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Archive for September, 2007


Sunday, September 30th, 2007

Every time any of us want to post something on the internet, we must wade through clouds of smoke, dank corridors, and zombie-like hordes of other internet users. Computer ownership is rare enough in China that providing what we know of as internet cafes is a very profitable business. But to call these places cafes is requires a stretch of the imagination likely to result in physical therapy. In China they are known as net bars, and the name translates literally into English and retains the dual meaning of net as short for internet and fishing device.

Net bars are very bar-like. Dark, dank, sometimes incredible noisy with chatter or blasting music or cell phone rings and incredibly smoke-filled. Young people crouch in front of their computers, often for hours and even days on end, pursuing relationships, blasting out their frustrations with computer generated hand guns, or just chatting online with friends who could be in the next room or the next province. Often people watch movies or even download images of the sort unlikely to arouse Focus on the Family to an approval rating.

As I was writing this little bit, the eighth grader looking over and almost touching my shoulder is discussing what words I’m typing and what they mean with his friends. The gentleman next to me lights a cigarette and smoke follows the breeze out the window and past my face.

I don’t think any of us mean to spend much time in the net bar, but uploading photos takes time, as does writing blogs, to say nothing of keeping in touch with friends and family back home. Sometimes we find ourselves spending hours here at a time, and still not accomplishing everything we mean to. The only solution, it seems, is to come back more often. Thus we join the hordes of Chinese young people manacled to the machines supposedly so helpful in modern life.

I tell the eighth grader about this website and he and it distracts he and his friends for a while. The man smoking offers me one, and after I tell him I don’t smoke, he extinguishes his own. I’ve written this quickly and am about to escape. Who says you can’t talk your way out of a net?

Mr. Zhang

Saturday, September 29th, 2007

At least let’s call him Mr. Zhang. The fact is I made the regrettable mistake of failing to inquire as to his name. But since ten percent of all Chinese people are surnamed Zhang, I have a one in ten chance of being correct. This Mr. Zhang, typically enough, wore the clean and dressy clothes the rest of his lower-middle-class Chinese peers wore. His hair glistened with a modest amount of hair product and revealed a combed over thinning spot when viewed from the correct angle.

As I strode about purposefully after dinner, my mind full of things to do and accomplishments to accomplish, Mr. Zhang motioned me over to his table in the courtyard of the hotel. He bade me sit down and we were soon chatting away, him with a cup of baijiu and me, thankfully, with a nice cup of tea.

It turns out Mr. Zhang had never spoken with a foreigner before. “I’ve seen them on the street, but we do not speak the same language, communication is impossible, and we simply passed by. I had no idea even what country they came from,” he told me. “But now here I am, speaking with a foreigner, and I am very happy,” he said, expressing an emotion he would heavily emphasize throughout the evening.

Shortly we were joined by Adam and Pete. Drew walked by, also hoping to get something done before going to bed, but he was snagged like me and wound up having to explain in elegant Chinese that he was shopping for bungee cords. “Ah ha!” cried Mr. Zhang, “Do you know how much a bungee cord costs? Three yuan?” Drew, who’s knowledge of bungee cords is anything if not impressive, replied, “No, two yuan.” “Yes,” affirmed the impressed Mr. Zhang. He asked Drew where the bungee cord store was. He told Drew where he could buy some bungee cords. He intimated he himself possessed bungee cords. What was going on? Mr. Zhang called his wife (?) over and commanded “Go get some bungee cords!” “What?” chuckled his wife, “I don’t know where your bungee cords are. You go get them!” Then proceeded a long discussion of parts of a room and locations wherein one might expect to find bungee cords. After Mr. Zhang’s wife returned with three, Mr. Zhang inspected them carefully. “This one’s broken!” he stormed upon finding a perceived error. “Broken?!” his wife rejoined, “You’re the broken one!” After Mr. Zhang’s wife had returned with the bungee cords, he presented them to Drew, and spare no ceremony in so doing.

