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Saturday, October 13, 2012

En Masse

It started like any other day in Shanxi province: alternating between grueling uphills in low gear and freewheeling descents.  Alternating between pure, untouched (except for the road, of course) nature and giant, dirty-ass coal factories spewing stuff into the air.  Between totally empty, serene landscapes and coal-truck traffic jams.  Arghhhh.

One highlight, though: 2500km!

Then we ran into a pack of 22 Chinese cyclists on holiday (everyone just had a week off) at a junction where we expected there to be a hotel but there was instead nothing.  So we joined up, followed them down about 10km to the hostel they reserved, and got to business.  Our first taste Bai jiu ("White Booze," aka Chinese Vodka, 100 proof)!  A warm welcome I could've done without!

Madness ensues!  Group shots on chants of one, two, HEY!!!! One cup of bai jiu and ten cups of pi jiu (beer) later...

Much merriment and total stupefaction at the implausibility of our encounter. We've now known each other for the better part of 30 minutes.

Still, good times and good grub.

The next morning, up at 6:00 to ride.  Somehow nobody appears hungover or resentful of the pack.  Am I the only introvert here?

Hangover recovery breakfast: salty bread pucks and spicy tofu soup.  Double up on the cilantro, please!

Getting started, nice and early.

As the others were all only on the road for a week, staying in hotels ever night, they had substantially less gear.  Ohhh my it was a rough morning.

Lots of breaks for photo ops.  It turns out Chinese cyclists like taking pictures of white guys in tight shorts.  Who knew?

The way up was - am I overusing this word? - grueling.  Two and a half hours at just under 10km/h.  It was 20ish km to the top of the mountain, and we had something like an 800m altitude gain.  My off-the-cuff calculations led me to the conclusion that it was about a 5% slope.  In any case, steep and switchback-laden to the point that there were No Trucks Allowed. By far the most physically challenging ride of my life, but thanks to the good company, the perfect weather, and the fact that there were people much older and slower than me in the mix, my confidence and spirits were high.  Totally nice ride.

I checked the altitude constantly, every time breaking a personal record.  Here's the final shot. I don't know exactly how high it was where we slept, but I do know that we rode downhill 10km between the point where we met and the point where we slept, so I'm guessing it was at 1000m or under.

How I felt when I got the the top. Pure power!

Group celebration!  Let's spend half an hour taking a million pictures and pretend like we'll spend more than ten minutes out of the rest of our lives looking at them!

Ok, calm down, let go, enjoy the moment.  If they're going to make you take pictures, make it funky..

Altitude after hiking the rest of the way to the summit.

There's always time to make time for some wild foraging!  Just be sure to learn how to ask the locals whether these things are edible.  These were.  Super-tart.  A nice little pick-me-up snack for strolling around the mountain top.

View from the top. Rhetorical question: By what and what kind of benevolent forces of nature did this get made?

The ride down, as seen from above.

They go on forever. Well, if that were true, I'd still be there, and not here writing this, but you know the feeling.  Or, if you don't, I hope you do, someday.  Wanna come ride?

Serious switchbacks, I'm telling you.

After lunch, the waitress insists that Mingyu and I join her and a colleague for some pictures.  They take us to a partitioned-off VIP section of the restaurant with a table about 10 feet across and a lazy Susan capable of feeding twenty-five or so.  We sit in a throne in the corner and pretend to be kings for a five minute photo shoot.

For the record, Mingyu did some photo touchups with his photoshop skills, so his pictures are wayyyyy better.  Have a look:  http://mingyulee.tistory.com/123.

But, I got the real jackpot!  I took video for the entire 45 minute descent and then double-double-double-double sped it up and now you can enjoy the ride in all its aweosmeness.  You can't smell the fresh air, hear the wind in the corn,  feel the sun on your back, or enjoy the sense of being so directly dwarfed by it all, but vicarious is better than nothing, eh?

Friday, October 12, 2012

A New "Weirdest Thing I've Ever Eaten"

The circumstances were a little weird and I won't go into them at the moment.  I'll just be as straightforward as possible. 

