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16) October 28th, Shanghai, China - a slow-boat from China ..

I almost thought I'd never get here! The closer I got, the more time seemed to slow down... more and more impatient to get to Shanghai, but frustrated by the shorter days (it's dark well before 6pm now) and the layers of toxin & pollution clinging to my face like a mask.

It's much more expensive than anywhere else I've been to in China, no doubt, and the "Shanghainese" pretty slick when it comes to money. But people seem outgoing and friendly enough... I'm almost disappointed! Thankfully, the receptionist in my hotel has a permanent sneer, grumbles loudly & angrily whenever a guest makes a request, barks orders like a drill seargent ("Wait!","Pay now!").... and she wears a little smiley badge.

So the end of "Part Four", and now I have a few days here, waiting for my ferry to Japan, and the final stage of this trip. Time to relax, buy some clean clothes, and burn some money - I might as well get used to it, with Japan as my next stop.

Looking back, I'm starting to think I haven't done enough! And several times I've entertained the idea of "turning right" again, and heading south - Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia... Australia ? It almost seems a shame that I'm close to finishing, now I've got the hardest parts out of the way!

But don't worry mum - I'll be home for Christmas.


15th october, Sat - day off in Kaifeng: Only got one "sight" done today - the Iron Pagoda, touted on the information board as, officially, "the best pagoda in the world". And you know what ? It was impressive. Very tall, completely tiled with glazed bricks (the colour of a rusty red, hence the name). Each brick had detailed carvings of the Budda and other images - it really was outstanding. The structure was set in some large pleasant grounds, with a few other temples scattered around and a few ponds. It was surprizingly peaceful, more so once the sun went down and darkness descended. I reflected that this was the first time I wasn't actually in a rush to complete something and for the first time in a long time, I relaxed.

16th october, Sun: Today was Day 1 as Local Celebrity in Henan province. It was a bright day, the sunlight glistening off the roadside streams used to irrigate the corn and cotton fields. Trees lined the road, but half-naked from the loss of leaves - winter can't be that far away now. Still, the trunks and branches threw welcome slivers of shade across the road, some reprise from the harsh sun. I'd overtake rickety old tricycles, powered steadily along by a gnarled old man, his wife sleeping in the cart behind. By the roadside small groups of women would be sat in a semi-circle, furiously knitting. I passed a bicycle with a trussed-up dog tied to the rack. Well, he's too big a pet to go in the basket, I innocently thought. A couple miles later I saw a bike coming the other way, again, with a trussed-up dog tied to the rack. But this time the poor blighter had been skinned...

Arriving in Shangqiu, a surprizingly large city, I eventually settled on some basic accomodation (cardboard windows and crickets chirping in my room) and a communal toilet with, well, "character". A few people from the neighbourood (around twenty) dropped by and crammed into my room. As usual, rapid unintelligable questions were thrown at me in Chinese. And as always, I scraped by with the standard reponses. One girl knew a few words of English and managed to ask me what food I ate through my trip. Amongst other things, "chicken" I replied. "How many ?" she asked. After a pause, I said "Twenty", which seemed to satify her...

Two enthusiastic kids took me to the food-stalls outside and asked what kind of food I wanted. This question invariably leads to noodles, the only chinese I know. They badgered the old lady who ran it to give me an large helping and throw in a couple of eggs as well. They got me a stool, kept topping up my tea and really looked after me. I felt quite guilty at my "infant outrage" the other day. Getting back to my room, utterly exhausted, I closed the door and finally had some privacy. Relaxed, about to spark up my nightly "well done steve - you earned it" cigarette, when bugger me, there was another knock at the door.

It was the press! An english-speaking interviewer (rather nice..), a photographer, the editor of the provincial newspaper, three or four assistants, and the entire neighbourhood behind them. It lasted about an hour and a half - I was very flattered!

Distance: 140km. Overnight in Shangqui (Henan prov, China).


