Monday, November 30, 2009

The Great Wall

Friends: It was an hour bus ride from Tienanmen Square in the heart of Beijing to The Great Wall. If I weren't down to my last day in China and pressed for time, I would have much preferred to have biked out to it, especially since it would have followed some of the 2008 Olympic bicycle road race.

As the day wore on, I was regretting even more that I hadn't made the ride, even though it would have included some significant climbing. Ever since Wuhan, and even before, the terrain has been flat with hardly a ripple in the countryside. But the drive to The Wall gave me a final taste of China's mountains, as we climbed nearly 2,000 feet. The rugged mountainous countryside that The Wall undulates up and over and around makes it all the more spectacular and impressive. The group I was with was given an hour to walk as much of The Wall as we cared to, though not many went too far, what with sections steeper and much more prolonged than your average staircase. And it had the added challenge of ice and snow.

With it being a Monday and so cold, it was a rare occasion when The Wall wasn't mobbed. I had no worries about finding the bus I had gone out on, as it was the only one in the parking lot. Vendors only half-heartedly approached us with place mats and cups that one could have their photo emblazoned on with The Wall in the background. And there were the usual t-shirts proclaiming "I climbed The Great Wall." I tried to take a photo of several of the t-shirt saleswomen brandishing the t-shirt, but they would have none of it.  This was tourist country and the sales people were out to make money not friends.

We were at a four-mile section that was fully restored to its original state when it was constructed over 2,000 years ago to keep out the marauding Mongols. There are quite a few other restored sections along its 3,000 mile route across the north of China. The Chinese remain intensely proud of The Wall. A sign proclaimed it "A symbol of the Chinese nation and the soul and ridge of the country, which has been deeply rooted in every Chinese...One can not help marveling at the Chinese nation and culture." It was similar sentiments to a sign at the Three Gorges Dam and also to comments expressed by the wife of Julie-Ann's boss at dinner the night before, expressing pride in her heritage. I had been talking about how impressed I had been with what I had seen of China. She matter-of-factly said, "China is the same size as the United States, but dates back over 5,000 years."

If we made it back to the city in the same time it took us to get to The Wall, I would have had a couple hours of day-light to give the Forbidden City, just north of Tienanmen Square, a look. I realized that wasn't going to happen when we stopped at a large shopping complex selling jade.  It was the first of several shopping stops we were subjected to.  We were welcomed by a sign at its entry reading "Jade Has Lifetime Wealth." We had to walk through a maze of show-rooms. The nearly all Chinese tour group was in no hurry to rush through, and seemed happy for this opportunity to shop. They were equally shop-happy when we stopped at another equally sprawling and commercial outlet specializing in textiles a little later.

After we stopped at this one I asked the only other Westerners in the group  if they knew when we were due to return. They did not. We asked the non-English speaking guide. She pointed at the eight on her watch, over four hours away. We didn't think we understood her. I pulled out the same piece of paper she had written down the time of our departure from The Wall (14:50), and she wrote down 20:00. We were staggered. No one else in the group seemed to be impatient or upset with these diversions. Most eagerly surveyed the merchandise and made purchases.

At least at the next stop we were fed some rice and toppings to keep our energy up, but it was the only time we were hurried along. There were four or five more stops. I didn't mind being stalled by rush hour traffic, figuring that had been factored into our return time and sitting in the bus was preferable to having to look at things in stores I wasn't interested in, but unfortunately it wasn't. One of our stops was at an ancient complex of wooden buildings. There was an extra fee that everyone but us non-Chinese unhesitatingly paid. At another stop we were subjected to a performance by a couple of guys with swords. One swallowed his and then passed it around for everyone to examine to verify that it wasn't collapsible and it had indeed gone three feet down his gullet. Then he swallowed a metal ball the size of a golf ball and regurgitated it up. After the performance he walked around with a hat. Everyone contributed.

The other Westerners were a young French couple. The husband worked for Air Bus in Paris and was in Beijing checking up on their factory. Today was their last day in China. At one point they tried to escape in a taxi, but the guide chased the taxi away. They weren't upset at all, figuring it must have been an illegal cab, what are known as "black cabs," something he had been warned about by the people he was working with.

I was getting worried about my bike locked up to a tree back by Tienanmen Square. When we were finally delivered back to our starting point at nearly nine, some six hours after leaving The Wall, we were dropped off a block from where we left. I had several moments of terror as I rushed to find my tree, but the bike was still there.

For the second time today, I was thrilled and relieved to be back on my bike. The first was after I spent thirty agonizing minutes on the phone with a British Air representative in Hong Kong changing my return flight from Hong Kong to Beijing. British Air only has one flight a day out of Beijing, so has no representatives here for changing tickets. I had biked out to the airport yesterday and talked with people there, but they could do nothing, and the Hong Kong office wasn't open until nine this morning. I spent a particularly agonizing ten minutes on hold while my credit card was confirmed. It all made for a long hard day, not the nightmare of my first day in China, but still not exactly how I would have liked to spend my final day in the country.

But it won't detract from the grand time I've had. It's truly been exciting to be in such a flourishing country with so many people in such good spirits experiencing wealth they never imagined they would experience, from simply having a cellular phone (700 million Chinese are so equipped) to having a car and much, much more, things that were totally unthinkable not so long ago.  It wasn't so long ago that milk and much else was rationed.  Now one can go into supermarkets as large and as well-supplied as any in the world. Prosperity had people in good spirits. It was heartening to amongst such people. I'll be happy to return at the earliest opportunity before their wants begin to outdistance what they can have and their happiness takes a dive.

A nice final bike ride out to the airport awaits me first thing tomorrow morning, twelve miles from Julie-Ann's apartment, partially through a forest. I have a noon flight to London. I will be back in Chicago the next day after forty hours in transit.

Later, George

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Beijing, China

Friends: As I approached Beijing my legs were spinning so easily I almost had to reign them in. I was fully aglow with that end-of-a-trip sense of triumph, glad I hadn't let the cold and ever present threat of snow deter me, as I completed the final miles of my two-month, three-thousand mile ride about China, an adventure that was much more than I anticipated in many respects.

I know that feeling of satisfaction quite well from previous trips and was happily recalling many of them, adding to my euphoria, while knowing I'd have the memory of these final miles and all that preceded them to look forward to in the years to come. I may have been closing in on Beijing, but I was vividly reliving a host of other final stretches--approaching the Straits of Magellan in Tierra del Fuego after biking 7,000 miles down the length of South America, crossing into Alaska and reaching pavement after over 1,000 miles of dirt and gravel through British Columbia and the Yukon, arriving in Perth after riding the breadth of Australia including the Nullarbor Plain, descending into La Paz after completing a circuit of Bolivia that culminated with climbing ten thousand feet up "The World's Most Dangerous Road," finishing off the Ring Road of Iceland, arriving at Nordcap the northernmost point of Europe 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle in Norway, reaching Calcutta after bicycling nearly 2,000 miles from Bombay, and on and on.

It had been a concentrated effort the past week, since parting with Stephen, to arrive as soon as I had, pushing hard while the weather remained amenable. Beijing had already had two significant premature snowfalls in the past month, both somewhat crippling the city. None were in the immediate forecast, but with the Chinese aggressively seeding clouds to help break a drought, one never knew when the next storm might occur.

The Chinese have been putting considerable research and effort into cloud-seeding. The scientists behind the seeding took credit for the recent heavy snows, but they also suffered considerable criticism for not giving any warning about what they were doing so people could take precautions.

I could finally relax a bit as I neared the metropolis, though not for long, as I had one final ordeal of finding my way to Tienanmen Square and either a hotel that Stephen had recently stayed at or connecting with Julie-Ann, who wasn't expecting me until the next day. I had been maximizing my time on the bike with less than eleven hours of light a day, even eating lunch while I was on the Internet the past couple of days, while I checked in with Julie-Ann advising her of my progress and trying to arrange a place to meet. A hotel had worked in Xian much better than a McDonald's as Stephen and I had attempted in Wuhan, so we settled on a hotel again, though one that was on the outskirts of the city center opposite from the direction I was coming in.

I began my final day at kilometer post 142 on Highway 107. If those kilometers were all the way to the center of the city, I had a fairly manageable 89 miles, just a bit more than I had been averaging the previous six days, but if it was much more than that and had I any adversity, I might come up short. But once I reached the metropolis, biking after dark would not be too much of an ordeal, and my adrenalin would likely get me to wherever I needed to go. There would be city lights and a trickle of other cyclists, though I'd be the only one with any kind of lighting system.

