Wow, it’s been ten days or more since I’ve had an internet connection decent enough to do anything more than read a few emails. What follows is a mess of fragments composed and updated at various points since the last one. I’m afraid most of the events and feelings are already too distant for me to want to organize them properly. Blogging is definitely among the most frustrating parts of the trip so far, perhaps second only to trying to learn the goddamn harmonica. I am pretty sure my brain is built for language, not for music. Maybe once I finish writing this I’ll try playing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” one more time.
As the weeks go on, this begins to feel less like a trip and more like normal life, insofar as there’s no end in sight and I’m in no particular hurry to come to one. It also feels abnormal, in the sense that even relatively crappy days are still objectively awesome and I have hardly a care in the world. Over the past two weeks or so, I’ve run into the following milestones:
- I’m in my EIGTH province (six at the time of the first draft): For the record, they are: Liaoning, Hebei, Beijing, Shanxi, Henan, Hubei, Jiangxi, and now Fujian. Several provinces are bigger than certain other countries, so I feel like it’s appropriate for me to say I’ve been to twenty countries now.
- The corn fields have been replaced by rice paddies. Most have already been harvested, so every day I witness lots of great scenes of farmers setting hay on fire or of cows and ducks gently plodding along nibbling on whatever they can find.
- I’ve hit, and then passed through, persimmon paradise, where you can get ten for a dollar when the price is right. Who needs dessert or candy when ripe, squishy persimmons are overrunning the streets?
- I survived both my first road cold and my first road accident, a collision caused when Mingyu swerved to avoid a bus and I smacked right into him. My bike and I took a topple, but fortunately no damage was done.
- Tropical fruits – mangosteens, mangoes, pineapples, pomeloes, dragon fruits, longans – have been making their appearance. Unfortunately, the pomeloes are always wrapped in plastic even though they have a hearty, near-impentrable rind. What’s the deal, people?
- My odometer has passed the utterly arbitrary 3333, 3434, 3456, 3500, and 4000 marks (I told you this post was a long time in the making)
- I’ve seen, passed over, ridden along, and urinated off a bridge into the Yangtze River.
- I’ve done my first Chinese hitchhike, and an utterly spontaneous one at that. I met up with Belinda, an old friend and coworker who lives in the area now, and we took a trip out to some ancient villages nearby. Getting there required a taxi, a bus, a more rural bus, and another taxi, and about three hours. We poked around the villages for a while and then, on the way out, I made some random (good natured) gestures to a couple in a car in the parking lot. They beckoned us over, invited us in, and let us mooch a ride back to the big city we had come from, all the while feeding us apples and yogurt, teaching me how to compliment pretty ladies in Nanchang dialect, and asking begging me to sing “My Heart Will Go On.” Needless to say, the ride was quite a bit more interesting than the village itself.
- My bike and I have survived our first bus rides. I was really hoping not to use any fossil fuels on the whole trip, but the roads were so terrible that I wouldn’t have made it to Nanchang in time to see Belinda had I insisted on cycling all the way. I don’t quite know how, but I managed to get the bicycle strapped to the bus’ roof rack for the first ride, gritting my teeth with every pothole, praying that nothing would fall apart. That bus dropped me off about halfway to Nanchang, so I switched to another, the driver of which refused to let me stow my bike beneath the bus, but said it was OK to bring it into the bus and leave it in the aisle. I wasn’t about to argue.
- Mingyu and I have bid each other a temporary adieu. I have about two weeks left on my visa, but the only boat to Taiwan leaves in a week or so, meaning I’ve got to get down to Xiamen, a port city in the south, pretty much ASAP. Mingyu, on the other hand, still has 45 days or so left on his visa, so he’s going to roam China on his own for a bit and meet me in Taiwan in December.
