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Monday, September 17, 2012

China:One Month

Now that I've been vagabonding around the Northeast for a month and a day, I feel I'm qualified to say a few things about China and about life on the road. 

The People
Getting along with everyone here has been much easier than I expected.  Partially, it's because I've been away from home long enough that I'm used to the stares.  Partially, it's because the absurdity of my bike and gear mean that all of said staring is completely justified; it'd be stupid of me to take it personally.  Partially, it's because being on a bike means I am only approachable when I want to be – i.e. when I stop to  buy food, to rest in a park, to look for directions – so I don't feel my personal space impinged on too much.  Also, whereas in the past I often felt self-conscious and out of place while backpacking aimlessly, now that  I'm traveling in a way that seems to fit my values and desires and general lifestyle so well, I generally feel cheerful and comfortable and open to just about whatever China throws at me. 

Mostly, though, Chinese people, or at least the kinds I tend to encounter and the in the kinds of places I tend to encounter them, are friendly, warm, curious, courteous, jovial, understanding, etc.  Cooks let me into the kitchen to pick out ingredients.  Other restaurant patrons chat with me before, during, and after meals, sometimes even sitting at my table, sometimes pouring me a glass of beer, sometimes buying me a bottle of apple-milk for desert.  People driving scooters and motorcycles pull up alongside me and chat for a bit as we ride; people driving cars roll down their windows and offer me water and road tips.  Yesterday a guy on a motorcycle stopped in front of me at a stoplight, turned around, said "Hallo" and thrust two pieces of candy at me, then smiled and zoomed off.  Fruit and snack vendors sell everything at fair (i.e. incredibly cheap) prices.  A friend of a CS host of mine even gave me free fruit and two (!) free bags of almonds.  Everybody compliments and indulges my fledgling Chinese.  Even when I'm tired and try to shut down a conversation by saying "I can't speak Chinese!" they just smile, say "You're speaking Chinese right now!", and keep on asking me questions or telling me who knows what.  Nobody teases me (to my face, in ways that I can understand) about my ridiculous biking shorts or haircut.  Most importantly, nobody has hassled me while camping. 

In fact, and of course, 99% of people just ignore me and go about their own lives.  I'm cool with that. 

The Food
Again, two thumbs up!  The basic unit of money is called a kuai and is worth about  15 cents.  Many fruits  and street snacks cost exactly…1 quai.  Or less .  Apples, bananas, plums, mandarins, fist-sized vegetarian dumplings, all sorts of sweet and savory street pastries, cookies, crackers, and more.   A pound of peanuts (raw or roasted) costs a dollar, as does a pound of cherry tomatoes or five pounds of watermelon. 

As for restaurants, we've been to a range, from bright-lit ones with table cloths and floors swabbed shiny to dinky, mangy ones where there's not even a menu.  The stir-fries are often pretty similar to the ones I knew from Chinese food back home – that kind of perfect level of greasiness and goopiness that makes everything delicious.  The more exciting ones incorporate ginger, red pepper, and even vinegar.   Tofu can take numerous forms ranging from sloppy to totally dry.  Noodles, also come in all sorts of spiffy varieties: rice and wheat (some are even made of tofu!), skinny and wide, long and short, doughy and not, hot and cold.  So, whether we're eating at a "rice room," "alcohol house," "alcohol room (hotel), a "small eats," a "homemade vegetable," or a "noodle room" (thus ends the lists of kinds of restaurants that I can recognize), it's always an adventure and it never fails to please.

I remain a bit mystified at how certain things seem to be missing from Chinese cuisine.  Like, from the standpoint of a country with a huge population and looming resource problems, isn't cooking everything in oil kind of a big waste of beans?  Wouldn't it be better to eat food prepared in less resource-intensive ways, like boiled, steamed, raw, or pickled?   The only thing I can think of is that in a country with so many people (though I'm not convinced that China really has more people than Korea or Japan relative to area) there must be a lot of pressure on restaurants to cook as quickly as possible.  Or also perhaps that people just don't need to care about efficiency and sustainability quite yet.  After all, despite all the land, water, oil, etc that go into raising animals, meat consumption here is on the rise, and fast.

The Roads
So far, much better than anticipated.  We do most of our riding on second-tier roads since the first-tier roads are major interstate highways that are a) no fun to ride on and b) off-limits to bikes anyways.  The second-tier roads are paved nice and smooth except in the occasional construction zone, as are even the third- and fourth-tier roads.  It's only in occasional parts of the deep, deep countryside that we've had to ride over gravel and dirt. 

