Friends: Camping in a sparse tree farm of a forest last night, the slanting light of the setting sun illuminated the smoke of all the burning leaves I had been breathing the past few days. It was far thicker than I could have imagined, almost too dense to see though. No wonder my lungs have been smarting. I immediately dug out one of my spare neckerchiefs and have been wearing it bandito-style over my mouth and nose ever since.
Even a light rain last night did little to improve the air quality. The road is still wet, as a thick overcast hasn't allowed the sun through to dry it. The wind picked up from the north last night, giving me a strong tailwind, a tailwind I don't need, oddly enough, as I'm way ahead of schedule to meet up with Stephen in Wuhan a week from today, about 250 miles away. Yesterday I began limiting my mileage to fifty miles a day so I don't arrive too many days before him. The wind has also cooled the temperatures. I had to put on my tights after I started riding and an extra layer on my torso when I realized I wasn't generating any body heat with the tailwind, though it wasn't so cold that I needed more than my cycling gloves on my hands.
About an hour after dark last night I heard a rustling in the leaves near my tent as if it might be the footsteps of some passerby. My heart gave a start, but then I remembered I had a similar fright a week ago when I was in the mountains before Xian, and it had just been a curious critter of some sort. Still, I snapped off my headlamp and let my eyes grow accustomed to the dark in case I needed to duck my head out and have a conversation. A few moments later the rustling noise grew closer, so I unzipped my tent and rose up to give a glance.
Just a few feet away was a harmless-looking young man. I greeted him with a ni-how. He stepped close enough for me to stick out my hand to give him a hand-shake as I turned on my headlamp. With that he instantaneously lept backwards and fled, as if he had seen a ghost. I had to be the most unlikely site imaginable to him--a white man with long hair and a beard and a light shining out of his forehead. I could well have been an extra-terrestrial and my bike a spacecraft.
There were no residences near by. I wasn't too far from the road, so he must have been taking a short cut through the forest, rather than down the side road I had bicycled to enter the forest. I had actually continued further down the road to get away from the noise of the highway, but only found swampy, open land, so had retreated to the forest. Wherever he might have been headed was a ways away, so I doubted he would return with reinforcements. But I was concerned enough to lock up my bike, something I rarely do when wild camping, and the first time I had done so on this trip.
It had been nearly six years since the last time I had been discovered in the early evening after I'd set up camp, though I had been stumbled upon earlier on this trip in the morning. The last time was in Ecuador, another well-populated country where the wild-camping was a supreme challenge. I had slipped into a house that was under construction at dusk. Someone saw me and soon the police and a couple dozen locals were on the scene. When they realized I was just an innocent cyclist they let me be. I assumed the same thing would happen this time if it came to that. At least I knew it would be hard for anyone to sneak up on me. But it was a quiet night and a quiet morning. I thought the young man might return to give me a look in the light of day, but he may have been too frightened.