A bicycle journey through Jiangsu province: broken pedals, factories, camping on the sly, traffic jams, right-wing Chinese, and more.
I’d ridden through here before. The last time the air was thick with fog, and much of the landscape was hidden behind this veil. It was raining and I was peddling hard, not absorbing the scenes around me, just trying to get there. This time, the sun was shinning, the weather was warm, and I couldn’t even bike very fast as I’d previously broken off a pedal and had to spin the left crack shaft around with the side of my foot like some kind of dipshit. Needless to say, I was able to take in the views.
But I can’t say that I was riding through awe-inspiring vistas. No, these views were rather frightening. For miles and miles I pedaled through the industrial corridor that flanks the Yangtze River. Smoke stacks poked up into the sky like the teeth of a comb. Their emissions rising up into perfectly puffy white clouds.
I’m not sure if it was my imagination playing tricks on me, but the air seemed to have a heavy feel to it here, and each inhalation was done with the conscious knowledge of what it was I was breathing: particulate matter. The little pieces of pollution which were being belched forth by these giant smokestacks were going right into my lungs, and it was my impression that I could feel it.
It is one thing to breath polluted air as you go about your life, doing your day and not really thinking too much about it, it’s another thing to breath this air while looking at some of the direct sources of the contamination. I looked out at the row of factories which smoking, and I knew that this was what people mean when they talk about China’s air pollution problem.
But to think about this too much here is to go insane. Like an incongruous neighbor, you just live with air pollution in China — you don’t try to tell yourself that it’s not that bad, because you know it is. Rather, you just accept the fact that there’s massive amounts of particulate matter in the air, shrug, say “Oh well,” and return to your detached position as an observer taking in your surroundings.
With the fear and paranoia phase of this trip over, I could again appreciate the fact that factory-landia in China is incredibly interesting. I have to admit that my jaw still drops when I look upon an entire ecosystem of steel, sheet metal, pipes, smoke, wheels, belts, pillars, smokestacks, and massive rectangular buildings holding mysteries unknown. These are the places where stuff is made. I rode past a button factory, a textile plant, and another factory that had a sign out in front of it that said that “fasteners” were made inside. To us end users, the origins of the things we use and buy are often as unknown and mysterious as the inter-workings of nature. Factories are zones where men act as machines and machines act as men in some strange dance of creation.
I previously crossed the Yangzhe on a ferry at Li Hai. I rode my bike up onto the boat’s deck as though I were a car, but quickly lost my nerve and retreated for the side railing with the rest of the pedestrians. Once underway everyone got out of their vehicles and joined us, looking out at the river we were crossing.
The ferry briskly cut across the Yangtze, and we road past hundreds of cargo ships and barges. I looked out over the side and peered at what gave the appearance of being entire floating communities of boat dwellers. Barges were tied side to side in massive “neighborhoods,” and the people nimbly hopped from barge deck to barge deck as they made their way through their flotilla of a town.
Beyond the boat people were massive cargo ships coming and going from massive docks. The Yangtze is one of the world’s most prominent commercial waterways, it is one of the economic lifelines of China. Goods and raw materials are shipped back and forth along the course of the river. I was crossing a major industrial highway, and it showed: factories and ship building plants could be seen on the river banks both fore and aft, and as I looked into the water I saw the oil slicks, rubbish, and strange discolorations that are the side-effects of economic prowess. Farther upstream in Chongqing the river had recently turned as red as tomato soup, and nobody really knows why.
In 2004, under the motto “swimming for peace, friendship and clean waters” Martin Strel swam the entire 4,003 kilometers of the Yangtze, which he called the most polluted river on the planet. He swam past dead bodies, through mud-like sludge, and virtual walls of garbage in the longest swim a human has ever completed. I watched videos of parts of this swim, but I never fully appreciated the obstacles that this guy had to go through until crossing the Yangtze by ferry: this river is packed. Ships, barges, boats, protruding docks, and ferries running perpendicular to everything else are everywhere. The Strel Yangtze swim now seems to have been akin to running across a country on a super-highway devoid of traffic laws.
The Yangtze River is what divides the north of China from the south, beifang 北方 from nanfang 南方, and for millenia it also served as a barrier. There were no bridges across the river until 1957, and to get from one side to another meant taking a ferry. This separated the cultures enough to allow them to stay distinct in various ways. Even today, crossing the Yangtze in either direction is enough to observe radical differences in language and food. I was traveling into the south, and in Jiangsu province this means entering the northern domain of Wu Chinese and southern cuisine. Like crossing a border, I went from one part of China to another in a matter of a twenty minute ferry ride.
