The Road of Smiles expedition was dreamt up over beer in Shanghai one year ago. No matter how well prepared, the experience of being on the road, out of habit and in the middle of rural China has been quite different already from what we had imagined. After 12 days we have completed Stage 1 of the expedition and arrived in Zhengzhou with sore legs/bums, the beginnings of a dreadful “tour du monde tan” and already a small feeling of accomplishment.
The last six days tells a story of tough, gritty riding softened by the kindness presented to us by the people we have met along the way.
The road from Bengbu was straight, dusty, full of road works and with a permanent headwind that made it feel like we were cycling through thick mud.
If that wasn’t enough to test our resolve the large piles of “fertiliser” scattered regularly along the roadsides (and occasionally even on the road itself!) certainly added an unwanted flavour to the already bitter pill.
We had been warned by some that Henan ren (the people from Henan Province) were the most wily and untrustworthy in all of China. Our experience could not be more opposite. In every village, town or city we stopped in we rode away with gifts of food paid for by one of the friendly folk who came out to see the strange white faces that had suddenly appeared on their doorstep.
Something that both of us wanted to gain from this trip was a greater understanding of the country we have lived in for the last chapter of our lives. The heavy industry we pedaled through in week one has shifted considerably in the last six days to sesame plantations, an abundance of Baijiu retailers* and coffin workshops. One can’t but help to think the three very different businesses are in some way very much inter-related.
* (Baijiu is translated literally as “white alcohol” or commonly known in the western world as “paint stripper” and is the most popular alcoholic beverage in the world by volume).
The random discoveries have continued as a giant statue of a bearded chap on a plinth came into view as we entered Luyi town. Unbeknown to us this was where the famous Chinese philosopher Laozi was born and set up his first of three schools.
It is amazing to find such places where so little has been documented in English language travel sites. Whilst we by no means see ourselves as explorers akin to the level Sir Ranulph Fiennes, we do feel privileged to be going through places where no or very few westerners have set foot before.