A quick spin out of Jingdezhen
It’s not that the authorities didn’t want me visiting; they just had rather a lot of bicycles in China already. And no, the fact that I stand several leagues above the average Chinaman and ride a custom built frame did not make me a special case. The embassy official was adamant; I could not fly my beloved Orbit into the Middle Kingdom.
Unless you plan to enter by land or sea, expect to either buy or rent a bicycle for your ‘thousand li journey’ through the People’s Republic. Cycle tour operators do exist but what they offer is still very limited and focused on tourist honey pots. Given that few natives get to travel outside their country, these are also Chinese honey pots. With pockets now jangling with yuan, it can seem as if all 1.3 billion of them have descended on the very area you’ve selected for your package holiday.
And forget about hitting the Terracotta Army, Forbidden City and Lu Shan in any one trip. China is a vast country and there are thousands of miles between attractions that will require you to transport your wheels on a train, plane or bus. By train it is a nightmare of forms, tickets and delays, and by plane carriage is all but impossible. Arrive early with sufficient pigeon-Chinese to be forceful and the bus driver might sling your steed on the roof rack, but did you really fly halfway round the world to be incarcerated on a rattletrap for forty or more hours?
My best advice is read voraciously, identify a province to focus on, fly into one of its larger towns (likely to be the size of Manchester) and play the rest by ear. Thus I found myself in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province, some 300 miles south west of Shanghai, in a town world famous for its porcelain industry and a province best known as a seedbed and stronghold of Mao’s particularly vicious brand of Communism. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, my mountain base nestled among strange conical hills, dense with temperate jungle – the model for ‘mountain and water’ blue-and-white decorations on Ming vases. It was also the administrative centre of Fulian County, renown in the Far East for its spring crop of imperial green tea.
I had chosen well but didn’t rush into acquiring a bicycle. I too had read the articles in our press about the rise of the automobile and ensuing chaos on China’s roads. Plus I had met a couple of ex-pat Australians who warned me that to cycle in Jingdezhen (JDZ) was tantamount to committing suicide. Foreigners are effectively banned from driving in China, and it didn’t take a traffic cop to realise why. If there is a Highway Code in the Celestial Empire, it states no more than, “Stay roughly on your side of the tarmac and good luck.”
But the anarchy appeared no worse than I experienced in every other developing country I have pedalled in. While the plague of motorists might have swept through mega cities like Beijing and Shanghai, the denizens of JDZ simply weren’t rich enough to buy into the boom. Taxis, buses and trucks constituted the bulk of motorised road transport, all driven by government employees or sub-contractors whose lives would be worthless if they so much as clipped a ‘laowai’ (foreigner) pedestrian or cyclist. I concluded that cycling in JDZ was in fact safer than in my home town of Nottingham, provided I never forgot that anything goes on thoroughfares where bullocks and carts, tricycle freight carriers, ‘bang-bang’ men and even dog walkers all consider they have the superior right of way.
The bicycle I settled on was predicated by frame size. I bought new, mostly because second-hand machines are invariably stolen goods and, while quality machines are available at a price, a bog standard Chinese roadster will only set you back around £30. The learning curve was in the way the trade operates. Forget about test rides and after-sales service. You get what you get, and if something needs sorting, you take it to one of the bicycle-repairmen found on virtually every street corner in downtown China. When the chain snapped on my maiden voyage, I made the mistake of doing my own repairs. The crowd that instantly gathered meant I spent a good half an hour on an operation I later discovered my local repairman, Mr. Wang, could perform in eight seconds for 1 yuan (10 yuan = 6p!).
With over 300 million bicycles in the country, there is no question that China remains the premier cycling nation on the planet. Bicycles and tricycles are still exploited for everything from taxi services to fast-food cafés, freight haulage to personal transport, but they are rarely used for distance cycling. In the three months of my sojourn, I saw only one group of Chinese on their equivalent to a CTC Sunday pootle, and met only one local who had pedalled beyond the borders of Jiangxi province and called himself a cyclist. My theory is that the lethal condition of most bicycles in China precludes all thoughts of exploring further than walking distance from the farthest bicycle-repairman. The more I came to meet Jingdezheners who pedalled, the clearer it became that to ride a death trap sporting one brake block, two buckled wheels and a set of pedals reduced to spindles was de rigeur in China.
So you can imagine the locals’ astonishment when I first trundled into the hillside village of Xiancha not more than twenty miles from JDZ. I was stared at in wonderment and feted like a conquering hero, brought hot noodles, spring tea and chao shijin shucai (stir-fried vegetables) by the lime-kiln family that monopolised me. As language and sketches failed us, we smiled at each other and nodded a lot, but I knew enough Mandarin to appreciate the West had not yet reached Xiancha. They called me waigouren, a word for ‘foreigner’ less familiar than laowei, which literally means ‘old friend’.
I was en route to the coalmining town of Yongshenzhen, a round trip of less than 100 miles that laid before my wheels the full range of road surfaces and traffic behaviours. While coal-fired kilns are no longer employed by the porcelain industry, over 80% of Jingdezheners and all outlying villagers still cook on coal. Endless convoys of overloaded trucks banged down this highway, but rarely at speeds greater than 30mph. If the tarmac wasn’t heavily potted, puddled and ridged, it simply wasn’t there, which is remarkable considering the flow to and from a state industry. Watching Dong Feng, Isuzu and Forland lorries, all in regulation China blue, weaving and lurching across the full width of the coal and mud line put me in mind of the Karakoram Highway before it was metalled.
Time and again I felt like Marco Polo exploring the remotest frontiers of the Orient, but I never once feared for my safety either on the road or amongst the people. The landscape I cruised through was like nothing I had ever seen (except on Chinese ceramics), and by restricting myself to a single province I know I returned with a better understanding of the land of the Han than any of my friends who ticked off the grand tour. Of course the beauty of pottering around on a Chinese bicycle was that it not infrequently needed attention, and thus it become the means to even more remarkable encounters with a population who still largely believe Westerners are ‘barbarians’