Flat land riding, broken pedal
Though one thing did not change on the south side of the Yangtze: the flatness of the landscape. It is my impression that this stretch of Jiangsu province is the flattest place I’ve ever been. It is a lazy bicycler’s dream. I’ve biked all over this province, and everywhere east of Nanjing seems to lack even the slightest semblance of a hill. I think the biggest accents I’ve climbed have been the graded slopes made for bridges. Riding a bicycle under such optimal conditions easily gives you the impression that you could just ride forever.
I’ve previously mentioned that I’d broken a pedal earlier in the ride. Saying that I’d broke both pedals would have been more precise. Yes, one pedal snapped nearly completely off and the other dislocated from it’s internal axle and was hanging on by some sort of omnipotent grace. I found that if I kicked the naked crack shaft around with the side of my foot and took it real easy on the other pedal that I could progress in a forward motion. I planned on entering the nearest town or village and find a bicycle repair person, but found myself 40 kilometers farther down the road knocking on the door of Jiangyin. China is known for it’s great cities and urban sprawl, but once you get outside of these zones you’re really Out There.
I limped into Jiangyin, sort of proud of myself that I was able to travel so far on bike with one pedal, and it was time to make it to a bike shop, fast. I remembered where one was from a previous trip and asked one of the workers if he could fix me up. A couple of new pedals soon appeared, and within a few moments he had them popped on. Excellent.
By now it was night, and I went in search of a room. “Hit the road, foreigner,” I heard at around a dozen hotels. Foreigners are still not permitted to stay in most cheap inns in China, and I found myself at the door of some super fancy hotel — one of the only ones that will take my kind in this city. The ladies behind the counter were smiling big and welcomed me into their domain. 190 kuai, one of them said straight faced. $30. This wasn’t a truly bad price — this was a NICE hotel — but it was around three times what I wanted to spend. I told them it was too expensive. They asked how much I wanted to pay. I just sort of laughed and made for the door — there was no way they could provide a room to fit my budget. I said I would give them 100 RMB, and it was their turn to laugh.
I left and remounted my bike. As I began pedaling away, one of the hotel girls chased after me and motioned for me to return. I did. 140 kuai, they offered. I thought about it for a moment, but in the end found myself back on the side of the road, riding off in the distance. I don’t think I could keep my vagabond stripes if I dropped $23 for a hotel room on a beautiful late-summer night.
I continued riding on towards my destination — Huaxi, the miracle village — and found a quite place in some bushes to bed down for the night.
Camping on the sly
My methods for finding places to sleep outside have been refined down to a science over these years of traveling. I aim for a location where it is highly unlikely that any person will stumble upon and startle me in the night while not being too far removed from human contact.
If possible, I aim for the vegetated areas near highways. In point, there is absolutely no reason for any person to be rummaging around on the side of a highway out in the middle of nowhere pretty much anywhere on earth — and even if someone is out there, the chances of them rummaging around in the exact location that I’m camping in is an incredibly slim possibility. Another advantage of being near a highway is that if some type of emergency did occur (if I chop my finger off with my knife or get attacked by wild dogs or something) I can always jump out of my hiding place and flag down a car. Now, sleeping near a highway is not going to get me the most quiet night of sleep I’ve ever had, but I think the advantage/ disadvantage ratio leans towards the good.
Now, when finding a place like this to sleep in, I look for two things: that I’m able to completely conceal myself and I’m far enough away from the road that a car couldn’t fly off and run me over. When I locate such a place I usually ride by it once to get a good lay of the land. Then if it all looks good I return. When I get back I try to make sure that nobody sees me going into my camping spot. The riskiest part of camping on the sly is getting in to your camping location undetected. This is the period of time that I’ll be most exposed and could potential arouse the suspicious of some curious person or fall under the radar of someone with less than altruistic intentions.
On this night I found a place in a vegetated area roughly 50 meters from the highway. It was at the edge of a construction site and there was a big graded slope rising on one side of me and a ditch on the other that separated my camp from the road. I was able to snuggle in between these two features in some high bushes that grew below a patch of trees.