Most everything is also wider and less-congested than expected.   Even driving around Beijing didn't feel any more dangerous than Korea, though I suppose that's not saying much.  The main and almost-main roads in most mid- and large-sized cities tend to have dedicated bike/scooter/donkey cart lanes separated from the car lanes by some sort of barrier.  Countryside roads generally lack the barriers, but they still have dedicated "alternative transportation" lanes which are often twice as wide as the car lanes.  Plus, it's not uncommon for there to be two, three, or even four car lanes in each direction where only one would do.  Let's not forget that just about everywhere the roads are lined with trees on both sides so that I get to cycle in the shade almost all day long.

Unfortunately, the drivers don't quite measure up to the infrastructure; traffic here does have an element of lawlessness to it.  Passing on the wrong side of a two-lane road is standard practice, as is making a left turn the instant the stoplight turns green, trying to speed through the intersection before the cars coming from the other side do.  At smaller junctions, drivers making left turns will often cut into the wrong lane a hundred meters early and then take the turn from the inside lane rather than go for a nice, orderly 90-degree angle turn.  Cars and trucks will even pass one another on switchbacks, bridges, and unlighted tunnels!

Still, what I refer to as "lawlessness" is mostly a figment of my imagination.  Because the rules of the road look different from my own, I'm tempted to say that there aren't any.  In reality, though, there are rules and Chinese drivers know them and everyone gets along fine.  Indeed, the craziness of it all probably makes everyone a little more careful, a little less complacent.  And, somehow, even a bit more patient and forgiving.  The only real cases of road rage I've witnessed have involved foreigners (other than myself), and I've only seen (the aftermath of) one accident**. 

[**I couldn't quite make out what had happened, but one mac truck which should have been in the left lane (from my oncoming perspective) was blocking most of the right and had the right side of its front cabin bashed in.  This would lead me to guess that it had been trying to take the turn wide, only to run head-on into something else.  Except that that "something else" was another mac truck which had been thrown off the road and into a ditch.  To my right.]

The one thing that does bother me is the honking.  Drivers of vehicles of all sizes here honk.  Frequently.  When passing you, when approaching you, upon seeing you coming in their general direction.  And it's not usually a gentle little  "Just so you know, I'm coming towards you, so you might want to be a little extra careful" warning honk.  It's a big, nasty, head-shattering blast.  I have no doubt that when I swerve, it has less to do with my being distracted or enraged and more to do with successive sound waves pounding into my bicycle.  I've had big trucks honk at me despite the total, unarguable absence of even a single other vehicle in my bike lane, the two lanes going in my direction, the two lanes going in the opposite direction, and the opposite bike lane.  Just me, a truck, and landscape as far as the eye can see.  I can only guess that the driver must have been a) concerned that I might swerve over two entire lanes into his path, b) thinking that I would be so absorbed and mesmerized by the utter silence of the landscape that I wouldn't be able to hear his loudass engine, c) a sadist, or d) just bored.  I suppose d) would be understandable given how big China is.  Rough job.      

The Riding
Nevertheless, being on the road is wonderful.  Physically, it's much less taxing than you're probably imagining, and emotionally it's much more rewarding. I would (indeed, I have, I continue to) gladly trade a day of being honked at for an evening alone with the woods and the stars.  A day of dust and exhaust in my face for an hour of winding through quiet cornfields with blue skies above.  Three hours of grueling climbing for ten minutes atop a mountain looking down at my achievement and thirty minutes coasting down the other way. 

I can no longer count how many times I've had my breath taken away.  Not by the Great Wall or Tiananmen Square or the Forbidden City, but by packs of sparrows bursting in unison out of a hedge as I pass by; by clouds casting shadows on rolling hills; by terraced mountains and corn as far as the eye can see; by bare-faced rock walls standing perpendicular to the road, towering over it; by valleys beneath me, rivers alongside.  On some nights I can see more stars in one glance than I'd see in an entire year of normal life.  Several times the sheer beauty of it all has moved me to and even over the brink of tears, overwhelming me with such a love for "nature" that I count myself lucky to be alive and grateful for everything I have and everyone I know.  It's at moments like this - not when I feel scared, or alone, or exhausted, of freezing, but when I feel totally alive and connected to and of this Earth – that I miss family and friends most.  It's a missing rooted not in the sad fact that they (you) are not here with me, but in the happy fact that we are each in our own place, leading our own particular lives, and at least for some length of time our paths ran alongside one another.  May they soon do so again!