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Tokyo to Ho Chi Minh By Bicycle An autobiographical and reflective account of traveling from Tokyo to Ho Chi Minh on a bicycle.


CHINA | Monday, 20 December 2010 | Views [802] | Comments [3]

Arriving in Shanghai was nothing less than a baptism of fire. As soon as we were through customs I was on my own again. I felt completely vulnerable and didn’t really have any idea of which direction to go in apart from The Bund. I’d booked the hotel while back in Tokyo as it meant one less thing to worry about upon arrival, but now I had to find the damn thing and it was dark. I cycled out of the boat terminal and was faced with a big road. It all looked pretty hectic out there. Nobody seemed to give a monkey’s whether their lights were on or not. Do I turn left or right? I found a policeman and bleated some gibberish Chinese at him only to be met with a very blank confused expression.  In one of my finer fits of logistical wisdom I’d printed out several maps of the route to the hotel, so it wasn’t long before we connected and I was pointed in the right direction. I found myself at the Bund much sooner than I’d expected, and once I knew where I was, all I had to do was to follow a small river about 5km inland. The traffic was all over the place and I looked like a fish out of water with my flashing LED lights and reflective cycling jacket, or at least I felt that way. After passing several junctions I felt a little more relaxed. Although no one seemed to care about traffic signals and lights, there seemed to be a quite graceful flow to how the traffic moved. If I followed everyone else it seemed like I’d be ok and so was the case. I eventually found my hotel after going in circles for thirty minutes. After asking directions from another hotel that looked much better and was full of interesting travellers, I found the front door which I’d originally assumed was the entrance to a cabaret club and booked in. All seemed well, so off I trotted due to the lack of any restaurant in the hotel to find some food. I thought the safest place to try would be the hostel around the corner, where the staff had spoken English and had been so helpful. The hostel looked great. There was a warm feeling about it as if it was alive. The walls were covered in chalk messages and memorial murals done by other travellers of their tours of Asia. I could sense that this was a place that for many people had been a hostel where they had had a great time. There was a ping pong table, pool table, roof garden, two cinema rooms, reading room and roof bar amongst a host of other amenities, and I left feeling rather down about handing over the cash for three nights in this rather seedy unassuming hotel where the staff spoke no English. I took comfort though in the fact that I was safely in Shanghai, could go back to my room, email the family, let them know I was alright and read the newspaper before going to bed.  Well, that didn’t happen. After the hotel website had stipulated that they had an internet connection, they had conveniently it seemed, failed to remember to mention that none of the one bedroom rooms had any connection. It also turned out that there was nowhere in the hotel to gain any WIFI access, so I was essentially without anything for the next four days. It seemed like I wouldn’t be able to do any planning for my trip from here. How could this place call itself a “business hotel” if there was no net access? Were guests forwarding messages to their offices via carrier pigeons? Perhaps they had a telegram service? I’ve always wanted an excuse to come out with a line like “I need to send and urgent wire to London” So keeping my cool and reminding myself that such setbacks were part of the fun of traveling I approached the concierge. It took a while for the problem to get through. They offered me the use of their computer that was covered in fag ash and serenaded by dead filters. Although a kind gesture, I wasn’t looking to use a computer that was probably full of all sorts of nasty programs. They finally put me through to a woman from the website Booking.com who suggested that they upgrade my room but the concierge wasn’t going to give in to this so we continued a long drawn out confused conversation that I could clearly see was going nowhere fast. The concierge blamed Booking.com and Booking.com blamed the hotel. This I saw could potentially go on forever with me in the middle the eventual loser. After a good deal longer the concierge called a Chinese man who I presume had some connection with the hotel. “What do you want?” he demanded. I explained clearly and slowly “what do you expect for the price you’re paying?” he replied. This wasn’t the reaction I was looking for. Eventually after having to endure the pain of someone who I don’t know, on the end of a phone, speak to me as if I’m an imbecile for ten minutes my patience began to wane. I handed the phone back to the concierge and walked out. I knew I didn’t want to stay here anymore so I walked around the corner and checked that the attractive hostel had a room available. They did, so I returned safely in the knowledge that a more attractive alternative was only just around the corner and explained to the first hotel that if they didn’t have internet access then the place was essentially useless for my needs. As the moody woman at the front desk messed around, stalled and was generally a pain in the neck. I returned to the room, packed and brought everything down to the entrance hall before demanding my money back. They refused and a heated discussion ensued. I was put back on the phone and spoke to a whole host of people whom I had no idea of who they were again. The whole ordeal had lasted four hours it was a complete waste of time, but finally I had my money back and made with haste to the hostel. My introduction to quite how appalling Chinese customer service could be had ended. It really was a relief, but I had been rattled at the sheer insolence and brazen, impudent disrespect for a customer’s requirements. After living in Japan it had all come as quite a shock. The attitudes to customer service seemed at polarities to each other. I had left one country where I felt the continuous bowing, faux greetings and apologies superfluous to the needs of any cultured and civilized society and just annoying, a point and opinion that had been aired by many Japanese people I’ve met. I was now in a land which clearly had different standards of an opposite nature. I found myself drawing a parallel with the differences between England and France although I feel that the differences are much less acute especially now with the disintegration of standards within the UK. I was shattered by now, I booked into the hostel, got a great room and polished off some three day old crusty bread I’d bought from Paul’s bakery in Osaka before falling fast asleep.

