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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.

 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.

How Times Have Changed

Jeff Stepp, master archivist and my someday biographer, unearthed this gem from deep in the annals of mikeindaegu:
"And speaking of supermarket price gouging, I'm reminded that I was
nearly sent into shock upon noticing that broccoli here, on sale,
costs more than beef in America. It's about 14000 won/kg, which works
out to something like 5 bucks a pound. As if I needed another excuse
not to eat vegetables..."
I ordered a tub of broccoli from a restaurant here the other day.  World travel, what have you done to me?!?! 

Food Recap, August 14-20

Mingyu will kick your ass if you don't read this post all the way to the bitter end!

So, I’ve been here a week, and even though I’ve cycled about 300km (a weak showing, I know, but the first 3 days were spent lying low and avoiding the bends), I’m pretty sure I’m pudgier than at any point in the past couple years. I don’t think it’s because the food is greasy, which is always what Koreans warn you about, but because 1) being social makes you eat a lot, as does cycling; 2) it’s all been delicious, and 3) Mingyu loves beer way too much for his/my own good.

What delicacies have we had, and how much have they cost us?

Attempt at couscous on the boat. Didn’t turn out so great, since we had no flame, just hottish water from the water machine.

Cabbage and zucchini dumpling with cornflour shell. Easily the best dumpling I’ve ever eaten. Crispy, oily, packed with veggies, filling, practically like a hamburger. Not pictured: spinach dumpling with flour shell, polenta brick. Total cost for 2 people: 6 yuan / 1 dollar.

Make-your-own-wraps. We ordered sides of cabbage, green beans, noodles and mushrooms, and some cold cabbage/cucumber/soybean/peanut dish that was sour and pungent and fantastic. Everything was amazing. 40 yuan / $7 each.

I didn’t buy these, but anyway…

Giant donut puck filled with mashed sweet red beans and dates. Killer hot from being fried, crispy on the outside, tart and steamy inside. Good buy for Y4/75c

Shopping for burrito ingredients with our CS host, Guy. Less than $5/30Y for mushrooms, onions, spinach, lettuce, bell peppers, and tomatoes for three.

Noodles and dumpling soup for lunch. Pretty unremarkable, but cheap. Y8/$1.33

If you think ordering Chinese at home is tough…

Asparagus sautéed with garlic; bak choy with shiitakes in brown sauce; mystery vegetable flavored with Lucky Charms marshmallow magic; eggplant, potato, and bell pepper stir fry; Schezuan chicken; some sort of fried bread shreds; and pears soaked in red wine. Maxing out the credit cards at Y40/$7 total.

Meal from the market: eggplants stuff with garlic and cilantro paste; pitas; crepe; and some dumpling. Total: Y12/$2. The eggplants were incredible when used as the filling in a pita sandwich. By the third or fourth one, though, I hit my garlic limit…

Haggling over banana prices…wound up paying 4Y/75c for three. A little disappointing.

Photo menu at the dinner place.

Who know the sweet, sour, vinegary peanut dish would be a veritable mountain? Y28/$4.75 Y22/$3.75 for the snap pea/carrot/lotus root/floppy shroom stir fry. And Y1/20c per bowl of rice.

Interesting ordering method: in addition to the written and pictoral menus, at some restaurants, you just walk up to a big fridge like you’d see in the supermarket, peer through the glass, and point at a big plate of veggies. It could be just one ingredient or several; either way, you don’t know how it’ll come together. Well, maybe the natives do. So, we pointed at this plate of cucumbers, shrooms, and carrots, and somehow we got this scramble! The big heap of refried tofu (tastes way better than it sounds!) came with garlic and cilantro. Also, two beers. Total price: Y40/$6.75. For two.

Homemade oatmeal with peanuts, raisins, and cinnamon.

Stir-fried Shrimp in sweet sauce (40/6.75) and stir-fried broccoli (20/3.25) which tasted a lot like the stuff you’d get back home. Several beers at 3/.50 apiece.

Lastly, the most amazing meal so far. We checked in at a random cheapie hotel where the guy didn’t even look at our passport, so I was a little skeptical when he recommended his friend’s place next door. But, he said they had veg options, and Mingyu was whining like a little baby after our 95k day (longest yet), so we agreed. Mingyu pointed at a plate of stuff sliced so thin I couldn’t tell what it was; I pointed at something kind of leafy with a few mushrooms on top. Mine came out pretty normal, with a thickish kind of soy sauce. Mingyu’s, though, was certainly among the most incredible things I’ve ever eaten. Zucchini, carrots, mushrooms, and eggs, stir-fried but then cooled, served in a sweet vinegar sauce. Also in the mix were some sort of roasted red pepper husks – thin and flaky to add to the texture, with a deep, smoky-but-not-spicy flavor. I wasn’t sure if the peppers were edible at first, so I asked the guy “Is it possible to eat these peppers?” He misunderstood me and brought out an entire bowl of them. I ate them all. Maybe

Each plate cost Y18/$3.

So, final judgment: it’s been no problem at all here sticking to only veggies despite, again, how often Koreans told me it would be impossible. For all that I love Korea, I really don’t like the way people have only negative things to say about most of the rest of Asia. The fact that everything is stir-fried or griddle-fried hasn’t started to bother me yet, since there’s a wide variety of flavors, in particular, more nuts and more sour stuff than I expected, which is a nice change from Korean. Plus, there’s plenty of fresh fruit around – it seems that peaches, apples, cherries, grapes, and mangoes are in season up here at the moment. Not bad, not bad!

Oh, and everything is dirt cheap! Even our most luxurious meals have yet to near $10, and our cheap ones – and there have been many – come in at about $1. In fact, so far, in six days, I’ve spent less than 50 bucks on food and accommodation combined, without even watching my spending! Hooray for traveling! Save up a couple thousand bucks, quit your job, and come join me! Let’s pudgen up together.