Turning the usual tourism experience on its head, three friends set out to bike through China in search of insight into the everyday lives of China's "Old Hundred Names" (lǎobǎixìng, 老百姓) — the hundreds of millions of "nameless" Chinese living and toiling in the margins of China's much-hyped success stories. Chinatravel.net interviews Evan Villarubia about cycling China and getting to know the average — and often exceptional — Chinese.
Travel in China doesn't get much more ambitious than the journey currently being undertaken by Evan Villarrubia, Andy Keller, and Alexis Lerognon, the three amigos behind Portrait of a Laobaixing.
Described as no less than "a search for humanity in China, by bicycle," the blog charts their (roughly) circular trip around the country, interspersed with pictures and stories of the laobaixing they meet along the way. The word laobaixing, or "old hundred surnames," is traditionally used in China to refer to ordinary people, the commoners. Evan, Andy and Alexis (left to right in the photo below) use it as shorthand for local folk and abbreviate it to LBX.
The site is already packed with fascinating content – encounters with the Jews of Kaifeng, meditations on geography and identity on the North China Plain, tasting notes on coffee in Hainan – and the three plan to turn their adventure into a book when they're done. (Responsibility for documenting the trip is shared between the three of them, with Evan writing in English, Alexis in French, and Andy in charge of photography. Their Flickr account is here, and all images in this piece are theirs.)
Now 200 days and 5,000 miles into their trip (see map below), with six months still to go, Evan spoke to ChinaTravel.net about the journey so far.
When and why did you first hatch the idea for this trip?
We hatched the idea at the end of the Chinese National Holiday in October, 2008 in the Hump Hostel in Kunming. We had just finished a one week tour through the Yunnan mountains on Dahon folding bikes, and while sitting around over beers considering the experience, we decided that we could have a great time and probably make a cool project out of doing something of a bigger, much bigger scale. We also decided that working at our corporate jobs forever was silly, and what better excuse to quit than a year long bike tour of China?
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Are you aware of anyone that's done anything like this before? Were you inspired by similar projects from outside of China?
There are lots of bike tours across China, but we don't know of anybody who's done anything on our scale. These guys [who biked from Vladivostok to Porto] are very hardcore, and we respect their determination. Most worthy of respect is Xu Xiake, who did essentially what we're doing, but 400 years ago, by foot, and over a span of more than 20 years.
How did you go about selecting a route?
We just made a big circle on the map, first targeting specific places we wanted to stop, and then fill in the lines. Mostly we try to stick to smaller roads if possible, since they bring us through the best scenery and the most out of the way people.
Your mission statement ("We're looking for remaining traces of divinity and immortality embodied in humanity...") is fairly bold. How do you explain what you're doing to the LBXes you meet? How do they typically react?
First, our mission statement is probably too bold, but we don't mind aiming too high and coming up a little short. Usually we try not to explain what we're doing to LBXes since our activity could be considered journalism, which is illegal for us since we're not licensed by the government. So we usually tell them it's for our personal knowledge about their country, which is true, and the majority of them are very willing to share their lives with us.
How has traveling by bicycle helped or hindered you? Do you feel like you're really seeing more, or do you have to focus too much on the road? Do people warm to you more because you're on bikes?
This is a great question, and one that we struggle with. Outside of walking the whole thing, like Xu Xiake, there's no way we could see as we are on a tour of this scale if we weren't on bikes. That said, biking is really hard, especially up all those mountains that find their way into old Chinese paintings, and we've had more than our fair share of health / mechanical problems that hold up progress.
China does have a bicycle culture, but usually they limit their travels to within their little area. The vast majority of Chinese people we meet think that we're crazy for biking the distance we do, but they definitely respect it. Showing up on a bike and telling people that we've come from Beijing always gets a conversation started in a hurry, which has helped enormously with getting in good with the locals. I doubt they'd treat us so warmly if we showed up in a car or on motorcycles. Plus, most of these people are very poor, and their first reaction to us is, "Oh you foreigners have so much money! What are you doing here?" Granted our bikes are way too expensive for 80+% of the population to afford, but they understand the concept and respect us for not just taking the easy route.
How have your objectives or your approach to the trip evolved along the way?
Everything has evolved, absolutely everything. Our approach to talking to LBXes and trying to learn their lives has ameliorated dramatically. We all used to be a little too polite and accepting, but we've become firmer in the way we deal with the imposing, "I must have my way in this conversation" nature of a lot of LBXes. When it comes to older people, the best route is just to calm down and listen, because they usually have a lot to say, but it doesn't come out all in one smooth burst.
