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Archive for November, 2007

A generous encounter.

Thursday, November 29th, 2007

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Mr. Zhou's House

Before we arrived in Hong Kong, or the fragrant harbour to translate the name literally, our last 4 to 5 days of biking had been almost all downhill, funneling us ever toward the coast and finally ending at She Kou, a port city wrapped in the chaos that is ShenZhen and just across the way from Hong Kong’s new territories.

We found the ferry terminal pretty easily, concluded that in fact we would be able to put all of our gear on the boat (for an extra 5 US dollars per bike if we carried them on ourselves) and then took off to look for a place to stay.  The area right by the port was very developed for China and the effects of the spread of Hong Kong’s wealth was very apparent.  Other foreigners could be seen being bussed in on huge tour buses, led off in a daze and shuttled through line in order to get onto the next ferry, we watched.  Both baffled and concerned looks turned the necks of both travelers and the ferries employees.  One rather tall almost slender man in a leather Harley Davidson jacket and a thick Australian accent asked us if we were doing a bike tour, our answer of course was yes.  He promptly told us he liked to stick to taxis and buses.

We began biking back up the hill towards the city in order to find a place to stay.  Even though it was developed this area has seen an influx of millions of migrant workers in the last few decades and there must be cheaper places to stay other than the obvious large hotels in the area.  The city of ShenZhen is a rather unique place.  In 1979 then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping declared it as China’s first economic free zone, opening a tidal wave of foreign investment and business.  People soon began to arrive looking for work and opportunity.  From a small coastal fishing village ShenZhen soon grew to millions.  Today there is an official population of 9 million but the surrounding area brings that up even more.  The average age is less than thirty, and a major problem is that people do not possess the hukou, or resident card, making work difficult or illegal.  I personally knew a number of people moving to ShenZhen after graduation when I worked in Changsha, I still know of one there today.  

People from all over the country of China fill this city, with little or no family, friends, or social network.  Crime becomes a problem, prostitution is a problem, and disease can become a problem, in fact the SARS epidemic first started in this region and quickly spread among workers stacked in housing and dormitories with few health precautions or health education.  The book China Syndrom by Karl Taro Greenfeld discusses both concerns of this city in detail and the SARS epidemic.

Although the night before we had stayed in factory style dormitories, a cement room, a spicket to wash in, we were lucky enough to find another option that turned out to be a great experience. 

We were asking a young man if there were any inexpensive Luguans in the area and he mentioned a few.  After talking with him a while though he said he knew a place we could stay and we should follow him.  He led us back to an apartment complex, he riding an electric bicycle, a common mode of transportation in China, and us on our bicycles.  We stopped in front of a steel garage door, it opened into a large cement garage, two rooms were made in the rear out of plywood dividers, there was more than enough room for us to put our bicycles and sleep on the floor with our camping gear, we said it looked great, because it did, and he showed us a good place to eat dinner.  Although he did not want to eat with us he said he would return, which he did after our meal to bring us back.  We returned, set up “camp” and began to talk. 

His name was Zhou, he was 24 years old and part of the Yizu   minority group one of the 55 recognized groups by the Chinese government.  Because of this he told us he was given a few different benefits that other Han Chinese are not.  He gets extra vacation time on his minorities holidays to go home and visit with family.  He also gets a small amount of money from the government.  For two years he worked in the military in Tibet.  Although he didn’t like it much because the weather was too cold.  He then lived in Malaysia for a while, then moved to ShenZhen.  He works two jobs and lives in this building with his girlfriend.  He is a security guard at a nearby location and also delivers tanks of natural gas to people by means of his heavy duty 28 inch bicycle.  Not too long ago he got injured at work and was sent to a hospital in Macau to recover, a rare thing among common workers, and he told us we should go there to visit if we get a chance. 

He crossed the street and brought back peanuts, Pepsi, a case of beer, and a few people to look at us.  We sat on our camping mats, chatted, played music, and ate snacks.  In the morning we got up early in order to make it to the ferry on time, he was up already though getting ready to go for a run.  In the military he had to run 10k a day, he now runs 5k every morning to stay in shape.  We graciously said thank you, offered just one more time to give him money which he would not accept, and then biked off to find breakfast and our way to the ferry.

We encounter all kinds of people everyday, and when someone goes out of their way to help us, especially when they don’t have a lot to start with themselves it really speaks loudly.  We are expecailly thankful to people like Mr. Zhou for giving us insight into their lives and offering us a very uniqe experience.  


Hong Kong 香港

Thursday, November 29th, 2007

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Our first leg of the journey from Beijing to Hong Kong is now complete.  Yesterday we took a ferry in from Shenzhen 深圳, the border city to Hong Kong.  Unfortunately there is no way to cross the boarder by bicycle so a ferry was the only option.  From Beijing to Hong Kong I (Adam) have taken three ferries and one subway.  The rest of the was completely powered by rice, which ended up being over 4,300 kilometers on my bicycle’s odometer.  The three ferries were unavoidable, one to cross the Yangtze 长江, where the nearest bridge allowing cars was miles and miles up-river out of the delta, and two in Shanghai 上海 to cross the Huangpu river, one to get over it, and one to get back.  Strangely enough there are no bridges in downtown Shanghai, only tunnels for automobiles that go under the river dividing the bund and downtown Shanghai.  Jim and I had to cross the river in order to get to a bike shop and purchase the bandwagon.  In Guangzhou 广州 after Kevin’s wedding there was a reception at a bar about 6 kilometers from our hotel which most people took taxis to.  I was unsure about where it was and did not want to risk locking my bike outside on a street-post and having it stolen so Pete, Nakia, and myself took the subway.  Jim and Drew were out running errands and stopped by on their bikes.  In order to keep my “no automobile use” record going I walked back, the rest of fueledbyrice decided to join me, making us truly fueled by rice. 

