Bicycle Around the World


Index: Letters By Date | A Unique Opportunity | The Last (?) Bike Ride
August 1, 2002

You Can't Get There From Here

After I thought about what I wrote about below, I began to realize that it is time to be gone from China. It is a great place for adventures,
and the people really are friendly and helpful, but eventually it gets to you. When I was living in Lanzhou at the turn of the decade (the end
of the eighties and the beginning of the nineties) the native-English speakers got together quite often to share experiences. It wasn't long
before these get-togethers turned into gripe sessions. Since we were all there of our own free will, and maybe should go home if we didn't
like it there, we instituted a new rule that complaining was no longer allowed. But if you had a good story, we all wanted to hear it. So,
please read these reports as good stories, not as complaints.
July 31, 2002 - from AnZoa (or Anze, depending on which map you look at), a county town about 70km east of the bigger city of LinFen in
central ShanXi Province.
But first, how I met the Swiss cyclists and other things that I got when I needed them.
When you ask a Chinese for directions, you can never be sure if you will end up where you want to be, which is why I usually ask the same
thing again further along to make sure that I am going the right way.
Besides the way that I entered FuXian, where I sent my previous newsletter, there are three main ways out. One goes to north YanAn, the
communist headquarters, another south to Xian (Terra cotta warriors), and a third east on route number 309 that I have been on since the day
I left Lanzhou. There is also a local road that goes south to who knows what villages in that area. During supper the day before I left, the
proprietress phoned her husband to come see the foreigner. He came and very shortly exhausted my limited vocabulary. Then he asked if it would
be OK with me to have my picture taken. While we were waiting for the photographer to show up, I asked about the road to Xian - because the
map shows it and my road running together for a while. But the road to Xian and the direction Xian is in (south) aren't the same. From that
conversation I get the direction to Xian.
The next morning I headed south - in the direction of Xian - on the main street where my hotel and everything else were. I should have
realized sooner that such a road would have lots of truck and bus traffic - but here there was none. I was on the local road to who knows
what villages. Finally just as I was leaving town I decided that I had better ask if this was the road to Xian - and it wasn't, so I
backtracked all the way to the beginning of the main street where I was when I came into town two days earlier. There the main road goes under
the railroad tracks - just like it shows on the map, and enters another whole separate section of town. Finally the road to YanAn branches off
to the north, and I am almost on my way.
Just after that, there is a road sign with an arrow pointing to YiChuan, and a number telling how far. There are not many such in
China, so when I get one I stop to check my map, and to write the number of the distance marker that I should expect when I get there.
This has been important ever since Saryozek in Kazakstan, where my odometer quit working due to faulty installation of the wiring back in
There I was writing in my map, when this little kid comes running up to me yelling, "liang ge ren, liang ge ren, (two people, two people)."
What is going on, I wonder. Then I look toward where he is pointing, and there are three hotel clerks standing on the steps of their hotel.
One of them is holding up two fingers and yelling the same thing. Is this a new way of propositioning a foreigner? I think not and decided
to find out more. When I walk over to the clerks the one is still yelling and holding up two fingers. The only thing I can think of is
that they have two foreigners in their hotel and we should have a chance to connect. So I ask if they are American or English. The answer
is English, and they also have bicycles.
Off we went to the third floor to knock on their door. One of the few welcome door knocks in China, I am sure. More about that later, but
these guys assured me that they were glad to see me, and in fact I was the first Westerner they had seen since leaving Beijing. They were not
English, but rather Swiss - two brothers who spoke fluent English, as do most travelers from Europe. We were going in opposite directions so
spent some time comparing notes. After a photo session on the hotel steps I was on my way with two vital bits of information. The first was
that I was about to start on 80km of construction - but a lot of it was smooth and quite rideable. The second was that starting from the Yellow
River (border between Shaanxi and Shanxi) I faced a 1000meter climb.
A lot of the construction was smooth, because the Chinese are building their new roads to last. Part of that is proper foundations packed