I’d agreed to meet Avi and Ryohei on Monday near the Jing’an temple at twelve. I awoke early and was pleased to discover the temple was only a fifteen minute walk away. I was excited about arriving in China and got there three hours early before proceeding to stroll around the area and get my bearings. The park was filled with old people doing strange dances. There were different groups of them swaying around in front of small PA systems. There seemed to be a really optimistic, vibrant and active community in the area. People were greeting each other, joining in freely and there was lots of laughter. It was sunny and warm with a cool breeze so I bought a newspaper and coffee and decided to sit in the park until twelve.  The afternoon with Avi and Ryohei was useful. Avi helped me get a Chinese SIM card for my mobile, we changed money at a local bank and we had a great lunch at an Urghur restaurant. The food was excellent, in fact one of the tastiest meals I’ve ever had. The menu was covered in Chinglish (see the Chinglish photo album) which offered some bizarre translations and sent my imagination into overdrive. We drank black beer and had a great time. My first day in Shanghai had been a good one.

I’d offered Ryohei the chance to share a room so that we could both save a little cash, so we had moved into a room together the night before. I was concerned that Ryohei was intending to cycle to Hong Kong with no panniers and spent Tuesday morning researching where we might find some in Shanghai. I also wanted to make some alterations to my bike and buy some extra parts I might need. After plotting out some possible shops that might carry these things we set off for a 20km tour of the city. The streets were bustling with lots of cars honking, bikes everywhere and general pandemonium. After visiting several big outlet stores on the outskirts of the city that didn’t stock anything we wanted we found a Giant (company name, not size) shop that from first glance looked like a winner. Unfortunately though they didn’t have anything either so we returned home empty handed apart from a great deal of Urghar bread I’d picked up. The day had gone well for me as I’d become a lot more confident riding around with a new set of rules quite different to anything I’d experienced before without getting flattened. I’d managed to see a good deal of the city in a fraction of the time it would have taken on foot.

Wednesday was the day before Ryohei would be setting off on his trip to Hong Kong. I spent the morning setting up my travelogue but in the back of my mind I knew I wouldn’t be getting far without some decent maps. Finding any English maps proved to be a non-starter. English maps though would prove useless when asking the locals for directions, so I settled after searching in the bookshop for quite a while on some maps that focused on each province that I’d be visiting rather than some huge road map of the entire country. I was really nervous about leaving my bike out on the street even when double locked. Having my bike stolen would be a game over situation and I’d look a complete fool if I managed to get my bike nicked within two days of arriving in China. With this in mind Ryohei and I took turns to watch the bikes. Back at base at the Le Tour hostel the general melee of travellers coming and going continued. I met Doug, an American from Colorado who was over on business and we chatted over a few beers. Doug invited me to a gig, so I looked forward to sampling some of the local rock bands. That evening Ryohei told me that he’d been asked out for dinner the night before by some girls on the street. I knew what was coming, the girls had vanished towards the end of the meal and he was left to pick up the bill which came to £80, a fair whack by Chinese standards. There are so many scams going on that it is hard to keep track of them all. I knew about this one. Others include being invited by phony art students to a gallery viewing only to be charged an extortionate price for the privilege. Accepting any invitation out of the blue on a street somewhere seems to me to be asking for trouble. I felt bad for Ryohei. He’s the same age as I was when I left home to live in Nepal fifteen years ago.  I had had all my camera equipment stolen on a bus traveling from Kathmandu to Varanasi. I hoped that nothing like this would happen to me on my journey down to Ho Chi Minh. I also hoped that Ryohei’s honest, sincere and applaudable Japanese spirit would be left free from anymore skulduggery.

