Kyoto and the Shinkansen

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Click here to read the article in the University of Colorado Alumni Magazine, Coloradan, about Seize The World, if you have not already done so!

Life in Kyoto, Japan is good.  My friend Ian McKittrick and I rode about 200 miles from Narita, Japan through Tokyo and around Mt. Fuji to the city of Hamamatsu where we boarded a commuter train bound for Kyoto.  Well…it was actually bound for someplace else.  But after two transfers and after having ridden three trains, we wound up in Kyoto.  Ian and I were pleased to have completed about 2/3 of the journey from Narita to Kyoto by bicycle – we did the rest by train – and were happy to have shared some amazing experiences on the road.
We found our way out of the city of Tokyo on our bicycles . . . an all-day affair that ended at a campsite near the city of Fujiyoshida and with dinner at a hunting lodge type restaurant at which Ian and I were the only patrons for an hour until a few more folks arrived…we enjoyed eerie music-box style music that was utterly relaxing as we sat next to a warm fire and looked at antlers and bullets hanging on the wall.  A very peaceful, enjoyable end to a long, stressful day.

Ian was enthusiastic about seeing Mt. Fuji, so our route took us along highway 20 to the city of Fujiyoshida and then along highway 71 south around the volcano to the much-larger city of Fujinomiya.  Our circumnavigation of the volcano was an experience characterized much-more by frigid rain than by picturesque views of beautiful symmetrical snow-capped volcanoes.  However, the experience was still a good one.  From Fujiyoshida, Ian and I enjoyed a 20-mile descent (through rain) that managed to be enjoyable despite the cold.

We found our way through more cities, we stayed in a hotel after bitter cold rain one night, and we camped for a couple of nights.  The highlights of the tour of Japan have been varied…but one of them has been that during the evenings, we have listened to radio broadcasts while camping in the tents.  I would download podcasts to my computer while we were in hotels so that we could listen to radio during nights when we were in the tents.   We enjoyed listening to a show about conspiracy theories, and then talking about the endless possibilities the next day while riding the bikes.  Podcasts have turned out to be a fabulous discovery…perhaps radio in general.
Now, Ian and I have arrived in Kyoto, Japan.  We spent last night camped at what was, perhaps our best campsite of our tour in Japan.  After a string of commuter train rides to cover about 140 miles from Hamamatsu to Kyoto, which is located on Japan’s south coast, we arrived in the popular tourist destination at 8:30p.m. on Saturday night and began to assemble our bikes.  2 hours of fruitless searching for a hotel room saw us back near the train station once more, and had me wondering how it had somehow slipped under my radar to remember to reserve beds for ourselves in Kyoto before a Saturday night arrival.
During the entire experience of searching for hostels and hotels, I kept asking Ian if I had anything strange on my face before entering various hotel and hostel lobbies to try to check in.  I did not want to appear any more shifty than I already did, arriving by bicycle at 9:30p.m. with flashing lights, at my wit’s end.  I was reminded of the importance of having a clean face by a recent post from my friend George the Cyclist in which a long day on the road, and a face full of dirt, had prevented him from finding a hotel for a couple of hours.  As it turns out, Ian and I never did find a room in Kyoto yesterday.  But we had bikes and tents.
Ian and I decided to go to Mini Stop – Japan’s most common, and perhaps highest quality convenience store – in order to energize and regroup before setting out in search of a campsite.  We knew from our maps of the city that there were large blank spots to the east.  Blank spots usually mean trees, and camping options.  We headed east.  15 minutes later, after some steep but short climbing, we found ourselves at a sort of a classic city overlook point at about 10p.m.  Nice lights, great view of Kyoto’s version of the Space Needle (less-dramatically called the Kyoto Tower…).
At this point, we were standing in what we thought was a vacant lot for a yet-to-be-constructed house.  Morning revealed that it was actually a parking lot for an adjacent Shinto  Shrine.  The view at night was spectacular, we got sleep, and the following morning – this morning – we were energized enough to visit the Nijo-jo Castle and the Kamigamo-jinja Shrine, two of Kyoto’s seventeen UNESCO (that stands for “U.N. – E.S.C.O.”)  World Heritage Sites.  The Nijo-jo Castle is a 17th-century castle built by a Shogun ruler.  The grounds of Nijo-jo were greatly expanded upon by subsequent rulers, with more palaces, more paintings, towers, etc.  It is a massive complex with beautiful rock walls, perfect angles, gardens, and nearly empty palace interiors with sliding wooden panels, tissue paper windows, and textured wooden floors.  Ian and I saw all of it in fall colors, with leaves falling, and Japanese tourists out in force and high spirits to visit the Nijo-jo castle – a great time to visit Japan as Ian said.*
The other monument we visited, the Kamigamo-jinja, is Japan’s oldest Shrine.  It dates from at least as far back as the 8th century, though it may be older.  We rode our bikes out there on one of Kyoto’s bike paths following a river, watching people walking their dogs (everyone has extremely well-groomed dogs here).
This evening, Ian and I are bedded down at K’s House Backpacker’s Hostel.  We discussed, after checking in here, how we felt somewhat strange arriving at K’s…  I remembered how my friend James had mentioned to me that sometimes he felt a bid odd checking into these hostels after stretches on the road…as though he were wandering in out of the wild.  I understand that comment a bit better now.  Ian and I rolled up on our bikes initially to K’s last night, cardboard bike boxes strapped onto the backs of our bikes, fatigue radiating powerfully from our eyes, through the dirty lenses of our glasses, and, surely, into the hearts of all who encountered us as we searched for anyplace to sleep at 10p.m. (we need the cardboard boxes to box our bikes for the train ride back to Narita).
When we checked in today, not showered, not shaved, it came as no surprise when one of the receptionists, Yoshi, half-jokingly asked us if the boxes were our houses.  Ian quickly clarified the nature of the boxes by letting Yoshi know that they were only used as housing for our bicycles.
Tomorrow, we will house our bikes inside our cardboard boxes once again and board the Shinkansen bullet train bound for Tokyo at 5,790Mph.  Ian and I are both excited about the Shinkansen.  Our experience of Japan has departed slightly from the classic bicycle tour model, I suppose…but on day one of Ian’s arrival in Japan, we sort of agreed that we were in Japan right now, and that if we could make it happen while we were here, we would.  Whatever it is that “it” might be.  We can make the Shinkansen happen tomorrow, so we probably will.  So far, a lot of amazing things have happened leading up to tomorrow.  Stay tuned for another update soon.
-Stephen
*U.N.E.S.C.O. actually stands for United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization…

 

Back to Japan

Ian and Juro.  Juro took time to guide us out of Tokyo--thanks Juro!!

Ian and Juro. Juro took time to guide us out of Tokyo–thanks Juro!!

Japan…It is my first time back here since I visited when I was three years old.  The only things I remember since that visit are a vague – but intense – excitement about the Shinkansen – Japan’s bullet train – and Tokyo Disneyland.
This time, my friend Ian McKittrick has flown out to join me for two weeks of cycling in Japan.  It has been some incredible time, characterized by frequents hilarious moments and liters of coffee every day.  Ian and I are both really into coffee as, it seems, is the nation of Japan, which means that we have been enjoying hot cans of coffee each morning from Japan’s endless supply of coffee robots.  There are vending machines here, placed in pairs or in threes, that can be found at 500-meter intervals throughout the country.  In addition to hot and cold cans of coffee, they also sell energy drinks, coke, mountain dew and water.  We have not yet tried the water.

Ian McKittrick is a good friend of mine, 26 years old, who works as a biological researcher for the University of Colorado Health Science Center in Denver, Colorado.  We became good friends over the course of the years that followed his moving out to Colorado from Illinois  when he was in middle school.  After finishing high school, we both went to the University of Colorado in Boulder.  Today, Ian volunteers as one of the Directors of the Seize The World Foundation.  After what began as sort of an offhand comment many months ago by Ian: “It might be nice if I could tour with you for a little while in Japan,” or something similar, we are now living the dream.  It is exciting every single day.  I do not think that either one of us can quite believe that we are actually in Japan.  Or perhaps it is just me that feels that way.  Or rather: to be in Japan, and to have Ian here too…unbelievable.

Our journey began at the Narita Airport.  If you book a flight to this airport, it might be called the “Tokyo Narita Airport.”  This makes a certain amount of sense because the two cities are fused together conveniently by one of Tokyo’s railway services.  Whether it is a subway or a train I am not sure – we rode our bikes.  Tokyo’s subway system is far and away the biggest and most heavily used in the world, getting more than 3 billion rides every year, more than 8 million each day.  After spending two days in the city with Ian, I am prepared to say that these figures are inaccurate.  Way low.  Ian and I rode the Tokyo Subway at least 8 million times during the two days we were there.  We saw lots of other people on the trains too.  Click here for the full story on Subways… 
Resuming the story in Narita’s airport, I was very glad to see Ian as he dragged his bike box out of baggage claim, looking calm and upbeat as he always does.  I gave him a hug, he gave me some letters from my friend Bruce as well as replacement debit cards that my Mom had mailed out to him before his flight.  He began to put his bike together, and things were coming together well.  I was feeling euphoric.
An hour later, Ian and I wheeled our bikes out of the sliding glass doors of the airport in search of the Narita Airport Hostel.  It was dark outside, but we only had 3 miles of riding to get to the hostel, assuming we could avoid getting lost.  We got lost, of course.  2 hours later, we had arrived.  The hostel was empty, so we just started hanging out in the empty living room of an empty house.  Walking into such a house in the middle of a forest felt like the beginning of a horror movie, but this was real life, so I felt safe enough in doing so.  Besides, Ian was with me.  We just sat down, and listened to the music that was already playing in the living room.
 30 mins. later the good staffer of the Narita Airport Hostel, Homa, arrived.  As it turns out, Homa was, himself, a bicycle tourist, who taught us some invaluable info about touring in Japan.  He told us the best roads to use for getting from Narita to Tokyo, he advised us about whether to ride on the coast or inland, and he told us about the logistics involved with taking trains with bikes in order to return from Kyoto to Tokyo – our plan was to ride from Tokyo to Kyoto and then take a train back.  In short, Homa proved an invaluable resource.  Perhaps most valuable of all, he taught us how to say “Doku Deska,” which means, “where is” in Japanese.  Used that one a lot to get out of Tokyo… “Kyoto Doku Deska?”
Ian pulled off a heroic effort that evening, staying awake in his jet-lagged state until about 9:30 p.m. (That’s like . . . 7:30a.m. in Denver, which is where Ian had come from the day before, after 25 hours of travel).  I stayed up for a bit longer, listening to stories from other travelers in the lobby about their favorite foods, people, and experiences in Japan.  I was getting more and more excited about various things that might be expected in the days to come.
Ian and I were on the bikes the next morning at 9:30 or 10 after some last minute advice and conversation with Homa, the receptionist/driver/housekeeper at the Narita Airport Hostel.  We had resolved to visit the Narita-San Temple – a site that we thought it might be interesting to see.  It was that.  I suppose that I had an idea in my head of a typical Japanese Garden, and perhaps an idea of what a pagoda should look like.  However, those ideas changed after I visited Narita-San.  After seeing the temple in Narita, I realize that my ideas were nowhere close to as exciting as the visions of the people who built this facility.  To see Narita-San in late November, in fall colors – awesome.
Ian and I took off at noon, making a stop at Yoshinoya, one of Japan’s sort of high quality fast food chains that is actually a sit down restaurant with well-dressed servers who are really polite.  Of course, everybody in Japan is really polite.  Ian and I have been stopping for one meal a day at such restaurants, and getting the remainder of our food at either 7/Eleven, Mini Stop, Family Mart, Daily Yamazaki, Lawson Store, or similar extremely-high quality convenience stores of which Japan has millions.  We cannot avoid conversations about the quality and quantity of these stores each time we enter one.  Each store has one or two people whose job it is to make constant rounds of the store rearranging inventory, and another person who sells things at the register, and greets people: “Ohio Gozaimas-ta!….Arigato Gozaimas-ta!”  Always with their eyes bowed, change given with two hands, with a small bow of the head.  It is a very different world even as some things are very similar.
7/Elevens all have heated Washlet toilet seats.   50% of the other convenience stores have Washlet toilet seats as well.  Before coming here, I was briefed on Japan by a couple of sources.  Some of the things I learned about Japan were from my Mom, who told me a bit about what it was like to take me here with my Dad and my Sister when I was 3 years old.  One of the things that she mentioned was that people were very polite; another was that toilets could, at times, be a bit difficult to handle.  Squat toilets…not so clean, etc.  It is my great pleasure to report that times have changed in Japan since my last visit.  Squat toilets have now been replaced with Washlet heated toilets in almost all locations.  Washlet heated toilets seem to be points of pride as well as marketing devices.  When I was searching for a hostel for our first night in Tokyo, I found myself browsing through listings that featured three-line descriptions of hostels that included mention of heated toilet seats.  Naturally, I chose a hostel that featured heated toilet seats.  The seats are really good.  I have only used a toilet with a cool seat once during my visit to Japan. Though it is occasionally good to have such experiences to build character.
Enough on toilet seats for now.  Ian and I are looking forward to a nice road out to Kyoto.  We are riding along the coast of the Philippine Sea on Japan’s Highway 1.  It is an extremely busy road, and today we found ourselves riding through driving rain on what must be the world’s most amazing bicycle path.  The path that follows Highway 1 along the Philippine Sea in Japan goes right down the middle of a 10-lane highway that is itself bordered by a set of two electric railroad tracks off to one side.  The bicycle path is protected from the ocean by a sea wall to ward off high tides.  There are complicated interchanges overhead at regular intervals.  To ride along this path at 4:30p.m. as darkness was falling, and to do so in 40-degree weather through drizzling, freezing rain, with the flashing lights of passing cars and trucks and their accompanying noise, was an experience that I will always remember.  I hope that a similar path will take us all the way to Nagoya, 200Km away.  Strange to wish for 200Km of riding in close company with heavy traffic…but under these conditions, it is just a really cool experience.  From Nagoya, Ian and I plan to catch a train the rest of the way to Kyoto where we will spend a day or two seeing the city before reversing our route (by train) to Narita and then flying to Seattle on the 8th.  The coming days will be great I have no doubt.  Check back here often for more news.
       Stephen

Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China was the perfect monument to wrap up my tour of China.  Gigantic, well-made, lots of shopping options throughout the entire process of my visit.  A thoroughly-representative example of my experience in China.  And a great way to celebrate Thanksgiving.  This, of course, makes me remember my last Thanksgiving…though that is another story!  All I will say here is that I hope that the Pepple family is well, and that I thought of you while visiting the Great Wall!
The Great Wall of China
I woke up this morning at 7:45 – early for me, but these past few days have involved early starts.  I believe that a combination of 4 or 5 lattes a day with a sort of Christmas Morning feeling are making for early starts whether I want them or not.  I walked into the lobby of the Forbidden City Hotel (aka F.C. “Hostel” on the business cards) and ordered two breakfasts.  Although I did not need that much food, it is not possible to simply turn off the high metabolism that I develop when touring, backpacking etc.  I am hungry all the time.  Especially when, on rare occasions, options might include fried eggs, bacon, or french toast as they did at the Forbidden City Hotel – an amazing find at 50Yuan/night (maybe $7.35 U.S.) being located right next to the Forbidden City.  They get you by selling you breakfast though.
After my meal, it was time to visit the Great Wall of China.  I was happy about this.  Feeling peaceful, and not quite able to believe that it was happening.  The Great Wall was, together with The Great Pyramids one of the most exciting sites that I have wanted to visit during this trip.  Perhaps during my life.
In Beijing, a tourist has various options for how to actually get to the wall.  I could have done it in the most pure style, of course, which would have been to ride my bike up there.  But at this point, I could not even conceive of doing such a thing.  When you arrive in a massive city with your bicycle, sometimes the thought of pedaling your bicycle out through that city to a giant tourist trap suddenly seems less romantic than it did two years ago when everything had been envisioned in fantasy form.  That is fine though – I was perfectly happy with reality.  And in fact, I welcomed the chance to go on an adventure with Beijing’s public transportation system(s).  And an adventure it was!
I knew that I needed to get to the Deshengmen Gate a few miles NE of the Forbidden City in order to take bus 919.  My plan (a lame plan) was to walk in that direction, and maybe flag down a tuk tuk if possible or a taxi and get a ride if it were reasonable.  A Taxi was 50 Yuan…that seemed high at the time.  I kept walking.  I knew it was only 3 or 4 miles if I walked the whole way.  A little while later I arrived at a bus stop.  I waited for 10 mins. or so and then boarded bus 60  – I did not know its route, but I had maps saved on my iPod, so I could roughly follow the bus’s progress as it moved along.  1 Yuan for the bus ride.  I got off 15 minutes later when (I thought) the bus had begun to move a couple of blocks too far North.  ***35mins. after departure from the F.C. Hotel***
     At this point I was feeling good about myself.  I backtracked from the bus stop to what I thought was the street on which I might find bus 919 to the Great Wall, and began to walk East.  If my directions (or my sense of direction?) were right, I would be at Deshengmen Gate in a few blocks.  I spotted a tourist center on my right, so out of habit I went in to pick up the free map that Tourist Centers offer.   A short convo with the receptionist revealed that I was a 30 minute walk and many many blocks south of Deshengmen Gate.  Fortunately he outlined a new bus itinerary.  I hopped on a Trolley (#111) of which Beijing seems to have 1 or 2, but will hopefully build lots more.  These are just busses, but with poles sticking up on back that connect them to electrical cables that allow them to run off of power from the grid and reduce pollution in the city of which there is an impressive amount.
I connected onto one more bus, which rolled around a bit more, until I was satisfied that I was lost.  Or at least thoroughly off route.  I noticed that I was next to a Wu Mart.  I spotted two of those during my adventure…imitation Wal-Mart?  Perhaps.  Or perhaps Wal-Mart is the imitation…more investigation will be necessary.  Unfortunately I did not have time to enter Wu Mart.  I wish that I had.  I will be thinking about it until I my return to Beijing.
Wu Mart
I got off of the bus (now number 22…I had been enjoying watching some of the flat screen TVs in the busses) and got right into the Taxi cab that was parked in front of the bus stop where I got off.  I said “Nih-how” to the woman in the driver’s seat, and then pointed to the Deshengmen gate on my tourist center map and said “Deshengmen Gate?”  And she said some things and started driving.  We were on good terms though.  I looked up “Great Wall” in my iPod’s Chinese dictionary, and, not finding it, simply showed the driver the word for “Wall” and the number 919 (the bus number that I needed) when she started asking me questions about our route.  Understanding flashed across her features immediately, and she continued speaking to me as she drove around, honking at other cars and things.  She started the meter at 10Yuan – $1.50 or so – and it wound up running to about $2.50U.S.  I tipped her $1.50, and then took a minute to confirm that we were, in fact, at Deshengmen Gate: site of the famous 919 buses to the Great Wall.  She pointed emphatically over at a stone building across the street, and looked at it with wide eyes as she spoke, and showed me some incomprehensible characters that she had written down on the receipt for emphasis.  I felt reassured and walked across the street in search of bus 919. ***2.5 hours and 28 Yuan invested in the journey to the Great Wall up to this point.***
I found 919 in about 15 seconds – the wrong 919 as it turns out, but the correct one was right across the street – and got on board.  I picked up a sweet potato from a vendor right outside before embarking.  It did not occur to me until hours later that this might also be appropriate food for Thanksgiving.  Sweet Potatoes were one of my best discoveries in China, I just wish that I had discovered them before meeting up with my friend George who let me know about them.  The bus had one other westerner on it that I could recognize, and became full, after a few stops, with Beijing locals who were using 919 to make their way to various huge apartment complexes on the outskirts of the city.  It actually carries virtually no Great Wall traffic at all – I was one of only four or five people who got off the bus at the Great Wall.
I slept for about 35 minutes of the 50 minute ride (I think that’s how long it was…).  When I awoke, we were in craggy green hills, and remarkably, the grey, cloudy, dark, haze was gone.  In its place was clear, pale, soft yellow light.  We had climbed out of Beijing’s smog and humidity.  It felt almost like sunset, though it was just after 1.  1:30 p.m. is late afternoon in northern China this late in the year.  I caught a glimpse of the Wall and it was big.  Yep…that was the Great Wall.  Looking like one of hundreds of walls that I had made when I used to play the computer game Age of Empires II.  But this wall was outside the bus, actually on the hills in real life, rolling by along the landscape.  I think that it was more impressive to drive past it in a bus.  There were tunnels, road grit, guard rails, highway crew walking by in orange safety vests, tractor trailer rigs passing our bus on the left, big green signs, the forest rolling by on the right, the hills, and the Great Wall of China out in the distance on the right.  It was another part of that scene.  A part of the landscape.  If it were not so famous, you would just look out and think, “hmm…I wonder what the deal is with that wall…”  And if you could drive along its length, you might be wondering, a couple thousand miles later how long this wall would go.    The answer is complicated.  In actual net distance from east to west, it seems that the answer might be approximately 1,250-1,400 miles.  However, if you were to figure out how much actual wall there is, then the answer is different.  There might be more like 5,500 miles – or at least there were at one point.  Sections of the wall erode away or get taken down in order to be used in construction for houses, etc.  Although much remains, much is gone and continuing to go.  Check out this map to see how big the Great Wall of China is when you place it in the United States – roughly.
The Great Wall at Badaling
Once I got there, I asked someone how far I had to walk in order to get up to the wall.  The answer was, “that way…5 minutes.”  I could not believe I was that close…
The nearest manifestation of the Great Wall to Beijing is in Badaling – a sort of tourist outpost that has been set up with shopping, an informational movie theater, tourist info centers, etc. in order to support a very well-maintained section of the wall (at least five miles or so that I saw, I do not know how far it goes in such a pristine state.  It gets visited by millions of tourists, including Barack Obama just a few days ago.  It is not possible for me to describe, in any way that would give you an appropriate idea, how big all of it is.  The Great Wall dwarfs the Pyramids.  You stand on it and walk around, and you walk, at length, from guard tower to tower, each one of which is a massive structure in itself.  But you look at this wall stretching to the horizons on either side of you, winding through hazy, craggy mountains for miles before it gets there.  The approaches that are involved to even get onto the wall itself are large in a classic Chinese sense…wide, calm streets with formidable restaurants and businesses lining their edges: Starbucks, KFC and various Supermarkets and souvenir stores.  All of it is done in sort of a uniform, tasteful style that makes it look “wall like” with granite facades, a log here and there.  It is all solid.
The Guard Towers made great resting points out of the wind...nice, quiet, peaceful.
By the time I actually got up onto the wall, I was pretty much satisfied already.  But of course, I spent a couple of hours up there, and took pictures, and just hung out, looking around.  In addition to there being the Wall, there are also just really nice mountains.  Badaling is a good area.
I walked down around 4p.m., picked up another cup of coffee at Starbucks, and then got back on bus 919.  It was a good ride back to the city.  I spent a bit of time examining my map en route to Beijing, and noticed that Deshengmen Gate was actually quite close to a subway station.  A fact that had escaped my notice when I originally made my way to the Gate to go out to Badaling.  Upon noticing this, I felt a wave of excitement wash over me, and knew at once that my route back to the Forbidden City Hotel must involve trains.  It was…the only way.
After a few minutes of map examination to confirm everything, I was off on foot once again in search…this time of a subway station.  15 minutes of walking and asking around had located it.  Subway stations are similar to most public things in China in the sense that they are not flamboyantly advertised.  It was slightly difficult to spot the station from across the street, with only one discreetly lit white sign leading into an escalator, leading into the most incredible underground world you could possibly imagine.  Once I entered the subterranean world of Beijing…Whoa.  I did not want to go back up.  I would probably still be down there if I did not have to eat, sleep, etc.
Fleet of city cargo/trash collection bikes.  They went out to go to work 10 mins. after this photo was taken to make their rounds.  9p.m.
The Beijing Subway System is definitely the most awesome Subway system I have ever seen.  More lines, more stations, and more trains are only the foundation of that awesomeness.  Upon that foundation, they have added features like light up maps in the trains so that your current location is color coded with flashing lights and you know where you are at all times.  That is fun to look at if you are not more distracted by watching one of the half-dozen or so LCD TV screens that are in each cabin.  Or by watching anime on the iPhone of the guy standing next to you.  Various bright green and red light up arrows point in various directions no matter where you are…these did not help me, but they look cool.  Entrance to the subway is controlled by magnetic keycards – similar to the cards used to get into hotels.  You keep the piece of plastic for the duration of your ride.  You must insert the card into a machine in order to escape from the subway.  I really had to pee when I was trying to figure this out, but fortunately some security guards taught me how it works right when I needed it most.  I burst out of the subway and up to freedom to find one of Beijing’s 20,000,000 or so public toilets within 30 seconds – not one second too soon.  Naturally, they have escalators all over the place in the subway.  But Beijing is the first ever subway system that I have used to feature flat moving walkways…airport style.  They also have tons of video cameras all over the place…the big white rectangular ones like in Goldeneye.  It makes it all feel important.  If I’d had a cell phone, I might have called the customer service hotline that was advertised all over the place in the cabins.  The busier transfer line stations (I rode 3 lines…sort of by accident, but it was actually a fairly efficient route) have plexiglass walls up to ensure that it is physically impossible for anybody to fall in front of or to get pushed in front of an arriving train.  Once a train stops and opens its doors, sliding plexiglass doors open in sync with the train.  Good idea.  I found myself on the subway at 6p.m. on a Thursday evening, so it was one of the busiest times of the week for the Subway.  Trains were packed, but moving fast, crowds moving fast, a good system it seems.  Huge.
Beijing has toilets everywhere
By the time I got home, I had, sort of by accident, used various busses, a taxi, and 3 different lines of the subway system here during my 8 hour journey out and back to visit the Great Wall of China.  I plan to ride the subway to Beijing’s Airport tomorrow.  I discovered that there is also a line that runs all the way out to there.  Hopefully I will be able to get onto the train with my bike.  I will jump off that bridge when I come to it.  It was a great Thanksgiving.  I will write more from Tokyo – will be there tomorrow afternoon.   And you know what that means…I will be on Facebook and Twitter tomorrow afternoon after having been unable to access them for about a month while traveling in China.  Oh yeah…  Thanks for reading.  If you have not seen it already, please check out the article about Seize The World in the Coloradan magazine – view it online here.
 Stephen

