A journey gets turned around by one simple thing: the making of friends. This is a tale which shows the reason why we travel.
As soon as I knew I’d have a week-long vacation in the beginning of October, I started doing what immediately comes to my mind in such cases: elaborating travel plans. International travel was initially not ruled out, as money is currently not tight and there are several neighboring countries I have yet to set foot in, but a week’s too short to do anything valuable, while at the same time being way too long to be spent just sitting on my couch. There were then talks about an inflatable boat journey down the lakes and canals of Jiangsu/Zhejiang with VagabondJourney’s own Wade, but the idea was postponed. So I decided to go to Fujian, and continue my quest to visit all the provinces and territories of China…
28/34 as of now, I’m getting there!
After a long afternoon and a night spent in a “coffin bus”, I finally arrive to Xiamen. I fetch my bicycle (my best friend) from the luggage compartment, found a quiet spot between two cars, stripped naked, put on my bike outfit, and immediately started pedaling along the wide boulevards of the special economic metropolis. Already, my lack of planning started to show: Xiamen is located on an island, and all the bridges linking it to the mainland are huge, narrow highway links with not a trace of a side lane. Definitely not the best place for a cyclist to venture in, but I had absolutely no choice. So I ignored the “no bicycles, motorcycles, pedestrians” sign and went for it. I stuck to the extremity of the right lane, pedaled as fast as I could, my head shrugged into my shoulders as if somehow it would minimize the impact should I get rammed by a 90 km/h truck.
Thankfully, I didn’t get ran over, and after what felt like an eternity, I made it to the other side. A quick lunch later, and I am crossed the wide industrial areas surrounding Xiamen. Haicang. Xiayang. Jiaomei. Longhai. You name it. None of those places are of any interest by anybody’s standards, and nothing can be said about them.
As a cyclotourist, I love the madness of big-city-dwelling, and the appeal of nature and infinite countryside roads, but the suburban in-between is dull as hell, especially when roads are being reconstructed — like they were for the first several hours of my journey.
After passing Zhangzhou to my right, I finally hit some pretty rural roads. Aside from the odd stretch with lots of massive trucks, I enjoy the tranquil ride — good songs playing in my headphones and a nice scenery surrounding me. I saw other people on bicycles wearing those cool conical straw hats, rice fields set in terraces, people sitting around drinking green tea out of small cups, and lots of pagodas, towers, dragon back-shaped stone bridges and large arches.
All of the above made the whole area look a lot more like the China that is idealized and stereotyped in books found in the Western world than the über-modern cities I grew up accustomed to, and was refreshing. It is actually not surprising, come to think of it, as most overseas Chinese come from this very area, in the southeast, and thus the culture they brought along is much more similar to where I am now than the other parts of the country.
However, when I reached Pinghe, the town I planned to spend the night in, I began feeling the opposite: I could be literally anywhere in China, and not a single thing differentiated Pinghe from the hundreds of other small county-sized towns across the whole country. Narrow boulevards with not a single traffic light in sight despite the relatively large number of cars and electric bikes, concrete, concrete, and more concrete, clothing stores selling t-shirts with dodgy English on them, the odd gigantic overly neon-lit hotel, and people who go into convulsions upon seeing the first foreigner to zoom through their town for probably a long, long time. I found a hotel, showered, ate something, went to sleep, and, after eating a fruit breakfast with the owner and the bunch of old ladies who hung out in the small lobby as if they lived there, got on my way leisurely in the morning.
I am happily surprised by how easily I could communicate here, having been told that the Fujianese speak an incomprehensible dialect called Minnanhua. They definitely do among themselves, and it definitely sounds hella weird, but unlike parts of Western China I have been to where many people could not understand or speak standard Mandarin at all, or even Hong Kong, where any attempt with the language is met with a three-second sustained hateful glare and then harsh shouted Cantonese words (probably something racial) with some incredibly broken English thrown in for good measure, this time around even the elderly and rural speak it well, thus allowing me to communicate with them.
I headed north, and start hitting some pretty steep slopes. Fujian was turning out to be way more rugged than I expected. Some of those hills seem endless, and manage to extract a thick film of sweat and quite a few chosen swear words out of me, but I keep pushing forward.
It’s not as if I had anywhere else to go, and besides, whenever I felt like quitting, I reminded myself of why I came here. I am Félixxx Da Traveler, the супертурист, the self-proclaimed 中国通, goddamnit, not some couch potato or hedonistic hippie backpacker. I live for this shit. Everybody who’s been traveling knows that kind of conflicting feeling when life at the moment sucks extreme amounts of ass but somehow you wouldn’t trade it for anyone else’s.
But just as the road started to flatten up, the scenery becoming more majestic as well as a testament of my progress. Looking down at those farmlands from several hundred feet high — when my morale should have been going up — life threw me a curveball. One thing about bicycles is that, just like all machines, they break. Punctured tires. Exploded tires. Snapped cables. Broken suspension. Fucked gears. I had seen a lot of this on previous bike trips, but now, oddly, it’s my chain that’s at fault.
