They knew it deep down, though they didn’t speak of it. The next couple of weeks to Chengdu would be tough. Wang Fu and the Girl Wonder loaded up their steed, Hooch, and left the comfort and security of the youth hostel with its soothing sounds of spoken English, the city’s tranquil parks, lakes, bars, cafes and the guilty pleasures of ordering KFC, safe in the knowledge it would look just like the picture with not a chicken foot in sight. They smelt clean as they left and it felt good. Just maybe this was a new dawn as they ventured deeper in to planet Chinaland. Maybe they were now on easy street.
Mud. The Tandem Duo were back on the road with less than an hour to enjoy the simple luxury of cleanliness. They mulled over the logic of Chinese infrastructure expansion, of destroying old roads to lay new roads that remained half built, with dust, mud and chaos. That grannies on scooters and businessmen in Mercedes tolerated these conditions baffled and amused. Girl Wonder squealed each time they played puddle roulette. Would this one have a brick in it? Would Hooch keep going as the thick chocolate lapped at the panniers? Wang Fu had in recent weeks affectionately referred to Girl Wonder’s weathered toes as her ‘peasant feet’. The Kunming mud took them to a new level…
Eventually the sprawling city limits gave way to quiet paved country roads again and the sun came out, the tandem leaving a trail of rusty clay nuggets in its wake.
Arriving like creatures from a sun-baked billabong, Wang Fu managed to convince a friendly hotelier in the city of Songming to provide lodgings for the night. As the pair had become well accustomed, he flashed a look of horror when they didn’t produce standard Chinese identity cards but instead strange looking red books called passports. He began to make some phone calls as the duo went to their room and washed away a hard day’s cycle.
The plan was always simple in the evenings. Walk down the street, get stared at, point at some food they thought looked good, get stared at, eat the food presented that didn’t resemble in any way what they had ordered, get stared at and have photos taken by passers-by, try out a Chinese phrase like ‘that was delicious’, get laughed at/stared at, then wander ‘home’…getting stared at. But things were rarely that simple in Chinaland.
Tonight, Wang Fu and the Girl Wonder were greeted as they left by a friendly, yet flustered policeman. They were asked to sit and wait. And wait they did for a very long time as the officer presumably googled what to do with aliens who arrive in town. Meanwhile, friends and relatives of the hotel owner passed by to stare and talk at the hungry pair and point out to Wang Fu that he had a beard. The pair smiled and laughed along; it was now second nature.
The Girl Wonder was not concerned about the policeman for this is the way in Chinaland. In fact she had become suspicious on the nights when they didn’t have a banging on the room door to be faced with a group of policemen requesting her passport, asking questions, filling in forms and photocopying pages. But when, after an hour of staring and hunger pangs, the officer ordered the pair to follow him to his police car, she felt a little uneasy. Wide-eyed locals gave each other knowing looks that said, ‘We won’t be seeing them again.’ Wang Fu had forgotten his hunger for a second and with a grin said, ‘This doesn’t look good… but it could be great for the blog!’. Girl Wonder rolled her eyes at her hairy side-kick, who really could be an idiot sometimes, and tried to work out where the hell they were going and why.
The officer made a call on his mobile and pulled over a few minutes later in a more remote part of town. A woman got in. Who was she? Surely the station isn’t out here? Was she a plain clothes officer? The officer spoke to her as we drove on. She seemed very nice. Actually he seemed very nice…or was he? Girl Wonder pointed out that interrogations normally have a ‘good cop’ and a ‘bad cop’. Wang Fu reminded her that this is Chinaland…
‘My name is Angela. My husband asked me to help as I speak a little English. Welcome to Songming. You must be very hungry and you don’t know this city so I am going to take you for dinner while my husband goes to the station to register you. He will pick us up later and drive you to your hotel. Burger and fries OK?…’
That was Chinaland – weird, frustrating, lovely, exhausting and…never over.
