Triplogue - China III: Hunan and Jiangxi

25 Sept., Hengyang to Hengshan/Xiangtan, 61km (f)

We’d taken the day off in Hengyang with the intent of catching up on our writing and updating our website. That was not to be. Though Connie the Compaq has served us well over the last 17 months enduring all sorts of indignities she finally "called it quits". It left us wondering if we’d be making the rest of the journey without a computer. We’d asked the rhetorical question of ourselves many times: "Is this trip about a computer and website or seeing and experiencing the world?" I must admit I was saddened by the passing of Connie but happy about the prospect of having the chance to answer this question.

The following morning a terrible cold dogged me and I felt more awful than I could even imagine. My throat felt as though someone made me drink battery acid. Even worse than that we had been fighting a headwind for days and looking out the window this morning I find that the there was a stiff breeze coming from our direction of travel. After we breakfasted on mooncakes (they were luckily my favorite variety, stuffed with dried fruit and nuts) we hit the road. I was so frustrated with the day’s journey that would it have had any effect on it I would have actually "hit" the road with my fists. It was a terrible route.

There was a massive amount of road construction, leaving us to ride over a variety of surfaces. It was mostly dirty and bumpy with occasional stretches of smooth new concrete. The road was really the least of our worries. More unnerving were the trucks and busses caught in the traffic caused by the construction. When they were stopped they were an obstacle. Honking and trying to sneak up the side, they often blocked our passage. Moving, they menaced us with their horns while passing too closely.

After only a few hours I was ready to deem this the absolute worst riding day in Asia. I was also ready to tell Andrew I’d had it with China and wanted to go to some destination where the riding was rewarding again. I didn’t know where I wanted to go, but anywhere but there would do. I hated Hunan, the people there who tried to rip us off, their rotten roads and inconsiderate drivers.

The day wasn’t entirely without amusement, however. A cottage industry of sorts had sprung up along the roadside. Every kilometer or so in either direction we’d come upon a rather intricately made up young lady wearing a tastelessly revealing outfit, swinging her purse into traffic and trying to get the attention of passing drivers. Ruby red lipstick, Star Trek eye shadow treatments and huge amounts of rouge made the roadside "workers" look like clowns more than streetwalkers. When we realized that they weren’t looking for rides of a conventional sort we dubbed them HHHs (Hunan Highway Hookers).

Competing with the HHHs for the attentions of the drivers were restaurant workers. Every few hundred meters there was a noodle shop or strip mall store with a few tables all trying to get drivers to stop for a snack. Each establishment dolled up its prettiest employees and sent them out in front to attract people to stop and eat. It became confusing for me and I found it difficult to tell the HHHs from the waitresses.

After seventy kilometers of dirt, dust, whores and honking we’d both had it. We sought a bus to take us the remaining kilometers of the day. We’d grown cranky and no longer tolerated people pawing our bikes and bags while waiting for the bus. Andy dealt swift and moist justice to anyone invading our space with his squirt gun.

Dr. Fred ministers to Connie on her deathbed


Hustlin' up some customers

Arriving in beautiful Shaoshan


The Great Helmsman's ping-pong paddles

26 September, Xiangtan to Shaoshan, 50km (a)

Brr. We shivered through our al fresco breakfast of noodles and wondered if summer was over for good in this part of the world. Heading out of town on Shaoshan Street (naturally), I thought how much I liked this burg. I know that Fred has developed an aversion to anything connected to Hunan province, but I found Xiangtan to be a happening friendly city, full of old tree-lined streets and touches of "Old Cathay."

The highway leading West was pretty busy, but not nearly as bad as the 322, the north-south road we’d been traveling for several days, and the main truck route connecting Beijing and Guangzhou. Today’s route felt like a country lane in comparison, passing through farming towns and carrying lots of tractor and animal-drawn traffic. It got even quieter once we made the turn toward Shaoshan, up through tree-covered hills. We noticed that most of the peasants here were dressed in "Mao suits", the navy blue working uniforms one associates with the Cultural Revolution. Many of the locals were of the sturdy smiling variety, looking like living tableaux of Maoist propaganda posters. It all seemed appropriate given today’s destination, the closest thing to a pilgrimage site in a country whose state religion is atheism.