- I've also survived my first train ride. I originally thought Xiamen was 450km from Nanchang, but in reality it’s about 1000, which I doubt I could cover in a week, even if conditions are good. So, with much help from Achuan and Mingyu, I packed up my bike and took a night train from Nanchang to Nanping, covering about half the distance. I was worried about my bike getting scratched, ogled, and stolen, but pretty much as soon as I got onto the train, I ran into the cabin master (judging by his admiral stripes, at least), who helped me find a safe spot where I could lock the bike to a banister, and also let me move into a nearly empty cabin nearby so that I could keep an eye on everything all at once. A bunch of the staff congregated and gave me free pomelo slices and tofu jerky as we talked about my trip, my impressions of China, etc. When it got late they moved me to another empty cabin, so that instead of sleeping in the single seat in the smoky, musty, noisy, stuffed cabin that I had paid for, I was able to stretch out across three seats in peace and quiet, all by my lonesome.
It was about two weeks ago that the compartmentalizing part of my brain has declared that we’ve now entered stage three. First was Beijing and getting acclimated to it all. Second was meeting Xiang Liang and enjoying his humor, bizarrity, and all the weirdness that The Road flung our way. Now we’re nearly nine weeks in and things are changing again
A few days ago, we shared an emotional (by cycle vagabond dude standards) goodbye with Xiang, who hopped on a bus to Wuhan and then planned to take a boat down the river to his home in Sichuan before going back to Beijing to reenter the world of work and jobs and all that stuff that I’ve left behind, at least for the time being. On the night before we split up, before buying me and Mingyu a giant hotpot dinner, Xiang took us a park, sat us down on a bench, and interviewed us on video so that he could later transcribe and share our philosophies (if that’s what you call them). He asked questions like “What do you want from this trip? Why are you doing it? Do you think of it as a vacation or as your life? What do you want to tell your friends back home about China?” I found it interesting that though we hadn’t talked about such things over any of our many meals or drinks together, it felt natural to talk about them while sitting in front of some recording equipment. I doubt my answers will surprise anyone who reads this blog regularly, but I’ll try to post it if I ever get a chance.
The next morning, just hours after we parted ways with Xiang, we made a new friend heading our same way: “Ah Chuan.” Like Xiang, he’s Chinese and, as with Xiang, we met him by chance on the road during the first days of his trip; the similarity ends there. He speaks no English, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink, is shorter than me, and likes to ride like there’s no tomorrow. With Xiang, we were riding about 60km a day, and the average would be significantly lower if I added in all the days that we didn’t ride at all. Ah Chuan, on the other hand, has a goal of 140 which, though pretty much a physical impossibility for me and Mingyu, is noble and respectable and I’m trying to live up to it. We’ve done 80, 90, 80, 110, 120, 100, 80, and 80 over the past days and I’m still ticking, though my left Achilles tendon has started to tighten up.
He’s also brought another sort of spice to the voyage: merch! On the way to find a hotel in the town of Xinyang the other night, I heard him asking locals whether there was a college nearby. I didn’t really have a clue until what he was up to until after we had washed up and he took us out for a stroll, first to the school cafeteria (awesome food, super cheap, but way too much plastic. Just use trays, people!) and then to do a little busking (is this real English or just Konglish? I don’t have any idea) on the street. He pulled a canvas sheet out of his sack, lay it down, and set down a variety of little knick-knacks to sell. Ah Chuan started hawking, Mingyu broke out his Ukelele, and I stood around more or less uselessly, wishing I could play something or recite poems or juggle or just about anything. Within about five minutes, a couple of English majors had come up to me to talk, while a few shy folks just hung around listening and giggling. Every thirty seconds or so another person or pair would stop by, until soon I was surrounded – literally, there were even people standing in rows behind me – by fifty or more college students (90% girls, my lord) each taking turns shouting out questions like “What’s your name? Where are you from? How long have you been here? When are you leaving? Aren’t you cold just wearing shorts?” And the like. The more courageous among them even ventured to ask stuff like “Why are you traveling? Why do it by bicycle? What about money? What about the future? What do you think happiness is? What’s the most important thing in your life?” I dare you to try to answer those questions using less than seven words per sentence and less than four syllables per word without feeling like a total idiot. Thankfully, I was able to stop talking for a minute when a pair of girls walked by carrying a 6-foot long zither (look it up, I didn’t know what it was either!) and offered to give me a lesson there in front of everyone. I made a fool of myself, but thanks to the power of my beard and all my highfalutin nonsense about “freedom,” I got a pity ovation anyhow. I can tell that this stopping at colleges thing is going to become a staple of our routine. So many students are friendly and speak good English, so it’s a great way to relieve the monotony of riding, eating, and sleeping day in and day out with the same folks.
