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Friday, November 16, 2012


Alternate Title: Depending On Who You Ask, I Either Have or Have Not Left China. 

Sunrise as seen from the boat. 

“What’s the next station on your journey?” is a question I hear a lot.

“I’m going to go to Taiwan and then come back to China after about two months” is the answer I usually give.

If the person asking me the question has known me for more than about ten minutes, there’s a 90% chance that he or she will respond, with a voice good natured but full of pity for my naivete, that Taiwan belongs to China and therefore my sentence doesn’t make sense.  In response I usually I smile politely, but if I’m feeling feisty I mention that my Taiwanese friends disagree.  The conversation never goes any further. 

To be fair, two people have told me that their stance is that Taiwan belongs to Taiwan, no matter how much history it may share with China. 

I most definitely did not bring any of this up ago just minutes ago when Chinese immigration officials stamped my passport with a big fat 

“CHU,” the character for “exit.”  Now my bike and bags and body are all moving Taiwan-wards at a speed measured in knots. 

In other words, I survived the first part of this crazy-ass trip of mine.  Some statistics and reflections follow.

Days permitted by visa: 90

Days on the road: 86

Kilometers Traversed: approximately 5000

By Bike: About 4400, or 90%.  Had to take one bus ride to meet a friend and one train ride to make my visa deadline and not get thrown in jail.

Dollars spent: 1358.  1/3 of that went to visa fees and the two boat trips (Korea-Dalian and Xiamen-Keelung).  Not counting those, it’s 834.

Breakdown:  $777 (58%) on Misc (see note above), just shy of $300 on restaurants, and a bit under $200 each on accommodation and street food/fruit and veg. 

Daily Average: Counting everything, just under $16.  $7 if excluding the miscellaneous costs

An average day: $3 in restaurants, $2 for street food or fruit and veg, $2 for accommodation.  Days with misc spending were few and far between.

Money saved by camping rather than going to hotels:  $100.  My tent is now half paid-off. After a couple months, I'll actually (ok, not actually, but kind of, in a sense) be making money every time I sleep in it.  

Injuries: 0

Cases of traveler's diarrhea: NONE!  One or two rough mornings after overdoses of a) Chinese "bai jiu" vodka or b) dried peppers and pepper oil, but no cases of illness related to old, spoiled, or dirty food.  And that's after 3 months of eating fruits and veggies from vendors, sweet potatoes and pancakes from the same, and meals from dingy little roadside restaurants.  Nothing sanitized, nothing wrapped up in plastic, nothing kept in bottles or refrigerators.  

Water bottles used in the last two months of the trip: 1!  Once I found out that I could get restaurants to refill mine, it was smooth sailing.

If there's anything you'd like to know, ask via comment and I'll do my best to answer.  Otherwise, I will fight the temptation to go on listing bizarre and pointless statistics and will get to the point: traveling this way is CHEAP.  Anyone can go fauxbo, I guarantee.  A month of total freedom costs less than a car payment or a night in a fancy hotel. A month of delicious, fresh, exotic food costs less than a bottle of high-end booze.  A week of scenery and frolicking on beaches and in forests costs less than a video game.  Sell your car, sell your junk, cancel your lease, come hit the road!  You know where to find me.  

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Last Leg of the First Leg; or MOOCHFEST; or, Alone but Never Alone

After being stuffed up in the city for a solid five days, spending a night on the train, riding the next morning in the rain for three hours, and suffering a (bike) breakdown the following day, I needed a good day or two.  Boy did I get them. 

Because the bike breakdown had actually put me ahead of schedule, I figured I had time for a little scenic detour, so I decided to ride south from Fuzhou on an S (provincial) road rather than a G (national) one.  This is always a gamble; S roads tend to have better scenery and fewer trucks, but they’re also more likely to have rough stretches that put lots of strain on both bike and rider.  Instead of going directly from Fuzhou to Putian, I’d pass by a bunch of farms and through villages and perhaps even an island or two.  I was also hoping to find a grove of trees to sleep in.  In the North there definitely would have been, but here everything was either farmland or very strange-looking condos that I regret  not taking pictures of.  So, after considering my options, I pulled into an elementary school, remembering that a Taiwanese friend had suggested that when in Taiwan I give camping there a try.  There were a few kids playing in one classroom, but I couldn’t find any adults and decided to give up and move on.  Just then I noticed the stairway up to the second floor, where I found the principal, a late 30-or early-40 something Obama lookalike (I didn’t tell him this, since most Chinese people seem to hate Obama and prefer “Omney.” I can’t speak well enough to figure out the reason, but some friends have told me it’s a race issue.)  kicking back with his shoes off and feet up on his desk.  I got his permission to pitch my tent inside the school walls, but then he introduced me to two teachers who also board at the school, and they let me set up my tent inside one of their classrooms.  They also offered me dinner, helped me draw well water for a scrub, prepared tea, and hung out with me for the whole evening.  Except for the part of it where some village kids came by and I taught them how to throw the old Frisbee. 

Lili, one of the two teachers boarding at the school.