I ate a goat brain tonight. 

Apparently if you've got enough cilantro you can get through just about anything.
To the goat: I'm sorry.  I still love you and I still plan on being a vegan.  Please understand.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

More Veg*an Treats from the Road, Weeks 5 and 6ish

We all know hot pot, right?  Where you dip/blanch vegetables in spicy broth that's being cooked right in front of you?  That's called "huo guo", fire pot.  This is its cousin and a new favorite cooking method of mine.  I think it's called "gan guo," meaning "dry pot."  They sautee the main stuff - in this case, lotus roots - nice and spicy in advance, then drop it on a pile of raw onions in chili oil, which cook right in front of you.  The last bites are even hotter than the first!  .  

Awesome "yue bing" moon cake pastries traditionally eaten around the autumn full moon holiday that just passed us by.  These cakes are super-dense and chock full of nuts, seeds, weird little jellies, and typically 100% vegan. Plus, you can often buy them plastic-free out of big tubs.  I hope they'll be in production all year round.

Tofu and celery gan guo.

Real Kung Pao Chicken, with enough vegetables and peanuts that I can pick at it.

Quote from Xiang Liang: "I think that if you're going to order a chicken, you should be man enough to eat the feet and heat too."  Well said.  Also, the sphincter.

I'm very grateful to Xiang Liang for introducing us to more and better street food.  This one is "Dou fu lao," meaning tofu something.  It's a big spoonful of runny tofu in salty bean broth, to which you then add your own pickled radishes, red pepper flakes, and cilantro.  A steaming hot bowl at breakfast costs about twenty five or fifty cents, and along with a handful of fruit, is enough to keep me riding until lunch.

La pi (spicy skins?) street noodles.  Slippery so a bit tough to eat but ohhhh so good.  Typically 3RMB, less than fifty cents.

A Chinese burrito!  Frickin' amazing!  They take a simple flour and water dough, spread it thin, and fry it a little on a griddle.  Just before it's done, they poke a hole in the middle, drop in some beaten eggs, and then smush them around with a spatula so that they kind of coat the whole crepe.  Add sauce, pepper flakes, lettuce, and cilantro and you have an awesome little snack.  The price was 3RMB, but they gave Mingyu one for free, probably because he so enjoyed taking pictures of them cooking.  Then I went back to buy two more, and they gave me those for free as well.  Jeez, people!

Also that morning: fresh nut milk!  Fresh soy milk is a staple at breakfasts here and costs about a quarter a bowl.  People usually dunk Chinese-style donuts into it while eating.  I hadn't seen this before though - they blend up soy beans, peanuts, black beans, adzuki beans, green lentils, jujubes, and a little sugar right in front of you to make an awesome vegan beanshake.  The jujubes add just the right kind of maple-ish depth and cover the weird beany taste nicely..

Tofu gan guo in action.

After a long day of climbing - this was the first time we would sleep at over 1000m - I was coming down with a cold and needed something to warm me up.  Xiang Liang suggested this: tangerine and white cow's ear mushroom soup  Actually, he only said tangerine soup, which was probably a good way to sell it.  Amazing stuff!  It was like drinking a tub of slightly thinned down orange marmalade.

The three of us generally share one meat dish (at which I pick slightly resentfully) and one veggie dish, and then each get our own individual "ju shi," which means something like "staple food" but is really just the category of starchy foods.  Plain rice, fried rice, noodles in broth, fried noodles, etc.  When there's some other ju shi on the menu, though, we usually go for it.  This one was pretty random - dough flakes stir-fried with potatoes and green beans and maybe (?) some sort of tomato paste?  Awesome, if a bit heavy.  Could have been a meal all on its own.

Fresh, steaming chive and egg dumplings in the morning!  I guess I can kiss these goodbye.  Thanks, renewed commitment to veganissm and goddamn truckful of pigs.

