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!