GUANGZHOU, China — As we wobbled our bicycles around the parking lot of the Foshan Hotel, our guide kept shouting, "Do the brakes work? Does the bell work?"
Neither of the three of us had been on a bicycle in years, nor ever ridden a 10-speed.
Now we were embarking on a 200-mile circuit of Guangdong Province (southeast China, just upriver from Hong Kong), and our guide was fretting about brakes and bells? We were fretting about tipping over.
'Keep the Van in Sight'
Satisfied that the cycles were in order, our guide hopped into the van. "OK," he shouted, "follow me!"
"You're not riding with us?" we wailed.
"No problem!" he shouted. "Just keep the van in sight!"
Out of the parking lot he roared, with three terrified tourists pedaling madly in his wake. In the teeming streets of Foshan, we discovered the teeth-clenching necessity of bells and brakes.
Oops, there's a grocer balancing baskets of cabbages on his shoulders (brake!). Oops, there's a weaving bicycle, its rear wheel surmounted by a mound of laundry (bell). Squawk! Laughing children chase a chicken into the road (brake). Two schoolgirls cycle abreast, holding up traffic. Want to pass? Use the bell.
To spend a week on one of China's 600 million bicycles is to experience China from the ground up.
Our trip began with an overnight steamer up the Pearl River from Hong Kong to Guangzhou (Canton) aboard the Star Lake, which carries more than 400 passengers on its six decks. A top-deck cabaret rocked and rolled well into the night, and the middle-deck restaurant served an overflow crowd.
Crossing the Border
Our stateroom was roomy with twin beds and a full bath. Upriver we steamed, passing the New Territories to starboard, a blaze of lights stretching up Kowloon Peninsula to the China border. Then the shoreline darkened and China began out there in the night, unseen until dawn broke at the pier in Guangzhou.
At 8 in the morning, we gathered our bags and joined the throng at the gangway. Entire families were debarking, parcels balancing on shoulder poles. Our guide, Benjamin, met us, ushered us through customs and treated us to a breakfast of chicken feet, lotus-steamed rice, pork rolls and rice porridge with floating scallions. Into the van and we were off.
Bypassing Guangzhou, we soon reached Foshan, 10 miles west, where we met the stars of the show . . . the bicycles. We adjusted the brakes, tested the gears and bells, gingerly mounted the rock-hard seats and teetered off on a shakedown jaunt to Shiwan, a 15-mile round trip.
On that first short ride we learned what bicycling is to the Chinese--basic transportation. Major streets all have bicycle lanes at the verges, and bicycles carry everything: crates of chickens, bales of scrap paper, bundles of laundry, plus wives, husbands and children.
The streets are a cacophony, from the jingle of bells to the beep of motor scooters to the blare of trucks. To the Westerner, off on an exotic trip to the mysterious, enchanting East, the first impression is jolting.
The next day Ben drove us out of town, unloaded us and the bicycles, pointed west and said: "Next stop Zhaoqing, 60 miles that way!"
Inured to the Din
We pedaled onto the Guangzhou-Zhaoqing highway, two lanes of busy blacktop. Every vehicle honked, not just at us but at every bicycle, setting up a continuous clamor. But yesterday's plunge into urban traffic had inured us to the din.
We settled into a steady pace, raised our eyes and looked about. Outside Foshan the country takes over. The town simply stops and the farms begin. But it is never bucolic. No rolling hills, no sprawls of virgin forest.
The Chinese cultivate every inch. We passed field after field of vegetables, continually plowed, planted, tended or harvested. Stand after stand of fruit trees, with bananas and oranges predominating. All of this agriculture is done by man, woman and beast. No farm machinery, no tractors or harvesters, just blue-clad farmers and gray water buffaloes.
For the morning half of the journey, the scenery was undifferentiated mile upon mile of low-lying, level fields. Around noon, hills and mountains appeared in the distance. We crested a rise and saw the West River below us, with grassy hillocks dominating the far bank. Across the highway bridge, Benjamin awaited us in a dusty field, a picnic lunch spread out.
There's nothing romantic about wolfing down Chinese Spam on stale crackers, slathered with lemon and coconut jam, while sitting under a highway underpass, waving away flies and using a convenient hole in the ground as a . . . well, a convenience.
Soon we were back on the bikes, entertaining the grim thought that Zhaoqing was still 30 miles away. On the west side of the West River, the road narrowed, the traffic diminished and the landscape improved.