17th october, Mon: This morning was the photo-shoot. I followed the photographer and assistant on their motorbike to the "Old City". This wasn't even mentioned in my consistantly disappointing "Let's Go" guidebook, which was surprizing - it was quite impressive. The old walls and gates surrounding the town, in turn surrounded by a wide moat - one of only four in China. Inside the walls, despite the din of scooters and trucks, you could see the China that you'd imagined - narrow tree-lined streets, rows & rows of simple shops - their contents spilling out onto the pavement, and the manic claustrophobic scenes of daily chinese street life.

I did various "scenes" for the camera. I circled a busy roundabout with a large abstract looking red statue in the middle (the city icon), cycled in & out of the Old town gates several times, up and down a shopping street ... all in the midst of traffic chaos, with one hand raised with the "V" sign, forcing a smile at the camera, and all the while trying to avoid the string of vehicles coming straight at me. And then the photographer would say "again please".

After it was over, they sent me on my way to the next town, taking a local road. This was actually very nice, and quite peaceful, passing through farmland with few buildings lining the road. But a dammed sight longer than my intended route! Anyway, I found the formula for "Instant Celebrity" - Choose a local road, and just Add bicycle tourist... every time I stopped to check my map, people would swarm around me. I blocked up one side of a dual carriageway at one point, and was a little worried about the oncoming traffic. But it was okay - they just stopped their vehicles as well, and came to join the party. Into Anhui province next, and the farms seemed to be larger and more prosperous - now I was seeing more tractors and ploughs on the road (rather than farm-workers with hoes), and ornate, well-kept ancestral tombs in the fields.

There was nothing prosperous about my lodgings for the night, however. A right doss-house. As I was about to go to bed, a smelly hagard-looking older man came into my room (no locks on the doors), and smoked an opium pipe while spitting at the foot of my bed. I finally had to pull him out, and wedged my bike against the door before going to sleep. Lucky I did, as he woke me up in the early hours trying to force the door, until I chased him away.

Distance: 136km. Overnight in a dusty small town (Henan prov, China).

18th october, Tue: With a foul, foul headwind all-day today, I was in a bad mood. People seem more outgoing in Anhui that what I've become used to in china, but in my present state of mind, "friendly" translated as "pushy". They'd flock to me whether I stopped, asking questions. A little like Central Asia, infact, but with considerably more people. I still can't get used to the intrusiveness here though - for example, snatching away the book I'm reading for a closer look, trying to unzip my bags, crowding around to watch me eat and so on. Today I just couldn't deal with it! I was so exhausted getting into town, so tonight I decided to find an anonomous hotel, with my own clean bathroom, a TV (it was English movie night on CCTV6) and get a damm good sleep.

Unusally, when such hotels are usually two-a-penny in a city this size, I couldn't find one. There were plenty of signs advertising the usual "spare room available", "doss-house round back", "cockroach hotel" and "cess-pit disguised as room", but none for a decent hotel. I finally found one with run-down rooms, and settled down for a night of TV.

Then there was a power-cut, lasting until morning, and with the way the receptionist was casually handing out candles willy nilly in this firetrap of a hotel, I didn't exactly sleep too soundly either...

Distance: 127km. Overnight in Sixian (Henan prov, China).

19th october, Wed: I saw a lot of pigs having sex today. The owner of the "stud pig" would be looking on with admiration and a "that's my boy" glint in his eye as his pride & joy went to it, with his friends nearby adding professional commentary. I saw this in several villages, generally with a small crowd gathered in the mud and rubbish, watching, and young school-girls pointing in puzzlement. Must be the season, I guess.

The scenery changed quite abruptly today, from cultivated fields of corn and cotton, to paddy-fields and trees. Women scrubbling their clothes clean by the bank of the many ponds amongst the fields, while water buffalo are led along, slow and lumbering, by their owner. Or maybe just standing in a corner of a waterlogged rice-field, a look of dulled expectation, "I know I was put here for a reason, but what was it now ?"...

