After almost four months cycling through China, Stephen and I are ready to leave. It's time for us to envelop ourselves in a new culture, learn a little bit of a new language, and figure out a whole new set of rules for sleeping, eating, and bicycling. Though we are ready to go, we also know there are lots of things we're going to miss, and lots of things we'll never forget about our time in China.
Giant Panda Sanctuary
One of the best things we have done in the last 10 months of travelling is to visit the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.
Yes, there is a major cute factor going on here. Who could resist these innocent, gentle faces, occupied by nothing more than chowing down on bamboo all day?
And who could not be moved by the babies in the breeding centre?
Pandas are endangered, partly because they're a little reluctant to breed, but mostly because of human activity that encroaches on their habitats. At the Panda Base, the focus is on conservation, research, and breeding. We were expecting to be a little saddened by all of these pandas in captivity, so it was a relief to see that they are well cared for and that their habitats are large and leafy.
If there's one site not to miss in China, this is it. But, if you can't go see them for yourself, at least consider learning a little more about them. The WWF Giant Panda information page is a good place to start.
Safety And Security
While cycling through Europe, we were constantly thinking about safety and security. Were there pickpockets in the area? Were our bikes safe where we'd locked them? Would someone try and grab my camera out of my hand?
In China, we quickly learned that we really didn't need to worry about these things. There is great freedom when you realise that petty theft and violent crime is just not a part of the culture, and that people are no longer the biggest threat on your trip.
This idea took some getting used to.
But after a while, we realised that when a stranger approaches and takes a long hard look at your iPad, which happened to us all the time, it is not because they want to try and steal it. It's just because they're curious about what you're up to.
When someone comes over to poke and prod at your bike bags, examining how they're closed and how they stay attached to the bikes, it's not so they can make a grab for them. It's because they have never seen anything like it before, and want to know more.
An unzipped pocket with a wallet inside was unlikely to be explored by a sneaking hand and a dark alley at night just meant that someone didn't want to pay for the electricity to keep it lit.
Now, as we leave China for less safe lands, we will have to relearn all of our safety reflexes. We'll sorely miss the freedom of not having to lock up our bikes and not having to keep our eyes on our valuables at all times.
Paris Of The East
People often call Shanghai the New York of China, or the Paris of the East. But to me, Shanghai is more like a laid-back second city: think Melbourne, Los Angeles, or Vancouver. Whatever you call it, it's a great city to visit.
You could spend months in Shanghai and never really experience all it has to offer. The great and historic Bund, where rich tourists (both Chinese and foreign) go to stay and play, is the place to revel in the historical Shanghai of the 30s.
Across the water in Pudong, you can shop until you literally drop, without visiting even half of the dozens of high-end malls that have sprung up in the last decade. If indie style is more your thing, there's Tianzifang, which is like a little Camden town, without all of the drugs.
For a taste of a more traditional China, the old city just south of Yu Gardens is a warren of low row houses, called shikumen. This area is also home to a wet market, the contents of which will thrill and chill you in equal measure.
In Shanghai, you can get a filling meal on the street for a couple of dollars, or spend a week's salary on an evening out. You can sleep in a cheap hostel, or luxuriate in a swank boutique hotel. It is a city of contrasts, the modern and the ancient rubbing shoulders, the rich and the poor sharing the same streets. I can't imagine ever getting tired of it.
As bike tourists in Eastern Europe, it was rare for us to be approached, spoken to, or even smiled at, except by those in the hospitality industry. In China, we were met with huge smiles everywhere we went.
Even though there was no shared language between us, people engaged us with a friendly wave and a bright "ni hao" . Many people tried to strike up conversations, laughing when they realised we could't speak their language.
Everyone was as excited to see us as we were to see them – often far more so.
Every time we needed help that couldn't be solved with hand gestures and translation apps, an English-speaker was summoned, either in person or on the phone. Countless strangers gave their time and energy to help us get where we needed to go, or find a good meal and a place to sleep.
China's strength is surely its people, and this is no less true in tourism than any other industry.
Tourism Is In Its Infancy
On this trip, we met countless young Chinese people. For many of them, it was the first time they had ever had any interaction with a foreigner. What an amazing concept!
China is a country that is as yet so untouched by foreign tourism, that it's possible to reach your teenage years or 20s without ever laying eyes on a foreigner.
Sure, the metropolises welcome millions of visitors each year, but step outside these zones and you'll see the real China, completely untainted by the tourist trade.
What does this mean in practical terms? Tourist traps and scams are almost non-existent, shops and restaurants usually charge you what they charge everyone else, and you get to interact with real people going about their everyday lives. People are welcoming and curious – why did you come to their town?
You also get to know what it feels like to be a celebrity. People stare and point and want to take their picture with you wherever you go.
Having always lived in places where, by and large, we fit in, cycling through China, where we couldn't have stuck out more if we'd tried, was an eye-opening, life-changing experience. We'll never forget it.
All photos copyright Jane Mountain, 2013