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Friday, September 07, 2012

Week 3 Road Recap, and some Milestones

It’s slightly past eight and going on pitch black.  In the distance I can hear the sounds of a few stray cars cruising down the highway, making their way into or out of Beijing, while immediately surrounding me I hear a variety of barks, buzzes, chirps, and croaks.  All different pitches, cadences, frequencies, rhythms, volumes.  People own the day here, but at least as far as this little grove of trees of ours is concerned, it seems the animals own the night. 

We’ve pitched our tents in yet another forest – one that doubtless falls into Jensen’s category of “toxic.”  I wince at using that word, though, because the forest is decrepit through no fault of its own.  In and of itself, without reference to what it once was, it’s far too beautiful, giving, and peaceful for me to malign.  Mingyu and I are currently camping a mere fifty-five km outside of Beijing.  The combination of a wonderful weekend Couchsurfing in Chengde, two days of blissful riding and magnificent views, and our imminent arrival in the capital of the Central Kingdom (as China refers to itself) has got me feeling all nostalgic and thinking about milestones.  Reaching Beijing tomorrow will certainly be the biggest one, as it’s what every push of the pedal since we got off the boat has been propelling us towards.  Many others, some big and some small, some expected, some not, come to mind:

-          Completed our first, second, and tomorrow, third week on the road. 
-          Clocked our 997th km just as we met our CS host in Chengde.  Might as well call that 1000.  Either way, we’re way past that now.  
-          Pitched our tents for the first time.
-          (The next morning) Used the great outdoors as my WC, and cleaned up India-style.  
-          Got chased by guard dogs of the unchained variety.  I sped away from them pretty quickly, but poor Mingyu was several hundred meters behind me and had a slightly scarier time.
-          Got rejected after asking for permission to sleep in a temple courtyard. 
-          “Showered” in a cool stream.
-          Finished my first book (Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, a long interview with David Foster Wallace) and my first audio-book (Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, by the same DFW). 
-          Ran out of time and sunlight and were forced to pitch tents on a distant, sloped, rocky corner of a farmer’s land.
-          (The next morning) Woke up to the farmer standing outside my tent.  He just chuckled and smiled as I told our story in my best broken, broken, shattered Chinese.
-          Random* point-at-something-on-the-menu-and-hope-it-turns-out-well venture and success.
-          Ran out of drinking water on top of a mountain and had to go to sleep thirsty. 
-          Made our first Chinese friends. 
-          Got drunk with our first Chinese friends.
-          Received loads of free food from our first Chinese friends.
-          Wrestled with our first Chinese friends.
-          Fell asleep sweating then woke up to see steam coming out of my mouth and nostrils.  Thought, “Shit, good thing we’re heading south.”
-          Told first joke in Chinese.  (Which was: a fellow in a restaurant asked me what my and Mingyu’s relationship was.  I said “He’s my father.”  Total knee-slapper, caused an uproar.)
-          Passed our first police checkpoint.  They didn’t stop us or anything.
-          Saw scenery so beautiful I nearly cried.  (Many times).

 Things that haven’t happened, but which seem more or less inevitable:
-          A flat tire, accident, sore knee, fall, or some other sort of cycling mishap.
-          A fight between me and Mingyu.  So far only the waxing and waning of occasional tension.
-          Theft of gear, money, or something else.
-          Encounters with swindlers, beggars, or other troubling types.
-          Hit a hill so steep I have to push the bike up it. 
-          Traveler’s diarrhea.
-          Getting caught in a rainstorm.
-          Catching a cold.   