On returning to the hotel and thanking the police officer’s wife, the only thing on Girl Wonder’s mind was the safety and sanity of the simple hotel room. They were almost there. Then, what is this? The officer marches up behind them with the hotel owner who opens their door. The policeman walks past the untidy piles of sweaty clothes and inspects the bed. Then he instructs Wang Fu in how to open and close the window. He flushes and peers into the squat toilet and checks the lights work. Girl Wonder is not impressed; this is our room, just leave us alone, it is late and we need some space, her mind pleads. He shows her how to lock the door and close the curtains. Without a knock he bursts into the room opposite. A poor chap relaxing in his boxer shorts is briefly terrorised by the officer, no doubt told to be on his best behaviour as there are visiting aliens next door. But at last it’s over for another day in Chinaland.
The next day the pair left a little weary after a long evening but a few hours into their journey the police flagged them down. What would it be this time?
Photos. Wang Fu wasn’t sure that these very excitable girls were even real police officers. Still, their happy faces cheered the couple on their way.
Village life in the Yunnan province
Chinaland constantly switches from neon metropolis to time-locked peasant subsistence, as if passing through some kind of invisible vortex. There is no suburban middle ground. For Wang Fu and the Girl Wonder, Hooch becomes a marvellous time machine, transporting them to a strange future and back to a distant, somewhat crude and simple past. They take some pictures as they go.
While the gaudy veneer shopfronts and the shells of naked concrete in the ever expanding cities appeared to the travellers to have little in the way of soul, they sought solace in the gems of human interaction nestled in these metropoles. It seemed the older ones knew what to hold onto in these rapidly changing times. They still could not communicate with the locals but the duo enjoyed trying to unravel the stories written into the craggy faces and gummy smiles of the socialising old ones.
Camping in the sky
The map that Wang Fu held in his hand had many little lines packed closely together. ‘These are contours, Girl Wonder, but I am sure the road will pass in between them.’ Wang Fu was an optimist with a penchant for famous last words. The invisible vortex they had experienced between the old and the brave new world often had a very real geographical barrier, as the duo were about to find out.
Having climbed considerably for much of the day out of Songming, the pair were relieved to have a fast and long descent. It was getting late and the next town was still a long way off. Girl Wonder shouted from the back, ‘A FLAT!’. Hooch wobbled to a steep stop, the rear tyre hissing with pressure, an overheated rim had spoilt the fun. With night approaching as the wheel got fixed, they looked out at the stunning views and decided maybe this was a good place to camp. With every last piece of ground planted for crops, it was hard to find a place but Wang Fu found a small abandoned concrete foundation that would be ideal. They eagerly unpacked their brand new tent. Wow, it was bright red! As they unfolded it and unfolded it, they were unsure it would fit on the patch they had found. From now on Hooch could join them inside if he wanted; it was a mansion!
The next day morale was good; Wang Fu and the Girl Wonder could be themselves, alone in the mountains. They flew down into the gorge that they had looked down upon the night before and then eagerly climbed into the mountains once more. Hooch was beginning to wobble a bit on his back wheel but they would soon be over the next little pass. Wang Fu was convinced of this.
Everything seemed so big in Chinaland but perhaps the two-some had just been shrunk as they passed through the vortex.
At last the top was insight. The grubby pair were warmly welcomed by a family in the village that clung to the steep sides of the mountain. They enjoyed feeding them snacks and watching the bearded one eat. Wang Fu wondered at the little smiley girl dressed in glitter. Did she dream of being a cheerleader? A dancer? What happened to dreams up here if your dream wasn’t to trek up the side of mountains with a basket and sickle or hose down the steaming brakes of the odd passing truck? Did Grandma have childhood dreams lost in the mountain clouds? Perhaps, but she seemed happy enough, her smile revealing her last remaining teeth as she rinsed some local old boys at cards in the shack next door. The little girl ran into the village squat as soon as Girl Wonder came out to check if she had laid a golden egg one would presume.
