The first three days were sheer bliss.
We got off the boat with all our gear intact– nothing stolen, nothing lost, nothing confiscated – and several hours earlier than expected, meaning that we had about five hours to kill before meeting up with our Couchsurfing host, who had volunteered to come out to the harbor to meet us. We had no maps, no needs, no plans, no nothing, so we decided to just wander. We zipped around the city at random, reveling in the freedom that a bicycle (equipped with panniers) offered; I thought back to my days backpacking in Southeast Asia and how my arrival was always marred by the immediate need to find a hotel, and by the millions of touts and taxi driver seeking to make a pretty penny off of my desperation. It always made me feel powerless, since I knew that they were overcharging me for everything but that it would take me hours to walk around and find a place on my own, and inauthentic, since I was no doubt going to wind up in a room that another foreigner had been at the night before. The event often nearly traumatized me to the point that I couldn’t help but feel skeptical about the town I had wound up in, or the enterprise of travel itself. Like “an insect on a dead thing,” as David Foster Wallace put it. On a bicycle, on the contrary, touts don’t bug you because they couldn’t take you anywhere even if you wanted to, and carrying your gear is easy enough that finding lodging doesn’t feel urgent, even if you aren’t couchsurfing. Actually, it feels safer to have all your stuff on you and in front of your eyes than it would to have it locked up in a room to which someone else quite likely has a key.
(An incident at customs that may or may not reveal something about the character of Chinese public servants: After passing through immigration and getting our passports stamped, we had to run our gear through an x-ray machine, as did all the other five hundred or so people who had been on the boat with us. The security guards only let people approach the one machine in groups of twenty or so to keep things going smooth. Mingyu and I have so many bags that we can’t carry them all at once, so we had to make a couple trips to the machine to load them on, meaning that we couldn’t follow them through. Not much to my surprise, none of the guards on duty anticipated or cared about the situation, so that our bags ran through the conveyor then just fell off the other end and started piling up. People who had run their bags through between our loads had to rush to get them before they became part of our mountain; meanwhile, at least six guards just stood around chatting.)
In any case, not an hour off the boat, Mingyu and I were already bona fide traveling. Whatever mental energy I wasn’t dedicating to trying not to get smashed by buses plowing through the giant traffic circles, I attempted to spend on reflecting about how the reality of China compared to my expectations. Of course, I had tried to not to have any expectations, believing that a)they don’t matter much, and b)they’d probably be wrong anyway. So, here’s what I noticed: there were a lot of tall buildings. Way tall, like Seoul. This city, Dalian, has about four million people in it, and yet we hardly know it’s on the map. Second, lots more dudes with their shirts partially or all the way off. Many were rolled up and resting on pot bellies, though plenty were raised allllll the way up the (hairless) chest, exposing many a man-nipple. Third, not clean, but not particularly dirty. Certainly not enough to justify the “Oh, it’s dirty there!” response that ninety percent of Koreans gave me when after hearing that I was going to China. Fourth, despite the skyscrapers, something felt like India. Maybe it was all the storefronts with funny lettering, or all the people sitting about on stairs, or everyone selling fruit and vegetables and whatever else on the street. Fifth, weirdly enough, it also felt like Washington, D.C. The rotaries gave me a serious sense of déjà vu, particularly the ones surrounded by banks built in the classical style, with columns and all. I half expected to see a statue of Lincoln inside of one of them.
Eventually we stumbled upon a market and marveled at all the fruits – mangos, American style pears (I can no longer use that description without a sense of colonialism, but I don’t know the appropriate way to distinguish them from “Asian” pears, which of course Koreans [and other Asians, I assume) just call “ears.”), mangosteens, durians, plums, peaches, Pink Lady apples, American style grapes (again), jujubes, and more. We looked around for somewhere to eat, but were somewhat hampered by our fear of being ripped off, which is the second thing Koreans always tell you to watch out for. (The third is murderers/organ snatchers), so we finally settled on a kind of bread stall where the prices were listed and I could read the menu well enough to see that nothing had meat in it. For a total of about a dollar, we purchased these beauties: [Changed my mind. Look for the picture in the upcoming food post.]
One giant cabbage or spinach dumpling, one big polenta chunk, and two big corn fritters filled with cabbage, cucumbers, squash, and some very nice herbs. Total vegetarian jackpot. We ate in an apartment complex and watched old men who had been watching other old men play a game of chess shift their attention to us and our bikes. Two approached us and we tried to talk, but couldn’t get much further than “We’re not Chinese. I’m an American, he’s a Korean.” Not bad for Day 1, though!
