[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.