China by Bicycle :: April -- October '98

Subject: Back in the Saddle.
Date: Tue, 02 Jun 1998 08:04:16 -0700

19:41 Xiayunling; Beijing Municipality -- China :: SA 30 MAY 98

Well, you can get out your maps but you probably won't find this town. Xiayunling is a small orchard/farming/pastoral town on Highway 108 just a bit over 100 kilometers from West Beijing. I'm 'camped' here under a tree on the side of the road. The quotations on 'camping' mean that I'm camping without a tent. Just a sleeping bag, a ThermaRest knock-off and the stars.

A coal worker came by earlier, just to let me know I was nuts. I'm armed with a library consisting of a phrasebook (Lonely Planet/Mandarin) and a Chinese/English dictionary. So, through some page-flipping, gesticulation and good old logical deduction, along with my rather limited grasp of mandarin, we carried on an hour-long conversation. Where are you from? (Xiayunling) How old are you? (36) Are you married? (Yes) Children? (Two boys, 12 and 6) What do you do? (Coal mining.) But every few minutes he'd remind me how badly I'd freeze tonight, that I'd catch cold, get a headache, be bitten by bugs. He thought the phrasebook was great, but found the dictionary rather difficult to use (for good reason; even if you know what you're doing, it is difficult to look up a Chinese character in a dictionary. And neither of us knew what we were doing).

But I'll save the language stuff for an upcoming post. This is about getting back on the bike.

The day began at 5:20AM this morning when the alarm went off. I've been staying a few days with Vivian, a new friend met via the internet, in her West Beijing home. (More about her in another post as well.) She was off camping with some friends (a rare thing for the Chinese, camping) and wanted to beat the morning rush to exit the city. Worked well for me, since I wanted to get in a good 120k ride.

05:48 Laiyuan; Hebei Province -- China :: MO 02 JUN 98

I've had all afternoon and evening to take it easy, recharge, and a full night's sleep and I'm still dumb with exhaustion. Been trying much of that time to write something coherent, but only managed a babbling string of inanities. Another try.

Saturday saw me and three self-powered wheels finally on the road. Monday night and I'm in a typical Chinese hotel, in a typical Chinese town where, typically, there is no running water. Haven't been able to get a clear picture on when/whether the water might come on. Yesterday at night they said by nightfall; last night they said by this morning. Seems the whole block's down. On entering the center of town, I cycled through a water-filled intersection. I'm assuming the worst: the usual pell-mell construction probably uprooted the water main.

After seeing it in so many films, I'm finally living the cliche. The hotel sign, in brightly lit red Chinese characters, is hung just outside my window and last night cast a pink glow through the curtains. At least it's not blinking.

Meanwhile, just down the street someone warbled into a badly amplified microphone. The second town on this trip to feature outdoor kareoke as entertainment. Laiyuan's single deafening and hopelessly distorted speaker has nothing over Heimin where every twenty meters a sad green video screen stood propped on boxes while diners took turns splitting each other's ears. Like Heimin, the hotel is several hundred meters from all the action, yet were my room in a restaurant I would ask the management too turn down the volume of the disturbingly loud music.

If I'd covered the 256 kilometers between Beijing and Laiyuan in two days, as I'd hoped, perhaps water would be running through the taps. The distance is far from impossible, even through hilly terrain. In fact, leaving Beijing the road sign indicated 284 kilometers to Laiyuan, and that's what I believed myself up against. But the goal became unattainable three nights ago, stretched out in sleeping bag beneath the boughs, the mountain pass tantalizingly visible just several hundred meters above and a few kilometers away. Too steep. Out of gas. "Bonked" I've heard other cyclists call it. The day ended at 107.5 kilometers, nearly 15 kilometers shy of the 120k goal.

With the goat herds yipping and hawing, whistling after their constantly munching charges bidding them down the mountainside just a hundred meters past my bivouac, it was a pleasant enough place to soothe my defeat. Those few kilometers stood between me and the 10 kilometers of steep downgrade follow. And after this, a short climb yielded by a lengthier, shallower descent into the valley floor. But that awaited the next morning.

The day itself had been good enough, though leaving Beijing to find the unmarked beginning of 108 without Vivian's guidance would have been a trial. And the crumbling, heaved roadway hardly seemed inadequate to the term, 'highway.' But the Chinese roadmap showed no other significant through ways in the area, and the heavy truck and automobile traffic indicated this was a significant road. So I followed it for several kilometers. Until it came to a T-intersection. Chinese characters left: 128K. Chinese characters right: 284. Hmmm.

Fortunately, I'm travelling with two sets of maps. One in english purchased back in Vancouver. It's proven grossly inaccurate both in posted distances and the actual alignments of the road. It's two benefits: town and city names written in pinyin (eg. Beijing is the pinyin spelling of China's capital); and topographical graphics which provide a gross indication of the terrain to traverse. Vivian recommended a Chinese road atlas and this provides somewhat more accurate and thorough road alignments and kilometerage.

I'm suprised that it's so difficult to generate a mental image of the route with only the Chinese atlas in hand. I'm still unable to pattern match only a few of the Chinese characters so nearly all the text information on the maps may as well be an infant's scrawl. Never realized before how important recognizeable town names were in reading a map.

