China, a country with multiple faces: our journey and impressions on the bicycle

Dries Van Ransbeeck
Nov 2, 2019 · 8 min read

Our two months of cycling in China have been an amazing discovery. We had very little expectations & many stereotypes before entering it and yet we were stunned by the enormous complexity of such a gigantic country and the beauty that lies in the mix of its traditions and modernity. From Ürümqi to Beijing via Kunming, Guilin & Guangzhou, we got to know China from different perspectives, explained by different people.

Traditional temple with skyscrapers in the background in Ürümqi

It’s fair to say that our strong interest in visiting China has only been growing during our travel. We left Brussels with the idea to make a short stop in China before heading to Mongolia. That started to change in Tehran where we had to make a fake travel itinerary for China in order to get the Chinese visa and we got very excited by reading more about the rich Chinese culture, history and points of interest. Then, after having spent our summer mainly in pure nature in Central Asia, we were very keen to experience more culture again and we decided to take a 2-months deep dive in Chinese culture and put aside our plan to go to Mongolia. We created our own ‘best of China’ itinerary and prepared ourselves for a big discovery of the unknown.

Xīnjiāng province versus the rest of the country

The Xīnjiāng province, our point of entry from Kazakhstan to China, is home to the Uyghurs, a Turkic minority ethnic group. During the Mao era, China sponsored mass migrations of Han Chinese — the most important ethnicity in the country — to the province in order to promote Chine cultural unity and suppress the Uyghur own cultural and religious expression. These tensions have resulted in a complicated conflict in the province, leading to attacks, riots, arrests and massive imprisonments of the Uyghur people.

In this part of the country, the government operates as a Big Brother machine — using facial recognition absolutely everywhere, camera surveillance and a heavy presence of police, with a police station at every corner. Foreigners here aren’t very welcome: one day, we got our passports controlled 3 times in… only one hour. The province’s reputation is a famous (and bad) among cyclists. We knew beforehand what we were getting ourselves into and therefore took a train from Yining to Ürümqi, Xīnjiāng’s capital. The security level in Ürümqi was impressive: a scanning machine and metal detection door are placed at the entrance of every shop, restaurant and park.

What’s interesting about Xīnjiāng is the fundamental difference from the rest of Mainland China in terms of music, food (bread!), clothing, mosques and people. Signs are translated into Uyghur, written in a perso-arabic script (in Uyghur: ئۇيغۇر تىلى ). What is certain is that we will continue reading closely the development of the situation there.

Locals dancing on Turkic music on People’s Square in Ürümqi

Our best of China tour in 3 loops

Choosing is losing definitely applies when it comes to creating a travel itinerary for China. Our visa only allowed us to stay for 2 months in the country. Therefore, we needed to be picky and choose the places that were really on top of our list. As it looked more interesting to us to cycle around in specific parts of the country instead of crossing the northern part of the country all the way by bicycle, we planned to do 3 different loops in Xinjiang, Yunnan and Guangxi provinces with some long distance trains in between.

Full itinerary and more details on https://roadtotherisingsun.be/
Excited to board our first train in China from Yining to Ürümqi

Generally speaking, 80% of tourists tend to go to 20% of the places to visit. In China, where there’s only a lot of national tourism during the very few public holidays of the year, it’s probably 99% of tourists to 1% of the places, which are also known as (very expensive) scenic areas. By bicycle it’s very easy to just go 1 km further to avoid the big crowds and have very nice spots only for yourself, for free. Furthermore, apart from the big cities, there are many paved small roads as alternatives for the highways, what makes it very enjoyable to cycle and discover new places.

We couldn’t take our bicycles with us on the trains. Fortunately, the Chinese Railway Company offers a special service, called Chinese Railway Express (in Chinese: 中铁快运), to transport goods as bicycles from one station to another for a very reasonable price. All big railway stations contain a CRE office where we could simply leave our bicycles unpacked. In total we used this service 3 times (Yining-Kunming, Lijiang-Guilin and Guilin-Beijing West) and it always worked out perfectly. We can only recommend other cyclists to use this service and hope that the Belgian NMBS/SNCB is reading along…

The combination of cycling different parts and taking a few long distance trains turned out to be fantastic.

Loop 1: South of Kunming to the Honghe rice terraces

Loop 2: North of Dali to the Tiger Leaping Gorge

Loop 3: Around Guilin in the Karst mountains

Discovering the big city life

After having cycled in nature came the last part of our journey in China: the big city life. We first visited Guangzhou, one of China’s three largest cities which is a major port and transportation hub. Arriving there felt a bit surreal with the many skyscrapers and avant-garde architecture. What felt even more surreal was the moment when our Warmshowers host, Hillary & Brian, told us: “By the way, there’s a swimming pool on the roof!”.

Rooftop swimming pool in Guangzhou

Being in Guangzhou was also a great opportunity for Dries to meet up with old friends. On Friday, we met Wolfgang, his former flatmate during his exchange in Switzerland — who lived for two years near Guangzhou and happened to be in the city at the same time. On Sunday, Nelson — Dries’ best friend from that time in Switzerland— travelled from his native Hong Kong with his girlfriend Yvonne to spend the day with us. In one day, we learned tons about their culture, got to see the city with a different perspective and understood a lot about the relationship between Hong Kong & Mainland China.

Afterwards we took a train to Beijing. Although we had big expectations about the city, we didn’t exactly fell in love with the city. What we fell in love with was the Great Wall of China. Having climbed the hundreds of steps to the wall, we first saw it in the mist. We couldn’t see anything further than 5 meters away, making it a very myst…erious (sorry couldn’t resist this joke) experience. All of the sudden, the mist lifted and the amazing, breathtaking and exhilarating views of the Great Wall appeared. A day we’ll never forget!

The roller coaster of cultural adaptation

More than in any other country before, we’ve gone through the roller coaster of cultural adaptation phases, as beautifully shown in Lysgaard’s U-Curve, over the last 2 months in China. In the first month it was all unknown and the new culture fascinated us so much. We liked everything about it because it was different from our own culture. The culture clash came in the last part of the second month when we deeply got to understand, thanks to our contacts speaking English in the big cities, the complexity of Chinese society.

Lysgaard’s U-Curve (source: Su-Hen Lu, Journal of Macau Studies)

We now leave China with mixed feelings. Although we had an incredible time, we got to understand China’s disease: there’s absolutely no freedom of speech. The government is obsessed about one word: “harmony”, making it difficult to anyone who’s different — in terms of ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, … — to be accepted and to be who they truly are. There are many other countries in the world were such oppression exist but China is different: the government has tons of resources, making any kind of criticism extremely complicated because they have the power to arrest you or simply block all your social media accounts. There’s no safe space — online or offline — to express personal opinions. It takes a lot of courage to speak up about your rights in China and we have a lot of respect for those who do it.

Boat from Tianjin to Incheon

Our journey through China ended close to Tianjin. In Binhai New Area we took a ferry to South Korea. There we’re going to see our first cycling path since Serbia (March hehe)!

P.S.: The Great Chinese Firewall is not as enjoyable as the Great Chinese Wall. The Chinese government banned all VPNs on the occasion of the celebration of China’s National Day. We couldn’t go much online and we were forced to take a digital detox. This blog post got published in one of our first days in South Korea.

Happy cycling! Two more countries to go for us! :)

Road to the Rising Sun

We’re Manon and Dries, cycling all the way from Brussels to…

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