Visited Huaxi and Zhangjiagang, the return trip by bus
The next morning I awoke right before sunrise and began riding. The road was smooth and flat and well paved, a bike lane flanked the highway the entire way to Huaxi. I then pulled off and made for the giant skyscraper that soared out of one of the strangest places I’ve ever been. After checking out this place long enough to satiate my curiosity, I made way for Zhangjiagang, a Singapore-esque model city a few dozen kilometers east. I wrote about this place at Zhangjiagang: The Future of Urban Life?.
Now, having my research objectives for the trip accomplished, it was time to head back to Taizhou. I considered riding back, but the bus was cheap and would only take an hour and a half. I also wasn’t loving the idea of riding through the Yangtze industrial corridor yet again.
I folded up my bicycle and strode into Zhangjiagang’s bus terminal. The place was brand spanking new and built to look like some kind of old European train station: there was an ornate stucco facade making up the terminal’s front that had a big clock pasted prominently upon it. I wheeled my now reticulated bike around on its front wheel as I walked through the station. I bought a ticket and then sat down to eat some instant ramen noodles.
“Those noodles are not very good for you,” a man to my left scolded.
“But all Chinese people eat them when they travel, they’re Chinese travel food,” I protested. But it was at this moment that I realize that I only ate these noodles out of habit — and because it seemed like that’s what everybody else here does. Being called out on it made me lose my appetite. I went to the bathroom and tossed the offending noodles in the trash.
I then sat back and waited for my bus’s number to flash up on the board that was positioned over the specified gate. I waited and watched, and at the appointed time the numbers I was waiting for appeared. I then rushed up to the front of the line with the rest of the passengers. I fought for a front position, as I had my bike and I wanted to be sure to get it in a good position beneath the bus.
I was then thinking about how efficient Chinese bus stations are, and how they are a metaphor for the way the rest of the country works. The buses come in right on time, their number is flashed over the gate, the passengers board, and then the bus leaves. Like this, entire buses are loaded in under ten minutes. They have to be fast, as there is often another bus scheduled to pull into the gate right behind them. Like a ticking clock these buses usually pull in and depart right on time.
Then irony struck: my bus’s number was flipped off of the board and a new number appeared. I could hear a few of the passengers around me asking the attendant what was going on. Delay. We returned to our seats. I was invited to join an ad-hoc group of Taizhou residents, and I told them all about what I was doing in their city — which is a little challenging to explain, as I seem to fall through the cracks of what they’re use to.
“No, I’m not an English teacher.”
“Yes, I work.”
“No, not for a Taizhou company, I work for myself.”
“I’m a writer.”
“I write anything I want, maybe I will write about you.”
“No, I don’t make much money.”
In the end they seem to come away with no clearer picture of me than before we start these conversations. I’m usually just left as the laowai who writes something about something who rides his bike ridiculous distances to strange places. I can’t say this doesn’t have a good ring to it.
After around a half hour of hanging out, some of the guys in this group began getting restless. One of them pushed one of the bus station’s attendants, and we were finally told what was going on:
A traffic jam, maybe our bus will be here in an hour, maybe in two, nobody knows.
At hearing this, something unexpected happened. Rather than the group busting out in moans and complaints, they busted out with laughs. They were laughing as though the bus attendant told them some kind of funny joke. “It’s a good thing you ate those noodles,” one of the men joked. “You may be better to ride your bike back to Taizhou instead,” another said through chuckles.
One thing I can say for the Chinese is that they handle disappointing news incredibly well. I don’t know how many times I’ve been in train stations where an announcement rings out that my train is going to be late and nobody around me reacts. No moans, no groans, nobody looking at their watches with an exaggerated huff. No nothing. I sometimes need to ask if I understood the announcement properly. “Yes, the train is late, [shrug].” The Chinese seem to realize fully when something is beyond their control and that there is nothing for them to do other than to surrender to the situation and make the most of it.
Making the most of the situation in the bus station in Zhangjiagang apparently meant trying to find news about the traffic jam on their cellphones or trying out English words on me.
One of the things that I enjoy most about traveling in China is that when you’re in the same boat as the people around you you are really in the same boat. This is even more so in times of hassles or hardships. The people will take you in and allow you to be a temporary part of their gang, this culture is nothing if not hospitable. I sat in that bus station through the long delay enjoying the fact that I was in a country where I can sit down with a bunch of strangers and just hang out. As long as I’m satisfied with my role as being “the foreigner,” this culture is overtly accessible.