Going to a gig on Thanksgiving Day with Doug was a real highlight of my stay in Shanghai. I had high expectations of the bands with hilarious names such as “Duck Fight Goose” and “Rainbow Danger Club” and I hoped they’d pull it off. The gig wasn’t far from the hostel either which made it all the more convenient. The bar called Lune had a 60’s kitsch vibe about it. The crowd seemed geared up for a good night with booze flowing and some elegant Chinese girls who spoke with American accents. I presumed the majority of ex-pats where teachers, although I later found out that nearly everyone was involved in the media business in some form or another. A short, pretty girl with an English accent introduced herself. “Hi, you have a British accent so I thought I’d come over and say hello” she stated. The usual questions revolved. By sheer coincidence she was from Peter Symonds School in Winchester. After studying for my degree in the same city I was well abreast of Peter Symonds girls but this was all we had in common. We had more than a decade separating us. Winchester I’d heard had changed a lot by the sounds of things and I was merely passing through Shanghai while she was networking. I left her to it, but it was a little reminder of quite how small the world is. Meeting her all but briefly reminded me of all the fun I’d had whilst living in Winchester and my mind wondered back to a more innocent time in my life. Back then I wouldn’t have imagined for a minute that I’d be where I was now. Life had certainly turned up a few surprises. The first band on were excellent but although the bands seemed more experienced as the night went on the music went downhill. This was counteracted though by the bottles of Tiger beer that seemed to be disappearing rather fast. Rainbow Danger Club looked like they’d modelled themselves on a cross between the character Biggles and early 80’s London ska fashion. The saxophonist pranced around with a pipe when not playing and the guitarist sported a pair of Spitfire goggles. Not a look I’d have expected. As I walked back fairly inebriated after the show I felt like shanghai was a place that I certainly wouldn’t mind living. It felt edgy, alive and real. It wasn’t stale or resting on its laurels but striving forward with an optimistic flair. In its desperate attempt at playing catch up with many other international cities the gap between the rich and poor has become more pronounced yet no-one seemed to be moping around. The poor keep themselves busy by foraging for anything that may be thrown out or recycled, something for which I have great respect for. Not only does this keep them busy and bring them in a little coin but it’s also a service to all those around them. They’re not dependant on state hand outs or burrowing themselves away in shame like in many first world countries. They’re not there due to some dependency on alcohol or drugs, blaming everyone but themselves for their current dilemma.  Stand still for a minute and they’ve lost a chance at earning an honest meal. Everyone seemed on their toes, alert and engaging, looking for a chance with a brave face. Like many places I’ve visited I felt that there was a lot to learn from what was going on around me. I’d imagined Shanghai to be a dirty place but it was quite the opposite.  There were no flies or rotting debris strewn through the streets. There were no bad smells or stinking drainage systems, it was a working city thanks to working communities. The woman on the rickshaw piled high with cardboard wasn’t looking at the Porsche Cayenne next to her with a murderous glare letting her jealousy eat her from the inside out. She was on a mission, all be it one that revolved around vast quantities of cardboard. It was her private enterprise, her own, and therefore something to be proud of. She wasn’t waiting for a job to suddenly pop out of nowhere, or sitting around complaining that there weren’t enough jobs to go around, she’d made her own. Shanghai it seemed had many answers to many problems that those in the West could learn a lot from. I was then torn away from my meandering thoughts by the sudden desperate need to pee and spent the next few minutes focused on the call of nature. It’s always difficult to know where to go in a new city, especially at night when everything is closed, so to my shame I positioned myself quietly behind a large bush and pretended to be interested in the local flora and fauna.

The next few days were spent planning. Finding my way around the new maps I’d bought wasn’t easy. They seemed to lack a great deal of detail. They were covered in strange unfamiliar writing. I’d realised that whatever I planned I would have to be pretty flexible. Shanghai had whole swathes of elevated highway that wasn’t featured in my guidebook, now only four years out of date. Had that much change happened in four years? Avi had mentioned that there had been approximately only three metro lines working around the time he’d left Shanghai four years ago and that now there were around ten. The city plans to build another twelve in the next ten years. My next few days of planning were dispersed with pool, ping pong and beer with several people I’d met and a rather embarrassingly unconventional massage at the parlour next door. Shanghai it seemed was a place I’d be more than happy to return. I’d stayed longer than I’d anticipated yet I had no regrets. I’d perhaps put leaving off a little longer due to a fear of the unknown yet Shanghai had proved to be an excellent place to overcome this. As I fell asleep with maps all over my bed, I dreamed about what lay ahead. Cycling dreams had become the norm over the last couple of weeks and I awoke early focused on getting out there and putting some distance behind me.

Tags: duck fight goose, le tour hostel, lune bar, map, massage, panniers, rainbow danger club, shanghai, standing dog




Hi Luke,whats up.I hope the new year will bring you good luck and happiness.I'm proud of you no matter what. take care  Morph♥

  nana Dec 31, 2010 8:20 PM


another great entry! Great to speak to you to-day Jan1..hope you shake off your cold quickly..and that the new Year brings you more wonderful adventures and that the old girl looks after you..I guess she doesn't get any more showers if she is taped up?..xx

  Robert Jan 2, 2011 12:21 AM


Hi Luke,
Great update. Sounds like you're having a great time and really diving into the trip. Good luck and looking forward to the next installment. xx

  Liam Jan 5, 2011 8:50 PM

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A random shot of me in Majorca with my lightweight tourer before flying back to Tokyo.

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