China by Bicycle :: April - October, 1998

Subject: Wrath of the Gods
Date: Tue, 28 Apr 1998 10:26:58 -0700

23:38 NOT the Jinghai Binguan, Jinghai; Hebei -- China :: 16 APR 98

Sometimes it's just plain unwise to tempt fate.

Yesterday in the late afternoon nearing Cangzhou, tailwind driving us to our destination, I noticed an unbroken line of clouds approaching from the North and pointed them out to Jay. "Change in the weather coming," I told him. He didn't really believe me. I didn't really think about it.

It was still pretty windy in Cangzhou through the night, whirling about through the streets as we looked for something to eat in the late evening. And a definite chill came into the air since we'd checked in and showered just as darkness fell, while all day long we'd sweated hard on our ride, emptying water-bottle after water-bottle. Still didn't clue in.

This morning, shortly after waking, I looked out the Hotel window and saw on all the cars a thick layer of yellow/brown dust. The atmosphere itself had taken on a lighter hue of that dusty colour, graduating from a typically dull, overcast sky overhead to increasingly dusty at the horizon. I should have understood what this meant. Even before we took the lightly dusted bikes out of the storage room, with its one door open to the elements, I should have recognized what was up.

But it wasn't until we turned North up Jiatong Lu (road) that it struck me. Of course, the wind had changed 180 degrees from out of the South to out of the North/Northwest. A mighty headwind equal in fury to the previous day's tailwind.

The storm front I'd seen the night before represented the wintertime prevailing weather condition. I'd read before that all winter long a prevailing Southerly wind would scrape the sand and dust from the Gobi desert and deposit it on Beijing 100s of kilometers away. Of course, the dust storms don't just stop at Beijing, and there's plenty more dust to pick up on the dry, winter plains south of the great city. Heading due North toward Beijing, we were directly in the path.

This dust storm packed the same ferocious 25 to 35 km/hr winds that had favoured us so marvellously the day before. Today would be a different story.

07:03 NOT the Jinghai Binguan, Jinghai; Hebei -- China :: 17 APR 98

[Notes for a review: skip to "End Notes" if reviews bore you]

A couple difficulties have surfaced with the guidebook we're following (Roger Grigsby's "China by Bike," published by The Mountaineers). It's obvious the routes provided do not benefit from any real research. Rather, the author picked a route linking two or more desireable destinations from a map and meticulously documented mileage in his logbook along with a few tidbits of local information. This log forms the guide's backbone, along with simple but effective maps which name significant towns and villages along the way in both pinyin (phonetic spellings using the western European alphabet) and Chinese characters (very useful for those occasional "I think we're lost" moments--point out the Chinese for the next town to a local and you're no longer lost). I'm amazed at the accuracy and clarity of the directions, particularly after the dismal performance of the Route 66 guides I'd attempted to follow last summer. Some minor mixups and errors occur with whether an intersect is a Y, an X or a T, but the mileage at which the intersection has proven to be very accurate. Not much confusion so long as you trust the mileage.

However, I definitely belong to the "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" school of route selection: when looking at a map, thin black lines are good, thin red lines are OK, thick red lines are undesireable, fat multi-coloured lines are strictly verboten. We've pedaled far too many kilometers on thick red lines, that is, on heavily trafficked truck routes. I would describe only one leg of the six we've completed so far as particularly worthwhile for sightseeing (the stretch between Taian and Zaoyuan). And Chinese truck horns, seemingly in constant use, can compete with any train whistle for shrill, hair-raising decibels. Sharing a narrow road with these maniacs passing three abreast, klaxxon's blaring on a two-lane highway does not make for a joyous ride. There's no need to spend an entire day on such thoroughfares.

Some sketchy supplemental information about the destination towns--where to stay, what to eat, what to see--completes China By Bike. Often a town map is also provided. Much more research would be welcome. For some key towns, such as Huimin in Hebei province, the guide provides no map. We took an alternate route into town and had a difficult time finding the recommended lodgings.

Inexplicably, Grigsby's town maps provide only the pinyin for street names, hotels or other locations of interest--no Chinese characters. We had to muddle through with our mispronounciation. Also, tonight we pulled into the Jinghai Binguan (hotel) only to find it fully booked. Phoning ahead to book reservations is unnecessarily difficult because the book offers no contact information for the hotels it recommends. Our difficulty was doubled because the guide gave no secondary hotel recommendations in Jinghai. The desk clerk at the hotel either didn't understand our entreaties for directions to another hotel, or she just wasn't interested in helping. After a short, vain attempt to find one ourselves, we returned to the Jinghai Binguan where a registered guest directed us to our hotel. (It turns out Grigsy's brief but useful phrase book, an appendix in his guide, offers the Chinese characters for "Can you direct me to another hotel?" That would have been useful since the Berlitz phrase book we've been relying on, unfortunately, does not.)

Well, enough of that.

[End Notes]

20:01 Langshan Binguan, Langshan; Hebei -- China :: 17 APR 98

So we're heading north into a nasty dust storm. It doesn't help any that we're on one of those nasty thoroughfares the guide fails to avoid. It doesn't help any that the scenery is only slightly more charming than the dreadful first leg from Shanghai to Suzhou. The few bright spots were achieved whenever we managed to catch the draft of the brick carts: large motorized tricycles with a pick-up truck bed loaded to the gills with bricks. These travel at about 25-30 km/hr which is about twice the pace we were able to run unassisted and a fraction of the effort. Usually.

Our first draft lasted a marvellous 15 kilometers. Well, it was marvellous for Jay but I had to pump pretty hard to keep up. Jay was incredulous, "Oh, come on! Look, pump for four seconds and coast for four! We're gravy train." I'm thinking, "Yeah, right. More like pump for eight seconds, coast for two, then pump to exhaustion to recatch the draft." As if that weren't enough, I noticed the bike was 'feeling the road' more than usual. Little bumps seemed to be accentuated.

"Jay. (huff-puff) Check the trailer for me will you? (puff puff)" Jay drops back a little, looks over his shoulder. "Yep. Still there." Then, nearly effortlessly, surges back into the draft.


So I keep twirling the pedals. Hamstrings tighten up, getting painful. Working, working it. (puff puff) Keep twirling. Just keep twirling.

We're making really good time, and Jay's having an easy go of it. We speculate about the extra drag I must be feeling due to the trailer. Air must be blowing in from the side, or underneath the trike, catching the trailer. Yeah. That's it. I just keep twirling. (huff-puff)

Jay's obviously disappointed when our ride pulls off our route. I'm not. I signal a stop for a rest and stretch. As we pull into a market square I begin to dismount. A couple of locals are pointing to the trailer. To the tire of the trailer, actually. Which is completely flat on one side: the bottom. And which has no doubt been that way for the last fifteen kilometers.

When we get back on the road after a quick patch job, I remind Jay about checking the trailer. About the comment he made that it was still there. "Oh, you wanted me to check the tire too?"

So it's the next evening now, and our penance for being so cocky about a headwind has been paid in full. Today the gods elected to be kind and provided a warm, sunny day; cottonwood balls floating from the trees lining the highway; pretty farmlands, quaint little villages. And only the slightest of breezes which sometimes favoured us and sometimes not. Just a reminder.

~~~ Responses Sought ~~~
The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.

In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don't try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.

When you are content to be simply yourself
and don't compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.

  graphical element Attributed to Lao Tse
The Tao Te Ching
Chapter 8.
trans. Stephen Mitchell