China by Bicycle :: April - October, 1998

Subject: Flying in Formation
Date: Tue, 28 Apr 1998 00:59:30 -0700

[Well, due to some system problems this post and the five or so immediately following have been somewhat delayed. We're back up now, and postings should come on a somewhat more regular and less brutally clustered manner. Cheers, Patrick.]
08:22 Huimin Binguan Hotel; Huimin -- China :: 15 APR 98

Aaah, a day of rest, some street food (actually, not to my palate's liking, but hey discovery is part of travel and you can't always expect the discovery to be pleasant.) Well, we were doing great until a few moments ago when Jay decided the street food didn't agree with his stomach, went into the bathroom and retched it all up, voluntarily. He said it was probably going to come back up anyway and best to get the vile stuff out of his system now before the bugs had much time to act. Now I'm feeling a little unsettled in the tummy...and wishing I had a talent similar to Jay's.

Presuming I don't get completely sick overnight, we'll be pushing on again tomorrow. Our initial ride, over 100K, took us from Shanghai to Suzhou, where we arrived after dark. We left shortly after dark the next day via train (see 4.004) and overnight to Taian where we hiked a good way up Taishan, the fifth most holy mountain in China, and the tackiest tourist attraction this side of the Pacific, I'm sure. The next two days we pulled consecutive centuries (er, kilometers) the last couple days, actually a fair bit further than that. Yesterday we were on the road for 12 hours, perhaps 10 of that riding. Today we're resting our tired dogs in Huimin, five riding days south of Beijing (thankfully, none of them centuries).

We've been through some of the ugliest countryside I've ever seen. Lime factories spewing a thick grey soot coating the nearby countryside. A land under a malodorous pallor of coal smoke and incinerated garbage. Crumbling dusty villages and strip towns lining a roadway cutting through a vast, uninteresting plain. And the weather, the light; a thick haze hangs low like ooze dissipating the daylight to shadowlessness. That was our first thoroughly dispiriting century.

The second century--after an all-night train ride, a day's rest, then a three hour hike the morning of departure--involved a pair of steep climbs (and, gratefully, a pair of long descents) and the most beautiful countryside so far: deeply terraced mountain valleys, picturesque villages, and dumbfounded locals shaking their heads in disbelief. (Actually, I'm astonished by the gleeful friendliness. Or are they just yukking it up, "Look at the funny shit-heads cycling up the mountain!! Ho Ho, let's wave at them mockingly, with big smiles to show our disrespect!")

Our third century, the very next day, was a grueller. A big wind out of the East/North-East and we're heading North. We get lost and after following a few cart paths and getting directions through remote farm villages we find an alternate route, under heavy construction, bouncing and jouncing along in yellow dust and pock-marked asphalt, dekeing around heavy equipment and bridgework. Another discouraging day until something magical happened.

Not long after finally clearing the construction zone, we collected an escort. Four or five teenage boys cycling in a pack behind us. They rode into a town with us and pulled aside as we stopped for a water break. We still weren't quite unlost at this point and one of the boys spoke some english. This brought on one of the many moments of celebrity we've experienced this trip with a big crowd gathering around and the english-speaking boy interpreting questions and answers as well as his limited language would allow. We also managed to locate ourselves on the map which indicated another 50+K to go. It's late afternoon and we KNOW now we won't arrive until well after dark, but we know also the distance is doable, though a good 10K further than either of us would have liked.

We push off, escort in tow, looking for food and finding none. In the next town, it looks equally dire. We ask our english-speaker if there's a restaurant in this town, he asks a local, the local points across the street.

What happens next makes all the difference in the world. It turned a slog, a disheartening day of getting lost, awful riding conditions and that debilitating headwind into an inconvenience, an inconvenience we overcame so that some dusty little town in rural China could roll out the red carpet and treat us as honoured guests.

OH! Do we gather a crowd! No doubt news spread through the town quickly...minutes into our arrival the local constabulary arrives with what I'm presuming to be a party official in tow. The police man asks to see our passports, wants to know where we are going, where we've come from and what we do for a living. I show him the maps in the guidebook and use them to explain where we've been and where we're going. Question period over, we get into the restaurant, sit down and, struggling through with a phrasebook, manage to order dinner. Which turns out to be pretty darn good. The crowd gathered outside the restaurant peeks in the windows, pointing out the big-nosed guys to the children straddling their hips. The crowd gathered inside chatters at us in Chinese to which we shrug our shoulders. Our english-speaking boy waits respectfully outside, so he's not available to interpret. The phrasebook comes into play (don't leave home without it) and it turns out one guy can write english pretty well but is apparently uncomfortable about pronunciation since he won't speak a word of it.