George The Cyclist

 
China has been one of my favorite countries for bicycle touring.  I have spent the past week touring with my friend George Christensen – a.k.a. “George The Cyclist,” and although I have only been able to ride my bicycle for about 700 of the 1,700 miles of my route through the country, my time here has been fabulous.  Fraught with challenges, a seizure, some sickness, but most importantly, with good company, and exciting travel.
I used a bus and a train to cover 1,000 miles when time constraints, illness and a seizure all conspired to slow my progress as I moved across China.  During the past couple of months, I have been working toward a November 27 arrival in Tokyo to meet my friend Ian.  A 45-50 mile/day pace became a 50-55 mile/day pace, which then became a 60 mile/day pace, which then became a 50Mph pace after I boarded a train in Guilin, China to speed toward my rendezvous with my friend George Christensen in Wuhan.  George and I toured for about 400 miles, and I then boarded a long-distance bus, which carried me along for the remaining 400 miles from Zhengzhou to Beijing.  In two days, I board a flight to Tokyo, where I meet my friend Ian McKittrick, where we will go for a tour of Japan during the coming two weeks.
bike in a train
George Christensen, author of the blog, “George The Cyclist,” had been touring in China for the past five weeks or so before we met up in Wuhan on the sixteenth.  Before that, he has been touring around the planet Earth for the past 32 years or so since going on his first major bicycle tour from one coast of the U.S.A. to the other in 1977 on his Peugeuot PX-10.   He was twenty-six years old when he went on his first tour.
George’s travels have taken him to Iceland, India, Colombia, Alaska, South Africa, Mozambique, France and Morocco among dozens of others.  Every season, you can read about one of George’s tours on his blog.  With George, most things seem to function easily – casually – within systems, schedules and flexible routines that have emerged to ease the often very-challenging process of living a life on the road, on a bicycle tour.  George’s system has emerged from traveling more-extensively and more-frugally than anybody I know.  And I know some people…  I got the chance to spend the last week touring with him from Wuhan, China to Zhengzhou, China where we enjoyed great conversations about topics such as film, family, travel, camping, food, and – of course – bicycle touring.
Every time that I have traveled with somebody else on this tour, I have noticed that my own style changes a bit in relation to my companion’s style, just as their style, must, change a bit to fit my own style.  While riding out of town with Juju and David on day one from Telluride, I rode at a relaxed pace, and enjoyed great convos; while touring with my friend Keith in Mississippi, I enjoyed a couple of great nights out at local watering holes; while touring with my friend Jenine in Greece, I learned to appreciate amazing Greek Tavernas, and great beaches on the islands; while traveling with my friend James, I adapted to early starts and finishes, and hours of peaceful time in the afternoon spent in the sun doing nothing…at all.  When I’m on my own, I find myself getting later starts, stopping more often, drifting toward coffee shops, movie theaters, bikeshops… an occasional bookstore or McDonald’s.  A consumer at heart.  Or at the very least, a window shopper when I’m broke.
With George, I learned to appreciate the phrase, “I like to ride the bike.”  If George gets the quote of the day in the Daily Planet – a Telluride Newspaper that features a daily quote – this might be a perfect quote for him.  So that is exactly what we did – we rode the bikes.  A lot.  Pretty soon, I found that I was beginning to enjoy riding the bike too.  But riding bikes with George is a bit different.  It’s a bit less like pedaling a loaded touring bike, and a bit more like pedaling a light cycle from TRON.  Once I got into sync with George’s rhythm of 10-15 minute breaks every 60-90 minutes, and then getting on the bike and pedaling at a steady pace, I began to experience moments when I would look over my shoulder to cross the highway, look back over the other shoulder, see George doing the same thing, in the same place 15 yards up the road, and then settle in on his wheel, and just start moving along, nicely synced up, and rolling along.  Easy.  I came to appreciate this movement, the changing digits on my computer, the feelings of changing the layers of my clothing in response to the weather, the anticipation of reading a few pages of Passage to Juneau – the book that George gave me upon my arrival in Wuhan.  A book that is amazingly appropriate to my own situation in life – a book based in Seattle having to do with adventures in sailboats.  These were the things I learned to appreciate as I rolled along.
 George pedaling through heavy traffic outside Zhengzhou, China
So – not really anything like riding a light cycle from TRON.  Nothing at all in fact.  But imagination is what keeps bicycle touring moving along.  Without imagination, it might be unimaginable.  But riding along in George’s rhythm was great.  Fast, steady, lots of distance, lots of colors.  We moved through big chunks of China because of the speed and time that was involved – we did not just apply speed, not just time…both.  Hours and hours ticking by as we pedaled up highway 107 at 10-15Mph – speed depending entirely on wind conditions.  15 = really fast, aided by some tailwind… 10 = struggling against light headwind.  No…there were no drugs involved.  With the exceptions of Zonegran and Trileptal – but they do not enhance colors or speed up movement.  They also don’t speed up the harvest.  They do control seizures.
During our first two days on the road, it was all I could do to not embarrass myself, riding a day after a seizure in Wuhan – yes, I had another one of those ten days ago: I have now had three seizures on this trip as well as a mini seizure: One seizure in Portugal, one in Laos, one in China, and a mini seizure in India.
After a desperately cold arrival the previous day from the train station and several hours spent by both George and me in an effort to locate each other in Wuhan, I was ripe for a seizure.  They are triggered by lack of sleep and by lack of energy.  A night of little sleep followed by a low energy, high stress departure into cold weather to hunt down cash was a recipe for a seizure.  Interestingly, I almost got away with it: I felt a couple of auras come and go, I told George, half jokingly, that I would be happy to make it away from Western Union without having a seizure.  We made it out of there, and even got on the bikes.  George, the whole time, emanating some kind of aura of calm that did, in fact, reduce my stress level, and make me feel much more at ease.  Unfortunately, my fatigue and lack of energy demanded attention, and insisted upon manifesting themselves in the form of a seizure.  (By the way –  my plan to meet at McDonald’s = bad idea…way too many McDonalds…way too much confusion!  For the full account, visit www.georgethecyclist.blogspot.com and go to Wuhan, Day 3 or so…)
Crossing the Yangze River to go meet George.  Day before my seizure.  It was really cold.
This is what happened when I held up 3 fingers and pointed to the number 3 value meal!!  I would have actually done better to eat all of it rather than return some of it.
The night before departure, I had stayed up till 1 or 2 a.m. at an internet café working to arrange the money transfer with my Mom.  My credit cards had been stolen in Vietnam, which means that right now I am getting by on money transfers from my parents.  A bit of a hassle, but amazing parents make this kind of thing fall well-short of a disaster.
This is the biggest internet cafe I have ever seen in my life.
SO – when we departed the following morning, I was cold, tired, stressed.  It was somewhat of a surprise that we made it as far as Western Union, cash in hand, out the door, and even were in our bike costumes with loaded bikes before the seizure hit.  Again – click the link above for the full account.  George was a rock star in caring for me, and especially in ensuring that the ambulance that arrived did not cart me off to a hospital, which it would have done had George not calmed the EMTs and persuaded them to delay for a few minutes.
George kept the ambulance right where it was, using patient, friendly tones as he spoke with EMTs: “You can take him to the hospital, but it won’t help.  He will recover here just fine.” The EMTs would then, after short periods of hesitation and eye contact with George, make their responses in Chinese, which must have been something like, “… …He will recover here just fine.” though I could not understand.   It was amazing to observe the process as he altered their mentalities from “Rev engines!  Go To Hospital!  Now!”  To “OK…we’ll chillax here for a few…”  Fortunately, one of the EMTs spoke a little bit of English and George was able to use his force of persuasion with her one to remarkable effect.  As they fenced, I quickly regained a bit of energy and warmth.  As for me, I might have been a bit impatient if I’d had any strength, but I could not do much more than slowly nod my head, smile, say “yes,” “no,” “Xie Xien-yee” (thank you…I think) and breathe.  There is a kind of exhausted euphoria that washes over you when you are lying prone under a heat blanket with a few people staring down at you and talking about you in serious, hushed tones.
I believe that George gets his patience from years of dealing with the nonsense of touring.  Don’t get me wrong – there is a lot of phenomenal experience, and a lot of simply unbelievable kind of magic that occurs.  But there is also quite a bit of nonsense…like not being able to communicate efficiently with EMTs in an ambulance.  After getting enough of it, I think that most of it simply washes over George, and he just notices the good things.
I could have probably avoided this seizure, but I was holding out a small kernel of hope that the seizure might not happen.  I did not quite have it in me to ask George to continue to delay in Wuhan for another day, especially after our chaotic effort that went into meeting the night before.  I was clinging to the hope that I might be able to pull off a seizure-free day after 5 or 6 hours of sleep and a cold weather start in the morning.  I did not have it in me to demand that my friend change his schedule again in order to reduce the risk of my potentially having a seizure – I really did think that I would be able to make it at one point.  Although I know that of course he would have done so.  You know that all of your friends would always do so.  The key is to become increasingly skilled, in life, at avoiding the circumstances that trigger seizures, increasingly comfortable with letting people know about your situation, and, in doing everything you can to get the best treatment: funding research, getting medicines, doing your homework.
So – people often respond to an explanation of my sleep-triggered seizure disorder with something like, “Oh…that’s easy enough to avoid…”  But every seizure I have had was, for reasons similar to the situation above, somewhat tricky to avoid.  If they were that easy to avoid, I would never have seizures.  Fortunately, they are predictable enough.  I knew that this one was coming.
Once I was rested, we beat a slow retreat by foot, and by slow pedaling, to the hotel, and I slept it off.  George made a run to Wal Mart, bringing back rice and hard boiled eggs to eat.  He also went on a big loop bike ride around the city, crossing the 2Km (mile?) width of the Yangze river by the northern bridge, then re crossing by the Southern Bridge.  Probably a 20 mile bike ride or so, all in 35-45 degree icy conditions.  In essence – George made life way easier by taking care of all kinds of details.  I slept like a rock while he was out doing all of these crazy things.
NOW – the story resumes with the departure from Wuhan.  The following morning, being thus fatigued, I resolved to simply follow George and to preserve my dignity as best I could in my state.  The next morning, we repeated the process of the departure: climb right out of bed, put on shoes, (don’t have to put on anything else, because I was already wearing everything else I owned including gloves, hat, socks, and down jacket…presto!) and carry the bikes down to the street.  I put my bike behind George’s and sort of lethargically got on board, surveying the grey icy city around me with a feeling of dread.  I believe that I masked all of these feelings with a small grin and some remarks about the temperature feeling “not too bad,” and about my excitement over George’s already knowing the escape route from the city – fully genuine.  I hate finding my own escape route from a massive city!  George’s route was perfect.  We never got lost, and were cruising on highway 107 after an hour or two of rolling through city traffic.
 George enjoys some food on the road...
At this point, I allowed George to lead the way.  He would continue to do so for 90% of the coming week, pulling me along at a steady 12-13Mph average speed for the next 400 miles or so while I sat on his wheel, drafting through thick and thin, trying to recover strength.  During the first two days, I was a bit concerned that we might not even last together as traveling companions for another day because I was slowing the pace so much.  I was touring in a fairly exhausted physical state after the seizure, and was fighting a head cold that had latched onto my head at some point in Wuhan…while I’m complaining, I suppose I’ll put in mention that my left shoulder always gets messed up in a seizure.  But it was only two days of nastiness before I felt a lot better.  For whatever reason, the nastiness seems to come in waves… this bout occurring right after a week of illness in Nanning and a seizure in Laos.  That’s life I suppose.  Perhaps  I’ll be clear for a little while after this.  Before the past three weeks, I had done remarkably well during the past year of travel, only having been really ill once in Calcutta, and only having had one seizure in Portugal before that.
You see a lot of guys - and girls - wearing jackets like this in China.  This man was the innkeeper at a hotel where George and I stayed.
For two days,  I could barely make 8 or 9Mph.  George was pushing me physically – Thank God! – up every hill, and on long flat stretches with good shoulder to propel me along.  There was a lot of this on day 2.  Our day 1 mileage was something like 36…day two maybe 50.  Maybe vice versa…but 36&50 days 1 and 2.  It would have been much less had George not been continually pulling along side, putting a hand on my back, and pushing me along for minutes at a time.  After being “released” from a push, I would maintain pace for a couple of minutes until George chased me down again (or until I fell back) and then he would continue pushing again.  For George, the experience might have been similar to that of a child (George) with a loaded shopping cart (me) in a 50-mile long supermarket aisle (highway 107 between Wuhan and Xianfan)…he would go as fast as he could and then let the cart  go to and then see how far it might travel.  After repeating this process for a few hours a day for two days, we had covered 86 miles.
 George getting ready to hit the sack at one of our more sketchy camp sites.
The following morning...same campsite.  Ready to hit the road.  These construction workers were very kind and understanding considering the circumstances.
At first, I thought, “Oh my God…this is AWESOME!!”  Then it just became part of how we moved.  With assistance we were able to make 10 or 11 Mph – fast enough to pass lots of pedestrian, bicycle, and occasional moped traffic that may not have been believing what they were seeing.  Humorously, in George’s own account of these first two days, the focus of the story is all on my own chasing after trucks to catch a draft, making it all sound as though it were actually hard for him to keep up with me!!  Well…perhaps after 80 miles of pushing another cyclist along, it might be hard for 10 seconds every so often to catch up when I gave chase to a truck.  I was just trying to pull every trick out of the bag to move the tour forward those days…  There was one moment when I chased after a truck – one of the classic “draftable” trucks: a fully-loaded dump truck making 20Mph or so.  I caught it without too much difficulty, and 4 or 5 seconds later, George had caught it too.  After a minute or two of drafting, I slowly moved up, and grabbed onto the truck.  I was being pulled now.  George made a similar move to my left.  When I saw and understood this situation, one truck, one cyclist latched onto either side being pulled along, there was a moment when I was not sure if I could believe what I was seeing.  The driver definitely refused to believe – or to accept – the situation that was unfolding in his side-view mirrors.  In moments, the horn was ablaze warning us away from the truck. We moved back to the draft, but I was, unfortunately, too tired to keep up.  I fell away, and George started pushing me along once more.  Unbelievable.
On day three, we made about 70 miles, and George did not push me.  I clung to his wheel for dear life, but managed to hold on.  I was happy with that.  George is 58 years old, and I am 25.  He is way stronger…although I like to think, “If I got in shape…” or “if I rode my bike more…” or “if I had a lighter bike…”  But no.  George is built to ride.  Tall and lean.  He puts in 12,000 miles or so each year – an insane number.  For perspective, my lap around the world to date (13 months) has taken me 11,300 miles, going from Telluride, CO to Beijing.  I hope to never ride my bike this much again in my life.
By now, George has gotten a very clear idea of what his capabilities are as a bicycle tourist, and what he can do to extend those capabilities, to make the system more efficient, etc.  I asked him how many miles he rides each day, and his response was that he usually rides between 70 and 80 miles each day while touring.  He also said that he used to ride 90-100 miles each day when he was younger, but that he eased off a bit.  Thank God that I did not meet him when he was younger.  In terms of traveling on a low budget, riding big days on the bike, and exploring the world, George has the system down about as well as a bicycle tourist could hope to get it down.  These are things that it is easy to see on the road: getting a bicycle into a hotel, ordering a meal, quickly finding a campsite, etc.  It is the little things that add up to a good bicycle tour.  Beyond that, you just have to figure out what your priorities are.
George rides as a bicycle messenger in Chicago to earn money for his bicycle tours around the world.  He rides the bike so that he can ride the bike.  He writes down numbers of all kinds during the day.  Mileages, prices, temperatures, calories.  These numbers go into small journal pages that George keeps in his handlebar bag to document daily travel and weather info.  They all get figured into his sort of master equation – although I do not believe there is any kind of formal equation.  It gets incorporated into refining George’s system – every bicycle tourist, every traveler, every human has a system.  George’s system is based on maximum miles and minimum money.  Many travelers, bicycle tourists, backpackers, etc. like to think that this is also their system.  However, most people would not understand the meaning of such a system before meeting George the Cyclist – Even More miles…Even Less money!  George you can use that for your book title – my gift to you.  Just kidding…but not really…but seriously.
George rolling into Zhengzhou, China.
 In addition to taking him through new and unknown places, George’s miles regularly carry him through places where he sees things that he loves: film and bicycle racing.  Each year, George makes a pilgrimage to France to watch and follow the Tour De France.  He rides the tour route on his Trek 520, with loaded panniers, cycling and camping along the length of almost every stage.  He has become something of a permanent fixture along the Tour route, having ridden its length during the past six years.  When we rode together in China, George was wearing, as part of his layering, Garmin winter kit – bibs and jersey – that had been given to him personally by Christian Vande Velde after the last Tour De France.  When the mercury rose above 50 degrees or so – rare – I might actually see it for a moment, but usually it was buried beneath various other wind breakers, jackets, etc.  George rides the tour in his own style, and apparently, the style is finding its audience and George is finding his niche in the seemingly wild menagerie of Tour fans.  Naturally, George camps in his tent in the forests and on the farms along the Tour route, rarely staying in a hotel. $10/day is his standard global travel budget, no matter where he goes, including accommodation and food.  Plenty for an enthusiastic bicycle touring Tour enthusiast – what better way to bring “Tour” back to the Tour?
George’s other passion is film.  He makes visits to Cannes, France and to Telluride, CO for their Film Festivals each year.  It was at the Telluride Film Festival that I met George just before Seize The World got underway.  We went on a bicycle ride together up to Lizard Head Pass during which I picked his brain about bicycle touring, travel, and similar topics.  We agreed that it would be great if, at some point, we could meet out on the road and go touring.  The dream became a reality a little more than a year later in Wuhan, China.
George and me.  And Mao Tse Tung.  Zhengzhou, China.
At this point, I am just hooked and inspired by the story of George The Cyclist as one more example of the idea that people can have active lives.  While George does not face the challenge of epilepsy, he certainly faces other challenges – challenges which he overcomes regularly on the road.  George travels on a very slim budget, and he is hopelessly addicted to a method of travel that is physically very demanding.  These things do not hold him back.  Speaking for myself, being now hooked on the story, and convinced that George has figured out the challenges of traveling anywhere in the world by bicycle, I can only hope that he will continue to document and share his experiences of exploring the world.  I hope to help in any capacity that I might be able.
This was something that we discussed while on the road: how best to share the experience of a bicycle tour.  A blog, a book, facebook, etc.  When the book comes out, I’ll order copies – that’s all I will say.  Until then, let me know when you want to go on another tour.
Beijing Sunrise
Right now, I am at a Starbucks buried underground in a massive shopping mall in Beijing.  There is WiFi here, and there are lattes.  Outside, there are busses to Badaling, where I will visit the Great Wall of China later today.  It is a brisk day, maybe 45 degrees.  Hazy air quality, not too cloudy, but hazy.  Afterward, I will return to the Forbidden City Hostel for a night of rest, and tomorrow I will visit the Forbidden City and walk around Tiananmen Square for a little while before flying to Tokyo to meet my friend Ian on Friday afternoon.  The beginning of a two week tour in Japan.  More to come about all of that soon.  It is a large place here.
            -Stephen

