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Thursday, October 04, 2012

My TEDx Palgong Talk - Official Version

Most of you have probably already seen the version I mailed out, but here's the legit one!  Watch it, like it, share it, pity me when nobody laughs at my jokes...



Southward, Sloooooowly

Getting a grip on the size of China has been quite a mind-bending experience. Several times, after managing to settle in to a good pace and hammer out 80 or 90km a day for a few days in a row, I’ve had the feeling that Taiwan is just around the corner, after which the rest of the mainland will be a breeze. The next thing I know it I’ll be in Vietnam feasting on Jackfruit and regretting all the time I wasted studying Chinese. At other times, even to say that we’ve been “inching” along would be a gross exaggeration. That’s because when the going is tough, transversing an inch of map-space (scale: one to EIGHT MILLION) can take a week. Worse, when it takes that long, it’s almost always because of rough terrain, truck jams, emphysema-genic dust clouds, general lostness, and other unpleasantries that make the riding grueling. On a good day, I can dismount the bike after 100km and not even feel like I had ever put foot to pedal, while on the worst days, half that can seem like a gauntlet.

Recently we’ve had two of the “worst” days. On one, we only made it 40km before stopping for an early lunch and then collapsing in a park. We were so exhausted that we napped all afternoon, ruining our chances of doing any PM riding. The waning hours were spent using the park’s exercise equipment, playing Frisbee, looking at maps, practicing harmonica (me) and ukulele (Mingyu), and reading the very weird “Journey to the West,” an old Chinese epic about the exploits of a Stone Monkey.  Or at least, that's what the first 200 pages were about, but now he's been banished under some mountain and apparently is no longer a relevant character.  I'm no longer sure whether it's worth my time.
The next day, our search for the “Stone Village” led us so far off the beaten path and so high into the mountains that we managed only 20km before 1pm. By the time we had finished with lunch shenigans (pictures to come), some meandering through the ancient cobblestone streets of “Yujiashitoucun,” and ruckus in the schoolyard with a mob of little elementary-schoolers, it was nearly dark and we had no choice but to crash at the first homestay that we came across.  Two bucks a night, plus one per meal.  Hurrah!

Now we're rested and moving south through the horrific mountains of Shanxi province.  The name literally means "West of the Mountains," so I thought that we'd just have to cross them once while heading westward before coasting down towards the Buddhist grottos and Dharma caves of Luoyang and Dengfeng.  Not so.  It was uphill all day today.  As October and autumn are upon us, camping at 1300m is out of the question.  Thankfully, we've now demoted ourselves from "Booze Rooms" (read: hotels) to "Travel Halls" (read: dingy like hostels, but not with any particular youth focus.) 

The only big news worth reporting is that we’ve picked up a third cyclist, Xiang Liang. We met him about five days ago now on the way out of Beijing. He’s 22, hails from Sichuan, and though senior year of college in Beijing ought to be right around the bend, is taking an indefinite break to clear his mind and figure out why he felt funky. He’s a bit slower than us but quite a warrior for riding a decent-but-less-than-excellent bike with fat (i.e. heavy, high-friction, slow) tires and not a whole lot in the way of gear. It’s nice to have a third around to break up the monotony, particularly since he’s friendly, hilarious, good at English, an excellent tour guide and translator, and a worker of many deals. That said, I’m becoming aware of the pitfalls of group riding, particularly for someone like myself with more than your avferage number of curmudgeonly tendencies.  Over the last week I’ve spent a lot more time and mental energy than I’d like trying to figure out how the three of us fit together; how to deal with the fact that I want to ride faster and further and with fewer breaks than the other two; how not to feel marginalized when I don’t share meat or beer at most meals; how not to come across as stingy when I don’t want to split the tab; etc.  I also spend a lot of time and energy kicking myself for being so childish, for not having yet figured out how to maintain zen and refrain from blowing small conflicts (which only I perceive as such) out of proportion.  Thus, for a few days now I've hardly had any emotional room left to get all warm and fuzzy about the hills and clouds and passes and stuff.  That said, I managed to break out of my funk yesterday almost in a single moment.  Here's how it happened:
    1)  I finally reached the top of an absurd 40km climb and started the downhill portion. 
    2)  I listened to the song "Blue Skies" by Noah and the Whale.
    3)  I realized that all the extra money that I wind up spending subsidizing beer and meat can be viewed as the cost of keeping Xiang around, and since his presence and knowhow actually save me money on food and accomodation, I'm actually coming out ahead.  He's also helping me to support smaller, and thus, probably, slightly more sustainable hotel operations.  Conscience cleaned!
    4)  I realized that my trip is going to be a long, long, long, long, long one indeed, and that I have time to try out all different sorts of travel.  Solo, in a pair, a trois, who knows, maybe sometime I'll join a whole pack of roaming cyclists.  Rather than focus on the things I don't like about any certain arrangement, it's better to take each for what it is, enjoying the positive parts that might not be around a week or a month from now.  Experience and learn from them all.  No resentment, no regrets, blah blah blah I'm going on thirty and still figuring this crap out?!?
In short, life on the road rules and I can't imagine having to wake up to an alarm and then go to a job and work for somebody else. The only thing worth lamenting is that it's hard to find an internet connection that will allow me to upload all the wonderful photos I mooch off of Mingyu.  I'll try to get them up sooner rather than later.  In the meantime, enjoy this special