This is what a Chinese countryside classroom looks like (when it's been stormed by a Fauxbo).

Breafkast with Feifan (the principal's son), Meiyun ("Beautiful Cloud"), and Lili.

The next morning, they cooked me breakfast and tried their best to keep all two hundred children under control at what was probably their first in-person foreigner sighting.  As if!  I was immediately swarmed, pushed, pulled, tugged, stepped upon, and dragged to each classroom in succession to say hello and sign autographs.  One of the teachers asked me to do a little lesson, so I taught the kids the hokey-pokey/

Jesus, all two hundred of them are chasing me. 

So much love. 

Meiyun's kindergartners. 

After photo-ops with all the teachers and getting loaded up with water, sweet potatoes, pastries, and a can of “peanut milk soup,” I escaped the school and headed south following a vague hunch that I might be able to see the sea.  I followed random hunches until managed to find a giant expanse of sand with not a single human being other than myself on it.  I had myself a nice three-hour laydown, half-dozing, half-meditating to the sensations of the sun and the wind on my flesh.  I’m proud to say that I also took the chance to air out those dank nether regions that are unfortunately stuck in tight bike pants all day long. For the last two months, because of my looming visa deadline, I have been feeling pressed for time.  It hung over me every time Mingyu and Xiang wanted to have another beer, sleep another hour, or spend another day with any of our many wonderful hosts.  With that burden lifted – now I’ve got 5 days to make the next 200km – I was able to finally unwind and recharge.

Not easy riding, 

but well worth it.

Where am I?  Baidu GPS puts me about 3km off the coast.  I'm pretty sure I'd know it if that were the case.  

I thought about staying there all day and night, but a little after lunchtime I started to get antsy and decided to keep going.  Another few hours of riding brought me to the city of Putian, where a kind restaurant owner refused to let me pay him for my dinner and a kindly pedestrian led me to a basketball court where I could 
pitch my tent. 

That means that the last twenty-four hours, definitely among the happiest, wildest, and most memorable of the trip, have cost me exactly: NOTHING. 

I think I’m getting the hang of this.


So I had written.

Then, the following day, a vegetable vendor gave me a carrot, a tomato, a cuke, and a stalk of celery for free.

(Chronologically but not thematically appropriate interlude: Road made of about 20% potholes.  Apparently this is one stage of road construction.  I have no idea how it could possibly be useful.  I am sure it didn't do my precious little spokes any good."  

That evening, while I was preparing to pitch my tent at a temple on the coast, two high schoolers invited me back to their house to sleep and cooked me dinner.

Thanks, guys!

Nice crib!

To remember me by.

The next day, a group of 26 cyclists bought me lunch.  When I tried to make a joke about how their barley tea was the same stuff used to make beer, they misunderstood and bought me two cans of beer.

Later that afternoon, when I suffered yet another spoke problem on the road,  a kind group of cyclists let me load my bags into their car, stick my bike on their roof rack, and borrow the bike it replaced to ride back to their hometown (50km), where they took me to a bike shop for a free repair, then took me out to dinner, then paid for my hotel room. 

Thanks, boss.  He typed something into his phone and showed it to me: "My dream is to retire early and travel the world."  My response: sell your store and do it NOW!

No idea how this got on the menu.....

What a frickin’ week!  And from tomorrow I’m couchsurfing…


Yes, I think I would like to go there.


 A quality afternoon: getting some rest, getting some reading done, and letting my squishy crotch pad and stanky towel get some breeze.

 On to meet my couchsurfing host, Michael, who bought me several meals and somehow managed to get me a room on the third floor of a police station.

Then over to the island of Gulang Yu to meet Keith and Janet, who run the free "Mushishi" Hostel.  Finally, some real Chinese hippies.  Keith says: "Most Chinese people don't know what the point of living is."  Amen, brother. Let's go play some frisbee!

For the graffitti

This guitar belongs to the "Folk King," one of the other guests at the hostel.  He quit his engineering job to tour around the country trying to be the Chinese Bob Dylan.  He still goes home every second or third week to see his parents, though.

Cat's aren't very popular in China.  But  Keith and Janet have 4 living on their roof.

We came across a crew filming a spoof: OPPA GULANG STYLE.  Check it out on youtube in a few months.

A homemade lunch with the other hostelers.  I tried to pay for the ingredients at the supermarket, but they wouldn't let me.  Also, I kind of fell in love with the girl on the left for a day. 

Sneak peek!

Cost for the whole week: $30.  yeahhhhhhhh!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

One of the Worst Things That Can Happen (to a bicycle) Finally Does, and It’s Not All That Bad

Before leaving Korea, I made sure to prepare for just about any and all possible road eventualities.  I have shirts for different situations and temperatures.  I have Tupperware for my leftovers.  I have a spare tube and not one but TWO pumps.  Several extra pairs of brake pads, brake cables, and gear cables.  A decoy wallet filled with expired cards.  Beastly tires that can roll right on over shards of glass.  A Steripen © UV Water Sterlizer.  And so on. 