Map of Xiamen
Somehow the chain fell off and then got all tangled in my pedals. It took me a good 10 minutes to unjam it, and when I do put it back, some links are twisted and act foolish, jumping from one gear to the other for no reason other than constantly killing my momentum and making my life miserable. I was experiencing the two-wheeled equivalent of listening to a skipping CD or having a massive rock stuck in a shoe. After about half an hour of painfully annoying pedaling on a remote track, I reach some kind of warehouse filled with pomeloes where some guy lent me a pair of pliers and helped me try to straighten up the chain. It didn’t solve the problem completely, but at least I could keep going with only a few capricious movements from my chain here and there.
And again, even though conditions are not at their absolute ideal, I still remind myself that I love traveling and I’m fortunate enough to be here, on a paid weeklong vacation, riding a somewhat expensive bicycle with a big wad of cash in my backpack, while most inhabitants of the area have to earn their pittance by breaking their backs in the fields day after day or by going to the nearest sizable town to work some boring, precarious, sometimes hazardous factory job. Those humbling thoughts revamped my optimism and keep me going until I arrived at my final destination (for now): Fujian’s famous Tulou 土楼, or Earthhouses.
The tulou are large fortified houses, usually round but some being square or rectangular as well, in which dozens of families can live. They were built by the Hakka, some kind of weird ethnic Han minority that migrated from different areas of central China. Even though many people still inhabit these houses, the area has turned into quite the domestic tourist site. We’re not talking Hangzhou West Lake-famous here, but still, it was enough to attract crowds. I watched (with some displeasure) several tour buses waiting in a large parking lot. I then got to the main tourist center where every other house is turned into a hotel or restaurant, and got a celebratory beer and a quick bite to eat at an outdoor kebab stand (first time I ever eat a pork kebab, 0% halal).
After chatting up a few folks who were curiously staring at this strange stinky bastard sitting there with his bike clothes, unruly brown fro, unkempt facial hair, and hands still covered in black grease, I went to find a hotel room to base myself in and rest my carcass. The five-star tourist sites obviously hike their prices up in a place where there are none of the ghetto options I usually go for. But I don’t care, as I am quite in need for a fluffy bed rather than a plank of wood with a wicker mat on it. Plus, they accepted a lower price for a two-night stay, and I ended up paying 100 yuan a night, breakfast included. Not bad at all.
The place is the very definition of family-run, with kids from the area running around, giggling, playing badminton, old ayi and uncles sitting around gossiping over tea. There is even a large common room fully equipped with karaoke equipment, where the children take turns singing. Upon seeing me, they promptly handed me a mic and pointed at the computer. I happily oblige, and soon my rendition of the classic 月亮代表我的心 and Avril Lavigne’s Complicated broughtthe whole block to tears.
… well, not quite. Kids being kids, they have an attention span of about twelve seconds, and they soon resumed their previous activities of screaming, chasing each other, and screaming while chasing each other. I am quite astonished that they were left unsupervised in a post-dinner overexcited sugary state in a room full of rather expensive electronic equipment, but I didn’t pay for any of it so I didn’t care. Plus, their enthusiasm was pretty contagious.
The next day I woke up, ate the bland and overly salty, but copious and free, breakfast, and then walked to the main tulou. I am pretty excited to finally be here, and curious to check out what it looks like inside, but I ended up massively disappointed: the whole place was nothing but an obscene touristic circus.
Hundreds of people, most in large groups, taking pictures of each other with their low-rez cameras, and dozens of tables set up by people selling useless crap or laughably overpriced tea. I quickly stepped outside with the intention of just walking a bit farther away to explore the area, but I soon found myself at the exit gate.
At this point I was fuming. I stormed to the ticket office with the firm intention of getting my money back or at the very least making a huge scene and not giving a gram of fuck about it. But the old dudes in uniforms were there to tell me that there are actually three sites to visit with this one ticket, and this was the smallest one by far.
Oh. This, coupled with the fact that they accepted my long-expired University card for a 50% discount, deflated my anger quite a bit.
The bus to the next village was free, but stops about one kilometer before the end of the road. It is then possible to take one of those oversized golf carts for 5 yuan. Ha, nice try, but I’d much rather walk, and so do the other tourists headed that direction, spending every minute of the walk talking about me.
This time, we are not dealing with only one miserable tulou turned into a museum of grotesque domestic tourism, but an actual small village that is not lacking charm. And just like every heavily-touristed but inhabitated site I have ever been to — from Paris to Oaxaca, Prague to Chiang Mai — I can bifurcate slightly from the main way and quickly find myself zig-zagging between walled houses through peaceful alleys, where no one would even imagine being in a tourist site.