The little sparkly girl found no golden egg and the Tandem Turners found no top to the mountain. It seems everyone got a little carried away in their little fantasies.
Some locals in a rickety van stopped to show concern for the intrepid campers. They went through their bags, pointed at words in the well thumbed phrase book to construct sentences like, ‘You have no money?’, an older man pointed at the word ‘dangerous’ and then threw stones at the partly quarried cliff above. Wang Fu thanked him for dislodging some larger rocks that tumbled down towards the tent. Girl Wonder, frustrated, zipped herself into the tent. Wang Fu did what he does best – looked and smelt like a caveman. Within a minute the villagers were rattling on down the mountain, bemused faces pressed against the van’s windows.
Beyond the clouds
The next day dawned and the couple rose above the fluffy clouds, no end in sight. The higher they got, the older the peasants became and the heavier their loads. The Girl Wonder had a little break down as a result of the claustrophobic mountains, ‘Where the hell are we? Someone please just help me. Take me home!’. Wang Fu was learning when to hold back his witty quips and opted for a silent hug instead. It was becoming an incredibly hard couple of days but it was stunning all the same.
Eventually the pass came – 3,200 metres above the sea and a lesson learnt in reading contours. Suddenly tarmac, a screaming descent and the other side of the vortex sighted below…
Where to camp?
The Tandem Turners love to camp but where to find a spot when every inch of the land is farmed can get a bit tough. This was a less comfy night but it made a good video location for a message to Wang Fu’s students back at South Park Primary School.
Wang Fu gets his name
The attention the pair were getting as they rode into each town was edging on farcical. It was to be expected one might guess; there are not too many tourist visitors to places like the growing city of Zizhong.
The simplest of tasks become mountainous when a sea of people are surrounding you, having their picture taken with you as you try and unload the bike, pouring over your passports like they are mystical picture books, when all you want is to get some quiet and a shower. Then, friends call friends to come and see the alien visitors that have landed in Chinaland.
It was after one such hotel check-in that must have taken over an hour that the Tandem Turners flopped down on the bed, thinking they might forego dinner in favour of a quiet evening. Ten minutes later there was a knock at the door. The police? No, a taxi driver who had stopped Wang Fu coming into town for a photo on his i-phone – his fare had taken the picture for him. He handed his phone to Wang Fu. A voice that knew a little English explained that the young cabbie’s 70 year old grandparents had never met a foreigner before. Would they do the honour of visiting them? They said YES (through a slightly forced smile).
It was a special feeling to be driven out to the home of two lovely people who were in such anticipation of the visit. Food was presented and enjoyed, a ‘translator’ was brought in and the neighbours came to have a look (and a photo) too. Being shown such warmth reminded the pair of their own lovely grandparents and they joked with their new Chinese adoptive family about whether the 70-year wait to meet a foreigner was worth it. Many gifts were given to be loaded onto the tandem including many culinary delicacies, a bottle of very expensive looking baijiu (the very strong local spirit made from rice) and pictures of Grandad dressed as an emperor taken on a visit to Beijing ten years previously. The most special gift received was a Chinese name. After serious deliberation between those present, Grandad declared that the boy formally known as Steve would be given the name Wang Fu. It was a wondrous night. The boy formally known as Steve was unsure he completely understood the meanings and origins of his new name but the word ‘tiger’ was mentioned so he was happy.
And that’s how Wang Fu got his name.
Girl Wonder gets her name
It had to happen at some point. You don’t need a licence to ride a motorbike in China. The sight of the Hooch-mobile was always turning heads for longer than is physically safe while driving a moving vehicle on Chinese roads. Fortunately, it was a man carrying a sack of rice, not a small child, that smashed into a road barrier, scattering bike parts with a bone-crunching smash.
It was such a wallop and slide that for a few seconds the Tandem Duo thought he was dead. Driving with no helmet and in flip-flops doesn’t give you good odds. Before Wang Fu could process what to do, Girl Wonder was running down the lane, casting off her helmet. She helped the bleeding and shaken man to his feet, checking him over, reassuring him. He was alive and only partly broken.
