- Jamie Shannon
Guangxi. Leaving China behind and trying to exit through the wrong border
Greetings from Hanoi, Vietnam. Yes I really did finally make it out of China with my sanity intact. I do believe that is the longest I have ever gone without speaking more than two words of English. I cannot begin to describe my feelings when I eventually arrived in the centre of Hanoi to be greeted by a plethora of foreigners from around the world all lugging their huge backpacks around the crazy streets in this crazy city. If I thought the traffic and general chaos of China was too much for me at times then I think Vietnam has managed to crank it up still further.
I believe I left you when I arrived somewhat unexpectedly via ambulance in the city of Anlong in China and so, as has been the theme throughout, I shall continue from there.
So I’ll try to keep It kind of brief……
The final push through China - cycle touring on the expressway
I followed a small road the first day after leaving that I would rank as one of my best and most relaxing days cycling in China. With zero cars and just a few locals out clearing the rocks, it was complete bliss. The only thing was that I knew that at some point I needed to get on the other side of the river in order to continue on my way to Baise (I took a wrong turn earlier).
When I eventually found the bridge, I made my way up to meet it but realised quite quickly that it was in fact the expressway. I kindly asked the traffic police if it would be okay to use the bridge in order to get back to my road, and to my surprise, they agreed. They wouldn’t even let me leave with giving me two bunches of bananas too.
I crossed the bridge and camped soon afterwards when I saw a decent opportunity present itself.
Now I know that I shouldn’t have done this but when you cycle thousands of km’s over mountains every day of the week, you really do start to yearn for some flat land and so I simply decided to stay on the expressway as as long as possible.
I really did love it. I mean it was mostly flat, the shoulder was super wide and there was hardly any traffic to speak of which also had the knock on effect of there being very few horns which pleased me very much. The dogs were pleasingly absent too. It was heaven.
The only time it was a pain in the ass was when I had to pass through a 5 km long tunnel of which there were many. If you have never done it, I’ll let you know now that it’s quite scary pushing a bike through the darkness of an expressway tunnel. I don’t advise it.
There were the services too twice a day where I could pick up water and since I had picked up a lot of supplies back in Anlong, I had with me enough food for several days.
After two full days racing along the motorway, I had to try to find another place to pitch my tent, but what with the crash barriers, barb wire and general nature of the surrounding terrain, I found it incredibly difficult to find somewhere. In the end I had to take everything off the bike and take my stuff down by hand, through a gap in a barbed wire fence and walk twenty metres through the mud. Took me six trips all told.
I did about four hours cycling the next day in the rain when I was eventually pulled over by the police. This happened literally under a sign that indicated it was only 2 km’s until the next exit and so they let me go on my way.
I was then pulled over by a second car from the traffic police whom wouldn’t let me go any further. I assured them that I would be okay but they just didn’t want to know. I think I have a good idea about which roads are safe for me and I will always say the motorway is by far and away the safest one but to a motorist, this just isn’t the case and thus argue I could not.
My bike went in the back of the pickup and we drove two km’s to the exit toll booth where, instead of driving off the motorway, we drove into their compound where I was given a tasty meal of rice, bbq duck, bacon and vegetables. Lovely it was.
Considering that I was soaked to the bone, I thought I might ask them about a hotel in town and was consequently driven to one that was within my modest budget.
Now it’s not often I have the chance to speak to someone in depth in China (although it was still through a smartphone) and so I then asked if there was a large supermarket in town. Back in Mianyang I actually found a Walmart where I was able to stock up on some rarities like pasta, cream and cheese. Having depleted those little luxuries a long time ago, thought this was a good time to ask.
We drove to a large shopping mall where I did what I usually did in these places and walked around looking filthy whilst people stared at me and looked inside my basket in order to see what a foreigner buys. This was a little different however as I was accompanied by two traffic officers and I’m sure this added to the little spectacle.