Unfortunately Hong Kong is not a city developed with bikers in mind, in fact the roads are very narrow, steep, and people drive on the left side of the road making all of our instincts wrong.  In fact the steepest hill we have climbed so far has been the last hill we rode up to get to the Maryknoll house overlooking Stanley market.  Maryknoll, the organization Pete previously had taught through in China, and the organization Kevin works for graciously has let us stay here.  We will be highlighting some of the interesting people we meet here in the future.  We are also in the process of getting visas right now for SE Asia, our Vietnam visas should be done today.  Patrick Leung, a Hong Kong resident and St. John’s alumni organized a benefit dinner for our cause which will take place Saturday night at the Royal HK Yacht Club.  Money will go towards some expenses for the trip and the charitable organizations we have chosen to support.


Fellow Migrants in Guangzhou 广州 -Canton-

Monday, November 26th, 2007

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广东,广州 (Guangzhou city [Canton], Guangdong prov) is essentially the epicenter of the famously booming Chinese economy.  Far in the south, just 2 hours from Shenzhen (mainland city started in the 1970s to faciliate the regional economic growth direclty across from Hong Kong) and Hong Kong (an economic “miracle” since the 1960s due its then status as a British colony and detachment from the mainland’s chaos of that time) its location location location that explains Guangzhou’s selection to be the factory central of China…with Shanghai and Tianjin playing in a close 2nd and 3rd.  After biking south 50km from Guangzhou, its been solid development and factories, and I expect it to be so down to Shenzhen, the port.

 Its of course the abundant labor that drives China’s economy, and those that fill the jobs often come in from the countryside with courage enough to seek a better life through higher incomes than agriculture can offer, and are willing to take the risk to move to a big city without pre-arranged work.  Guangzhou, due to its reputation as the economic and factory folcrum of China naturally attracts a comparatively large percent of China’s rural migrants.   Although countless construction sites in addition to its factories absorb an incredible number of these people, a surprising number of migrants who can’t find work (and therefore don’t have the dormitory housing that still accompany many jobs in China) make due with sleeping on sidewalks and under bridges.  Walking by them naturally makes me uncomfortable.  Most sleeping by 10pm, they look peaceful and comfortable enough.  It seems they’ve gotten enough to eat, this eases my unease.  A bowl of rice is, afterall, 1 Yuan (US$0.13).  But I still think of the luguans (cheap hotels) I’ve stayed at in the last 2 months, and how though most westerners would never even consider staying at them due to the lower standards, they’d be a far cry better than sleeping on the street.  But tonight, I’m not just at a luguan.  I’m at the Landmark Hotel, for Kevin’s wedding.  Just about as opposite on the socio-economic scale as one can get.

I’d often heard from people in the north - in Beijing and in Jilin - that Guangzhou was “dangerous” with “high crime” and is China’s least safe city.  Not that Guangzhou natives are more apt to stealing, but people told me its the poor migrant workers who steal.  Now my second time to Guangzhou, even if some statistics that I haven’t seen prove this, I’ve never had any trouble whatsoever.  I often tell people that China is the safest country that I’ve ever been to.  China’s obsession with walls and gates and guards seem to go well over board with a strong culture of early to sleep, early to rise, but no matter the reason, Guangzhou in my experience joins the rest of China in being very safe, not to mention rural Chinese people being overly more friendly and open than urban dwellers.  Perhaps my height scares off would-be pick-pockets, for they do exist in all Chinese cities, but I do think the northern perception of Guangzhou is a bit off.

When we 5 fueled-by-ricers pulled our bikes along side new BMWs, Mercedes, Audis (yes, the Germans dominate the Chinese car market), by the front door of the Landmark Hotel, in our dirty clothes, with our dirty bikes, carrying out dirty luggage, the perfect harmony of cleanliness, of niceness, that is characteristic of the typical Chinese facade of quality and wealth was disrupted.  Immediately, guards and car park guides felt uncomfotable with our presence and immdiately told us we couldn’t “park” our bikes here.  “No problem, we’re just taking our luggage off our bikes.”  “You can’t park your bikes here, go around back across the street to the bike coral.” “Ok, we just have to take our stuff…   Yes, yes, we’re guests here are your hotel.” 

Culture shock.  Really, we should fit in perfectly at the Landmark.  We’re foreign, and foreign means firstly wealth to many Chinese.  We all studied in America and have the ability to go to the US, which alone classifies us in the top echeoleon of world citizens.  We are, afterall, middle class, so the Landmark and its niceness, its cleanliness, its class, its fancy-pants image, yes yes, it’s all a part of who we are.  But its a part we’ve all seemed to have left behind when we started this bike trip, if not earlier in our lives.

As we passed through the lobby, our arms loaded with our Chinese road-grit-ladden bicycle luggage in our dirty biking shirts and beards, I felt uncomfortable, a misfit.  We’re used to staying in common low-end Chinese hotels in the rural areas…well, see the luguan photos in the Photo section yourself.  No, we hadn’t driven our cars to the Landmark.  Yes, reducing carbon emissions and helping to halt Global Warming / The Climate Crisis is sometimes dirty and unglamorous, dispite the romance of our trip that sometimes comes across this website.  Biking is sometimes dirty, dangerous, and uncomfortable (What?! You mean you have to use your own energy and muscles to propel yourself?)  But in the end, IT IS SO WORTH IT.  Until we have solar and wind produced electric cars, street cars, and light rails, riding bicycles instead of driving the internal combustion engine whenever possible is KEY to slowing and eventually stopping the Climate Crisis in the next 20 years.  We hope that our (rather extreme) example of how effective bicycles are in human (and luggage) transport may encourage you to keep that car of yours parked a little longer between outings.

