I wrote an article for my hometown paper, The Enterprise. You can find this article on the Media page, but I thought I might as well post it here, too.
Published Dec. 26, 2007, in The Livingston Enterprise, Livingston, Montana
Bicyclists soak up China knowledge - literally
EDITOR’S NOTE: Former Livingston resident Jim Durfey, a 2000 Park High School graduate, has been bicycling through Asia with a group of friends. Below is an un update on their journey. The Enterprise will periodically post his accounts of the trek.
By Jim Durfey
For The Enterprise
CHINA - On our third day biking out of Beijing, the rain started. We stopped to spread waterproofing over our luggage and ourselves. I was already so soaked, I forewent my raincoat. The rain only pelted down faster. It seemed to rise up out of the ground and gush out of our fenders. We couldn’t ride behind each other. Earlier we had found a road built on top of a dike. The water pooled in the road. Cars passing us created wakes over a foot high. “Gosh,” said Drew, one of my fellow riders, “for being on a dike, we sure are wet.”
When my friends and I decided to bike from Beijing, China, to Paris, France, biking on a flooded dike wasn’t what we had in mind. We were hoping for knowledge. We wanted to know of Asia and its people what you can’t get learn from a book. We counted on surprises. But what continues to surprise me is the extent to which biking forces knowledge on you, whether you like it or not. After the rainstorm, I had soaked up so much knowledge about weather in Northeast China, my hands looked like I’d swum across the Yellow River.
Until we began the trip, we were unaware of the sorts of knowledge available for those willing to bicycle across a country. As we biked south, we ignored fluctuations in crops and harvest times at our peril. Fields alive with the excitement of harvest made for great views. But farmers spread crops like rice on the road to dry. Swerving around a pile of corn forces one to note details bus or train passengers might miss.
I have also ground up the muscle-burning hills of Southern China on a bike. Only Lance Armstrong and people using motor vehicles fail to notice hills. As we drifted south, the crops tended towards rice as the landscape tended away from flat. In Guangdong Province, in the deep south, banana trees and sugar cane greeted us. We knew we had successfully escaped snow.
Foreigners in China cannot escape becoming celebrities. At least they can’t if they travel in groups of five on heavily loaded bicycles to areas rarely visited by foreigners. Last week, I stood in front of a crowd of 500-some high school students. The headmaster of the school had asked that I come and speak. I have no qualifications to address such a crowd, but merely being a foreigner in China exposes one to such opportunities. Lack of credentials withstanding, I explained our reasons for doing the trip.
“We want to increase understanding between our two and other countries,” I said in English, and then translated into Chinese when the students claimed they didn’t understand.
I threw in a bit about not merely worrying about money when it came to goals in life. And so goes my public speaking career.
Everywhere we go, large numbers of people gather around us. School children mob our tables when we eat. They follow us back to our cheap accommodations for the night. Mostly, they’re curious. I often answer the same questions over and over again. However, with celebrity comes added hospitality.
In between the north and south, one Mr. Deng invited us into his house for tea. I was tired and wanted to go bed, but he made it hard to refuse. We sat down with him and drank Wulong tea. One of the finer brands of Chinese tea, Wulong tea leaves are pressed together after harvest, aged, and form hard chunks. A unique characteristic of Wulong tea is that the flavor becomes stronger the more times you steep it. As he poured it, Mr. Deng explained how the tea we were drinking symbolized friendship.
“At first,” he said, “the flavor is very light, just like when we first met we were reserved. But with each steeping it gets stronger,” he continued, “just like we open up and connect with each other the longer we know each other.”
Long-term relationships, unfortunately, are not facilitated by living in a different city, village, or rice paddy every night. My four friends and I have other plans for our lives. We can’t bike forever. But while the trip lasts, we will bike through Southeast Asia, India, and perhaps beyond. Whatever situation we find ourselves in, we will continue trying to extract all of its flavor in whatever time we have.
We will probably run into more tea and more rain. We’ll do our best to experience both fully and report back. But for the experience itself, we have only our bikes and our hosts to thank.
Former Livingston resident Jim Durfey, right, talks with Chinese people curious about his bike trip across Asia with friends. Photo courtesy of Jim Durfey (actually taken by Peter Ehresmann).