Tuesday, 25 November 2014

mountain voodoo

It's quite possible that Wuyuan County in the north-east of Jiangxi province has some of the prettiest landscapes we'll ever see in China.  Our ride south from Huangshan City has brought us into another area full of old and well-looked after villages that look good through a camera lense - especially a one-foot long one as sported by the Nikon Camera Club - they are everywhere.  Well, not everywhere, okay, I'm exaggerating.  The joy of cycling is turning up in places that have not yet been branded by the Chinese as a 4 or 5 A tourist attraction.  Hey look! AAAAA!  Stop the bus!
And it helps if you have marked on your map a little connecting back country road based on what you think you can see on Google Maps only to find you have wandered down a dead-end lane somewhere in the hills.  Then you really are getting off the beaten track.

But actually, the beaten track is quite okay - with new tarmac and a steady supply of villages that can provide shops and restaurants as and when you need it.  Feeling peckish?  Oh look, here's a village.  The temperatures have risen and we feel like we've entered another climate zone having crossed a pass to enter the province of Jiangxi.  It seems like we're now in satsuma country, judging by the roadside open truck sales.  The villages we've come to see are not as wonderful as the UNESCO-protected ones in Anhui, but they are of the same style and era, with newer buildings popping up everywhere.  The clumsy touch of restoration/renovation/reconstruction that sometimes gives China's old villages a Disneyland look.  Authentic village or theme park?  Well, a bit of both normally.  If you wander away from the main street with its tourist shops and stalls you discover that normal rural daily life continues: bamboo and tree-felling, weeding of vegetable plots, washing laundry in the stream.

We find various camping pitches along the way.  Gayle's favourite is an Andy McNabb affair, which requires a commando-crawl up a terraced hillside through heavy growth to reach a bright little terrace over-looking the road.  Perfectly hidden and feeling relaxed we set to our dinner and getting comfy in bed when a strong lightbeam sweeps the overgrown land below us.  Who could it be searching in the dark in this lonely place? Forestry Police looking for careless campers?  Or just a farmer searching for his ornery buffalo? We don't know - they turn around before reaching us.  Another day, after a long ride through the mountains we pass through three villages with tourist facilities (i.e. hotels) before realising it is getting too dark to see anything and there's nowhere to camp except for that unused plot of land surrounded by vegetable plots.  In the morning we'll be plain to see, but in the dark every passerby on an electric scooter is oblivious.

Our ride takes us past one of China's least-visited mountains - should I say holy mountains?  There seems to be a top six that attract huge numbers of tourists and have had temples and monasteries built on them as places of meditation and prayer for centuries.  San Qing Shan has been an inspiration for Taoist monks and is now a UNESCO heritage site remarkable for a large number of hoodoos.  Yep, voodoo hoodoo.  We are wondering what we will come across as we cycle up and around the mountain, but apart from a few weird spindly rock shapes and a burgeoning tourist scene with cable cars and massive luxury hotel complexes, there ain't no sorcery or witchcraft that we can find.  The only fright we get is the entrance price.  Fifteen quid!

it turns out the hoodoo are the spindly rocks

The cyling has been a little harder than we've become accustomed to, but it should stand us in good stead for the ride south through Fujian.  There's not much of China that's flat in these parts. Coming down out of the mountains we reach a reservoir and then have to climb again as the road skirts around the steep slopes.  And then suddenly we pop out onto a plain, a wide valley, with big towns and dirty dusty roads with heavy traffic.  We opt for a main road to Shangrao and pass through the obligatory road-surfacing stretch where gravel has been dumped across the side of the road that isn't being worked on.  We emerge from the clouds of dust and find the road getting better - with much less traffic than expected.  After hurtling along for a couple of hours we cruise into Shangrao and start looking for a hotel.  To our dismay, the town seems to have undergone a couple of the Chinese City Makeovers.  So we have big avenues with grand buildings and only four- or five-star hotels which give way to a grimier city centre with an eighties' era white-tiled and blue-tinted glass look.  Behind these buildings are the old communist appartment blocks that look crumbly and grim, but these are well-tucked away behind the main shopping facades.  It's like peeling away an onion when you walk around, finding layers and layers like this.  It's rush-hour, traffic snarl-
ups outside schools, and no sign of anything but business hotels with business prices.  After trying a couple of these we come across one with nice helpful staff who have never had foreigners stay before. We agree to take their cheapest room - 100 yuan is about £10 - which is small but fine for us.  The bed is rock hard but then they often are.   After a bit of faffing around getting our visas copied and entry dates recorded we try to pay but the young manager/owner is having none of it.  He points to the bikes and gives us the thumbs up.  A free night in a smart little hotel - a fantastic kind offer we can only accept.

now this is a cheeky wild camp - on a hotel doorstep
There's something overwhelming about a big city after riding through the countryside for a few days, but the shock and awe soon wears off and we are happy to have a mooch about looking for food.  We find a cheap buffet canteen place with extremely odd looking but tasty food served on metal trays.  Foolishly, one of the dishes I opt for is the black-eyed peas - try eating them with stainless steel chopsticks.........

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

bucolic bliss

Sometimes when you're wild camping you just have to make do with what you can find at the end of the day.  We've had a few bumpy pitches lately, but nothing to keep us awake.  Today we find a perfect grassy spot, on a hill, out in the open but with cover from trees and bushes.  And it's not yet dark.  We've had to push through a small plantation of trees, but the hunch has paid off.  Down below a farmer is spraying his field with what kind of chemical?  A water buffalo bellows in a rice paddy.  Firecrackers explode in a village.  We are in a lovely valley west of Yixian town to visit the village of Nanping.  Gayle has had a look around this afternoon and I will tomorrow morning.  We're not so comfortable leaving the bikes alone - although I'm sure they'd be okay - and the real reason is that we want to use the same ticket.  Once again we've had another warm sunny day - perfect for sight-seeing.