One thing I didn’t furnish myself with, though, was extra spokes.  Primarily because I wouldn’t have a clue what to do with them, and also because I figured the chance of needing them would be pretty low – after all, how many people are even aware that the spokes do anything, anyway?  That negligence came back today and gave me a big, swift kick in the junk.

Like any other day, I was riding along taking delight in the scenery.  I’m currently roaming around Fujian, a province of China that I had never seen on a menu and so never knew existed until I realized I had to pass through it.  Nothing against the other provinces, of course, but the Fujian countryside really is wonderful.  It’s full of hills, which means that it’s underdeveloped and underpopulated and what buildings there are small enough that they don’t overshadow their surroundings.  The hills all max out at about 300 meters, so the climbs are short and not too intense.   All the wet and warmth of the subtropical climate make plants go wild; whereas the forests up North were all pretty clearly man-planted, the ones down here are lush and varied and overflowing and awe-inspiring.  Slender, solitary bamboo stalks shooting ten meters up into the air, Banyan trees lowering their tentacles, Banana tree leaves bigger than my body.  And a river runs through it, too: the Minjiang, as wide as the parts of the Yangtze and Yellow rivers that I saw, but clearer and with less traffic.  My belly was full of chow mein, the previous day’s rainclouds had vanished, and the cars were few and far between.  In other words, it was a perfect day. 

(I wish I had taken more pictures of the scenery, but I thought I had all day ahead of me...)

Until I heard a giant TWANG! Like a piano string snapping.  I knew immediately what had happened, since there’s only one part on the bicycle that can make that noise.  A quick look down confirmed it: sure enough, one of the spokes on my rear wheel had snapped off at the socket.  Actually, while giving my breaks a tune up before setting out, I had noticed that my rim wasn’t quite straight.  I had hoped that it could hold out another 500km until I got to Taiwan and visited a bike shop near my friends’ house where the owner speaks good English.  No such luck. 

Not good.  

Worse than that, since all the spokes work together to hold the weight of the bike, losing one is like pulling a block out from the lowest rung of a Jenga tower.  All the extra slack has to be taken up by the other spokes, which are therefore more likely to dislodge or bend or break, again and again in a vicious cycle.  I don’t even know what would happen if half or more of the spokes broke.  Would I even be able to push the bicycle along?

Totally at a loss, I dismounted myself and all my bags and sat down on the side of the road for a few minutes.   A road-cleaning crew came by and informed me that my only choice was to double back to a village about 5km down the mountain I had been climbing. I really didn’t want to get back on the bike for fear of doing permanent damage to the rim, but aside from taking my chance with hitchhiking for the next 120 km, I didn’t see what I could do.  I popped back on and just as I made it to the village a second TWANG rang out.  Another spoke had snapped and then managed to get itself twisted around inside of the rear gear cassette.  Fortunately, I was right in front of a police station and was able to get directions to a bike shop nearby.  Unfortunately, the mechanic didn’t have any spokes.  Least fortunately, she also told me that the only bus to Fuzhou, the capital of the province, left at 7:30 the following morning.

I would prefer it if this spoke were: a)straight and b) attached to my rim, please. 

That's not right.

I pushed the bike ever-so-gingerly back to the police station to ask what to do next.  Eager to help, one of the officers brought out a pair of pliers and suggested that I take one of the snapped spokes and twist it around the functioning ones.  Surely that would do the trick and allow me to ride all the way to Fuzhou.  Once I had convinced him that I couldn’t even ride the bicycle for one kilometer in that state, he told me that I had no choice but to hitchhike.

Thankfully, within about thirty minutes a guy with an empty minivan came by and offered to take me to the next town with bus service to Fuzhou, about 40km away.  Some heated bartering ensued as I heartlessly talked him down to 70Y from his initial offer of 100, and then some awkward riding time as he responded to my comments about the scenery by screaming and cackling and doing his best “mad gunman at the top of the mountain shooting randomly at the villagers below” impression, if that’s what it was.  He dropped me off where he said he would, though, and didn’t give me any trouble about the price in the end.  I resumed my hitchhiking until the luxury bus came by and charged me another 80Y (more than the price of my 450km train journey two nights before!).  

Not pictured: my despair.

Might as well have a good time, eh?

A few hours later the bus reached Fuzhou, and after about an hour of pushing my bike around following the Chinese version of GoogleMaps, I finally found a bicycle shop that could help me out.  I had a little chat with the boss, received a lesson on spoke maintenance from the mechanic, got my back gears a much needed cleaning, and only had to pay a pittance (20Y) for parts – calling me “Xiongdi” (brother) they comped the labor, even though the job they did would have cost me at least 30 bucks in Korea!  

So, now I’m here, having spent more in one day than in an average week on the road, and yet I still probably came out ahead money-wise.  Better yet, I’m ahead of schedule and my bike that feels newer than the day I bought it.  I’ve also got a few more “brothers,” even more love for China, a bit more knowledge about the bike, and some more spare parts to see me through my next emergency.  And, lastly, the confidence that comes from seeing a nightmare come true but working through it and making it to the other side unscathed.  Lesson learned.