China

The past week or so has been a nice tour from Nanning, China to Guilin, China.  Two metropolises – a word that seems very easy to use here – in the south.  I was held up in Nanning for a week before I could depart with another case of travel sickness…that kind of general nastiness that seems to occur every so often to remind you in a bad way that you are far from home.  I stayed at a nice hotel in Nanning for a week, practically bed ridden, while my case of travel sickness passed.
Electric Bike
Heeding some of the best advice I have gotten during this trip, I stayed for a long time in Nanning to allow the travel sickness to travel to elsewhere, and then I made a plan to take it slow once I got back on the bike in order to prevent a relapse.  I knew that I must get to Wuhan by November 16 in order to meet my friend George – coincidentally, this is also my father’s birthday (who is also named George – happy birthday Dad!).  There was no way that I would make it to Wuhan from Nanning on 20-30 mile days in a week.  That is okay – I took this as my perfect opportunity to have an experience with the much-publicized rail system in China.  My plan was to make it as far north as possible, and then catch a train to Wuhan in order to arrive at McDonald’s by noon tomorrow to meet George for our journey to Beijing, roughly 700-800 miles north of Wuhan along highway 107… if memory, calculations and Google Maps are accurate.  I am very excited for this meeting, and for the journey to follow – cold, rainy, snowy, grey, windy, and unpleasant though it may be.  It will be great to share the company of George the Cyclist for a few hundred miles on the road, to do some wild camping in China with the master of the craft.  I have been reading, when possible, George’s accounts of his own tour through China thus far, which include stories of sleeping in small patches of trees, under bridges, and even in a cemetery or two during weather of all kinds.  I suppose there is a certain logic to camping in a cemetery when you are on the verge of death on a bicycle tour.  It makes your burial that much easier when the time comes.
on the road
We will freeze our asses off I am sure, but it is going to be an adventure.  That is all tomorrow though – there is still a bit of story to be told about the China I have seen leading up to today.
 Up to this point I have ridden for roughly 350-400 miles in China since crossing from Vietnam at Pingxiang.  Roughly speaking, there are 3 worlds here, but once I fly out from Beijing on the 26th (roughly speaking) I am sure that I will have discovered more.  First, there is the world of farmers, who work almost entirely by hand.  In that world, there are somewhat narrow roads running through quiet country.  Roads are moderately crowded and under constant construction just like everything else here.  Water buffalo, motor-tricycles carrying cargo, and bicycles ply the highways along with a constant traffic of dump trucks carrying the gravel, dirt, sand and rocks to support the ongoing process of paving the roads that run through the farm country.  The farmers themselves wear conical bamboo hats, and somewhat rugged clothing to describe it over simply.  A lot of people walking around on the highways.  Foot-powered grass cutting machines are used by pairs of farmers to make small conical hay stacks.  An amazing amount of labor is done by hand – everybody who is on foot is carries a pole over their shoulder that has a bucket or a basket hung from either end.  Heavy loads (e.g. sand) are suspended from the middle.  Two people carry one bag.
Trucks, Road Construction
The second world that exists is a kind of medium-sized city (50,000 or so) to support the farms around it.  Very square concrete buildings, wide concrete streets.  The cities feel as though they were built instantaneously: everything looks the same, all the same age.  Big brick apartment complexes on the outskirts house the people.  All of it seems to lack character at first, but you do notice stuff like scooters with hello kitty stickers, gangs of kids wearing pleather jackets with manicured nails – male and female – and other signs that it isn’t this lifeless Brave New World that it initially seems.  It is just that the buildings themselves are generic.  It seems that there are enough people here that, if a system had not been devised to construct buildings fast, that there might, simply, not be enough buildings!!  Perhaps there wasn’t enough time to manufacture character into some facets of Chinese life (i.e. the newest phase of infrastructure).  In every corner of these medium sized rural cities, you see welding shops, tool shops, small noodle shops, farm equipment repair shops, small banks (titles like “Agricultural Bank of China” or something similar).
Finally, there are the metropolises themselves.  These cities could be anywhere…  They could be in Europe, in Japan, in the United States.  Right now in Guilin, I know that the average person makes a lot less money than a European citizen or an American, but that has not stopped people from developing a city with huge bridges, dazzling neon lights at night (and in the day), jumbotron TV screens in the plazas, and so on.  You can buy iPhones, plasma screen TVs, and laptops from the stores if you want to.  People here swing the lifestyle by a combination of rising income and creativity.
The couples that I saw in the countryside riding motorcycles in pairs, both wearing hard hats, carrying pieces of aluminum surely have their counterparts in Guilin.  They save money by riding electric bicycles rather than driving cars, by doing their own home repairs, and by doing things that I would not think of because I did not grow up in China.  What it adds up to is that families here can live lifestyles that are fairly similar to western lifestyles and that they can do it with a fraction of the income.  I also saw this couple:
Jules and Jess (of www.julesandjess.com -
Jules and Jess are making their way around the world as well.  They will cover 30,000Km over the course of 1.75 years (or so) on their way back to Australia.  We crossed paths near Liuzhou, China where we had the chance to chat for about 10 mins. about our journeys.  A roadside meeting with bicycle tourists is always a nice encounter, and this was too!  It had me thinking for awhile, wanting to ask all kinds of questions, right up until I met the Solar Cowboy an hour later!!  They gave me their Lonely Planet guidebook to China.  I gave them my map of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam – a great trade for both parties I would say because they got rid of about 15lbs. of book and gained a map of their upcoming route, while I gained reading material to last for . . . ever.
 Lang Lung, the Solar Cowboy Tourist!
Lang Lung (??) was a Chinese bicycle tourist headed in the opposite direction – I met him an hour after I met Jules and Jess.  I am not an astronomer, but my stars must have been in alignment that day or something…because to have four bicycle tourists come together in one day is quite rare.  Lang Lung had a solar panel mounted on the top of his cowboy hat which, I assume, was used to charge his legs.  Lang Lung spoke about as much English as I did Chinese, so communication was based on smiles, laughs and photographs.  I gave him my map of Nanning which I had gotten at the border of Vietnam.  Hopefully his trip is going well!
 China
All three of these worlds exist in a country more vast than I had initially realized.  In the east, China has Muslim population near the borders of Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan in the frontier cities and villages, the largest of which seems to be Kashgar, though there are several others to the north as well.  All of them are, of course, undergoing rapid development as well.
There is also Tibet which is now accessible – assuming that you have the permit – by rail from Beijing.  48 hours and about $60U.S. will get you from Beijing to Lhasa on a train that runs over permafrost on the world’s highest railroad over sections of track whose foundations must be cooled by massive refrigeration tubes in order to keep the permafrost frozen during summer months.  The coaches have oxygen piped in so that passengers do not suffer from altitude sickness during the ride.
There will be high speed rail service linking Guangzhou (giant metropolis just N of Hong Kong) with several of the other major cities in China within the next five years – travel times will be about four hours.  In other words – anywhere in S China to anywhere else in less than 4 hours by high speed train, within the next five years.  Assuming that your destination is a major city.
It is, on the whole, a can-do society.  When I walked into the Rural Agricultural Bank of China with a $100 bill and asked to exchange it – (not a service offered by this branch) – a bit of confused conversation resulted, with me writing down the figure 675 (the approximate number of Yuan that a $100 bill is worth) and showing a teller the symbol for “exchange” on my iPod, as well as my empty wallet to try to build sympathy for my cause.
After a moment, the teller took out his own wallet and debit card, handed it to the other teller, and she withdrew 675 Yuan from his personal account.  He then took the $100 bill and put it in his own wallet, and handed me the 675 Yuan.  Problem solved, the line of people behind me was moving once again and I was on my way, cash in hand.  Good will all around – I was overwhelmed with his willingness to help me out, but also very impressed by the fact that a bank teller would actually do that.  That he would even think to do that.  But China is like that.  There is kind of a national mentality . . . a kind of a buzz . . . that you feel here that people are just like “do it do it do it do it now now now now now…..”  Or maybe I am just feeling that, and I am choosing to see things that emphasize that.  Whichever the case, it is very easy to see those things in China.
hay stacks
It is kind of like when you walk through a job site, seeing the construction of a building, and you think, “wow…cool…it might be interesting to build a house or something one day…”  China is that way, except that it is kind of like a job site on the scale of a nation.  The biggest nation in the world.  And you see it all working really well, and you see it on every scale, from a lone farmer working on an irrigation ditch to a series of 10 cranes simultaneously building 10 new apartment buildings at 2a.m. as they work ‘round the clock to expand a metropolis.  I think that the fascinating thing about China is that, although nation building (hah!  whatever that means…) may be happening in other places, you can really see it in China.  It is very easily visible both on the ground to your eyeballs and in the news.
China now has its own reconnaissance drone aircraft.  The airplanes are Chinese productions from start to finish – designed and built in China.  China also has female pilots in its Air Force as well after it started recruiting female pilots a few years ago.  It also has a lot more control of the press than other nations – and perhaps I fall a bit prey to that in thinking, “Wow…China=awesome.”  The two annoyances to travelers – and locals – in China as far as I can tell, are squat toilets and internet censorship.  This means that it is not possible to access large portions of the internet – including blogger, twitter, facebook, chunks of wikipedia, and anything else that Chinese police are concerned might lead to dissent.  Paradoxically, it is the censorship itself that is leading to dissent.  Whatevs…not a huge amount of dissent…  I certainly have not seen any resistance while here.  Nobody seems to be pulling me aside and ranting the way they would in the Middle East, the way they do in the U.S.A.  There is, doubtless, resistance – but I am not your expert about its nature or about where to find it.  Humorously, the most scathing, acid material I have found has been in the Lonely Planet Guide to China which is rants about the lack of resistance and makes a tiring number of stabs at the communist regime and its destruction of various architectural wonders during the 20th century.  Again – I am not your best source of info here.  But the Lonely Planet seems to be fairly disappointed by the lack of resistance.  Then again, sometimes the Lonely Planet is not exactly your best source of info either.
 Guilin
At the last time I checked, they had not yet censored www.seizetheworld.com, which is good.  We’re small enough to fly under the radar.  Notwithstanding China’s new fleet of reconnaissance drones.  I suspect that, in time, internet censorship will go away in China.  The kids who I see cruising around on their mopeds and scooters, listening to headphones, holding cigarettes with their perfectly manicured nails in pleather jackets – i.e. the future ruling class of China…I think? – is not a group that I could imagine censoring the internet.  Afterall – these are probably the very rebels who maintain facebook profiles under the nose of the Chinese Internet Police.   And I met one such person who asked me about the bicycle tour, and after a few minutes of conversation, she told me that she had a facebook profile and that she would add me as a friend.  I said, “awesome!  I will definitely look out for the request!”  Not, of course, remembering, until later that I had no idea how to access facebook in China.  It seems likely that it is only all of the Chinese people in China under 25 who know how to break through censorship to access facebook, chat rooms, online gaming, etc. in China.  I am, unfortunately, not among those millions.  So – facebook will have to wait until I reach Japan.  In a way, China is fun, because it is kind of like a great puzzle.  Few people speak English once you leave the tourist track outside the cities – in the cities it is now quite easy to get onto the Lonely Planet hostel/restaurant route and meet tons of English-speaking Chinese people.  This is amazing to me, because it means that travel in China can, if you so desire, be just as easy and luxurious as travel in Europe.  Perhaps more so in ways.  It is certainly cheaper.  Once you leave this track, however, few people in China speak English, and written Mandarin is utterly different from English.  Thanks to the Public Security Bureau, you get to work on the puzzle without help from large chunks of the internet.  The nice thing is that you are not deprived of basic cyclist comforts such as super-cheap hotels and noodles, smooth pavement, etc.  So, as you work on this great, fascinating puzzle, you can at least do so in the comfort of an environment that is an enjoyable place to be.