The scenery got increasingly beautiful as we approached Shaoshan. Unfortunately, the low-lying clouds made the mountaintops invisible, but we appreciated seeing forests for a change. The actual village of Shaoshan came as a serious disappointment, though. It’s a place of tourism gone awry, where the locals appear absolutely desperate for cash. Shaoshan has the air of a faded pilgrimage sight, an outmoded Lourdes for hard-line communists. In the middle of the village stands a huge bronze statue of the Great Helmsman –the only one we’ve seen in China so far. The main attraction here, though, is Mao’s childhood home. We were anxious to see it, but decided to get settled first. –Not exactly an easy task in grotty, commie-style Shaoshan. All the places we inspected looked like they hadn’t been cleaned since Mao left town, and none had hot water before late in the afternoon. Adding insult to injury, all were quoting ridiculously high rates. We probably should have made a quick visit to Mao’s house and got the hell out of Dodge, yet settled on the cheapest (and possibly grossest) place we looked at: fifty yuan for a serious dump, run by an overeager woman who spoke a little English. After a quick "whore bath" using a bucket and a towel, we head off in search of the Chairman’s birthplace, just down the road.

Mao’s family was the richest in town, and they had the biggest house. It has been lovingly preserved and furnished; signs at the entrance entreat visitors not to spit on the floors, and for once people seemed to be obeying. We saw the kitchen "where comrade Mao sometimes helped his mother in the preparation of meals", the stable "where comrade Mao took care of the family’s livestock" and the bedroom "where comrade Mao slept." Inane placards in Chinese and English were posted everywhere, just in case visitors needed to be reminded what a closet was for ("where comrade Mao hung his clothes"). After a quick tour through the sanitized attraction, we were starving. An entrepreneuse of the desperate variety literally dragged us to her nearby restaurant, where we waited endlessly for the few simple dishes we ordered. We also ordered tea something like six times before anyone would admit, "Meiyou." A Chinese restaurant without tea? Something was definitely amiss here.

Next we headed to the Mao market, selling a surprisingly narrow variety of Mao paraphernalia. The pushiness of the vendors drove us quickly out, though not before we bought some postcards and a silk tea towel bearing the face of Stalin.

The Mao museum was also a big disappointment. Formerly the building housed two identical museums in order to deal with the throngs of pilgrims, but now they’ve busted down the wall, giving the visitor the chance to walk bewilderedly through a vast maze of dusty unlit rooms, many holding nothing but a stepladder. Aside from some workers painting and the inevitable trinket sellers, we were the only people in the whole place. The best part by far was the "reliquary." Here we were instructed to take off our shoes and slip plastic bags over our socks before entering a place vaguely reminiscent of the vault holding the Crown Jewels in London, only with filthy carpeting and grease-smudged vitrines. Housed behind glass was comrade Mao’s toothbrush, his Ping-Pong paddles, and –best of all— the swimsuit he wore during his famous dip in the Yangtse late in his career. I first mistook this sacred relic for a slipcover for a couch, or maybe a tablecloth. Mao was one large dude.

It was only four o’clock or so and we felt like we’d already "done" Shaoshan. A nap felt in order, so we returned to our truly vile lodgings for a mini siesta before dinner. When we went downstairs, the woman running our guesthouse blocked our way out the door to the street, pleading for us to eat there. We gestured to the karaoke machine and covered our ears, and she ran over to turn the nasty music down to a bearable level, at which point we made the mistake of conceding and sat down. Our hostess recommended we try "comrade Mao’s favorite dish; it’s pork." We agreed, and as soon as the order had been taken the karoke was cranked up again. Mao’s favorite dish turned out to be huge chunks of pig fat in a mildly spicy sauce (explaining the obscene swimtrunks). A bite or two was all I could handle without getting nauseous. I was miserable, telling Fred I would settle for nothing short of the best hotel in Changsha tomorrow night. Fortunately he agreed with me wholeheartedly. After many days on the gritty, deafening roads of Hunan, staying in tatty bordellos thinly disguised as hotels, we are definitely ready for a princess fix.

27-28 September, Changsha (f)

I slept fitfully. First of all, I was cold for the first time in ages. Second, I distinctly heard the ping-ping of rain on the roof of the shack next to our dingy hotel. All I could think of was riding in the soupy mess and shivering all day. When I finally got out of bed I was in an absolutely foul mood. We loaded our bikes and readied ourselves for departure. Somehow the hotel staff had convinced Andy that we should eat in their restaurant. I couldn’t imagine we would after the karaoke experience the night before.

