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Friday, August 24, 2012

Week 1 Road Recap

It’s 5:07AM, I’ve been up for 45 minutes, and I’m writing from my tent, which is pitched in a “forest*”, about 20km NE of Linghai. We’ve finally made it up and around and off of the peninsula that we arrived at almost exactly 10 days ago. The route has taken us nearly 500km: from the massive congestion (the traffic variety causes the nasal variety) of Dalian, through the cherry plantations of Jinzhou; then, up to Yingkou, over softly rolling hills covered with peach trees and corn crops; and, finally, over a river and across the plains and rice paddies towards Linghai. Within a day or two we’ll reach Shanhaiguan, where we’ll get our first view of the Great Wall, and then another day or two after that, Chengde, the old imperial resort town. After a day’s sightseeing, we’ll make the two-day trip to Beijing, and then hopefully Couchsurf there for three or four days and regroup.


A few days ago, on rather chilly day, after a desolate ride that started out on an empty eight-lane highway running through an industrial zone still in the planning stages and continued up the barren and blustery coast, we passed through an odd city and I composed a sort of poem in my head.

Six lanes, no cars.
Futuristic stop lights, no traffic.
Landscaped parks, no families.
Statues of Gods, nobody to care.
Hotels, no guests.
Bus stops, no buses.
Storefronts, no stores.
Construction workers, no citizens.
Skyscraper skeletons, no windows.
Posters, plans, grids; no life.
A ghost city, not yet born.

These were the sort of things running through my slightly delirious head as we approached Yingkou from the southwest. We had had a smallish breakfast, started late, endured the toughest conditions so far (admittedly not that tough), and just wanted to stop and eat somewhere. We turned towards the skyscrapers and apartment blocks, figuring that where there are people, there’s bound to be food. Instead, we landed in the twilight zone. I kept vaguely recalling Stephen King’s The Langoliers, all of which I remember is that a bunch of passengers deplane to find the airport and the rest of the world empty. I also thought of zombie flicks like 28 Days Later, and that Will Smith one (I Am Legend?), where someone wakes up to find the world more or less empty. My exhaustion, desperation (for food), and bewilderment all acted to turn what might ordinarily have been just a little bizarre into a truly haunting experience.

We rode through what must have been about 8 kilometers of this maze, every time hoping that the next set of apartments would be inhabited, would show some sign of life, but no such luck. We passed a Howard Johnson resort-in-the-making; across the street was a giant expanse of a field, where weeds and reeds that reached up over my head. We passed the “Yingkou Guest Hotel,” a giant walled complex with several American colonial-style brick mansions. We passed a building that reminded me of the UN and looked to be a conference center, though the nameplates hadn’t been attached yet. As we approached the real city – not that we knew we were doing so at the time – we saw this advertisement.

Apparently this city, with all its shiny suaveness, aspires to become a shitty American mall from the early 1990’s. SERIOUSLY, A WALDENBOOKS?!?!?!** Oh, and with only white people shopping there. Nice job Photoshopping in a couple Chinese characters, though. It looks like the Chinese dream is to emulate the worst parts of the American dream; understandable considering that you have probably to realize it to some extent, to live through it for a couple of generations, before you realize how empty it is.

One thing that I’ve been enjoying about China so far is – and I can promise you I’m going to overuse and abuse this term a lot over the coming weeks, months, whatever, because it’s one of the central preoccupations of my life these days – it feels much more authentic than home (which means both the USA and Korea). Of course, I know there’s a lot I don’t know. I’ve only been here a week, I don’t have any Chinese friends, and don’t have any particular insight into anything. But there’s a certain amount you can tell from the surface. In particular, there’s no glamour so far, no shamming. I’m not seeing sex – by which I mean depictions of incredibly, unreachably beautiful men and women in various stages of disrobement*** – selling underpants, booze, and breakfast cereal. I don’t see cartoon characters in the windows or on boxes pitching stuff to kids. I don’t hear cell phone stores playing the latest pop music to drag people in. I don’t see guys in suits, or women in (really high) heels and (noticeably thick) makeup. I don’t see pomo**** billboards that make knowingly impossible claims, knowing that the viewer will see through them but hoping they’ll think it’s funny enough to be attracted despite the bold lie. A kind but curt bluntness, rather than obsequious smiles, from clerks at hotels and cooks, waiters, and waitresses at restaurants.



So, that’s what I mean when I say that China so far has been Authentic. Maybe it’s’ a characteristic of the countryside in general, worldwide, though even Dalian, population 3 million or so, largely had this feel to it. (To cut myself off at the kneecaps, now that I think about it, the Carrefour [think French Wal-mart] in Dalian was an epicenter of inauthenticity. As is, I’m confident, most everything on TV here. And probably in Beijing, too.)

That’s another way of saying that I like it when things make sense and are as they seem.

Thanks for listening. Now, some more fun stuff.