Breaking the code...22Km to Liuzhou
So – the ride from Nanning to Guilin was a ride full of these thoughts.  A relatively easy cruise on good pavement for the most part.  I stayed at hotels at night.  I did not camp at all, but found hotels – they cost about $7 or $8 U.S. here, and during my last 2 or 3 weeks on the road in Asia, I am really, really taking it as easy as I can especially after my case of travel sickness.  I have continued to work my way through various Isaac Asimov books on my iTouch – Pebble in the Sky, The Stars like Dust, Foundation’s Edge, Foundation and Empire – good for reading in a place where conversation is rare and where I have been sick and/or tired during much of the past two weeks.  I camped on my first night in China on a sugar cane farm, but that was only one of 2 or 3 nights spent camping since my arrival in Bangkok a couple of months ago.  I also figure that it’s best to play it safe…there are lots of sugar cane farms here that offer camping possibilities, but I am concerned that an itinerant Panda Bear might wander off the reservation in search of some more interesting cuisine and decide that I might make a good meal.  During the coming month as I make my way to Beijing, and then to Tokyo and around Japan, I am focused on staying healthy and making it back to Seattle in good shape.  And alive.
On November 26, I meet my friend Ian, who will fly in to Tokyo, and then we will enjoy a tour around the Japanese home islands – likely from Tokyo to Kyoto!  Ian is a good friend and also a director of the Seize The World Foundation, which makes this doubly exciting, because he has been a great help along the way, and now it will be amazing to be able to share some of the adventure on the road with him after so much work on the project from afar!  We then fly back to Seattle together where I will meet my Aunt Betsy and her husband David to stay for a week.  More details coming on all of that…

No Facebook in China! But Great Cities and Touring.

No Facebook in China…but great cities and touring!
I am writing from my hotel room in Nanning, China.  I woke up this morning at a different hotel on the other side of the city, packed my bags, and got on my bike to leave the city.  I planned to purchase a replacement camera on my way out of town.  However, by 4p.m., I found myself still in downtown Nanning, a city of 6.5 million with skyscrapers, and huge wide concrete streets, and I felt a little bit sick.
BUT – I had a new camera, and I was close to a different hotel, right next to the “Quick & Pretty Food” restaurant. I did not eat there…but it exists.  My head had experienced a couple of its telltale spins that make me feel concerned about a seizure, so I was glad to have made it to the there.  I went to my room and took a nap for a few hours.  No seizure occurred.  I believe that I was feeling off because I had eaten a breakfast consisting only of 4 pears and 2 bananas, and then I had not eaten lunch.  I had also spent all day searching frantically for a camera store (still hoping to quickly buy a camera and then hit the road – hah!  Yeah right!).  Up to this point in the day, I had been feeling sort of increasingly crazed…as though each time I entered a store was an increasingly futile attempt to find something (a camera) that simply must not exist in China.  (There are, in fact, millions of cameras here…if you know where to look.  If…)  So it turned into one of those somewhat strange, not entirely pleasant, not entirely sane, but in the end, pretty good days that happen out here.

During the whole experience, I was being driven insane by the fact that I could not find safe places to put my bicycle…as I began to walk into a store, a guy in a suit with a radio would immediately be on the spot to intercept.  China has lots of guys with radios…lots of guys with suits…lots of machines to make sure that money is real.  A necessary evil, I suppose, when dealing with large numbers of people in a middle class economy.

While I did not understand exactly what they had to say, the message is exactly the same…  “No cameras for dudes with bikes next to the door…”  Or… “No groceries if you have a bike . . .”  Or… “No books from the library if you have a bike…”  Of course that is not exactly the message..the message is, “sir, I am sorry, but you must move your bicycle.”  Anyhow…
By this point in the tour, I have become well aware of this global policy, to the point that I rarely even notice it because I have been conditioned to simply lock my bike outside and hope nothing is taken, or to buy my food at small casual places in the country where I can just lean the bike against a curb and see it while I buy food.  But like a chained dog, for some strange reason I must occasionally make a run against the chain just to confirm that the chain, is, in fact, still there.  It is still there.  And it is still frustrating when the chain yanks against your neck.
Just when things were at the point that I was about to go completely crazy – I do not know what was about to happen…something –  I had the good fortune of running into a few college students living in Nanning.  Two were American (I believe) and one was from Nanning.  They were also interested in going on a bicycle tour in S.E. Asia next month.  Needless to say, we had some good conversation about travel, Nanning, and places to find cameras in the city.  They also wound up being my salvation from this afternoon of running around lost, because they gave me directions to E-Plaza, where I found 20 stores full of computers, cameras, tripods, etc. etc. etc.  I purchased a camera about 3 hours later.  Security guards gave me no trouble when I locked my bike right next to the front door next to hundreds of electric bicycles.  It was a good camera shopping experience, and a good encounter with the college students.  I look forward to hearing about the experiences that J.P., Wyatt and Alex have on the road this winter!
After the past two paragraphs, you might feel – just as I do! that I am going a bit off the deep end.  And I am, a bit.  Well – never fear.  It was just a bit of a strained day today, as there occasionally are, but at the end of it, things are nice.  I find myself in a comfortable place looking forward to a long tour through China to get to Beijing.  During that process, looking forward to meeting my friend George in Wuhan in a couple of weeks.  Wuhan is a city of 10 million people or so.
What made an impression on me about Nanning was the scale of everything.  I wrote a few things in my previous post about people in China wearing hard hats at work, and then on their motorcycles (b/x they simply double as helmets while commuting) and then using them while hanging out simply as sun protection…in essence that hard hats are sort of en vogue because everybody in China is working on building things.  I realize now that this is a major over generalization now that I have seen Nanning.  I also felt as though Pinxiang was like walking the streets of Pleasantville…  Nanning is not like that at all.  It is its own entity, with beautiful bicycle paths along the Yong River, teenage kids out rollerblading at midnight, dancing classes practicing along the river during the evening.  It is real here.
Nanning is a huge city.  One of the largest I have ever seen – a bit of a strange thought when I consider that it is just one of the many cities in China.  As I rode into Nanning, from a distance of about 30Km out, I had an experience similar to Maverick’s approach to Fightertown USA in the movie Top Gun.  It was sunset, I was rolling in on my bike…I was watching the jets fly by over head as they took off from Nanning Intl. Airport.  There were, of course some differences…  Maverick (played by Tom Cruise) was on a Japanese-made motorcycle watching American-made fighter jets…I was on a Taiwanese-made commuter/touring bicycle watching french-made commercial airliners.  But for a few minutes, the scene felt similar, and it got me psyched for Nanning.  If nothing else, it began to make me realize that this was a big city.  Large jets were taking off at 3-5 minute intervals.
Here people wear suits and ties, polo shirts, and enough modern fashion that I don’t know how to describe it without sounding like an idiot!  Salons and barber shops are everywhere – big ones with multiple levels, themed decoration schemes, etc.  People here would fit in anywhere else in the world.  The only major difference from the other places I’ve been is that they get around on electric bicycles / mopeds.
Hundreds of thousands of mopeds.  Nanning has been constructed to separate two-wheeled traffic four-wheeled traffic.  The city is casually massive in this regard, with extremely wide streets and crosswalks.  There is no subway system, but there is a well-developed bus system and there are huge numbers of people riding on these electric bicycles.  The bikes move around at 20mph and carry 2 people easily with a padded rear cargo rack that has fold out foot rests.  I noticed the bikes once I got to within 40Km of the city.  Beyond that, people use electric (or perhaps hybrid power) scooters and, more commonly, regular gas-powered motorcycles.  You stop seeing water buffalo at a distance of about 20-30Km – no livestock of any kind in the city.  It is, in fact, devoid of all livestock.  I do see people walking their dogs.
Together with cars, the electric bicycles are the workhorses of individual transportation in the city.  I have never seen a city with wider streets than Nanning – which might explain why one of its sister cities is Provo, Utah (I believe that Provo also has wide streets…as does Salt Lake, come to think of it).  Nanning is the easiest city that I have ever been to for getting around by bicycle notwithstanding the fact that it has 6.5 million people or that there are no subways.  Each side of every street here (or almost every street) has a two-wheel only (i.e. 90% electric bicycles & a few bikes and motorcycles) lane.  The lane is the width of a regular two-lane road, but all traffic moves one way.  Six lanes of automobile traffic separate this lane from a similar lane of two wheel traffic on the other side.  Bike/motorcycle/foot traffic is controlled at intersections with its own lighting systems that have bike/human logos.  Very similar, in this sense to many cities in Europe.  However, in Europe, these bicycle lanes are often crammed (or simply painted) onto overly-narrow streets, and sidewalks, and make for some exciting commuting.  In Nanning, there is no word that I can think of to describe the infrastructure that is in place to move the bicycles, pedestrians, electric bicycles, and people from place to place.  They have poured more concrete here, built more bridges, more overpasses, stop lights, etc. than I have ever seen before.  It is big enough that you can be relaxed as you move around because it is not a hectic, harrowing, life threatening or grid locked experience as it is in so many cities to get from point A to point B.  Rather, it is just a leisurely cruise on 100yard-wide concrete boulevards that carry a flow of traffic that seems lazy because of the size of the city.  It is an interesting experience to come to an intersection and be stopped at a crosswalk with 20 mopeds, looking out to the distance – about 100-150 yards to the other side – at the other 3 corners of the intersection where there are clusters of 20 more mopeds at each corner.  As the lights change color, and traffic resumes motion, things stay remarkably under control, with 40 people on electric bicycles all crossing paths in opposite directions.  There are also a few regular cyclists, pedestrians, a dog or two and me added into the mixture.  All this is made sane because of the vast space and segregation of the streets…very wide streets, traffic neatly sorted out.  I keep hearing all of these great things about Holland in terms of bicycle and pedestrian lanes.  After seeing Nanning, I might think that China could give them a run for their money.  For entirely different reasons, Nanning is called the “Green City.”  This is because it is full of green foliage and parks (I did not see much of this, honestly, but I have no doubt that it is there…somewhere…)  Green does seem an appropriate title, however, for a city whose population moves itself around so much by electric bicycle.
Once it was dark outside, I put on sandals from the hotel (they all have them here) grabbed my new camera, and went for a walk around the city to get dinner.  I took some photos of the city, and will post them here as soon as I can…perhaps tomorrow before I hit the road toward Giulin (Way-lin) if I can.  Thanks for reading!
         Stephen

