Triplogue - China II: Hong Kong to Hengyang, Hunan

12-20 September, Los Angeles to Yangshuo (f)

After nearly a month in the States I found myself missing the road again. I always start to feel pangs for it after a week or so of being off the bikes. Maybe some chemical that my body makes while we ride becomes depleted then? Whatever the cause it was rather severe by the time we left. Not so severe that we couldn’t stay for one extra day … As we arrived at the airport we discovered that Andy had left his handlebar bag at our friends’ house. Dante rose to the occasion, rushed home for the bag and zipped out to the airport to deliver it. To his surprise, instead of grabbing the bag and dashing for our plane, we piled into his car for another day in Tinseltown.

The next day I found that Asia was not so far away. From the moment we stepped on the plane I felt I was back. Arriving at our assigned seats we discovered that a Chinese family had ensconced themselves there. Under no circumstances were they going to move nor was the in-flight staff willing to help mediate the dispute. Finally the flight’s purser intervened at my insistence and won our place back. The other taste of Asia was how our fellow passengers boarded the plane. When the ground personnel called the flight the entire waiting lounge stood and bolted to the gate trampling, shoving kicking anything that lay in their path. On the plane I was a casualty of this phenomenon. A nun knocked me out of the way looking for her seat, muttering something under her breath (which I imagined as being "You foreign devil stand aside!") The decibel level of speech increased dramatically as passengers shouted at one another loud enough to be heard in their home country, and we hadn’t even left the terminal at LAX.

When we finally arrived in Hong Kong we connected with a Chinese friend we’d met in Paris. Dennis had been studying fashion there and now was in the bag business in his hometown. He led us on a tour of queer Hong Kong. Winding up the steep streets we arrived at a bar that was more Britannic than Chinese. When we found that Dennis was the only person of Chinese descent in the place we headed for yellower pastures. Propaganda was just that. More dimly lit, louder music and a hipper and decidedly Asiatic crowd made it more interesting for us and less for Dennis as he yawned over his sixth glass of white wine.

I can’t figure out how he does it? Dennis seems to have a nearly infinite capacity for alcohol. Not once did I hear his speech slur nor did he show any other signs of physical intoxication. I was feeling droopy after just a few beers and a scotch later I was well greased up. The night ended relatively early with a frighteningly fast taxi ride back to our hotel in Kowloon bathed in the neon that is Hong Kong.

The next day we were off to Macau. (one day was more than enough in HK’s consumer haven for this traveler). We’d decided to take the subway to the catamaran terminal, which turned out to be more work than I’d anticipated. Hauling all of our goods and the various chunks of bicycle through the maze of underground passages rendered my shoulders and back sore.

By the time we arrived in Macau I could barely stand. From our vantage on the boat and from the taxi on the shore I was most unimpressed by Macau. I anticipated a quaint little peninsula that melded all the charms of Chinese society with those of Portugal. Cobblestone streets through Asian influenced colonial buildings, rickshaw porters prancing by espresso bars and elegant Monte Carloesque casinos populated by happy gambling Hong Kongers on holiday were among my misguided preconception. Reality was a disastrous raping of the peninsula with horrific concrete high rises piled on top of barren landfills, noisy honking taxis racing down characterless streets and sweaty fearful and serious Chinese frittering away their life savings at massive boring casinos.

I was not completely disappointed, however. Our evening walk revealed some of the more charming old Chinese neighborhoods and some well-preserved colonial ones. Along the way we stopped to watch the Malaysians play the Macanese at soccer in a massive football stadium. The next day we walked to the colony’s hallmark church façade. Japanese monks who had been persecuted in their homeland and had fled had built the church. An eerie exhibit displayed their bones at the outdoor museum that has been constructed on the site. Above the church stands a fort and the home of the fantastically presented Macau museum. Its entryway presents the cultural, religious, political, economic and scientific developments of Asia and the west in parallel. Andy and I both wondered if the panel discussing the benefits of democracy will survive re-unification with China next year.

Atop the fort we stopped to watch master swordsmen and women practice their art on the ramparts. One man was so swift of sword I feared walking by, imagining that one of his strokes might take off an arm or some other appendage. His huge chromed lance glinted and whooshed as he shouted and advanced on his imaginary opponent.

We spent only only one full day in Macau before resuming our journey back to our bikes. The trip back to Siegfried and Roy took us across the border to China’s SEZ (special economic zone; read "place of frenzied capitalistic search for money") of Zhuhai. We walked for what seemed like miles to get to the Chinese border. Aside for the massive hike, crossing there was far simpler than when we entered from Vietnam the last time. From the frontier the Zhuhai airport was a long and (by PRC standards) expensive cab ride.

