Friday, October 30, 2009

Xungang, China

[10/30/09. Posted by JP for GC. China blocks blogs.]

Friends: I'm closing in on Xian and Julie-Ann, about 150 miles to the north. We are now in the same province, Shaanxi, the fourth of China's 22 I have traveled through, along with  Guangdong, Hunan and Hubei. The province of Inner Mongolia lies to the north and beyond that Mongolia. They'll have to wait for another trip as from Xian I'll be heading east for the first time towards highway 107 to meet up with Stephen and then on to Beijing.

Julie-Ann has to fly to Hong Kong this weekend for business, so I will time my arrival for Sunday afternoon. It is a three-hour flight from Xian to Hong Kong, or a three-week 1,600 mile bike ride. Julie-Ann returns around seven p.m. We will meet at a hotel five minutes from her apartment. I can't wait.

I have visited many friends over the years in distant lands--Thailand, Australia, Bolivia, South Africa, Ecuador, France, Italy, Israel--but never have I so looked forward to meeting up with an old friend in their home, or adopted, country, not that any of the others were lesser friends, just that it will be particularly exhilarating to have a safe haven with a long-time friend after having faced so many challenges these past weeks.

Its been five years since we last saw each other. I visited her in Manhattan just before she left the U.S. to return to her home in Malaysia to work for a travel agency. She had been working for Empire Pictures in New York, a film distributor, when her U.S. work visa expired. We met in Chicago five years before that when we were both volunteering for Chicago's International Film Festival. Julie-Ann was a film major at Columbia college. A couple years later after she served an internship in LA, when she returned to Chicago she didn't have a place to stay. I had a spare bedroom in my apartment so we were roommates her final fall quarter in Chicago.

Since she left the U.S. she has worked in Bangkok for a year and the past three years in China in three different cities. Although we talk and email, we have much to catch up on, and she has much to explain to me about what I have experienced here in China.

Initially I thought I'd be approaching Xian from the east on highway 312, but I missed a turn leaving Fan Xian two days ago. Rather than proceeding on the more significant highway 209, I ended up on a lesser highway, 301. It still led to Xian, but via a more complicated route into a more isolated region that could possibly take me into another Forbidden Zone. When I see a police car or officer now, I suffer a slight heart palpitation, though nothing like the near paralysis I felt in South Africa when I'd see sinister characters ahead on the road in the days after my assault there.

I thought I was in trouble yesterday when a police car pulled over after it passed me and four officers hopped out of the car. But they all held cameras, including one with a video camera, and they just wanted to take my picture as I passed. Cell phones with cameras are a common accessory here. I felt like a Tour de France stage winner when eight or nine truck drivers, who were having their trucks filled with gravel, surrounded me at small restaurant and snapped away. One even grabbed me by the arm, urging me to stand up, so he could include a sign in the background with the photo.

I continue to be accorded exceptional gestures of generosity and hospitality to a degree beyond anything I've experienced. Not a day passes that I'm not given a gift of some sort. Usually its food, but a couple of days ago a police officer gave me a pen when he noticed the Bic I pulled out of my pocket to jot a note was a bit battered.

With every patch of land seemingly occupied by a residence or a business or under cultivation, it hasn't been easy to find a place to stop and take a mid-morning or mid-afternoon break along the road or in a town between meals. Urban parks or open spaces are almost non-existent. I most often simply plop down at a gas station after using their toilet and wash basin. I don't dare linger anywhere near their toilets though as their stench can be staggering. As Lonely Planet says, few public toilets in China have been cleaned since the Tang Dynasty. The toilets are all of the squat variety, with an occasional urinal.

Yesterday morning I welcomed a gated facility in a quiet rural area that appeared to be deserted.  It seemed a pleasant spot to take a break where I didn't have to worry about being interrupted. I sat back against its roadside wall and nibbled on some food and read my book. About ten minutes after I plopped down two motorcycles bearing four women pulled up to the gate interrupting my peace. One of the women buoyantly bounded over to me, pointed at my water bottle and gestured for me to follow her inside so she could fill it.

She had that typical, unabashed Chinese curious nature and peered closer to look at what I was eating. It was spongy flour balls, bigger than a golf ball, but smaller than a baseball, cheap market food I had bought that morning after my breakfast of noodles. She gave my food a look of disapproval and then made a scooping gesture towards her mouth, implying if I followed her she could offer me better food than that. All day I'm playing charades with the locals.

The women were all wearing neon-orange safety vests. They were members of a road crew and this was their base. They were returning for lunch. My lead benefactor went into the building and returned with a pot, which she filled at an outdoor faucet. Five minutes later she filled my water bottles with boiling water, a favor I'm often granted at cafes.

Two more motorcycles pulled into the grounds, one with two more women and the other with a guy. The other women were outside washing and cutting an array of vegetables. They were preparing lunch from scratch. When I realized it would be a while, I took the opportunity to work on my bike. My double-pronged kickstand had loosened up a couple days ago. I had been unable to tighten it, as the threads had become clogged with muck. It was more than a simple operation, so I had delayed tending to it, simply tying the kickstand in place so it wouldn't swing into my rear wheel. I was able to thoroughly clean it and the rest of my bike. I discovered a woefully loose spoke on my rear wheel, though it hadn't effected its trueness. While I worked, the guy watched attentively and kept a cup of hot water filled for me.

When I finished my chores he drew a picture of a Chinese flag, indicating he wanted me to draw mine. I drew the stars and stripes and then pulled out my Chinese atlas that included a world map so I could point out the US. That brought all the women for a look. I still had a brochure from Mao's birthplace that I shared as well. One of the woman wrote the numbers 30 and 40 and 50 on a piece of paper and then pointed at me. I guessed she wanted to know my age. I wrote down 58 and then pointed at her. She wrote 38. I showed them The Reader story and pointed at the number 55 in it, my age when that story was published.

The only English any of them spoke the whole time was mid-way through lunch when one of the women rattled off a quick "a-b-c-d-e-f-g" to the amusement of all, including me. Eight of us sat on stools at a round table just big enough to accommodate us all. In front of each of us was a small heaping bowl of rice. In the middle of the table were four large bowls of freshly prepared vegetables. One had strips of chicken. The two women beside me took turns topping my bowl of rice with items from the bowls, almost faster than I could keep up.

Everyone held their bowl of rice in one hand and chopsticks in the other, diving into those four bowls in the middle. It was an eating frenzy that left me way behind. Everyone else retreated to the kitchen for a second bowl of rice, while I barely finished my own in the fifteen or twenty minutes of our feast. Needless to say, it was my best meal of the trip. I knew I couldn't possibly have a more authentic Chinese eating experience than this.

When I asked to take a group photo afterward, they all proudly put their orange vests and orange hats on for the photo.

Later, George

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Fun Xian, China

[10/28/09. Posted by JP for GC. China blocks blogs.]

Friends: Day twenty in China and I have yet to need my sun glasses or sun block, as there is such a continual haze of dust and smoke and pollution clouding the air from all the industry and construction, that even on clear days, the sun's rays are blunted.

The entire country is a construction zone with buildings going up everywhere and roads being widened or repaved or freshly laid out. Rivers are being plundered of gravel. The sound of gravel being dumped into trucks is even more ubiquitous than fireworks going off.

Brick factories abound. Passing through even small towns I see bags of cement stacked high outside of stores for sale. It is no surprise that China is presently responsible for fifty per cent of the planet's annual consumption of concrete. Even in rural areas of minimal traffic, first-rate pavement is being laid.

I'm generally on the road by seven a.m., trying to maximize the dwindling daylight, now down to less than twelve hours a day, and also to evacuate my campsite before someone stumbles upon it. I am far from being an early bird though. Most stores in towns large and small are already open and the streets are thick with people bustling about.

As night closes in around six the industriousness of the populace hasn't slackened. Banks and all other businesses are still open. Road crews are still laboring away and people in the fields just beginning to call it quits. Only in the last fifteen minutes before dark does traffic thin enough that I can duck off into a wild patch to camp with relative confidence that I haven't been spotted.

I've had to scratch and claw and be creative and rely on all my years of expertise and ingenuity in wild camping to find places to camp here when none seem likely, often having to strip my bike of its gear and make three trips with it and my bike to reach some hidden nook across a gully or up a steep embankment or through thick brush that leaves my bare legs bleeding. Darkness has been my best friend in securing a place that would otherwise be visible in daylight.

There are no forests other than on on steep hillsides. Most of the fruit orchards are a small cluster of trees sandwiched between homes. There are no open, unsettled places beyond the towns and cities, just small land holdings. Even on my 125-mile stretch through the mountains on a road I had virtually to myself, all was settled and being farmed and I had to wait until dark to camp. But I know a place to pitch my tent awaits me, though not always what I'd prefer or as easy to come by as in every other country I have traveled other than Ecuador, another country of mostly small land holdings. There have been occasions when I would have liked to have quit a little early, but that is rarely feasible here.