Although our stay at the Landmark was very nice (after we worked through several staff people over the course of 1 hour to figure out where we could park our bikes) and we are SO GREATFUL to Kevin and Kaishan for their generous gift to us of 2 nights stay during their wedding, I realized that we have something in common with the jobless migrants sleeping out on the streets.  Its a common human weakness to judge someone by their outward appearance instead of a person’s internal character, but it must be overcome.  In modern China, image and surface looks are everything.  I’ve found the impression or illusion of quality is more important than there infact being quality.  One of Gandhi’s profound role models taught him this key life lesson, the role model himself wearing simple and rather dirty clothes daily.  Looking down upon people sleeping in the street, on people with the courage to try to better their lives through their own initiative and effort, leaving families behind, standing up to try to participate in some small way in China’s booming economy to balance the dangerously enormous income gap, is illogical and void of compassion and empathy.  Some Landmark Hotel staff may have looked down on me in a similar way because I don’t fit their image of a wealthy guest.  I’m foreign, yes, but…dirty shirt and arrived on a bike?  Confusion.   

2am walking the 5km back to the Landmark from an Irish pub the wedding party had migrated too late in the afternoon upon Adam’s insistence of not taking a taxi (The dirty “T” word), two women pulled me aside while I was ahead of the group.  At first moving their fists to their mouths, I thought they were thirsty, so I offered them my bottle of water.  No, not thirsty.  When they learned I speak Chinese, the sharades ended and they clearly told me that they were hungry.  Although most migrant workers are male, they’d just come to Guangzhou alone several days earlier from the countryside looking for work, but unfortunately hadn’t found any yet.  Their money had run out, most having been spent on their standing train tickets.  Having become a bit leery of giving cash to beggars in Beijing, I offered to go with them to a store to buy them food.  Half expecting them to tell me to forget it, they eagerly agreed.  So we walked about a block and found a latenight pulled-noodle restaurant.  They sat down at a small table in a corner, obviously embarraced in front of the restaurant boss as I ordered for them.  I ordered the standard beef noodels for them, just a hair over US50 cents a bowl.  It was late, I was tired from walking.  I didn’t sit down to talk more with them, though I wish I would’ve had the energy.  They smiled and thanked me, I wished them well.  Walking back I wondered if 1 bowl each would be enough.  Could I have helped them any more?  I worry about them, 2 women without work in a large city, in a country with plenty of prostitution for its overly male population due to years of selective abortion favoring boy-children in a 1 child policy environment.  They’re just 2 of countless others.  2 I had the honor of meeting, God bless them on their own journeys.

Interesting how Guangzhou’s migrants’ stories sound so similar to that of my great great great grandfather who immigrated to the US from Germany in the early 1860s at the age of 21.  And so similar to the stories of today’s Mexicans, South Americans, Somali, Hmong, etc in the US, and Eastern Europeans in Western Europe…

In the end, people are people - 人就是人。Its unfortuante so often our own identy depends on creating divisions, building walls, spreading sepratism in the form of loving those similar to ourselves and hating those perceived to be dissimilar.  Us and Them.  And though our identies are not identical, as John Denver sings in his Season Suite, “Yet as different as we are, we’re still the same!” At the very least, we may offer mutual respect to our fellow humanbeings.

Ms. Qiu

Thursday, November 22nd, 2007

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Meihua lies in the mountains on the border between Guangdong and Hunan provinces. It looks like a small village, but it crawls and winds its way up valleys and around stream beds, so it balloons outward into a much larger city than you would expect. Rice fields and vegetable plots surround it wherever sharply rising hills prevent Meihua’s expansion. While wandering around these fields, Adam and I saw a woman harvesting sweet potatoes. We at Fueledbyrice have always felt a special connection with sweet potatoes, alternately known in the North and South of China as digua and hongshu respectively, and lacking many chances to speak with people other than restaurateurs and innkeepers, we decided to approach her.

The woman, who seeemed to be about 40, wore a concave woven straw hat of the the sort widely associated with Southeast Asian rice farmers, a white, long-sleeved well-worn shirt, black trousers and pink plastic shoes. She didn’t look up as we approached, but continued digging. We said hello, and she shyly smiled and returned our greeting. She slowly stood up, and politely inquired if we were here touring. “Yes,” I said, “we’re doing a bike trip. This area is quite beautiful.” “But, this area isn’t very fun,” she protested, and gesturing to the road, said “it’s dusty and dirty.”

We inquired about the tubers she was harvesting as she pryed the last few out of the ground and threw them into her shoulder-pole baskets. They were indeed hongshu. Then hesitantly, looking at us out of the corner of her eye, she queried “Are you foreigners?” We confessed that yes, we were.

She also gathered up the leaves from the sweet potato plants and threw them into her baskets. In Hunan, farmers feed these greens to their pigs, so I asked her if they did the same in Guangdong, but it didn’t translate very well. “Are you asking me how many children I have? asked the lady, whose name was Qiu. That question was in a much more interesting question, so I said yes. “I have four,” she said. “That’s great,” we rejoined. “No,” she said, laughing “it’s awful.” I couldn’t quite catch her response to my question why.

She finished gathering up the leaves and tossed them into her baskets. “Do you want some sweet potatoes?” she asked us. “Oh no,” we responded, “we’ve just eaten, we’re quite full.” “Ah, but these sweet potatoes are great, they’re very delicious,” she reached into her basket and rummaged around, bringing out 2 huge sweet potatoes. We felt we could do nothing but accept them graciously. “Here,” said Ms. Qiu, reaching again into her basket and grabbing two more huge sweet potatoes from among the many small ones, “give some to your friends too.”