Finding a Rhythm

Saturday, September 29th, 2007

Combining all perceptions that can be sensed there is one rising high above the rest as single most feared.  Agreed upon by both woman and mankind around the world nothing tests will, delivers pain, and breeds dread like this one sensation. Six a.m. somewhere in China the same tone, pitch, and pulsating rhythm that wakes the masses the world over fills our room. My radio shack travel alarm clock with case showing well use and buttons long rubbed off of their paint telling of their function succeeds again at rousting the dead.  However instead of dreading the stress of co-workers, sitting in traffic, paying bills, feeding the dog, and long term general monotony I have no idea what to stress about.  In fact I have no idea what the day will bring or where I will end up.  For some this in it and of itself might be reason to freak out or have an aneurysm. For some reason however I was created to embrace uncertainty, live for the moment, and thrive off the unknown. All that is known is that I have to follow little green, red, and brown lines outlined on my map looked at the night before. Forever heading south towards some unforeseen point. Entirely open to change and reevaluation a green road may become a red, or a red a green, but it is all the same to me, unknown. I can only speculate as to where there will be hills, traffic, food, and a place to sleep. In fact with no predictability rising from bed becomes much easier. I generally awake everyday with no dread, no remorse, and an unusual amount of energy. Ready to hit the road we pack, we eat, and we bike. 

Everyday we learn what does and doesn’t work, everyday we talk, change plans, and speculate. We have slowly become more efficient with our prep time and riding. Our group is unique in that we are very open with one another and we are very lucky that when something is bothering one of us we share it with the group.  As with any team we have our highs and lows, but so far have worked together and made changes where necessary. People in our group are also currently of different biking ability making working as a team very important. It is difficult to say if we are on track of our goal of distance traveled since it is so unclear what route we will entirely be taking. Generally we travel anywhere from 50 to 80 k per day, with a day of rest thrown in every so often.  Things that effect this are stopping at interesting places to take photographs, talking with people, playing music, and eating.  The type of road we travel on also highly effects how fast or slow we go.  We have encountered very mountainous terrain, rainy weather, very flat and fast land, curvy roads, muddy roads, and roads so full of drying grain that it is difficult to bike on. It has been brought to my attention that a more detailed status should be included in the site.  I will soon be adding a weekly blog with just details such as distances traveled, sites visited, terrain, and weather.  

Drew: Sept 29, “moments”

Saturday, September 29th, 2007

…from the week:

We’re biking through harvested fields burning piles of cornstalk, avoiding the peanuts spread on the flat cement road that winds between farmland and rows of trees.  I am behind, and I come up the incline that spreads into open space ahead of me.  The Yellow River carves its wide and deceptively lazy swathe some 15 meters down the bank, opening the sky.

My pickled feet feel funny plodding their palid path across dark silt sands.  The water is cool and seems somehow clean, though covering my cuticles with its silt in seven centimeters.  Yep, it’s yellow.

We are biking again.  Now it is the mountain in front of us that rises into a sky closed by mist and pollution, a smattering of rain.  Turn over, and over, and over.  The climbing gears are necessary.  Look at the ground; it’s moving slowly underneath you even though you’re turning, turning, turning, burning.  Checkpoints.  The next pile of grain…  okay, good, turn it over… that tree, come on!  Come on!  Switchbacks.  And then, the road levels and you look up and the others are smiling.  We are at the pass.

Arms dark, body white, water dark, sky light.  Cold mountain resevoir pushed back against the valley, deep, they say.  Too deep to swim; but only if you can’t.  Plunge, splash, get the soap… can you hand me the shampoo?  This is great!  Lean back and let the water support you as you feel the raindrops falling from a sky that was closer than it was this morning into a pool so much higher than sea level.  Was it really an accident we stopped here and it started to rain and they had a room?

It’s after noon when we arrive at the base of Mount Tai, so we eat lunch and try not to pay tourist prices while discussing our next move.  Climb the mountain, if it’s not too expensive.  We’ll check the west gate to see what’s the story.  We can leave our bikes here in the room for $10 total?  And equipment?  Sweet.  Let’s do it.  Let’s climb the mountain before the gate closes.  It’s a road and stairs the whole way, anyway…  Where did we get this energy?

