We pedalled into China with 30-day visas and over 5,300km of road between us and the exit at the Kazakhstan border. Knowing we could renew our visas twice we applied some simple and, at the time, logical calculations and decided we would need to average just over 70km per day for about three months straight, not including rest days. We called it China Challenge and ambitiously raced off, optimistic that we would triumph over Chinese bureaucracy and pedal every kilometer across this massive country, maintaining a continuous line of human-powered transport home.
The problem is, China already is a challenge – there was no need for us to invent a new one. The intense frustration from the culture shock, total language barrier, pollution, terrible drivers and the sheer scale of this crazy country has forced us to question how and why we bike tour.
In China I can genuinely say I have seen some of the most beautiful views and awesome wildlife on the bike trip so far and I have been warmly and generously welcomed by Chinese people. But in China you can also expect people to barge into your hotel room even if the door is locked, to hack up the contents of their throat and spit it at your feet mid-conversation and to be deafeningly honked at, day after day after day. The word grating comes to mind.
Bike touring here is a delicate balance between fast and slow. Slow is taking the time to soak up stunning scenery and experience old traditions, colorful ethnic clothing and elegant architecture before the machinery of growth/modernisation/capitalism (I think communism is just a sneaky euphemism for bog-standard middle-class consumerism) paves it, buries it in trash or simply disappears it. Fast is making it through before your visa expires, you lose your sanity in a black cloud of smog or you start asking too many questions. There are two kinds of races in biking, fast and slow. The “Slow Race” teaches the art of balance because the winner is the last person to cross the finish line without falling over.
In many ways this is not really about China itself, but what China reveals to us about ourselves and our purpose on this ride. I’m learning that bike touring is about balancing commitment to a goal with being true to who you are and what makes you happy.
It might have been possible to take a direct route on the flattest, easiest roads and pedalled all 5,300km. But we would probably be deaf, asthmatic and in need of therapy for road rage by the end of it. I’ve learned that I’m much happier to bike just 50km a day because we wanted to spend the morning watching wildlife at our campsite on the Tibetan plateau at 4,000m.
I guess we’re making this a slow race across China.