A strong headwind again, but today the road rose and fell through forests; a very welcome and scenic change - and a headwind doesn't bite nearly so hard when you're already slowed down by the climbs anyway. A middle-school teacher pulled up alongside and invited me to his class. I had to refuse, as I needed to be in Nanjing tomorrow to apply for my visa extension, and time was tight. And, to be honest, I wasn't particularly looking forward to an afternoon of "what's your name" from pimply adolescents.

I passed a pilgrim by the side of the road, kneeling, prostrating himself, rising, and doing the same again one step later. I thought about how I'm travelling, in relative comfort, and felt humbled.

Distance: 154km. Overnight in Chuzhou (Henan prov, China).

20th october, Thu: The road I took for the first 40km to Nanjing is the worst asphalt road I have ever riden on. Maybe I've been in China too long now, and it's time to move on, but I was back in my bad mood - how could anyone pave a road so imcompetently as this ?? Ridges, bumps and ruts perpendicular across the surface, I started swearing at the road, taunting it, declaring that it'll never get any quality traffic in such an abysmal state as that.

Nanjing is BIG. From the city limits to this hostel near the centre, it took more than 30km. A thriving modern city. I can't begin to imagine what cycling into Shanghai will be like...

Distance: 76km. Overnight in Nanjing (Jiangsu prov, China).

21st/22nd october, Fri/Sat - resting up in Nanjing: I'm staying in a youth hostel in Nanjing, as I did in Xi'an and Urumqi, and it's starting to dawn on me... these places really are young. Such activity, such enthusiasm, so idealistic... how annoying. Ten or fifteen years ago that would have been me. And I'd have been thinking "who's that boring awld duffer sat in the corner reading a book ?". That's me, that is, ten years on!

I visited the "Memorial to the Victims of the Nanjing Massacre by the Japanese Invaders". After all, this is the only reason I'd heard of Nanjing, and it's always been a serious thorn in the side of Sino-Japanese relations. Visiting the museum I can certainly see why. Quite horrific, the atrocities suffered. However, it does gloss over a lot of the history and background, leaving me none the wiser about the events leading up to the massacre, and also makes out that the Chinese resistance were responsible for the Japanese surrender. There is no mention at all of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Americans. In any case, feeling is very strong, which accounts, I think, for the absence of Japanese tourists in this city.

Next was a cycle ride out to Purple Gold Mountain - a beautiful densely wooded mountain retreat east of the city. This was really nice, initially skirting the old city walls (mighty impressive) and leading further into the hills for a selection of tourist sights. The mausoleum of Dr Sun Yat Sen was the crowd- puller and the definite main attraction. I had to refer to my guidebook to find out who the hell he was (the "father of modern China"). Instead I went to a small lake to escape most of the crowds, and visited the tomb of the first emperor of the Ming dynasty - a beautiful location, stretching up into the mountain.

Nanjing really is quite a pleasant city - lots of shops (even a Starbucks), leafy avenues, parks, lakes and canals. And quite clean! And judging by those bloody youngsters rolling into the hostel at 4:30am, a seemingly lively nightscene. I think it's the first Chinese city I've some across that I wouldn't outright burst into tears at the thought of living in.

Distance: 37km around town

23rd october, Sun: Fairly bland scenery today - yellow ripened fields of wheat and a few factories off a wide (but not busy) road. However, it gently rose and dropped most of the way, relieving the boredom a bit, and it is very pleasing to see that the Shanghai distance markers are no longer followed by four digits...

I've figured out the "rules of the road" here. Simply, RULE ONE: look out for the guy infront of you, and assume the guy behind is doing the same. Certainly don't look over your shoulder, as you really don't want to know. Coming through Changzhou, a city that seemed to stretch forever, my nerves were really put to the test. Trucks, buses, cars, motorbikes (sometimes with three generations of the same family squeezed on together). Pedel-tricycles, motor-tricycles, pedi-cabs, three-wheeled lorries, pick-up trucks, bicyles, road-rollers... coming from everwhere, many using the bike-lanes, and most in the wrong direction. Here, judious application of RULE TWO is very appropriate, and known the world over: Might is Right. At some points the middle of the road was being dug up haphardly by a JCB digger. It spilled a couple of pumpkin- sized rocks into the carriageway that just missed a couple of cars.