They even took me out for food in the evening where I enjoyed a first beer in I don’t know how long. It was really fantastic to have someone with me for a change in these small cities.
Being invited to a party with the Chinese traffic police. Enter the 'chairman'
When we got back to the hotel they said they were having a party the next evening back at their office/worksite and I was invited to come along. I wasn’t too sure as I really did want to crack on with getting to Vietnam and I didn’t want to be the centre of attention in a group of thirty people but, like I said, opportunities like this don’t present themselves very often and so I of course said I’d stay another day.
I stayed at the party for three hours or so because I knew if I stayed any longer then for sure I wouldn’t be leaving the next day what with the amount of drinks they were pouring down my throat. The food was amazing too and, just like the alcohol, they couldn’t give me enough.
Halfway through the night, a strange thing happened when a car pulled in and a man whom looked just like Phil Spector (with the hair) got out. Everything went quiet and I was told he was their boss who they referred to as the chairman. Everyone followed him into the building and sang to him before following him back to his car and waving him off. It was a strange little scene. I continued to nibble on my intestine.
The scenery now was really quite something. The limestone peaks that were covered in forest dotted my view for 360 degrees. It was really something to witness and it began to conjure up images of what I’d imagined the north of Vietnam to be like. Yes I was getting close!
Found the most unbelievable of camping spots that night too. Usually, every available spot of land in these parts are given over to growing fruits, vegetables and rice but to my astonishment, I came across a terraced area with beautiful green grass. I wanted to continue for another hour or so, but as I had made good progress thanks to the expressway previously, decided to call it a day there and then. That’s the great thing about travelling by bicycle, the choice is yours. It’s pure freedom.
The next day brought even more incredible scenery. I had now passed the tropic of cancer for the first time on the trip and everything was taking on a distinctively more tropical feel; humid weather and noisy insects accompanied me in the evenings, banana trees and sugar cane sprouted along the roadside and the clothes people were wearing were changing too. I felt sad to finally be approaching the end of such an epic country but also excited to be nearing South East Asia at last.
The road I was now using was eerily quiet all morning long and I just couldn’t understand why there were no cars at all. All morning I was completely alone. The bushes on either side of the road had grown out so much that at times it was only a single lane and yet this was marked on my map as a highway.
I started to get a little anxious later when I began seeing huge chunks of the cliff scattered on sections of the road. Were there signs in Chinese directing traffic to another route? I couldn’t remember seeing anything and so I carried on. There had been a minor avalanche. I crept over it as quietly as possible whilst trying not to look over the edge at the thousand foot drop than ran along my left. I carried on yet further. Luckily they were all quite passable but on the last one, the bags had to be hoisted over individually but a few km’s later I came to a junction where I was back in civilisation.
With so many cars and people about, I was having a hard time finding somewhere suitable to sit and eat lunch without having my picture taken or having to be watched whilst I ate my food. When at last I thought I had found the spot, a car pulled over before five people stepped out.
It was a beautiful spot to take pictures and I don’t blame them for doing so but, as I was eating, I just knew they wanted to take a picture of me eating noodles. It’s a sixth sense I have I think. I think the smartphone button and the horn in a car has the same hypnotic affect over the Chinese as a speeding bicycle does to a dog. They just can’t help themselves. I ‘felt’ a guy pointing a phone down at me whilst I ate and so I turned my head. “Don’t even think about it my man”. He looked away.
It was a great but tiring afternoon with a fair few steep passes to get over but the roads were quiet and the scenery stunning as always.
It was about 2 pm now and I was only about 35 km’s from the border. Everything was going great. I started thinking that I might even be able to cross it tonight which would give me a great head start the next day on my quest to reach Hanoi.
But I got a bloody puncture!!
In went a new inner tube (my last brand new one) and I was on my way again in ten minutes, peddling furiously now in order to reach the border by five. If I could cross the border tonight, then I would have a fighting chance at least. I raced along, positive that I could make it.
