Hosted by a Chinese Family during Spring Festival

Day 146: Qianjiangzhen to Binyang

1 Feb 2019

Another lazy morning in bed this morning (there’s a running theme here!) in our dingy hotel room in the equally dingy town. We would like to be in Nanning for Chinese New Year: the city is only two days away if we take the more direct route, but as New Year is five days away, we have plenty of time. It’s nice not to rush as we know that when we get into Vietnam we will have a tight schedule with only having 15 days (we have decided to go for the 15 days visa waiver, rather than the 30 day visa. We will likely get a 30 day visa when we re-enter Vietnam from Laos). So we may have further to cycle each day with potentially fewer rest days, so it’s nice to make the most of the slower pace for now.

As we were leaving the hotel, the owner began talking to us and we got chatting over our translation app. After he got a photo with us, he motioned to us if we would like some tea. As we were in no rush, we took him up on his kind offer. It was interesting to watch him prepare the tea: the black tea leaves are bought in circular blocks. He tore off several chunks and placed them into a small teapot, within a metal strainer. Once the kettle had boiled, he poured water over the tea leaves into the pot. Once brewed, he poured the tea into a paper cup. Instead of offering us that to drink, he poured it into a second paper cup and then poured it away. I think that is a traditional way to clean the cups before drinking the tea. Once the kettle had heated up again, he repeated the process of pouring water over the leaves into the pot. Again, the lid was placed on and after a few moments, he again poured the tea into the paper cups, this time half filling them. This he handed to us: it was a tasty black tea with a fairly strong taste. Adam much prefers this tea to how we drink tea in the UK.

Baidu translate has been the best translation app for us in China.

As we were enjoying our tea, the hotel owner showed us some photos on his phone of another bicycle tourist who must have stayed at the hotel as well! What are the chances! (Although I guess we are now on the route to/from Vietnam). We bade farewell to the hospitable hotel owner, thanking him for the tea.

We stayed on the same road all morning – we chose the more direct route towards Nanning. Initially, the road was in a pretty awful condition: potholes and uneven ground meant I was looking down at the road ahead of me for the first few kilometres. There was not much to see scenery wise anyway as we were just cycling through run-down towns and rural settlements, but I do like to see ‘normal’ life going on.

Eventually, the road smoothed out and we had a pleasant sealed road to cycle along. The traffic was constant but not overly busy. Finally, I was able to take my eyes off the few metres ahead and look around at the views. They were the same as previous days: sugar cane fields, crops, small settlements and small towns. After 25km we stopped for lunch in a restaurant on the outskirts of a town. For a change, we ordered from a menu – a chicken dish costing 90 yuan (£10 ish) which is on the slightly more expensive side for us, but it was plenty big enough to share. We also ordered liang wan mi fan (2 bowls of rice) costing 2 yuan each (about 20p!). The meal took a while to arrive but we knew it was cooked fresh and the break meant we could have a nice rest. I really enjoyed the meal: the chicken was flavoured with lemon, garlic, and had a strong ginger taste with bits of mushroom and spring onion too. In China, meat is almost always served all around the bone, which makes it a fiddly, messy affair. Most often, they bring you all parts of the chicken, including the head and feet! They were the only bits left untouched by the time we’d finished.

Onwards and the afternoon cycling continued in much the same way. The sun came out and we were treated to cycling under blue skies. Before long, we had cycled 50km and entered the town of Binyang. This is where Adam had planned we find a hotel; it was about 3pm. As we were cycling along, a young man on a scooter pulled up to drive next to Adam and started to speak to him in English. He asked the usual questions: where are you from? Where are you going? etc. They conversed for a few minutes before Adam told the guy that we are looking for somewhere to stay in this town. Wu (we would later learn his name to be) told us we were welcome to stay with his family! Chuffed to bits, Adam accepted his kind offer and we followed him a few minutes down the road to his house.

He lives in a tall, thin, modern building in a quiet area on the outskirts of Binyang. He led us inside and we met his father who was very friendly and could speak probably just slightly more English than we can speak Chinese. We chatted for an hour or so, and also met Wu’s 84-year-old Grandmother, who was incredibly sweet. We then joined Wu and his father for a walk around the local park which has a man-made lake. It was a pleasant walk and we enjoyed seeing the local area.

Wu and his father showing me their local park.

The view over Binyang from a watchtower in the park.