Once I was swallowed up by the dense urban sprawl and thick, multi-laned traffic, my speed was slowed considerably. Road signs did not direct me to the city center or any prominent landmarks. I had to once again rely on my compass and occasionally asking for directions, wearily wondering how much further it was going to be. It was soon dark and I had no idea where Tienanmen Square might be other than it was to the northeast. Whenever I asked, I was told to keep going straight. I knew I had to turn left, to the north, at a certain point. People would put up two or three fingers and make a gesture to the left. I took the number to be either lights or kilometers, but it was always more than that.

When I finally made the turn I had to go a couple more miles and the square I came to was Xidan, a mile or so to the west of Tienanmen, though it took a while to figure that out. By now I was over ninety miles for the day. I was gobbling food to keep from bonking. I knew at a certain point the exhilaration of reaching my destination would wear off and the frustration of not reaching it as easily as I would have liked could suddenly bankrupt me of energy.

It was a Saturday night and there were swarms of people and traffic about and the downtown brightly lit up. It was as cosmopolitan a city as any with bright neon and two-story high screens broadcasting commercials. At Tienanmen Square I found the side street leading to the hotel Stephen had recommended. When I located it, they let me use their phone to contact Julie-Ann. If she weren't answering or not available, I'd stay there. But I caught Julie-Ann just as she was sitting down to dinner. She was surprised and delighted to hear from me, not expecting me until the next day. Our meeting point was several miles away, but it could take me an hour or more to find it, so we arranged to meet there at eight pm.

There were a couple places where I might have gone astray if I weren't paying attention, but I managed to arrive at the hotel twenty minutes early and with 99 miles on my odometer. I circled around the vicinity for a mile looking for some food to record the first century of this trip, a most fitting end. I found a hearty bunch of dumplings and returned to the hotel.

For the first time in my all too many dealings with above-average hotels the doorman did not freak out at the site of my bicycle, ordering me to promptly get it out of site of the entry to the hotel, removing it to some distant bike specific parking area. Instead, he kindly allowed me to leave it within his vision off to the side beside a couple of parked cars. Nor did anyone pounce on me when I entered the hotel, asking me what I was doing there. I casually took a seat in the lobby. I had delayed my arrival until shortly before eight and only had to wait a couple of minutes for Julie-Ann, bundled up in a North Face down parka. It had been the coldest day of my trip, the water bottle I left out on my bike while I camped frozen solid in the morning and not fully thawing during the day.

Her apartment was a couple miles away. She proposed I follow along behind a taxi. That worked just fine, the couple extra miles putting me safely above 100 for the day.

It was Julie-Ann's first night in her apartment. She couldn't figure out how to get the hot water to work in the shower. Her building had a maintenance man on 24-hour alert who came and explained how to do it. Her apartment was a fully furnished studio condo with plush curtains and a flat screen TV and dangling beads separating her bedroom from the rest of the apartment.

The owners were an older couple who had recently purchased it. The owner's wife volunteered to clean it for free once a week as a pretense Julie-Ann surmised of checking up on her. They wanted six months rent in advance, but settled on three. Julie-Ann's rent is slightly more than the housing stipend that comes with her job, but she doesn't mind at all, though she's not within walking distance of her office as she was in Xian. Its a twenty-minute, seven-cent bus ride.

I was utterly exhausted and depleted, especially after the final two-mile sprint to her apartment, but we had so much to talk about we were up until midnight. Julie-Ann had just finished her first week on her new job with a young company that is building movie multiplexes around the country. They have one eleven-screen complex in operation outside of Shanghai and a handful of others soon to open.

Julie-Ann will help train each theater's staff, having worked at theaters in Chicago and Manhattan, and also make sure all their material in English is up to snuff, and also help with programming. To circumvent the Chinese quota of only allowing 45 foreign films to be released a year, they hope to have special one week screenings of foreign films that they can rotate around their various theaters. They will call the program Lumiere Select. Julie-Ann is already compiling a list of potential films, keeping in mind that they have to meet approval of Chinese censors.

I'll have a day or so to see a few sites and then back home.

Later, George

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Dingzhou, China

Friends: One of the advantages of traveling with a companion is having someone to let you know if you have a smudge on your nose or a streak on your cheek or a fly at half-mast. If Stephen had still been along, we would have been kept busy all day during the clam chowder fog day alerting each other that our faces needed a scrubbing.

The thick fog that hung so heavy over the land that day did not cleanse the air of all the wicked particulates that make the air in China a virtual soup that one could ladle. Rather, all the dirt and dust and smoke and every pollutant known to man clung and bonded to the thick, misty fog, turning the air into a sludge that plastered my face and streaked my hair and splotched my clothing.

I had no idea I had been transformed into a sub-Saharan African until I looked in the mirror of my hotel room. Then I knew why I had been refused accommodation at nearly a dozen hotels in the sizable city of Xingtai. I was an unholy mess. I looked as if I had emerged from months in a cave. I had no clue as to my state, just happy to have arrived in this city right at dark after a most draining day of riding with limited visibility nearly from start to finish with only a short mid-day interlude.

I passed a couple of neon lit hotels that actually had "Hotel" in English on their signs before I spotted a budget hotel, recognizing it not by any sign, but by the receptionist's desk I could see peering in through a pair of glass doors. The posted rates had the cheapest room at 70 yuans, but when I showed the receptionist the phrase "economy room without toilet" in my Lonely Planet book she indicated I could have a room for 40 yuan. She took my money and started examining my passport. After paging through it several times, I showed her where the Chinese visa was. She looked at it closely and then made a phone call. She handed back my passport and money and said the police said I couldn't stay there, I had to stay at the 5-star hotel down the street.

Instead, I went in search of another budget local's hotel. After trying a couple of side streets and asking a couple of shop owners, I found another about ten minutes later. It was truly grungy, more of a flop-house than a hotel, but fine by me for thirty yuans. Two smiley older ladies sitting behind a glass-slotted window took my money, then began perusing my passport. One took it and left. She returned with a guy who told me I had to go elsewhere.

This city was stuck in the China of the old days when foreigners could only stay at specific hotels and had to check in with the police at every town they stayed at. This was my first taste of such restrictions, other than my venture into the Forbidden Zone. I tried to indicate to these kindly-looking folks that their hotel was perfectly acceptable to me in case they were concerned that it wasn't suitable for a Westerner, but they would not relent.

A guy in the lobby offered to lead me to another hotel on his motor-bike. It was even more grandiose than the couple of nicer hotels I had passed, with blazing neon and a pair of liveried attendants out front. That definitely wasn't the place for me. I showed my escort a piece of paper with 40 on it. He understood and led me several blocks to another budget hotel. Upon entry I was immediately told "full." I wasn't surprised to be turned away, but I was surprised at the use of English. The guy on the motorcycle had left, so I was back on my own. I found another hole-in-the-wall hotel a few blocks further. I was promptly and brusquely inflicted with the word "full" here too, by an unsmiling, hulky, middle-aged man who I had no wish to argue with.

This was getting ridiculous. Pangs of hunger were knocking. I was desperate enough to start trying the high-priced hotels. I went into five of them and not a one would even look at my passport, immediately waving me off. If only I had glanced in a mirror I would have noticed how beastly I looked and could have wiped my face clean and no doubt gained admittance into the next one I tried. Little did I know I had changed my race, and had done some time-travel to the American South of not so long ago.

Desperation sent me back to the second hotel I tried, one that initially accepted me and whose receptionists seemed to have some humanity. I was so accustomed to people going out of there way to help me, I figured if I gave them a second chance, they'd be like just about everyone else I've encountered. They didn't need to bend over backwards, just say yes. But once again, they stubbornly refused me.

My search had been going on for over an hour now. It looked like I'd be camping. I had rolled up my tent that morning with fragments of ice sill clinging to it. I should have opened it up when I'd had my tubes patched earlier in the day, but I wasn't anticipating needing it this night. So I unrolled my tent on the sidewalk in front of the hotel that had twice rejected me to shake out the ice and water, a final, last-ditch effort to win me some sympathy and favor, giving them one last chance to reconsider. It made no difference, but it did dry my tent a bit. The ice hadn't melted, so shaking it out left the tent somewhat habitable. A soaking wet tent might have been the death of me. Then I had the challenge to find my way out of this city and out into the country.

