Clashing horns blasted the exhaust-filled air. I tightened my ponytail.
“Arrrgh!” we took our turns huffing. Four of us – Ted, myself, our longtime friend Nathan, and his girlfriend sat lop-sided on our bikes. We alternated slow-paced, wobbly pedalling with trudging along on one foot.
From a calendar standpoint, February 22 seemed an okay time to visit Yangshuo in Northern China. It would be after the official start date of Chinese New Year, which we had spent binging on Chinese sweet buns and the local firewater at Nathan’s apartment in Guangzhou. The endless car, bike, and people pile-up before us however, immediately disproved this ill-researched decision.
Chinese New Year is the single largest human migration on Earth. Where Western New Years is a single-night event, Chinese New Year, also known as Spring Festival, is a prolonged celebration. Houses are cleaned to sweep out misfortunes and invite good luck for the new year. Red and gold decorated papers dangle galore like bulbs on a Christmas tree, displaying themes of wealth, longevity, and good fortune. Children squeal in delight as they continually ignite fireworks in the streets. Businesses shut down. Families go on holiday. Trains, planes, and buses sell out.
In total, 3.7 billion trips are made around the country in just 40 days.
And we decided that would be a great time to bike.
Since a bike accident in Toronto that nearly had me run over, I have now lost my ability to keep my shit together when biking next to moving vehicles. Add that to the careless Chinese driving which involves creating three to four lanes out of two, ignoring blind spots, changing lanes at any moment and presto, welcome to biking in China!
I contemplated quitting about 5 minutes after we began. Somehow I knew that “Attempted to Bike Chinese New Year: Gave Up Immediately” would be slightly anti-climatic, not to mention regretful on my part. The others agreed to take it slow until we passed the traffic (ha!).
We timidly continued, weaving between cars and herds of people, who never once peered at the sputtering vehicles beside them. A 10 metre Transformers Robot could have right walked by them and I still don’t think they’d have blinked.
Cycle and repeat the fume-filled chaos and somehow we reached our destination unscathed. Though even a vacant bus stop would have been blissful on the eyes and ears by then, the lime-green fields before us far outdid that.
The horizon was painted in vibrant rows of bok choy, lettuce, and other greens. Furry mountain peaks, known as karsts, jutted above the carpets of vegetables. Volcanic in appearance, these angular features are anything but geothermal.
Some 180-200 million year ago, the earth’s crust squeezed out limestone from the seabed like toothpaste. Harsh winds, water, and time further carved these lumpy moulds into angular shapes. In the earth’s underbellies, erosion further ate away at the giant limestone crumbs beneath the surface. This formed magnificent karsts beneath the earth – otherwise known as caves.
It seems these natural formations were viewed as an opportune place for LED-lightshows, complete with dinosaur projections and sound effects. While the not-so-subtly hidden bulbs and sporadic musical light-shows add that tacky Chinese je-ne-sais-quois, the lights do create a colourful palate of stalactites and ‘mites.
Post-contemplation of the karsts and the crevices beneath them, we pedalled onward. We paused to admire the traditional bamboo rafts bobbing along the river. The raft’s motors burped diesel shamelessly. Our gazes were loudly interrupted.
“HALLO, BAMBOO?!” a lady blurted.
“No, thank you” we robotically chimed in sync. Serenity lasts but a moment here, I’ve learned. I savoured this one:
We “noped” our way out of additional bamboo raft offers, though were impressed by ones made via motorbike whilst driving parallel to us in motion on our bikes. We re-entered the sour air of lane-to-lane vehicles. Children poked their heads through car sunroofs and snapped pictures on smartphones. If their eyes met mine, they’d smile shyly, or excitedly shout “HALLO!!!”.
Harsh tones harassed our ears, like 20 toddlers in a room clanging pots and pans. People yelled. Children shouted. Drivers sat on their horns, as though the blast would dynamite an invisible wall holding us all back. Pedestrians hoarded sidewalk space in rows, acting as clumsy barricades against motorcycles and bikes trying to slip by.
I was fed up.
At first, I attempted to politely ding my bike bell to garner people’s attention as I wobbled by. Only it didn’t. Not head-turn, a glimpse, a single response was had to my measly dinging. As we tried to patiently manoeuvre our way around, motorbikes continued to slam their horns and narrowly graze our feet.
My inner road rage – which I thought I’d left in Toronto for good – began to re-flourish. I thought to myself, If everyone else here blindly barrels through crowds of attention-less people, why the hell can’t I?
I pulled ahead of the group and rang my bike bell. Only I didn’t just ring it. I dinged it passionately. Angrily. NON. STOP.
I blared my bell into the hoards of ears beside me.
DING DING DING DING DING DINNNNNNNNG!!!!!
Every time that I was certain my handlebars were just about to bonk into someone’s back, I just kept rollin’. Somehow, these people moved aside at the very last nanosecond without turning to see me.
My God, I thought, this is how they do it in China!
Whether I’m missing a set of eyes on the back of my own head, I’ll never know, but somehow one can barrel through thick crowds like a bowling ball and injure no one. I know this now because I’ve now tried it, and it works.
Pressing onwards through the thick mess, our blood sugars gradually tapered off and tensions rose. We stop to inhale dinner and refuel our spirits.
We’d had a fairly chaotic previous day buying our bus tickets to Yangshuo. That involved being smothered in a circle of 20+ people, and waving our bus tickets to be stamped by a single lady at the centre of it all, who continually shouted things we couldn’t understand. The bus ticketing system seemed to be that there just wasn’t one (see photo proof below).
Our current hotel turned out to double as a home to children who liked to scream, blast music, and ram toys into our doors at both early and late hours. The electricity flickered off an on as it pleased – which perhaps would have been more agreeable if we weren’t working and hadn’t forked out extra money to stay there. The bus ride to Yangshuo had involved repeated failed attempts to nap due to insistent (and alarming) brake-slamming and horn-honking by the bus driver.
Put simply, we were all a little China’d out.
As though someone understood the day’s madness, mellow tunes and a crackling fire met us in the hotel lounge that evening as we parked our bikes in their final resting place. We guzzled plump bottles of the local brew – tasteless and light, like most Chinese beers we’d tried so far. We basked on the day’s achievements, applauding one another that we’d all made it back alive.
I gulped the cool fizz and watched red Chinese lanterns dangle in the breeze. The fire occasionally crackled in the background. We sat quietly exhausted, but content.
When our eyelids drooped heavy and the conversation dwindled to silence from fatigue, we set off to bed. I stretched my aching legs beneath the heavy duvet, feeling grateful. Grateful for not giving up. For taking February 22, 2015 head on, and facing paralytic fears of biking in traffic.
Chinese New Year will now serve as a memory of that one time, we decided to bike the largest human congestion on earth. Despite the angst and boiling rage that enveloped most of that hair-raising journey, it was, without a blink of a doubt, completely worth it.