When we arrived back at Wu’s home, we were treated to a delicious dinner with Wu’s parents and grandmother. As we were sat around the table, after a conversation between Wu and his parents in Chinese, Wu then invited us to stay with his family for a few days over Chinese NY to celebrate with them. We knew we would still have time to get out of China before our visa runs out, so we gladly took him and his family up on their amazing, hospitable offer!

In the end, we came up with the following plan: tomorrow, Wu, Adam and I will get the bus to Nanning. We will travel without bikes and be tourists for a few days. We will stay in a hotel for two nights and come back to Binyang and Wu’s home on the 4th, the day before NY. We’ll then spend 3 nights with his family, celebrating the spring festival including a party with all his extended family on the 6th. We’ll leave on the 7th and we’ll have 9 days to cycle between 270 – 400km, depending on the route we take, before our visa runs out on the 15th. Even if we take the longer route, that’s only an average of 45km per day, which is totally doable.

We’re excited to be spending some time with Wu and his family over this special time in their year. Celebrating the spring festival with a Chinese family will give us an amazing insight into how locals really spend this holiday, rather than just staying in a hotel and watching from the sidelines. This is why we love travelling by bike.

Day 147 and 148: Two rest days staying with a Chinese Family

2-3 Feb 2019

After a lovely evening with Wu and his family, we awoke looking forward to a few days being tourists, on foot, in Nanning. It’s always a special occasion when we get to explore an area of a country with locals, as we are treated to a special insight into their culture and we hope they can show us the best places to explore and most importantly, the best places to eat!

We had explained our love of jiaozi (steamed dumplings) the evening before during our discussions, and so Wu’s parents had very kindly gone out to buy us some for breakfast that morning! They were hao chi (delicious in Chinese!).

Shortly after 9am, we left Wu’s house and headed to the bus station on foot. It felt peculiar leaving the bikes and just having a backpack with some overnight things in. A weirdly vulnerable feeling washed over me. The bus journey was pretty painless, albeit a slightly rickety affair: 2 hours in a coach along sealed roads. Upon arrival, we needed to hop into another bus to reach the ‘Downtown’ city centre area. Nanning is a huge city and is the capital of the Guangxi region. With a population of 7 million, it has only a slightly smaller population compared to London (with a population of 8 million), but its population is almost insignificant in comparison to Shanghai’s magnitude of 24 million!

Looking forward to exploring Nanning on foot – seeing the Spring Festival decorations (The Year of the Pig!)

Upon reaching our final destination – the heart of Nanning – we did some exploring on foot. A modern, bustling city awaited us. It definitely didn’t have the same feel as Kunming: it felt busier and more ‘clinical’. Making the most of our time in a big city, we searched for a camping shop to replace Adam’s busted roll mat. Eventually, we found one and he bought a foam mattress – I just don’t think inflatable roll mats and Adam go together! I also picked up a cheap camping mug to make myself a cup of tea or coffee on camping mornings.

One of the main high streets in Nanning.

Following this, we needed to find a hotel. Whilst searching, we spotted a shop that fixed phone screens. My phone has sported a network of huge, ugly cracks since Christmas eve when a snooker ball triumphantly smashed into it as it flew off the table (thanks Adam!). I waited there for it to be fixed whilst Adam and Wu found a hotel. A while later, the phone was fixed (hurrah!) and the hotel was found and checked into. We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the city, enjoying the hustle and bustle for a change.

We managed to find one or two quiet areas too amongst the busyness.

The many, many scooters of China!

Virescence… not a term I often see or hear!

After a few hours rest in the hotel, we headed back out to see the city at night time. It absolutely came alive! Thousands of people seemed to swarm the streets, flashing illuminations lit up the buildings, including a traditional Chinese style building overlooking the river. We headed to the popular night market; the most amazing night market we have seen so far! It seemed to go on for a mile: stall after stall of amazing Chinese delicacies.

I think I’ll pass on this one!

Taking in the sights from the bridge in Nanning.

The contrast between old and new in Nanning.

After wandering many kilometres, we decided to call it a night and headed back to the hotel. The following morning, we had planned to go and spend the day at the Botanical Gardens, however, Wu was worried that we would struggle to get a bus back to Binyang if we waited the following day, as it may be too busy and crowded with everyone going home for the spring festival. Instead, we decided to head back to Binyang that day. As a final farewell to Nanning, Wu took us for ‘Powder Dumplings’ and ‘Powder Noodles’ for breakfast. Apparently, they are foods traditional to Nanning: they did not disappoint!

