Round-the-world cyclist Charlie Walker finds himself reminded of Hunan, China, as he battles his way through the Congo
The Chinese shopkeeper served his Chinese customer who walked outside, climbed into his Chinese car and drove away on the Chinese built road – presumably to his job on one of the numerous Chinese construction projects in the area. The Republic of Congo was proving to be quite different to how I had expected. To be fair, it was formerly known as The People's Republic of Congo, so China's interest could be ideological. However, I suspect that the large, timber-rich country of only 4 million people has other attractions for savvy eastern investors.
It is said that many of the Chinese workers in Africa are convicts serving time as exiles. Today's Africa is rumoured to be, to China, what yesterday's Australia was to England.
Brazzaville struck me as an uninspiring and unattractive little city, and held me only one night after I caught a ferry across the Congo river from significantly larger and busier Kinshasa. The way out of town led me past a half-built stadium (with Chinese characters over the entrance) and away from the powerful brown river to rolling, open land, as yet unfarmed. I felt sluggish and heavy-legged, fighting to shake the malaise that had settled over me while recovering from fever.
Villages of mostly-concrete buildings with sheet metal roofs glided past my peripheral vision. The pitifully poor clusters of adobe, palm-thatched huts in DRC across the river were nowhere to be seen. Yet, I saw a woman selling little twists of torn up plastic bags, each with six or seven pieces of penne pasta in them. This country may seem richer than its vast, self-mutilating southern neighbour, but its three 1990s civil wars are fresh in the memory and it is still fragile and needy.
A cool, high plateau was crossed by a good road with light traffic. The steady stream of passing Chinese in 4x4s gawped momentarily at my anomalous appearance. The further north I progressed, the simpler and more neglected the villages seemed. Foreign aid has obviously encountered an uphill struggle in escaping Brazzaville's leafy, riverine environs.
Across the Alima river I had expected to find a northern Congolese city. However, I actually found myself in a little replica of the homogenous county towns that dot China and originate from one or two oft-copied civic blueprints. The layout of externally white-tiled government buildings; the knee-high white metal fences; the half-hearted topiary; and the needlessly wide streets. Functional yet almost considered. Apart from the Africans milling around, I could have been in a newly-built coal mining town in Hunan province.
A couple of Congolese said that the town was indeed planned by Chinese architects, and that the many Chinese men (never women) in the town were either installing an electricity infrastructure for Congo, or extracting immensely valuable timber for China. Indeed, an increasing number of trucks had been passing me on the road, each with three or four improbably vast trunks of mahogany or other African hardwood ratcheted onto their extra long flatbeds.
It's not only the Chinese who are investing. I chatted with Regis, the night watchman of a huge Malaysian-funded palm oil plantation. He said with surprising pride that there were tens of thousands of trees, and the project had been running for over 25 years. He liked working for the Malaysians as he thought they made more effort to communicate on common grounds. The Chinese apparently do not like to learn French or Lingala, but prefer to send a selected few Congolese to China to learn basic Mandarin.
Charlie Walker is a bicycle adventurer on a four-year, 40,000 mile cycling trip to the four corners of the Earth. He is hoping to raise £20,000 for a variety of charities. You can follow his exploits on his website, CharlieWalkerExplore.