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.

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 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.


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 -
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!
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.
At the last time I checked, they had not yet censored, 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!

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!