And a new favorite food that really has become a staple.  Chao (same as Chow from Chow Mein, which means "stir fried") Bing (which means bread, cake, pastry).  Chao bing.  Slices of simple, unleavened, tortilla-type bread dried and then stir-fried with onions, chines, bean sprouts, eggs, or cabbage.  Chewy, oily, dense, super-filling, vegan on request, and cheap as all get-out.  Hello, 7RMB/ $1 and some change.

On days off, when I have the luxury of sitting around in one place for more than an hour and doing dishes doesn't sound like a chore, I like to do a little saladifiying.  In fact, I did a mostly raw-and-whole food purge that day.  So, at the local grocer, I got a cuke, a carrot, spinach, spring onions (much easier to cut with a pocket knife than standard onions, and also easier both to store and to eat raw), a tomato, fresh sprouted beans (not quite old enough to be bean sprouts), and, for flavor and substance, fried and salted peanuts.  Made 2 giant bowls that I could barely finish.  7RMB / $chump change.

Yeah yeah yeah good eats, every day!

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Week 5 and 6 Photo Barrage!

We spent one night with a host from the website Warmshowers.org, which  is basically couchsurfing for cyclists.  Our host was an English teacher at "Baoding 1st Secondary School," so we got a tour. The school was pretty nice - not high tech by any means, but clean and orderly and dignified, with lots of inspiring messages like this.  Cynicism sensors activated!  Exactly what kind of society are these kids being trained to take part in?  And are the leaders really examples of Noble Morality?

Mingyu takes does mid-morning calisthenics...with 5000 Chinese students.

Excellend candied mini-apples in even more excellent edible rice paper wrapping., courtesy of a friend of our new cycling partner.

The view one night from an old stone village up in the middle of nowhere.

Playing b-ball with some middle schoolers in front of the village school on one of our recent days off.  This may have been the first time in my life that I was the tallest guy on the court...

After tiring myself out playing b-ball, I started doing a little solo-frisbee practice, which of course attracted a horde of children.  About a third tried to play frisbee with me, a third tried to throw the disc as far away as possible, and a third just tried to chase me around.  At one point, I bent over to pick up the frisbee only to receive a swift kick in the nuts from behind!  Life on the road ain't always pretty...

We slept in a nice little park just behind the intersection of the only two roads in this nice little down with a nice nasty power plant.  Anyone know how to tell the difference between coal and nuclear?  I want to say this is nuclear, but maybe that's only because the stacks there resemble the ones from the Simpsons.

On our way to Yujia Stone Village we stopped at this restaurant, which happened to be having its opening ceremony.  This government official asked me for a $1 bill as an offering of good luck.  Not knowing he was an official, I joked around and told him it would cost three times the official exchange rate.  After I dug the bill out of my bag and offered it to him has a gift, he actually tried to give me the money!  I insisted he just take it, after which he gave me an incredibly awkward 5-minute long handshake, talking Chinese to me the whole time.  He offered us some "hospitality" should we ever pass that way again.    Enticing.

Also, he gave us cigarettes.  And then the whole pack.  Nothing to do but pretend to smoke.  And then stifle the coughs. 

Fantastic old stone village, so high in the mountains that nobody wants to bother tearing it down and renovating.  We had a nice, peaceful, much-needed rest day here.  

A surprising amount of kids for such a tiny village.  What cuties!

The shy one next to me whispered to her auntie that she wanted to take a picture together.

"Have fewer children,"

"plant more trees."  Nothing like a little proverb to make the kids feel at home!

Absurdly friendly veggie vendor inspires me to laugh maniacally. We got ingredients for a salad for three for under a buck!

Mingyulee is a frickin' awesome draw-er.  Ignore the part where I'm scratching myself.

Abusing park facilities.  Salad, cookies, beer.

Couchsurfing in Shijiazhuang with Snowy and Oprah.  They woke up at 4:30 the next morning to cook us breakfast before work!

English tests from the secondary school.

Our Warmshowers host's daughter treats us to an old-school Chinese harp performance.

Day 1 of riding with Xiang Liang, our new compadre.

Whewwwww now I'm only a week and a half behind!