Here are some September Statistics for all the nerds out there:

Km: 1241. Low because we spent two days couchsurfing in Chengde, a week around Beijing sightseeing and running errands, and a week on the farm. Hoping to double this next month...

Money Spent: Y1339 ($220). Of that, Y507 went to restaurants; Y279 went to buying fruit, pastries, salad ingredients, and other edibles from convenience stores and street vendors; Y75 was used for accommodations; miscellaneous for the remaining Y478.

That’s right, my rent for this month was about twelve dollars. And my food bill was just over one hundred. The shamefully large etc category can mostly be blamed on two big layouts of Y120 each: entrance to the “Summer Restort” in Chengde, which was a total ripoff, nowhere near inspiring as an empty orchard or isolated mountain pass; and a new heavy-duty lock for the bike, which I think is a justifiable investment. Here’s to an even cheaper October!

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Beyond Beijing

It’s only been ten nights since I last slept in my tent, but it seems like longer. I felt so tuned in during almost all of the 450km of my solo trip from just two weeks ago – each experience was vivid and deep, every moment full of joy, every encounter friendly and natural. I was so into the traveling, and particularly the sleeping al fresco, that I distinctly recall falling asleep in my Couchsurfing apartment noting the absence of cicadas. Something about the silence felt wrong. And something about it feeling wrong felt right.

That consciousness has faded over the past ten days, so much so that I almost forgot I was traveling. So frequently leaving and then returning to the same Beijing apartment (friend’s friends Jonathan and Meiqing’s place) gave me the impression of being home, of being settled. Thus, telling others that we were headed to Taiwan and beyond once again began to take on that hazy, even stagnant sense that it carried in Korea, like I was just saying something for lack of something else to say, like I was hedging my bets, like it wouldn’t happen.

But now things are returning to their new normal. I’m in my tent, amongst the trees, under a half moon that was a fingernail just five nights ago. Better yet, I feel like a new leaf has been turned over. The first five weeks of the trip were almost like learning how to walk. And also how to pack, ride, talk, eat, and camp. Now that we’ve made it to and through our first big destination, though, I’ve found my stride. My body has adjusted and seems to function better – and even on less fuel – when I’m riding 50km or more a day. I’ve figured out what goes in what bag and what order the bags go on the bike; what a good camping spot looks like, what order to unpack my gear in, what goes in the tent, what stays outside. How to walk barefoot on the tarp to make sure there’s nothing sharp underneath. Then how to leave a little strip of tarp outside one door of the tent so that I don’t have that awkward problem of trying to step out of my shoes and into the tent all at once. How to get drinking water without buying a new plastic bottle. How to wash off in my tent in the dark with less than a cup of water and no spillage on the tent floor. How to keep my food pannier mounted on the bike at night so no ants crawl into it. I even remember to walk around swinging a little stick in front of my face so as not to run straight into a spider web. Oh, and how to pee without even getting all the way off the bike. All of these things that used to require deliberation have settled into routine, leaving me with more mental space to figure out the bigger things, like: where are we going? How long do I want it to take? What do I want to happen along the way? In no particular order:

 Develop my harmonica skills. It’d be nice to have something non-electric to do in the dark, and also to have some sort non-verbal way to interact with hosts, kids, and other random people along the way.

 Stretch and exercise and do yoga and meditate in the forest in the mornings.

 Visit some old villages and some places of extreme natural beauty.

 Get more use out of my hammock.

 Watch all the movies and listen to all the music that are sitting around polluting my hard drive.

 Devote some more time to thinking about Green/Ethical travel.

Ok, that’s that for now. Here are some pictures of the good times Mingyu and I had with Meiqing and Jonathan, who so kindly let us come and go and sleep on their couch and floor whenever we felt like it for nearly an entire three weeks, and who joined us for many a great meal and helped us accomplish a number of bizarre missions in Beijing. May we meet again somewhere.

Note: I'm mooching a verrry slow connection at a super cheap hostel ($7 for a private room with 3 beds) up in the mountains.  The photo uploads will have to wait.  Apologies...

Update: Got 'em!