The bus back to Binyang was uncomfortable and cramped. The road seemed to be much bumpier than before. I had had a pretty awful night’s sleep in Nanning due to noisy neighbours, so at least the rocking motion of the bus helped me to sleep!

Back at Wu’s house, he expressed his worry that we would be bored over the next few days staying with his family, as they don’t really ‘do’ much over the spring festival. He explained how on NY eve, they eat a meal and watch the Gala on TV. We had also began to get itchy feet. The warm, blue skies stretching over the bus as we trundled along beckoned me and we decided to leave Wu’s house the following day. We were extremely grateful and thankful to Wu and his generous family for hosting us so warmly over the past few days, but we thought that staying with them for another 4 days was just a little too long.

In a most generous gesture, as we were leaving in the morning, Wu’s mother cooked us a magnificent meal that evening. Delicious duck, succulent pork, steaming cockles, bright pink prawns, soft scrambled eggs and garlic stuffed mushrooms accompanied the faithful mi fan (rice) and provided us with huge stomachs and full hearts. Wu’s family have shown us incredible kindness and we will be forever grateful. We told Wu that if he ever comes to visit the UK, if we are not galavanting elsewhere he will always have a place to stay with us!

A lovely way to end our time with Wu’s family.

Day 149: Binyang to Nanning

4 Feb 2019

Waking to a quiet house after a peaceful nights sleep in the very hospitable Wu’s house in Binyang, we set about getting ourselves ready for the day of cycling ahead: a planned 85km to Nanning (or back to Nanning after travelling there and back via bus two days previously to be ‘on foot’ tourists!).

For breakfast, Wu’s father had laid out the delicious leftovers from yesterday’s feast of a dinner, which was much appreciated. It was perfect fuel for the day ahead.

We bade a fond farewell to Wu and his father, thanking them again for their amazing generosity and kindness they had shown to us over the past few days. Feeling rested and happy, cycling back into the town felt fairly fantastic after two days off the bikes.

We will be eternally grateful to Wu and his family for showing us so much kindness and generosity.

Binyang was bigger than I realised. Leaving the town, we cycled down a generous hard shoulder, past closed Chinese store after closed Chinese store. The market, however, was bustling. As it was the day before Chinese New Year, families were out doing their last-minute purchases of fresh food for their family’s feast. Almost every person on an electric scooter we cycled past held tightly onto a live chicken, duck or goose, and often more than one, as they drove home to prepare their fresh meat.

We must have passed hundreds of people preparing ducks, chickens and geese for spring festival feasts.

We decided to take the quieter road to Nanning which ran almost parallel to the busier road we had traversed by bus only the previous day. Sections of the road were good to cycle on, sealed and winding through pleasant views of the Chinese countryside. Much of the road, however, was unsealed: rocky, potholed and gravelly sections stretched on for many kilometres. Instead of becoming frustrated, I accepted it for what it was and tried to enjoy the scenery around us. I would much prefer to be on that road, despite the rough terrain, as it was quiet from traffic compared to the alternative route.

The best thing about today’s chosen route was the small towns, villages and settlements we cycled past and through, providing us with an amazing insight into how families prepare for the ‘Spring Festival’; it was akin to watching Christmas preparations unfold in a UK household on Christmas Eve. I lost count of how many people I cycled past, squatting or sitting on a tiny stool outside their home, at some stage of preparing a bird for their feast the following day: plucking feathers, slicing windpipes, washing the skin. Indignant geese made their protests known by loudly honking as we past vehicles transporting the birds to their homes. Instead of going to the local supermarket and buying a prepared, frozen bird of choice like many of us do in the UK, in China the tradition seems to be purchasing an alive bird – or several, depending on the size of the family – before killing and preparing the bird at home. At least they know how fresh the meat is!

We were glad in the end that we didn’t stay at Wu’s, even though his offer to host us over the Spring Festival was incredibly kind and thoughtful. We were glad because cycling to Nanning on Chinese New Years Eve allowed us to glimpse the Spring Festival preparations with many, many families, in the rural communities, rather than just one. It also made me realise just how much I love and appreciate travelling by bicycle! The previous days commute to and from Nanning via bus was nowhere near as enjoyable or interesting as cycling there. We were able to experience ‘real’ China via pedalling through the country, rather than lolling to sleep in a rickety, cramped bus.

