Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Xintal, China

Friends: Last night might be my last night of camping. I was warm enough but I awoke to an ice-encrusted rain fly and bicycle. Fortunately the road was dry, though the air was as thick as clam chowder, visibility about ten feet.

It was highly dangerous to be on the road with such limited visibility.  That didn't prevent a few vehicles from chugging along at a few miles per hour and a few people on bikes and motorbikes riding the white line of the shoulder and I with them. The shoulder was smooth and wide enough that I felt no qualms about riding without being ble to see much beyond my nose. It reduced my speed, making it somewhat of a rest day for my legs, but it was still exhausting have to be so intensely vigilant. No mind-wandering today.

The moisture in the air collected all over me. My wool gloves sprouted whiskers of ice. It made for a most mystical of a day, the air not clearing until after one and then thickening up again around three. At times I thought I was in Greenland, what with glimpses of high piles of snow along the road laced with what looked like mucky glacial debris, with an occasional stick protruding that might have been the bone of a mastodon.

I had intended to stay in a hotel last night after camping four of the previous five nights, but when I came to the city that had been my goal for the day I was feeling too good to stop. I had already exceeded eighty miles and had less than an hour of light to ride in, but neither were reason enough to quit riding.

Stephen would have been disappointed in me, as his final words at our parting were, "Don't fear those forty yuan hotels." It wasn't the hotel I was fearing, though I did somewhat fear all the rigmarole of finding one and then checking in. I just couldn't resist the joy of riding on, gaining a few more miles on Beijing, knowing that as I set up my tent I would be reveling over a near ninety-mile day I could truly be proud of.

I am slightly more of a bike fanatic than Stephen, eager to be on my bike early in the morning and not wanting my day to end. I have the same mentality when I work as a bicycle messenger. I ride into "work" exalting that I get to spend my day on the bike. I have a goal of forty deliveries, five per hour, a pick and a drop every six minutes, pretty much an all-out effort. The touring isn't so frenzied, but I am still focused on maximizing my time on the bike, cognizant of not unnecessarily dawdling or dilly-dallying. As a messenger, when I hit forty deliveries I don't let up. I want to see by how much I can exceed it. I don't want my days to end. The same with touring--reach a goal and then top it. An eighty mile day is a good day. Ninety is even better.

I wasn't concerned about finding a place to camp as I pushed on, as not only did I have full confidence that a campsite would present itself, as one has every night these past weeks, but also a hazy mist was settling in reducing visibility, making iffy spots not so iffy. It would make it dark a little sooner, but also help obscure my presence wherever I might end up. My spot was in a thin strip of a forest between a river and an open field. I felt further justified in pressing on when fifteen minutes before I stopped I passed a factory as its workers were streaming out. In front were an assortment of food vendors selling bananas and baked sweet potatoes and hard boiled eggs and fried bread patties, all treats I was happy to stock up on and to supplement my dinner of noodles and sausage.

I wasn't too pleased to suffer a flat tire after six miles the next morning, but since I was plodding along at eight miles per hour at the time, if I had to have a flat tire, it wasn't a bad time to have one, other than I had to use my last spare. I was hoping the fog might clear while I was repairing my flat. No such luck.

I had been dreading a flat ever since I had given up one of my two remaining spare tubes to Stephen two days before when he suffered a blow-out ruining his tube and tire, the wire bead wearing through the sidewall. He had no spare tubes at the time, only one with a slow leak. It was my third flat of the trip in about 3,000 miles. I had patched one, but evidently not so well, as when Stephen tried it, it didn't hold air. So now I had no spares and three tubes with punctures, though I did have an emergency skinny tube that would fit my emergency fold-up skinny tire if I ruined a tire myself. Fortunately Stephen had a spare tire, a Shwalbe Marathon that he had picked up in Athens 4,500 miles ago, the same time he replaced his rear tire that blew out.

I had patches and glue, though I'm not always so successful with them when the temperature is so cold. It forced me to search out a sidewalk repairman in the next town I came to. Not so many years ago one could be found on nearly every block. That's no longer the case. When I didn't spot any along the main thoroughfare I went wandering down side streets. They were dangerously mucky themselves, so after not finding a repairman I returned to the main road and headed out of town, resigned to waiting until the next town.

A few blocks further I spotted an upside down bicycle at a wide spot in the sidewalk. Stephen speaks of "breaking the code" in figuring out what identifies a hotel or an Internet cafe or something else one might be looking for. An upside down bike is code for a bike repairman. A quick scan revealed a silver metal bowl nearby filled with water to detect a tube's puncture. Two older men were perched on some steps leading to a store playing a version of checkers. When I approached the bowl of water and pulled out one of my tubes, one of the players came over.

He expertly patched all three, giving each a good roughing up before applying the glue, then letting the glue set for a minute or so before applying the patch. He discovered two holes in the tube that had been punctured by a nail. He advised me to check each patch by reinflating the tube and resubmerging it. Each won him a thumbs up. The charge for the four patches he applied was four yuan, a little more than 50 cents. I could ride much easier knowing I have three spares at my disposal and less than 250 miles to Beijing. It made me happy for the day's flat, otherwise I wouldn't have made the effort to search out a repairman and I would still be somewhat nervously riding with just one spare.

Stephen and I had no spare Internet time for him to give me a lesson in posting photos, but if you go to his website you can see several photos of us and a most thorough report on our week together.

Later, George

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