Already more or less completely lost, we decided to find our way back to the port so as not to be late for our appointment. This we did, with a brief stop on a nice long set of steps to try our first real Chinese beer – a tiny 330ml can of Tsingtao bought at a convenience store for about 60 cents. Once again, not bad!
We then met our host right on time and proceeded to head to his house and get to know each other over…more beers! Tsingtao again, this time in big 660ml bottles. Then, believe it or not, we headed to his school, where he had arranged for a Chinese teacher to give us a two-hour lesson, free of charge. She taught us the basics about pronunciation, numbers, haggling and a few other goodies.
At dinner time, we hopped into a taxi with a couple other friends and went to a pretty posh place where everyone ordered separate sides that then became stuffing for little Chinese burritos. What a wonderful thing couchsurfing is, and what wonderful people couchsurfers are!
We spent the next morning riding out to “”Strange Road” and “18 Hairpin Road,” both of which we saw in one of our host’s tourist guide books. The way out was beautiful, totally landscaped for 10km or more, with tons of weird giant statues of snails and bugs and, and lots of brides and grooms out getting their wedding photos taken. When we finally reached the road itself, though, there was nothing to see. Except for a billion crabs, squids, sharks, and other oversized sea creatures embedded into the cliff walls. I got the feeling that the government, or someone, just makes up random and arbitrary tourist attractions so that they can charge people entrance fees. We went back home, cleaned up, then went back to school for one more class. Afterwards we went to the market with our host, bought some vegetables, went home, and taught Mingyu all about homemade burritos.
On day three we did a bit of shopping in the morning – camera batteries for Minggyu, a tripod for me – and then our host helped us haggle over SIM card details. Now, for the first time in my life, I’m the proud owner of a shiny pink smartphone that my friend Chanhyeok donated to me for the trip. GPS and maps while on the road. And the ability to make emergency phone calls! Nice. Then our host went to work while Minggyu and I went off in search of a few other necessities; somehow in just a couple of days, and with just a pair of lessons, I had picked up enough Chinese to make my way around the supermarket to ask for butane canisters, to find a spare asthma inhaler at the pharmacy, and to take care of some mystery business at the post office. Chinese isn’t so tough after all! We reconvened once again at dinner time and headed around the corner to a super nice looking place with a 10 meter long display case filled with plastic-wrapped replicas of everything on the menu. I picked out some asparagus, which was served sautéed with garlic; Minggyu got spicy Szechuan chicken that made everyone’s mouths go numb; we also had a shitake and bak choi dish and some sort of blanched leafy vegetable side that tasted like the marshmallows from lucky charms. No joke.
After three days of such Couchsurfing heaven, we were sufficiently well equipped materially, linguistically, and food-knowledgably to begin our trip. Navigating our way out of the city was a bit of a mess, as the road we wanted to follow kept zigging into and out from under this giant highway. Which leads me to mention – the highways here, or at least this one here, runs directly over the already-existing city roads, so that using the city roads becomes a real pain. You can’t turn off whenever you want, but only at designated points, meaning that for the sake of those who want to travel between big cities quickly, those who want to go about their business in smaller cities are inconvenienced. In any case, eventually we hit open road. We went over a few small hills, then reached the coast of some bay whose name I still haven’t been able to figure out. For a while, we soaked in the clean coastal air, the silent roads, and the occasional joy of families fishing together. Still, even in the countryside, you can hardly get away from the construction. It seems like everywhere you turn they’re building something new. Apartment buildings, highways, vacation villas, who knows what else.
(Argh! Now it’s day six! There’s no way I’m going to be able to keep up with this day-by-day, moment-by-moment stuff. Which is probably for the better, since it wasn’t that much fun to write, so I assume it wasn’t great to read either. Apologies about that. Here’s what I had to say that very night:
I’m having trouble writing about this stuff. Not in terms of churning it out, but in terms of enjoying writing about it, and feeling that I’m conveying anything that’s interesting to read. The beauty of the trip so far has been the beauty of the banal – cheap but delicious food here and there; pointless but pleasant stumbling attempts at crossing the language barrier; the knowledge that I’m doing it all on my own steam. It seems to me, though, that these kind of simple, repetitive pleasures aren’t usually all that interesting to read (or write) about. Nor are they even surprising anymore. Rather than feeling apprehensive about what tomorrow brings, I’m confident that it’ll be more of the great little stuff. And even the small frustrations are an adventure.]
So, what I think I’m going to do is try to divide things topically – maybe shoot for a weekly update about food and a weekly update about the route. Also, it occurred to me today that it would be fun to take questions, since I tend to have a fairly narrow set of things in my writer rut. If anyone wants to leave one in the comments, I’ll do my best to answer it, and hopefully it’ll help me broaden my horizons a bit. Practical or philosophical or something else in nature, it’s all good.