I had the opportunity again last night to stay in a hotel when with half an hour before dark I suffered the rare occurrence of throwing the chain off my front chain rings with a sloppy shift as I reached the summit of a climb. Usually when the chain comes off it is when I'm shifting from a larger ring to the smallest. This was the first time it had happened on this trip when I was going in the opposite direction, and I do not know why.

It happened right in front of a hotel, though I didn't recognize it as a hotel. It was only when one of the people lingering in the parking lot who descended on me put his hands together as if in prayer and then placed them beside his tilted head indicating sleep while pointing at the building did I realize what it was. Moments later a woman said "100 yuan."

Since I'd paid forty the night before and the young man who chased me down on his bike a few days ago and wrote out hotel for me said I could generally find hotels for thirty yuan, I countered with thirty. The Lonely Planet guide book emphasizes over and over the need to bargain and haggle hard when it comes to staying at hotels other than the most basic and bare bones. The woman didn't react to my thirty, so I wrote it out for her. At that she shook her head.

Then I bent to put the chain back in place. When I stood up the woman tapped me on the shoulder and held up all five digits on one hand and made a zero with her other. If I hadn't stayed in a hotel the night before I would have countered with forty and accepted whatever the verdict was. She shook her head, so on I went. When I turned a bend and saw a sprawling city with skyscrapers I feared I might have made a mistake and was ignoring those unexplained forces that look out for my interests and come to my rescue when my predicament seems dire. Perhaps they were responsible for the unlikely throwing of my chain in front of that hotel. Or then again it might have been their opposite trying to tempt me.

I trusted my instincts and sped on, taking joy in floating along on my bike through another Chinese urban maelstrom, while keeping the faith that I'd find a place to camp and be happy about it. It took me fifteen minutes to get through this city and another ten minutes before I spotted some open space that I might retreat to. There was a cluster of trees up against the wall of a building on one side of the road that was a possibility or I could try the opposite side of the road up an embankment towards some orange trees. Since there was a truck stalled in the road near the trees that could attract people, I hoped the embankment worked out. I climbed up to scout it out and discovered a nice little ledge that I could set up my tent on that wasn't visible to passing traffic. It was one of the flattest sites I'd had, sparing me the worry of knocking over my cup of noodles while I waited for the cold water to soften them up. It was another great night in the tent.

Later, George

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

40 miles east of Shiyan on route 316

Friends: I felt no alarm, nor even surprise, when a couple of police officers standing along the road, on the outskirts of a small town in the mountains, motioned for me to stop. I was more surprised that it hadn't happened before in the 1,200 miles of China I had cycled so far. I had fully expected to encounter an occasional officer or police checkpoint requiring a look at my passport. That was common in the not too distant past, but not any more.

I had been the one approaching police officers and going into police stations to ask for directions. Not once had any had of them asked to see my passport nor been overly inquisitive about where I was going or what I was doing.  None had been less than genial and helpful, such as the officer who led me to an Internet cafe and paid for it. These officers too seemed perfectly amiable, without a hint of hostility. They were stationed at a distant outpost and just seemed to be performing a perfunctory duty, more out of curiosity and boredom than anything else. In times past anyone traveling in rural China had to regularly check in at police stations. That era of fear and suspicion of outsiders seemed to be long gone.

I was a little concerned though that a glance at my passport wasn't enough to let me be on my way. Instead, the officers gestured for me to follow them over to their police station across the street. I presumed it was simply an excuse for them to be hospitable and to take advantage of this rare occasion when a foreigner passed through their town to get to know him a little. They took me into an office and let me sit on a couch while they repeatedly paged through my well-stamped passport, not seeming to find what they were looking for, even though my Chinese visa filled an entire page. Perhaps the extra pages I had added in South Africa earlier in the year had them befuddled, as they probably hadn't seen such a fat and filled passport before.

While I sat and they paged, an officer brought me a cup of hot water in one of those flimsy ultra-thin plastic cups that most of the restaurants use. Soon after a young man not in uniform bustled into the room and announced, "Hello, I'm here to help you. You have entered a Forbidden Area. Where are you headed?"

"I'm visiting a friend in Xian who works there. I have her phone number if you'd like to call her."

"Yes we would."

I went out to my bike to dig up Julie-Ann's phone number, but when they called it they couldn't get through. I told them I had a number of another Chinese friend in Guangzhou. They tried that as well, but said that number wasn't connecting either.

I brought my map back with me from the bike and showed them the route I had already come and wondered if I had been through any other Forbidden Areas. Like many who have taken a look at my maps, the officers and the young man, the local English teacher, studiously, with an almost fiendish curiosity, examined the map as if they had rarely seen such a thing. They said I hadn't passed through any other restricted areas, not even the 125 mile stretch I had just biked through the mountains where there had been virtually no traffic.

I traced my intended route for them and asked what alternative I could take. They said I could still pass through Shiyan, about eighty miles away, but that I would have to backtrack some twenty miles and swing up around towards it. In my atlas I have a copy of the story The Reader did on me a few years ago and showed them that. That occupied their attention for several minutes as the English teacher translated some of it for them. I was hoping that might generate some goodwill, and they might relent and let me continue on this road to the town of Fang, thirty miles away, and then turn north to Shiyan, another fifty miles. But they were unbending. I asked if it was possible to take a bus, or if maybe they would give me a lift. There were half a dozen officers in on this. Surely one of them could spare some time. But they wouldn't even consider it. There were things in this region not for my eyes.

After having failed to connect with Julie-Ann and May, I asked if I might try contacting them via email. They agreed to that and led me into another room, where they turned on the computer. I emailed both immediately. The officers let me peruse my email while we waited for a response. I searched out the email from Julie-Ann with her phone number on, but when I reached it the body of the message was blank. That was the case with other older emails as well. I feared the Chinese Internet police had infiltrated my yahoo account and had begun censoring. I couldn't imagine they'd find anything to censor, but I couldn't be sure. Maybe they were busy deleting anything I'd written about China.

The English teacher asked if I was hungry. I actually was. A few minutes later a woman brought me a bowl of fried rice, which I ate while tinkering further on line, but to no avail. At this point I was resolved to having to double back and take the alternate route. It was strange though that none of the handful of people I had asked directions from yesterday towards Fang waved me off and pointed out the other route. I asked the English teacher why the stretch ahead was forbidden. He said he was forbidden to say.

When I said I was ready to go, they said I couldn't bike back, that I would have to take a bus. I didn't particularly care to do that, even though it was a somewhat demanding up and down route, but through a most beautiful gorge. They said it would be no more than half an hour wait until the next bus and that it would take me all the way to Danjangkou, about a three hour bus trip. I didn't wish to go that far, especially since it took me out of my way, but they said I had to go to this larger city and check in with the police there.

While we waited for the bus a crowd gathered outside the police station to catch a glimpse of the foreigner. The English teacher said none of them had seen a foreigner before. He had gone to school in the large city of Wuhan and had some foreign friends there. He returned to teach in this small town as it is where he had grown up and where his parents lived. He said he played a lot of scrabble at college, but he had no one to play it with here.

He told me if I had any problems in my travels to dial 110. "Its like your 9-1-1," he said.

"How did you know about 9-1-1?" I asked.

"I learned it from the TV show 'Heroes.' Its my favorite show. I learn a lot about America from it."

When the bus showed up, the bus driver had no choice but to let me put my bike in the rear hatch, which was barely big enough to hold my bike and my duffel stuffed with my panniers and tent and sleeping bag. The bus was less than half full, and fortunately no one was smoking, though a couple of men had cigarettes stuck behind their ears, a common site here, ready to light up when the need struck.

An hour-and-a-half later we stopped at a large city. I asked the driver which one it was on the map. It was one city before the intersection to Shiyan, well before the city I was being taken to. I hoped the driver would let me off at the earlier city. I bought three hard-boiled eggs at the station. When I opened my wallet to pay for it, the driver's assistant looked closely and noticed some American bills. She wanted a closer look. I showed her a one. When I returned to the bus she came back to me and held out a five yuan note wanting to trade it for the one. It was two yuans short, but I let her have it.

That favor may have earned me some goodwill, as I was not charged for the bus ride and my escort let me off earlier than the distant town I thought I was being taken to. When we came to the town at the intersection to Shiyan, we stopped at the police station. It was lunch time and no one was at the station.  My escort pulled out his phone and made a couple of calls. Several minutes later an officer showed up. He didn't seem interested in me. While the bus waited, I kept hinting that I'd like my bike and gear. We went to a second police station in the city, but no one was there either. My escort decided to relinquish me and my gear, though I was on my honor to wait and check in with the police before I continued. It was 1:30. I was willing to sit around until two.

