Country Report: China

Giant Panda Bear, Chengdu Panda Center
Giant Panda Bear, Chengdu Panda Center

A conservationist-on-wheels’ take on China
What do you think of when you think of China? The Great Wall, panda bears and 16,000 plants that exist in no other place on earth?

Environmental catastrophe with smoke-filled skies? Mysterious dictatorship and upcoming superpower? One BILLION people?

Adam sharing the road with Chinese trucks
Adam sharing the road with Chinese trucks

I spent two months there and rode over 2,200km but even so only managed to cross two out of 33 provinces. The sheer size of it means that the small transect I saw hardly gives me any fair claim to having a valid conservation perspective on the place.

What I saw (and heard and smelled)

The minute I stepped into China the sounds, the lights, the smells, everything about it was screaming: we are modern! We are commercial! It had capitalism painted all over it. A land of contrasts: some brand new highways had hardly any cars on them and some old roads were packed with trucks racing around full of workers and building supplies.

Beautifully smooth new highway along a hydroelectric dam reservoir - and no cars!
Beautifully smooth new highway along a hydroelectric dam reservoir – and no cars!

In one visually pretty valley the air was filled with an undescribably sickening smell. This was even worse than the pollution I had heard about. I learned that there can be no beauty if the sensory experiences of it are not in harmony.

We climbed up this pretty valley as fast as we could because it smelled really bad.
We climbed up this pretty valley as fast as we could because it smelled really bad.
Lovely scenery, terrible smell of pollution.
Lovely scenery, terrible smell of pollution.

And the noise! Oh, the noise. Honking, honking, screeching, shouting, spitting! Noise noise noise noise!

Making our way through a traffic jam in a small village in southern Yunnan province on market day.
Making our way through a traffic jam in a small village in southern Yunnan province on market day.

Fortunately, the majority of our time was spent in rural areas which were completely different. There were the endless fields of small tidy rectangles of vegetables, all tended by human hands – hardly a machine or work animal in sight.

Neat and tidy farming on the road between Dali and Shaxi, Yunnan Province.
Neat and tidy farming on the road between Dali and Shaxi, Yunnan Province.
In southern Yunnan province you certainly can't accuse the Chinese of being lazy!
In southern Yunnan province you certainly can’t accuse the Chinese of being lazy!
It was fun biking through piles of hay that they raked into the road for vehicles to crunch up.
It was fun biking through piles of hay that they raked into the road for vehicles to crunch up.

And along one busy road we saw more birds in one tree than we had in all of southeast Asia. In the remote areas the birdlife was even more wonderful: enormous vultures, buzzards, hoopoes, a blood pheasant and a white-eared rosefinch.

We'd been tracking the large, shy, ground-running Blood Pheasant around our campsite a few nights before we saw this photo of one in some monks' house where we were having breakfast. Near Xiahe, south of Litang, western Sichuan Province.
We’d been tracking the large, shy, ground-running Blood Pheasant around our campsite a few nights before we saw this photo of one in some monks’ house where we were having breakfast. Near Xiahe, south of Litang, western Sichuan Province.

All countries have their ugly industrial areas, uninteresting agricultural lands and over-crowded tourist attractions (though the Chinese definitely win the competition for making their ancient World Heritage cities most like Disneyland). Nonetheless, it was a particularly sweet reward once we’d pedalled through all of that to get to the Tibetan plateau.

This is the far eastern edge of that huge white blob on your map, the roof of the world, Shangri-La, the Tibet of your dreams and more, and it is fantastic. We spent almost two weeks riding above 4,000m, crossing high mountains passes, across boulder-strewn plateaus, past Tibetans  spinning their prayer wheels and through bird-filled forests. This part of China is still sparsely populated, reasonably forested, not too polluted and simply awe-inspiring.

Beautiful place, terrible road: can there be any harmony? Between Shangri-La and Litang in Southwest Sichuan Province.
Beautiful place, terrible road: can there be any harmony? Between Shangri-La and Litang in Southwest Sichuan Province.
View from a pass in Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Park, northwest corner of Yunnan Province (just southeast of Tiger Leaping Gorge)
View from a pass in Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Park, northwest corner of Yunnan Province (just southeast of Tiger Leaping Gorge)
Tibetan Buddhist monastery, south of Litang, western Sichuan Province.
Tibetan Buddhist monastery, south of Litang, western Sichuan Province.
Bikes going up, yaks coming down. Western Sichuan Province.
Bikes going up, yaks coming down. Western Sichuan Province.

So what did I think of China?

I must admit that a combination of our inward struggles and the difficulty of all modes of communication – Chinese don’t do charades – made it very difficult to make connections, and as such to get more than a superficial understanding of this infamous place. It seemed that each time I thought I would explode with frustration an exceptionally nice Chinese person would turn up out of nowhere and create one of those special moments. In the same day that our jeep driver made me so mad I yelled at him, a man on a scooter spent one hour escorting us around Chengdu to help us find our hostel. When we finally got there he zipped off barely giving us a chance to yell thanks and xie xie ni!

From a conservation perspective, parts of China were terrifyingly polluted, others were magnificently huge and wild. As a bike-tourer, China certainly gave me some of my most fizzing highs of the trip and my most frustrating lows. Adam put it well on his blog, Chinese Mind Games – and this much I know is true: China is very very different from anywhere else I’ve been.

See more of China through my huge set of photos and captions – though to experience the smells and sounds you’ll have to cycle it yourself!