Before she left, I asked if I could get a picture with her. “Eh, why do you want a picture with me?” she resisted, “I’m nothing great to look at. I’m wearing this hat. It looks terrible.” “No,” I tried to reassure her, “it’s a great hat.” “Look,” I continued, pointing at Adam’s baseball cap, “he wears a hat too. No problem.” I cajoled her into taking a picture the same way she cajoled me into taking her hongshu.

Finally it was time to go. She collected her hoe, slipped her shoulder pole underneath the handles on her baskets and hefted them up. They must have weighed about fifty pounds, but she maneuvered through the fields and back to the road easily. We walked with her a ways. She rotated the pole around her shoulders to keep the weight from resting on one spot or to make room for dump trucks full of school children trying to pass. She reached her turnoff, we bade her good-bye, and that was that.

Because of her wide smile and quiet jokes, Ms. Qiu will stand out in my mind when I reflect back on my reactions with Chinese farmers. However, she is also a good example of the huge demographic known as the “Chinese peasant”. Despite their relative lack of means, their position on the lower side of the increasingly huge wealth gap in China, and their very hard lives, Chinese farmers are some of the most friendly and hospitable people I know of.

Around China migrant laborers, who are almost always farmers trying to make more money by coming to the city and working construction, get a bad rap. City dwellers often cautioned me against interacting too much with the supposedly criminally disposed migrant workers. However, I find the people at the lower end of the income scale to be some of the most hospitable in all of China. Perhaps it’s because they don’t have much to do, or perhaps it’s because they don’t have money to worry about spending. Or perhaps it’s just because their lack of possessions leave them better able to see other people as humans. Whatever the reason, my interaction with Ms. Qiu will remind me to slow down and treat people as people with respect and not as obstacles. At least so long as I’m in the country-side.


Fear, or the lack there of

Wednesday, November 21st, 2007

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Fear, they say, the people who appear in books, the people who author life, they, say, should speed one up, say, dilate the pupils, hasten the synapses, quicken the pace at which the heart squeezes the blood like a fist around a throat, or a fist around the pole of a revolutionary flag, a fist thrust upward, the direction of blood after it is deflated of oxygen, its second trip around the body.

Fear, they, say, if done right, ought to catapult a country into a full-fledged war, pink and brown and sand-colored fists thrusting the sky as if to beat the blue pulp out of it, pulverize it to red dust, the ground that was made to sleep at its feet like a dog without a name, sleeping on the doormat on the other, wetter side of the door.  Then ground and sky would have the same genitalia, the same initials: D.S. Dirty Sky. And where is the mystery in that? Where exactly would the unknown be if I’ve already seen yours and you’ve already seen mine?

I wondered this, nonchalantly, too nonchalantly, in the tiny room with the old yellow sheet thrown on the lumpy lofty bed on the fifth floor of a dirty apartment in Guanzhou, the new town, with the old smell of Garlic and methane flowing through the pipes of neighboring apartments.

I remember Beijing in these smells. When Drew and I moved from the college area to Downtown, the place where grown ups played. We liked this apartment because we had Chinese neighbors who would try to converse with us in the elevator, whose plastic garbage bag smells and after lunch breath smells we would get accustomed to. We liked that we could turn something so old and minty green into a kitchen. That we could scrape the grease layers from the stove and wipe the dust from the exposed pipes and hang our own useful things like towels and gloves and pictures from the newly whiter walls, and cook up our own garlicky, oniony, sugary, cofeeish, honeyfied smells that deafened the memories of past tenants into a dog’s whimper on the other, wetter side of the door.  

Life was slow then. We woke up wandering. Wandering up from our beds with the thin skin of sleep still stretched on our eyelids like a tent moistened by morning fog. Wandering to the bathroom to empty the remnants of sleep from our bladders. Wandering through the emptiness of the living room wondering where to place ourselves so that when the other person emerged from their bedroom they wouldn’t enter on the wrong side and set each other on an offbeat, wrong feet wrong shoes. The morning is tender. The night is more clearly defined.

I told the man in Guanzhou in a clear, tired voice, that I didn’t want to sleep with him.

I had arrived here by bus an hour before the sun went back to its velvet draped room to brood, and rode my bike, weighed down by luggage like an eleven year old girl with new breasts, for 4 hours looking for the cheap inns, the ones I was accustomed to paying 10 kwai a person for. I had been forewarned that Guanzhou was almost as big as Beijing so the likelihood of finding a cheap hotel might be slim, but thought I would emulate my friends’ unstinting, fist-thrusting, persistence, to find a bargain.  Hong Kong and a new visa has already started the slow torturous job of gnawing my bank account to green digital threads that translate to 0 balance in an ATM’s brittle ears.

It was speed that brought me here. 

Speed without the fear. Velocity. Torque. A roll roll roll. A swirl swirl girly whirl. A swivel and a curl that sent me tumbling down the sharp hill on the small country road that mirrored the interstate to Guanzhou. We had climbed, slowly, painfully, 16km up up up to reach the last fingertips of climax, before the road would begin its wobbly downward tumble into the flat, hillless southern end of Guandong province, its spiral into Guanzhou. We didn’t anticipate (who could?) the sudden slide into ecstasy.

I knew I was about to fall the minute my front handle bars began to rumble like a belly ache deep below me, a muscle spasm that I couldn’t reach, couldn’t control. My bike was detaching itself from my body because I hadn’t pressed the breaks soon enough after starting downward, hadn’t given it any warning. I knew I was about to fall and was trying to calculate where exactly to fling my body and where to place my limbs to achieve the least amount of impact.

