Date: 20th February 2009
Newsletter 7. Chinese Propaganda
This is a long overdue update that we wrote a long while ago but figured so old news might be better than none at all and was actually written for a cycling club but we hope you’ll enjoy it too.
From Korea we took the boat to Shimonoseki (wonderful city – very sorry we only spent 1 day there – great funky bikes/bikeshops too!) in south Japan and cycled up towards Nikko. We never made it to Nikko as it was late December by the time we got into the Japanese Alps and every time we took a mountain pass we’d get stopped by snow – the Japanese are efficient enough not to clear any unnecessary roads and on several occasions we spent several days camping & pushing the bikes through snow piles until we’d give up about 6kms from the pass when the snow reached waist deep & come back down again to try another route. Usually on the way down we’d participate in our newly discovered extreme sport – bike skiing. Fun on the snow but rather painful on the icy parts when steering control was lost (that happened frequently enough for us to joke that we had designer tans - multi coloured purple & yellow ones as our bruises were no longer distinguishable having merged into an all over full body spread.)
When our 3 month visas were up we took a ferry to Shanghai – the local residents were as surprised as we were when we arrived & Shanghai was covered in snow. It hadn’t snowed in Shanghai in decades (though to be honest we’re now getting very used to the extreme changes in normal weather patterns) but the Shanghais took full advantage of it & cars were seen everywhere driving along with snowmen on their roofs.
China’s a massive country & I can’t really give it justice in this brief update but there are fabulous sights to be seen and heart wrenching scenes of pollution & poverty at the same time. The propaganda is something else. I’ll give you one example in the following and I apologise but rather long tale. We’d been cycling along a small country lane in the Yulin province fobbing off the locals advice every few kms who were determined that we should take the main road (they couldn’t understand why we’d be taking a small back route when there was a shorter new main road with lots more traffic as an alternative!) when a small van drove past, a mass of heads swivelled round and huge smiles & waves were clearly evident through the van’s windows. Then the van stopped and it seemed that half of China squeezed out of the doors. They nattered away in Chinese and produced a video cam. We eventually deciphered that we were being invited back to visit a kindergarten. As it was quite late in the day and we were considering looking for a place to sleep we enquired if we’d be able to spend the night there & how far it was. They enthusiastically agreed to let us stay the night & advised us it wasn’t far – about 3kms. We turned around & 17kms later rolled into a small community. Clearly someone had gone ahead as there was a welcoming party to greet us. We entertained the children with our bikes for a while & went through the honoured guests ceremonies until we were invited to eat. That caused a great furore as being vegetarians they were flummoxed as how to show their hospitality without offering the best they could offer – in their view (and most of China’s) that being meat. It was resolved by downing masses of cheap 1000% (or so it felt) industrial alcohol. We were petty sure we’d wake up blind in the morning but stopped caring after the 1st 2 toasts when we’d managed to overcome our urge to retch just at the smell of it.
The next day they’d organised a massive show with banners, decorations & lots of wild headgear for us. At some point journalists were summoned from the central city (about 50kms away) and they interviewed us. What was evident was the pride the Chinese had in the forthcoming Olympic Games & they wanted to know our opinion on it.
In fact we had strong opinions. From what we’d read we understood that Beijing had been granted on the Olympic Games on the condition that it would be a green one and most people have heard about the traffic controls that had been tested out to decrease pollution in Beijing. In fact we can testify that they worked as we were in Beijing the week the regulations were put into effect and we were repeatedly told by locals that they had hadn’t experienced the blue skies and clear air that Beijing displayed that week for years.
However, less was publically discussed about the problems such as that caused by the diversion of the water supplies used for farming so that Beijing could present a pleasant water sculptured façade to the world. Much awe was expressed by the huge Olympic flame kept alight throughout the games and the Olympic Flames being FLOWN!!! around the world (not great contributions to reducing greenhouse gases in our opinion).
Nevertheless – in order to keep goodwill flowing and preventing anyone losing “face” we diplomatically explained that the Olympics weren’t really our “thing” – that in regards to sports, cycling was our passion and that we were more concerned about the environment, climate change and how to avoid disasters similar to the earthquake that had only happened days previously in the Sichuan province.
On our departure we were asked to pose for a photo with a banner with Chinese writing. We asked what it said & were told that it had to do with cycling around the world. We allowed the photo to be taken but then on examining the banner we realised it had something to do with the Olympics – even we knew the Chinese script for Beijing and could recognise 2008 easily enough.
We were asked to attach the banner to our bicycle flags but we refused and set off. For the next 40kms we were followed by motor bike & repeatedly photographed with the banner displayed next to us despite our requests not to . We eventually got quite angered by it and shortly before reaching Yulin lost all our face by turning and cycling off in a different direction and literally zigzagged until we lost them.
We sneaked in to Yulin later on that day & booked into a hotel for the night. The next morning the owners of the hotel proudly showed us the local newspaper & we were surprised to see that there was a photo of us with the banner. Richard was reluctant to buy the newspaper but I insisted as I suspected that we wouldn’t like what had been written and wanted a copy for myself to get translated. A week or so later we did get someone to translate it and were shocked by what had been written. Basically the article stated that we had had left Europe with the sole intention of going to China for the Olympic Games and that we were following the Olympic Flame around Asia in support of China hosting the Olympic Games!
Despite our initial hostile feeling towards Yulin because of this, we actually have very fond memories of the city. Eating dinner by the lakeside (no – no fancy lakeside restaurant – a DIY job on a picnic table) we were approached by Kayla who turned out to a cycling fan and insisted on dragging us back to the cycle club she was a member of. They were a fabulous bunch & we wished we’d met them earlier – the photos of the routes they’d done in China were heavenly and we regretted not having cycled some of them ourselves!
Now we are in Laos and will head over into Cambodia tomorrow – looking forward to those dusty unpaved roads – NOT!
Wishing you all the best for 2009.
Stani & Richard
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Stani & Richard
Previous Newsletter: Leaving Mongolia - 31st May 2007