It amazed Wang Fu how his soul mate could transform when the need arose. It had been like that in the Outback when Wang Fu had started freaking out over another puncture, with water low, many miles from anything but dust. She had floated serenely around the scene like some kind of zen master, calming him and showing him what to do.
Cars passed but did not stop. Two old ladies, who had been selling peaches, came to see if they too could help. Wang Fu wondered what more Girl Wonder thought she could do for the man. Next thing he saw made him chuckle, attention had now turned to the motorbike. Grandma and the Girl Wonder were swinging wildly on the back of the bike trying to drag the petrol-leaking wreck from under the crash barrier back into the road. Grandma, sporting superpowers of her own, slipped under the strain onto her bum before resuming the task. Wreckage cleared, Girl Wonder returned to the tandem, ‘No more I can do now. His bike is trashed but he will have a good story to tell’.
Wang Fu looked at the girl formally known as Kat with concern. ‘What is that mark on your arm?’, looking at a large painful crescent shape on her forearm. Girl Wonder shrugged, ‘Exhaust burn…’, whilst simultaneously pulling her water bottle open with her teeth and squirting the burning wound without a flinch. They set forth in Wang Fu’s stunned silence and the adventure continued. That’s how Girl Wonder got her name…
With rough roads taking their toll on bums and poor Hooch, the Tandem Turners tried their luck on the expressways. Although bicycles are technically not allowed on these new toll roads, the pair decided to give it a go. To their surprise, an early start, a smile and a confident whizz around the barrier did the trick. Even when they where turned back, the odd gap in the fence allowed them to sneak back on. They soon saw what all the fuss was about. The surface was smooth, there was little traffic and all natural obstacles in the way of driving progress had been blasted, tunnelled or bridged. And on a scale that has to be seen to be believed.
Tunnels were a bit scary for the Girl Wonder. With some as long as five kilometres, they were not a light undertaking. Potholes were conveniently positioned in the sections of the tunnel where the lighting had cut out, they were noisy and well, they weren’t really meant to be cycling in there. Putting on a headtorch and lighting the bike like a Christmas tree became a swift transition that Wang Fu would instigate at the entrance of each dark beast by calling the phrase, ‘Tunnel Up!’. He liked cheesy little phrases like that; it made him feel more professional.
While it was less picturesque, the couple flew through the mountains like they were on a giant scalextric. That is not to say there weren’t climbs but the long slow gradients could be sustained for hours and Hooch loved the descents, cruising at 50 kilometres an hour and no brakes needed. Once on these roads there were limited options to get off again and little in services. Some little rest areas had been erected, made out of concrete but in a ‘traditional’ style… Girl Wonder can be seen running from a photo opportunity after discovering a sea of poo at the top of this one.
Second birthday on the road!
Six punctures and a broken rim. Not what Wang Fu had put on his birthday list. That said, it was another day on the road with all its ups and downs. Cycling with his partner in adventure, still living the most gargantuan of dreams, Wang Fu thought back to his last birthday in Wellington, New Zealand. He had wondered where he would be a year on. Still on the road and he couldn’t quite believe it. This time nestled in the mountains in the town of Daguan. Directed up a very steep set of switch-backs they checked into a nice hotel for the evening (after all the usual faff of course). The only guests eating in the hotel restaurant, they were the usual freak show for the staff.
After tucking up in bed and reflecting on the year’s events, Wang Fu began to drift off. Bang! Bang! Bang! Wang Fu jumped up, dazed, swearing under his breath. ‘It’s 10:30pm. Haven’t the police got anything better to do!’
Despite not seeming to understand what a passport was, what their names were or the aliens’ country of origin, it seems that in the time they had been examining the passports one of the staff had spotted it was a birthday and gone out to get a cake. Chinaland – full of surprises.
