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China: Bonding Despite Language Barriers

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As is the case with any TDA Global Cycling trip, many of the most memorable moments for riders occur at times when you’re not sitting on the saddle.

The other common theme in “most memorable moments” from these trips is that they always seem to include interactions with locals, of which there has been no shortage of on the 2017 Bamboo Road tour so far… not surprising when you consider that we are cycling through a country of nearly 1.4 billion people.

It only took a day or two of cycling out of Shanghai for our group of lycra-clad foreigners to become spectacles for everyone we passed, and it stayed that way all the way down to Hong Kong, where we briefly blended in with the very prominent expat community before returning to the “off the beaten track” areas as we ride towards Hanoi.

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While many locals shy away from too much interaction with us, or find the massive language barrier to be too difficult to overcome, others find a way around it. Henry and I were cycling a few kilometres behind the rest of the group the other day, winding our way through a string of small villages on a wet muddy morning, when a driver slowed down beside us and encouraged us to follow him. We cycled behind the car for a few hundred metres until it parked out the front of an old concrete building (no shortage of those in China!) and we found ourselves being ushered inside out of the rain.

Expecting it to be the driver’s house, I was surprised when we stepped into some kind of small government office filled with staff sitting at computers, cigarettes hanging out of their mouths as they typed away on keyboards and sipped their tea, which Henry and I gratefully accepted cups of as well. I’ve never had so many enthusiastic people strike up conversations with me at once… especially when only one person out of the 20 who were there spoke English! After smiling for pictures and drinking some tea, we thanked everyone for their hospitality and took our leave.

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Meanwhile, just 24 hours earlier, one of our quickest riders Cindy went for a run through town – 4 days off the bike in Hong Kong had obviously proven too much for her! As she reached an intersection, trying to decide which direction to go, a local jogger gestured for her to follow him and ended up taking her for an incredibly scenic 10km run through the hills that she would have otherwise completely missed out on.

In fact, the day before we reached Hong Kong, a Chinese man pulled up to our lunch spot on his scooter and watched us for awhile with a puzzled look on his face – something you get used to on TDA tours. Eventually he left, only to return 5 minutes later with about 18 cans of juice in various flavours… one for every person sitting at lunch. Before any of us could thank him properly, he waved at us, jumped back on his scooter and took off again.

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I could name a hundred other examples of random acts of kindness we’ve experienced in the last few weeks, and I’m sure the riders have many more, but the point is that our day-to-day interaction with locals has been no smaller in China than it usually is in any other country, despite the huge language barrier that exists between westerners and people from remote Chinese areas.

If anything, there’s been more interaction in China than I’ve experienced when we’ve passed through countries where most people have a general knowledge of basic English. There’s a lot of confusion, miscommunication and often frustration as you try to play an elaborate game of charades to acquire answers to simple questions, but there’s also a lot of smiles, laughter and heartwarming displays of generosity.

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