The rest I was getting was much needed as I'd had my worst night's sleep the night before, the first time I had stayed in a hotel. A deranged rooster outside my window crowed at the moon all night long. I opted for the hotel as the gorge I was bicycling through showed no signs of camping possibilities. When I came to a small city fifteen minutes before dark a young man on a motorcycle pulled up alongside me and said, "Hello. Where are you going?"

I stopped to show him my map, but more to ask him if there was a hotel in this town. If there was, I knew it would not be some over-priced luxury hotel. He said there was one a little ways back and he would take me there. It was a wise decision not to camp, as it was a two mile climb out of the town, that I wouldn't have finished until after dark. If my instincts hadn't led me to a hotel I could well have had to ask someone for the first time if I could set up my tent on their property.

Though I didn't get much sleep, I got my first shower of the trip and was able to sort through my panniers and do some house-cleaning. I had to use the small mirror I brought along to trim my beard as there wasn't one in my room or the toilet down the hall or in the locked shower room on the floor below. The only amenities were a pair of slippers and a large thermos of boiling water, so well insulated the water was still hot in the morning.

As I sat waiting for the police to return from lunch I finished off my hard-boiled eggs and some tofu I had bought in the market the day before. At five minutes before my deadline, two officers pulled up in a squad car. I had my map and passport ready for them. They weren't interested in my passport at all. I told them I was going to Shiyan, and they just warmly pointed the direction, thinking that I was simply asking the way.

So I've had my encounter with Chinese officialdom, as inevitable I presume as being robbed in South Africa or having the Israeli military find my wild campsite while camping in the Golan Heights.

Later, George


--- On Mon, 10/26/09, george christensen wrote:

From: george christensen
Subject: halted
To: "Julie-Anne Chong"
Date: Monday, October 26, 2009, 8:18 PM

JA: I'm at a police station in some small town 50 kilometers east of Fang in Hubei Province. I'm told I can't continue as I've stumbled into a Forbidden Zone. We tried calling you at 150 9144-3317 but couldn't get through. Is that the correct number? The police want you to verify that I'm coming to visit you in Xian.

Hope you're on line, g

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Some nameless town on route 223 heading north from Yichang

[10/25/09. Posted by JP for GC. China blocks blogs.]

Friends: For the second time in these travels I was the lone Westerner among battalions of Chinese tourists at one of the country's prized national shrines. This time it was at the Three Gorges Dam, the largest in the world, completed just three years ago.

It is more than a mile-and-a-quarter long and over 600 feet high, blocking the Yangzi, the world's third largest river, nearly 4,000 miles long.  Only the Nile and the Amazon exceed it, though it ranks only behind the Amazon for volume of water it transports. It starts on the Tibetan plateau and concludes in Shanghai.  It effectively divides China in half, north from south.  Few bridges span the river.

It was a strenuous 25-mile ride to the dam from Yichang, a city of four million, up over a 2,000 foot canyon wall and through a series of unlit tunnels. The latter half of the ride was along the river and its continual stream of barges, carrying some 70% of China's shipping. The quantity and variety of vessels was almost unimaginable.  It was an incomparable, otherworldly experience--the natural beauty of the setting with the river framed by cliff walls along this stretch contrasting with the great bustle of cargo carrying vessels. Though there were gorges all along the way, the dam's Three Gorges namesake are upriver from the dam, getting slightly filled with water.
The highway along the Yangzi came to a dead end at the dam, something I did not expect. The entrance to the dam was guarded by several soldiers who informed me that entry was only allowed by tour bus. Two passed while we talked. The guards halted both hoping to find an English speaking guide who could better explain the situation than they could. The second had a guide who spoke enough English to let me know I had to backtrack a kilometer, then turn down a road to find the tour bus depot.  The turn I was looking for wasn't marked, so I missed it again. But I came upon a convention center with displays of the dam where I received better directions.

The bus tours were a huge operation, with a bus departing every five minutes. There was a room to deposit bags that was large enough to accommodate my bike. What we brought with had to pass through a metal detector. Neither my Swiss Army knife or tire irons raised the concerns of the guards.

A guide chattered away in Chinese the ten minutes to the dam. At least the signs and plaques at the dam sites were in English along with Chinese. There were three different stops on the two-hour tour. The first was a high overlook peering down at the dam on one side and the series of five locks on another. It takes 45 minutes for a ship to clear the locks, dropping 500 feet. Various sculptures and monuments and a pool full of carp and gold fish dotted the overlook park. A large souvenir shop contained a replica of the dam. Another guide at the location gave a lecture, banding about a pointer, every half hour.

We could linger as long as we wished, taking any subsequent tour bus.  The second stop was right at the dam.  It was the only stop with souvenir sales people, some highly aggressive. The final stop was at the River Closure Memorial Park on the other side of the river, looking up at the dam. We crossed one of the few bridges that span the Yangzi. It had guards at either side and a "No bicycles" sign, bad news for me, as that was to be my route.

A plaque at the entry to the sprawling park said the dam was "envisaged by Mao Zedong" and "demonstrated the capability, wisdom and resolution of the Chinese people to harness rivers." It went on to say that the park represented "the jubilance, courageous and painstaking endeavors of the river closure." It said it achieved three purposes--flood control, power generation and navigation improvement. No mention of or monument to the sacrifice of the million people who had been displaced nor the roads swallowed up that I could have followed along the 300 mile lake that has been formed behind the dam.

Despite the swarms of photo-snapping tourists I had no difficulty gazing upon the dam from our three different vantages, as I stand a head taller than the majority of the Chinese. Most are as slight as I am. Bulging waist lines are a rare site and obesity virtually nonexistent. It is a refreshing site. Anyone taking the tour had to be of some affluence as a ticket cost 105 yuan, about $15, or a week and a half pay for those semi-indentured factory workers who earn $500 for a year's labor. Since a meal can be had for three yuan and my daily expenses rarely exceed twenty yuan, it was a hefty ticket, more than a half week's expenses.

As I biked to the dam, not realizing how demanding of a ride it would be, not only steep, but on some rough unpaved stretches, I knew in the back of my mind that there was a possibility I would have to double back on it. I consulted with a police officer hoping there might be some road that my map didn't show. There wasn't. I could have tried for a ride across the bridge, but then I'd have the difficulty of recrossing the Yangzi later, plus the officer did not recommend the road beyond the bridge.

As I biked the 25 miles back over the rough road I had hoped to never see again, I felt further dread, knowing how difficult it would most likely be finding the unnumbered secondary road north out of the sprawling city Yichang that I struggled to navigate through getting to the dam.  I knew though that it could be no worse than my first day's nightmare in China trying to change money and finding my way out of Shenzhen.  I'd survived quite a few mini-nightmares since, so this one could not unravel me.  If I had known how demanding the road to the dam was going to be and that I'd have to ride it twice, I might have opted for a bus to the dam from Yichang or a boat, though I no doubt would have regretted giving up my independence and freedom and felt guilty for becoming just another tourist.

Of the dozen or so people I presented my map to when I returned to Yichang hunting for the road north out of the city, all could provide help except for one whose eyesight wasn't good enough to read the small print of my map, not the first time that has happened. One of those I consulted was a young man who spoke English very well. He asked for advice from several other people nearby. One said that a bridge was out on the route I wished to go, though I could still head north on the road I was looking for, I just couldn't turn west as soon as I wished. I was lucky to learn that.

I asked the young man if there was a place to buy one of the two national English newspapers nearby. I have looked for it in every large city I've been in, but hadn't been able to find a copy. He said I could find one at the university a couple miles back. I'd done enough backtracking for the day to care to do that, especially with nightfall less than an hour away.  He said they were very cheap and volunteered to send me a copy to an address where I might be in China in the days to come, more of that amazing Chinese generosity.

I still had to ask seven or eight more people the way when I came to tricky intersections before I was assured I was on the road I wanted and could continue straight. I ended up camping in thick brush well out of the city right at dark, a site that wouldn't have worked any earlier.  The dark provided more of my cover than the vegetation, so I needed to escape at first light.

Now I am in the mountains, limiting my daily average speed to less than ten miles per hour. It is eighty miles of mountainous terrain to Baokang and route 318, a better road. The one I'm on is being repaved, also slowing my progress. I had been hoping to reach Julie-Ann and Xian by next Sunday, about 550 miles away, but I don't know. At least I shouldn't have to worry about asking for directions now that I can stick to the road I'm on for awhile.

Later, George

Friday, October 23, 2009

Zhijang, China

[10/23/09. Posted by JP for GC. China blocks blogs.]

Friends: My cycling guardian angels were on heightened alert trying to help me find the bridge over the mighty Yangzi River to Jingzhou late yesterday afternoon. For half an hour or more I must have been causing them no end of amusement and consternation as I circled about and doubled back more than once, stopping every few minutes to pore over my map once again, or to ask someone else the way.