Mingyu and I are slowly but surely working out the kinks in our travel skills. As all of you must certainly have thought to yourselves when reading the recent food post, we were eating way too much, and the morning after that food post I paid for it with a pretty rough time in the bathroom. Not rough by Thai or Indian standards, but very rough compared to Korean ones. If anyone wants details, they can email me.

So, we’ve adjusted the amount of food we eat, usually ordering one plate instead of two, and then stopping along the road for more snacks, dumplings, or fresh fruit. I really regret not buying cherries and mangosteens in Dalian when I had they chance; there’s nothing of that sort out here, just plain old apples and peaches and plums. We’ve also cut down on the drinking, for a number of reasons. First ,the celebratory portion of the trip seems to have ended. That feeling of “We’re really here! And we’re still alive! It’s not as hot, dirty, or dangerous as everyone said! We rule! Cheers to us!” has passed by, and now we’re getting down to business. I’m pushing Mingyu to ride a little further each day (I want to shoot for 100km, he seems to be content with 50-70), and he’s pushing me to do more camping. We’ve camped on three of the six nights since we left Dalian: once in a forest* just past a road block, once on a random dead-end road amidst rice paddies that three Chinese grandmas assured us was safe to sleep on; and, last night, in a fairly wide patch of forest* between a mid-sized road and some railroad tracks. An average meal at the market costs about $1.50 each if we eat a lot. Triple that at a restaurant, and half if we cook noodles and some fresh veggies ourselves. Even including the prices of three hotel rooms, one of which even had an ensuite bathroom and an internet connection (from which I set three posts I had already prepared to automatically post themselves at intervals of one to two days, in case you’re wondering how I have such constant access to the net), I’ve spent under 50 bucks this week. The cheapest day, on which we had leftovers from the previous night’s dinner for breakfast, cooked noodles in a park (much to the bemusement of a pack of old men) for lunch, picked up a healthy-looking gourd off the side of the road, bought tomatoes and greens for 35 cents (total), and had couscous for dinner, then camped for the night, cost us $1.50 each. Counting water.

In short, life is good. Traveling is cheap and I feel vindicated for all those times when I thought to myself, “I’d rather not go do X. Y (amount of money) is Z (days) traveling in ㄱ[shit…out of lettersㅋㅋ](country).” Now I’m making good on that miserliness and reaping its benefits. The bike is in good shape. No accidents, no breakdowns, no physical ailments. Unless you count body odor!

I’ll leave you on that note. Read the notes and then enjoy some pictures.

*More accurately, either a tree farm or a reforested zone. You can tell because there’s only one species,, hardly any undergrowth, and all the trees are the same size and lined up in rows. What Derrick Jensen would call a “toxic mimic” of a forest; “mimic” because it looks like one, and to most of us who spend most of our time in concrete jungles and only see forests on TV, probably feels like one too, and “toxic” because it doesn’t carry out the ecological functions that real forests do, and also because tie “mimic” aspect, by allowing us to believe that there are more forests than there really are, leads us towards some degree of complacency and keeps us from doing (or at least demanding, supporting) more reforestation work.

**Then again, I suppose there was a Dippin’ Dots at the North Korea lookout point I visited a few weeks ago.

***Like I said, I know there’s an underside and that the sex trade itself is almost certainly probably alive, active, and nastier than back at home.

****Shorthand for “post modern.” Sorry, I’ve been reading a book about a road trip with David Foster Wallace. The author repeatedly comments on how seductive DFW’s way of speaking is and how he (the author) continually found himself adopting words like “dudn’t” and “idn’t” and “continuum” and, yesm “pomo.”

Takin' a rest on Day 1.

City. 
 Actually, almost all roads have been well paved.  This was a side street that we went down just for the sake of the badass photo-op.
When it's too early to pitch a tent, might as well chill by a tree.
 Too much spare time.
 Again, just for the photo op.
 Friendly Chinese folks, never deterred even after I say five times "I can't speak Chinese!"


 Old dudes in a park.
 Traffic jam caused by the peach trade!
 Getting lessons on cooking noodles.
 Park friends
 Owner of the sporting goods shop across from our hotel in Yingkou.
 Dinnertime.  Tubs of greens and tomatoes for $0.15 each.
 Photo bomb!
 Streamlined gear setup.
 Bedtime
Beijing-ho!

5 comments:

스데프 said...

Photobomb! Love it. Question: your bike looks pretty packed/side-heavy. How awkward is it to ride and/or maintain balance?

thesnowleopard said...

You're going too fast! At this rate you'll be down here way before I'm able to take off with you!

Puracchio Louis said...

Dude! Love the set up you've got goin! Part of me wishes I would have stayed another year in Korea and made this trip with you! k, I'll stop shouting now.

Seriously awesome adventure my friend. I'll be staying tuned without a doubt. Sending you all the best :-)

Murray said...

Wish life afforded one the opportunity to be in two places at once. Then I'd be out there with you in a flash! Keep the posts coming...

Mike said...

J: The short answer is that it's not at all awkward to ride now that I'm used to it. Oddly enough, riding without the bags and extra weight feels weird. Eventually I'll do a post about the physical aspects of riding.