really solid with big rollers that are not only heavy, but vibrate as well. Large sections of this 80km had one lane of this packed
foundation that made for good riding. The rest of the time, the clay that used to be under the old road was at least rideable most of the
time. I didn't make it all the way the first day. That was a pretty good day though, as it rained just enough to kill the dust and give the
construction workers the day off. The next day, it was dry and someone thought that it would be a good idea to send a water truck through to
kill the dust. It did, but put a lot more water on the road than the rain did, leading to a lot of mud. Several times I had to stop and
scrape mud from between the tires and the fenders so the wheels would go around again.
After an early start due to loud music at 5:30 from the house next door to the motel I stayed in, made it to YiChuan in time for a late
breakfast. The cook at the restaurant/motel from the night before put so much salt into the food I had for supper that I didn't want to risk
eating there again. A very helpful guy at the breakfast restaurant helped me make a phone call to Ruth, and then took me to find Internet
access - his buddy borrowed some guy's motorcycle and I followed them deeper into town to two different computer places, but neither would
connect to the Internet, so I left. Otherwise this might have been a good place for another rest day - but in the long run I found a better
one that evening. These computer places are used mostly for game playing, and I think competitive with others at the same place, as the
computers are all on the same local area network. I think some people also use chat programs. Who they chat to, I am not sure.
My map shows a town a little before the road reaches the Yellow River, but no such town. In fact the only real town is across the river. But
just within sight of the bridge is the Huang He Bing Guan (Yellow River Fancy Hotel). Why not give it a try? It is in the shape of a "U" with
the open end facing the river, and a gate in one leg, near the bottom of the "U". When I got to the inside of the "U" there was nothing and
no people. Finally I found someone sleeping in front of a TV in the room next to the reception desk room. Then some guy came to see what
was going on, and waked the desk clerk from in front of the TV. During this time I had a chance to look at the price list to see that regular
rooms were very expensive by my standards. There was also a six-bed room (dormitory) that was more reasonably priced when you pay for only
one bed, and that is what I pointed to when things began to get organized. We all confirmed that was what I wanted, and then the clerk
took me for a look, but not to that room, rather to a regular two-bed room with attached bath (with working plumbing) and a separate alcove
with a small table, some chairs and a TV.  Same price. I took it on the spot. My guess is that they don't get many guests, and that the beds in
the dormitory were not made. This was easier for the staff.
Now about that knock on the door. We had a thunderstorm that afternoon. No electricity. But I usually am ready for bed by dark anyway. I have
concluded that the kind of cycling I am doing is not for people my age. I run out of energy a lot faster than I used to. Anyway, it was well
after dark. The Chinese had come out of wherever they keep themselves during the day, to make noise in the evening hours - which is why I had
my earplugs in. I thought this would be a quiet place, but I have come to realize that the perfect example of an oxymoron is, "a quiet Chinese
I was in bed, and fast asleep when this knocking sound filtered through my earplugs and my drowsiness. It sounded like someone pounding on the
concrete floor in the room above. I hoped it would not last long. Then it came again, and finally after a third time I was awake enough to
realize that it was a knock on my door. I haven't yet come to ignore knocks on the door (mostly because it doesn't do any good), so I put on
my pants and went to open it. There was no one there, but this 12-year old kid who was the most important reason for earplugs earlier came
running over, bringing a hotel clerk with him. She was so happy to find me in, so she could give me a candle - until I yelled at her for waking
me up. Why they didn't distribute candles when it started to get dark, and they be some use, I will never know - and the same thing happened
to me last night.
More hills, and I didn't make it from LinFen in one day so stopped at another motel in another small town. Another thunderstorm and another
candle. This time, in order to get a cross breeze, I had my door propped open with a stool and one of my panniers on the other side to
keep it from banging in the breeze. For the first time in several days I dozed off right after I lay down, but it was clearly too good to be
for real. You guessed it, another knock to deliver a candle. This time the knocker could even see that I was in bed and asleep. There is a lot
of one-track mindedness here. These are two examples.