A couple blocks past the most grandiose of the hotels I had tried, I came upon another hotel with the generic look of a chain motel. I didn't expect any more luck at this place, but I was helplessly drawn to go in and let these people reject me too. Shockingly, I wasn't summarily ordered out. The rates were posted on the wall. I did not try to barter down the 100 yuan price. There were three women behind the counter. When the older manager made a phone call my heart began to sink, and then plunged a little bit more when when she handed the phone to me. It was an English speaker who told me I had to pay a 200 yuan deposit to stay there.

Stephen had warned me this was common at nicer hotels, as we had experienced at the resort hotel we stayed at, but this was much more of a deposit than normal. But that was okay. I had a place for the night to dry out my gear and shower and fully warm up. Not until I got to my room did I know how desperately I needed a shower. Even after I showered, my eyebrows were still black. Scrubbing my face with a wash cloth turned it black, digging out all the dirt and grime deeply embedded in my pores.

After that experience I resolved to resist peeing along the road, stopping instead at gas stations for the opportunity to give myself a look in their mirrors, when they have one. Even though my search for a hotel was eventually rewarded, I didn't care to subject myself to a similar such run-around last night and opted for the much easier search for a campsite despite the sub-freezing temps.

I just passed the 240 kilometer post to Beijing. It's getting exciting knowing I'm almost there and I may pull this off. I was a little worried this morning when all the moisture in the air turned into flecks of ice and snow seemed imminent, though it wasn't in the forecast. I put on my booties, but the precipitation was a false alarm. Another heavy snow storm could delay me longer than I can afford. The mounds of snow are getting higher and higher. They had 18 inches of it ten days ago along this stretch, the region's heaviest snow fall ever.

Beijing offers the added bonus of Julie-Ann. She lost her job in Xian the day after I left, but she found another in just a few days working for a company in Beijing that is building cinema multiplexes around the country. She's been staying in a hotel, but moves into her apartment tomorrow. Now we have the challenge of connecting in a huge metropolis of 15 million, four times the size of Xian.

Later, George

Stephen's Account of our Week Together



George and I spent the night in our tents in this half-completed brick building, better seen in the next photo. We were woken early the next morning by the workers in the background arriving to finish the job.




























George riding into the haze of Zhengzhou, a city of two million.








Lunch along the road, a little noisy, but at least warmer sitting out in the sun rather than eating inside.















A rare bottleneck of traffic.












That's not a religious shrine in the background, but rather a gas station. Many draw attention to themselves with grandiose coverings over their pumps. This was one of the more ostentatious.





China has been one of my favorite countries for bicycle touring. I have spent the past week touring with my friend George Christensen - a.k.a. "George The Cyclist," and although I have only been able to ride my bicycle for about 700 of the 1,700 miles of my route through the country, my time here has been fabulous. Fraught with challenges, a seizure, some sickness, but most importantly, with good company, and exciting travel.

I used a bus and a train to cover 1,000 miles when time constraints, illness and a seizure all conspired to slow my progress as I moved across China. During the past couple of months, I have been working toward a November 27 arrival in Tokyo to meet my friend Ian. A 45-50 mile/day pace became a 50-55 mile/day pace, which then became a 60 mile/day pace, which then became a 50Mph pace after I boarded a train in Guilin, China to speed toward my rendezvous with my friend George Christensen in Wuhan. George and I toured for about 400 miles, and I then boarded a long-distance bus, which carried me along for the remaining 400 miles from Zhengzhou to Beijing. In two days, I board a flight to Tokyo, where I meet my friend Ian McKittrick, where we will go for a tour of Japan during the coming two weeks.


George Christensen, author of the blog, “George The Cyclist,” had been touring in China for the past five weeks or so before we met up in Wuhan on the sixteenth. Before that, he has been touring around the planet Earth for the past 32 years or so since going on his first major bicycle tour from one coast of the U.S.A. to the other in 1977 on his Peugeot PX-10. He was twenty-six years old when he went on his first tour.

George’s travels have taken him to Iceland, India, Colombia, Alaska, South Africa, Mozambique, France and Morocco among dozens of others. Every season, you can read about one of George’s tours on his blog. With George, most things seem to function easily - casually - within systems, schedules and flexible routines that have emerged to ease the often very-challenging process of living a life on the road, on a bicycle tour. George’s system has emerged from traveling more-extensively and more-frugally than anybody I know. And I know some people... I got the chance to spend the last week touring with him from Wuhan, China to Zhengzhou, China where we enjoyed great conversations about topics such as film, family, travel, camping, food, and - of course - bicycle touring.

Every time that I have traveled with somebody else on this tour, I have noticed that my own style changes a bit in relation to my companion’s style, just as their style, must, change a bit to fit my own style. While riding out of town with Juju and David on day one from Telluride, I rode at a relaxed pace, and enjoyed great convos; while touring with my friend Keith in Mississippi, I enjoyed a couple of great nights out at local watering holes; while touring with my friend Jenine in Greece, I learned to appreciate amazing Greek Tavernas, and great beaches on the islands; while traveling with my friend James, I adapted to early starts and finishes, and hours of peaceful time in the afternoon spent in the sun doing nothing...at all. When I’m on my own, I find myself getting later starts, stopping more often, drifting toward coffee shops, movie theaters, bikeshops... an occasional bookstore or McDonald’s. A consumer at heart. Or at the very least, a window shopper when I’m broke.

With George, I learned to appreciate the phrase, “I like to ride the bike.” If George gets the quote of the day in the Daily Planet - a Telluride Newspaper that features a daily quote - this might be a perfect quote for him. So that is exactly what we did - we rode the bikes. A lot. Pretty soon, I found that I was beginning to enjoy riding the bike too. But riding bikes with George is a bit different. It’s a bit less like pedaling a loaded touring bike, and a bit more like pedaling a light cycle from TRON. Once I got into sync with George’s rhythm of 10-15 minute breaks every 60-90 minutes, and then getting on the bike and pedaling at a steady pace, I began to experience moments when I would look over my shoulder to cross the highway, look back over the other shoulder, see George doing the same thing, in the same place 15 yards up the road, and then settle in on his wheel, and just start moving along, nicely synced up, and rolling along. Easy. I came to appreciate this movement, the changing digits on my computer, the feelings of changing the layers of my clothing in response to the weather, the anticipation of reading a few pages of Passage to Juneau - the book that George gave me upon my arrival in Wuhan. A book that is amazingly appropriate to my own situation in life - a book based in Seattle having to do with adventures in sailboats. These were the things I learned to appreciate as I rolled along.

So - not really anything like riding a light cycle from TRON. Nothing at all in fact. But imagination is what keeps bicycle touring moving along. Without imagination, it might be unimaginable. But riding along in George’s rhythm was great. Fast, steady, lots of distance, lots of colors. We moved through big chunks of China because of the speed and time that was involved - we did not just apply speed, not just time...both. Hours and hours ticking by as we pedaled up highway 107 at 10-15Mph - speed depending entirely on wind conditions. 15 = really fast, aided by some tailwind... 10 = struggling against light headwind. No...there were no drugs involved. With the exceptions of Zonegran and Trileptal - but they do not enhance colors or speed up movement. They also don't speed up the harvest. They do control seizures.

During our first two days on the road, it was all I could do to not embarrass myself, riding a day after a seizure in Wuhan - yes, I had another one of those ten days ago: I have now had three seizures on this trip as well as a mini seizure: One seizure in Portugal, one in Laos, one in China, and a mini seizure in India.

After a desperately cold arrival the previous day from the train station and several hours spent by both George and me in an effort to locate each other in Wuhan, I was ripe for a seizure. They are triggered by lack of sleep and by lack of energy. A night of little sleep followed by a low energy, high stress departure into cold weather to hunt down cash was a recipe for a seizure. Interestingly, I almost got away with it: I felt a couple of auras come and go, I told George, half jokingly, that I would be happy to make it away from Western Union without having a seizure. We made it out of there, and even got on the bikes. George, the whole time, emanating some kind of aura of calm that did, in fact, reduce my stress level, and make me feel much more at ease. Unfortunately, my fatigue and lack of energy demanded attention, and insisted upon manifesting themselves in the form of a seizure. (By the way - my plan to meet at McDonald’s = bad idea...way too many McDonald's...way too much confusion! For the full account, visit www.georgethecyclist.blogspot.com and go to Wuhan, Day 3 or so...)

