Yes, the inevitable has happened and I am roaming around China all by my lonesome this week. Mingyu has some visa stuff to sort out, and I figured that since I had already taken care of all my business in Beijing*, rather than sit around getting in my hosts' hair, I'd take the chance to bite the bullet and try traveling by my lonesome while it's still my choice.
The idea of camping by myself was so intimidating that it took me quite a while to get up and get moving; by the time I had done laundry, watched an episode of Bill Maher, lunched with my hosts, packed up, and split, it was already nearly 3:00PM. It took about half an hour to make it to the other side of the center of Beijing, and then about the same again to really get clear of the city. Thus, within about an hour I was facing the road all alone. I guess I've been at this long enough, because it didn't feel like much of anything.
The first solo campout, though, was a bit freaky. I pulled off the highway just past the side road leading to the Ming Tombs (yet another UNESCO World Heritage site that I don't really want to spend a day exploring) , following a gravel road down into some kind of orchard. I couldn't tell what kind of trees they were, but I immediately recognized the planting technique from Sadhana: each tree had been planted into a deep divot, about three feet in diameter, which helps to retain water, and then the divots had been filled with leaves and pine needles and other organic matter, which will eventually decompose and feed the tree. All the divots made it a little tough to find a place to pitch the tent, but eventually I found a spot that was both big enough and also fairly difficult to see from the main road and both the auxiliary roads nearby. As it wasn't quite dark yet, I killed some time by having dinner: a roast sweet potato purchased at a rest stop just before (Y4), an apple purchased from a farmer on the side of the road (Y4, down from 5), and a handful of almonds received as a gift in Chengde. To my surprise, that was filling enough. It looks like my body is adjusting to all the riding and learning how to extract maximum calories from every meal. That, or I'm still burning off fat accumulated over several days of dining in Beijing.
As the sun set, I pitched the tent atop of the plastic tarp that Mingyu had let me borrow. I was very glad I did, because as soon as I got into the tent, I noticed that even though I had swept the ground clear of rocks and sticks, there were still several points where something seemed to be protruding out of the ground. It turned out that I had missed several sharp and stubborn straw-type roots, which had punctured two layers of Mingyu's tarp (sorry dude!) but, thank god, hadn't poked into my tent. So, I spent the next thrity minutes or so running my hands ever-so-lightly over the tent's floor, finding every little puncture risk, then gently flattening them all out until I was sure that it was safe to set my gear and my self inside the tent.
The puncture fiasco had shaken my confidence and gotten my nerves all worked up so that I could hardly enjoy the fresh air and the pleasant noises from all the bugs and frogs nearby. Instead, I lay silent, hear potential footsteps in each ruffle of leaves and scraping of pine needles against my tent's outer layer, seeing flashlight beams in the intermittent bursts from the fireflies' bums. At one point, I was so sure someone was outside my tent that I actually grabbed and pocketed my pocket knife and prepared to step outside. Not that I had a clue what I would do with it. I waited one more minute, heard nothing, and lay back down. Before sleeping, I made a pact with the lone mosquito that had managed its way into my tent: "I let you live and, better yet, suck all the blood you want tonight. In return, you wake me up if anyone comes near."
My sleep was fitful, coming only at intervals, partially because I was on the alert for visitors, partially because, as I found out the next morning, I had camped just down the road from a big truck stop, and partially because I was scared of rolling over and punching a hole in my tent's bottom. The mosquito held up his end of the deal, though, so I woke up safe and sound, if not especially well-rested.
The day then progressed as normal: up, eat (my now-standard breakfast of raw peanuts soaked the night before and whatever fruit I happen to have stocked up on the night before), set up my bungee between trees and hang up the tent's outer shell to dry, pack my bags, pack my tent, hang up the tarp to dry, do some stretches, pack the tarp, pack the bike, hit the road. Ride for a while, then stop at a little shop for some grub. This time, three somewhat fresh "Yue bing" (moon pies, which are like heavy donut on the outside and weird chunky nougat/fruit/nut paste in the middle) for Y1 each and a few stabs at conversation with the locals. I managed to talk to a couple people for about five minutes, and even put together an entirely new sentence: "How old do you think I am?" Chinese is really straightforward – all you have to say to make that sentence is "You think I how many old [question particle "ma.] No new words pop up (like "do"), no word order changes (that "do" again, and "how old" in the front), no verb conjugations (I am). One dude guessed twenty-two, so I patted him on the shoulder and thanked him through a mouthful of mooncake. When another guy asked me his age, I managed to tell him that because of the white hairs in his 'stache I figured he was 45. He was actually 48. Take that!
Then I rode and rode and rode and rode, about 40km, mostly through fog and dirt and smog and next to a long line of nasty big rigs, until I found the market and sweet potato fry stand mentioned in the previous post. I found a park, laid the tarp out in the sun to clear off the rest of the morning dew and had a little rest before setting off again. Somehow, the town I thought would be coming up next didn't materialize and it was another 25km before I found somewhere to eat. Lunchtime brought more linguistic success, as I was able to recognize the characters for a new type of restaurant ("small eats"), then order food despite the lack of a menu or anything to even point out, and finally request a little extra cilantro.