I was just as popular as Achuan, I swear! But there was nobody to take pictures of me. Except the horde of students, that is.
One of several folks lucky to walk away with a high-quality, one of a kind MINGYULEE (c) caricature.
(The next day!)
Then, today, one of these moods hit me, this feeling like I came out of a tunnel or over a mountain and suddenly everything was bright and new and beautiful again. Surely the scenery has something to do with it; as cliché as it may be, the hills are truly rolling gently, kilometer after kilometer. The ups aren’t quite steep enough to really make me work, but the downs get me going fast enough to get a bit of a rush. The houses seem to be just the right size, fitting in with rather than overpowering the surrounding landscape. Then there’s also the weather - here’s just enough humidity in the air to keep my chest warm, just enough of a breeze to keep my face cool, and the fog makes everything feel like it’s moving in slow-motion.
More than that, though, every person I exchange smiles with, every bite I eat, every tree I pass seems to fill me. It feels natural to add “with joy” to the end of that sentence, but it’s something less evanescent, something more fundamental, something that colors everything else. Every bit of scenery – including the human - is so picturesque that I can’t stop riding to take pictures, lest I miss something just down the road. A little boy, pants down around his ankles, chasing a walnut around his driveway. A little girl, sitting on a rock at least as big as she was, singing “Happy Birthday to You” to nobody in particular as I pass by. Road crews filling potholes with asphalt, bricklayers putting houses together, men and women spending their afternoons playing cards or just chatting in front of their shops. A flock of chickens roaming through a fallow field, sparrows chirping as they jump out of my path, a wasp on collision course with my face darting out of the way at the very last moment (to much mutual benefit!), even a pack of flies buzzing off from their poo feast when I whiz by. These moments are at once so mundane that photographs seem pointless and so bursting with beauty that photographs don’t feel up to the job. Of course I want to remember all these sights and feelings, and to convey them, but it occurs to me that maybe the best thing I can do towards that end to is to devote my full attention to them, live them as deeply as I can, absorb them, and let them change me in whatever ways the will. That way, I won’t have to remember them. I’ll simply be them.
Whew, what a bunch of mumbo jumbo! Toooooo much noise! For those who just want to see some goddamn pictures:
Random adventure with Achuan. It was too late to find a camping spot, so we pitched our tents under an eave in this village.
Before long, we were invited down a back alley where we found a table of grub and Chinese vodka (Bai jiu, "white alcohol,") waiting for us. Just a whiff of the stuff is enough to make one want to vom. When I said I was vegetarian, the guy holding the camera got up, went to the kitchen, and came back with two heads of broccoli, asking whether I liked it. When I gave him the affirmative, he went ahead and made me a stir-fry. Chinese people rule.
Not one of the best roads we've come across.
Nothing beats a post-lunch nap in the woods. EXCEPT AN AIRBORNE, BUG-FREE NAP IN THE WOODS.
This is what I wake up to in the mornings. Ughhhhhh...
Sheep grazing where a river once was.
Some nice scenery in the middle of nowhere.
One of the most beautiful, tranquil mornings of the trip. Thirty minutes of scenery like this is easily worth three days of traffic.
What you lookin at?
These ladies cooked me some noodles but didn't charged me. And, they gave me a largish bag of clementines.
And this one gave me a loofa to use to do my dishes. Thanks, boss, for helping make my hippie dreams come true!
Peppers drying on a rattan sheet in a village.
Bus station pups.
I love you too, China.