There forty-five gates and a massive airfield stood behind the air terminal. In the cavernous terminal there were but fifty passengers in the place and as many small stores, each selling the very same goods. All of the folks in the airport were on our plane and when we finally boarded we were all fighting our way to the same part of the plane. Curiously the airline had chosen to put everyone in the same section, the very back. The airplane itself was a rotting old Boeing 737, nearly busting at its well-worn seams with so many seats I found it absurd and nearly physically possible. They could have offered pre-boarding leg amputations so we could actually fit ourselves in the crevasses they called aisles. I became nearly hysterically claustrophobic when I found myself in a center seat between Andrew and the largest Chinese man (after Mao). I hustled up to the front and found my own row in the empty front part of the plane, leaving Andrew cowering in the back with the chairman.

Luckily the plane did not fall out of the sky on the short hop to Guilin. There I found myself relieved to be back in familiar territory. We found standard cabby crookery at the airport, where taxi drivers told us that we’d have to use them to get to town because the busses were out of service. In contrast to their flimsy story we found the airport bus waiting for us and twenty times cheaper than the cabs.

We’d decided to experience the trip from Guilin to Yangshuo by boat rather than by car or bus. Neither of us wanted to face a ride on the road that was fifty percent complete and one-hundred percent crammed with honking traffic. Though everyone told us we could somehow save 20 agoutis by some weird scheme if we’d only visit their nasty calligraphy studio we booked our own tickets for the next day.

We boarded the bus the next morning and it felt like we stopped at every hotel in town picking up one other occidentals at each. The river port looked like the entry of Disneyland on a holiday weekend morning. There were seemingly huge numbers of people all cramming through the terminal to the massive lineup of boats. We were a mixed bag of folks on our little underpowered floating luncheonette on water. A British couple, a few Virginians and Andy and me shared a table. The Brits were extremely friendly but anything they said was articulated as though they had a mouthful of porridge. My head tired from nodding at what they said having grown weary of saying "what" after each of their happy outbursts. The Virginians didn’t really seem like they realized they were actually in China but in some suburb of DC looking for a McDonald’s. The husband sat at our table and guzzled down all of the beer while poking at the curious stuff in front of us we called food. When he was finally drunk enough he dove into the tofu, probably mistaking it for custard. We did meet a god-like Austrian Olympic athlete and his dad who, like us, opted to stay up on deck and soak up the magnificent karsty scenery.

The ride itself was a little frightening. Unlike the last time we’d been in Guilin the river was looking a little low on its banks. It seemed barely wide enough for a canoe much less our diner-on-a-boat. The flotilla of boats wound their way down river single file. Occasionally when a boat came in the other direction we’d pass so closely as almost to rub.

Back in Yangshuo we were quick to pick up our bikes and gear. The gear had been stored in the office of Bing, the PSB’s (Public Safety Bureau’s) captain of the tourist division. To reward him for his assistance we invited him for dinner. When we came to pick him up at the police station he introduced a woman we both assumed was his teenage daughter. We were both confused when he used the endearing term "honey". It turned out to be his wife. She was twenty-three and to our surprise Bing was only 35. There were a few funny moments at our meal. First, when Bing started to quiz us about the "Monica" affair I told him I was embarrassed about it. I’ve never heard someone change the subject so fast. I suppose he was trying to help me save face. The next one was a little more disturbing.

Our conversation at dinner was all over the map but somehow for a few moments centered on crime and justice. I suppose it was that we told Bing about how safe we felt in China that brought us there. Bing launched into an incredibly gruesome tale of an unfortunate German hiker. He had been assaulted by two robbers while mounting a nearby hill. He refused to turn over his money so the thugs tossed him off the side of the slope nearly killing him. (which leads you to the obvious question "Why didn’t he just give them the money?") Enter Bing who heroically captured the crooks. When asked about what happened to the criminals, Bing proudly replied that they were shot.

The next night we’d planned dinner with the industrious Mr. Billy. His internet café and computer school is surely one of the most happening spots in Yangshuo. He’d not only let us update our website from his café but stored our bikes while we were away. They’d been in the barren attic of his shop that was the home of one or more of his employees. His wife was so pregnant she seemed about to burst. Andy wanted one more dose of western cuisine so we took them to our friend Charlie’s Red Star Café. The waitress (famous in Yangshuo for her height and general gorgeousness) insisted that Billy’s wife try something western as well and ordered her a pizza. It seemed like a bad idea to us because she had stated that she hated cheese. When it arrived we weren’t surprised that she ate only a few bites before moving on to something tamer.