Normally after lunch it's rest time, but I wanted to take the opportunity to push myself physically, so kept on' trucking, hoping to hit 100km. I don't know why I care so much about that number, nor do I know why it seems so hard to get to it in China even though I managed it every day for a week in Korea. About when I hit 80km, a convenience store owner told me that the town I was thinking about sleeping in, Jimingyi, was around 20km away. Perrrrrfect.
He was just about right, and as my odometer neared 95km I saw a sign for Jimingyi, and then another sign for its "Historic Postal Center." I had read that the town used to be a hub for China's pony express or something of that sort, but I hadn't anticipated that the old city center it would be surrounded by its own great wall, easily 10m high and 1km or so on each side.
It was after five and beginning to get dark, so I waffled about whether or not to go in. It seemed like quite a risk –if I entered but failed to find one of the homestays that the Lonely Planet mentions, I would most likely be forced to find my way out and to a new campsite in the dark. No fun. I tried it anyway, navigating at random down rocky dirt roads, peeking my head around abandoned buildings (someday soon I'll squat somewhere!), freaking out when the owner popped out from behind some corner of the courtyard, thanking the lord above that she hadn't seen me plucking jujubes from her tree, and asking people on doorsteps if they knew any hotels or homestays around.
Eventually I ran into one guy who pulled out some sort of ID card hanging around his neck, which I imagine must have proved that he was a tour guide. He told me he knew a homestay place (the word in Chinese is "peasant house") and showed me down an alley and into a courtyard with about five people sitting in it. I asked the owner if I could stay and she said yes; I asked how much and she said 17 bucks. I hadn't haggled at all so far in the trip, but considering that my guidebook said 2-3 bucks was the going rate, I said that I didn't have Y100 to spend. Someone tried to explain that the book must be old and that prices had gone up since. Even though he was completely right (my book is from 2007), I started to walk away. The landlady seemed not to mind, but the guy who had brought me there, perhaps hungry for his commission, told me it could be done for fifty. I asked the landlord if that was indeed the case, and she demurred. In-between man insisted, but I wanted to hear it from her. Finally, she said OK. She asked if I wanted dinner, and when I asked how much, the pudgy guy with the ID said she could feed and lodge me for Y100. I told him that for Y10 I could go grab food in town (my noodles at lunch only cost Y5),then opened up my food bag to reveal bananas, apples, peanuts, almonds, and sweet potato chips, and told him I could even eat for free if I wanted. Pudge laughed as the landlord stuffed a bill – maybe Y10 or Y20 – into his front shirt pocket and told him to scram.
After the negotiating stuff, I felt a little awkward, but it seemed my hosts harbored no hard feelings. I had a shower and we sat down to chat in the courtyard. The woman agree to cook me dinner and even to let me watch. It was amazingly simple – oil, fry the vegetables, add salt, add water. No other spices, not even any MSG. I had been hoping to be invited to eat with the family, but they sent me to my room with a bowl of rice and two plates of vegetables, so I thought to myself while I ate. There's some slight irony, or at least karmic reciprocity, in this situation. I lived in Korea for years, finding it a little weird and morally questionable that I constantly allowed people to pay, either with food or money, to spend time with me speaking English. Now, here I am, paying good money (by local standards) to stay in a room even though I have a tent, and to eat someone else's cooking even though I have my own food, not because I particularly want either of them, but because I want to do more than ride around and look at this and that. I just wanna chat with some folks, make friends, give and receive what little my piddling Chinese skills will allow.
Luckily, even though we ate separately, the family wasn't too averse to humoring me, so after our meals a couple of us gathered in the courtyard and spent a bit of time trying to converse. I managed to figure out the ages of the family members, the relations, and what they all do (more or less). I also managed to argue with the mom about how old the dad looks (she wasn't too happy that I kept saying he didn't look fifty yet) and to tease another dude for being a year younger than me by calling him "little brother." [Language note: I heard him say "Compared to you I am one year small" and realized I had just been given the structure used to making comparative statements. I tried out it several times in the following hours and can mostly get my point across with it now.] I explained that I had been teaching in South Korea but that I had quite my job, at which point the Mom asked me how I could afford to eat. I responded that she sounded quite a bit like my own mother, at which cracked the dad up. I even got the dad to explain to me that this house – or rather, this smattering of rooms surrounding an open-roofed courtyard – had been in his family for two hundred years, or five generations. His son, my younger bro, will be the sixth, and his son, just a year old now, will make seven.
After thirty minutes or so of passing my dictionary back and forth, we ran out of things to talk about and retired to our separate rooms. I have to say, though, I consider this first homestay a pretty big success. Twelve bucks down but clean, with a roof over my head, veggies in my belly, and a bit of friendly socialization with a family that speaks no English and lives inside a two hundred year old house down a back alley inside a disintegrating 800-year old city. Not at all what I pictured when I woke up this morning.
* In order of importance: find a Frisbee, find a few bicycle parts, get rid of extra gear (by donation), see Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, get ripped off at a restaurant.