The night before departure, I had stayed up till 1 or 2 a.m. at an Internet café working to arrange the money transfer with my Mom. My credit cards had been stolen in Vietnam, which means that right now I am getting by on money transfers from my parents. A bit of a hassle, but amazing parents make this kind of thing fall well-short of a disaster.

SO - when we departed the following morning, I was cold, tired, stressed. It was somewhat of a surprise that we made it as far as Western Union, cash in hand, out the door, and even were in our bike costumes with loaded bikes before the seizure hit. Again - click the link above for the full account. George was a rock star in caring for me, and especially in ensuring that the ambulance that arrived did not cart me off to a hospital, which it would have done had George not calmed the EMTs and persuaded them to delay for a few minutes.

George kept the ambulance right where it was, using patient, friendly tones as he spoke with EMTs: “You can take him to the hospital, but it won’t help. He will recover here just fine.” The EMTs would then, after short periods of hesitation and eye contact with George, make their responses in Chinese, which must have been something like, “... ...He will recover here just fine.” though I could not understand. It was amazing to observe the process as he altered their mentalities from “Rev engines! Go To Hospital! Now!” To “OK...we’ll chillax here for a few...” Fortunately, one of the EMTs spoke a little bit of English and George was able to use his force of persuasion with her to remarkable effect. As they fenced, I quickly regained a bit of energy and warmth. As for me, I might have been a bit impatient if I’d had any strength, but I could not do much more than slowly nod my head, smile, say “yes,” “no,” “Xie Xien-yee” (thank you...I think) and breathe. There is a kind of exhausted euphoria that washes over you when you are lying prone under a heat blanket with a few people staring down at you and talking about you in serious, hushed tones.

I believe that George gets his patience from years of dealing with the nonsense of touring. Don’t get me wrong - there is a lot of phenomenal experience, and a lot of simply unbelievable kind of magic that occurs. But there is also quite a bit of nonsense...like not being able to communicate efficiently with EMTs in an ambulance. After getting enough of it, I think that most of it simply washes over George, and he just notices the good things.

I could have probably avoided this seizure, but I was holding out a small kernel of hope that the seizure might not happen. I did not quite have it in me to ask George to continue to delay in Wuhan for another day, especially after our chaotic effort that went into meeting the night before. I was clinging to the hope that I might be able to pull off a seizure-free day after 5 or 6 hours of sleep and a cold weather start in the morning. I did not have it in me to demand that my friend change his schedule again in order to reduce the risk of my potentially having a seizure - I really did think that I would be able to make it at one point. Although I know that of course he would have done so. You know that all of your friends would always do so. The key is to become increasingly skilled, in life, at avoiding the circumstances that trigger seizures, increasingly comfortable with letting people know about your situation, and, in doing everything you can to get the best treatment: funding research, getting medicines, doing your homework.

So - people often respond to an explanation of my sleep-triggered seizure disorder with something like, “Oh...that’s easy enough to avoid...” But every seizure I have had was, for reasons similar to the situation above, somewhat tricky to avoid. If they were that easy to avoid, I would never have seizures. Fortunately, they are predictable enough. I knew that this one was coming.

Once I was rested, we beat a slow retreat by foot, and by slow pedaling, to the hotel, and I slept it off. George made a run to Wal Mart, bringing back rice and hard boiled eggs to eat. He also went on a big loop bike ride around the city, crossing the 2Km (mile?) width of the Yangze river by the northern bridge, then re crossing by the Southern Bridge. Probably a 20 mile bike ride or so, all in 35-45 degree icy conditions. In essence - George made life way easier by taking care of all kinds of details. I slept like a rock while he was out doing all of these crazy things.

NOW - the story resumes with the departure from Wuhan. The following morning, being thus fatigued, I resolved to simply follow George and to preserve my dignity as best I could in my state. The next morning, we repeated the process of the departure: climb right out of bed, put on shoes, (don’t have to put on anything else, because I was already wearing everything else I owned including gloves, hat, socks, and down jacket...presto!) and carry the bikes down to the street. I put my bike behind George’s and sort of lethargically got on board, surveying the grey icy city around me with a feeling of dread. I believe that I masked all of these feelings with a small grin and some remarks about the temperature feeling “not too bad,” and about my excitement over George’s already knowing the escape route from the city - fully genuine. I hate finding my own escape route from a massive city! George’s route was perfect. We never got lost, and were cruising on highway 107 after an hour or two of rolling through city traffic.

At this point, I allowed George to lead the way. He would continue to do so for 90% of the coming week, pulling me along at a steady 12-13Mph average speed for the next 400 miles or so while I sat on his wheel, drafting through thick and thin, trying to recover strength. During the first two days, I was a bit concerned that we might not even last together as traveling companions for another day because I was slowing the pace so much. I was touring in a fairly exhausted physical state after the seizure, and was fighting a head cold that had latched onto my head at some point in Wuhan...while I’m complaining, I suppose I’ll put in mention that my left shoulder always gets messed up in a seizure. But it was only two days of nastiness before I felt a lot better. For whatever reason, the nastiness seems to come in waves... this bout occurring right after a week of illness in Nanning and a seizure in Laos. That’s life I suppose. Perhaps I’ll be clear for a little while after this. Before the past three weeks, I had done remarkably well during the past year of travel, only having been really ill once in Calcutta, and only having had one seizure in Portugal before that.

For two days, I could barely make 8 or 9Mph. George was pushing me physically - Thank God! - up every hill, and on long flat stretches with good shoulder to propel me along. There was a lot of this on day 2. Our day 1 mileage was something like 36...day two maybe 50. Maybe vice versa...but 36&50 days 1 and 2. It would have been much less had George not been continually pulling along side, putting a hand on my back, and pushing me along for minutes at a time. After being “released” from a push, I would maintain pace for a couple of minutes until George chased me down again (or until I fell back) and then he would continue pushing again. For George, the experience might have been similar to that of a child (George) with a loaded shopping cart (me) in a 50-mile long supermarket aisle (highway 107 between Wuhan and Xianfan)...he would go as fast as he could and then let the cart go to and then see how far it might travel. After repeating this process for a few hours a day for two days, we had covered 86 miles.

At first, I thought, “Oh my God...this is AWESOME!!” Then it just became part of how we moved. With assistance we were able to make 10 or 11 Mph - fast enough to pass lots of pedestrian, bicycle, and occasional moped traffic that may not have been believing what they were seeing. Humorously, in George’s own account of these first two days, the focus of the story is all on my own chasing after trucks to catch a draft, making it all sound as though it were actually hard for him to keep up with me!! Well...perhaps after 80 miles of pushing another cyclist along, it might be hard for 10 seconds every so often to catch up when I gave chase to a truck. I was just trying to pull every trick out of the bag to move the tour forward those days... There was one moment when I chased after a truck - one of the classic “draftable” trucks: a fully-loaded dump truck making 20Mph or so. I caught it without too much difficulty, and 4 or 5 seconds later, George had caught it too. After a minute or two of drafting, I slowly moved up, and grabbed onto the truck. I was being pulled now. George made a similar move to my left. When I saw and understood this situation, one truck, one cyclist latched onto either side being pulled along, there was a moment when I was not sure if I could believe what I was seeing. The driver definitely refused to believe - or to accept - the situation that was unfolding in his side-view mirrors. In moments, the horn was ablaze warning us away from the truck. We moved back to the draft, but I was, unfortunately, too tired to keep up. I fell away, and George started pushing me along once more. Unbelievable.

On day three, we made about 70 miles, and George did not push me. I clung to his wheel for dear life, but managed to hold on. I was happy with that. George is 58 years old, and I am 25. He is way stronger...although I like to think, “If I got in shape...” or “if I rode my bike more...” or “if I had a lighter bike...” But no. George is built to ride. Tall and lean. He puts in 12,000 miles or so each year - an insane number. For perspective, my lap around the world to date (13 months) has taken me 11,300 miles, going from Telluride, CO to Beijing. I hope to never ride my bike this much again in my life.

By now, George has gotten a very clear idea of what his capabilities are as a bicycle tourist, and what he can do to extend those capabilities, to make the system more efficient, etc. I asked him how many miles he rides each day, and his response was that he usually rides between 70 and 80 miles each day while touring. He also said that he used to ride 90-100 miles each day when he was younger, but that he eased off a bit. Thank God that I did not meet him when he was younger. In terms of traveling on a low budget, riding big days on the bike, and exploring the world, George has the system down about as well as a bicycle tourist could hope to get it down. These are things that it is easy to see on the road: getting a bicycle into a hotel, ordering a meal, quickly finding a campsite, etc. It is the little things that add up to a good bicycle tour. Beyond that, you just have to figure out what your priorities are.