We keep running into this. A non-obsequious desire to please, to be of assistance, to help. It still surprises me everytime. And anonymous celebrity...well, that's kinda weird but definitely fun.

We manage to salt away dinner and are then guided to the garlic field out back for a picture taking session. All the restaurateur's family get their chance with us, along with our teenage escorts who've been invited along. Perhaps a half-dozen snaps. Then we trundle back into the restaurant, pay up (18 yuan, a little over $2 US, for three heaping plates of cucumbers, juliened potatoe salad, chicken bone soup, sweet green peppers with pork and some steamed bread) and head out to the bikes. We can't depart before a couple more shots with the restaurant as backdrop--I'm sure we'll be plastered all over the walls, or front page in the local newspaper, if there is one.

Then it's off again, our escort now in formation. Jay and I ride side-by-side, on my wing Lee Joe Cheng the english-speaker, and Jay with his wingman. Ahead, a lone cyclist leads the formation and another trails, completing the symmetry. The headwind that's been dogging us most of the day has dissipated as the sun sinks low to the horizon. They've ridden with us at an 18-22km/hr clip for five kilometers to this point, into a headwind, on three-speed bicycles that creek, moan and squeek with every pedal-turn. They'll ride with us another ten in the more favourable riding conditions.

Only for a short time is the formation broken by a hip Chinese rebel on a small motorcycle. Crisp white shirt open to the navel over an undershirt; pleated black pants and sleek black leather boots. As is usually the case here, he never peeled the label from the lenses of his sunglasses, which he offers to trade for my Mountain Equipment Co-op Oakley knock-offs. "My-Oh" I shout over the roar of his shiny red machine, "No thanks."

Jay and I dub him "Eddy" after the imaginary friend of a television show host we saw a couple days back in Taian. This guy, obviously Chinese-American by the quality of his english, was teaching cool American slang to novice english-speakers. His lesson was structured around conversational expressions which he'd say in the most enthusiastic of tones. Sentences like, "Hey dude, let's cruise!" and "Let's make like a banana and split!" and, after describing different words for car parts, "Hey Eddy! Check out the headlights on her!" After which he had to explain certain anatomical parts.

So Eddy's cruising on my wing now, still trying to trade his cheap plastic sunglasses with a label for my cheap plastic sunglass with no label. He'd almost carry off cool, were it not for that label. We climb over the Yellow River levee and descend onto the pontoon bridge spanning it, leaving Eddy behind at the toll booth; bicycles cross for free.

We're back in formation after the bridge for a bit. Our squadron mates are looking a little worn. Jay and I have both been feeling a bit guilty about being the objects of so much enthusiasm, and that we've dragged them so far from home. We even backed off our 20k/hr clip to accommodate their older technology. But just as we're about to up the pace to 25k or more in an attempt to shake them, they turn off into Qinghe. Apparently, we were all heading in the same direction anyway. We wave farewell and pedal off into the sunset.

And then about a half kilometer down the road, I realize we should've turned off at Qinghe as well. That's OK. This alternate route seems a little shorter on the map anyway, and the ride along the cottonwood lined levee with the setting sun casting orange on the Yellow River... We ride on.

And at 9PM arrive quite dragged-out and squallid with dust, road-grime and sweat at a hotel in Heimin. We're both thinking HOT SHOWER and Jay comes back from viewing the hotel room grinning HOT BATH instead. Twelve hours on the road, at least ten of it riding. Yes, a hot bath would end the day well.

Using the phrasebook, we ask for a double-room, establish the price, pay for the room, then with the cheerful assistance of the hotel's entire staff, lock the bikes in a secure place and trundle the gear upstairs. Alone at last with an immense, deep tub complete with water jets we unpack the toiletries hot water. Dooh! The hotel staff insists on lugging in enough hot water for baths and, sure enough, 15 minutes later Jay's in a hot bath.

Well, actually, he got a bit greedy, overfilled the tub with cold-water and is in a luke-warm bath that covers the arches of his feet only because they're flat. There's less water in mine, but it's hot and nonetheless refreshing to get 140km of dust and grime off my body and out of my stiff, spiky hair. Aaah.

I try to write but log off to sleep after managing but a few groggy paragraphs. Jay's lying prone, on his back, where he lay on his bed for a little rest but promptly fell asleep. I'll be asleep before he rouses himself to crawl under the covers.

~~~ Responses Sought ~~~
The Tao is called the Great Mother:
empty yet inexhaustible,
it gives birth to infinite worlds.

It is always present within you.
You can use it any way you want.

  graphical element Attributed to Lao Tse
The Tao Te Ching
Chapter 6.
trans. Stephen Mitchell