I could see the huge, majestic, mile-long toll bridge that was part of an expressway that prohibited bicyclists a couple miles away. With nothing else in sight and some people seemingly directing me to the bridge, I cycled up under it, straining to see if any cyclists were passing along. Unfortunately not, though it would have been an ordeal to get up on to the bridge, with its entrance a considerable distance away through a residential area.

The narrow byway atop a dike I was cycling didn't get near enough the river for me to look for another bridge and my view of the river was blocked by trees and buildings. How was I to know everyone I asked was directing me to a ferry, the only other way to cross the river. "Ferry" was not a word in my very limited Chinese vocabulary. My map indicated the road I had been following, route 209, continued across the river to the east of the expressway bridge.

I was beginning to think the locals in the area were having some fun with me with their directions, though they didn't seem to be the type, and surely not everyone could be in on it. There was no significant traffic for me to follow. Traffic on highway 209 had died out about eight miles back when it intersected with the expressway. At last I saw a surge of motorcycles come off a narrow path of a road from the river. I turned on to it and just a little ways ahead was a small passenger ferry that could also accommodate the two, but not four-wheeled. From the middle of the wide, wide Mississippi of a river I could see just the lone expressway bridge, the only bridge for miles and miles.

After I crossed the Yangzi it was a steep push up a ramp with four sets of stairs to a fifty-foot high dike that followed the river for miles. This dike had a slightly wider road than the one on the oppostite side of the river. I could proceed into the huge city of Jingzhou and connect with highway 318, my route west, or stick to the dike and see where it led. I decided to go with the leisurely cycling on the dike.

I passed the first Buddhist Monastery I have seen in China. If it had been a little later, I would have asked for a spot for my tent. But the riding was good and narrow bands of trees had been planted along the dike on both sides that could provide a place to pitch my tent once the light began to wane. After half an hour the traffic thinned considerably, but there was still enough that I couldn't make a bolt for the trees without being seen.

By six I had the road to my self and could dart for the trees when I came upon a thick enough patch. When I saw one ahead, a shepherd with a flock of sheep was passing in front of it. Fortunately they were heading towards me and had already passed the forest I had designs on. It was a forest of pines with thick foliage providing plenty of shelter from straying eyes. This was easily going to be my best campsite of the trip, the most distant from a highway and the quietest by far. I was congratulating myself for pushing on and not taking the seemingly easy way out, looking for a hotel in Jingzhou, an option I barely considered.

This more than compensated for my earlier exasperation trying to find my way across the Yangzi.  When I couldn't find a bridge permitting bicyclists I was on the verge of giving up and simply following the dike on the southern side of the river until I came to another bridge, maybe fifty miles or more further, with the likelihood that there too bicycles would not be permitted.

The next morning I continued on the dike for several more miles before heading down a rare paved path into a town where I picked up a couple of greasy flour pancakes with a spicy sauce from a sidewalk vendor, then proceeded for another ten miles on pretty much of a bikeway until it intersected with the main highway. Those 25 miles from the ferry had been the best 25 miles of these travels and the best camping.

Now to find the dam.

Later, George

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Lixian, China

[10/21/09. Posted by JP for GC. China blocks blogs.]

Friends: The Chinese love fireworks. They are one of the ubiquitous sounds of China. As their inventors, the Chinese are as devoted to them as Americans are to baseball, mom and apple pie.

People seem to set them off on any whim or for any occasion. I've gone to sleep with their sound in the distance and have been woken by them in the morning. I'll be enjoying a nice quiet bowl of noodles at a restaurant when a barrage of noise and smoke will suddenly erupt nearby for a minute or two. I've seen them tossed out of buses and trucks, some just randomly and others as part of some procession, funeral or otherwise.

The Chinese are a people of many customs, rituals and superstitions. The number four is avoided, as its similar to death. How one places chopsticks in a bowl has meaning, good and bad. I avoid incurring chopstick ill-fortune by relying on the plastic fork that comes in each ramen-style bowl of noodles I buy in the grocery store for my dinner.

Those forks are the only time I see a utensil other than chopsticks, except on that rare occasion when I'm provided with a porcelain spoon that is more of a scoop than a spoon with a bowl of noodles that is more soup than stew. Occasionally when I decline to use the chopsticks that are placed in my bowl, my waitress will think I'm concerned that they aren't sanitary enough for me and will give me a fresh set in a sealed plastic bag.

Yesterday may have been a propitious day of some sort, as I passed by a series of conflagrations of fireworks, some with a large red inflatable arch in front of a house or business. A couple of the structures were buildings under construction, implying the fireworks were a celebration of some stage of the construction or perhaps an offering seeking good fortune for its continued construction.

At times some of the explosions were so fierce their smoke filled the road, limiting visibility, halting traffic. With rockets blasting skyward, one risked being struck if one misfired and went errant, another reason to wait until all was quiet. Only the brave or foolhardy or well-armored ventured through the smoke, everyone else waiting for it to clear before they proceeded.

For the first time in four days I didn't have to roll up a rain soaked tent this morning. I've been traveling around the southwest perimeter of China's second largest lake. Much of its moisture seems to have been sucked up by the heavy cloud cover and sprinkled back down.

I didn't overly object to the first day of rain. as it was on my ninth day on the road and provided me with the excuse I needed to cut short my riding and give my legs a rest. I was lucky to have been mis-directed out of a city on the back roads route to my next destination rather than via the main direct route, as it made it easier to find a secluded spot to pitch my tent in early-afternoon.

It took several tries to find ground that wasn't already saturated and appeared to be on high enough and solid enough ground not to turn into a lake. The rain actually stopped some time during the night, so I didn't have to take down my tent in the rain. Having set it up in the rain, my sleeping bag absorbed some of the moisture from the tent floor. It is still damp, as is much of my gear.

I'm a week or so from Julie-Ann in Xian. She warned me before I came to bring chap stick and lotion, as it is very arid in her region. I will welcome that.

The rain has somewhat stalled the harvest of rice, or at least its drying. Sections of the road have actually been blocked by the grain spread out to dry, sometimes with chickens pecking away at it.

There have been quite a few vendors of oranges and grapefruit along the road the past day. Many of them set up for days at a time living out of cylindrical tents large enough to have a bed and a television. Some of the tents are only used during the day and left empty at night. They offered a possible camp site for me if I couldn't find one on my own.

For the first time someone stumbled on me just as I was getting ready to take down my tent at 6:30 this morning. It was an older man with a shovel. I had just discovered I had my first flat tire in the 900 miles I have come. When he questioned me, I showed him my flat tire, indicating that is why I was forced to stop there. It was caused by a tiny thread of metal that took some doing to extract with my tweezers.

Next up is the Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest.

Later, George

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Yiyang, China

[10/20/09. Posted by JP for GC. China blocks blogs.]

Friends: It was cool and damp, not even sixty degrees, when I broke camp at 7:15 this morning, one of the few times I've needed my jacket. It remained on for a couple of hours until I began overheating on a long gentle climb.

Moments after I paused to shed my extra layer a young cyclist with longish hair stopped beside me and blurted in rapid-fire English, "I've been chasing you for ten minutes. Sorry, I'm all out of breath, but I wanted to ask you some questions."

My first reaction was shock at such fluency. "Wow, your English is excellent. How did you learn to speak so well."

"Thank you very much. I study very hard and watch a lot of American movies and television."

"Are you still a student?"

"No, I graduated two years ago. I work as an accountant at a factory a little ways back. I was going to work when I saw you. I hope I'm not bothering you?"

"Not at all."

"Can you understand me? My teachers tell me I should speak more slowly."

"You do speak fast, but I can understand you perfectly."

"Oh, that makes me very happy. Where are you from?"


"America! I've never met an American, just a couple of Australians. Their English isn't so easy to understand. Do you know Kobe Bryant?"

"Yes, and Yao Ming too. They're both great players."

"Where in America do you live?"


"The home of Michael Jordan. He was the greatest."

"Do you know Lance Armstrong?"

"Yes he finished third in the Tour de France this year. He won it seven times. He's a great person. My name is Jay, what is yours?"

He wondered where I spent the past night. When I told him I'd camped about 20 miles back he thought that was a dangerous thing to do and told me I could get a hotel for 30 yuan then offered to write out "Where is a cheap hotel" for me in Chinese to make it easier for me. I told him I'd greatly appreciate that. He exuberantly replied, "I am so happy to be able to help you."

We continued chatting about my route and my impressions of China and where else I've traveled and his longing to visit America. When I asked if I could take his picture with his bike he was astounded that I would want his picture, but was delighted. We exchanged email addresses before we parted and went our separate ways. His last words were a final, "I'm so happy."

Never before in my 30 years of traveling the world on my bike have I encountered such non-stop genuine warmth and welcome. The Thais certainly lived up to their reputation of being The Land of Smiles and in Columbia, where bicycle racing rivals soccer as their national sport, I was continually feted, but the Chinese truly seem to go out of their way to be kind and to be of assistance. Again yesterday I was given some food at a grocery store by a person making a delivery there.