The sky gray and occasionally drizzling rain, we begin ascending in rain gear.  Step after step.  Fifteen kilometers.  We make it to the stairs after dark, suppertime.  It feels like two a.m. and we’re leaving on a fishing trip or something.  It’s only 8 o’clock.  The wind picks up and the moon is bright through clouds.  Step by step.  By ten thirty we are at the top.  We have a room.  We have big thick blankets and plans to get up before the sun, lest it should rise without our supervision.  It does anyway, hidden in a big thick blanket of clouds, letting the wind have its way with us.  But the former “communist issue” green ankle length coats help our cause, and we take pictures and turn our backs to the blasts.  Even conquerors need a warm place and a hearty breakfast.

Mid-Autumn Festival

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

I had no idea that the simple act of hanging around our hotel courtyard on the day of mid-autumn festival would create such an experience, but then I suppose you never really do see these experiences coming.  Mid autumn festival is a day in China where strictly speaking is on the 15th day of the 8th moon, or the autumn equinox.  If you are able to view the moon through the haze or not does not matter, what you do see is the entire country shutting down at the same time to celebrate the occasion.  Families get together and friends unite, like many cultures who have a celebration near harvest time.  The staple treat which everyone must consume are moon cakes, 3 inch circular discs which are similar to fruit cake in density and taste.  

Our hotel, or luguan, which is usually a family run smaller and cheaper accommodation was found down a quiet maze of back alley complexes.  Meshed together over the ages it is difficult to tell where one house ends and another starts, doors decorated in red fu characters for good luck and fortune lead you to our place. Most places open up behind these doors into an open courtyard with a few rooms attached.  At our particular luguan this mid autumn festival Jim was shooting the breeze with some old men in our courtyard who are part of the family which run it.  A graying woman cooked lunch while the men sat and talked.  I was in the area organizing some photos and when the food came out was invited to join the gang.  Jim, myself, three elderly men, and one woman all sat down to a feast of fish soup, chopped chicken (which was running around the courtyard just that morning) green veggies, sweet tomatoes, and of course, as any Chinese feast goes, baijiu.  Baijiu is the Chinese rice spirit which usually runs both too strong in a number of categories, most overwhelmingly being the taste.  As the meal progressed we seemed to be getting along very well and I really wish I could have understood the thick accent of the old man with the surname of Jia to at least know the subject he was talking about.  He was giving very serious lectures, or telling stories, or talking about us I’m not sure but all Jim and I could do was nod and say we agreed.  The woman was telling us that the yellow river valley was the cradle of human civilization and was asking us if this is what we were taught.  I told her I wasn’t sure and that there are many ancient civilizations in the world, although it is much older than the American civilization of where I come from.  Perhaps she was talking about existing civilizations, I am unsure.  

After an afternoon nap we decided to bike to the town square and play some music.  Squares in China are places people go to in the evening to dance, sing, play instruments, Rollerblade, meet friends, and just hang out.  It always seems to be a great commune of both traditional and modern culture.  Nakia, Drew, and Peter took out their instruments and instantly drew a crowd.  Reception to our music along the way seems to change depending on the situation but people last night were genuinely interested.  We sang a number of songs each with applause, Nakia particularly drew applause with her vocals.  After singing a few we told people about our trip and mission then asked if anyone else in the group could perform.  A tiny man, about 5 feet tall and missing most of his teeth jumped in from the back and demanded the attention of the crowd, people seemed to know him.  He belted out a couple of songs with hand motions, great eye contact, and a beautiful voice.  He could sing incredibly well and everyone seemed very entertained.  A woman soon starting singing Peking opera as well and they would go back and forth.  Jim stepped in with the Chinese song “The Moon Represents my Heart” and “Zai Nali”  With the help of the woman and the man the trio sounded great.  People seemed extremely receptive.  I meanwhile explained my bike to the many Chinese examining it, which seems to happen wherever we go.  ”Yes it is made in America, those are to hold water bottles, those are bags I put my things in, that is a pump to put air in my tires.”  People always ask how much it cost as well but I usually lie and tell them it is much cheaper than what I payed.  Sometimes it is an issue that I don’t want to run the risk of getting it stolen, but more often than not it is because after converting it’s price to RMB it sounds like a lot and I feel somewhat guilty I guess. 