I flew. Sideways vision. Sky curving. Silver and black pebbled.  Horizontal road. Blackness. Zip. Whiteness. Zip. I am on a porch being cleaned by Jim. I am cold. We go inside a place where there is a pile of women and children arranged across from me like a pyramid, a portrait hanging on a wall with eyes that follow moving bodies.  I am watching them watching me wash my wounds with tears. I lift my shirt and Jim says, “Ohhh.” There is pain. I weep. There are talks of raspberries and boiled water. I want some. Boiled water inside my cold, shivering body. 

We spend the next 2 days in a small town in the mountains where I am under diligent supervision, Jim and Drew taking turns redoing my bandages. I hobble up the stairs of our inn slowly, feeling all the inches and millimeters where skin moves over muscle, rediscovering through pain all the points where my body is connected. I touch my face, and for the first time realize that it did not go unscathed. There is hardened flesh smeared from my lips to my cheek, which is fatter now. There is a bandage on my cheekbone. I feel colder.

Drew says I walk like a gangster. It hurts to laugh. All the boys curl up around my cracked body seeping into gauze like moist cold, like winters in Tropical countries where the cold creeps into your coat, like The Bahamas, which is still warm enough to wear flip flops and tank tops now. They watch movies with me as my body begins its healing process. They send me ahead on a bus to Guanzhou, our destination, the place of a friends’ wedding we’re invited to attend, scared for me to ride again.

 The bus rides at 4 times the speed of a bike (80 km an hour), giving me know time to admire the river slicing through the sandy mountain cliffs.

But I am not scared. No fear to deliver me from the slow, achy movements above my bike. I am chary and unsteady, my bike and I getting to know each other again after the obliterating crash that split us apart. I ride slowly, aware of what accidents can do to bodies, darting between the wheels of buses and the curbs of sidewalks, slicing through the electrified, carbon emitted city heat that pisses on my legs like a dog tired of sleeping on the other, wetter side of a door.

I am slow, getting slower, more exhausted. So that when the man flags me down on the fourth hour of my hotel search, I think that he is just trying to practice his English and that he is just excited to meet a foreigner, like the people in the countryside who fawn over us, treating us like royalty because we are new. I stop my bike, unnew, dented, wreckage weighed down by bags, my body, unnew, dented, wreckage seeping into sagging bandages.

Fear quickens you.  Exhaustion slows you down.

He says that I can stay at his place tonight. I am amazed at my luck and ask him if I can pay. He says it’s ok. I’m exhausted and it is 9:30pm. He rolls my bike along, lifts it up to the fifth floor of his smoke-webbed apartment that has smells of Beijing in it, opens the door to his room, puts my bags down on the floor and puts his arms around my waist, one of them on the raspberry gash in my side. I flinch and tell him that I do not want to sleep with him and that I have an American boyfriend who is 198cm tall (In case of any misunderstanding, Peter is NOT my boyfriend). He says that he has many girlfriends and that he likes foreign girls. He lays his hand on my wound again. I show him the dressing and he tries to touch the skin around it. I pick up Drew’s phone (which I have with me for safety) and threaten to call my 198cm boyfriend who is on his way to Guanzhou. He relents, and I roll my things back down the stairs nonchalantly, too nonchalantly, suddenly no longer feeling the pain in the wound on my waist.

I descend into the hot night city air that hovers like a ghost in an alleyway, like the sour, hot breath of a man on heat. I am not scared. Nothing in me quickens or thrusts fists. I am not even angry. The city is like other cities – busied into fluorescent haze like a techno music video, silhouetted bodies popping and locking against blazing advertisements and moving subway trains.

I consider sleeping at a net bar and breathing in cigarette smoke as i dosed in front of a computer screen for 8 hours. I consider going to a 24-hour McDonald’s where i can block the flourescent light out with my sleeping mask and use my laptop bag as a pillow. There is a park across the street and I am tempted to go sleep in it. Anything seems a better alternative to what I just experienced.

I go for one last ride around the block and find a hotel for 100 kwai. I weigh this against the park option and decide it’s worth it to have a clean, private place in which to change my bandages.

I stay inside the hotel for the whole next day feeling empty and cold. Feeling slow and limp.  My thoughts are blurred by the blue underwater haze of too much sleep. The only thing reminding me that I am alive is the pain reawakened in the naked flesh in my side that glimmers like a diamond medallion in the sunlight beaming down from the one window of my hotel room.


Tuesday, November 20th, 2007

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We often blog about past experiences, personal insight, and meeting people.  For those of you who are wondering about more specific details of the trip this blog is meant as an update of our current status and foreseeable plans in the future.

Right now we are in northern Guangdong province and are working our way south towards Guangzhou.  This weekend we will be attending Kevin Clancy’s wedding reception in Guangzhou, Kevin is a fellow St. John’s alumni and currently works in Hong Kong.  From there we will be heading to Hong Kong for approximately one week, we will take care of a number of things such as obtaining visas, purchasing some much needed supplies, and resting.  

We are currently holding to our plan of biking around 75 km a day with a rest day every 5 days or so.  Lately we have been going through some pretty mountainous terrain and have been getting both large up hills and down hills.  There are a lot of forested areas with a good mix of both deciduous and coniferous trees.  We began to come out of the mountains today and are quickly finding it more sub-tropical.  Bannana trees and sugar cane fields are becoming much more abundant.    

From Hong Kong we plan on heading west towards Vietnam.  A number of our Chinese Visas will expire soon after the new year so we will have to make it to the Vietnam border by then.  