The touring cyclist always attracts attention, but here it is of a respectful curiosity. People are drawn to me, but don't linger interminably as in India. The Japanese are known for their politeness. The Chinese I've encountered are close rivals. In my preparatory reading on China I read warning after warning about being wary of scams.

A cyclist who wrote a book about touring in China advised carrying only one water bottle on one's bike, as people would think you didn't need more than one and would ask for your extras. I'm carrying my usual three and have had no such problems. Maybe China's increasing affluence has made them more kindly and giving. My friend Lisa, who traveled and taught English in China a little over a year ago, gave me a set of phrases. One of those was "you cheated me." I asked how often she had to use it. She said maybe twice. But then she was frequenting areas that drew travelers and tourists. So far no complaints from me, other than road signage.

Later, George

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Shaoshan, China

[10/19/09, posted by JP for GC. China blocks blogs.]

Friends: Even on a Monday morning Mao's birthplace was swarming with busloads of tourists and pilgrims.  I was the only foreign devil amongst them and the only one with bare legs in the heavily overcast, 60 degree temperatures. Ten days in China and I have yet to encounter a fellow Westerner.

The only person to have a word with me at the various Mao sites here in Shaoshan was a security guard asking me to lock up my bike elsewhere before I set out for Mao's statue and his home. There was a long line to enter the house where he was born in 1893 and spent his childhood. It was in a tranquil rural setting overlooking a pond and surrounded by rice fields.

Mao was alternately referred to as "Comrade Mao" and "Chairman Mao" on the assorted plaques and maps. There were two tourist offices, but in neither did anyone speak English. There was a ceremony being conducted in front of his twenty-foot statue complete with military guard and groups of marching children. I couldn't find anyone who could tell me if it was a daily event or a special occurrence. Many people approached his statue and bowed. There were quite a few women walking about selling Mao buttons and memorabilia, but they too left me alone. Shops carried a vast array of Mao busts and statutes and framed photos and other trinkets. If I'd been here a couple weeks ago during the celebration of China's 60th anniversary Shaoshan would have truly been mobbed.

I get a look at Mao whenever I spend money as his face graces every bill from one yuan to one hundred. I have yet to encounter a coin. The one yuan bill is worth about fifteen cents. There are actually bills of half and one-tenth that value without Mao. People look closely at any bill over five to make sure its legitimate.

If I hadn't missed a turn coming out of Zhuzhou yesterday I would have arrived at Shaoshan late Sunday afternoon, something I wasn't sure I wanted to do, so I didn't greatly regret the extra twenty miles my mishap cost me. I am in no rush right now. I am happy to be experiencing whatever I am of China. I just regretted having to ride along a muddy bypass beside a major highway being widened with construction work going gung ho even on a Sunday. There is no restraining these Chinese.

Not everyone is busily at work though at all times. I frequently see people playing mahjong in front of small shops. A Chinese friend in Chicago has long promised to teach me the game. If only she had, I could stop and look over the shoulders of those playing and pick up some tips. I occasionally see pool tables, but not a single ping pong table so far.

Later, George

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Zhuzhou, China

Friends: I caught my first glimpse of Chinese television yesterday as I slurped a bowl of noodles in a tiny eating establishment of three tables and no menu. It was the usual local restaurant with a large pot of boiling water out front and several bowls of different types of noodles to choose from. This one was a little different with a frying pan, as well, and eggs. I added two fried eggs to my bowl.

The television was mounted on the wall above me, so I could only catch peeks of some sort of singing competition of young women who all gave the young host of the show a quick peck on the cheek after their performance. My attention was grabbed when I heard the words "Number One." I looked up to see a commercial advertising eye-liner. Fifteen minutes later the commercial was repeated. Those were the first words of English I had heard other than "hello" and "goodbye" and a few others from the friendly motorcycle cop since my afternoon with May in Guangzhou last Sunday.

Its not surprising that "Number One" would be an expression entering the lexicon. China is certainly hurtling into the 21st century bent on becoming number one. I see growth and prosperity all around from the first-rate and ever-improving roads to three-story, substantial homes being erected everywhere. Satellite dishes on homes are not an uncommon site. Internet sites may be restricted such as blogs and facebook and youtube and CNN and BBC and others, but I have not experienced any censorship or harassment in the least. My panniers were not checked when I crossed into China, nor was I obliged to pass them through a metal detector as everyone else had to do with their baggage. It may have been an oversight, as at that moment I was stopped by a Scottish guy who was living in Hong Kong teaching English who had long fancied bicycling around China. We talked for several minutes before an officer ordered us to move along. The Scot guaranteed me that my bike and I would attract plenty of attention in rural China. He was right.

This is my ninth day on the road and I have yet to find a loaf of bread for the peanut butter or soy butter I brought along, just crackers. That's a couple pounds of weight that I'd like to start diminishing. Last night I put a dab of peanut butter on my bites of banana to start making a dent in it. I'm saving the soy butter as that came in a lighter plastic jar, while the peanut butter is in glass.

The soy butter was a gift from fellow touring cyclist and occasional "Reader" contributor Jeff Balch. Jeff rode a Raleigh three-speed coast-to-coast across the US back in the early '80s, a remarkable feat. I think of him and his wife and two young daughters whenever I see laundry hanging out to dry. They do the same to the consternation of their backyard neighbors in Evanston, a lakeside suburb just north of Chicago. His front yard neighbors consider the solar panels on his roof facing them an eyesore. And they all regard Jeff and his wife as crackpots for not owning a car. Such is the world we live in.

Zhuzhou is the largest city I have passed through since Guangzhou. For the first time I was approached by two young people, a 20-year old young woman and a 14-year old boy, wishing to practice their English as I had my morning bowl of noodles. They drew quite a crowd with people asking them to ask me various questions about me and my travels and what I thought of China and its food. As I ate, several people brought me extra food. The young woman worked at a nearby stall in the market, but the boy was free to guide me to this Internet outlet a couple blocks away. He said he couldn't use the Internet because one had to be 18.

It hasn't been easy, but I've succeeded in finding a place to wild camp every night so far. Last night I was sandwiched between some railroad tracks and a new four-lane divided, superhighway under construction. I feared the construction might go on all night, but it halted at nine p.m. Even though some ten million people are on trains at any given moment in China, no trains interrupted my sleep, and only one passed in the early evening and one in the morning as I was taking down my tent. If anyone looked out and saw me, they would have thought I was an apparition.

Later, George

Friday, October 16, 2009

Li Ling, China

[10/16/09. Posted by JP for GC. China blocks blogs.]

Friends: For the first time I found an Internet cafe without having to be led to it. The few I have visited so far had no discernible identifying feature other than a bunch of motorbikes out in front, as they are popular, well-attended places. So that's what I'm on the alert for and it worked here in Li Ling. I have yet to identify a sign on them that I can decipher. They are often in obscure, hole-in-the-wall places, up a flight of stairs with no sign at all. One had a cave-like entrance into a hovel of a place that might have been a former opium den.

Since Internet use doesn't have the full approval of the government, with up to ten per cent of sites blocked, Internet outlets may have to be slightly discreet. Even in countries with a written script unfamiliar to my Western eye, as in Japan and Thailand, I could at least peer through windows or open doors for computers. That hasn't been possible here. Searching out the Internet has always been a good way to explore a city, wandering and looking. China has given me an extra opportunity at that.

Slowly, but surely, I am getting a handle on things here. But it has taken much longer than anywhere else I've been, even Japan, where I was likewise initially utterly clueless. Though I have a selection of phrases I try on people, rarely do I get the intonations right and for the first time ever I've had to pull out my guide book or map and point at words or places I want to go. But people are very patient and inordinately helpful. My eye is becoming slightly accustomed to Chinese characters, as all too frequently I'll have to compare the calligraphy of a city on a road sign to that on my map when neither are accompanied by an English version.

Men are continually offering me cigarettes. That's a first. Ordinarily in a country where I'm getting by on five dollars or less a day, people are asking me for cigarettes. When the weather cools, and I need fewer cold drinks, my expenses will be even lower. A hearty bowl of noodles goes for forty cents. That's been the basis of my diet. As I sit and read, people come over to peer at my book and will pick it up for closer examination when I pause for a bite. For most it is the first time they have seen such writing. Several times I've had people assume that since I was reading I could also read Chinese, even though it is clear I don't speak it. They'll write a string of Chinese characters on a piece of paper and slip it to me.

If I had any doubts about the creeping capitalism that is taking over China they were put to rest yesterday when I came upon a huge vinyl billboard on the side of a building featuring a sexy young woman laying on a floor in a seductive pose and the words "Elegant living, baroque floors." Not so long ago all the billboards would have been of an idealistic, propagandist nature such as I saw in Cuba, most with a picture of Che.

