As you might guess in the title, this article will talk about the numerous difficulties that we encountered in China and about the amazing Chinese cuisine!
China have been the country of our first issues of travelers and incomprehensions of Europeans.
First, even before arriving, problems with the Chinese visa in Kathmandu. We arrived to get it the morning of the departure. It’s OK for the visas, we are about to pay when the women of the counter informs us that the only mean to pay it is the dollar! US dollar! You have no reasons to have dollars in your pocket when you’re travelling in Nepal or China! Nepalese banks don’t provide it to foreigners, consulate is closing in one hour and our plane takes off in 4 hours… So let’s run to Kathmandu city center to find a currency exchange office to change our nepalese rupees into US dollars. Back at the consulate 45 minutes later, with the good amount in the good currency, we can, in fine, pay our visas. Fortunately, we changed a little bit more money. Because Consulate decide to bill you 10$ extra charge at the last time for mysterious costs…
Also before arriving, it’s China Eastern airways who made fun of us. We booked them our flight from Kathmandu to Kunming. Such a big mistake to have trust them! No precisions for the weight of your luggage when you buy your ticket. But you can hardly find on their website that each passenger can have 2 times 20 kilos of luggage. Good for us. But when we arrived for check-in, the rules have changed. It’s 20 kilos per person. The staff in charge of the scam « gifted » us some kilos and – so generous – bills us 320 $ extra charge for luggage on our tickets already too expensive for flying 2h50. Finally, 840 € to jump over Tibet. Such an expensive sacrifice!
Once arrived at the airport, late, tired, carrying our 80 kilos of luggage, a guy pretending being a taxi comes to meet us. We didn’t know he was an illegal taxi and drove us to the city center of Kunming asking us double the cost. He dropped us at 1 kilometer from our hotel after having shouted at the nice girl from the hotel by phone because he couldn’t find. We have been told that Chinese people had a remarkable sense of self-control and dignity. On this fist experience, we’ve been pretty surprised.
We also had our first medical issue, a little bit more serious than before. Redness, very itching spots on hands. Please, not scabies! Consultation is required. In China, there are not local doctors but hospitals where you can meet them. So we got an appointment at the so chic Kunming international clinic, where the doctor diagnoses chilblain. We would have caught a cold on our hands during our trek in the Annapurnas. Even if it might be binding for the future, it’s more comforting than a parasitic contamination!
In the Yunnan, except rare cases, no one talks english. In fact, this is paradoxal : those people who stare at us because we don’t look like them and engage us in conversation in a long dissertation in Chinese. Of course, we don’t understand. And it surprises them very much. And it makes them laugh for a very long time. But the most sagacious have the solution! No problem, the find a paper or their phone and what they were saying, they write it. In Chinese ideograms… Oh yes, this way, we understand better!
In the afternoon, large fall. It’s Caroline. A downhill road, pothole, big shaking, front bag ejected, bike destabilized… Accident! Result : minor injuries and a helmet to change. Once again, we were able to confirm what specialists of Chinese culture told us. In distress, on the road, injured, having only your bikes in case of emergency, the drivers slows down to bypass you and continue their journey. Maybe Taoism. If you are really in the shit, no one will help you. The » wúwéi » (“not acting”), shoud allow the people to organize the most harmoniously possible, by themselves. I think it will take some time to accept this.
Tears on my cheeks. Insulting roads, stones, trees and birds. But more fear than casualty and we take the road again quickly. In the evening, when we arrive at the hotel, nice surprise. The milk carton exploded during the accident. There is milk everywhere in the bag. The kitchen set is damaged, the Brompton bag has big abrasions. Despair. It will be better tomorrow.
In China, you can only drive a car with a Chinese driving licence. And we quickly understood why.
In fact, Chinese driving is a very special thing than you cannot understand if you respect a minimum the road rules. We imagined this quick multiple choice quizz to test if you would be a good Chinese driver.
Question 1 :
I wish to turn left. Down to my side, a cyclist is continuing straight.
A- I slow down and give him way
B – I slam the brake pedal and honk
C – I honk and go on, cutting him up on the road, short of being killed
Question 2 :
The previous vehicle goes too slow. Two cyclists are arriving on the opposite way.
A – I wait few seconds in order to execute a secure wide passing manoeuvre
B – I honk frenetically
C – I immediately overtake the vehicle, honking and brushing past the cyclists, short of being killed
Question 3 :
The light changed to red :
A – I stop
B – I accelerate and I go on
C – I go on at a basic pace. Anyway, I didn’t even see the red light.
Question 4 :
While driving, the « white watching » (see Nepal article for more informations) intensively practiced – taking for long seconds your eyes away from the road – ensures the safety of the other road users:
A – Yes
B – No
If you have answered C, C, C and A, congratulations, you could be a perfect Chinese driver.
And then, we had our first big mechanical issue. Anthony’s Shimano hub got seized. After checking, he found a destroyed bearing. We need to change this hub. But we are right during the new Chinese year eve and all the Chinese are on holidays for one or two weeks. Impossible to find a solution. 200 km from Kunming, heading Laos boarder, and having only 16 days of visa left, we made the painful decision to come back by bus to Kunming and take a flight to Bangkok.