Our plan is then to continue west to Laos, south to Cambodia, then west to Thailand rounding out our SE Asia tour.  After researching many different sources, talking with officials, fellow bikers, and posting questions on online forums we have come to the conclusion that it is not possible to cross any borders into Myanmar.  We will however continue to monitor the situation and highlight issues that we think are important once we are in the region. 

We aren’t quite sure what Thanksgiving will be like for us, most likely biking towards Guangzhou to get there in time for the wedding.  We are thinking of our families and loved ones however, along with the food we are missing out on.  Turkeys, or huo ji 火鸡 are relatively uncommon in China, maybe a chicken or a duck will have to suffice.  We are thinking maybe we will celebrate it in Hong Kong when we have access to an oven.

We have been mixing in more camping lately instead of just staying in LuGuans.  We have found the reception in China very warm to camping and people allow us to camp pretty much anywhere we ask.  We attempt to find secluded places, usually away from towns and busy roads.  Sometimes locals come to chat and see what is going on, but no one seems to have the same attachment to personal property in China as people do in America.  In a country where most things are either shared or communal  it is not surprising and really comforting.


Saturday, November 17th, 2007

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现在在世界上,环保是一个越来越热闹的想法. 我们在路上碰到了很多别的要保护环境的人. 最近我们在湖南马田带过一个夜. 那个时候我们住在一个酒店的住宿. 我们刚才到了以后我跟老板说话. 他也很主张环保, 他也作过自行车旅行, 所以他对我们的活动很有意思。我们洗澡的时候他告诉我们他要请我们在他酒店的饭店吃饭. 我们肯定同意跟他吃饭. 吃饭的时候, 我们讨论的题目不少. 他的名字叫留先生. 他介绍了一下他以前做的自行车旅程. 他一前骑自行车到过广州. 我问他, 解决环保的问题, 让更多骑自行车, 怎么办? 他给我说, 关于这个问题, 没有很多办法, 你们最好就骑, 示范骑自行车是一个很好的交通的办法.

现在马田的经济发展得比较快. 原因是近有一个新开的煤矿, 所以现在对经济有很好的影响,但是也对环境有影响. 难怪离马田近的路那么脏, 那么灰尘的. 刘先生告诉我们一个成语:”靠山,吃山;靠水, 吃水”. 意思就是马田现在靠煤矿. 找不到别的发展经济的方式的话,煤矿开矿完了以后, 就会吃苦难. 受刘先生的客气和劝告我们很高兴. 我喜欢马田和全世界能找一个比煤好得多的能源的原来.



A humorous encounter

Saturday, November 17th, 2007

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Biking along the dreadful G107 last week we, as usual, decided to stop for lunch somewhere around mid-day at a roadside restaurant.  This particular place was perhaps a little nicer than the ones we usually stop at, but it would work all the same.  There were a number of tables filled with Chinese people playing cards and smoking cigarettes.  We took the table near the front window as usual so as to be able to watch our bicycles.  

We ordered a number of dishes, mostly delicious.  There was one soup however that we ordered that we weren’t too sure of its contents, some mystery fish, the taste ended up being a little less tasty than we had hoped.  We are generally really good at making sure we eat all of the food we order, with Pete reigning chairman of the clean plate club, with this being only the second dish we have not finished on this trip.  Anyway while trying it Pete found something floating in it, small, black, with wings, and probably packed with protein.  A fly of course, not too big of a deal, yet kind of funny all the same. 

When we were paying Pete jokingly told the boss that we did not eat the soup because it had a bug in it so the meal it should be cheaper.  The boss looked a little confused, looked into the soup, stirred it around a bit and said in a very serious tone “no this isn’t bug soup, it’s fish soup.”

We all thought it was pretty funny, as if it were  a perfectly normal thing to accidentally bring a bug soup to the dinner table.  Well maybe I found it a bit more funny than the rest but humor can be contagious. 

For the record it is not a common thing to see bugs on the menu in China and I have never seen a bug soup, but Nakia and I did try deep fried silk worms once. 


Another Night With the Cops

Friday, November 16th, 2007

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Note: While this will be posted November 15th, it actually concerns events that happened a few weeks ago.

After a long day of biking nearly 100km through the mountains, checking on the status of train tickets, and conducting an exhaustive luguan (cheap hotel) search, we gathered around the steps of the one we had selected in the small but dusty city of Jingdezhen. Our legs ached. Night had fallen half an hour earlier and the bustling streets filled with food vendors reminded us we had yet to eat. We all anticipated getting our equipment hauled up the narrow stairs, ourselves showered, and digging into a Chinese feast.

As usual a crowd of curious onlookers had gathered around where we were marshaling our material in front of the luguan in preparation for bringing it upstairs. People politely stood off to the side, looking and sometimes trying to speak to us in order to determine who these strange-looking folks with loads of odd equipment were and why they would ever choose to come to such a place as Jingdezhen. We answered questions as we unpacked, but suddenly one large, aggressive man in a nylon warm-up suit with buzzed hair broke through the crowd and confronted Drew. He stood close-by and bellowed“Where are you from, where are you from? What are you doing here? What are you doing?” so loudly that his voice resembled the horns of one of the many cars trying to get through the traffic jam we involuntarily cause every time we stop. He continued yelling when Drew, busy with un-attaching his bags, paid him no mind. I had half a mind to brusquely step in front of him and inquire if screaming was his idea of being polite. But no matter, he soon strode off, talking on his cell phone, and we managed to load up the rest of the luggage.