The next day we were "invited" to grand opening of a college run by Mr. Billy’s brother Owen. In our shorts and t-shirts we were somehow considered dignitaries and included on the stage next to professors and party members. It was at the same time amusing and boring listening to the speeches made by everyone involved. The funniest and scariest moment was when the dean of the college spoke of China’s plans for America. "We must catch up with America…and then take over." Afterwards there was a luncheon held at a fancy banquet restaurant. There the beer flowed freely and some more unusual dishes were served. One was an entire plate of cock’s comb in a brown sauce. I looked with horror at the red floppy bits of flesh off the head of a chicken while the grungy foul mouthed Brit at our table munched happily at them exclaiming "mmmmm, tastes just like gristle." Later a big plate of "bee worms" that had been battered and deep-fried appeared. The larva (some mature bees as well) were crunchy and tasteless. During this course the Brit decided to tell the story of his American girlfriend he’d met in Greece. He shared the fact that she was a "superb shag" much to the horror of the rather stately American woman seated on my right. Joy and her husband (whom she represented at the banquet) were the only Americans living in Yangshuo. She wowed us with her story of how she and her husband got their photo taken with the president on his visit to the hamlet. Somehow the statuesque waitress of the Red Star Café caught Clinton’s eye at that moment and she was included in the photograph as well. To her chagrin the Lewinski scandal made her the butt of more than a few jokes on the subject.

After lunch we staggered through town full of exotic food and beer trying to find our bikes for an afternoon ride. When we finally did mount them I was suddenly high again. We pedaled over dirt roads around the huge tree-covered karsts and happy peasants. I’d forgotten how at home I felt on a bike. It emphasized how dorky and clumsy I feel traveling without it. Once we were back in town we passed the Red Star Café where we met the owner, Charlie and his antipodean girlfriend Julie. They were fascinated by our bikes and our trip and Charlie, though never having ridden more than 40 kilometers in a day, was challenged by Julie to join us on our next day’s ride.

BikeBrat for a day: Charlie


Charlie takes over the kitchen

21 September, Yangshuo to Jiangyong, 132km (a)

Loud reports of firecrackers woke us before dawn. I quickly realized that the cold I developed yesterday had grown even worse and tried to convince myself that cycling would be good therapy. We found Charlie at breakfast, obviously eager to hit the road in a tee-shirt he had made especially for the occasion. As I blew my nose through several packs of Kleenex, Charlie explained that the firecrackers were to mark the beginning of the Chinese lunar month –hopefully a good omen for our departure and the month ahead…

Charlie surprised us by being a fast rider, as most Chinese cyclists seem to propel their machines merely by the weight of their feet on the pedals. The first 20 kilometers took us through stunning scenery on a fairly busy road, then we turned off onto a quiet but bumpy side road, passing through more conventional-looking hills. At our first pit stop Charlie complained that his undies were scratching him. "You’re wearing underwear under your bike shorts?" Fred and I gasped in unison, before instructing our new friend to remove them pronto.

With over 60k under our bruised butts we stopped for lunch in a miserable little place called Jiahui. Charlie took over from the woman preparing our food, telling us that he always does so in restaurants since he’s invariably the better cook.

We’d been fighting the wind most of the day and I was running out of gas by the time we crossed into Hunan province through a gorge known as "Dragon Tiger Gate." We made another stop shortly afterwards, chomping down mooncakes and other goodies at a bustling country market in Taochuan. As my legs grew more and more tired, I lagged behind Fred and Charlie. The light grew beautifully autumnal on the quiet tree-shaded road, making the perfect-looking village clusters glow in the distant foothills.

Our arrival in Jiangyong didn’t come a moment too soon. My legs were useless and it was growing dark already. Charlie had explained to us that Jiangyong is famous for a nearby village where a separate set of Chinese characters was developed for women’s use. Beyond this interesting bit of history, Jiangyong –at least at first glance—offers little to include it in any tourist guide. We found accommodation at a government-run hotel (I suppose that’s redundant in China) scrungy beyond description. I washed off as much grime as I could under the spout of cold water that passed for a shower in our noisome hole of a bathroom, then joined the others on an exploration of the town’s only main street. What had first appeared to be a large city was really only a glorified market town. As we ate another street-restaurant meal prepared mostly by Charlie, I watched a calf follow its mother down the center of the Jiangyong’s main drag. Back in our room, totally wasted from the day’s ride, Fred and I tried to convince Charlie to ride with us for another couple of days. I fell asleep thinking how great it would be to travel all the way across China with a guide/interpreter/cook as friendly and fun as the one we had today.