Fame, the one-legged legend and a student rescue
As they ventured further into the Sichuan Province, punctures became more common. They knew why now and a new rim was winging its way to Chengdu where they could get fixed up. It was frustrating though and exhausting in the heat to repair and pump the back wheel up over and over again. Things took a turn for the worst when on a small country road the pair had their seventh puncture of the day and realised that the present rate of flats would not be sustainable. They were out of new tubes and it was taking too much time and effort to patch and repair over and over again. There was nowhere to get help for days ahead. They would have to go back to the last city they passed. Yibin. The bike had had it for the day as had the duo. For the first time on the trip the pair would need a lift, about 30 kilometres back along the road they had cycled.
This proved harder than expected. A few helpful souls seemed to understand our request for a ride, only to return half an hour later with a bike pump. Wang Fu had a theory that if he stood at the side of the road and pointed at the broken bike people would stop. This theory didn’t work out. They began to get hot and frustrated. Some schoolgirls who had been practising their English with Girl Wonder from behind a tree, eventually asked, ‘What’s wrong?’. They suggested the pair got a bus from a village a few kilometers away. The thought of cramming a tandem, trailer and all their bags on a bus sounded awful. Wang Fu was feeling faint and a bit dizzy after a day of fixing punctures and pumping wheels. Then as luck would have it a little three-wheeled motorbike with some seating in the back dropped someone off. With a lot of arm twisting and some dubious translation from the schoolgirls, a deal for a ride into town was brokered. ‘Well, he is a one-legged hillbilly, probably drunk, but it is our best option’, Wang Fu explained to Girl Wonder, ‘After all, this is Chinaland.’
Morale was incredibly low in the back of that cart. They clung to their bags and the bike as the crappy motorcycle/tractor bumped towards the city. Wang Fu almost lost it when the driver tried to drop them on the outskirts of the city. One-Leg looked very worried. Perhaps he was scared of the big city. He said, ‘Police’, a few times. Perhaps driving a converted motorcycle, drunk and with only one leg would be frowned upon. When the couple refused to get out of the trailer, he agreed to drive to the university. There would be a hotel there.
So there they were dumped, at the main gate of the university, with a broken bike and a pile of bags. A small crowd soon gathered. One-Leg, who up to now had seemed decidedly shifty, took on a new persona, regaling the story of how he had rescued the aliens to the ever-growing crowd. A couple of female English students asked if they could help. Wang Fu went with them to find a place to stay nearby, leaving the Girl Wonder to the growing crowd. It took a while but Wang Fu found a hotel. He felt a little guilty as he couldn’t get over how lovely the female students smelt.
Standing a few hundred metres up the road he looked back to the university. It was a swarm of people, jostling and shoving. ‘She’s finally lost it’, Wang Fu thought. He envisioned the crowd trying to get a look as the Girl Wonder smashed one of the staring mob in the face repeatedly with the bike pump. Had Chinaland just pushed her too far?
But this was Girl Wonder. There she was smiling and waxing lyrical about her adventures, a momentary pause while a student translated, followed by gasps of admiration from the crowd. Not a bicycle pump or a broken nose in sight. A security guard, on the verge of calling the riot police, was trying to move the crowd on. They didn’t have to worry about how to transport their belongings, a mob of enthusiastic students picked everything up and followed the pair in a long convoy to the hotel.
A day off was called for. Yibin couldn’t fix the wheel but it had some wonderful food and the hotel room was luxurious. Wang Fu spent the evening wrapping the broken rim in as much rim tape as he could to make a soft bed for the innertube. They had to get to Chengdu in the next five days to extend their visa and a new rim would be waiting too. The wheel would just need to hold out for five relatively flat days. ‘We can Chengdu-it’, was the new mantra and to their amazement they did – not one flat tyre!
Getting to the youth hostel in Chengdu was momentus for the Tandem Turners. It was late when they arrived but Wang Fu insisted on having a beer before they even unloaded the bike. It turned into a very, very late night, speaking English again, sharing tales of Chinaland with other travellers, having a proper burger and chips and did I mention the beer?