August 1, 2002
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. The Swiss mentioned the climb from an altitude of about 1000ft at the Yellow River to what turned out to be 5000ft at the summit. But they didn't mention another climb the next day back to 5000ft again. This time from a start of 2000ft. Except at the end, this one was much more gradual, so didn't seem so bad. About half way up, I stopped for a break. A man and his daughter on a motorcycle were stopped just ahead of me. They came back to where I was for whatever conversation I was able to carry. This guy was more of a communicator, and with the help of the map, I learned where he lived, and that he recommended where I should stop for the night - GongHua.
Now the Brits with the tandem recumbent tricycle reported serious grit and grime as they traveled south from LinFen through coal country. The Swiss brothers, following my route from LinFen didn't mention anything about coal, so I thought that coming in from the west I would miss it. Not so. From the top of that second 5000ft summit the road goes straight down for miles and miles, right into coal country. I stopped at the edge of the first town I came to to check on where I was. They told me the next town was GongHua, and that it was another 15km. By this time I was ready to quit for the day and was giving serious thought to stopping in the town where I was - until I went a little
further and found what must have been 100 coal trucks all lined up waiting for something - and no indication of where they had come from. Certainly not over the mountain where I had just come from. Finally I came to an embankment that dropped down to the right into a muddy coal-dust track that some trucks and buses were slowly working their way through. In front of me was a pile of dirt over the road to force traffic onto the detour, but room enough at one end to get a bicycle through. Seems they were redoing the main street and didn't want any traffic on it. In retrospect it might have been a quiet place to stay (but remember the oxymoron example) because of no traffic, but I was looking for a different kind of sign then they were using in this area and so just kept on going.
By this time the grade had lessened greatly, and it was a nice easy coast to GongHua anyway. More importantly, going to GongHua took me just off of route 309, which the guys just before had told me was hilly and I shouldn't go that way. In the morning I just continued downhill for another 20km, then headed back north toward LinFen on a nice flat road with a tailwind even.
But we still haven't finished with the next sleep deprivation. When I got to GongHua I still didn't see any signs that I recognized so asked,
 nd found a place to stay right across the street from where I had asked. And now I will recognize that kind of sign again too. Somehow, the coal trucks were making it through the detour in the town before, and every couple of minutes a full one would roar though town with coal dust blowing off the top of the pile, and an empty one would roar through in the other direction with more dust blowing from the residue of his load. Coal dust everywhere. The time was later than my usual stopping time, and by the time I had some supper, it was dark, and that is my signal that it is bedtime.
One would think that after a hard day of cycling, the rider would fall into bed and soon be fast asleep. There is a threshold though that when passed has just the opposite effect. I have been passing that threshold a lot lately and often lay awake for two or three hours before falling asleep. This night was a good one though (or could have been). I hit the bed and directly fell asleep. Then again through the earplugs and drowsiness there came a door knock. Certainly not mine, I thought and  hoped that it wouldn't come again and wake me more fully. As I am sure has happened to most people more than once, if the phone rings or some other thing wakes you right after you have fallen asleep, it is often hard to get back to sleep.
Well, it was my door after all, and it didn't happen again. Instead, the door flew open, and in came the innkeeper to get the TV that was on the table in my room - and on top of which I had put things like my glasses, my flashlight, my helmet, because there was no more space on the table. And because of the heat, I was wearing so few clothes that I couldn't possible wear any fewer. Why he couldn't have gotten the TV earlier, I'll never know, but such lack of foresight is also not uncommon.
But good things happen too. This road going north toward LinFen passes through some pretty grubby  little towns - suburbs, I guess. It was getting on lunch time, and I saw lots of restaurants, but most of them didn't look very appealing from the outside. Then I saw what seemed to be a group of office workers walking across the road to this one that looked a little better than most so that is where I stopped. I had a good meal, and when I took some money out of my pocket, the proprietress came rushing over saying, "Bu yao qian. Bu yao qian. (don't want money, don't want money)." Her contribution to the good of the world, I guess. Then she took me upstairs to one of the motel rooms so I could take a nap. As I was leaving I gave her a set of my US postage stamps that I use for such things. She had to have the last action though, and gave me a cigarette lighter to take with me. Although it happens once in a while, it is pretty unusual for  a restaurant not to take money for a meal they have provided. Even the one that had me posing for pictures for 10 minutes after breakfast the other day. Or the one in FuXian that posed me for pictures after supper.
Boy, this is getting long, and we haven't even gotten to the main topic yet. But we are about to. According to my map, the road I am on bypasses LinFen on the west side, and joins my route 309 just before it turns east again to go on its merry way bypassing LinFen on the north. No need for big cities is my reasoning. Sure enough, right where the map shows there should be, there are distance markers for 309. There were five of them and then came the turn to the east, except at that place there was road construction in all directions and no more distance markers. In such cases I stop and ask which road is the one I want. I did, at a Sinopec gas station. The manager took me into the air conditioned office and looked my map, then told me basically that you can't go that way. It was more complicated than that, complicated enough that he spent some time tracking down an English-speaker who could talk to me on the phone. Her name was Liu TaiLi.
Her opening comment was that I should come to her hotel in the city for a rest, and then she could explain what route to follow to get on eastward. From all of this I had the impression that the whole of 309 was torn up for the next 100 miles. Even if I walked I wouldn't be able to follow 309, instead I  would have to take a bunch of local roads that she would explain. But I hadn't yet considered the culture gap. At first she asked if I could find her hotel. I assured her that I could if it was anywhere in the center of the city. The Sinopec manager had already written its name down in Chinese, and with enough stops to ask for directions finding it was surely possible. But she finally doubted me, and said I should wait where I was, and she would come to me. Sure enough about an hour later came Miss Liu, a colleague and a driver with
a mini van that they said we should carry me and the bicycle back to the hotel in.
So, in spite of my efforts not to be in the middle of a big city, there I was in a hotel fancier than hotels I stay in when I am traveling in the US, and expensive too. I took the cheapest room available, and with the discount I negotiated it went from the advertised $20 to $15, breakfast included. In a way though, it was another example of getting what I needed. I was pretty pooped, and having a nice air conditioned room with a door that locked and my own key, plus a fully functional bathroom with hot-water shower was pretty nice.
Finally, in the morning we got out my map, and Miss Liu showed me the country town that I am in now, which I had said was my next destination, then pointed to several of the towns along the way on route 309, saying first you should go to this one, then to this one, and so on (cultural gap). When I asked how to get the the key town at the beginning of this streak - where 309 picked up again - she gave me a small sketch map that had two simple direction changes in it. I was on my way. Turns out the construction was only half a mile or so until it got past an overpass over another new expressway that was nearly finished. But when I got to that critical town/intersection, I could see how the Sinopec manager had said, "You can't get there from here." I had arrived from the south, on another new four-lane road, and could not see any connection with anything coming from the west.
I am sure there is a way to get there from here, but the directions would have been complicated, and besides I would not have spent all that money on the fancy hotel room. Sinopec and the hotel are part of the same company and I am sure that had something to do with it as well.
That is all for this time. According to my topographic map there is another climb ahead for tomorrow, but in not many days I should be through with hills for a while. The only contour line after that is at 500ft, and not many of those. Even if it is not flat, there cannot be any long climbs. I'll let you know what happens after I get there.

Edited by Shirley Salas
August 3, 2002