When I came down to pay for the room, I found the man in the warm-up suit and buzzed hair sitting with the boss. I gave the money we’d agree to pay to the boss, who gave it to the buzz cut, who gave it back to the boss, who gave it back to me. “Wait a moment,” said the boss, “you can pay after you register.” Great, I thought. Registering at hotels in China is required by law for every person each night they stay in a hotel, just like it’s required that every computer user at an internet bar register with their personal identification card number. Usually innkeepers don’t require foreigners to register, but sometimes it turns in to an exhaustive process where other parties are summoned to do the registering, multiple records are created for each person, and a copy of everyone’s documents are made. My worst fear (the cops themselves coming) evoked when the innkeeper told me to wait for someone else to come.

I sat down with the innkeeper and the buzzcut and waited. Soon a man with black slacks, a white button-down shirt, a high quality leather jacket, and the ubiquitous man purse toted by most Chinese middle-upper class men. He came in and sat down, and everyone else stood up. “Can I see your passport?” asked the man. “You are…” I prompted him, and he pulled out his police I.D. card. Outstanding. I produced my passport, and the man examined it. In the meantime the innkeeper whispered something to his 14 year old daughter, who rummaged through a box and brought out an unopened case of cigarettes. She opened them and handed one full pack towards the police officer, but her father snatched it away. He opened it up, knocked one cigarette half out of the pack, and offered it himself to the police officer, who accepted it.

“Why don’t we go to your room?” said the officer, to me. “This place is alright,” I said, indicating our current surroundings. “No, it’s ok,” said the officer, “it’s not a problem, let’s go to your room.” So we climbed the stairs and went to my room, where he told me I could sit down. “You sit down,” said I. He stood and examined my passport.

“Foreigners can’t stay here,” he said. The buzz cut entered our room, smoking a cigarette, and sat down on the bed. “What isn’t safe?” I inquired of the leather jacketed officer. “Your foreigners,” buzz cut broke in, “you’ll go out and people will know your not Chinese.” “So what?” asked I. “It’s not safe,” rejoined the officer, who was calling someone on his phone. He finished his call and pointed to place on my visa where it lists the date I obtained it. “This is the date you came into China,” he half-questioningly said. I started to lose my patience. “No,” I explained in a long sentence of quick elocution and no breaths, “that’s the date I got the visa, before I come to China I must have a visa so of course the date I got it will be earlier than the date I came to China.” “I know, I know,” said the officer. He sat down on the bed and contemplated the passport to see what else he knew.

He talked on the phone. The buzz cut watched TV. My stomach growled. “Foreigners cannot stay at this place,” said the cop again, “You should stay at a bigger, nicer hotel.” “We won’t stay at a nicer hotel,” I said, “so you’re going to throw us out on the street and make us sleep out there?” “No, no no,” said the cop, slowly shaking his head with the frustration of speaking to someone who doesn’t understand, “it’s not safe here.” “What isn’t safe?” I demanded. “This is just a private operation,” cut in the buzz cut, “they don’t have guards here like they do at bigger hotels.” “Well,” said Drew in English, “did you tell them we brought a lot of guns for our own protection?” I laughed. Possessing firearms in China carries a minimum sentence of fifteen years, or so I’ve been told.

“We’re calling the police commander,” says the buzz cut. “He’ll tell you about some safe things,” says the officer. Perfect. So we sit and wait. “You don’t understand, this area isnt really safe,” claims the police officer again. I’m getting fed up. “So there have been a lot of other foreigners who’ve been murdered here, then?” I ask, unleashing the worst of my sarcasm. “No, no no, it’s not like that,” says the cop, it’s just not safe. In the meantime I’ve gotten all the passports from everybody and the cop is slowly going through each one, stumbling between expired visas and English words he doesn’t understand. He asks me the same questions, over and over again. Where are you going? When did you enter China? Where did you stay last night? Buzz cut sits on the bed watching TV and smoking.

Footsteps sound on the stair and a new man with short hair, expensive clothes, and the arrogant air of the accidentally wealthy enters the room. Ah yes, the police commander. “Where you doing,” he greets me with appalling English. I look at the other cop, “What’s he talking about?” I ask in Chinese, volubly aware that not addressing the commander insults him. The commander takes the passports and looks at them as he smokes, one by one. We converse briefly in Chinese, with the newest arrival asking the same questions as his lower ranking counterpart, but in a more intolerable manner. “You, how many,” he breaks into English again. Both Adam and I answer at the same time in Chinese, Adam answering the question “How many people are you?” and me answering “How many nights are you staying here?”. Adam laughs. “Speak Chinese,” he tells our would-be English speaker. The man does, and we find out the question he was trying to ask was actually “How much money do you usually spend on a hotel room?” We tell him, and he looks through the passports again. He and the other two men converse in intelligible dialect. Obviously they are all locals.

Finally the lower cop draws some forms out of his man purse and starts to slowly, slowly fill them out. At this point we’ve all showered and are just waiting, our stomachs growling and a distaste for bureaucracy palpable on our sadly otherwise unoccupied palates. First the commander takes his stately leave of us. Then the cop finally manages to stumble through filling out the forms. Then it’s just us and buzz cut.

He tells us he’ll help us find a restaurant, a proposition to which we are not at all keen to accept. However, it doesn’t seem like we have much choice. As we walk around the streets, he tells us he has the mysterious job of “being responsible for this area”. He keeps his distance and doesn’t force a restaurant choice on us. Finally we find one and he ensures that the boss won’t overcharge us, and takes off, having made a somewhat graceful exit to perhaps the two most frustrating hours of the trip so far.