I knew all the billboards I've seen of Yao holding up a can of a soft drink or some other product weren't likely him advising kids to "work hard and sacrifice and obey your parents," but none of his had any English or were as blatantly commercial as this one with the woman. It was as slick a billboard as those I'm accustomed to seeing at Cannes promoting the latest George Clooney movie. At least the woman was Chinese and not a blond. A rival flooring company has gone Western, adopting Mona Lisa to push their product--tiles. This is hardly communism as Mao envisioned it. During the Cultural Revolution he was even trying to do away with money. Now the Chinese are using sex to sell and aspiring to "elegant living." Horrors.

Later, George

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Yanling, China

[10/15/09. Posted by JP for GC. China blocks blogs.]

Friends: As choked as urban China is by the automobile, rural China has been blessedly bereft of traffic of any sort. So much so that when I missed a detour sign (if there was such a thing, and how was I supposed to recognize it if there was) it did not alarm me that I hadn't seen another vehicle for ten or fifteen minutes. My concerns were finally triggered when I realized there hadn't been a kilometer marker in a while. I had gone off on a recently paved spur not yet open to traffic to the main highway 106 that goes all the way to Beijing.

Those kilometer posts had saved me once before when I took the wrong fork in the road. After a mile I noticed a different road number on a kilometer post than the road I wanted to be on. Numerals on the kilometer posts that are familiar to my Western eye are one of the rare places they are seen. Road signs rarely give the highway number, just towns along the way, sometimes in English and sometimes not. I guessed wrong at the fork, but fortunately only went one mile out of my way before catching my mistake.

As I bicycled the unopened spur, I was nervous that it might not go through. It did, though the last stretch hadn't been fully paved and I had some off road cycling to endure. I suffered similar anxiety yesterday when I went around a makeshift gate across a road.  I was hoping it was an improvised version of a toll gate for motorized vehicles, as a guy was sitting beside it in a chair. He didn't react to me as I approached, so I just swung around him.  When only two vehicles passed me in the next hour, who appeared to be locals not going too far, I feared the gate might have been a blockade with road construction or a landslide or a down bridge blocking the road ahead. It was at the start of a seven-mile climb to 4,500 feet, the highest point I have been so far. The lack of traffic at least made it easy for me to stop and take a mini-shower under a slight spring spouting out of the cliff wall. I also put my water filter to use for the first time.  And the road did go through.

The price of bottled water has skyrocketed in these smaller villages, and only comes in small 600 ml bottles rather than the bargain-priced liter-and-a-half bottles that had been available previously. There's not much food on offer either in the small village stores. I had been relying on grocery store ramen style noodles as I had in Japan for my nightly meal in my tent, unless I was lucky enough to pick up a genuine bowl of noodles from a small restaurant towards the end of the day to put in my Tupperware bowl for tent dining. But it has been rare to find such ramen noodles lately. I have learned that I must stock up when I can. During this stretch of 54 miles between significant towns my lunch and dinner consisted of a liter-and-a-half bottle of some sort of dairy drink called Nutri-Express with some cheerios I had brought with me. The only other English on the bottle was "15 nutritional elements."

The people remain remarkably friendly and helpful. A police officer on a motorcycle escorted me to this Internet outlet and told me I didn't have to pay. He is the first person I have met in five days who spoke more English than hello or goodbye, though not much more. I have yet to encounter anyone who wants to practice their English on me. All reports were that would be a common occurrence. That may be the case on the tourist trail, but I am far from that. People are plenty curious to give me and my bike a look when I stop in villages, but they are respectful and don't linger interminably as in India. The people wear a look of general contentment. They don't seem downtrodden or burdened with concerns as is all too common in impoverished, third-world countries.

I am the one with worries, not knowing what the road is like ahead, how mountainous it will be or how far to the next town. My maps do not give distances nor show all the towns along the way, even though it is a 100-page atlas with a two-page spread for each province. Highway 106 appeared to be such a prominent road on the map, I initially feared bicycles might not be allowed on it. It goes for 2,500 kilometers from Guangzhou to Beijing. The last kilometer post I passed had the countdown to Beijing at 1,946 kilometers. I will turn off in 200 kilometers and head towards Xian. After Xian I will head back south and pick up highway 107 and try to meet up with a friend on an around the world bike trip who is presently in Laos headed to Beijing. If we're lucky we'll have a couple of weeks of bicycling together.

Later, George

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Rucheng County, China

[10/14/09 posted by JP for GC. China blocks blogs.]

Friends: I had to walk a narrow plank last night in the dark to get to a place to camp. It was across a deep ditch with flowing water. The distance was short enough that I could hop across, but I had to make sure my bike came with me.

As has happened more than once in these travels, I had to keep riding after dark when I was caught by a surprise urban environment. I could have stayed at the bright, neon-lit Friendly Hotel, but its implied luxury was not something I cared to indulge in. There was no adventure or challenge to that. I much prefer roughing it. Would Muir or Abbey have chosen a hotel over camping? I think not.

If I have to stay in a hotel, let it be bare-bones. Maye if the stock market hadn't taken such a tumble these past two-and-a-half years, I would have been feeling affluent enough for such an extravagance. I was still smarting from having to stay at $80 a night AAA or Best Western approved hotels last fall on my Alabama and Mississippi trip at the insistence of my traveling companion, a demand I wasn't anticipating.

I was in a region of rice paddies and sugar cane with low-lying water, limiting my camping possibilities. I had turned back three or four times after scouting out sites that weren't feasible. This plank led to a bamboo forest and didn't seem to be a trail that would attract anyone. I barely have twelve hours of riding time with it light at six and dark by 6:15, so I have been riding right up until dark. I passed up a handful of attractive places to camp in a wooded area on a climb half an hour before dark, remaining faithful to my commitment of biking until dark. As always all has worked out and without regrets.

This morning I had my first prolonged climb, over seven miles up to over 2,000 feet. It was on a stretch that was under construction and just one lane wide. I gave great excitement to all the workers I passed. No one else was bicycling this route. Passing motorists gave me the universal thumbs up too. There was no descent after the climb. I'm up on a plateau and it has cooled off dramatically, enough for me to put on my vest.

This is my fifth day in China and I have seen only one portrait of Mao, in the office of the owner of a thriving gas station. He led me back to his office when I showed him my map and asked directions to the next town. It was a little complicated, so he wanted to draw me a map. He spoke not a word of English, nor could he write numbers that I could understand. He wrote everything in Chinese so I could show people if I needed help. He had a water dispenser in his office. I waved my water bottle at it gesturing that I'd like to fill it. Instead he generously gave me two one pint bottles of water. After I returned to my bike he brought out a chilled one-and-half liter bottle.

A couple days before, while I was waiting for the small passenger-only ferry to cross from the island in Hong Kong where the airport was to the mainland, a guy assisting passengers offered me a cigarette. When I declined, he went off and returned with a chilled bottle of beer. This at seven in the morning. When I stopped in at a small business here in Rucheng to ask where an Internet outlet might be, they offered me their computer. The great hospitality of China does not stop.

This is much more the land of Yao than Mao. I see several billboards a day with the NBA basketball star Yao Ming advertising something or other.

Later, George

Monday, October 12, 2009

150 miles north into China

[10/13/2009. Posted by JP for GC. China blocks blogs.]

Friends: I have no idea what small city I'm in as it is too small to be identified on my map and even if it were, it isn't big enough to be one of the few marked by Romanized lettering as well as Chinese characters. All I know is that I have penetrated 150 miles into China from the coastal city of Guangzhou.

The cycling has turned gloriously carefree on well-paved roads with hardly any traffic. It is a great joy and relief to be pedaling along on a highway that I can stick to for the next three or four days before I turn off to visit Mao's birthplace.

I am on highway 106, a main thoroughfare that was six lanes wide out of Guangzhou for over 70 miles, then narrowed to four lanes and then, 30 miles ago, to just two lanes as the terrain turned semi-mountainous. It had been flat for over 250 miles from Hong Kong through the Pearl River Valley, giving my legs a chance to warm up before the strain of climbing.

I passed a pillar marking the Tropic of Cancer 30 miles north of Guangzhou. The temperatures have been somewhat tropical in the 80s with humidity to match, forcing me to buy a lot of liter-and-half bottles of cold water for 25 cents. There has been a continual haze blunting the sun, so no need for sun block to keep my nose from turning red. There are occasional gas stations with detached toilet facilities and sinks, where I can give myself a soaking. I can't get too eager when I spot a service station in the distance, as quite a few of them are closed down, victims of a recently constructed nearby superhighway that has siphoned off the majority of the traffic from this road.

