Happy new year everyone! I've had a wonderfully relaxing few weeks resting up in Hong Kong. I don't think I've had such a carefree time since I was a student. I arrived exhausted, underweight and sporting a bit of a mullet. I leave refreshed, 9kg heavier with a nice short back and sides. I have done some serious eating. Casseroles, cake, pasta, turkey, pizza, cake, KFC, sausage platters, pub burgers, cake, chicken, beef jerky and bread with Nutella all the way. It's been fun. I didn't want to lose my legs altogether mind. Luckily Ray and Andrew live close to the foot of the only serious climb in Hong Kong, Tai Mo Shan. 950m above sea level and the highest point in HK I cycled up 10 times. A little slower each time as my weight returned. On a clear day the panorama of HK is quite breathtaking. I have read a lot. I even read a book in Spanish but I didn't understand it. I serviced my bike myself with the help of multiple YouTube videos. Had a new cassette, chain and brake pads fitted. Drank many an evening beer with Andrew. Slept like a log every night. Fed the cats. Saw in the new year on a roof top terrace overlooking the sea. Watched my first football of the season and drowned myself in new music. A big thank you to Ray and Rachel for the loan of their home whilst they were away and a massive thank you to Andy, Jeanette, June, Paul and Wendy for making my time here so enjoyable. I was well looked after. Such a beautiful family. A wrench to leave but I am excited about getting back on the bike again. Photo is from Christmas Day.
Back on the bike. Back into China. I have to question my decision to set off in the middle of a monsoon. Simply assuming it will clear up any minute is not always the best policy. Maybe I needed a short, sharp shock to wake me up from my month of comfort. I certainly got one. Still happy to be pedalling again and my new rain poncho got a good workout. Managed to camp beneath a bridge next to an enormous river. Photo is from the top of Tai Mo Shan in Hong Kong.
Monsoon continued. Holed up in a hotel in Shaping. Frustrating as I don't really need a day off. Started reading War and Peace. I wonder which country I'll be in when I finish it. Photo is Andy and I at the top of Tai Mo Shan.
Monsoon relented and I managed a full day heading away from the coast. So what is the plan? Short term plan is to head straight for Vietnam. 600 km for a crow. A bit longer for me. Long term goal is to get to the Indian Himalaya. Quite which route I take I am not too sure. No doubt the plan will change a million times along the way. I enjoy this freedom. To make it up as I go along and change my mind like the wind. I'd be hell to cycle with.
Continued West on quiet back roads. The scenery is far from spectacular but after my extended break I am enjoying simply being out there once more. Curious to see what's round the bend. I seem to have forgotten all my Chinese i'd learnt. Not a lot to forget but not a lot to remember either. Back to smiling, nodding and pointing.
Good progress today. In China many of the rivers have paved paths alongside too narrow for cars. I look for rivers heading in my general direction and enjoy the peace and quiet. Eucalyptus trees swaying in the wind on each side of the river. Legs felt a little heavy this afternoon but a gentle tailwind kept me moving.
I was sat outside a bakery this afternoon, gorging myself on sugar coated bread with custard in the middle, when a young guy approached me and tried to give me a 50 Yuan note. About £6. He was quite insistent. I was a little bemused and naturally refused. It was only later that I realised he had probably taken me for an impoverished hobo and was trying to help me out. Oh dear. It's fair to say I don't always look a million dollars. It was a hot day, I'd just come off a dusty back road and a few nights in my tent. I expect I looked dirty and disheveled. My shoes are falling apart. My socks are made of Mongolian camel hair. I wear black Manchester United shorts and a brand free blue running top that I've owned for over a decade. There is also the bike. In this part of the world the people don't see the bicycle as something you do for fun. It is the poor persons mode of transport. They look at me and think if he had any money he'd be in a car. On a motorbike at least. I don't try to look like a vagrant but it has its benefits. No one would imagine I had anything worth stealing. Also I find the locals don't look upon me as a wealthy tourist but as someone they can relate to and they treat me as such. This I value. I don't need handouts though. Not yet anyway.