The road in China, as we told you, is something epic. But not only as a cyclist. Taking a bus is also an unexpected experience. Quite a bit of bus drivers seem to have got their driving licence in fortune cookies (those chinatownian biscuits with a little paper inside). The « driver » of our way back to Kunming was one of the best. He was honking, indiscriminately, all the time. And he didn’t bear to be wide passed and if that were the case, he wide passed again this vehicle staring a the driver and honking. Interesting sense of responsibility when you have 40 persons on board. We even saw him honking at an insect which had the audacity to crash on the windshield.
He didn’t bear also me to take off my shoes to feel better. He was making big gestures with his arms, such as to chase away a fly. However, it wasn’t a problem for him to smoke, phone and sending sms while driving. No problem also for opening the doors of the bus to allow passengers to throw their rubbishes away, il the fields…
Many roadsides, along the highways look like garbage dumps. In contrast, cities are perfectly clean. Many bins, properly used. Pavement swept and washed.
Now, the toilets. Our biggest shock in China. Climax of this article. Are you ready?
The sanitary installations (as well for men and women) are often a 6 surfaces tiled room, formerly white. Putrid odor. An horizontal gutter dug in the floor. Small walls of 80 cm high are regularly spaced perpendicularly to the gutter. Your toilet is the space between two walls. Your « flush » is the slight slope of the gutter. Even thought there is a door to shut your space for privacy, some women consider it appropriate to keep it open. With a bit of luck, you could be given a great lesson about female anatomy and hygiene. Anyway…
Moreover, in China, we’ve seen and been surprised by a lot of wastage. First, food waste. At the restaurant, some people leave their tables with having barely eaten 30 % of the food they ordered.
Chinese people are used to share a lot of dishes set at the center of the table. This is to respect a kind of harmony in meals based on hot/cold, textures and especially, taste. Very nice to taste many things. But the problem is that it’s important to show to the neighbors and guests that you are rich and generous. By ordering too much.
These are explanations given by the only Chinese girl we met who was speaking english well. She told us also that, for few years, there are TV ads to tell the people not to waste the food because it’s something very widespread in China.
Another sign of wealth is to have a very big car with an obvious trunk. For lot of people in China, having a noticeable car boot is really great! And so, european car builders have lengthened and widened the models we know for the Chinese market. And of course, redesigned it to have an obvious car boot.
Overwrapping is also very frequent in China. More than in Europe. Tradition demands that bowls and plates are perfectly clean and so, your dishes are packed into plastic. For every meal of the day. Also, all industrial food is packed into layers and layers of plastic.
It’s very often to have a cardboard packaging around a plastic packaging containing individual other plastic packagings. Inside, a 50 grams cake cooked in a disposable aluminum mold. Waow, all of that! A breakfast and you have 1 square meter of packaging that will end up in the nearest makeshift incinerator. But in the street, at the street vendors, it’s less packaged, less expensive, and more tasty. We quickly start getting used to it!
Indeed, the nicest things we experienced in China were everyday in our plates, at the tip of our chopsticks!
Chine cuisine is absolutely well balanced and sometimes, you can have a perfect meal for only 2 € per person. Even with a low budget, you can have delicious dishes from street cooks. Even choosing your restaurant at random, it’s always fresh and truly tasty.
Something quite funny to see and to do at the restaurant, is to throw all your trashes on the floor : packaging of the plates, cigarettes, bones, dirty tissues… You can imagine the mess at the end of the service.
In France, it’s almost impossible to have a very qualitative meal in a budget restaurant chosen at random. In China, it happens all the time or almost and it’s true happiness!
Most of the restaurants show their raw ingredients in the street or into glass door refrigerators. Easy to show what you want to eat if you don’t speak or read Chinese. And then, in the kitchen, the chefs cook all of that in different ways (soup, fried, grilled…) to get a meal as harmonious as possible.
We particularly enjoyed the asiatic eggplants… Nothing to do with the one we have in France. They are naturally tender and so tasty!
We discovered also the very tasty Ouïgour (muslim minority in China) cuisine. We tasted cold meet of beef dipped in a sweet, scented, sesame flavored sauce. Delicious. By the way, if someone knows about this dish, we would be very happy to learn its name!
There are also small restaurant specialized in stuffed steamed buns. It’s garnished with spiced meat or vegetables or fragrant mushrooms or, in a sweet version with peanuts. It’s really delicious and very interesting for feeding the cyclotourists : easy to carry, to eat, nourishing, cheap and digestible!
Environmental awareness , driving, empathy, social codes… Our diving in this crazy new world has allowed us, more than ever, to step back from our western culture. Experiencing new modes of operating, being aware of it and admitting that it’s sometimes as clever as our way to do. Of course, we’ve been shocked by what’s not working in our ethic way. On the contrary, we truly enjoyed what’s working better. One thing in certain : China can be proud of its culinary heritage, and especially of those who promote it with honesty, passion and know-how. Definitely.