Soon enough the Taizhou bound bus made it through the traffic. It was nearly two hours late. As I boarded the ticket taker gave me a little flack about my bicycle — as though I was suppose to have a special ticket for it or something — but I wasn’t going to be put off. After an appeal to the driver, who’d just sat in a traffic jam for two hours and was about to turn around and go right back into it, it was obvious that my bicycle was the last thing he gave a shit about. I loaded it below the bus as I’ve done many times before in this country, got in, and made for my seat in the back.
In roughly ten minutes we were smack in the heart of the traffic jam.
It was a national holiday, and the roads between Shanghai and everywhere else were packed. Apparently, there was some kind of accident or road work going on or something (I never did get the story, all I know is that there was a traffic slow down on this highway that lasted for days) and I would be on that bus for way longer than an hour and a half.
A chatty fellow who spoke rather good English began talking politics. He asked me the standard questions:
“What do you think of the Diaoyu Islands?”
“What do you think of Taiwan?”
On and on. But he seemed to really listen to my replies, and did not argumentatively jump me if my opinions were to the lee side of the Chinese status-quo. He took my words as a “foreign voice,” which provided me with some additional ideological distance. So I kept talking with him.
“This is a very bad time to be in China,” he told me. I often like to compliment people about their country, but he wasn’t allowing me to do this here. After I said that I liked China and it was a good country he took off on a rant.
“The political situation is very bad,” he stated. “The time is black in China.”
“But people are making lots of money here,” I tried to show the bright side of the situation.
“Yes,” he agreed, “but we are not happy. Things are not very equal. The people are poor but the officials are rich.”
China was on the brink of selecting new leaders to take control of the central government, and I was a little curious as to how it all worked.
“How does China select it’s president?” I asked.
“We don’t know!” he exclaimed, and then continued, “The Chinese government is a black box, we don’t know what goes on inside of it.”
“If we criticize our government, they shoot us,” he continued. “Everybody in China is on fire,” he kept saying.
Perhaps he didn’t realize that he, himself, appeared to be criticizing his government as we sat in the traffic jam or maybe he felt that it was OK for him to do so because he was speaking English, I don’t know. Somehow, I got the impression that this guy always spoke like this, regardless if the people around him could understand his words or not (regardless if anyone was even listening to him). I was getting the impression that I could make a decent character comparison between this guy and a super right wing American who sits around in diners and truck stops blabbing on and on about politics and conspiracy theories.
I decided to change the subject, this guy’s talk was even making me a little uncomfortable. I up Taiwan, figuring that he would have a more status-quo take on it.
“I like Taiwan,” he said, “they are very happy. They have democracy.”
That didn’t seem to work.
“Taiwan is the good government of China,” he continued.
Oh no, time to change the subject again. I tried Tibet.
“Tibet is a part of China but the Chinese government did lots of bad things to them.”
Ok, I could agree with that.
“The Tibetans, the Han are both struggling for democracy,” my new companion said as he deftly steered the conversation back to democracy. “We need democracy. Without democracy, we are not free.”
“If China had democracy the people would just fight each other like they do in the USA,” I replied rather cynically. “Right now the people here are united. If you had democracy everyone would split apart into political parties and fight like they do in my country.” I then explained the system for voting for the US president is an indirect system and how the only votes that really count are those that come from our high ranking officials — which isn’t that much different from how it’s done in China.
I felt a little like a spoiled brat who doesn’t appreciate what he has, but I wanted to see what he would say.
“Some people here say maybe the USA can rescue us,” he replied.
I wasn’t expecting this. It sounded a little crazy to me, so I turned my gazed to the on-board entertainment system. A movie about Chairman Mao was playing.
The one and a half hour bus ride ended up taking nearly six hours. The guy back at the bus station in Zhangjiagang was correct when he said that I could have gotten back to Taizhou faster by riding my bicycle.
Each trip I take in China, each day I spend in this country, I learn something more, I see something new, I hear a new perspective, I find myself surprised by something. I’ve been traveling in and out of this country since 2005, and I still know next to nothing about it. Each answer I receive just leads to ten more questions as I travel through a China that’s looking more and more like an endless black hole of intrigue the farther I move into it.
Previous post: Date Calculator Tool to Check When Visas Expire