I have yet to need my sleeping bag, or even my liner, other than to lay on. A shirt is enough to keep me warm as I sleep. I am happy to be heading north to cooler temperatures. I thought it might be cold enough up in my northernmost destination of Xian, just south of the province of Inner Mongolia, to bring my down sleeping bag. My friend Julie-Ann, a former roommate in Chicago, who I am visiting in Xian, emphasized how cold it could be there, another thousand miles or so north.

Even though I started out in the tropics, I never would have guessed it by the vegetation, as there was virtually none to be seen for over 150 miles through the urban concrete jungle of Guangdong Province. Its not much bigger than Illinois, yet has a population of 94 million people, the most of China's 22 provinces, and more than any country in Europe. Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong, is a city of five million. Its sprawl continues for over 100 miles to the equally large metropolis of Guangzhou.

I expected Shenzhen to be a typical border town of shanties feeding off the wealth of Hong Kong. Quite the contrary. It is a thriving prosperous city of futuristic glass skyscrapers. There were banks everywhere, though I couldn't find an ATM machine that would accept either my Visa credit card or Master debit card. I tried 15 or more in two hours. I was feeling most frantic and desperate. I had a small taste of that at the Hong Kong airport, being denied by the first three ATMs I tried. I was resigned to not spending any money in Hong Kong, but then a fourth ATM from Standard Bank at the exit to the airport accepted my debit card. The only money I spent in Hong Kong was for a ferry and a train, neither of which I could have avoided. I don't know how I would have managed if I'd only had US, not Hong Kong, dollars, though, of course, some kindly soul would have eventually come to my rescue, either exchanging US for Hong Kong dollars or covering for me. But I'm glad it didn't come to that.

When I came upon a Standard Bank in Shenzhen I thought I was saved, but like all the rest in Shenzhen, it didn't want to give me money either. I still had the receipt from the airport and went inside to plead my case. No deal. I was prepared to call Julie-Ann, over a thousand miles away up in Xian, for assistance. She had lived in Shenzhen a couple years ago and still had friends here. As a last resort, I decided to return to the huge Bank of China and beg for some mercy. I found some kindness there. They would advance me money on my Visa card, but at a 3% commission. At that point, I wouldn't have hesitated at 50%. I changed more than enough to get me to Xian. But I am spending so little, with a hearty bowl of noodles costing less than 50 cents, I may not have to change money again. I was prepared to get by on $10 a day. It looks as if I might be able to keep my expenses under $5 a day.

With all my attempts at using my two credit cards it raised suspicions with their issuers. My roommate back in Chicago received phone calls from both Visa and Master Card later that day saying they'd noticed irregular use of their card and wondered if it might have been stolen. I rarely use them, so I won't find out for awhile if they've been red-flagged and disabled.

The bicycle is clearly in decline here with the booming economy giving people money to "upgrade" to motorcycles and automobiles. Through the industrial corridor not even one per cent of the traffic was on bicycle. The only gladdening surge of cyclists I have seen came yesterday morning when there was a great rush of cyclists and motorcyclists in a small city on their way to school and work.

The bicycle is in transition here from a vehicle of utility to a vehicle of leisure. A Trek bicycle store just opened in Guangzhou. The young woman who let me use her computer and then unsuccessfully led me around the city for over an hour in search of a better map than what I had, hadn't been on a bike since her student days. She knew about the Trek shop, though she'd never heard of Lance or even The Tour de France.

Almost as many cyclists ride into traffic as with traffic. There is a wide enough shoulder that it isn't too perilous, though it does keep me on alert, especially with scooters coming head on sometimes too in that lane. I have seen only one other person with a helmet, a Kentucky Fried Chicken delivery guy in Guangzhou.

This is the first Internet cafe I have found. I needed to be led to it. I never would have found it on my own. There was no open window or door to peer in to see the row of computers, nor a sign outside that had any meaning to me. It is 30 cents for an hour, less than one-tenth the cost I'm accustomed to paying in Europe. I have no access to my blog here in China, as blogs are deemed dangerous and blocked by the authorities, so I'm back to sending out full-fledged, not so well edited, emails. I'm hoping the friend who set up the blog, Jeff Potter, will be able to post them for me.

Later, George

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Guangzhou, China

[10/11/2009. Posted by JP for GC. China blocks blogs.]

Friends: If the Chinese people weren't so overwhelmingly hospitable, bicycling China would be a nightmare of epic proportions. It has been quite perplexing and frustrating, bordering on the horrific, trying to find my way so far, though I have been kindly assisted by nearly everyone I have turned to, few of whom have spoken a word of English.

My latest benefactor was a young English-speaking woman who saw me huddled over a map with a security guard who spoke no English. She intervened, asking, "Can I help?" After locating where I was on the map in the heart of the monstrous port city Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton, and determining the best way to exit the city, I asked her if there might be a place to use the Internet nearby. She invited me to her l9th floor apartment, just a block away, to use her computer, where I am now. It has been such acts of kindness that have prevented me from unraveling and have kept me going, as I struggle to solve the mysteries of bicycling China.

I have pedaled 120 miles from Hong Kong in a day-and-a-half through a non-stop urban sprawl. There was not a single breath of greenery all the way. Still I have managed to wild camp both my nights here--the first night in a patch of trees not far from the Hong Kong airport and last night in a vacant lot behind an abandoned house in the heart of some big city.

I will be heading north now, hopefully out into rural China. At least I didn't have to dread my approach to the urban sprawl of Guangzhou, as it was just more of the same. I made my way mostly by dead reckoning, using my compass and the sun to guide me, as the road signs are entirely illegible and English-speakers are virtually non-existent. I had to double back several times when I made wrong guesses.

Another of my rescuers was a cyclist who guided me to the Hong Kong/China border. Hong Kong may have been returned to the Chinese, but there is no free passing between it and China. I was told by just about everybody I asked, including the trio of people working at the airport tourist information desk, that I couldn't simply bike into China, but would have to take a train to make the crossing. I doubted any of them had first-hand experience and didn't really know, so rather than seeking out the nearest train station, I biked the 25 miles to the border, the last five with the assistance of the cyclist, a young man with a couple of water bottles on his bike and a cyclometer, out for a morning weekend ride, not particularly caring where he went.

He had never biked into China, but thought I could take a bus across the border. He delivered me to the bus station just before the bridge to the border. There was plenty of room on the bus for my bike, but I was denied entry. The bridge had a no bikes and no pedestrians sign. I might have ignored the sign and attempted it if the bicyclist hadn't been there to take me another two miles to a train station, one stop before the border, the end of the line.

The train deposited me at a full-fledged border-crossing, with forms to fill out and a row of immigration officials checking passports and a metal detector to pass through and a hodgepodge of places to change money from Hong Kong dollars or whatever into Chinese yuan.

Much more to report but I can't ignore May and usurp her computer any longer.

Later, George

Thursday, October 1, 2009

A Tour de France Course Marker for Christian VDV

Its been a long time since I asked anyone for their autograph, not since I was a kid, but when I learned that Tour de France stalwart, fellow Chicagoan Christian Vande Velde, who had finished 4th in The Tour earlier that year, would be attending a customer appreciation night at a local bicycle shop last December, I couldn't resist taking a Tour de France course marker that I had scavenged from The Race route for him to autograph. Those course markers are a hallowed object to anyone who has followed The Tour, as I have done the past six years. His autograph would make it even more hallowed.

But I wasn't so much interested in Christian's autograph as I was to see his reaction to the course-marker. I wondered if Christian would recognize it, as the riders don't need to pay attention to the markers, led as they are by a brigade of motorcycles along a route lined with fans most of the way. The course markers, though, are hard to miss--a black arrow on a day-glow yellow background with the Tour de France logo in a corner. They can be seen from half a mile away.

Christian didn't discernibly light up at the site of the marker, as I always do when I spot one as I'm bicycling the route ahead of the peloton, sometimes the evening before, but he did acknowledge that he was most familiar with what it was and handled it with genuine respect, as if it were a holy relic, as he autographed it. I later regretted that I didn't ask him if he had one himself, wondering if it would be as prized a souvenir to an actual Tour rider as to those of us who follow the route. If he didn't have one, I would love to have the assignment of nabbing one for him.

As luck would have it, I encountered him seven months later in Monaco at The Tour start, as he and his Garmin teammates were setting out on a training ride. They pulled up alongside me as I sat astride my fully loaded bicycle at a stop light. I quickly blurted, "Hey Christian, remember me, you autographed a course marker for me last December."

"I do," he said, "You sure do get around."

"Do you have a course marker yourself? If you don't, I could get you one."

"That would be great," he said. And then the light changed and off they sped.

This was my sixth Tour and at every one I have gathered a handful of markers to share with friends. There are probably a couple hundred of them scattered along each day's route at intersections and round-abouts. They are put up the day before each stage and the Tour fans give them their utmost respect, leaving them in place until the peloton passes. Then they are fair game and disappear fast. They are attached to light poles and road signs with a wire strip that is twisted so tightly that one needs pliers or wire cutters to free them. I generally garner mine out in isolated rural areas where there aren't too many fans. The past couple of years I didn't intend to harvest any more, but when I come upon one that has yet to be plundered, I can't resist, knowing that it will thrill another friend back home. I was happy to know that the next one I found would end up in the hands of Christian.