Around midday we stopped in some rough, flat ground by the side of the road, away from any houses or towns, to cook some noodles for our lunch. Back on the road after some much-needed sustenance, on we continued through more rural settlements and through crazily busy, bustling towns. In the towns, the streets were almost impossible to cycle through as inpatient Chinese drivers created gridlocks; I carefully followed Adam’s wiggly route, zipping around stationary buses, cars and other vehicles as the roads became blocked with locals endeavouring to get home with their wares from the busy market. Numerous stalls selling fireworks and Chinese decorations lined every street.

Zigzagging through the gridlocked traffic.

After some time, the quiet road ceased and joined the busier road we had avoided most of the day. With only about 40km left to the centre of Nanning however, we didn’t mind too much. We had a generous hard shoulder, the cars kept their distance and the smooth sealed road meant that we made good progress – much quicker than we were on the rural road.

The decorations for spring festival added even extra charm to these small villages.

We pedalled pretty much continuously for the final 40km, except one stop at a petrol station to stock up on water and refill the petrol bottle, much to the confused and utterly perplexed petrol station staff. The road into Nanning was quick and easy: in places, we had a huge cycle lane all to ourselves. Perhaps because it is Chinese New Years Eve, the streets were very quiet and we found a central hotel with minimal hassle. We checked into a mediocre, cheap hotel for 98 yuan per night. We paid for two nights up front, as we looked forward to spending New Year’s in Nanning the following evening.

Upon ferrying the bikes up to our room, one at a time in the lift, we realised this was the first room that was too small for the bicycles. In the end, we paid an extra 10 yuan per night for a slightly bigger room. 10 yuan is about £1 which is a reasonable cost for knowing our bikes are safe with us.

Despite the room upgrade, it was still a very cramped hotel room!

As we had already been to Nanning with Wu, when we ventured out for food, we knew exactly where to head. However, every single shop and almost every restaurant, bar a handful, were closed; Nanning was like a ghost town as all families were at home, preparing for their special family day. We could have found a small, cheap cafe to buy a bowl of noodles or similar, but I must admit, the bright yellow ‘M’ called us, and we went for a naughty McDonald’s. Afterwards, we wandered down the bustling food market street which was only half as busy as it was the night before last when we were there with Wu.
Back in the hotel, we’re looking forward to seeing the fireworks tomorrow night as we celebrate Chinese New Year in Nanning.

Nanning back streets.

Day 150: Chinese New Year in Nanning

5th Feb 2019

Today has surprised me, as I assumed (wrongly) that the city would be deserted today, with families all enjoying quality time together celebrating Chinese New Year. The truth was, it seemed like an almost ‘normal’ day: the city was busy with people shopping, eating and going about their business. Shops were open and some seemed to be advertising sales. In the park near our hotel, many people clustered around card games, I presume with monetary bets made which is why they attracted huge crowds. Several locals played karaoke at a deafening volume at different areas of the park area, seemingly competing with each other as they almost blew their speakers as the volume increased up and up. It was a pretty horrendous noise!

One of the many clusters of men playing card games in the park.

We spent our rest day wandering around the half-chaos, feeling a little perplexed that there wasn’t more or less happening for Chinese New Year. We enjoyed the local food and treated ourselves to a McFlurry and fresh watermelon (it’s all about balance, right?!). The rest of the day was spent in our small, cramped hotel room, video editing (Adam) and researching our route and places to see for Vietnam. As I type, it is midnight here in Nanning, and we cannot hear any fireworks exploding. It seems Chinese New Year in China isn’t as big a deal as we thought it was… not in Nanning anyway!

A slice of watermelon on a stick? Yes please.

Tomorrow we’ll set off for our final few days cycling in China as we head towards the border with Vietnam. China has certainly been a mixed bag: our 2 months here have included intense highs and desolate lows… we will not forget these 2 months in a hurry! I will endeavour to cycle in the moment, enjoy and make the most of these final days in China, but I must admit I am really looking forward to Vietnam! Especially the Bánh mì (Vietnamese sandwich) – it’s been a while since we’ve enjoyed wheat after living off rice and egg noodles!! And unluckily for Adam, I’ve heard amazing things about the coffee… 😍 

Cycling through the most beautiful karst landscapes in China
Farewell China! Our last week in The Red Dragon

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