Up and down, up and down, up up up..... the endless and exhausting ride across Guizhou 贵州.
It was the mix between an enormous enthusiasm, the excitement of being riding around the world again, the strong need to get to see the “new” stuff, the anxiousness to get to Guangzhou 广州, lying 2300km (1430miles) ahead, on time for Christmas to meet my “co-pilot”, what left me limping by the 5th day. All this “excess of enthusiasm” hit my knees extremely hard. I had cycled more than 15.000km (9400miles) in the last four years, but due to the more ephemeral nature of those journeys, no matter how hard they had been, especially the ones across Tibet, I had been able to carry less weight. Now, I was already carrying what is typical for any long-hauler. I left home with little over 60kg (135pounds), a moderate weight to start, especially considering the awful weight of my photography gear and related equipment. This weight would allow me to get fit and ready for the times when carrying food and winter clothes would possibly increase it up to 80kg (180pounds) However, at pace of more than a 100km (63mi)
a day along roads that were becoming increasingly difficult, it was more than my knees could take in such a short period of time. Needless to say, I couldn't think of a worse scenario, since I was just crossing into Guizhou province 贵州省. Guizhou 贵州 is officially the poorest province of China but also, proportionally, one of the less visited by both Chinese and foreigners. That is possibly the reason why in my mind it was so enigmatic and because of this, I deliberately traced my route all across it. I entered Guizhou 贵州 from its westernmost tip, crossing the river Chishui 赤水, reaching the town bearing the same name. I had got to it following a secondary and already very mountainous road of Sichuan province 四川and at that time I really wasn't able to imagine what lied ahead. I had done my homework and of course I knew it was a mountainous province, what I didn't know yet was that for the next 1000km (620mi) approximately, there were not going to be more than a 100 consecutive meters (300ft) of flat road. Guizhou 贵州 has the geography of a different planet. As soon as I left Chishui 赤水, cutting across a thick bamboo forest, the changes were immediate. On the way to Xishui习水, in towns and villages, traffic became noticeably more chaotic, pollution increased, buildings were more precarious, with facades with no finishes or finished half-way. There was no aesthetic appeal of any kind, constructions were not even picturesque, but this is the case in all China anyway. On the other hand, landscape became greener and wilder. The climbs started from the very beginning. The soil became red and I could see very long and thin waterfalls falling for dozens of meters from high up above, filtering through thick forests and bare rock cliffs. After a while, the forest gave way to deep canyons following winding emerald green rivers. From these, I would start climbing up until the ridge from where I would see a new valley, each with its own extra planetary topography. Every climb would bring a new way down to a new valley and the slopes were unforgiving to my knees. With every step I took on the pedal I felt like a sharp iron bar piercing through my knee caps. Sometimes the pain was so bad that I couldn't concentrate on the beauty around me any more. Music, which is usually soothing, helped sometimes but It would still hurt when the punishing slopes became very steep. A series of intricate rice terraces started to dominate the landscape among mountains that seemed to accommodate themselves in the most whimisical way.
It did not take long for me to realize that when looking straight at the horizon, there wasn't one, because nothing was placed at the same level. Crossing Guizhou 贵州felt like being trapped in this massive 3D maze in which movement never occurs in one direction but in all of them, and it sometimes take only a handful of meters to switch from one to the other. Days were almost perpetually grey and the fog was low and thick when I saw, across the river I was cycling along, a fantastic village of traditional houses.
A true jewel among so much cheap, tacky construction with no identity of any kind. I could I've stared for hours at the thousands of little details and imperfections of these weathered houses whose back facades were facing the river. I could only think that it is because of a miracle that they are still on their feet.
I think that in general, in the unconscious of western people there is still this somehow mystical idea about China, of thousand-years-old villages and wandering old wise men; an almost romantic image of the country, and image that realistically, it is really really hard to find in a truly genuine way for anybody who's only visiting the famous attractions of this country for a limited amount of time. However, standing between so much destruction of the past, some of these jewels of genuine vernacular architecture still remain and it is a true pleasure to find them.
Paradise of the drunk
At the end of each day, due to this intricate and extraterrestrial terrain, it was always a problem to find a place to camp. It was that simple, in this province there didn't seem to be not even a god-damned one square meter of flat land other than the perimeter that defines the interior of a house. The rest was always on a steep slope. To be honest, I spent days trying to connect with the people to get some help at the time of finding a place to sleep, but I kept getting the same indifferent looks and very little sympathy. Life in rural China is harsh, and there is not much space for happy smiles. Unlike so many other rural areas that I visited in the past, here people seem to live in a state of permanent bitterness and this got even worse as I started getting into the deep and narrow canyons that were taking me to Renhuai仁怀.
For 4 days I cycled across one of the main production regions of Baijiu白酒, the ever-so-famous Chinese alcoholic drink made out of fermented rice, which can reach anywhere between 52% and 68% of alcohol depending on the brand. During my life in China I had a frequent encounter with this drink since it is usually drunk in all business lunches and dinners. For me this was always a true pain in the ass, since I don't drink any kind of alcohol and only two little glasses of this evil drink would leave me spinning and talking incoherences for more than it is acceptable for a business meal. Add to this the outrageous hangover I had after the celebration of the last Chinese New Year, after which I decided to break-up until the day I die with this repulsive drink. The reason for this brief digression is to give some background to understand the torture it was for me to cycle for 4 days along this region. For about 300km (185mi) of intricate, though spectacular roads of canyons and mountains, I had to bear with breathing the almost permanent smell of the vapors that came out of the chimneys of hundreds of distilleries that are scattered in this region, sitting in the most unthinkable ways on this utmost irregular topography.
The industry of Baijiu 白酒 is so huge in China that everything in these pestilent towns of production seem to be an ode to this drink. There are statues in the shape of the bottles, names and slogans of different brands all over the walls and signs and even a section of the road whosefenceshave bollards made of stones in the shape of the Baijiu白酒bottles.
Moreover, the only god-damned day when the sun decided to timidly show between the clouds of stinking fermented rice, had to be cycling along this region! I wanted to cycle fast, I wanted to run away of this omnipresent smell that simply made my guts sick and made me remember that horrible hangover, but it was simply not possible, because not only the road kept me climbing most of the time at snail speed and pushing hard meant that my knees would make me cry out of pain but also the roads were in increasingly bad condition, alternating between broken tarmacs, dirt, stones and sectors that were flooded with mud. On top of all this,I had to bear with the traffic of the hundreds of trucks that undertake, guess what.... yes, the distribution of this drink across the country, with all the noise and pollution that comes with it. But I have to say that few times have I thanked so much traveling by bicycle because I was able to swift through endless rows of trucks stuck in traffic jams for hours. When I arrived at Renhuai仁怀, I ended with the worst 80hs since I had started the trip and as I approached the city and the pestilent air slowlywent into oblivion, I breathed with joy and celebrated more than ever being a non-drinker. Winter strikes Despite the landscape being mind-blowing, the pestilence, the knee pain and the bitterness and apathy of the local people had made it very tough to find some space to enjoy the experience. Luckily, that was about to change, for when I left Renhuai 仁怀I found myself in front of one of the most stunning sceneries that I had seen until now. Leaving a very narrow canyon I ended up in this 400 meter-long (1300ft) and anywhere between 80 to 100 meters (320ft) high bridge that cut across a landscape that I was only able to associate with the one I had seen when traveling from Oslo to Bergen in Norway almost a decade ago. I was truly dazzled. The narrowness of this bridge, the immensity of the space around me, the wind and the dramatic verticality with which the cliffs reached the river hundreds of meters bellow gave me a strong feeling of vertigo. Only the act of standing in the very bridge made me feel unstable and I could only lean against the fence for a few seconds at a time in order to take the shots I wanted. It was only when I left the bridge that I felt fully comfortable again, but I was lamenting leaving such extraordinary view behind.
The brief period of a gentle sun finally came to an end and during the following days winter would finally strike. Temperature plummeted from 12C (54C) to 3C (37F) overnight, a permanent fog came down from the skies to take away most of the visibility of the road and an evil rain that soaked the road would come to follow me on and off for several days. Cycling uphill turned increasingly hard, the cold made my knee pain even stronger, even when I was shifting the gears all the way down to reduce the effort as much as possible. Slopes became even steeper. Every kilo I was carrying felt like a kilogram of pain. Under the freezing rain, covered in mud, stinking and soaked with my own sweat I would relentlessly cycle uphill for hours at some miserable 5km/h (3mph) to later freeze on the way down at 45km/h (28mph) in only a few minutes. I just kept riding from one valley to the next one, rice terraces and steep canyons all around me. The topography was so irregular that I had to check from time to time to see whether my eyes were still straight. Days went by and the constant appearance of the road signs indicating a new climb immediately after finishing every ephemeral way down was driving me insane! Sometimes I just felt like tearing them out of their posts, break them, smash them and throw them into the abyss! “They have to stop, they have to stop,” I said to myself. This is just unreal, how can it go on and on and on up and down up and down forever? Where did I get into? What geological era made the fucking stupid topography of this province? How long more it would take until finding a flat miserable kilometer? It was just that there weren't even some relief periods. A slope downhill would immediately become a slop uphill and vice versa. And this fucking perpetual grey! When in the fucking world would give way to some sun rays? I wasn't even asking for blue skies anymore, they simply don't exist in China at all, but at least, just at least some room for breathing from these endlessly grey days. But so it happens, that when everything is grey and bleak, there's always something that fortunately tips the scales. After I passed the city of Zunyi 遵义 people seemed to have changed significantly. It wouldn't be simply out of sheer luck that every day that passed somebody that would come across my way would eventually invite me for lunch or dinner or give me shelter for the night. I finally started to find hospitality, interest and wonderful people with whom I loved to spend hours chatting about life. When riding across a very tiny and poor rural village, a group of families invited me to witness the sacrifice of the pig that they would eat in the Chinese New Year to come, still two months ahead. The sacrifice itself was harsh and undertaken in a very rudimentary way. A true challenge for those of us who eat meat without having ever been truly connected with the suffering of the animal. The process would involve piercing through the pig's neck with a rudimentary sable, once dead inflate it with a motorcycle's foot pump so the body would take shape, pouring boiling water all over it to make the fur softer while the animal is still bleeding on the ground. A sharp knife would be later used to rub the skin and take every single hair out. Six to Seven people would be needed to lift it and hang it by its legs from some improvised structure made of thick tree branches. The pig would then be cut open and the whole place would become a real bloodbath. While the animal keeps bleeding until the very last drop, the guts are removed and carefully tied with grass leaves to later be stored. Every single piece of the animal will find a place in a New Year's dish. Absolutely nothing goes to waste. Well into the night, once the sacrifice was over and the whole pig had been chopped down to several pieces I stayed with them for dinner, trying to get some warmth back, all of us sitting around the stove, on top of which sat the pot filled with boiling meat and vegetables from where all of us a te. The poorest peasants in China speak incomprehensible dialects and I was only able to understand them when they addressed me in their rather limited Mandarin.
Fortunately, the Chinese that is spoken in this province, aside from Mandarin, is very similar to the dialect of Sichuan 四川to which my ears are very used to and I can also decently speak. This allowed me to communicate with people without much problems. During this second stage across this province people changed so much that I started to feel truly at ease again. Even the police, that group of individuals that mostly everywhere in the world are more of a synonym of trouble and pain rather than of any help at all, here, they have often offered me some hot tea to help me gain some warmth back and a bed to sleep in their tiny and modest precincts in the villages.... it seems that isolation over an extended period of time in such remote villages makes the more humane and more needy of connection with the rest ofusmortals. I was already on my way to Kaili凯利andthe endless climbs and the freezing rains wouldn't cease. My knees would kill me at times and I had mud up to my neck, but the warmth of the people started making a huge difference. By the time I reached the city I was literally exhausted, I was soaked and frozen and after the last long climb my knees hurt awfully. 12 days had gone by since I had left Chengdu成都,1012km (630mi) cycled and not even a single day of rest. If this hadn't been enough, the only shitty hotel with a decent price I found already after dark, had its only state of the art piece-of-shit-room, on the 6thfloor of the building which mind you, was only accessible using the stairs. Kaili凯利marked the beginning of the region of ethnic minorities that I had long meant to explore. The city itself isn't interesting at all, but given the conditions in which I arrived, I collapsed on the bed and slept and did nothing for 36hs straight. I let my body rest and I would only leave the room to shower for the first time since I had left, pee and eat large amounts of food. The climbs together with the cold doubled or tripled the use of energy and I noticed that I had lost weight quite abruptly during those last few days regardless of how well I had been eating.Tribal World Getting into the tribal area of Guizhou贵州was by all means a fascinating experience. The tribal areas comprise mostly all of the eastern side of the province and the western part ofGuangxi广西.It's inhabited by quite a few ethnic minorities but mainly by theMiao苗族andDong侗族whose villages, of the utmost exquisite vernacular architecture blend almost perfectly with their fertile surroundings of remote green valleys flanked by steep terraced mountains sowed until the very last square inch of flattened land.From an ethnic point of view, these tribes are more related to those of the northern parts of south-east Asia like the ones in Laos, Vietnam and Thailand than to theHan汉族Chinese of the country they live in. Unlike Tibetans and Uighurs, they have managed to coexist in harmony under the rule of theHan汉族Chinese for the last century. The first village I got to wasXijiang西江andXijiang西江is one of those places whose incredible beauty and originality are both a blessing and a curse at the same time. Seeing the village for the first time from the top of the mountain opposite to it is simply a dazzling experience that leaves you speechless. The vernacular architecture of the Miao苗族is nothing short of exquisite and spectacular. The wooden houses with their gabled roofs covered with weathered tiles are about a thousand years old. They adapt ever so harmonically to the intricate slopes of the capricious mountains where they stand on. The whole scenery is lush and thick with vegetation and it seems to be almost permanently veiled by a mystical fog. Like it is always the case with the vernacular architecture of mostly all great Civilizations in history, the equilibrium between what is man-made and the nature around it is pretty much perfect. The cobbled stoned pathways and alleys permanently wet with humidity take you up and down the mountain around the village. The whole place is quiet and feels timeless.
The Miao苗族are still somehow able to conduct their traditional lives, despite the fact that Xijiang 西江 has naturally become the target of mass tourism, which in turn became its curse. The main road that runs along the bottom of the village is cluttered with an unbearable sight of industrialized souvenir shops, restaurants with inflated prices and even the tackiest karaoke bars that have absolutely nothing to do with the local traditions. I was lucky enough to be there right before winter, which even though the weather is quite cold and mostly inhospitable, it pretty much left the whole place for myself. Just to imagine this place flooded by the hundreds of Chinese package tours that make this place collapse in high season, traveling like herds, gave me the goosebumps and made chills run up my spine. In addition, like it is always the case with all the well-known tourist attractions of China, the government seems to believe that everything that is beautiful and worth to be seen is only possible after paying an entrance fee. The only road that cuts across this previously remote valley is fenced on both sides and each one is crowned with its own ticket office. Only to be able to do something as basic as cycling or driving through the town, one has to pay 100RMB (about 18usd). China seems to be seriously determined to charge for absolutely everything that has some kind of intrinsic interest to it. Whether it is seeing a village, a lake, a temple, a building, some nice mountain or walk by some nice river, you most likely have to pay for it before. The number of enclosed places grows every year and in most cases it has little to do with the local development or protection, it is only one thing that drives this and it's called profit.The effect on the local cultures are disastrous, it makes people addicted to money and to the modern lifestyle of consumerism, it commercializes culture, deeply distorting its core values and more ancestral ways of living. It is impossible to avoid that lots of people felt drawn to see in person places of such magnificent beauty but it is utterly sad to see when this is undertaken in such an irresponsible way, imposing on others, the lowest kind of values that our modern way of living has developed along the last century.
The best surprise though came days later. I have traveled around the world quite a bit already and most of the time I found this to be the case with no exceptions. A region usually has a very attractive place that mostly everybody wants to go and visit, this place is almost always the most striking for its size and impact, however, it is never the only one place that is attractive. Immediately after leaving Xijiang 西江towards the south, I found myself cycling along a very remote mountainous region exclusively inhabited by tribes that had little to no touch at all with all the insane tourist paraphernalia I had seen the day before. The day was perfect, no clouds at all. During the night very strong winds had blown and a rain had poured. By the time I woke up the day after, I felt a strange sense of warmth, especially considering that I had fallen asleep covered up to the top of my head when the room temperature was around 1C (33F), but that very morning the temperature had dramatically jumped from 1C to 17C (63F). I felt blessed, it felt as though nature had decided to skip winter and jumped straight to spring. The smiles of the people were genuine again with no hidden interests behind and true rural life was back on with that wonderful timeless quality that usually comes with it.
Every night I kept being invited to have dinner and stay over. At times I wondered whether this humble people ever imagined that inviting a hungry cyclist for dinner is like inviting four starving regular people. But this is China and in the China of today, everybody has plenty to eat, even in the most basic and modest households.
The landscape was simply exceptional despite the rough conditions of the roads and it was at this very same time, and I have no idea whether this was because of my very auspicious mood, the soothing weather that day, the result of the brief break I had taken the two days before, or the result of the strengthening of my body, but almost miraculously my knee pain slowly started to fade away. I was finally able to fully immerse myself in the experience of the place and the trip while the pain didn't steal my attention anymore, at least not most of the time. The winding roads along steep canyons of perfectly terraced slopes that reached the emerald green rivers hundreds of meters down bellow seemed to continue endlessly. Tucked between these series of valleys I was crossing, I could see all around, these idyllic villages, solitary, blending perfectly with their environment. I would never ever think of changing any of these small villages, completely unknown to everybody for the fame and grandeur of Xijiang 西江. These are the kind of places that fully entice me and make the traveling experience a mesmerising one.
As I slowly started to leave Guizhou 贵州 and right before reaching the lower lands of remote eastern Guangxi广西, this continuum of magic sceneries of rare village peacefulness continued, but I have to be honest and say that despite its amazing beauty, I was already looking forward to leaving this exhausting experience of constantly cycling uphill, at least for the time being, to give the body a little rest. After all, it was only roughly three weeks since I had started the trip. But what usually happens in these cases, the things that one wishes the most rarely become real, thus, regardless of my wishes, when I had only around 100km (63mi) left to leave Guizhou 贵州,the province threw at me a brutal 24km (15mi) climb and around 1300 meters (4300ft) of height difference. It felt kind of a reminder, something like “don't you ever forget where you got into, if you want to leave, you'll have to sweat and put some effort”. And so I had to comply! Despite my increasing physical strength I had to sweat it all the way until the very last meter before I officially crossed into Guangxi 广西 province. Elevation aside, I don't even remember in Tibet having had so much accumulated climbs in such a short period of time and distance. After 12 exhausting days and around 800km (500mi) cycled, I had already forgotten when was the last time that I had cycled one damned flat kilometer. The feeling was that one of being “ trapped” in a 3D maze, where there were no flat horizons and everything seemed to be arranged in an infinite series of levels. My very first impression of the people changed completely during the second half of the province. It wasn't the landscape alone anymore what made me feel out of this planet, but the people themselves. In every village and even in smaller towns, people would look at me in total awe, approaching me fascinated, telling me repeatedly that they had never seen a westerner in person, let alone one that speaks Chinese with whom they can communicate to satisfy their voracious curiosity. The food of the province felt a bit like a poorer and lower quality and less spicy version of neighbouring Sichuan 四川 whose cuisine is renowned country and worldwide for being one of the best in the world. It might still be the poorest province in China, it is undoubtedly more precarious and rural but I haven't seen any extreme misery and lack of dignity. Life is harsh, true, but food abounds and the housing are mostly built using solid materials. Most villages have some kind of basic infrastructure that ensures drainage and access to fresh water. No matter how tough the experience had been at times, it was totally worth it. It was a window to the other China, the one that isn't neither publicised nor talked about much , the one that still lags behind the China that is developing at warp speed.