In other news, I’ve been enjoying reading Mingyu’s blog and thinking about how he and I ride the same roads, eat the same foods, meet the same people, have mostly the same experiences, and yet experience everything differently and choose to highlight and share different parts of the trip when blogging.  I wish that you all could read his stuff, or that I had time to translate it.**  One rather stunning difference, which I read on his blog and wouldn’t have known about otherwise, was that on our hardest day, nearly a week ago now, when we were pushing uphill for about 20km straight, he asked himself if the trip was worth it.  We could be home, reading books and browsing the ‘net to our hearts’ content, hanging with friends, eating and drinking merrily.  Instead we’re out here sweating by day and itching by night, never quite knowing what we’re going to eat or where we’re going to sleep.  I suppose by most standards that sounds a little less than pleasant.
Oddly enough, though, that little doubting thought has yet to cross my mind, even despite the fact that mine is a mind that often doubts and second-guesses itself and its decisions.  Oddlier yet (I suppose that means it’s also more than sufficiently oddly), it occurred to me that I can’t even make the thought make sense to me.  “Is it all worth it?” What would that second “it” even mean?  It’s supposed to represent something I’ve lost, something I’m missing, something I’ve sacrificed, but nothing feels that way.  Using the internet once every three days is more than enough; my Kindle holds more books than I’ll ever be able to read; and the food here is as good as anywhere.  The only thing left is people but, I haven’t given up any relationships, or, at least, not really any more than I had already given up by simply being in Korea.  Mathematicogeographically speaking, there’s nowhere that I could be where I wouldn’t be thousands of kilometers away from, say, ninety percent of my friends and family.  So, while I’m jealous of the fact that just about everyone Mingyu knows and loves lives within a three hour drive from his house, I’m also now aware that my emotional freedom is the happy result of what seems to be my wanderer’s curse. It strikes me as paradoxical, though.  The more I wander, the more people and places I like.  The more I realize that I could settle down just about anywhere.  And, therefore, that I have no reason to settle anywhere in particular, because anywhere else would probably be just as great.

I suppose that means that if you’d like to see me anytime soon, you’d better hop on a plane.   Or on Skype. 
I’d like to leave you with a few pictures of recent good times, and then, if I can get it working, a video of the moment on the ride when the thought “I want to say that this view would make me answer yes to the question ‘Has it been worth it?’ but now I realize I can’t even apply the question to myself,” came to me. 

Someone's drying some corn.
 Yet the corn in the fields is still standing...
 OK, the photos loaded backwards.  I guess y can tell we made it to Beijing?
 Had some helpers for the last 20km or so
 Our most perfectest capming spot yet. 
 Gotta get a little upper-body exercise in every now and then.   We have a "stop at every playground and do some pullups" rule, but it doesn't do us much good. 
 Filming an American Eagle ad. 
 I like how Chiense people will just sit down with us at a restaurant and chat.  He didn't even work here!

 More camping.  
 Our CS host, Marcus, along with the folks at the Muslim restaurant next door.  
 It's not a milestone, it's a KILOMETERSTONE!  


 Horsing around with Mani.  This man knows how to make a mean noodle!
 Not quite sure how it came to this.  
 Good times. 
 That's right, he started it!
 Giving my footsies a little break.  
 cute cute cute cute cute
 A Chinese cyclist gang we ran into one morning.  Some of them were in their 60s.  Also, some of them were in pyjamas.  
Definitely our worst, most desperate camping spot yet.  

OK, on to the good stuff!

The view literally stopped me in my tracks.  I got off the bike and just looked at it for a good five minutes. 

Mingyu takes nice photos. 

*ok, not totally random, I know the characters for meat, vegetable, noodle, rice, and dumpling.  Also, the one for bread, since it’s just “noodle dumpling.”
**or that he could write English well enough to do a bilingual blog.  His speaking is good and getting better, but the poor guy has to learn English and Chinese at the same time!

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

The Jackpot

Time Warp: Back to the evening of the fifth day of my bike trip in Korea. I had just passed over the top of Jinburyeong.

While I sat and panted in a convenience store parking lot, a few people gave me the ol’ thumbs up for making it all the way up. Over from the corner came the lady who was “manning” the steamed corn stall, bearing two ears. She offered them to me, explaining that her daughter was backpacking around the world and was currently in the Middle East – maybe it was Iran – and that she was always worried about whether her daughter was eating well and staying health. Thinking of her own daughter, and of my parents who must be equally concerned, she gave me the corn and wished me a safe trip.