The evening was rounded out with skewed meat called Chuar, today we start biking into the mountains.  Happy Mid-Autumn Festival, Zhong qiu jie kuai le!   

In Jinan, Shangdong province

Monday, September 24th, 2007

Just a brief update:

We’re doing well after taking a day of rest this past Saturday in Dezhou City, Shangdong province.  We arrived in Jinan, the capital of Shangdong province today.  Its been a bit of a culture shock for me, coming into a huge Chinese city after being out in the countryside and smaller towns for the last few days, but big cities are every bit a part of China as the countryside market towns and villages.  We’re on our way to Taishan, one of the sacred taoist/buddist mountains in China, which is located south of Jinan by 30-50km. 

Although biking into big Chinese cities is not my first choice for a good ride due to the heavy traffic and road dirt, we decided to come in to find a good bike shop that has a specialized tool we don’t have, a bottom bracket wrench, to look at Drew’s bottom bracket bearings that seemed to be popping and making noises they shouldn’t.  Due to a (lovely) countryside detour today due to inaccurate maps and our tendancy to seek out smaller roads with less traffic, we wound up having to backtrack north about 25km to Jinan City, only to discover on a downhill that it’s actually most likey Drew’s back wheel (the super heavy-industrial strength one) and not his bottom bracket bearings that has the problem (as the popping happened when he was not pedaling).  Sigh.  Wheel bearings are something we have the tools to deal with, so we’ll disect his wheel tomorrow morning and see what the problem is.  Most likely its a bad ball bearing, and should be an easy fix. 

Yesturday we made great time from Dezhou City to Yucheng City due to being the first day after our rest day, a flat good road (though with heavy traffic), and a favorable wind.  We usually were riding between 23 and 25km/hour, whereas our normal speed is usually 20-22km/hr on flat land.  So far from Beijing, its all been flat, so tomorrow we’re heading up into the mountain range surrounding Tai Shan (Tai Mountain) for a change of scenery, and to continue on our way south to Shanghai.

I’ve been trying to upload my photos from my SLR camera to the photo page, though I’ve been having difficulties.  More to come later.

Drew: Sept.21, A Few Things…

Friday, September 21st, 2007

…You Don’t See Everyday (at least outside of here)

  •  the Chinese equivalent of an 18-wheeler heading at you in your lane 
  • one lane of the road used for spreading corn, peanuts, and cotton
  • a truck with several dogs in a cage rolling down the street blaring from a megaphone what at first I take as a warning to keep your pets contained, only to find out it’s advertising specialty meats.
  • A sign in Chinese characters that reads “Please Don’t Pee in the Hallway.”
  • Scores of couples dancing to loudspeaker music in the public square.
  • The bill for a meal that has satisfactorily stuffed five ravenous twenty-somethings reading 58 RMB (c.$8)
  • Older folks walking backwards.
  • A motorcycle lady with 8 chickens hanging upside down in stocks across the back seat.
  • The night streets transformed with stools and with tables, covered with broiled meats-on-a-stick, peanuts, soybeans, pickled vegetables, rice, and bottles of beer, all gone by morning.
  • Weiguoren (foreigners).


Friday, September 21st, 2007



What People Say

Friday, September 21st, 2007

On the road now for six days, we’ve had ample opportunity to speak with a great variety of people. Whether it’s the five foreigners with heavily loaded bikes and blaze orange traffic-management vests that attract crowds of people, or just my delectable posterior as featured in biking shorts, remain unclear. In any case, there are many people who want to talk with us, so talk we do. The conversations usually fail to cover new ground, or even escape the geographical/anatomical realm: where are you from? where did you start biking? where are you going? how tall is that tall guy? (with the latter question of course referring to the six foot six Peter).