Truckers, Construction, Southern China

I am in an internet cafe in Shangsi City, China.  I am here by accident, in fact – both Shangsi, and the internet cafe.  It was a long day of riding today – as they all must be from here until Tokyo – and I was kind of just pedaling along thinking as I usually do – “Happy birthday Graef!” (that’s my sister – it is her birthday today), “Hope this truck continues @ 25mph so I can keep drafting!” “Wish my iPod had batteries!” etc. when I rolled into a city that was quite a bit larger than the other cities I’d seen since Pinxiang, when I entered China yesterday from Vietnam.  After I checked into a hotel here – a bit of a process, but it happened – then I went for a walk.  2 hours later, here I am!

When I entered the city, and it was 6p.m. I decided that I should probably use the chance of being in a big city to figure out where I was.  10 minutes spent looking at my maps and at the Chinese/English dictionary on my iTouch had solved the riddle.  I had, at some point, left highway 322, and wandered, together with my thoughts, into a new part of the prefecture.  I was okay with that, because the highway was still perfectly smooth asphalt, the buildings were still being constructed with a kind of application of manpower – and womanpower (and MACHINE POWER) of which I had never before conceived, and things otherwise seemed as they always had along highway 322.  My odometer said that I had ridden 60 miles.  I decided to find a hotel, or a “Lee-gyEW-an.”  At least I think that is how they are called.  As you probably already know, it is very important to use the proper tone in China in order to be understood.  The written language here is actually written so that the reader knows which tones should be emphasized if a given word is to be read aloud.  There is also a version of Mandarin Chinese which is written using the Roman alphabet called Pinyin, and it too has accent marks to show the reader where the tones should have emphasis.  I don’t understand it very well at this point – hence, “Lee-gyEW-an.”

 My arrival in China has been great so far.  I have this mental concept of China being its own alternate reality, and up to this point, most of what I have seen has confirmed and reinforced my mental concept of this idea.  It is a bit strange, because I have traveled through countries with different alphabets and languages in order to get to China, but China stands alone in my mind as its own world – sort os a massive self-contained place where things are different.  So far, what I have seen here is that it is possible to have huge cities that seem to be stamped out as if from molds, to have some of the best asphalt that I have ever ridden on in my life, and to have countryside separating the cities that is inhabited by farmers who use water buffalo and even their own bodies to haul their gear around.  The cities themselves have a “Pleasantville” meets “Rosie The Riveter” feeling: everything is a bit industrial here, everything under construction, everybody working.  Or so it seems.  Each city falls into one of two categories – under construction or complete.  I rode my bike through Pingxiang upon arrival, and this was one of the complete cities.  Wide streets, planters, Chinese flags, not too many people walking around, women in orange vests and reflective versions of the broad bamboo conical hats walking around to sweep up trash.  Too Perfect!  Then I rode through a couple of cities under construction outside of Ninming whose names I never learned.  This was amazing, because the projects seemed to have been started from the ground up at every phase – an entire city constructed in one stroke.  And there was enough labor, there were enough trucks, enough carpenters, enough water buffalo hauling around dirt, enough of everything to do it.
The people here wear their hard hats as motorcycle helmets on their motorcycles.  The motorcycles are mostly electric rather than internal combustion: so they hum around quietly at about 25-30mph.  While they are working on the jobsites, their hardhats are their uniform.  When they head home, they just leave their hats on in case their electric scooter has a crash.  Along the road, the traffic of dump trucks is constant – full ones, empty ones, ones full of logs, ones full of gravel, ones full of dripping wet sand.  These make the easiest – though dirtiest – options for drafting.  China is the best place I have yet found for drafting trucks, because there are large numbers of trucks that run laden heavily enough that they move slowly enough that I could hope to hang on.  What’s more, the road surface here is so good that the speed at which I can hang on is about 7mph faster than it would be in any other country.  It is possible to draft a truck in China at about 25-32mph for 30-40 minutes if I am really lucky – though this has only happened a few times on this tour.
Moving away from Vietnam toward the border at Dong Dang, I had what must have been the best such experience of the trip, when I was riding at night, and I hopped in behind a truck carrying a full load of sand along a highway with great asphalt and wide shoulders.  The truck had this great lighting system  so that I could see all around me as I listened to my iPod.  When we went around turns, I would pop out toward the side and take a look at the upcoming 3/4 mile of pavement, and make eye contact with the driver’s co-pilot.  20 minutes later, the truck stopped for what I thought was a bathroom break.  I stopped too, figuring I would rest, and then continue to draft.  The drivers, two Vietnamese brothers I believe, had just stopped to offer to drive me along inside the cab.  My first reaction was, “no, no, no – I’ll just ride my bicycle – thanks though!”  after more of this kind of communication, I reconsidered, and before I quite knew what was going on, my bicycle was being loaded on top of the cab of this big rig, one of the brothers was helping load my bags, and we were drinking energy drinks as we tried to talk about where we were from, what I was doing, etc.  I had never experienced trucks from this perspective before.  Thinking back to my moment of thinking that it might be best to maintain the perfect style of the trip, I am quite glad that I thought better of it and figured, “well, if I can draft a truck…then I can ride in a truck…right?”  Well – not for every day on this tour, but it was interesting to gain the perspective of these vehicles that are 90% my worst enemy.  Yes…trucks are people too.  Before long, the assistant driver was asleep, and I was just in my own world watching as we passed everything by from 10 feet in the air through the darkness.  There was no conversation at all because I don’t speak Vietnamese, and the driver spoke no English.  We passed small crowds of kids hanging out next to motorcycles, blurring by.  Passing by trucks on our own level.  Honking our horn occasionally at stuff, that sound that is so mind-jarring on my bicycle just seeming like one more thing to do to stay awake for a truck driver on his way to Lang’Son Vietnam at 10p.m.  After an hour of rolling along at 20mph, we had arrived at Lang’Son, 18Km from the border with China.  I hopped out, thanked the drivers, gave them two hostess cup cake  type cookies to stay awake, and got back on my bike.  I felt no guilt about having gotten a ride for 50Km or so…my rationale was that I’ve done plenty of pedaling so far.  Simple enough.  For me it is all about enjoying the nature of your travel as much as possible – I believe that riding in a truck and hanging out for an hour with those two guys (and seeing for once what it’s like to be in the truck rather than being blasted by the truck!!) was preferable to riding along for those 50Km of darkness…but as I say, I feel justified!
Although every hitch hiking adventure of this bicycle tour has been great, and although none has been scary, I would not exactly say that any of them have made me feel better about being a cyclist on the road in the world of drivers.  But I also must put that into the perspective that the people with whom I was hitchhiking were people who would pick up hitchhikers!  Don’t get the wrong idea though – these truck drivers were good, it was just clear that one of them was fighting to stay awake.  If I was able to play any part in helping that, then all the better!
Moving along – I am now in Shangsi China once again.  Tomorrow I hit the road for Beijing once more.  2,400 Km to go.  100Km/Day…  I meet my friend George somewhere around the halfway point, and we will then continue along toward Beijing together.  It is going to be an exciting trip.  Once I get to Tokyo, I rendezvous with my friend Ian for a tour to Kyoto – the rough plan.  I will resume posting photos as soon as I buy a new camera.  (Cameras were both stolen in Vietnam…   :-(
Thanks for reading, and check back soon for more!
Stephen

Seizure, Vietnam, Thieves, Welding, Head Gear, Coffee…

No video camera...

No video camera…

The seizure occurred on a day after I had not taken Zonegran, one of the two medications that I take to control my seizures.  I had missed Zonegran for two days because my bottle ran out, and I had forgotten to replace it one night from my panniers – I keep one bottle easily accessible, and several more buried deep in my panniers.   When I went to sleep one night, I had forgotten that the Zonegran bottle was empty, and when the time came to take pills, my bike was locked in a shed, the innkeeper already asleep.  A similar situation kept me from taking medicine the following day.  The next morning: seizure.  I felt strong warning signs: light headed, dizzy, tired, thirsty (it was hot and sunny that day).  I remember making an effort to hydrate, and taking several rest stops to try to control things.  It was not enough – that day should have been a rest day!  I was reaching into my panniers for snacks and iced tea, and then the next thing I remember was looking up into the faces of a dozen people and feeling exhausted and feeling pain in my left shoulder – I knew that I’d had a seizure.  After 30 minutes of recovering energy and asking about a place where I might be able to stay – understanding was impossible – I found myself on the bicycle once again.  Before I left, I gave a Telluride post card to the people (I believe that it was a teacher with students) who had stayed with me throughout the 30 minute process of my waking up.  I was lucky to have people there to make sort of a protective bubble around me to ward off traffic, move my bicycle off the road, to make sure I was okay, and just to be friendly faces when I woke up – totally confused as I always am.  They even brought me an orange fizzy drink which helped me to re-energize.  I wish that I still had photos of this group!