I scarfed it and rode on. Though the ride up the east side of the mountain had been sparsely populated, the west side had been made into a sort of high-altitude valley resort town. Restaurants, souvenir shops, and hotels lined both sides of the six lane highway, and I could feel all of the fuzzies about nature that had built up on my way up the mountain start to morph into cynicism about people, their greed, their idiocy, their inability to understand beauty, and so forth. I welcome food and lodging just about anywhere – after all, people have to eat and live, and travelers have to travel – but do twenty foot tall neon signs really do anyone any good? Ever?

I was too angry to stop and eat, and also too concerned that if I did, the sun would set and I’d have to spend a night in a hotel rather than camp. As I made my way out of town, the road split into two. One side went up a steep incline and through a tunnel, undoubtedly a shortcut down the other side of the mountain; the other, which bicycles were directed to take, went the long way, around the side. My first instinct was to fight the man by taking the short, fast, dark, dangerous, and probably more-likely-to-cause-lung-cancer tunnel way but, perhaps still under the influence of the mellowness from before, I decided to put the brakes on the meaningless struggling for just once.

That turned out to be quite a nice decision, as the road led me alongside a river, again sandwiched between mountains on either side. No cars, no smoke, just fresh air, lots of rocks, lots of green, lots of good. The afternoon’s fondness for the mountain appeared once again, this time in the guise of a desire to descend to the river, to wash in its crisp waters, and to camp by its side. I spent the next thirty minutes of riding keeping my eyes peeled for a perfect place to camp, but they were few and far between. Further, a guardrail ran every inch of the side of the road that bordered the river, making it a major hassle, though admittedly not physically impossible, for me to get down. The angry thoughts surfaced again: Why are people allowed to buy cars that ravage for the environment, while I’m not allowed to practice my no-trace camping? Why does the safety of the car driver take precedence over the cyclist’s, or even pedestrian’s, right to go where he chooses? Why not just reduce the speed limit by half? Why do we make concessions to speed but not to beauty, to cleanliness, to slowness?

My determination to sleep next to the river grew and grew, but soon enough I passed through another resort town, so noisy and bright that trying to enjoy the river’s peace would be futile. On the other hand, the sun had nearly set and about five or ten kilometers ahead of me I could make out the outlines of apartment buildings, indicating that I had just about reached Inje, the biggest city in the region. Stuck between crappy resort town that pretends to love nature, and crappy city that has no pretenses of doing so. What’s worse, hypocrisy or just not caring? A classic Fauxbo’s dilemma.

No solution came to mind, so I turned to my stomach. I had already had several bibimbaps (mixed rice and veg bowls), sundubujjigaes (runny tofu in spicy broth), and jeongsik (bowl of rice and a hundred veggie sides) on the trip, so I looked for something a bit different, and finally settled on deodeokgui, (roasted Codonopsis Lanceolata. I don’t know what it is in normal English, but it’s a root, the “little cousin” of Ginseng.) The restaurant, which had a covered pebble garden and a plain old non-neon sign, was empty.

A balding old man stood on a footstool in front sawing limbs off of a tree. I told him, consciously trying to keep the desperation out of my voice, that I’d like to eat at his restaurant, but that I’d also like to camp outside of the city, but that if I ate, it’d be dark and I’d have nowhere to go, so could I please pitch my tent here in his little pebble garden. He said no problem and called his wife to get me a menu. In the meantime we exchanged some pleasantries. He explained to me, cheerfully, in English that was deeply broken, that his brother lived in the USA and that he’d been there a few times to visit. It occurred to me that this guy approached English much like I approach foreign languages: the fact that I suck, (at the beginning), is natural, nothing to be ashamed of. Why should he know English? Why should I know Chinese? We speak what we were born with, and any word or phrase or two that we manage to pick up somewhere else is just a bonus. In the beginning, accuracy be damned. It’s the attempt at communication that counts; the kindness, the appreciation, and the sheer desire to communicate with another that underlie the words themselves often shine through all the more clearly when one takes the effort to express something in a language other than one’s own. A kindred soul, in the form of a seventy year old Korean man!