Found myself in an unknown town a little short of Wuxi. Staying in a really nice hotel, by far the best and cleanest yet - nothing to fault it. And I bargained the price down from 180 to 100 yuan (5 quid), my best yet! I think I'm really perfecting my technique.

In the evening, after a nice meal, the restaurant wouldn't accept payment - "on the house". And I hadn't even dragged out the old "and I cycled here from the UK!" chesnut. Completely unexpected generousity.

And that's the great thing about travelling by bicycle - most of your time is spent between the big cities and the tourist traps, staying in regular towns & villages, where anything can happen.

Distance: 162km. Overnight near Wuxi (Jiangsu prov, China).

24th october, Mon: Mad traffic, frenzied cycling, and into Suzhou, the "Venice of the Orient". Well there might be a few ponds and canals, but no more than, say, Wolverhampton, the Venice of the Midlands. But still, very pleasant, clean streets, lots of shopping, and many many touristy things to do (Suzhou is famous for it's gardens). Possibly the nicest Chinese city yet. And providing you have nerves of steel, easy to get around by bike.

Distance: 98km. Overnight in Suzhou (Jiangsu prov, China).

25th october, Tue: Gardened out. My favourite was the "Lion Grove Garden", with mishaped rocks (I think they were meant to be lions) forming a maze around a central pond. Pretty ingenious, as the paths (going under or under over other paths) lead you not where you expected to be led.

Went for a haircut (my first since Tashkent, Uzbekistan). After 30 minutes they were still on the massage. Great! Finally, the lowly hair-washers and apprentices move aside, and the stylist appears with a shiny aluminium case (the kind you often see in movies with a nuclear bomb ready to blow up the city). Waiting for a respectful silence, he flings the lid open, arms thrown wide, and lays a shiny pink apron over me with an artistic florish. I get a short, back & sides.

Still in the mood to pamper myself, I crossed the street for a foot massage. Not as painful as I'd envisioned, and performed by a very pretty girl with a lovely smile. Unfortunately couldn't find the Chinese word for "extras" in my phrasebook...

Distance: 16km around town

26th october, Wed: My original plan was to meander around the backroads, taking in a few minor sights over a couple days on the way to Shanghai. But to hell with that, I now thought, not now I'm this close. All haste, through the most ugly, traffic-riden direct route I can find... that will suit me fine. So, my Last Cycling Day in China.

Ahhhh, there's nothing like the feel of an early morning smog through your hair, and diesel fumes in your lungs - I couldn't wait to get out there! A beautiful day of high-speed physcopathic truck-drivers trying to run me down like a dog, pushing and shoving from other cyclists and motorcyclists, hurled abuse and sneers from pedestrians... it doesn't get much better than this.

Endless run-down industrial estates, road-side garages, blocks of flats... passing a black river I saw a barge being unloaded of it's cargo of bricks. All by hand, the dozens of workers moving in complete syncronisation over precarious bamboo planks, balancing a hundredweight of bricks from their shoulders, bouncing to the shore, unloading and repeating the process again and again.

Surprizingly suddenly, I was in Shanghai, multi-storey buildings rising high up either side of the claustrophobic streets, and a skyline of skyscrapers in front. And swarms of people moving around at a frantic frantic pace. Shanghai - the first city where "no cycling" signs are actually enforced, and I'd be ordered to wheel my bike on the pavement. And whenever I'd get back on the road they'd be another traffic cop blowing his whistle at me.

What is going on here then, I thought. This is China, land of the bicycle, for Chrissakes! Two-wheels, three-wheels, with or without trailer, maybe a diesel/electric motor attached... but it's still a bloody bike, and up to now they've had the respect of the road. Hell, a large part of the economy has been built by millions of Chinese ploughing their wares back and forth on the back of a bike.

But Shanghai makes it clear that this is no place for cycling. The car is king, and the bicycle is an embarassment, a reminder of the past. And this city has eyes focused only on the future...

Distance: 108km. Overnight in SHANGHAI!

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