It wasn't until the third stage that I had the opportunity to nab one of those sacred signs. It was just beyond the town of Les-Baux-de-Provence, about 25 miles before the city of Arles, that I pounced on a marker before any one else. I could have sought out the Garmin team bus and presented it to Christian the next day before the team time trial in Montpellier, but I preferred to wait until we both returned to Chicago when we would be less harried.

A friend who knows Christian's dad conveyed the message that I had a marker for him and would be glad to take it out to his house. I mentioned I was a bicycle messenger, so was accustomed to making deliveries, and that I was also preparing for a two-month bicycle tour of China, so needed to get in some extra training miles. Christian emailed me giving me his address. We arranged to meet when he returned from Interbike in Las Vegas.

It was a fairly strenuous 30-mile ride into the wind through Chicago's southwest side and then through a series of suburbs to the distant suburb of Lemont where Christian grew up and continues to call home. Christian lives in a gated community around a golf course. A security guard called to announce my arrival. It was a few blocks further to Christian's house. When I came around a bend, I spotted him standing in his driveway awaiting me wearing a Garmin baseball hat. He greeted me with a broad grin, as if I were a lifelong friend, and asked, "How was your ride? I hope the wind wasn't too bad."

He led me into his house through his garage, past half a dozen bikes hanging from a wall. I didn't notice any golf clubs. I asked if he'd taken his clubs to Las Vegas. Even though he played on his high school team and has a brother who is quite an accomplished golfer, he said he hardly plays any more. "When I was in high school I spent a lot of time on the course, playing and caddying. I also worked on a crew that planted the trees on this course. It was hard work. My dad said he hoped it would inspire me to get a good job . But I just wanted to be a bike racer."

And that he has, one of the best in the world for the past decade. Not only has he finished in the top ten at the past two Tours, he's one of only two Americans to wear the pink jersey of the leader of the Giro d'Italia and is a two-time Olympian. He hopes for his third in London in 2012. "I'd like to make that my final race," he said. He rode the first of his seven Tours de France as a 22-year old in 1999 as a teammate of Lance, the year Lance won it for the first time.

The sign at the Lemont city limits announced itself as the home of the 2001 state champion high school marching band. I told Christian the sign ought to mention him. If this were France or Italy or Spain or Belgium, it certainly would. He admitted that would be nice, but he also likes being able to go out in public without being recognized, something that isn't so easy to do in Europe where cyclists are superstars and receive tons of attention from the press.

As Christian plopped down the three course markers I had brought, one for him and another for his dad, also a two-time cycling Olympian and his sister, a former Olympic cycling hopeful, he thanked me again for bringing them out. I told him it was a pleasure, that I am happy to spread them around. "This was my sixth Tour," I said, "I always bring back a handful for friends. A couple of friends have them in their office windows in the Loop, and I've given some to my favorite bike shops in the city. I even gave one to the Antler Guy at The Tour this year. He'd never gotten one. I'm sure you know him."

"Yeah. We used to not like him, as he'd only cheer for the Discovery guys, but now he has a Tyler Farrah outfit and cheers for us as well."

"I met him the day he unveiled it this year. He said he and Tyler are fellow Washingtonians."

"I didn't know that. I figured he was from Texas."

"I did too with that Texas longhorn football uniform he wears for Lance. But he's actually from Seattle and works for Boeing. He's a fairly normal guy. When I met him he was out of uniform and I had no idea who he was until he told me."

"He's a pretty tall guy, isn't he?"

"That's right. About 6'2". He's got a long stride so he can keep up with you guys."
As we chatted, Christian hopped up on his kitchen counter, as if he were in training and wanted to take the weight off his legs, even though his season had ended three weeks before when he broke a couple of bones in his hand at the Tour of Missouri, a race he had won the year before. He had ridden the Apple Cider Century, a long-time touring event in Michigan, the day before, and he said the bones were still hurting. "I'm going to have to see the doctor again if they don't feel better soon," he said.

The world championship bike race had taken place the day before in Switzerland, a race Christian has competed in representing the U.S. I asked if he had seen the two-hour coverage of it on the Universal Sports station. He said he missed it since he was in Michigan, but that he had Tivoed it to watch later. He said it must have been a hard race for everyone to be so spent that they couldn't stay with Cadel Evans when he attacked near the race's conclusion.

"You would have been on his wheel, wouldn't you?" I said.

"I would have," he said with a smile.

Christian is known as one of the nicest guys in the peloton. He was certainly proving it. He was in no hurry to get me on my way. We leisurely chatted away as if we were pals of long standing. I was wearing a Bouygues Telecom jersey of one of the French Tour de France teams. It was a souvenir I had gotten near the summit of Mont Ventoux on race day. It was so windy and cold up there that fans were besieging the van that was distributing them, desperate for an extra layer of clothes. Christian commented that he heard the Caisse d'Epargne team had been giving away jerseys as well. I'd gotten one of those, too, earlier in the race. Christian was surprising me with the fan minutia he was aware of that I figured the racers would be oblivious to.

Christian took me down to his basement and rummaged in a closet, then presented me with a couple of Garmin jerseys and a pair of tights and the team's trademark blue argyle socks. There was a large box just outside the closet with dozens of Cliff Bars

"Take whatever you'd like," he offered. "There's way more there than I need."

I was so boggled by his generosity I didn't know what to say. I was hoping I just might come home with a Garmin water bottle. I'd even brought along a couple of extras I'd scavenged from other teams--Cofidis and Telekom--to trade.

Rather than gushing my thanks I kept talking cycling.

"I was surprised Chris Horner wasn't at the world championships," I said.

"He's still recovering from a broken hand too," Christian said. "I saw him at Las Vegas."

"I read somewhere he was gong to be riding the upcoming Tour of Lombardy, so I figured he had to be back in Europe ."

"That's still two weeks away. He'll be ready by then."

"Has he signed with anyone for next year yet?"

"No. I'd love to have him as a teammate. He's an exceptional tactician. He's going to make a great team director.'

"I thought for sure he'd have signed with Lance by now."

"Lance wants him, but Lance is like a CEO trying to get the best deal he can. Chris will probably end up with him."

I had many more topics to bring up, but Christian kept diverting the conversation to me. He wanted to know about my bicycle messengering and touring and where I'd grown up. He told me I ought to follow the Giro some year. He asked how many miles I ride a year.

I told him, "About 10,000 miles touring and another five or six thousand messengering and getting around." "

"That's what I do," he said.

"Yes, but your miles are at a high intensity. You guys really push it. The effort you put out is just incredible. I go all out as a messenger, but I know I don't dig as deep as you do. I have no illusions in the least that my cycling compares to what you do. You have my utmost respect"

Christian wondered what climbs I had done in this year's Tour. I bypassed the Pyrenees after riding the first five stages, but I did several of those in the Vosges and the Alps along with Mont Ventoux.

"That climb just before the Colombiere, the Col de Romme," I commented, " Might have been the worst. Its first couple of kilometers were brutal."

Christian agreed, saying that it came as a surprise to even him as it was the first time it had been included in The Tour.

"Isn't that where Sastre tried to attack like he did on L'Alpe d'Huez the year before, but it was too much for him?" I asked.

"That's right. He had a rough Tour. Its a shame because he's a really nice guy."

"Did you know his 17th place finish was the second worst of a defending Tour champion?"

"I didn't know that. Was Pereiro's the worst?"

"No, it was some guy in the '30s who finished 31st."

Christian mentioned he was off to London later in the week to attend the wedding of his teammate David Millar. Then he'll be going out to California for a charity ride from San Francisco to San Diego.

We slipped out to the garage after an hour or so of talking biking like American sports fans talk baseball or football. After we shook hands and said our goodbyes we kept talking for another ten minutes. There was always one last thing. Christian said he was eagerly awaiting the announcement of next year's Tour route, just a few weeks away. Me too.

As I rode the thirty miles back home, even if I hadn't had the wind at my back, I would have been flying. All the way I kept replaying our conversation and thinking of countless other things I would have liked to have asked him. I was curious about his philosophy of tossing empty water bottles during a race. Did he do it randomly or did he look for a worthy recipient? I never saw his trophy room nor asked if he had a place of honor for his course marker. I had a whole series of questions regarding his team director Jonathon Vaughters and yellow wrist bands and his greatest thrills in the sport, as well as his dad's career, which included an appearance in "Breaking Away" as one of the villainous Team Cinzano riders.

But most of all my thought was preoccupied with looking forward to next year's Tour. I would save those argyle socks until then. I know they'll have me flying up the climbs faster than I ever have.