The wife soon appeared and handed me a menu. Practically without browsing, I picked the deodeokgui (pronounced duh-duhk-goo-ee), which cost ten bucks. The “fresh mountain vegetable bibimbap” also tickled my fancy, and was three bucks cheaper, but I figured I ought to spend a little more if they were going to give me lodging as well, and also, DDGI is one of my favorite Korean foods, made all the better by how hard it is to find. My choice gave her a pleasant little surprise, in a kind of “what’s a young(ish) foreigner doing eating this stuff? Koreans under thirty hardly touch it, let alone order it for the centerpiece of their meal” sort of way. She smiled and asked if I was hungry and I said yeah, I had just come over the mountain at Jinburyeong. She smiled again and headed off.

My choice also won over the grandpa, who spontaneously suggested that I sleep on the floor of the Korean-style section of the restaurant* (where there are carpets on the floor and guests all take off their shoes to enter). I gladly accepted and thanked him profusely and, in a rare gambit, opened up fully, telling him that I had just been over the mountain and along the river and that I couldn’t bear the thought of winding up such a beautiful day in a sauna in the city that night. I think this moved him a bit, and started to ask about my journey, in particular about the way over the mountain. Was it tough? How long did it take? You must be quite strong. To this last comment, I offhandedly replied “No, just patient. Once you’re on your way up, you don’t have any choices anyway. Even if you have to push the bike up, there’s no turning back.” He appeared to take it philosophically, saying that he like that I put it that way. Then grandma shouted out that the food was ready.

There’s an expression in Korean: “상다리 부서지겠다,” (Sangdari buseojigetda, "table legs break will") meaning that the food is so plentiful that its weight will cause the table’s legs to collapse. I tell you this because grandma brought me the most giant, plentiful, beautiful, cornocopious** spread I have ever in my life seen. (Honesty check: I’ve seen bigger spreads at fancy Jeongsik places, but I’ve never been as excited as I was about this one.) Sauteed eggplants, candied soybeans, old sour kimchi, stir-fried kimchi, pickled sesame leaves, julienned radish, a big bowl of soybean paste soup, a GIGANTIC serving of deodeokgui (going on ten times the size of the portion you get at the one place in Daegu that serves it), and TWO bowls of rice. I was starting to regret saying I was hungry. Then again, I figured I had earned a good meal.

I started to chow down. Everything was incredible. The eggplants squeaked just enough when chewed; the radish was extra spicy, the kimchi perfectly pungent. The soybean paste soup was astounding, with a deep spiciness, but not too much salt or stink. Not to mention that the tofu was, no exaggeration, the best I’d ever had. I told them so after one bite. It had just the right firmness, and crumbled just right when you bit it. Better yet, it actually had its own taste, rich and full without being overly beany. In all these years of vegetarianism, I had never encountered tofu that I would really want to eat without some sort of sauce or soup. Even at its best, it always just seems to act as a vehicle or filler. This tofu, though, stood out as the best part of the soup, the most memorable part of the meal. When I asked why it was so good, she said it was because she had made it herself with beans they had raised, organically, in their own fields just behind the restaurant. I had struck gold!




My enthusiasm for the food and the two of them and their way of life shone through and grandpa happily broke out a big bottle of rice wine made, in the local style, with a bit of corn thrown in as well. Of course, when drinking rice wine, one needs appropriate side dishes, so he ordered up a couple local-specialty potato pancakes as well. The booze flowed as we excitedly conversed about farming, organic, the land, community, slow life, slow food; it turns out that not only the tofu, but everything they served, was homemade, home-raised, organic, though not certified. Even the deodeok itself – grandpa had hand-picked it while ambling around the mountainside. We also spoke of travel, grandpa commented that he wished he had had the courage to do what I was doing, and what I would soon be doing (I.E. what I’m doing now, fauxboing around China) when he was young. I responded soberly (in only one of the two senses of the word) that I was a lucky guy to be in the position to do it.