I felt pretty good after about 30 minutes of being back on the bike.  This was interesting, because my seizures are, as I have more of them, becoming less exhausting it seems.  There was nowhere to camp, there was not a house available at the moment, and so I did the easiest thing, which was to ride my bike.  2 or 3 hours later, I had arrived in a small town just E of Namgna, Laos, not too far from the border with Vietnam.  I still do not know the name of the town – was not able to figure it out when I was there, and it does not appear on my map…  I stayed in a guest house there and recovered for a day.  The next day I was back on the bicycle, continuing the climb toward the Vietnamese border – a climb which took 3 days.  I might not recommend using the Tay Trang crossing if you are traveling by bicycle.  It is very mountainous and bumpy.  A fatiguing process, although it is very beautiful and remote.  So, perhaps I would recommend it.  But I would never do it again and I would not have done it to begin with had I known what I was in for!  The story of the past two weeks of touring through Laos and Vietnam has been a story of hills, rough roads, beautiful scenery, nice people, and surreal landscapes.  I will probably remember it in a few years and not really be sure if it ever happened – especially because there was a seizure thrown in there to jar my brain.
Vietnam is a beautiful place geographically, with great mountains and forests.  I have enjoyed the best climbs – and descents – of the tour here.  I have met more people saying “hello” here than anywhere else in the world – even India.  Well…maybe not India.  And in Vietnam, it is somehow really uplifting when people say hello: school children waving and smiling, mothers pointing at you and helping their sons and daughters practice how to say “hello.”  I passed one group of people that said hello to me, and when I was a little slow to respond, they had a quick conference among themselves in which I was able to hear them as they decided upon, “Bonjour” before I then heard them shout out, “Bonjour!!” in unison.  Amazing.  For my part, I feel a sense that, because Vietnam and the United States fought a war not too long ago, I am compelled to be that much more cheerful now that things are peaceful.  It makes you appreciate it that much more I suppose.  I get the feeling that people on both sides are very eager to have nothing to do with war.  That is my impression after four days here.  I can only speak from impression because I have not talked to anyone about it – and I am in no hurry to raise the subject.  But I can speak from experience when I say that visitors in Vietnam will feel a very warm welcome when they visit, whether it is in the cities or in the countryside.  And that welcome will be felt regardless of whether or not they speak the language.
So, Vietnam has been good.  Coming from Laos, I immediately noticed that it is a country with a bit more money: more pavement, more concrete, more stores, more refrigerators, more helmets on the motorcyclists.  These are all things that contribute to the touring experience…sometimes they make it more interesting, sometimes more colorful, more boring, more noisy, etc.  Bamboo houses and buildings contributed to an amazing – although at times difficult – atmosphere in Laos.  In Vietnam, things are made a bit easier by pavement, cold drinks, and lots of hotels.  They are a bit more difficult, however, because there is more traffic, more noise and more population.  There is always give and take.  I am glad to be moving along through a new country with new scenery.  To sum things up, I guess I would have to say that Vietnam, more so than any place I have ever visited, has the best head gear in the world.  Even more so than any of the Muslim countries where it would not be uncommon to see women whose heads were totally covered in black veils.
In Vietnam, motorcyclists wear light plastic helmets in dazzling colors that look essentially like snowboard helmets.  All women and lots of the men here wear anti pollution/anti sun/anti SARS/Swine Flu masks.  Women wear big plastic sunglasses.  Combine these elements, and add a motorcycle…what do you get?  Scout Trooper!  Vietnamese who go on foot often wear triangular bamboo hats that first became familiar to me when I played Mortal Combat and saw the character Raydin.  Women seem to wear these hats more often than men, although men wear them too.  People in the broad conical bamboo hats frequently cover their faces with cotton scarves, and women also wrap similar pieces of cloth around their hair, typically worn in buns.  Sometimes they do not wear the conical hats, but opt solely for the scarves covering the hair.  In this case they do not wear a face mask.  The conical hat+hair covering+face mask seems to be the best of all options.  Another option, with sort of a more cheerful personality is to wear a short-brimmed sun hat (usually in a light color, with decorations, patterns, etc.) and combine it with a SARS mask+umbrella.  This is a popular alternative to the Raydin hat/cotton scarf combination.
Men in Vietnam have similar options in terms of head gear, but they do not have quite the range of options as women.  They can also wear the SARS masks, which are sold more as fashion items than safety devices here.  They come in various colors and with various designs such as skull&cross bones, jaws, teeth, etc.  The masks serve as practical everyday anti-pollution devices for motorcyclists who commute for long distances on a daily basis.  They help to keep dust, pollution, etc. off the face and out of the lungs during regular motorcycle commutes I would think.  In terms of head coverings for men, it seems that helmets, Raydin hats, sun hats and baseball hats are the options.  I have not seen men with colored scarves wrapped around their hair.  Men in Vietnam have the option of wearing motorcycle helmets of all colors and designs.  It is common to see couples wearing matched pink motorcycle helmets with the woman controlling the motorcycle, for example.  All of these things contribute to my conclusion that Vietnam, of all of the places I have seen in the world, has the most reasonable, safe, and beautiful head gear in all the world.  As a head gear enthusiast myself, Vietnam is an exciting place because I have never seen such a wide variety of colors, shapes, and materials used for the various helmets, hats, etc.  For a population that spends much of its time outdoors, the people here seem to understand well the importance of protecting themselves from sun, dirt, traumatic injury, and pollution… what’s more, they have also figured out the importance of avoiding boring costumes for their daily attire.  Vietnam has a major head start on its rivals as I see them (the Italians) who also get around entirely by motorcycle, but whose concern for their head gear is – as far as I can tell – based only on laws from their government.  I do not, at this point, see any way for the Italians to catch up.  But anything is possible.
You see lots of people riding doubles on bicycles here – 99% of bicyclists carry umbrellas to ward off the sun. 50% of cyclists in Vietnam are riding double – i.e. 2 people on one bicycle.  Male/female combinations are often configured so that the woman is pedaling the bike.  I don’t know if this is progressive from a womens’ rights point of view or if womens’ rights simply do not factor into the equation – sort of in the same way that you might look at a horse-drawn cart and know that horses’ rights had not been factored into the equation.  Or maybe it is neither progressive nor oppressive but simply incidental.  In Vietnam, I believe that the reasoning is purely practical: people need to get around, and women are no exception.  Motorcycles are one of the cheapest ways to do it.  Bicycles are even cheaper.  So women ride bikes and motorcycles.  When male/female combinations ride around on bikes or motorcycles, it just falls to chance who will drive…I notice it more when a woman is driving because I am not used to seeing women drive men around in the rest of the world.  It is commonplace in Vietnam.
On my second night here, I found myself in the city of Tuan Giao, about 80Km E of Dien Bien Phu.  I had ridden all day to get there from Dien Bien, and I stopped at what looked like it might be a hotel to ask if it were, in fact, a hotel.  After some uncertain initial communication, it was established that this was not, in fact, a hotel, but that it was a house, and that furthermore, I could stay at the house if I wished to do so.  The family that lived there was the Tiep family, and I gratefully accepted their spontaneous offer.  During the next 12 hours I enjoyed great hospitality from the Tiep family.  We watched TV (“TiVi”), had great conversation, and ate a huge dinner – a chicken was brought in from outside, bled out, feathered, cooked, and eaten.  The Tiep family is a large family, of 12 people if I understood correctly – living in two adjoining houses.  One of these people was a 90 year-old man who spoke fluent French.  I was able to communicate with him fairly well.  I was also able to speak with his grand son who spoke English quite well.  I speak not one word of Vietnamese – this is a situation which has happened on a few occasions – e.g. Eastern Europe! – and is always a bit embarrassing: to arrive in a country and to not know a word of the language in order to be polite.  In Vietnam, I feel as though I get away with it in the sense that people are eager to welcome a visitor, but it is still a bit of an odd feeling!
After I left the Tieps in the morning, I stopped by one of the myriad motorcycle repair shops that are scattered all along the side of the road.  You can find them throughout Europe and Asia.  The chain of shops begins in Italy and runs, as far as I can tell, all the way through Japan, with breaks in Israel and Egypt (there is only desert there).  Once you reach Greece, Turkey and beyond, there is the added bonus that people at these shops are outside working on various welding projects at any given time.  This is particularly the case in India and Vietnam.  It is nice to see motorcycle repair shops, coffee shops, welders, bike shops, etc. when you are touring, because any one of these shops could save you in case of an emergency.
I had not, up to this point in the tour, required a welder.  On this particular morning, however, I needed a welder.  One of the braze ons that holds the cargo rack to the frame of my bicycle had broken off two days ago.  The rack was now being held on by only 3 of its 4 points of contact.  One of the braze ons was dangling loosely, smacking occasionally against the frame when I went over bumps.  I knew that if the other one were to come off, that the rack might fall back catastrophically and kill me.  Catastrophically.  So I stopped at a motorcycle repair shop and started to play charades, pointing to the problem, and pretending to weld.  I could tell immediately that the mechanic was excited (I believe that the reason you see all of these guys out there along the side of the road welding is not so much that things need to be welded, but rather that people need to find things to weld…I can respect that.  Welding seems pretty awesome).
Within five seconds of my pointing to the problem and pretending to weld, the mechanic had the torch out.  After another five seconds, the torch was lit.  Ten seconds later, the braze on was brazed on once again.  I think we were both disappointed that the process had been completed so quickly, though both of us played it cool.  The charge was 10,000 Vietnamese Dong – about 60cents.  I tipped the welder 5,000 dong, bringing the price up to nearly 1 dollar.  I could not quite accept the idea that a welding job could cost only 60 cents, even if it had taken less than 30 seconds.  He accepted the tip, only after my going to great lengths to put money in his hands.  I hopped back on my bike, rack now firmly welded in place.  It was 9:30a.m.  About time for a cup of coffee…
There is a well-established coffee culture in Vietnam.  The coffee scene in Vietnam seems to have developed in a somewhat strange and unfortunate manner, but I have learned to appreciate it even as I try to figure it out.  Whereas American coffee culture has developed based on a need to get a lot of coffee into the system really fast, (and if people are in no hurry, and they want to hang out and chat for a few hours, well, then, just buy LOTS MORE COFFEE!), Vietnam’s culture has developed in the way that coffee cultures developed everywhere else in the world outside the U.S.  which is to spend a very long amount of time in the process of consuming a very small amount of coffee.  In Vietnam they have taken this pursuit to new extremes.  The process is difficult, because things begin with a barista giving you a metal coffee filter that must first drain out before anything can be consumed.  After 5 or 10 minutes – depending on the filter – it becomes possible to drink 4oz. of coffee.  And those 4oz. are amazing.  But I would sooner take 20oz. of watery coffee from a Conoco station right now than wait 5 minutes for 4oz. of Vietnamese amazingness.  That is something that I am learning about myself out here…perhaps not one of my best qualities, but there it is.  (I am impatient in some senses). What they do have, on rare occasion in Vietnam, are coffee shops where you can find about 8-10 oz. of coffee ready within 90 seconds.  Hot espresso with a bit of foamed milk mixed in, and a couple of big ice cubes.  And it tastes really good.  There is WiFi too.  I have also discovered that if you show up to a café after it is halfway closed (the roadside cafes in Vietnam never really close…and they never really open…they are people’s houses.  If you show up at 9p.m. somebody will get up off the couch and sell you something.  I have discovered that showing up at 9p.m. in a sleepy town is a great time, because this is either the time that they will convince you to buy a can of coffee (fast!)- sort of like a bottle of Starbucks Frapuccino (I don’t know if we have cans of coffee yet in the U.S., but they are popular in the middle east and in Asia).  Or, if they don’t sell you a can of coffee, they will sell you powdered coffee + hot water (also fast!).  Any other time, a coffee shop owner in Vietnam will go out of his or her way to give you the best cup of coffee you have ever had…which takes 5 minutes.  Not so fast.  In any given business/residence in Vietnam there are several giant thermoses that are full of hot water at all times.  These thermoses are all the same size, and are all topped with an ancient cork.  They are all standing by, in case somebody decides that they would like a cup of hot tea.  Or, in rare circumstances such as when a tourist walks in at 9p.m. asking for coffee, they can be pressed into service to make instant coffee.  When one such thermos was used for this purpose to make a cup of coffee in Moc Chau, a shop keeper used a Nescafe instant coffee packet that was designed to make 10-12oz. of coffee, and poured in the standard 4oz.  I smiled and drank my coffee.  I read a few pages of my science fiction book as I sat in the dark.  Then I walked back to the hotel.
During the past month, I have discovered that my iTouch (thanks go out to my Dad for donating the iTouch…and, for that matter to my sister for the iPod Shuffle…hand me down iPods seem to really help out a lot out here).  I have discovered that my iPod Touch can double as a book.  This has been huge.  I installed a program called Stanza and have downloaded about 15 books that I am working my way through: several Isaac Asimov books, Moby Dick, and some other books that I probably won’t read.  But I like to know that they are there just in case.  It is a lot easier to read using the iTouch than it is to read using an actual book, at least for somebody who is on a bike ride.  This is not the case everywhere, but it is certainly easier to carry around the iPod, to read it at night, to take it out of my bags, turn the pages, etc (you just touch the screen, and the “page” turns).  I only write about this here in such detail because I believe that other bicyclists, backpackers, travelers owe it to themselves to start using their iPods/Blackberries/Kindles/etc. for reading/watching movies/etc. instead of carrying actual books.  It was a happy discovery.  I had a conversation with my mom in Thailand where I was like, “wow…I feel behind the times Mom!” because I was just discovering what the iPhone craze was all about…now I start to get the idea…enough on iPhones here.  But it was cool.  So now I am reading the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov once again.  It is a nice distraction when stopped to drink a cup of coffee.
 I had all of these things working out well, I was enjoying my tour through Vietnam, thinking, “yes…all is on track….I have my iTouch sorted, my bike is fixed, I have been drinking a lot of coffee, and life is good.”  So I decided it must be the perfect time to stop for an apple.  I considered taking a photograph of this valley, but decided that stopping to take a photo might change the nature of the experience…yes, very right I was!  So I left my cameras and went to sit on a flat rock with a view of a nice valley.  When I walked back to my bicycle, my video camera, still camera, wallet, cash, credit cards, notebook, and spare credit cards were all gone.  It somehow felt natural when I looked down at my handlebar bag, open, with nothing in it: “yep…that stuff’s all gone.”  As though it were a scheduled part of the day’s events.  I spent a few seconds looking at the bag, then a few seconds looking up the road, and then I got on my bike and rode away.  I was just glad to have not been there when I got robbed.  Later that day, the event became more of a big concern as I realized that I had no money, no way to get food, etc. until I could get money.  But it was only for a few hours – I was without money for a few hours.  I have been traveling through countries where much of the population spends much of its life without much money.  I could manage for a few hours.  For now, the worst is over (I hope!) and the experience is behind me.  The lesson here: don’t eat apples.
I took a rest day today in Hoa Binh, and today I get back on the bike, on my way toward Hanoi.  I will get a new still camera soon and resume posting photos on the website.  In Japan, at the latest, I will get another video camera – probably something a lot less expensive than what I had – to shoot footage of Japan and of the wintery ride across the U.S.A. to get to Colorado.  I plan to meet with my friend George the Cyclist part way through my ride through China – we hope to spend a couple of weeks riding together – and then I will meet my friend Ian in Japan for a tour of Japan.  I fly back to Seattle on December 9th after that to begin preparations for a wintery tour back to Colorado.  My rough plan is to make my way to San Francisco and ride to CO from there, passing through the desert in Nevada.  That is all very subject to change, but it is my basic idea.
Stay tuned for more updates from northern Vietnam and from southern China.  Thanks for reading!
      Stephen
Also – if you have not checked it out already, be sure to watch THESE SLIDE SHOWS!  A video/photo/music celebration of the past year on the road!  I was informed that the ASIA slideshow was not working – that has now been fixed.