22 September, Jiang Yong to Shuangpai/Yongzhou, 111km (f)

Today my geographical illusion of China as one big flat coastal plane covered with rice was shattered. I am not alone in my foolish assumption. Ask any Chinese person what the road is like between their town and the next the answer will be "flat". In fact, on this very day everyone told us that the road was flat with a few hills. Pose the question to any three people here "how far is it to the next city?" and you will get widely varying answers.

Until we reached our lunching spot everyone was right, there were only a few little hills and it was a quiet and relaxing ride. I’d worked up an appetite by 11:30 so we stopped for some noodles at a roadside restaurant. We had the normal complement of gawkers arrive and stare at my chopstick handiwork, pinch our tires and fiddle with our shift levers. One brave guy came and sat at our table and "practiced" his English. He was of the type that runs through his stock questions one by one in quick succession without listening to the answers or understanding them.

We asked our question "How is the road to Yongzhou?" He paused and thoughtfully answered "Like a dragon’s back, there are three big hills." I discounted his answer given his poor command of our mother tongue, but a truer phrase had never been spoken.

We rode out of town just as the temperature started to mount and climbed a rather steep hill. At the top we paused to have a drink at another restaurant. There the owner verified that there are three big hills to Yongzhou and the one we just climbed did not count. The next one was a monstrously mean grade of 5-10% for five kilometers. At the bottom we could see the next pass was worse and we were wasted from the last two.

We flagged down a truck full of boxes and they agreed to give us a lift over the next two passes. We hoisted the bikes up amongst the flattened bundles of cardboard and followed them aboard. The road was in bad shape and the truck had no suspension. Siegfried, Roy, Andrew and I were shaken so violently we all had headaches. Our bags were literally bounced off the bikes. I was glad to get out of the truck at the top of the third and last pass but it felt as though the ground was shaking underneath me for at least an hour afterwards. We finally rode into a town thirty kilometers short of Yongzhou just before sunset. It was not big enough to support a hotel so we had to get to the next town. We decided that transportation was the only way to make it before dark.

We found a little truck like an Indonesian bemo, put the bikes in and started a tour of town with the driver looking for other passengers and gas. Then something strange happened: the driver started out of town in the wrong direction. We shouted and screamed for him to stop and he let us out of the truck. As we unloaded the bikes he came around the back and demanded payment of 20 RMB. We refused because he had deceived us, he had understood where we wanted to go but went in the wrong direction. He shouted and screamed and tried to block our departure back to the town. Andy agreed to give him 2 RMB to get lost, but he refused and shouted out the window at us as he passed us on the way back into town. We started to look for another ride when the driver came up and started making a scene with a policeman and drawing another crowd. Andy explained what had happened and the policeman demanded that the driver give the 2RMB back. The scene with the policeman dispelled the second myth that China is rife with official corruption.

I wasn’t ready to ride my bike in the dark after all the hassle of trying to find a ride. The thought of having to fight for space on the narrow bumpy road after dark made me cringe. Just as we were about to give up a little bus offered us transport so we loaded the bikes and were off. It stopped every ten meters to pick up people so the trip was incredibly long. At one stop an entire elementary school full of kids embarked and we were up to our ears in children. Some of the frighteningly loud kids were intrigued and others scared to death of us. It was difficult to find any of them who wanted to sit next to us. Finally a brave one sat on the very edge of the seat next to me and refused to look my way. When we finally arrived in Yongzhou we found a hotel easily and they put us in their most disgusting and mosquito infested room. The toilet was not functioning and no matter how many times we mentioned it they weren’t able to fix it. Finally the moved us to another room, just above the bowling alley that was on the fourth floor. I fell asleep after dinner to the sound of pins and balls.

