength and speed of his repartee. Initially and superstitiously camera-shy, the villagers react enthusiastically to the barest smattering of Cantonese, and in general are happy to see and be seen – welcoming and genial to a surprising degree.
There are highlights along the way, from the lakes and mini monoliths at Seven Star Crags national park, to the caves at Little Guilin, where the tour guide translates every million-year-old stalactite into some form of animal or fish, mythical or otherwise.
Further on is the 191-metre-high Zebra Stone, famed in China as the largest of its kind on the planet, not counting Ayers Rock. In reaching these goals there is a sense of satisfaction which could never be gained from items one, two and three on a coach tour. Other tourists – and there are few in the area who are not Chinese – may look on the cyclists pityingly from within their mobile aquariums, but it is the freewheeling two-wheelers who know that getting there is much more than half the fun.
Provided the normal precautions are followed, that is.
Colour co-ordinated outfits are not essential, but padded cycling shorts designed for the purpose are ideal. China’s roads are rough and the skills of truck drivers (who are protected by a picture of Mao Zedong tacked up in the cab) rarely measure up to the volume of their air horns; hospitals are few and far between so a helmet makes more than just good sense.
A local poncho (HK$1!) will both ward off the rain and the seemingly ineradicable clay and mud which dyes clothes a rusty orange. Gloves protect hands during the more punishing bumps and jolts, while a water bottle (and fruit powder or electrolite drink to flavour its contents) will be vital to assist in de-parching.
Cycling as much as 80 km a day sharpens the appetite, and even with the odd rogue item like snake soup on the menu, there were few empty plates at the end of a meal. The long rides took their toll on extraneous flesh over the tour. So, in a way, Mr Su was not far wrong about losing weight.
A four-day International Cyclists to Asia tour in Guangdong costs $3,600 including bikes, meals, accommodation, visa and transport. Tel: 454-9191 Fax: 463-5520.