A Year On The Road: Slide Show Extravaganza!

 

Laos

After many weeks of touring, I now find myself, once again, in a place where people drive on the right side of the road.  I had pretty much gotten to the point that I preferred the left side of the road, but I guess it is nice to be back in a more familiar place.  I am a bit better at making left-hand turns on my bike…perhaps this is why it felt easier to get onto the highway in India and Thailand.  More natural…  But that ship has sailed.  Now I am back to the real world.  Laos scenery

My route through Laos is a zig-zagging slice accross the northern tip of the country that will take me from Houayxay, Laos to Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam.  En Route, I pass through Vienphoukah, Luang Namtha, and Oudom Xay.  None of these cities were places I’d heard of before a few days ago, and none are very big when compared to the larger cities in other countries.  The places I’ve visited here are gorgeous.  Very peaceful, foggy, hilly, and green.  You will see a guest house or two, a restaurant or two, big green mountains and valleys, and sounds of life: crickets, chickens, things moving around in the grass, and turkeys.  You see huge turkeys on the side of the road here, which is interesting.  As well as ducks of all varieties.  Laos is, in a way, the land of many varied interesting domesticated birds.  I was approaching a chicken and her chicks on my bicycle along the road, and when got to within twenty feet or so, the chicken ran to the other side.  Her chicks followed her.  This experience has kept me thinking for the past couple of days.

Starting to cross to the other side!

Turkey

Since opening the borders to tourism in 1990, Laos has been pushing hard to bring in more tourists.  The tourism department here in Luang Namtha, is publishing material that explains that development of tourism in rural parts of Laos – wildlife reserves, and rural areas where most small villages are – will help to combat severe poverty that is affecting much of the country.
Tourism has been an avenue that has allowed them to get financial support from E.U. member nations as well as from New Zealand to build some infrastructure to draw more tourists and to fight poverty.  I do not know how well this is working, but I do know that there are lots of options – at least in Luang Namtha, Luang Prabang, and Vientiane – if you are interested in trekking, meeting members of local tribes, seeing Gibbons, learning to cook Lao meals, and otherwise getting involved in a kind of tourism that is designed to support Lao culture and build it up.  It might be kind of like seeing a sleepy backwater version of Thailand, before it boomed and became really popular.  Hopefully it becomes popular enough to accomplish the goals of fighting poverty – a problem which is visible all over the place in the villages between Hoayxay and Luang Namtha.  If you want to visit Laos, it seems as though it might be a great way to have a great experience while working to fight a serious problem.
Laos is a spectacular place…sort of a magical forest kingdom.  Don’t get the wrong idea though, it is the Laos Peoples’ Democratic Republic.  I was speaking only in the figurative sense.  The experiences here have been beautiful during my first two days.  In many ways the landscape reminds me of India: lush, green, lots of agriculture.  Some of the people dress similarly, with men wearing colored cloth wrapped once around their waists in order to keep cool in the heat.  Women dress differently from any place I’ve yet seen.  The fashion in this part of the country seems to involve black (or dark) skirts with embroidery at the hem.  There are also head dresses that are difficult to describe.  I don’t really know any other fashion info yet…

People of all ages will shout variations of “Hello” as I ride by – either “Hello” or “Bye Bye” (which, I believe, they shout in order to communicate “hello,”) or, most common of all: “Sa-Bai-Dee!” which means hello in Lao(tian?).  The variations which are possible within “Sa-Bai-Dee” are amazing: “Sa-Bai-DEEEEeeeee!!!!”  It occurs to me that “Bye bye” may in fact be “Bai Bai” – sort of the way that in English, “hello” is shortened to “hi.”  Perhaps.  Perhaps not!  Whatever the case, I believe that Laos may have the best greeting word in the world, and the people here seem to be aware of it.  Just compare for a moment – “hello” vs. “Sa-Bai-Dee!”  The latter is definitely way better.  People here make sure that visitors do not leave without learning how to say hello in Laos – and now you know how to say hello in Laos as well.  “Sa-Bai-Dee!”
The countryside here is very hilly by comparison with Thailand, which made for a bit of a difficult transition, but fortunately I had gotten a bit of a heads up on the hills before arriving so I was not completely blind sided.  The nice thing about a day of climbing is that you finish your day higher than you started.  This means cooler air.   For the first time since being in western Turkey about four months ago, I put on my long-sleeved shirt, long underwear, ski hat, and a light jacket.  After a day of getting hammered by torrential rains, and climbing into these mysterious foggy green hills, I found myself quite chilled by the time I arrived at the Mountain Lodge Guest House in Vienphouka.
I opened my wallet as I walked my bike, shivering, onto the grounds of the Lodge, and explained that the money was all I had (it was something like 60,000 Laotian Kip…perhaps $8 or $10 U.S.  I still don’t know the exchange rate, so things are vague here).  As I held out my tens of thousands of Kip, the inn keeper reached out from under her umbrella with a smile and plucked a 50,000 Kip note – “for the bed!”  And then I asked, “Is there food?”  She grabbed a 5,000-Kip note: “For breakfast!”  Okay…I can wait until morning to eat I thought…  I have chips and things…  She returned a few minutes later with a candle, and I walked my bicycle up onto the balcony of my own teak-wood cabin.  At least, I think it was teak.  I am no expert in exotic woods.  Whatever it was, it was only wood and nothing else.  It smelled good.  I parked the bike on the balcony as the heavens continued to dump unholy quantities of water down from above, and quickly took shelter from the downpour.  The innkeeper returned once more to open a window in the small house, which made it sort of light inside.  The light switches inside did not work – I assumed that there had been an outage during the tempest.  Two mosquito nets were arrayed to defend the beds in the room from whatever nastiness might decide to make a pass during the night.  After my Spider experience, I was happy about this.  I relaxed and began the somewhat long process of arraying my clothes to become somewhat less wet during my 14 hours at the Mountain Lodge.
2 hours later, the electricity in the room suddenly lit up.  “Yeah!” I said.  Two minutes later, the young woman knocked at the door, and when I answered: “Dinner is ready sir.”  “What?  Now?”  “YES!  Sir!”  “Oh…Okay!  I’m coming…right now!”  Didn’t know there would be dinner…should have saved all of my donuts…and chips…but will eat again!   I opened my wallet again and she plucked a few bills from my now-thin collection.  I had foolishly started my journey across Laos with only $18 U.S. (The sum of the spare change that I bought from a guy who was trying to exchange Kip in Thailand, and my own spare change from Thailand that I converted after arriving in Laos).  I started out not knowing the exchange rate, and knowing that I would not likely find an ATM until Luang Namtha…somehow I started anyway.  Idiot!  If you ever go on a bicycle tour (or just walk around town), here are 3 great rules that will make life a lot easier:

1) Always have cash.
2) Always have food.
3) Always have water.

Back to getting food…
She handed me an umbrella.  We walked through much-lighter rain (it had lessened since my arrival, though a kind of total darkness had now fallen on the Mountain Lodge).  After a 45 second walk across gravel pathways, we arrived at the kitchen/dining room.  It was a concrete slab with 4 picnic tables, and a few small lights – very open air.  The nice thing about Mountain Lodge is that it has the best view imaginable of Vienphouka.  Vienphouka at night is almost completely black.  A town of what must be about 5,000 people (guess) and only about 10-15 lights visible altogether.  It is an amazing, mysterious experience up there, looking down on this city through wisps of fog, sitting at my table alone, still feeling a bit chilled, but dry and wearing fleece, a hat, warming up, and having just filled up a cup of coffee.  My table had a single candle burning and a deep purple table cloth.  I do not know if they intentionally go for the mystical experience at the Mountain Lodge or if they achieve it simply by virtue of circumstance.  I suspect that it is more circumstance than effort – perhaps this is why it is such an interesting place.
I quickly discovered the nature of the electricity at Mountain Lodge.  A small one foot by one foot generator was humming in the corner, powering all of the light bulbs at Mountain Lodge.  I was impressed by this small generator because although I did not count a huge number of bulbs at the Lodge, (perhaps 20 or 30) they were spread out over a distance of about 70 yards by 70 yards or so, in various rooms, lighting the walkways, etc.  All of them wired up to this tiny little generator.  This is how Vienphouka works: when you see a light down there in the city, it is because a family has decided to turn on their generator for a little while.  It is all strange, because there are power lines running past the city, but I could only guess that they must run straight past and on to Luang Namtha, the larger city to the North East.  Vienphouka is not wired to run off the grid.
The following morning, I awoke at 8a.m., emerged from my mosquito net, and plucked my various less-damp clothing items from the walls of my small house to put them back into my panniers and onto my self.  The day’s ride to Luang Namtha was blessedly flat and easy by comparison with the previous day’s riding.  After 40 miles or so, I found myself in one of the largest cities of northern Laos – one with an ATM – which felt to be about the size of Lander, Wyoming.  After an hour and a half of struggling with the ATM (or, rather, struggling with my inability to use it properly – no Stephen, you have to select the CHECKING button if you want to take $ from your checking acct.)  I got some money, and checked into a guest house here.  Since leaving India and arriving in S.E. Asia, I have been staying in guest houses almost all the time because of my fear and discomfort with heat, bugs, and jungle.  I am not in my element camping out here, so I have been seeking out hotels and staying in them for the first time on the journey.  This will probably make me look back on Southeast Asia in a positive light because I will remember it as a place of comfort and ease in terms of accommodation.  I am just happy that the jungles of the tour happened to be here rather than in Europe or the United States where hotel rooms are usually two or three times more expensive.
And I have not stayed every night in hotels…in fact, my first night in Laos was in the tent.  It was a great night because I made the discovery that my iTouch can be hung from the ceiling of the tent, allowing for insanely comfortable reading (I have a reading application installed on the iTouch so that it functions like a Kindle…in fact the application is called Kindle…made by Amazon…who makes Kindles…).  I spent hours that night reading Foundation by Isaac Asimov, and hoping that none of the sounds that I was hearing in the trees right next to me were about to suddenly materialize into an elephant or a tiger inside my tent.  They did not, and the following morning, I woke up, said “Sa-Bai-Dee!” to four Lao soldiers who had stopped their motorcycles to say “Sa-Bai-Dee!” to me, and then resumed my journey toward Dien Bien Phu.  A positive camping experience despite my negative feelings about the natural environment here…there are many many people who actually come to places like Laos and the Amazon as eco tourists…I will never be one of those people.  Or am I one of those people?  Oh God I don’t even know what an eco tourist is!  But a visit to Laos is certainly worthwhile – just be careful about what you’re getting yourself into when you sign up for some sort of eco tourism adventure!  It could become more than you bargained for!  The jungles here are serious.  Gibbons…tigers…elephants…spiders…everything an eco tourist could possibly dream of.  Or have nightmares about.

This was a happy innovation.  Notice the SPOT device up top...that is the source of twitter/facebook status updates each day - e.g.

It is now 11a.m. and way past time for me to hit the road once more toward Vietnam and then onward toward China.  More updates to come soon.  Thanks for reading and thanks to everyone for making our summer fund raising drive a great success.

Stephen