George rides as a bicycle messenger in Chicago to earn money for his bicycle tours around the world. He rides the bike so that he can ride the bike. He writes down numbers of all kinds during the day. Mileages, prices, temperatures, calories. These numbers go into small journal pages that George keeps in his handlebar bag to document daily travel and weather info. They all get figured into his sort of master equation - although I do not believe there is any kind of formal equation. It gets incorporated into refining George’s system - every bicycle tourist, every traveler, every human has a system. George’s system is based on maximum miles and minimum money. Many travelers, bicycle tourists, backpackers, etc. like to think that this is also their system. However, most people would not understand the meaning of such a system before meeting George the Cyclist - Even More miles...Even Less money! George you can use that for your book title - my gift to you. Just kidding...but not really...but seriously.

In addition to taking him through new and unknown places, George’s miles regularly carry him through places where he sees things that he loves: film and bicycle racing. Each year, George makes a pilgrimage to France to watch and follow the Tour de France. He rides the Tour route on his Trek 520, with loaded panniers, cycling and camping along the length of almost every stage. He has become something of a permanent fixture along the Tour route, having ridden its length during the past six years. When we rode together in China, George was wearing, as part of his layering, Garmin winter kit - bibs and jersey - that had been given to him personally by Christian Vande Velde after the last Tour de France. When the mercury rose above 50 degrees or so - rare - I might actually see it for a moment, but usually it was buried beneath various other wind breakers, jackets, etc. George rides the tour in his own style, and apparently, the style is finding its audience and George is finding his niche in the seemingly wild menagerie of Tour fans. Naturally, George camps in his tent in the forests and on the farms along the Tour route, rarely staying in a hotel. $10/day is his standard global travel budget, no matter where he goes, including accommodation and food. Plenty for an enthusiastic bicycle touring Tour enthusiast - what better way to bring “Tour” back to the Tour?

George’s other passion is film. He makes visits to Cannes, France and to Telluride, CO for their Film Festivals each year. It was at the Telluride Film Festival that I met George just before Seize The World got underway. We went on a bicycle ride together up to Lizard Head Pass during which I picked his brain about bicycle touring, travel, and similar topics. We agreed that it would be great if, at some point, we could meet out on the road and go touring. The dream became a reality a little more than a year later in Wuhan, China.

At this point, I am just hooked and inspired by the story of George The Cyclist as one more example of the idea that people can have active lives. While George does not face the challenge of epilepsy, he certainly faces other challenges - challenges which he overcomes regularly on the road. George travels on a very slim budget, and he is hopelessly addicted to a method of travel that is physically very demanding. These things do not hold him back. Speaking for myself, being now hooked on the story, and convinced that George has figured out the challenges of traveling anywhere in the world by bicycle, I can only hope that he will continue to document and share his experiences of exploring the world. I hope to help in any capacity that I might be able.

This was something that we discussed while on the road: how best to share the experience of a bicycle tour. A blog, a book, facebook, etc. When the book comes out, I’ll order copies - that’s all I will say. Until then, let me know when you want to go on another tour.

Right now, I am at a Starbucks buried underground in a massive shopping mall in Beijing. There is WiFi here, and there are lattes. Outside, there are busses to Badaling, where I will visit the Great Wall of China later today. It is a brisk day, maybe 45 degrees. Hazy air quality, not too cloudy, but hazy. Afterward, I will return to the Forbidden City Hostel for a night of rest, and tomorrow I will visit the Forbidden City and walk around Tiananmen Square for a little while before flying to Tokyo to meet my friend Ian on Friday afternoon. The beginning of a two week tour in Japan. More to come about all of that soon. It is a large place here.

-Stephen

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 http://seizetheworld.com you can see several photos of us and a most thorough report on our week together.

Later, George

Monday, November 23, 2009

Anyang, China

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.

Later, George

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Xiping, China

Friends: Four days of cycling with Stephen and there is still hardly a lull in our conversation, on the bike and off. We both have slight sore throats from exercising our vocal chords more than we have in weeks.

But as deep in conversation as we may be as we're cycling along, Stephen has not lost his radar for slower moving vehicles about to overtake us that are draftable, a skill he developed to precision while in India, where he did considerable drafting as well as grabbing hold of vehicles for a totally free pull.

All that drafting he did in India has made chasing after slower-moving vehicles a conditioned reflex. His ears and his subconscious are fully attuned to the chugging sound of a vehicle straining to maintain a speed of twenty to twenty-five miles per hour. My only alert that he's about to explode with a sudden burst of energy is the quick look he gives over his shoulder to confirm that he does indeed have a vehicle to draft.

That sound, that doesn't yet register with me, instantaneously transforms him into a bicycling fiend, even if he is lagging along. It effects him so spontaneously and deeply, he doesn't even give out a shout of excitement or warning that in an instant he's about to accelerate full-tilt and give chase. He just becomes focused on catching that vehicle like a dog with its ears back taking off after a rabbit. He was so determined to get across India as fast as he could, it become an obsession, almost of desperation, to seize the opportunity to latch onto a moderately moving vehicle to speed up the process. He was ever on the alert for them.

I have to be very quick to react to Stephen's sudden acceleration, otherwise I'll be left behind. Sometimes the vehicle is one of those smaller three-wheeled vehicles piled high with cargo that are so common. They make excellent drafting for one but not two, so I have to ride on Stephen's wheel, which doesn't provide as much of a wind-break as he's receiving.

Yesterday we were both behind a large truck, Stephen on the right side and I on the left, a perfect situation. The driver stuck his head out his window to verify what he was seeing in his mirror, and gave me a smile. After a few minutes Stephen edged off to the side of the truck in search of a hand hold. He found one and grabbed it. I swung a little left and saw one I could grab too. Almost instantly the driver began blasting his horn, letting us know that he did not approve of us putting our hands on his truck. We both let go just as he sped up and left us behind.

China is the 22nd country Stephen has passed through on his round-the-world tour. He has one to go, Japan. After a couple weeks there he will fly to Seattle and finish off his circuit to his starting point in Telluride. Other than his couple thousand mile stretch across the U.S. from Colorado to Charleston, South Carolina, his longest stretch across a country is the 1,200 miles of India from Bombay to Calcutta. China would have exceeded that, but time constraints will limit his bicycling here to 700 of the 1,700 miles of his route from Vietnam to Beijing.

Our conversation has included anecdotes from every country, but none more than India, partially because I too biked the same National Highway Six across the country that was Stephen's route, but mostly because it was such a uniquely intense experience unlike any other segment of his travels. India hadn't changed much in the fifteen years between our travels. It was a nightmare for both of us--horrid road conditions, way too much traffic with each and every truck, bus, motorcycle and automobile blasting their horn as they passed, and swarms of people descending upon us whenever we stopped, who would stare and stare as long as we lingered. But we both had many people treat us with great kindness and cordiality, and we could not help but have a fondness for the country, true of everywhere we have traveled.

India was one of three places Stephen was most looking forward to when he set out on this trip. The others were Egypt for its pyramids and China with its Great Wall. The pyramids did not disappoint, nor has China. We both regularly comment that we will be sure to return to China. Its a shame Stephen has a flight to catch to Tokyo on the 27th, less than a week away, to meet up with a friend, as it will force him to take a bus or train the final 400 miles to Beijing.

The highlight of his travels has been the week he spent with his mother in Chang Mai, Thailand, almost a year into his travels, a point at which he was really missing home. He acknowledges he is eager to get home and get this over with and isn't quite as motivated as he was early on to spend the day on his bike.

Today was a good day, a rare day with a tail wind. He still remembers a day across New Mexico early on as his favorite day of the trip when he had a sensational tailwind allowing him to do 115 miles, one of three centuries he's had. One of his other centuries was his last day across India into Calcutta when he had his best day of grabbing hold of trucks, giving him a free ride much of the way.

India was one of two places where a father invited Stephen to marry his daughter. The other was in Turkey. He's had easy and difficult border crossings. The worst was from Turkey into Syria. He was left dangling at the border for several hours before a border official finally stamped his passport after playing a bit of a cat-and-mouse game with him, another incident he can now laugh about.

