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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.