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So near, year so feared: And we have lift off

Cecilie Gamst Berg

 

In less than a generation, the mainland has gone from being a place where everybody travelled by bicycle - and it was a luxury not to have to - to one where cycling is something wealthy people do in their spare time.

In the big cities it now often takes longer to go somewhere by private car or taxi than it did by bicycle 20 years ago, but hey, that's progress. Me, I love cycling as much as I ever did, and thought I had a brilliant idea a few years ago when I suggested to my friend R that we cycle around Guangdong province at Lunar New Year.

How much fun it would be to glide leisurely past duck ponds and through bamboo forests, stopping for lunch in little rural restaurants with starry-eyed children looking on. Oh the joys as we put up at charming country inns miraculously open to foreigners, always choosing the road less travelled and building incredible buttock muscles into the bargain.

R, however, looked aghast. "Rain!" he said. "Dying of sweat!

"Flattened by trucks inside tunnels!"

"I have a better idea," he countered. "We'll go hitchhiking." It was the best idea he had in the five years I knew him. Kicking off with an extended romp around Guangdong (by far the friendliest province - people were practically fighting each other to pick us up), we went on to hitchhike extensively in Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and Tibet.

Like so much else about the mainland, hitchhiking there is uniquely … mainland. For example, instead of murdering or abducting hitchhikers, its inhabitants' hospitality dictates they not only stop for two foreigners laden with luggage but also take them where they want to go before turning around and carrying on to their own destination.

Tibet was the most difficult place in which to get a lift, simply because there were almost no cars. We got one lift with a family who, after dropping us off in a nameless village containing two houses and a horse, did a perfect three-point turn on the single-track road before disappearing.

After that there were no cars for three hours, so we were more than happy to pay 100 yuan (HK$125) to the next driver who came along - a bargain for a three-hour drive over a 5,000-metre-high mountain. So what if we had to get out every 15 minutes to shove the car out of snowdrifts? We were wearing boots while the driver wore slippers.

And so we hitchhiked from Lhasa all the way to Yunnan with death by 2,000-metre plunge a constant danger.

OK, we'd paid, but it was still hitchhiking.

 

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