After two nights of wild camping we are back in a hotel here in Xiping. Tomorrow promises more tailwinds with the temperature possibly in the 50s, the warmest I've had since arriving in Wuhan over a week ago. Today was the first day we saw no snow since leaving Wuhan. We're under 600 miles now to Beijing, still a long ways to go but I'm growing more confident that the weather will hold and I can make it all the way on the bike.

Later, George

Friday, November 20, 2009

Xinyang, China

Friends: Thanks to eating out a couple times with Julie-Ann at some genuine restaurants in Xian with menus and someone serving the meal other than the person who cooked it, unlike the mini-roadside-restaurants I ordinarily dine at, I knew that the four scratch cards Stephen and I were given along with the receipt for our meal at the luxurious restaurant at the deluxe hotel/resort/spa/convention center we were forced to stay at a couple nights ago were lottery tickets, and we had the chance of winning enough to pay for our extravagance, though not much of a chance, as Julie-Ann said not once in her three years of living in China had she scratched off a winner.

Julie-Ann explained that the lottery tickets had something to do with making sure businesses paid their taxes, as the lottery tickets they were obligated to give out indicated a sale. The tax-collectors could look at their booklet of tickets and based on the number that were torn out, they could calculate the amount of income the business had taken in. I'm not sure if that's exactly right, but it's probably close.

Knowing that we didn't have much of a chance of winning anything, and not having much of a gambler's demeanor anyway, I had no urge to do any scratching. Instead, the idea occurred to me that the four tickets would make a decent little gesture of a gift for the semi-English speaking attendant who had befriended us when we arrived at the hotel and agreed to let us stay for 218 yuan when the lowest posted price was 568. He spent nearly an hour escorting us around the vast complex of the Tianzi Lake Resort, fifty miles north of Wuhan, taking us from the gated entrance to the palatial main building to check in, then to our accommodations half a mile away past a couple of lakes and a golden statue of Mao, and then to the restaurant, another half mile hike, making sure everything was okay with our room and assisting us in ordering our dinner, even finding a packet of instant coffee for Stephen, a rare treasure.

He had already turned down a monetary tip, as has everyone Stephen and I have encountered during our time in China, but I thought this might be different, appealing to the Chinese love of gambling. When I mentioned to Julie-Ann I was surprised to see so many people playing cards and mahjong at small tables along the road in front of their homes and shops, she immediately said, "Why of course. They're all gambling." Even she can't play a friendly game of mahjong with friends without there being money at stake.

We fully expected to see our benefactor waiting for us the next morning when we came down from our third floor heated room in a huge building where we were the only guests, what this being the cold off-season, but he wasn't there and we were free to at last ride our bikes on the grounds back to the main building to turn in our key card and retrieve our 100 yuan deposit. At the reception desk were four young women, all bundled up in coats, and along with them the woman who had accompanied us on our rounds the evening before. I was happy to give the lottery tickets to her, as she had been equally helpful and cordial, never losing her smile, though not quite as brave with her English as the young man. She pulled out a coin and promptly rubbed all four of the tickets, shaking her head sideways four times. No surprise.

It took a little while for our receipt to be printed up and our deposit returned. While we waited, a young woman brought us two cups of hot water on a tray and gestured for us to take a seat on a nearby couch. When at last our deposit and receipt was brought to us, it included two more of those scratch-to-see-if-you-won slips. The woman knew we didn't care to check them ourselves, being as observant and as quick to assist as just about everyone we have encountered, so did it for us. After the second one she let out a yelp of delight, and thrust the slip towards us to show us we were a winner.

Looking at it, all we saw was a string of Chinese characters that meant nothing to us. I had no idea that I wouldn't have known whether we had won or not, never looking at Julie-Ann's cards. Looking at it I couldn't even tell how much we had won. Could it possibly be enough to pay for this super-splurge of ours? Even our dinner was an extravagance, eating in our own private room at a table with eight golden high-backed chairs, attended to by a handful of waitresses, as we seemed to be their only customers for the night, eating off monogrammed plates and bowls with an array of utensils meticulously arranged and mounted on various holders. Someone with a crown should have been at this table, not us lowly cyclists in our tights and multiple layers of bedraggled clothes in this unheated room.

I followed the woman who had scratched off the lottery ticket to the reception desk for our winnings. As a woman rummaged through her cash drawers I saw her withdraw a shiny bill unlike any I had seen. Could it possibly be a 500 or a 1,000? The highest I had come across was a 100. But the bill was just a ten. It only looked different as all the tens I was accustomed to seeing were so well circulated they had lost their initial luster. It was enough to pay for our lunch later that day, no big deal, but at least I can report to Julie-Ann that it is possible to win and that she should keep scratching away.

An even bigger thrill for the day was happening upon a bike mechanic-seamstress who could sew up the hole in the toe of my cycling shoe. The front of the shoe is mesh, so the hole wasn't allowing that much more  heat to escape, but it contributed to my bedraggled look, and was something that people occasionally pointed out to me, and no doubt was noticed by the many who continually scour me and my gear from head to foot.

Stephen was the one who saw a guy sewing a child's shoe on the sidewalk in front of a woman we had just bought a couple of freshly baked flour patties from, and suggested I give him a try. We had just had lunch, so the few minutes to let the food digest was welcome. The man took thirty minutes to do the repair, even doing some extra sewing along the side of my three year old shoe that had over 25,000 miles on it. His charge, three yuans, less than fifty cents. "No wonder Nike has their shoes made here," Stephen commented.

We were able to camp last night in a small forest with patches of snow around us. We're hoping to be in our tents again tonight. The temperature remains not much more than forty, but we have had some sunny days and are making progress and happy to be on our bikes.

Later, George

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Wuhan Days 4 and 5

Friends: Stephen miscalculated the time of his train trip from Guilin to Wuhan thinking it was 3 hours, when it was in fact 15, so he arrived at 11 a.m., not 11 p.m., making our appointed rendezvous of noon impossible. He didn't realize the length of the train trip until midnight when the train hadn't arrived in Wuhan yet, so he had no way of letting me know of his delay.

I waited for him at the appointed McDonald's until 1:30. I wasn't the only one there lingering. It was an unofficial warming center for lots of people, many of whom bought nothing. A grandmother sat knitting while her grand-daughter did homework. I finally went to the Internet to see if there was any message from Stephen and also to send out one of my own.

I didn't envy him at all trying to get to our meeting point in pelting snow flurries on icy roads. If he had arrived at noon, we would have had the dilemma of setting out in these conditions. I didn't mind at all having the decision of "no go" forced on me. Little did I know what travails he was suffering. The train station was on the other side of the Yangzi, so he had to cross the long, high two-mile bridge in such conditions. He was lucky though to be doing it in daylight hours, and after some sleep, having paid for a bed on the train.

When I went on line there was no word from him. He was trying to find an Internet outlet at that point himself. He had arrived at what he thought was our meeting point right around 1:30. Unfortunately, it was the third of three McDonald's all within a few blocks of one another, one that I wasn't aware of. It was near an Adidas store that was one of our landmarks, but not the same Adidas store as the one I described. The way to the hotel I was staying at was near the second Adidas. When Stephen tried to find the hotel using the other Adidas as a guide, he couldn't.

We knew it wouldn't be easy to connect in China, but it was turning out to be harder than we thought. We finally both found ourselves on line a little after five. We were just a few blocks apart. We made arrangements to meet at the McDonald's on the pedestrian mall that I first suggested between six and seven. But we failed again, as Stephen stuck to the McDonald's on a different pedestrian mall that I didn't know about, failing to follow the detailed directions I had sent him several days ago to a different McDonald's on a different pedestrian mall a few blocks away.

So it was back to the Internet at my hotel. No further word from Stephen. But when I signed off and came out the door there was Stephen lugging his bike up the stairs. He'd gone back to my original email and got the directions right to the hotel. He was desperate as he'd run out of money. He had tried to check into a hotel leaving his watch as a deposit, but he was refused, so he had to find me. At last, seven-and-a-half hours after we had hoped to connect, we finally had. It was too good to be true.

Stephen in his wanderings had discovered a Wal-Mart Superstore nearby. We both needed long underwear, which we knew we could find there. Wal-Mart also offers a surprisingly good deli and also a warm place to eat, something that is not easy to find. If I had known about this Wal-Mart I would have spent a considerable amount of time there the past two days. We were thrilled to find a set of fleece-lined tops and bottoms for less than $15. As we sat and ate, it was the first time either of us had been warm all day. As we gabbed away, raving about how much we both enjoyed China and much more, just barely making a dent in all we have to talk about, we were told the store was closing. We were shocked to see it was ten p.m.