In order to simplify things we’ve been telling most people that we simply intend to bike to Hong Kong. Even with this conservative estimate of our trip, reactions to the idea of our journey usually vary between incredulous and amazed. During the tense period on the 16th when we weren’t sure if we would be able to leave Beijing, we scrambled to secure the guitars to Drew’s bike outside our apartment building. A young girl and her father stopped by to monitor our progress. Upon learning we hoped to go as far as Hong Kong, the girl cross her arms over her chest and shook her head emphatically. “I don’t believe you,” she said. Her father tried to convince her we were for real, but to no avail.

Another man we talked to in Hebei claimed biking to Hong Kong was impossible. “That can’t be true,” he claimed. I tried to give him our website for evidence, but he said, “I’m aware such a thing exists, but I’ve never used it myself.” Oh well. After unsuccessfully trying to get his son to talk with us he left.

During longer stops, we venture more detailed explanations about the reasoning behind our trip: our intention of advocating bicycle rather than car travel, our effort to raise awareness of global warming, our hope that more personal connections between cultures will lead to a more secure world peace. People usually nod and agree when we say these things, but we have yet to have a generally great global warming round table in any of the villages in which we’ve stopped. Sometimes even basic communication is a problem. The other day, after explaining reduced pollution (wuran in Chinese) someone thought I had merely said we were going to Wuhan (the capital of Hubei Province). I’ll practice my pronunciation, and in the meantime we will hopefully come up with a solid platform from which to advocate the environmental side of our trip.

Self Reasoning

Thursday, September 20th, 2007

A man, faded army issue pants, wool coat, rope belt which wraps too far around his too thin waist, shovel, missing front tooth, standing in a dirt field with a blank stare at the foreigner riding by on a bicycle and gear costing much more than his yearly wage.  But he doesn’t know that, all he knows is that just over 30 years ago foreigners wern’t allowed into his country.  He knows that growing up during the cultural revolution he was told to eat his rice because there were American’s who were starving.  He knows that somehow things have changed but he isn’t sure of the scope.  Left in the dark and far behind not 100 miles to the north a place exists called Beijing which within the year will host an event on the world stage.  Not too far to the south exists a place called Shanghai, a place more foreign to him than to millions of Americans.  But he knows his son moved there, along with countless millions of others to the boom towns of post Deng Xioping’s economic freedom movement.  He knows that his son sends money home from his window washing job, he sends home the equivilent of 40 US dollars a month, much more than what he had ever been able to make growing corn, cabbage, and carrots.  It would not be too much to say that his son has a direct window to view the change occurring in this country at a hecticly and mind spinning pace.  He may get a chance to share this with his father once a year when he returns home on an over crowded train for the new year celebration.  His son sends home a lot of money, to this man my plane ticket to the country, my bicycle, my video camera, hard drive, and camping equipment dosn’t exist, it can’t exist, or one would starve.  Back in the United States I am poor, jobless, and missing out on building my 401k, paying off a mortgage on a house and car, and ruining the statistic of unemployment rates for my college.  Should I feel guilty for taking advantage of a situation, an unfair and unbalanced coincidence that I am able to travel, document, and see things that make our world ours.  I struggle with the thought that I make money in the U.S. then spend it on a lifestyle a fraction of the price for the same goods, while people here work day in and day out to make ends meet.  I have put myself in a unique situation.  No other generation in the history of human kind has been able to travel and see the world the way mine has.  I purposely have no children or current career that I had to tear myself away from.  The ability and freedom to explore has exponentially risen with the advent of better transportation and communication.  Would I then also feel guilty for not exploring these options?  I find a way to cope with this is by doing exactly what our group means to do, a way to share with friends, family, and anyone unable to take benefit from travel like myself.  We live in a highly globalized world which will only become more so.  Not only can this man working the fields in Hebei province China not understand me but I can most certainly not understand him.  But we can begin to build bridges for the future.  Not only for major corporations investing money in third world countries and the boom cities foregin to most residents in China, Americans, and a vast amount of their own inhabitants.  But we can try to understand the true people that make up the world we live in, along with exploring who we are ourselves in the process.  No we can not all quit our jobs and tour the world, it would then surly fall apart.  But we can step back ponder the man in the dirt field the same way he ponders us.