By four, my small road at last met the large G road that ran east from Nanning, and with only fifteen km’s to go, I pushed myself even harder than before. The highway was flat, I had two hours to get there and those cookies were keeping me strong. I felt confident so what could possibly go wrong?
Well I went to the wrong border crossing.
After I zipped through Pingxiang I simply did what I always did when approaching a border; I followed the traffic. This being China however, there were no signs in English anywhere and so when I approached a kind of border gate I thought I was heading the right way.
After climbing a huge hill, I coasted down the other side into a huge and bustling border town filled with malls, hotels and thousands of people. It was about 5:15 and so I felt ecstatic when I actually found the first checkpoint.
When I tried to ride through it however, a guard just said “no, no, no” over and over again. “What? Huh!! Why?”
Guard: Where do you come from?
Guard: Do you speak Chinese?
Me: No, I’m afraid not
Me: No I do not speak Chinese
Guard: No, no, no
(By now fifteen strangers are gathered around me)
Me: what no? Why can I not cross? Look at all these people walking through.
Guard: I’m sorry. No, no no.
Me: Look at the trucks too.
Guard: No. Youyi
Me: Fuuuuuck. I just want to leave. Please let me cross. I won’t tell anyone I promise.
Guard: No. Youyi
Me: Youyi, what the hell does youyi mean? Forget it.
I left the crowd and walked dejectedly across the road to a fancy hotel where I thought the receptionist might speak some English but that was no use either. I asked her if she could use her phone to translate English to Chinese but she just thought I wanted to use the hotel phone. Why did everything have to be this difficult here?
I really didn’t know what to do now. I had no Yuan left to get a hotel and I was in a really populated area just as it was getting dark. I couldn’t figure out why they wouldn’t let me cross. Were foreigners only allowed through at certain times? Was there another border I needed to go to. Impossible I thought. I hadn’t seen one other road with any signs pointing to an alternative border crossing. I was stuck and I just felt helpless. No one spoke any English, I had no internet and no one to phone who could translate. I think this is where you come into your own when travelling alone. You’re on your own completely and only you can help yourself. Think fast Jamie.
"This was the most difficult border crossing since entering Uzbekistan"
With no money, I thought it best just to get out of there in order to find somewhere to sleep and to try again in the morning but when I cycled up the next street I saw a group of younglings. Maybe one of those could speak English. None of them did but they also kept saying the word “youyi” to me. And it kind of hit me like a thunderbolt.
When I looked back at the long line of people waiting to pass through, they were all wearing those conical Vietnamese hats you see so often and all looked decidedly peasant – like. I then remembered seeing a sign a couple of km’s earlier announcing the border trading zone. I realised then that this was the border for locals and day traders only. Yes I had arrived at the wrong border.
When I pulled over at another checkpoint to ask where youyi was and where foreigners ought to cross, a car pulled up with the younglings in whom I ‘spoken’ with earlier. They wanted me to follow them in their car so they could show me which road to take.
When we came to a fork in the road, they stopped and pointed at the sign that read youyi which led up a small road into the hills.
I thanked them and went on my way up into the hills that looked like they at least afforded a few places to camp. I was completely knackered. I found a spot to pitch my tent, ate my food and dreamed of easier days.
When I got to the border in the morning, it was a completely different affair from the one the previous evening: very small, quiet, clean and orderly. I waited for an hour until it opened at eight and left China in a tenth of the time it took me to actually get into the place all those weeks ago.
In between the two borders I cycled past a beautiful old French colonial building all covered in moss and decorated with beautiful stonework.
I had made it out of China.
And I’m in South East Asia! Wooooooooooooop Wooooooooooooooooooop!
With my Viet visa stamp in my passport I exited the immigration building and stood there giving myself time to take it all in.
I looked down and low and behold I had another puncture. How the hell did I get a puncture between two immigration buildings? Surly not. Oh well. I’m here. I arrived.