Stephen had had his credit cards stolen in Vietnam and had to arrange a Wells Fargo money transfer with his mother. He was down to his last seven yuans after paying for the hotel. He was on line until one a.m. arranging it. There was a Wells Fargo outlet just a few blocks from our hotel. We had to go to several different places though to find it and then to another to get the cash. We couldn't find it, so returned to Wells Fargo to ask again where it was. Stephen commented, "If I make it through today without a seizure, I'll be happy"

It was nice to hear that he had a sense of humor about his epilepsy. He kept apologizing for putting me through this. I said I didn't mind at all, as I had frequently wondered how I would deal with the loss of my credit cards. I was getting a first hand lesson without the personal agony. When we returned to the Wells Fargo office, we were told their shipment of US currency for the day had arrived, so we had to search no further. Stephen was given the money he was wired in US one hundred dollar bills. Then we had to go to a Bank of China to have some of it changed into yuans.

Outside the bank a couple guys offered to change money. Their rate was agreeable, especially since it didn't include a commission nor a long wait with a lot of paperwork. When one guy seemed to say he had to go and get money and was going to take the one hundred dollar bill Stephen had given him, I saw Stephen start to protest and then slowly collapse into my arms. At first I thought he was just faking incredulity that the guy would suggest such a thing, but no, that feared seizure had struck.

It wasn't a tremendous surprise after the stress of the past day, but it still wasn't something I expected to happen. I hadn't even bothered to ask Stephen what I should do if one should strike. Fortunately, I had read about his two previous seizures on this trip, and knew that he just needed to slowly regain consciousness. Still, it was a most unsettling sight to watch him writhe on the sidewalk for a minute or so and gurgle out some blood, having bit his tongue, and vomit, as his eyes rolled about.

A crowd quickly gathered, with several people offering tissues to wipe his face and helping to keep his arms folded on his chest and assisting in putting his gloves back on his hands. He was unconscious for ten minutes or so. I was about to dig out my sleeping bag to drape over him when police and an ambulance showed up. I knew he didn't need to go to a hospital, though it took considerable effort to prevent it. A crew with a stretcher was very eager to whisk him away.

Someone from the bank came out who spoke English. I explained the situation. The paramedics agreed to let him lay in the back of the ambulance until he recovered. I at first kept a door open and maintained a position to block the ambulance if it decided to make a break for it. When they assured me they would stay put, I joined Stephen in the ambulance. The woman from the bank offered to look after our bikes. I said our hotel was just four blocks away and that Stephen would be okay soon.

By now he had regained consciousness and was talking a bit. He was concerned when the ambulance started moving, as I asked it to back up alongside our bikes. He assured me he didn't want to go to a hospital and he was slowly recovering, just a few minutes more. A woman paramedic spoke some English. The police and a couple of the other attendants really wanted to take him to the hospital. I kept telling them them it would be pointless.

Stephen was becoming more and more coherent and knew he was just a couple minutes away from being okay. When he was ready to rise, he came out of it with great aplomb and even had the strength to carry his bike with all its gear up the two fights of stairs to our hotel, where we had checked out of less than an hour before.

Stephen said he just needed to sleep and he was sure he would be fine and ready to roll tomorrow. We have plans to watch "2012" tonight at the multiplex on the seventh floor of the department store building down the street. A day's delay will also give the snow and ice along the road a chance to melt. All is well. What might have seemed like a traumatic crisis is just something that is part of Stephen's life and that he knows how to handle. I was happy to be on hand to keep some calm among all the pedestrians and officials.

Later, George

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Wuhan Day 3

Friends: During two days of periodically scrolling through the thirteen stations available to me on the TV in my hotel room, only twice did I come upon an American production. Both were movies, one dubbed and one not.

The dubbed was something with Nicolas Cage and Gary Sinese that I did not recognize, nor did I care to stick with long enough to try to figure out what it might be. The movie with English actually coming out of the mouths of the actors was "Behind Enemy Lines," a Bosnia war movie from 2001 starring Gene Hackman and Owen Wilson. My ears weren't so desperate for English to keep me tuned to that for very long either.

Instead, I preferred to periodically channel surf as I read, hoping for a glimpse of Obama arriving in China. Oddly enough, programs didn't necessarily end and start on the hour, so I couldn't be on heightened alert for a news program when the minute hand on my watch pointed north.

Still, I kept perusing, curious to what I might see. At least two, and at times more, stations were devoted to animated fare. I wasn't surprised, as I'd just read a story about the popularity of animation in China, though not necessarily of that originating in China. A survey of teens revealed that of their twenty favorite cartoon characters, only one was Chinese. The rest were Japanese. A Chinese producer commented, "This is a very thought provoking phenomenon." No further analysis was offered. The Chinese though are putting resources into developing a huge studio devoted to animation to capture their share of the market.

One of the TV stations was devoted to demonstrations of various products for sale. Song contests were a popular program. The only other foreign show I saw, beside the two American movies, and perhaps some Japanese animation, was an Australian adventure show searching out and taunting snakes. The dubbing made it impossible to watch. There was a Chinese version of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" and a wide assortment of melodramas and an occasional documentary and news show. I kept hoping to find some basketball, but the only sporting event was a soccer match.

I caught a glimpse of a weather forecast with single digit Celsius temperatures for highs around the northern two-thirds of the country. When I sign on to yahoo it gives me the local temperature. Right now late in the afternoon it is 40 degrees. I only lasted an hour this morning in my further exploration of the city. I couldn't ride hard enough to generate enough body heat to stay warm. Among my discoveries was a market devoted to animals, some as pets and some as food--there were pigeons and parakeets and dogs and cats and fish.

I still kept hoping to find an English newspaper. But not even a four-floor book store had any. They had an assortment of books in English, including a full table devoted to Obama. One was a collection of presidential inaugural addresses. The Chinese censored several paragraphs from the broadcast of Obama's speech, but I don't know if the book was similarly censored. Besides the usual classics, there were also quite a few books relating to business. One was authored by Warren Buffet.

The weather for tomorrow promises to be no better than today's. The predicted high is 36 degrees with rain and snow. Its actually warmer in Beijing, 770 miles due north. It won't be the best of conditions to start my riding with Stephen. He arrives at eleven tonight by train. I'll be hoping the sky will be less moisture-filled as we head north away from the Yangzi. Each of my days here has been misty, no doubt effected by the huge body of water flowing past.

The cold could be a shock to Stephen's system, as he didn't make it too far out of the southern part of the country. He got bogged down in the karst region in the first province he came to after crossing from Vietnam. But Stephen has ridden in such cold temperatures at the start of this trip in the U.S. last October and November and then in Spain and France last winter. We'll have so much to talk about, we may not be aware of the cold at all.

The question now is where we will end up meeting. Will Stephen track me down at my hotel tonight or tomorrow morning, or will our rendezvous take place at the nearby McDonald's? And will we head straight out tomorrow or will be go shopping for an extra layer or two? Or might we rethink the advisability of heading north to Beijing. My original plan was to fly back from Hong Kong and flee the cold. But when I learned I could switch my return flight from Beijing for less than $150 and have ten days of biking with Stephen, that was an opportunity I could not resist.

I nearly bought another wool sweater this morning from a sidewalk vendor when I thought the price was seven dollars. It was actually three times that. Maybe tomorrow that will not seem such a bad deal.

Later, George

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Wuhan Day 2

Friends: Government officials and business leaders here in China frequently make mention of "meeting international standards" and draw comparisons to "developed countries" as they outline their plans and aspirations for China.

There is evidence everywhere of an idea someone saw in the West and implemented here. The city of Wuhan has adopted the wildly successful bike rental program launched by the French a little more than two years ago that has spread to cities all over the world. Not so long ago everyone in China had a bicycle. That is far from the case now, so much so that there is a healthy demand even here for easily and cheaply accessible rental bikes.

I couldn't ride more than a few blocks in the congested central district of this city of over five million without coming upon a row of the lime-green one-speeds with a front basket available for hire. And quite a few were in use, ridden by young and old, male and female. Some were joy-riding in the wide, magnificent park that hugs the wide Yangzi River for miles. It was superbly landscaped, beautified by sculptures, lined with benches and had multiple trails and walkways. It was world-class in every respect. Down the middle was a wide promenade perfect for kids just getting comfortable on the bike.