Grim day. I couldn't avoid the main road without going massively round the houses. A day with the trucks can leave you feeling a little unwell. I must have heard the honking of a horn a thousand times today. The horn is so over used here you rarely think danger. They honk to say hello, to say get out of the way or merely to let you know they are coming. They have no honking signs in residential areas which everyone ignores. I challenge myself to smile serenely at every honk levelled in my direction. I'm good at this until the end of the day when I get tired. Then I'm likely to snap and gesticulate wildly. Everytime I do I find a family of four waving at me.
Today was pretty dull. I spent most of the day on an empty motorway. Sometimes I think the Chinese just build roads for the fun of it. Made it to the Vietnam border but I didn't cross over. For visa reasons I won't bore you with I am going to continue on the Chinese side of the border for a couple of days and enter Vietnam a little further north. All after a day off. I would like to improve my leg management strategy. Instead of cycling myself into the ground I plan to ensure I have a full day off every week. Hopefully this will keep me moving in the long run.
Finally up into the hills and back into rural China. Followed a river the other side of which lies Vietnam. The road was wonderfully quiet. Livestock felt at ease to sleep in middle of the road. I almost crashed into some water buffalo. First serous climbing since Hong Kong and I struggled a bit but great to be in the mountains once more. Found an idyllic spot to camp in a clearing on top of a pass.
More of the same today. Winding roads through the hills. Lots of short climbs through thick forests. It is tree felling season. Occasionally the road would be cordoned off so that nearby trees could be brought down safely. The only traffic on the road was the wagons carrying away the wood. Made it to a border town where I will try and cross into Vietnam tomorrow.
I wasn't allowed to cross over the border. I was told that the border was too small to handle foreigners. I wasn't greatly perturbed as there is an alternative crossing 130 km away that is more or less in the direction I wish to go. The border police assured me I would be able to cross there. I headed off towards it and enjoyed another pleasant day cycling through the hills of China under a clear blue sky.
Short ride through paddy fields to the border town of Shuykou where once again I was told I could not cross. Despite being an 'international' border it was no longer open to foreigners. I cursed the misinformation I was given at the previous border crossing but then realised my error. I had been a victim of generic nodding. Anyone who's been drinking with my good friend Adam will be familiar with the term generic nodding. It is when you don't understand a word being said to you, or are simply not listening, and you just lazily nod your head in perfect agreement. At the previous crossing I had pointed to an alternative border crossing on my map that was conveniently en route and asked the guards if it was open to tourists. They had no idea what I was talking about. They just wanted rid of me. Hence the generic nodding that came my way. That was enough for me. I had got what I wanted to hear and sped off. It's something I was wary of when asking directions in Mongolia. I would often ask the way to somewhere and point in the direction I knew it wasn't. If I was met by generic nodding I knew to take no notice. If they shook their head and pointed in a direction I thought it might be I could then proceed with a degree of confidence. This time I got the border guards to show me themselves on the map where I could definitely cross. Unfortunately it was something of a detour. So off I went to continue my tour of China/Vietnam border crossings. Still the cycling was excellent. High up into the mountains on quiet hairpin back roads.
I almost got across the border today. I got through Chinese immigration but then hit a snag on the Vietnamese side. My visa letter has not been stamped. I would have to go to the nearest Vietnamese embassy and get it sorted. Amateur hour on my part. If I'd done my research properly I would've known the visa letter needs a stamp from an embassy. I could have done this easily when I was in Hong Kong. Nothing for it but to head back into China and find a Vietnamese embassy. The nearest one is in the city of Nanning 200 km away. Left my bike in a hotel at the border town and hopped on a bus. Turns out it's the weekend and there's nothing I can do until Monday. Checked into a hotel cursing my tiny brain. A few years ago I tried everything and couldn't get into China. Now I can't seem to get out!
It took 3 days to get the visa stamp in Nanning and make it back to the border town. I have nothing interesting to say about Nanning. Just an incredible number of high rise buildings. Like a shit New York. Good to get cycling again and I finally made it over the border into Vietnam. I have been here before. Many moons ago I spent a week motorbiking around the north. I learnt to ride a motorbike on the streets of Hanoi which was entertaining. Stall, wheelie, stall, wheelie until I eventually got the hang of it. I had an amazing week touring the mountains on my trusty Russian Minsk until the final day when I lost it on a wet descent and landed on my shoulder. I rode back into rush hour Hanoi with one arm. It's good to know one's limits. Since then I have stuck to bicycles and I'm looking forward to cycling across the north as I head towards Laos.