Friends: It was a lonely night of camping last night after parting ways with Stephen at Zhengzhou, another of the over fifty cities in China with a population of a million or more. It had recently erected a Mao statue. They are rare enough we sought it out to take our final array of photos. We'd had a fine week together, "A classic," Stephen termed it, gaining 320 miles on Beijing, leaving me 450 via bike while Stephen resorts to either the bus or the train, which ever is more convenient.
We fully bonded, learning much of each other's life's story and family history. Though I've worked with his mother Susan for years at the Telluride Film Festival I never knew she was a graduate of Vasser nor that she and her husband met in 1968 while working on Bobby Kennedy's presidential campaign, nor that they were on opposing sides of the debate to put in a traffic circle at the entry to Telluride. I knew they'd lived in the South Pacific for a few years, but I didn't know Stephen's dad was sent there by his large New York law firm to represent victims of nuclear testing by the US government.
Stephen had a wealth of stories from his stints as an instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School leading expeditions into the wilderness for a month at a time. He also has worked at bike shops in Telluride, Boulder, and Santa Barbara. While in Santa Barbara, he lived in and managed the local youth hostel, occasionally having to threaten drunken guests with calling the cops. He spent his junior year of high school in Santiago, Chile as an AFS exchange student and returned to South America when he was nineteen to climb the continent's highest peak, over 23,000 feet high in Argentina with a friend, a most daring expedition. He's well on his way to leading an interesting life, though he needs to be wary about such a thing. "May you lead an interesting life" is a Chinese curse.
Stephen is trying to decide whether he wants to go to law school when he returns from this trip or graduate school in history to become a university professor or pursue something else. But before he does anything, he plans to fly to Boston to meet up with a woman who won his heart in Athens. And he also hopes to make a movie of his round-the-world bike trip, ready in time for the Memorial Day weekend Telluride Mountain Film Festival. Whatever he does, he knows he still has a few bicycle tours left in him, hopefully one that will include me for a more prolonged ride than we managed this time and without separate deadlines hanging over each other's head.
Our final campsite together was one of those iffy sites that made us happy to have a companion, as with another one feels a little less vulnerable if he should be found. We knew there was a chance we would be discovered, though probably not until the light of day. We were in the midst of an industrial corridor that looked like it could continue the next 35 miles to Zhengzhou. We were fully prepared to spend the night in a hotel if one turned up, but no actual towns or cities presented themselves.
There were some patches of agriculture and slim forests, but nothing offering anything to hide our tents behind until we spotted some high mounds of dirt and stacks of bricks and what looked like a storage shed under construction about 100 yards from the road. We found a path over a gaping ditch that paralleled the road and headed over to check them out as dark was descending. The shed was unroofed, but the freshly laid bricks walls were over six-feet high. It was divided into two rooms. Debris filled one, but the other had just enough space on its dirt floor for our two tents.
We figured the workers might show up the next morning before we were on our way, but we knew that even though they might be initially perturbed, they would be okay with it unless we were violating some taboo about sleeping in an unfinished building before it was sanctified by a barrage of fireworks or some such thing. Stephen commented, "At least we don't have to worry about anyone showing up with a shotgun. That would only happen in the US."
"You're pretty much right about that," I agreed. "Guns are so rare in China, the mafia hardly has any. There was a story in the paper about a crackdown on the mafia in one of China's biggest cities, Chongqing, formerly Chungking. The police made a concerted effort to confiscate as many of its weapons as it could. They mostly got daggers. They took great pride though in the few machetes and cleavers they got, their version of Uzzis and AK47s and heavy automatic weaponry."
It was our coldest night, the first night Stephen needed to put on his down jacket to stay warm in his sleeping bag and I needed to cover my head. But the cold did not prevent a work crew of seven or eight, including a woman, from arriving by 7:30 to resume their construction, just as we were beginning to crawl out of our sleeping bags and begin layering up. The first guy was rather startled, shouting out something at us within our tents, but then quieting down after hearing our odd pronunciation of "knee-how," ("hello").
When we finally emerged after a couple of minutes we had an audience of older gentlemen and the woman, all with kindly, expressive and curious faces, not a hardened, unfriendly or threatening look among them. They held our bikes for us as we loaded them up and obliged us with a couple of photos. Stephen offered them chocolates and I cigarettes, a pack I had found along the road that I was saving for just such an occasion. Not all accepted our offering, so we placed the leftovers on a stack of bricks waiting to be added to the walls.
We could thank them for getting us on the road by eight, our earliest departure by far of our six days of cycling. We headed down the road commenting what a wonderful start we'd had to our day. And we knew the work crew was saying the same thing. They'd be talking about this morning's surprise for a long time. Stephen said the only other time someone had stumbled upon his campsite was in India. "It always gets back to India, doesn't it," he said.
Stephen had picked up a little more Chinese than I thanks to some tapes he had downloaded to his ipod, but we were still pretty much reduced to gestures and sign language and expressions we'd written out to find our way and order food and to check into hotels. It was often frustratingly comical, though we invariably got what we wanted. The owner of one hotel we were hoping to stay at wasn't welcoming at all, perhaps thinking we were indigents by our well-worn garb. He was trying to usher us out until Stephen showed him a 100 yuan note, letting him know we indeed had money. The owner and hs wife turned out to be gushingly friendly and hospitable.
At one of our meals I didn't point directly enough at the bowl of noodles a young woman was eating as what Stephen and I wanted for our lunch, as instead of noodles we were each brought the foot of some small hoofed animal, perhaps a young goat, in a bowl. We thought it might go with the noodle dish, so we patiently waited for our main course. But when after ten minutes no noodles had been brought, I arose again when the waitress came by and pointed more directly at the noodles. Within a minute we had what we wanted.
Stephen took one bite of the fatty tissue clinging to the ankle and hoof. That was enough for him. Its taste did not agree with him any more than its appearance. I was hungry enough to gnaw off the two or three mouthfuls on mine and then Stephen's, though I didn't particularly care for it. It wasn't the first mystery meat that had been presented to us. Something that was called "roadside chicken" at the luxury restaurant at the fancy hotel we stayed at our first night must have been mis-translated, as it tasted like fish and was so rubbery, it was barely chewable.
At lunch one day at a roadside cafe we were presented with two of plates of artfully arranged meats that bore no resemblance to anything we had seen before. I had ordered tofu, and there was plenty of that, so Stephen had to deal with the meat on his own. There was a plate of rubbery, odd-formed white meat he didn't even try, and he could only manage a couple of slices of some brownish-red meat that looked like pastrami, but certainly wasn't. Good thing there was enough tofu and greens for the both of us.
Now I'm on my own, hoping to make it to Beijing by Sunday before some predicted rain and snow.