There were many bikes, too, in use negotiating the city's grid-locked streets, that had all traffic reduced to pedestrian speed. All those crawling cars ought to have had every one of their prisoners wishing they were on a bike, remembering the recent good ol' days when there were few cars and bicycles flowed freely and easily, and they would have been wherever they wanted to be long ago. A mono-rail is under construction to help alleviate some of the congestion, but it's going to take a lot more than that.

Among my objectives for the day was not to get lost and to stay warm. In the summer months its so blistering hot and humid in Wuhan it is known as one of the "Three Furnaces of China." The others are Nanjing and Chongqing. But not now. It was barely 50 degrees and a low, damp ceiling added an extra chill to the air while also hiding the tops of the skyscrapers, including a 100-story building that is among the twenty tallest in the world.  If it had only been visible, I could have used it as a reference point.

I was especially wary about getting lost last night when I ventured out from my hotel, off on a side street, that I had been led to by a kindly soul from the Internet cafe. I had asked the person overseeing the cafe if she knew of a cheap hotel in the vicinity. She turned the question over to an assistant, who then summoned someone at a computer. No one spoke any English. I wrote forty on a piece of paper. He took my pen and wrote "50-60." I nodded my head "yes." He led me out on the street as he talked on his cell phone. He told me to wait. A minute later I saw him go past on his motorcycle. A couple minutes later he returned and gestured for me to follow.

When we got to the hotel he helped carry my gear up to the third floor entry. I pulled out my passport, but he waved it away, instead giving his ID for them to use to fill out the registry. I noticed on the wall the cheapest room was 58 yuan. But when I was handed the receipt, after saying I'd stay for two nights, the rate was forty yuan. My benefactor had bargained well. When I offered him twenty yuan he refused it.

It was the nicest of the three hotels I have stayed at with towels and toilet paper and even toothpaste and toothbrush provided. The WC was down the hall and it came with piping hot water. But like the other two, there was no heat. The people running the hotel were all bundled up in jackets, as was everyone in the Internet cafe and on the streets.

The hotel was in the middle of the night market. The sidewalks were clogged with food stands and stands selling all manner of merchandise. They were packed with people, all happily out on a Friday night. Though the receipt for the hotel only had its name in Chinese, the streets nearby were spelled out in Roman letters as well as Chinese characters, so I had some hope of finding my way back if I got disoriented. I had a bowl of rice at one stand and a bowl of noodles at another.

Besides staying warm and not getting lost today, I wanted to find one of the two daily English Chinese newspapers what with Obama arriving in China today. But not a single news stand had one, nor did any of the bookstores I tried. The Renaissance Hotel had "USA Today," but that didn't interest me. Another hotel had a single copy of the "China Times" but it was on a rack with a wooden rod through it such as libraries sometimes use, for hotel patrons only. Though Wuhan is one of the larger cities in China and a lively commercial center, it attracts few Westerners, unlike Xian, where the English newspapers were readily available. I even went in search of universities, as I'd been told earlier in the trip that was a good place to find the newspapers, but not here, only lots of cheap food vendors.

I did have success though in finding the McDonald's where I am to meet Stephen the day after tomorrow. It's on the other side of the Yangzi. I feared I'd have to take a ferry, but I noticed an occasional bicycle and pedestrian on one of the two bridges that cross the river. Bicyclists weren't allowed on the entry ramp however. They had to climb several sets of stairs to get to the two-mile long bridge.

The McDonald's was just a mile from the bridge, down a set of stairs by the entry to a mobbed Wal-Mart Superstore. It's not the best of meeting places. There's actually a McDonald's just five blocks from my hotel in a pedestrian mall that would be much easier to sit inside and keep an eye on a loaded bicycle. I'm hoping Stephen will check his email before we meet and will agree to that for our docking.

Later, George

Friday, November 13, 2009

Wuhan, China

Friends: As I loaded my bike yesterday morning in the lobby, better described as an entryway, of the hotel I ended up at, the young proprietor presented me with a cardboard bowl of noodles, still in its cellophane wrapper, my frequent dinner meal, a very modest gift, but not an unwelcome one.

He must have been feeling sympathy for me as I prepared to go back out into the cold misty rain that forced me to take refuge at the hotel. He seemed to be suggesting that I stay another night or at least take a bus. The predicted high for the day was 41. It was going to be a less than enjoyable day on the bike, but lingering at the unheated hotel wouldn't have been much more enjoyable. Maybe if there had been a heated restaurant in the vicinity or if the Internet cafe across the street had heat, I would have considered waiting out the weather. But I've endured worse riding conditions, though not by much.

Before sleep the night before I sat in bed reading, legs tucked in my sleeping bag and blanket wrapped around my shoulders, with my thermometer reading 50.4 degrees. Every cough and every nasal drip had me fearing the approach of pneumonia. I had the usual thermos of boiling water for some warmth, but not a hot shower. I was desperate enough though to wash my hair that I at least did that with the hand held nozzle.

As at the previous hotel I stayed at, I wasn't allowed to bring my bike to my room. It was such a small, quiet hotel, with I the only guest, I had no qualms leaving it downstairs, front wheel locked to the frame. As I finished reattaching all my gear, allowing the proprietor extra time to feel sympathy for me, he had another gift for me--a Mao medallion on a red ribbon, something that will go straight to the I Due Art 4 You Museum back in Chicago when I return.

As this was going to be the coldest day of these travels, I dug deep into my panniers for all the layers I could find. For the first time I put on the winter, long-sleeve official Garmin team jersey that Christian Vande Velde had given me along with a pair of tights and a box of Clif bars in exchange for three Tour de France course markers that I'd scavenged from last year's race route for him. I had delivered them to him at his Chicago suburban house just before I left for China, as he was home, his season cut short by a crash at the Tour of Missouri, a race he had won the year before, the year he vaulted into national prominence with a fourth place finish in the Tour de France.

I was somewhat hesitant about bringing the sponsor-splattered blue and orange jersey to China, not wishing to startle the locals with something so gaudy and so official-looking, but I knew it was an optimum piece of gear that could come in handy. I didn't need to worry about calling attention to myself today with the jersey, as it was buried under a sweater and a vest and a wind-breaker and a Gore-tex jacket. I also added an extra layer over my feet, putting on my booties for the first time.

I wasn't exactly brimming with warmth, but I was less close to shivering than I had been the day before, when any descent brought on a chill. The road was messy enough that I couldn't exert myself  to come close to a sweat. And since I had to keep moving to stay warm, I had to ration my effort so I could keep riding and not have to pause for a break. I had the road pretty much to myself, thanks to a bridge that was out that only foot and two-wheeled traffic could get around. There were buses at either end of the bridge, but no trucks for miles.

Unlike the day before I found an enclosed restaurant for lunch, though it was only heated by a boiling pot of water for noodles. Shortly after lunch the low-lying cloud cover began to lift and there was a slight brightening of the sky. The rain stopped and patches of dry pavement began to appear. I could accelerate my speed a bit, and with the blood flowing a little faster, I could begin to feel a surge of warmth return to my extremities.

I stopped at a gas station to wash all the grit off my bike and gear and to wash my socks. Suddenly being on the bike had my heart light and I could even contemplate a night in my tent if I could find some higher ground that wasn't muddy or saturated. That happened around 4:30 in a thick banana grove behind a mini-tree farm forest. I pulled off a dozen or more dead brown bananas leaves to soften and level the ground. It was going to be a cold night, but not much colder than my hotel room. It was cold enough for the first frost. The wash cloth I had left draped over my bike was encrusted with ice in the morning, but it had been a fine night.

My reading alternated between Thurston Clarke's travel book "Equator" and one of the newspapers I still had from Xian. Its impossible to read an issue without coming across some statistic, almost beyond conceiving, that emphasizes the huge population of China, 1.3 billion, one-fifth of the planet. Tonight's was that with one in five people in China presently learning English, China will soon have more English speakers than the U.S. There is also sure to be a story or statistic about China's increasing wealth and economic might. Demand for jewelry is on the rise in China. It is now the third largest diamond consuming nation in the world. Diamond sales in the U.S. fell twenty per cent last year, while it rose twelve point seven per cent in China.

So I've made it to the huge city of Wuhan, where it will be a couple nights in a hotel while I await Stephen. It was no joy entering this sprawling city of over five million, but I knew once I found the Yangzi River, I'd get my bearings. Now I'll have two days to explore what it has to offer and scout the way out.

Later, George