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!