So, standing befuddled at T-intersection, most of the traffic seeming to head left but instinct telling me right was the correct turn, I studied the maps. Since 284 sounded about the right distance to Laiyuan, I located it on the english map. With the chinese road atlas in the other hand I pattern matched the road contours to find the characters for Laiyuan and matched the characters there to those on the road sign. Yep. Laiyuan to the right. It's now three days later and though I can't possibly write the two characters for Laiyuan, I can at least recognize them immediately on a road sign.

Until I can recognize several hundred Chinese characters, this dual mapping system remains essential. Anyway, after that fork I could relax somewhat. Two hundred and eighty-four kilometers on the same road requires only a few looks at the map. And not long after the fork the highway began in earnest with new, smooth pavement. Aaah. And with the beginning of the highway began the beginning of the climbing. This is how it's written in the comments section of my trip log:

30 MAY 98:
Start? climb, climb, valley, climb, valley, climb, climb, climb, climb, CLIMB, BONK. Camp.
31 MAY 98:
CLIMB, ridge, freefall, end smooth, climb, valley, climb, climb, climb, climb, CLIMB, BONK! Bad Fandian.
01 JUN 98:
CLIMB, bad road, freefall, freefall, downriver, downriver, climb, valley, upriver, SMOOTH! Lai Yuan. No BofC. No water.
Let's say you bike along a lengthy mountainous or hilly section of road way and end back at your starting point. I guarantee you'll remember the climbs. I certainly do. Each of the first two days ended at higher altitudes than they began. But, oh, beautiful days they were.

Not many of the miles from Taian to Beijing proved memorably scenic. Plenty to see, and fascinating countryside, but very little I'd try to paint as landscapes except for the half day spent traversing the mountains just north of Taian. And as we neared Beijing the roadways became heavily jammed with traffic, deafening horns of trucks blaring at us all day long. I wanted to avoid that. I'd had enough of the plains so I headed straight into the mountains. Had I known how steep and tall the mountains were, I'd have reconsidered. With the steepest mountains behind me, the gruelling climbs now seem well worth the effort. Still...

Both the first two days ended completely bonked and within a thousand or so vertical meters of a mountain pass. Had I managed to clear the first of these, I'd have probably been able to clear the second on the following day and make Laiyuan in two days. The first failure ended nicely enough in an orchard with pleasant conversation, a crisp night and a full sleep. The second ended at a 'fandian,' a small hotel, which is a rather auspicious title to offer a three room, dirt-floored road-side house for an extended family of a dozen or so. Six beds in two adjoining rooms and a kitchen in the third. A television playing Baywatch dubbed in Mandarin. No telephone. The place served me a marvellously tasty dinner of stir-fried vegetables, tomato and egg soup, steamed bread, small fowl eggs (hard boiled) and a little mystery sausage. Good thing too. I was completely exhausted, absolutely famished.

It was a beautiful evening with the sun setting over ragged mountains above and the village clinging to the steep valley dropping away below. As villagers came down from the terraced fields above they'd stop in at the Fandian to make conversation and ogle the laowai (foreigner). Six young children played with disks folded from cardboard, or just watched the silly laowai attempt conversation with the other adults through the limited means of a mandarin phrasebook. A grand recharge after an arduous day, I relaxed outside and watched the sun sink below the mountain ridge, just behind the mountain pass I couldn't make that day.

When the dusk deepened, the family made their way back to the village and, presumably, other accommodations. All except for one male whose relation to the family I never did figure out, and the only family member who rankled my intuition.

He made a pass at me. And a single rebuff was not enough to put him off.

Had that been the end of it...but it wasn't.

Turns out 'fandian' in this particular instance meant 'roadhouse' and through the night people would drop in to watch television and chat, and when I finally (and emphatically) got across the idea of actually sleeping there were a couple additional guests snoring in other beds. I'd have slept better camping.

In the morning the young head of the family returned and tried to charge me 200RMB for dinner and the bed. (I paid 116RMB/night for a single room with private bath in Beijing.) Managed to escape for a ridiculous 100RMB after explaining about the additional guests who'd already left. Knowing how disruptive homosexuality is to a family in China, and how difficult it would be to communicate the night's events anyway, I didn't bring up the other events, though I was sorely tempted when the fellow who'd made my night so miserable made a last ditch effort to bargain the price up to 150RMB. I glared again, slapped down the 100RMB note and left.

Despite this exceptionally sour note, the trip through the mountain range was gorgeous. The most beautiful countryside I've yet seen in China. Villages set picturesquely and harmoniously in the rugged and ragged mountain valleys. Well worth all the effort, even if my legs continue to burn with the memory.

It's not all downhill from here to Taiyuan, but for the majority of the distance Highway 108 follows a river valley flowing past the city. This will probably mean a lot more towns like Laiyuan with all their white tile and construction. I'll miss the villages and the mountains. But now it's time to push off...

~~~ Responses Sought ~~~
The ancient Masters were profound and subtle.
Their wisdom was unfathomable.
There is no way to describe it;
all we can describe is their appearance.

They were careful
as someone crossing an iced-over stream.
Alert as a warrior in enemy territory.
Courteous as a guest.
Fluid as melting ice.
Shapable as a block of wood.
Receptive as a valley.
Clear as a glass of water.

Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?

The Master doesn't seek fulfillment.
Not seeking, not expecting,
she is present, and can welcome all things.
  graphical element Attributed to Lao Tse
The Tao Te Ching
Chapter 15
trans. Stephen Mitchell