Corn booze

Meanwhile, My philosophy of “Save the best bite for last,” along with the intensity of the conversation and, perhaps most importantly, the positioning of things on the table, had so far kept me from trying the deodeok. I was not the least bit surprised when it blew my mind. Just the right mix of texture and tender, tough and soft. The only way I can think to convey it is to say that good deodeok to me must be like good ribs to a full-time meat aficionado. And the pancakes! Made with local glutinous potatoes, ground into a powder before being turned into a batter and fried. Crispy, golden outside, chewy, steamy inside, dipped just so in soy-sauce. Heaven. I made some sort of joke about extending my trip for a day or two just to eat more, and he replied jovially that he wouldn’t have it, that he wouldn’t stand in the way of my travels.
Beloved Dedeok Root

In some sort of vicious virtuous cycle, my clear love of the food turned the couple more generous, as grandpa broke out his own home-brewed Ogapi (Korean mountain herb, not in my dictionary) booze. I of course loved this as well, smoky and medicine and sweet and strong. It must have been apparent that my head was spinning – only half from the booze, mind you – and that my energy was waning, so grandpa called it a night, insisting that I use their shower and then promising to feed me more before sending

Then, before retiring to our separate wings, he taught me a new word: 횡재 (Hwaeng-jae). I understood that it meant extreme good luck, or jackpot. Here’s what the dictionary has to say:

“A windfall; a godsend; an acquisition; a find; a killing; a cleanup; a bonanza; to fall in with a piece of (good) luck; make a rare find; realize a windfall profit; receive one’s share of the windfall; make a killing; strike a bonanza.”

No doubt.

*Does it strike anyone else as odd that I interpret the reception of an invitation to sleep on the floor as a great stroke of good fortune?

**Word officially coined.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Week 2 Food Recap

After gorging way too much during the first week, we’ve both decided to cut back on the food a bit.  In the morning, we generally eat something easy so that we can hit the road quickly – maybe a pastry along with some nuts and fruit.  After an hour or so or whenever we get a chance, we nab a pit of street food, mostly dumplings or bread, to tide us over until lunch, where we either drop by an old-style market and grab some bread and side dishes, or stop at a restaurant and split one dish.  The same for dinner, unless we’re camping (which is nearly half the time), in which case, sometime in the afternoon, an hour or two before we anticipate stopping for the night, we pick up some fruits and veggies and to use either as a full meal or as a side for some noodles. 
Thus, unfortunately, I don’t have quite as many photos to relay as last time.  Still, tons of good stuff, and much better digestion.  Here (6Y = $1):

Awesome baklava-like pastry stuff.

Spicy eggplant stirfy.  5Y/lb

Tofu noodles.   8Y

Crepe-bread from the market.  6Y/lb

Sooybean sautee – 6Y.  They'd make it without the meat if I asked, but since Mingyu is eating too, whatever. 

Egg, tomato, and cilantro soup – 6Y

Buffet breakfast at a market.  Fried eggplants, sautéed potatoes, and sautéed string beans and peanuts with rice for 8Y

Camping salad - 3Y

Runny tofu with sauce (8Y)

Bak choy and shiitakes ordered randomly off a menu I could hardly read.  (12Y)

Veggie dumplings (6Y)

Shredded cabbage, onion, and egg stir-fry (12)

Fried eggplants, potatoes, and bell peppers, the basic vegetarian dish (12Y )

Only the finest!

More tofu noodles (12Y)
Some weird candy I bought.  I was hoping it would be about 90% cherries.  It turned out to be a 1lb block of sugar with some dried cherries on top.    Took me four days to eat the whole thing.  Nearly made me sick.