Our approach to riding and making good distance has also changed for the better, all the better since we still have an enormous distance to cover before we finish. The quality of the posts has probably improved too, although that's not really for us to judge.
All three of you have lived in China for some time. How is the trip changing your perception of the country?
Yes, a long time. We were all in big cities during the vast majority of our China time before the trip (Beijing for Andy and Alexis and Beijing/Shanghai for me), and we felt sick of them. We also felt that we couldn't possibly understand "real China" from just sitting in the megacities, any more than a foreigner could claim to understand the US after having spent a lot of time in New York (myself being from Louisiana and Andy from rural Pennsylvania, we know better than most). We've found that China still has a lot of beautiful places that nobody talks about, and that the old Chinese ways are still observable to some extent if you make the effort to get way out in the countryside.
That said, our impression of China has worsened over the course of the trip. If you've spent time in Beijing or Shanghai or any other huge Chinese city, you know what death holes of concrete and Mammonism they can be. We had hoped that the extent of the blight was limited to those cities, but unfortunately, most of China is just really ugly in a man-made way, and most of the people lead very hard lives that leave little time or interest for culture. A lot of our expectations turned out to be baseless, but soon we're going to leave the "developed" parts of the country and make a turn for the really "backward" parts, which so far have produced the most genuine people and the prettiest landscapes.
You seem to get a fair amount of criticism from Chinese who think that foreigners can't possibly understand their culture. Does that frustrate you? And do you have any plans for a Chinese edition of the book when you're done?
Most Chinese have received a nationalist education that puts the Nazis to shame, and they love to point out how it's impossible for an outsider to understand their country, especially before even listening to what we have to say. Now, they do naturally have a point about our foreign bias, which we fully admit. However, so did Alexis de Tocqueville when he toured America, but his Frenchness didn't detract from assertions he made or the observations that led to those assertions. The only real point they have is that the Chinese act differently around us than they would around their own people, but outside of that, I wish they addressed our observations more and our origins less. First we have to cross the monumental bridge of compiling an English book before considering a Chinese version, but I definitely want to make one.
You have a "recommended travels" section on the site. Anywhere sections of the trip that you really haven't enjoyed? Have you ever felt unwelcome?
We usually don't enjoy industrialized zones, most specifically the Pearl River Delta. Also, the north of China from Hebei to Anhui is really a nightmare of dust and pollution. But we've met very few nogoodniks on the trip, and usually it's only the police who succeed at making us feel unwelcome. The unaffiliated LBXes are the most generous, accommodating people I've ever encountered in my life.
And what about specific people you've met... can you pick any favorite LBXes from the hundreds you must have met by now?
We've met so many people from so many different areas of the spectrum, it's really hard to say which one was the "favorite." Our Fujian) was pretty great though.
What's been the hardest part of being on the road? Have you lost much weight?
There are lots of hard parts. It's hard to be with the same people all the time, and it's hard to have to deal with Chinese people all the time, because frankly, they can get on our nerves. It's also hard to not have a "home" or have any control over what food we're going to find on a given day. The other two guys have lost a lot of weight, but I've managed to keep it up by eating lots of junk food on our rest stops. That said, we are in at least 200% better shape than we were before the trip.
Which parts of the trip are you most looking forward to in the coming months?
The mountains and mountain people of Yunnan and the Tibetan Plateau in Qinghai. After Qinghai, it's a long shot across the misery of Northern China again.
What do you do when a project as big as this comes to an end?
Go to DisneyWorld... Nah, we're going back to the US to collect our thoughts, be with family for a while, and work on writing a book (which I hear takes a little bit of time). Then we figure out where to go next. We're not in a big rush to figure out the rest of our lives at this point.
You describe yourselves as philosophers. Any gems of wisdom for people wanting to follow in your bike-tracks?
We're more like faux-philosophers, but I do have a little to say to people who plan to be nomads in a foreign land for a long time. Proper preparation is of course essential, but the most important thing by far and away is flexibility. The world is a rigid place, especially when one is outside of his own sphere and without family, friends, or other resources immediately at hand, so all we can do is make ourselves malleable enough to adapt to all the various and intense difficulties that jump in your way. Murphy had it right when he made his law – everything can and will go wrong despite all the preparations you make; you just have to be willing and ready to find solutions all the time. Also, you can never have too many friends, from people at home willing to send you supplies, to the bum on the side of the highway you just bought some booze for who knows where you can find a hotel. So, in two words: Flexibility and Friendliness.
For more on Evan, Andy and Alexis' adventures in China, check out Portrait of a Laobaixing.