I spent a bit of time exploring before going back to the more crowded area, with its temples, statues, and large earthhouses. I climbed a hill to get a nice view, and going down the other side, I heard a lot of loud voices from a cluster of semi-isolated farms. Large tables were set up, covered with millions of plates of food and surrounded by feasting people who, upon seeing me appear on the horizon, waved me in with enthusiasm. They immediately give me a beer and a pair of chopsticks, and tell me to dig in, which I happily did. Just another impromptu wedding-crashing, daytime binge-drinking session in China.
I spent a lot of time with them, endlessly toasting, eating, laughing, and chatting about all kinds of topics. These are the moments where I am glad to have put all that effort into learning Chinese, but there’s no denying I’d still enjoy myself if I didn’t but it sure as hell wouldn’t have been the same. You’ve heard the old saying ” The world is like a book, and those that don’t travel read only a page,” right? Well, to that, I’d add “and those who do travel but stay well tucked in their little monolingual comfort bubble read this book in a dark room with sunglasses on.” Sure, they might cover a lot of chapters, but can’t read shit except the occasional word here and there. And if you happen to read this sentence and think I am dead wrong, condescending, and that there are other ways one can appreciate and learn from traveling, you might be partially right, but stop fooling yourself, you can’t deny you’re missing out. A lot. And my empathy for you is inversely proportional to the time you have spent in the country you’re currently in.
After wishing the soon-to-be bride and her parents good luck for the upcoming ceremony, I bid my farewells to my new friends, but one of them insisted on accompany me, as he had nothing else to do. Walking past the farmlands and inching progressively closer to the tourist area, I asked him how it feels to live in such a place, with the huge sudden spikes in tourism and all the consequences brought by it. I half-expected a negative answer, but instead he gets all starry-eyed and tells me it’s wonderful. Not annoying? “Nah, we’re used to it. They come to look at the houses, look at the mountains, bring money and are friendly. There are laowai too, like you. Not many, but we’re happy to see them visit our region.” Damn.
I found myself changing my opinion about inhabitated tourist tourist sites by the millisecond. Maybe it’s not as bleak as I thought… We reach the tulou area, walk around a bit more, and stop whenever Buddy (that’s what I called him) met someone he knew, which was constantly in this small, tight-knit community. They would often invite us for tea, chat us up, give me stuff, and at no point did I feel like Buddy was using me as his trophy for everyone to look at, nor was he pushing me to buy anything. He, and all his acquaintances, displayed nothing but genuine friendliness.
That shows that even in touristy areas, people are people. They live and let live. Sure, there are touts in a lot of places, and I don’t plan on changing my off-the-beaten-path habits anytime soon, but this interaction was quite an eye-opener. And it’s still not over: since the bus to the third tulou cluster was not leaving anytime soon, waiting for the large tour groups to do their thing. Buddy called his young brother on his phone, asking him to drive us there. He showed up (being ironically taller and more broad-shouldered despite being the younger brother), and we piled on his motorbike, and got on our way for the 20-minute or so ride in the winding mountain roads until we reached our destination.
I ended up visiting it twice, as it happened. After Buddy and lil’ Buddy brought me back to my guesthouse and wished me luck, I befriend the extended family living in the contiguous rooms: three brothers (actual ones, not just cousins or friends like the Chinese sometimes call brothers) and their wives and kids. They were all from Quanzhou, down by the coast. They invite me to join their barbecue, gave me tons of beer, and asked me to come with them in their minivan to go visit the tulou cluster and hike to the viewing point. I offered to pay for my share of the meat and beer and chip in for gas, knowing damn well that it would be easier to get them to wear a t-shirt with the Japanese flag on it than to accept my money. Nice folks.
And thus ended the first segment of my trip. My plan was then to keep going north and then branch east, but I sadly abort it a day later because of the way too mountainous terrain and decide to head back to Xiamen instead. Nothing really story-worthy there, except lots and lots of hills and thighs that feel like rugby balls filled with hot acid. And the long, long road…
… but wait, what’s that?! I was barely 5 minutes into my journey and already the road is blocked? A mob of about 30 farmers has formed, surrounding a makeshift weak-ass looking barrier which consisted of a dead tree, plastic chairs, a motorcycle parked sideways, a few rocks and beer bottle shards. Four or five cars and one bus are blocked from crossing, unable to move around and seemingly realizing there’s not much they can do for the time being. One motorist gets out of his car, showing signs of impatience, and got shouted at by a stick-wielding old man, while the solitary cop at the scene passively kept the order from a distance.
The first person who saw me calls all the others to look, and smiles and hellos ensue, reducing the somewhat tense atmosphere. I never feel that comfortable in these situations, knowing (and having seen it in my eyes) how protests in China can turn ugly and violent in the turn of a second, and would have just turned away if that road wasn’t the only option to get out of that valley.
I decided to perform a LaowaiSmash, took my bike on my shoulder and told them to move so I could walk through. Nobody opposed me. “Welcome,” they say, ” it’s not you we want to stop!”
“Can I take a picture?” I then asked. They all nodded, and told me to put it on the internet so that everyone could see. Which is what I’m doing right now, I guess.
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