Monday, October 12, 2009

150 miles north into China

[10/13/2009. Posted by JP for GC. China blocks blogs.]

Friends: I have no idea what small city I'm in as it is too small to be identified on my map and even if it were, it isn't big enough to be one of the few marked by Romanized lettering as well as Chinese characters. All I know is that I have penetrated 150 miles into China from the coastal city of Guangzhou.

The cycling has turned gloriously carefree on well-paved roads with hardly any traffic. It is a great joy and relief to be pedaling along on a highway that I can stick to for the next three or four days before I turn off to visit Mao's birthplace.

I am on highway 106, a main thoroughfare that was six lanes wide out of Guangzhou for over 70 miles, then narrowed to four lanes and then, 30 miles ago, to just two lanes as the terrain turned semi-mountainous. It had been flat for over 250 miles from Hong Kong through the Pearl River Valley, giving my legs a chance to warm up before the strain of climbing.

I passed a pillar marking the Tropic of Cancer 30 miles north of Guangzhou. The temperatures have been somewhat tropical in the 80s with humidity to match, forcing me to buy a lot of liter-and-half bottles of cold water for 25 cents. There has been a continual haze blunting the sun, so no need for sun block to keep my nose from turning red. There are occasional gas stations with detached toilet facilities and sinks, where I can give myself a soaking. I can't get too eager when I spot a service station in the distance, as quite a few of them are closed down, victims of a recently constructed nearby superhighway that has siphoned off the majority of the traffic from this road.

I have yet to need my sleeping bag, or even my liner, other than to lay on. A shirt is enough to keep me warm as I sleep. I am happy to be heading north to cooler temperatures. I thought it might be cold enough up in my northernmost destination of Xian, just south of the province of Inner Mongolia, to bring my down sleeping bag. My friend Julie-Ann, a former roommate in Chicago, who I am visiting in Xian, emphasized how cold it could be there, another thousand miles or so north.

Even though I started out in the tropics, I never would have guessed it by the vegetation, as there was virtually none to be seen for over 150 miles through the urban concrete jungle of Guangdong Province. Its not much bigger than Illinois, yet has a population of 94 million people, the most of China's 22 provinces, and more than any country in Europe. Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong, is a city of five million. Its sprawl continues for over 100 miles to the equally large metropolis of Guangzhou.

I expected Shenzhen to be a typical border town of shanties feeding off the wealth of Hong Kong. Quite the contrary. It is a thriving prosperous city of futuristic glass skyscrapers. There were banks everywhere, though I couldn't find an ATM machine that would accept either my Visa credit card or Master debit card. I tried 15 or more in two hours. I was feeling most frantic and desperate. I had a small taste of that at the Hong Kong airport, being denied by the first three ATMs I tried. I was resigned to not spending any money in Hong Kong, but then a fourth ATM from Standard Bank at the exit to the airport accepted my debit card. The only money I spent in Hong Kong was for a ferry and a train, neither of which I could have avoided. I don't know how I would have managed if I'd only had US, not Hong Kong, dollars, though, of course, some kindly soul would have eventually come to my rescue, either exchanging US for Hong Kong dollars or covering for me. But I'm glad it didn't come to that.

When I came upon a Standard Bank in Shenzhen I thought I was saved, but like all the rest in Shenzhen, it didn't want to give me money either. I still had the receipt from the airport and went inside to plead my case. No deal. I was prepared to call Julie-Ann, over a thousand miles away up in Xian, for assistance. She had lived in Shenzhen a couple years ago and still had friends here. As a last resort, I decided to return to the huge Bank of China and beg for some mercy. I found some kindness there. They would advance me money on my Visa card, but at a 3% commission. At that point, I wouldn't have hesitated at 50%. I changed more than enough to get me to Xian. But I am spending so little, with a hearty bowl of noodles costing less than 50 cents, I may not have to change money again. I was prepared to get by on $10 a day. It looks as if I might be able to keep my expenses under $5 a day.

With all my attempts at using my two credit cards it raised suspicions with their issuers. My roommate back in Chicago received phone calls from both Visa and Master Card later that day saying they'd noticed irregular use of their card and wondered if it might have been stolen. I rarely use them, so I won't find out for awhile if they've been red-flagged and disabled.

The bicycle is clearly in decline here with the booming economy giving people money to "upgrade" to motorcycles and automobiles. Through the industrial corridor not even one per cent of the traffic was on bicycle. The only gladdening surge of cyclists I have seen came yesterday morning when there was a great rush of cyclists and motorcyclists in a small city on their way to school and work.

The bicycle is in transition here from a vehicle of utility to a vehicle of leisure. A Trek bicycle store just opened in Guangzhou. The young woman who let me use her computer and then unsuccessfully led me around the city for over an hour in search of a better map than what I had, hadn't been on a bike since her student days. She knew about the Trek shop, though she'd never heard of Lance or even The Tour de France.

Almost as many cyclists ride into traffic as with traffic. There is a wide enough shoulder that it isn't too perilous, though it does keep me on alert, especially with scooters coming head on sometimes too in that lane. I have seen only one other person with a helmet, a Kentucky Fried Chicken delivery guy in Guangzhou.

This is the first Internet cafe I have found. I needed to be led to it. I never would have found it on my own. There was no open window or door to peer in to see the row of computers, nor a sign outside that had any meaning to me. It is 30 cents for an hour, less than one-tenth the cost I'm accustomed to paying in Europe. I have no access to my blog here in China, as blogs are deemed dangerous and blocked by the authorities, so I'm back to sending out full-fledged, not so well edited, emails. I'm hoping the friend who set up the blog, Jeff Potter, will be able to post them for me.

Later, George

No comments: