#2 from China: Pedalling deep into Guangdong Province

I quickly found a safe bicycle path going my direction.

I quickly found a safe bicycle path going my direction.

I set out on bicycle from Zhuhai, China, on the morning of February 18th. Zhuhai is a coastal town located just to the north of Macau, which is 30 kms west of Hong Kong. To add to the mix, I am in the middle of the Chinese New Year. My plan is to pedal straight west to avoid the industrial zone around Guangzhou (formerly Canton) which lies just north of Hong Kong. From there, I would ride into Yunnan province. I wanted to avoid the congestion and pollution. I would be wrong on both counts.

First of all, the bicycling here is not nearly as dangerous as I had been warned. I rode my first 25 miles in a fence-protected bicycle zone. You can’t get much safer than that. Show me that in the US. Secondly, Chinese drivers have been courteous to me. I had heard that Chinese drivers were dangerous. Perhaps in the north they are, but my experience has been exactly the opposite. The highest posted speed limit I have seen is 70 km (42 miles per mile) and I do not see drivers breaking the limits.

I found many safe bicycle paths like this one on my route.

I found many safe bicycle paths like this one on my route.

Second, all the people I have met and asked for help (mostly for directions) have been as helpful as they could be, given my complete illiteracy and muteness. I have not had a rude gesture or word from anyone. They also leave you alone, after that first stare of surprise when they see you.

Third, the street food is simply great. Maybe it is even better in the sit down restaurants, but I am not wiling to leave my bike, loaded with valuables, out of my sight.

So I rode 150 kilometers thru a landscape of continuous industrialization. I had no idea it would go on for this long. I do not recall seeing one park. I have never in my life seen so many contiguous, non-stop factories and development in my life. Numerous times I had to climb to the top of new, very large bridges. From the top I was hoping to see the beginning of the Chinese countryside. But as far as I could see thru the smog were buildings rising and factories. This happened again and again. More construction and factories. I began to realize that I am now in the land where ‘things are built’ for the rest of the world.

A new factory going up. Over 40,000 factories in the US have closed in the last 20 years. So was Ross Perot right after all?

A new factory going up. Over 40,000 factories in the US have closed in the last 20 years. So was Ross Perot right after all?

 

Farm to factories. In the US, we are losing our farmland primarily to suburbs.

In China, it is farms to factories. In the US, we are losing our farmland primarily to suburbs.

Non-stop construction going on everywhere. I do not have a filter on my camera lens. This is as clear as it gets in the smog on a sunny day.

Non-stop construction going on everywhere. I do not have a filter on my camera lens. This is as clear as it gets in the smog on a sunny day.

The further I got from the coast, the worse the smog got. Again, this is on a sunny day. It reminded me of the steel mills around Gary, Indiana in the 1960's.

The further I got from the coast, the worse the smog got. Again, this is on a sunny day. It reminded me of the steel mills around Gary, Indiana in the 1960’s.

There are whole cities that specialize just in lighting, or t-shirts, or elevators. Pedal a few kms ahead and the next complex is entirely devoted to another item, such as packaging. Why, just smell the plastic as it is being extruded. As I pedaled on, I got to hyperventilate loads of it.

The word that comes to mind is SCALE. I have never seen so much of anything so big. Ever.

I passed 100’s of nearly identical 30-40 story-high apartment complexes, I saw 100’s of roof cranes busily lifting building material to the top. I had read that by some estimates, ¾ of all the construction cranes in use in the world today are in China. 2/3 of all the world’s cement and steel are being consumed in China right now.

In front of these kilometer-long factories I saw tens of 1000’s of bicycles and motor scooters. Loud pounding, screeching industrial sounds came from within, but not a person within view. Not even one outside on a smoke break. Eight hours of steady pedaling and I was expecting that over the next rise there would be agriculture, rice fields, bamboo, anything. But all that awaited me were more factories, apartment complexes, and immense shopping malls. Perhaps there are other industrial centers within China that are more immense than this, but I doubt that nothing outside of China is larger. What is truly incredible is that China has done all of this in only 30 years. Never in the history of industrialization has a country changed so fast.

'Good luck tangerine tree, gifts for the Chinese new year, abandoned along the highways. I ate the fruit, so they were good luck for me anyhow.

‘Good luck’ tangerine tree, gifts for the Chinese new year, abandoned along the highways. I ate the fruit, so they were good luck for me anyhow.

Tangerines and oranges are very significant gifts for the Chinese New Year. The Chinese present them to family, visitors and acquaintances for good luck and prosperity. The more extravagant people give away small tangerine trees covered with fruit. These are beautiful little bushes, perhaps 1.5 metter high. Oh but if I could grow these in Indiana.

But where do I now see the most of these? Laying along the roadside, still in their potted containers, alive and green and covered with fruit. If I am feeling like a break from pedaling, I park my bike, sit next to the dying tree, and eat a half dozen tangerines. Oh how I would like to rescue this beautiful little tree. On the walkway Chinese stare at me as they pass. Am I violating some taboo? I don’t know. But as I bite into another delicious tangerine, this tangerine tree brought good luck for at least one person.

Garbage garbage everywhere, in the industrial zones. Only in northern Vietnam have I seen worse.

Garbage garbage everywhere, in the industrial zones. Only in northern Vietnam have I seen worse.

 

Let's just throw it out along the roadside, in front of everyone, and see if anyone cares.

Let’s just throw it out along the roadside, in front of everyone, and see if anyone cares.

A motorscooter graveyard.  This covered several acres, and in places was 15 feet high. But these will be recycled eventually.

A motorscooter graveyard. This covered several acres, and in places was 15 feet high. But these will be recycled eventually.

The tailend of rapid industrialization sure shows here. All over the industrial areas are massive piles of trash, improvised dump sites that have just popped up. People are living near them, and even on top of them. Terrible smells come from the fetid black canals that cut thru these makeshift campsite and dwellings. No one appears too concerned about it. In the south of China here, the winters are mild enough to not need insulated housing. And the poorer, underemployed peoples who are migrating from the countryside by the millions seeking any kind of work set up in these shanty towns.

In the last 30 years, the world has witnessed the largest human migration ever, as over 150 million rural villagers have moved eastward to Chinese urban areas seeking work. Never in human history has there been anything close to this. And it continues to this day. China still has perhaps a 100 million un- or under-employed people. The government knows that without jobs comes social instability. This is the great fear of the current regime. So expect China to continue its breakneck industrialization until most of these have work. The world’s factory will continue to grow. For now it is here where the world ‘makes things’.

Amongst the list of cities that I got lost in was Jiangmen. This is an industrial megalith to the west of Guangzhou that grew from 1 to 5 million in 20 years. Now it turns out that the Cantonese word ‘Jiangmen’ means, in Mandarin, “anus”. So Jiangmen has become the ‘butt’ of all Chinese jokes; so much so that the city of Jiangmen is trying to change its name.

But the reason I am mentioning Jiangmen is that recently, 42 people died of rabies. So the city of Jiangmen decided to eliminate ALL DOGS. And they did. In my 3 days in this area, I only saw one dog.

The only dog I ever saw in Jiangmen, a city of 5 million. Run run! Quick!

The only dog I ever saw in Jiangmen, a city of 5 million. Run run! Quick!

My point is: One — Could you imagine this happening in the USA? Take away Bubba’s hunting dogss? Never.

Two — if a city could get rid of all of its dogs, could this same city stop all of this dumping of garbage? Of course they could. All China has to do is decide to clean the country up, and they will do it. But it appears not to even be on their priority list.

(pic of idle men)

Where are the women? I rode thru the industrial centers on Sunday, the worker’s only day off. In the small cafes I saw literally a 100 card and pool tables with unending circles of young men playing pool, shouting, smoking, and generally blowing off steam after working maybe 60-70-80 hour weeks.

But again, where are the women? Was it socially unacceptable for women to go out on Sundays? No. Are they with their children? I see few children here. If these working women have children, they have left them with their grandparents. And they have small families anyhow. Are they at home, cooking? Perhaps. But maybe, just maybe, the women just are not there to start with. With the advent of China’s one-child policy, there was a cultural premium on having a son to carry the family name. With that came abandonment of girl babies and even infanticide. There are good estimates that China has a surplus of over 40 million males to females of marriageable age. 40 million men who will never marry and have families. Historically, young, single unemployed men have led insurrections. To the Chinese government, this is a very destabilizing factor with no obvious answer other than to create jobs for them and keep them too busy to rebel. Thus far, this tenuous strategy seems to be working.

So my big chores for each day are:

  1. Don’t get lost again. But I do. The signs AND my maps are completely in Mandarin and on the ground the roads to do look anything like the maps.
  2. Find a place to sleep before it get dark. I brought a sleeping bag, but no tent. I did not like the prospect of setting up a tent between factories.

I am not, thus far, doing well at either. I needed 200 miles of pedaling to advance perhaps 120 miles. That indicated how many wrong turns and backtracks I made. I have made backtracks from my backtracks to end up at dead ends. Imagine a Chinese man who speaks no English riding his bicycle thru a US industrial zone. If he complained that there were no signs in Mandarin, what would you think of him? Well, that man is me. I am NOT complaining. I am just lost.

But it must be 'perfectly clear', right?

But it must be ‘perfectly clear’, right?

8 Responses to #2 from China: Pedalling deep into Guangdong Province

  1. D: Excellent commentary on the industrial horror of China. If you’d had a tent would you have been able to find a nook to camp in this stretch? Its been eight days since you posted your first report after crossing into China. What kind of accommodations have you been finding? Can you stay in any hotel or are there restrictions as I occasionally encountered in 2009?

    There were no separated bike lanes when I was there. That is progress. I encountered few cyclists as everyone was upgrading to motorcycles. Is the bicycle making a comeback?

    Regards, George

    • dwight

      G: Maybe I should have taken a tent, because I am wasting too much time finding rooms. Yes, I am sure I could have found a place to camp, behind a pile of garbage, or more likely, at an incomplete construction site. Just follow the universal rules of set up camp after sunset, and leave before sunrise.
      I have not been able to post much because when I finally found an Internet cafe, they first would not let me use it. I did not have a Chinese ID, which is required. It was clear to me that they simply did not want a foreigner there. When I finally found one that allowed me to use a machine, a man stood behind me and watched. I don’t know what the point was, because he could not read English. The old Windows XP machines were thoroughly virused, so I was unwilling to enter any important passwords on them. The keystroke loggers would have sniffed my passwords. Almost all Google products are blocked here, along with FB, Twitter, and all streaming video. So I could not get at Google docs. And forget Google Voice or Skype. Or watch IU b-ball games! That hurt. This was important to me because I had promised to call Susan daily, if possible. The censorship and repression here is real, and it is screamingly obvious on the Internet. This is more than an inconvenience.
      So I rode back to Hong Kong to regroup. At least I am getting lots of miles in. My friend has an ap on an iPad where you speak into it in English, and out comes Mandarin, and versa-visa. Also, it dynamically has active GPS in both English and Mardarin. I am looking to buy one with the aps and re-enter. (My visa is unlimited entry for 90 days). I have searched 3 immense book stores for English maps, without luck. Perhaps they are out there someplace, but as the bookstore guy said to me “Why buy map? Buy GPS.” I think GPS’s are simply replacing maps here, and the printing of them.

    • Dwight: Wow, its sounding like a genuine nightmare not even being allowed to use the Internet. That was not an issue at all in 2009. I know that there was an age limit. Kids had to be at least 16 or 18 to use the Internet cafes. Still they were full of a lot of young men playing video games. But I was never turned away. People were always happy to lead me to a cafe on their motorcycles. Once a cop was my benefactor, even paying for it.

      The GPS device seems like the way to go. Andrew the Aussie I biked with in France last year had a Garmin. He’s planning a China trip this summer and will use it. Sounds like you ought to pick up a tent in Hong Kong too. You well know the freedom that gives. You’ll be glad for it when you get out into the hinterlands.

      Hang in there, George

  2. Salil

    Dwight,
    Really appreciate you writing this blog and giving armchair adventurers like me a glimpse of the real China. I chuckled when I read about the virus plagued XP machine. I can totally imagine you teaching the guy standing behind you how to get rid of them if both of you spoke the same language 🙂
    Stay safe, and keep writing! Look forward to your next post.

  3. Kevin H.

    Very interesting. I spent three weeks in Guangdong province in May 1985 (I can’t believe it is already 28 years ago!), and traveled extensively throughout three of the counties surrounding near Guangzhou while on a United Nations mission. On one of the drives to a project site, men were working shoulder to shoulder digging a ditch beside the countryside road for the better part of the two hour drive. if our average speed was 30 miles an hour, and drove for two hours, then that would have been 60 miles of men working shoulder to shoulder!

  4. Steve

    Dwight,
    If you are having real problems maybe you should buy your first smart phone while in China. You can buy a microsim card for the I4, 4S and 5 phones with local maps from a phone store, with your passport. I believe you can get the card with Pinyin, that changes mandarin into latin characters.

  5. Dana

    This is really fascinating. I’m a friend of Jesse’s and so glad he shared this on FB. I’m in Delhi right now doing a project on city garbage and i’m stunned to hear that there isn’t more control of this where you are… but I guess it’s the wild west?? I look forward to hearing more on your adventures and observations.
    Dana

  6. Denny Haldeman

    Quite interesting Dwight. During a dinner party 30 years ago, I noted to some of my right leaning hang gliding buds that China would not have to bomb us into submission, but would defeat us with capitalism. One of the gents disagreed, saying “yeah right comrade”. I saw him last year for the first time since, asked what he was doing now, and he sheepishly replied that he was a paid consultant for the Chinese foundry industry after all the foundry jobs left the US.

    When the Waltons de-embraced their “made in the USA” policy and went Chinese, their Mal-Wart customers embraced the cheaper is better philosophy as well and paid good bucks to export their own jobs. We got to the point where we were too cheap to work for each other and blindly and willingly exported our economy. China will buy us with our own money.

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The Wild Years

Dwight Worker The Wild Years A series of autobiographical stories about Dwight Worker’s life, running from the law…before Lecumberri. THE WILD YEARS is available in paperback and ebook.

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Dwight Worker Escape from Lecumberri Only two people ever escaped from the infamous Lecumberri Prison in Mexico City: Pancho Villa and Dwight Worker. This is the true story of Dwight Worker’s amazing escape. ESCAPE FROM LECUMBERRI is available in paperback or Kindle.

About the Author

Dwight Worker is an American professor, activist, adventurer, and fugitive. He escaped from the Mexican penitentiary Palacio de Lecumberri in 1975 along with the book and movie Escape about the story

Throughout his life he participated in civil rights, anti-war, and environmental movements. In 1991, Dwight volunteered to serve in the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

Worker is a former professor at Indiana University, where he created the Information Security program for the Kelley School of Business before retiring in 2008 to farm, write, and travel.….READ MORE