Bumpy ride from hell


Andy gives 'em hell in Shuangpai

Even a buffalo knows that this is the wrong road out of town



Public art in China, the power lines are more attractive

23 September, Yongzhou to Qidong/Hengyang, 120km (a)

A new six-lane superhighway led out of town, and we had it practically to ourselves. It seemed too good to be true –and it was. After thirty kilometers of brisk pedalling, a large city (Lengshuitan) spread out before us, one that wasn’t on our intended route. My logistical screw-ups always put me into a foul mood and this was no exception. My nerves were already frayed from this morning’s argument with Fred (who has changed his stance on luggage distribution no fewer than three times in as many days), not to mention the incessant gawking of everyone in sight. Trucks, tractors and fully-loaded buses would ride alongside us so their occupants could stare, their expressions identical to zoogoers at the monkey enclosure. I was half-tempted to satisfy their curiosity by flinging feces at them, but settled for insulting them verbally. No, I was not being a happy camper, especially when we learned that the road back to our intended route was badly asphalted, rife with dusty road construction and running through rugged hills. This morning was definitely one of those odd moments of this trip where I wasn’t thrilled by my status as BikeBrat.

Things went from bad to worse when we finally made it back to the main road, where solid lines of truck sped by in both directions. Even with a wide paved shoulder it was miserable. I suggested to Fred that we hop a bus to Hengyang, still over a hundred kilometers away.

We stopped at the first drinks stand we saw and watched the trucks roll by, leaving most of the water we’d purchased untouched as they had obviously been refilled with tap water (is Hunan the rip-off capital of China?).

Oddly, once we got back on the road, the traffic situation improved dramatically. Had we taken a wrong turn? Were all the truckers eating lunch? A lot of rolling hills brought us to the vast concrete horror of Qiyang. We cruised the town –resembling nothing so much as a giant abandoned construction site—looking for lunch, weighing various options –none of them very savory looking. Settling down at a streetside place on a busy intersection was probably a mistake. While the food was palatable the gawking crowds were not. Extra irritating was the young woman who sat next to us to practice her English. "Excuse me," she said, "may I ask where you are from?"

"Far away," I snapped sourly, in both English and Chinese.

"I see," she continued, "and what is your opinion of our city?"

"I think it’s a godforsaken shithole and find solace in knowing I’ll never return. Which road leads out?"
She pointed vaguely towards the North and we were on our way. Shortly thereafter we were cruising through rolling hills against the now-familiar headwind. We saw a "wild man" by the side of the road wearing a skirt. Though obviously inhabiting another reality, he must have sensed that I wanted to stop and take a photo. He removed the skirt just as I was applying the brakes and considering the tastelessness of including a "crazy person gallery" --full of photos of what we’ve found to be a common sight on China’s highways and streets. They’re easily spotted in this country of conformity, usually sporting the same distinctive look: unkempt hair, wild faraway eyes set in filthy visages, tatters for clothes and always alone.

After skirting the ugly industrial hell of Lijiaping we encountered yet another rural traffic jam caused by road construction. This one was far worse than the others we’d seen, permitting us to ride two abreast on brand new concrete slabs for many kilometers. By the time we hit Qidong, dusk was settling and we were pretty wiped out from riding. So we hopped a bus into Hengyang, Hunan’s second biggest city, still fifty kilometers away.

I was hassled the entire length of the ride by a pair of sleazy self-styled hustlers from Guangzhou. One wanted to sell us his cheesy fake Rolex while the other wanted to buy dollars from us at a "friends" rate of eight-to-one (on the street we can get 8.6 or better). The sprawling mass of Hengyang appeared out of the gloom. We loaded our bikes and asked our usual question: "Where’s this town’s best hotel?" First we were directed to a gilded dump of a place, with a dazzling lobby, a rotating restaurant and filthy rooms. A bit of poking around found us more suitable lodgings. Starving, we scoured the town for an acceptable restaurant and devoured a streetside vegetarian feast (though Fred remains unconvinced that tripe is a vegetable). On our way back to bed, we bought some tasty mooncakes for breakfast the next morning.

(We had the good fortune of arriving in China while the locals celebrated the period around the "largest moon" of the year. As part of that celebration the Chinese give one another gifts of small pastries called mooncakes. They have a dry pie crust-like casing, are about the size and weight of a hockey puck (often just as tasty) and are filled with a variety of sweet things. They are embossed with a various designs and finished with an egg yolk glaze. Fillings range from dried fruit and nuts to bean paste or egg yolks and lotus seed. Some of the really cheap ones have stuffing of what seems to be the center of a jellybean. It is said that mooncakes change hands like currency, that one person could give them to another and that person to another and the gift could be recycled until it makes full circle and is given back to the original owner. The best American parallel might be the fruitcake. – f)

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