For us, Hunan was a mostly cop-free experience. We saw traffic officers at checkpoints who returned our waves with smiles, we asked street cops for directions who always helpfully obliged. I would like to emphasize that Chinese policemen usually make for pleasant interactions. But we found a slightly different situation in the hinterlands of Anhui and Jiangxi provinces. Quite often we were not allowed to stay at otherwise suitable luguans. Other times we had to spend the evening with the cops, filling out paperwork. Other times the innkeepers themselves had to go to some expense and trouble to copy or scan our documents.

The reason for these proceedings remains unclear. Cheaper luguans used to be completely unavailable to foreigners in China. Presumably the thinking was that foreigners should stay at more expensive places so they only see the best side of China, and so they leave more money behind. Now that it’s legal for foreigners to stay at most of these places, it’s unclear why some police departments demand that the otherwise silly paperwork be filled out. Perhaps they are really concerned about being responsible for foreigners staying at hotels without guards. Perhaps it’s simply left over thinking from the bad old days.

In any case, the effect for us is the same. We spend more time filling paperwork that will never serve a purpose. In the meantime we’re glad that the cops we deal with are polite, not brutal. We can also be thankful that it is only when staying in luguans where cops have sway over us, and that we can return to countries where our speech and family planning are not also managed by the government.


Thursday, November 15th, 2007

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Mould makes me cringe. I have a psychological reaction to it like some people do to the sight of raw fruit being bitten into. It is my one and only request when we stay at hostels in China: “Is there mould on the walls?”

About a month ago ago, we were in a town I did not like. It made me itch. The walls of our rooms were white, but mouldy. I stared down at the market below, waiting for rain and watching women whose faces had been blanched by make up too white for their complexion, their eyes shimmering with mint green eye shadow. They were feisty though, and this gave their widened eyes enough color to be convincing as they rambled about below yelling at street vendors over Chinese veggie pancakes. I stole glimpses of them from behind the predatory mist.

I’ve heard that it is a law in the United States to repaint the walls of an apartment after a tenant moves out. To start out fresh, white and mouldless. I think of this wistfully beneath the safety of the white comforters. Peter said that there is mould in the bathroom of the next room and that I should steer clear of it due to my “problem”.

I shudder at the sound of the word cracking like sunflower shells in my ear.

This is sensory overload. Density of life (Kundera). Too many things coming at me at once. This is China. TIC. Better keep it in its acronym form, or else images will burn your mouth like a steaming baozi eaten too soon. Like a high orange persimmon broken into with teeth. Orange innards gushing everywhere like a late morning sun just breaking through the clouds. Like my bladder after fighting with it for an hour before getting up to pee at 5am.

China is like this. Unsolicited intimacy like flies crowding a table full of food you want to eat. Over lunch, we talk about them cathartically as if to face our outhouse fears where the dark holes in the ground hum with wet moving things. Dogs step on our feet looking for food beneath the table and cats scratch their flees against our legs as they chase rats, which they will devour wholly, mirroring us as we hold our chopsticks of glistening pork midway to our mouths, watching carefully. They remind us of the life that used to be lived in the morsel of meat neatly sliced and stir-fried with lively peppers and carrots that make our mouths hang open, slobbering with anticipation.

This morning, I stopped, stunned at an orange cat holding gray, anemic eyes into its smushed misshapen head. I remember the head of my childhood cat that seemed bilious and bony when wet. She hated water, and shivered and sneezed, and hated us for washing her. We loved her more in this emaciated state, and gave her kitty desserts when she was dry.

Life is short. Even cats slip and die on cow blood as we sit and watch through the steam of noodles we blow at before eating. Hot breakfasts take the edge off.

We ate five feet away from a bucket of crimson blood sitting silently like paint before the paint thinner is added. A pig’s four hooves lay broken and exposed on a table next to it. I followed the sallow pink to breathing red to greasy gray to an endless market of hooves and legs that fuzzed into a lentil salad of flesh and silver knives and the slowing lives of cold fish sliced open, their gills still flapping as if they do not know they are dead.

Everything is out in the open.

Mingy chickens dart around gas stations poking the dirt for bugs. Dead pigs are held upside down by four men washing the dirt from their bellies, scarlet blood dried up on their snouts like smudged lipstick. Heads of pigs look upward from kitchen floors with the hallowed eyes of scared ghosts as we snap pictures from the balcony, feeling big like the friends of boxers. Cows lay stretched from skin to skin on the black asphalt, darkening the city dirt with their smeared blood. Animals take up little space when they die. Everything is eaten.

Then we shit them out and fertilize cabbage, a dish we’ve been eating a lot of lately.
Everything is out in the open.

Like the fat rolls in my midriff that deepen in ashen folds when I look backwards into the mirror to examine my weight. Sometimes I reach around to touch them incredulous that they are there: enough fat to make secrets in my skin. Dark secrets. Like the cabbage I ate for lunch yesterday. I shiver, invading myself with cold fingers and cold reality.

We pee out into the open. The boys can do it standing up and into the air with perfect aim, sometimes from the peak of a mountain as they make echoes with their voices into the hallow humanless valley. I have to look for dry bushes, sometimes dried trash. 2 weeks ago, I crawled beneath a bridge and found a dried out, cracked leather belt near a trail of needles that once tapped dried flaky skin for red blood. I made a neat puddle next to them, careful not to get the dusty blankets at the edge of the platform wet, conscious that there is human life here, however faint. However hidden in the nook beneath a bridge.

Something flapped in me like a page of an open book flailing in the breeze. Something cracked. I’ve been cracked. My defenses weakening.The walls between me and China are eroding like a Bahamian shoreline after a hurricane has smeared its white sand onto the black road blocking the passage of SUV’s freshly washed by joonsers with bare backs and teeth that have rotted from thier mouths.

I cringe daily.