[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.