Bicycle Around the World


Index: Letters By Date | A Unique Opportunity | The Last (?) Bike Ride
August 17, 2002

You Can Speak Chinese
August 17, 2002 QingDao, ShanDong, China

Oh, does it ever feel good to write QingDao in that date line. For about 10 hours I had a roommate in my dormitory hotel room in Lanzhou - starting at midnight, when this young man from London rolled in on a late train. Most of our 10 hours was spent sleeping, but before he headed off in the morning we had time for a brief exchange of adventures - stories, according the preamble to my last update (not counting the one from Graydon about the desert).

One of this guy's comments was that China is a country of Highs and Lows. I have had my share of Highs, and some Lows as well. Not enough of them, or low enough to be overwhelming but I have been ready to be finished with China for some time. There is a lot that goes in to this, but one of them is the 'in your face' nature of Chinese people in general. Yet it is this same nature that makes for a lot of the Highs, and also makes an adventure such as the one I am about to mark and end to work.

I have an Irish friend, now living in Scotland, from those early days in Lanzhou, where we were both English teachers. We have stayed in touch over the years. In fact my 'Lanzhou contact' who gave me the province maps and advice about which road to take east is a friend of Cathy's from those same days in Lanzhou. I think that I already wrote that things have changed so much in Lanzhou that I didn't recognize a thing. But other stuff that I have written lead Cathy to remark in a recent email,

"Your trip sounds so incredible and I am most impressed that you can do so much: in every sense: speak Chinese, mix with the local population who sound quite similar to the Chinese we used to meet back in the old days, so China hasn't changed that much it seems."

"so China hasn't changed that much it seems," she says. In fact China has changed a lot, but the people are mostly the same.

And I can "speak Chinese." In fact I can say a few words in Chinese that are very specifically focused on meeting the specific needs of day to day travel here. That is both a boon and a bane. When I need something like a place to stay for the night, or something to eat, I ask for that in Chinese and usually get what I need. And when I do, I can hear the locals say among themselves, "Oh, he can speak Chinese." You can almost see the wheels turning. They think they are going to have a fruitful conversation with this foreigner, as their
entertainment for the day.

It is a virtual certainty that when I sit down at a table for a meal, before I get my helmet and gloves off, some guy is going to sit on one of the stools next to me, and maybe another guy in the stool on the other side. Then one or both of them will start firing questions at me in the same kind of Chinese that they would use with their next door neighbor. That happens after they first offer me a cigarette. Chinese men *all* smoke, and compete with each other in seeing how many cigarettes they can give away to their fellow smokers. I finally learned somewhere along the way to say, "I don't smoke." This has helped a lot in that respect.

The questions I get asked are pretty much the same.

What country are you from?
How long have you been in China?
Where are you going?
Where did you arrive in China?
How old are you?
There are others, but those are the main ones.

The first one on the above list is usually the first one they ask, and is almost always sounds the same, so I answer it. This further encourages the questioner, but the other questions can be asked in different ways, and I don't understand a lot of those ways. This gets them frustrated so they ask louder. (Have you ever done this to a none native-English-speaker, thinking that if you speak louder the listener will somehow have a better chance of understanding you?) Or two or three of them will try asking the same question in different ways at the same time, each one thinking that his way will surely work, as if I
can keep track of three speakers better than I can one that I already don't understand. Once in a while, there will appear a 'communicator' like the government worker from Saryozek - remember him, the one who ended up giving me the first motor support on this journey around the world. But that doesn't happen very often.

Continued on Sunday August 18, 2002

But the worst ones are the beer and maotai drinkers. Maotai is the Chinese version of Vodka. I know how to say the direct translation into Chinese of "I don't drink beer," but that doesn't seem to have any effect. They just keep trying. Most Chinese restaurants, whether in cities or small towns, have a main dining room and additional private dining rooms. In small towns with small restaurants the main dining room might have two to six tables seating maybe four people, and then there are two side rooms with one round table each, seating maybe eight or ten. While I was still in the hills east of Lanzhou, and riding very short days, I was back for supper at the same restaurant where I had had a satisfactory lunch. Now, one of the side rooms was taken by a group of men winding down at the end of the day by pouring beer into each others glasses.

In keeping with their curious and friendly to the foreigner nature, one of them came carrying a beer bottle and a glass to the table where I was waiting for the food I had ordered. I said I didn't want any. He stayed. I said again that I didn't want any. He brought out a glass and poured beer into in and set it in front of me. I am sure that his next step was to pour it down my throat, but I moved to a different table. He followed until I moved again. After a couple of minutes, the first guy was replaced by another from the same group. Same scenario. I was ready to leave the restaurant, and would have if I hadn't already ordered food. Even after the food came, I still had to change tables
once again, this time carrying my bowl of noodles with me. They did finally give up.

At the Yellow River Fancy Hotel - the one on the Yellow River with the "wake up candle" - this same kind of scenario lead to my first and only request for room service in China. This time the dining room only had two large round tables. When I got there, one table was full of men eating, and nearly finished. They were playing a maotai drinking game with dice. I don't understand the game, but it starts with two players each shaking three dice in a Chinese tea cup (the same as in Chinese restaurants in America), then pouring them out onto a saucer out of sight of the other player. Next they shout numbers at each other for a while and then look at each other's dice, which is followed by more
shouting of numbers. After that one of them is declared winner (or loser, I am not sure which) and takes a drink.