Nanping's main claim to fame is that Zhang Yimou's Judou was filmed here, as well as scenes from Ang Lee's hit Crouching Tiger Hidden Ticket Inspector.  It's not such a big drawcard as the nearby UNESCO sights but is fascinating nonetheless.  The village is packed solid with high-walled courtyard houses, all in familiar grey stone, with ornate entrances including some lovely detailed latticework.  These villages are about a 1000 years old while the houses date from the Ming period.  And here they are still lived in by an aged population.  Not many young folk, like a lot of villages.  In one house are panels of coloured glass that came from Germany over 300 years ago, such was the measure of wealth then.  It's in sharp contrast to the poor simple homes these have now become.  No longer the homes of wealthy merchants, just sad damp draughty refuges for a forgotten population.  On my way out of the village a ticket man challenges me - he has guessed I'm using Gayle's ticket.  Ashamed, I quickly get on the bike and ride off.

Later on we are sat having our lunch in Yixian town in a tiny restaurant.  A woman wearing a facemask walks by and stops to look at us.  Our bikes are leaning against the window.  She walks on and then returns a bit later and thrusts a 50 yuan note down on our table.  It's £5.  We say thank you but no thank you and try and give the money back but she won't have it and walks away quickly.  We are speechless.

Down the road is Xidi, the other UNESCO-listed village and Gayle pays a visit while I sit in the coach park and watch the tourists pile in and pile out again.  The numbers are daunting.  As in Hong Cun, there are students everywhere painting with watercolours.  It must be part of the national curriculum judging by the numbers of artists we've seen wandering around and perched on tiny folding stools with a pot of water and a pad of paper.  Gayle remarks that the village looks much poorer than Hong Cun and we wonder how the £10 entrance money is spent.  They must rake it in, judging by the numbers this afternoon.  Nearby mountain Huangshan gets 15 million visitors a year - it's the most popular in China -and it costs £23 to visit.  Tourism is booming.  We wonder if the high prices are a way to keep visitor numbers down.  The tourists are predominantly Chinese.  On these few days we only see about six other laowai.

traditional life goes on in Xidi

Camping again in some nearby woods - the sun is setting around 5.30pm so we have long nights in the tent nowadays.  We've taken to eating instant noodles at night, quick and easy, because we can find really good cheap food during the day.  The meals are cooked fresh, the rice keeps on coming and there's always plenty of green tea to wash it all down with - ideal for us.  China isn't renowned for its environmental policies.  Since SARS and bird flu epidemics many of the nation's cheap restaurants have reverted to using disposable chopsticks - about 40 billion are produced annually.  We have seen the cut bamboo stacked on the side of the roads.  It looks like a cottage industry.  There is one thing they are very good at recycling and that's vegetable oil.   It is apparently dredged out of sewers and drains to be reprocessed and sold back to restaurants.  It's estimated about 10% of the oil used is sourced in this way - it sure adds a little je ne sais quoi to those tasty stir-fries we enjoy.

We find another back-country road that will take us to Huangshan City.  Originally called Tunxi, the town has been renamed presumably to help those 15 million visitors find their way to the entry point for trips to the big mountain itself.  Confusingly there was already another town called Huangshan on the other side of the mountain.  It seems the Chinese are good at replicating.  Along the way we pass picture-perfect scenes of rural life.  Farmhouses wedged in-between fields.  Villages with old men playing cards while the women run the shops and restaurants and do the laundry and mind the kids and keep house.  Mao famously once said that women hold up half the sky - but that only takes one hand. With the other they're doing plenty of other stuff.  The one place you won't see many women is in the upper echelons of the Party, although this may change one day as more and more young women join the Party to progress their careers.  Anhui province, a predominantly rural one, also has one of the worst boy:girl birth ratios.  In a 2009 study the ratio was 138:100 for children up to 4 years old.  The one-child policy applied to Han Chinese has been relaxed a little to change this imbalance - if your first child is a girl then you are allowed a second child.

Out in the fields there are plenty of people out harvesting chrysanthemums.  The countryside is full of these vivid yellow flowers and it looks like the time to gather them in - trucks are being filled with giant bags of them.  This area is famed for the variety used to make a tea which supposedly has many medicinal benefits.

some like it hot

When we reach Huangshan/Tunxi we take a room in one of the youth hostels. The room is a little bit more than a cheap hotel but it's much more peaceful and there're comfy communal areas.  Plus there's always staff who speak English.  We arrive on a Sunday and our plan is to renew our visa here on the Monday.  I thought our visas would expire on Tuesday but when I re-count the days they actually expire on Sunday.  Ooops.  
WANTED for ticket evasion

We wonder what they'll say when we enter the local Public Security Bureau office, but the senior officer (he has no uniform, speaks excellent English) who we talk to doesn't check the days.  The process is straightforward - we just need to write a rough itinerary for another 30 days and they want to take our photo.  To my dismay I really look my age on the photo.  We are told to return to collect on Friday - 4 days later.  That would mean 4 days of the new visa spent waiting for it.  We protest and they agree to us collecting the next day.  With great relief we do so and find they have given us 31 days extra by mistake.  Can't complain.  Now, how do we get to Xiamen?