One of this group came over to offer me some maotai in this little thimble-size cup specifically designed for maotai. I said no several times, but he just would not go away, and there was no other table to go to, so I asked the waitress if she could bring my food to my room and left. She did, and that was that.

I would dearly love to pour the beer in someone's lap, or spill the maotai on the table, but I do not understand Chinese customs and general personality to know if, or what kind of repercussions there might be, so I suppress those urges.

The one that takes the cake though, happened in Anze. That is where I wrote about the candles and "you can't get there from here." It was my first night there. I was fortunate enough to have one of those "asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow" nights. Except it wasn't meant to last. At 11:30 there was a knock. "Surely not on my door," I said to myself again. But it kept knocking until I was fully awake, and discovered that it *was* on my door. Once a Chinese takes into his (or her head) to knock on your door, the only way to get it stopped is to answer it, so I put on my pants and opened the door. Standing there were at least six, maybe even eight, half drunk Chinese men, one brandishing a bottle of maotai and another raising a drinking thimble in my direction. "Enough is enough," I thought and said a few appropriate harsh words in English before I slammed the door. Before I could get my thumb on the lock button one of them had it open again. This time I slammed with my thumb ready, and they finally went away.

It was getting so I was almost afraid of going to sleep lest I be awakened by another knock on my door. And next morning, in the middle of my rest-day sleep-in, you guessed it, another knock on the door. This time from a college student who saw me in the Internet cafe the day before and had come to practice her English. I am afraid that I was not very kind to her, and not knowing the background she surely wonders why. This is a part of China that I could do without.

Now another bit about Getting What You Need..., before I send this and then take a break before I hit the highlights of the trip from Anze to QingDao.

Back in April, my preparations for this trip included ordering a Korean phrase book from Barnes and Nobel online. According to the USPS tracking system, it got delivered on April 23, but neither Ruth nor I ever saw it, and in the crush of other things at the end of the month, before my May 1 departure, I forgot that I needed one, but didn't have one in my baggage. Later, Ruth sent me one general delivery to QingDao (as she did with the other package to Lanzhou).

On Friday I found the main post office (not difficult, as it is on the map in the Lonely Planet guidebook) and asked for a package from general delivery - the same as I did in LZ. There is a phrase for this in the guidebook, so there is no chance for misunderstanding because it is written in actual Chinese characters. This led to a confused looks among and from the several postal clerks that were behind the counter.  Finally one of them went off, and another said something to me about a phone call. Then the one came back and said "wait a moment," in English. In China you get good at that, so I waited. Pretty soon she went out again, and came back carrying what turned out to be a China Post phrase book in which she was diligently trying to find the right phrase. Finally she did, and showed it to me. "We don't offer this service," it said.

When something like that happens there is absolutely nothing you can do to change anything. It was clear that I was not going get a Korean phrase book from the post office in QingDao, which relates to the other side of my key phrase, "You get what you need ... But if you don't get something, then you probably didn't need it."

While here in QingDao, I am staying at the You Yi Bing Guan (Friendship Fancy Hotel). It is listed in the guidebook in the "Budget" section, and the price is twice what the guidebook says it should be for a single bed in a dormitory room. As I walk around this waterfront neighborhood, I see signs for the regular cheap hotels that I stayed in while I was cycling, but even though I am paying 8 times what a typical night on the road might have cost, I am content to be where I am. It has A/C, is clean, and there is a shower down the hall, and I have enough Chinese currency left to cover the cost. Besides, I thought when I checked in, if this is in the guidebook there is a chance that I will encounter another traveler or two to share China stories with.

So, today is Sunday. I am leaving tomorrow and woke up thinking that I haven't seen any but Chinese since I got here. And they don't mix Chinese and foreigners. In fact the day I got here they moved me out of the first room they showed me - and which I was just about to get comfortable in, to the one I have now, saying that the first one was for Chinese and this one was for foreigners. Then the next day - Friday, while I was trying to sleep in to recover from getting here in the first place, they came and wanted to move me again so they could put Chinese in my room. It has more beds than most rooms in this
dormitory wing and they were expecting a party of 18. After some discussion and some review of other rooms, I said, "forget it, you had your chance yesterday to have me in a different room", and refused to move.

Anyway, after an uninterrupted sleep-in this morning, I was about to go and shave when the door knocked and then opened (the floor clerks have all the keys, remember). In came an oriental guy - college age. He headed for one of the beds and put down his backpack. At first I thought, "Japanese," but when I asked where he was from he said, "Korea." So what I needed wasn't a phrase book, but a real live (English-speaking) Korean who could give me first-hand information about Korea, and generate a mini phrase book for me on the spot, which he did. I will only be there a couple of weeks, so it shouldn't be a problem, and he gave me his phone number so I can call if I have problems, and to visit him where he lives about half way to Pusan.

I guess that is all for this time.

It is 2:30 in the afternoon. I had lunch with the Korean guy before we went our separate ways. Me to the Internet, and he to the QingDao Beer Festival across town. I am going out for a walk, a snack, and an ice cream bar. I will try to bring the bicycle trip itself up to date when I get back. A lot has happened since Anze.


August 20, 2002