We sat down and began to drink our respective hot beverages. (I have virtually given up coffee at this point. Now I only occasionally have a cup, leaving Andrew to believe that I am actually an alien.) Just after the waitress/desk clerk/maid took our order and ran back to the kitchen to assume her new duties as cook. As soon as she did another hotel employee dashed into the dining room and turned up the karaoke machine to full volume. Her action startled us into action. We grabbed our bikes and left without breakfast. The rain had deteriorated into a weak cold mist that made me shiver as we sought a quiet non-karaoke breakfast. It was easy enough to find some jiaozi (little won ton like dumplings) in soup to warm us before our ride.

We started to ride out of town. As I pedaled the wet dirty road mess slopped up my leg. We looked at each other and put our bikes on a bus. The fare seemed inexpensive to go all the way to Changsha and it seemed strange that the driver wasn’t interested in us putting the bikes on the roof and getting our bags out of the way. I wasn’t so surprised when we were told to get off at the next town and that we’d have to switch busses. However, we had been told that our fare would get us to Changsha and it was too much to take us only a few kilometers so we had yet another bus dispute that ended in our favor.

The bus ride to Changsha was well advised. The rain continued and the road was a slippery and dangerous mess. We saw no fewer than three accidents on the way. One was a grisly bus collision and we passed while people were wandering around the crash scene covered in blood and dazed. Another had involved a car and bicycle, making me happy we decided not to ride.

Fortunately when we arrived at the Changsha bus terminal the rain had stopped and the ground had begun to dry. The bus station was still several kilometers from the city and we would have to ride. It was one of the bigger cities we’d been in. Huge roads crisscrossed the center with massive complicated intersections providing passage for bikes, cars and pedestrians through mazes of over and underpasses. We settled ourselves in Changsha’s finest hotel (brand-new and forty-seven stories high!) to make up for the rustic nights before.

I was looking forward to Changsha. We had read about a museum that "had to be seen". We wound our way through town looking for it through a park that had moon festival displays set up all over it. The cheesy displays and carnival rides reminded me of my childhood and Purim carnivals at our local synagogue. When we finally found the museum it was 11:15 AM and they were about to close for lunch. We insisted that they let us in promising only to see the premier display – the two thousand year-old woman. She’d been found in the countryside buried in a series of lacquer boxes, the largest the size of a huge room. Her body had been exhumed and put in a massive refrigerator in the basement of the museum. Visitors could look down through glass at her body. Her organs had been placed in a separate fridge and you could view them as well. She was hard to see through the fogged up windows. Wiping them we got a decent view and I decided she looked a lot like Ho Chi Minh.

Changsha is a happening town of over five million. At night the streets are full of people walking and shopping. I’d decided that it was cold enough to buy a pair of shoes. My sandals just won’t cut it on cold days like the ones just passed. I found a Nike knock-off that really amused me. Not only was the brand name hilarious but the shoe was attractive. They were called "Kike" and I couldn’t wait to have a pair. Unfortunately they could only be found in Asian sizes. Leaving me only the possibility of imagining the response if I wore them to a Rosh Hashanah celebration at the temple.

While shopping and walking we noticed a strange sight. Remember we are in the center of a town of over five million inhabitants, many kilometers from the nearest rice fields. Yet at nine at night right we observed a man driving three water buffalo down Changsha’s main street. Was he lost? A little later we happened upon the closest thing to a gay bar we’d seen in China. The black façade of Comrade’s bar beckoned us. We entered to find a clearly homo staff, several bored looking clients and a drag queen. Our two beers cost us ten times what they would on the street, but it was worth it to see this glimpse of ‘cosmopolitan’ China.


Agouti geeks


mmmm, live amphibians

Mao suits are still in vogue in the sticks of Hunan



Spreading cheer with images of Mao

29 September, Changsha to Pingxiang, 135km (a)

Getting out of Changsha took some doing. The streets were total pandemonium, especially at one point in the road where there had been –surprise—an accident. To avoid the main road and its inevitable honk-a-thon, we followed an alternate route through rolling hills and valleys full of soon-to-be-harvested rice. While the road was badly surfaced, the riding was glorious. We had a tailwind for a change and were sharing the road with far more bicycle-bound peasants than evil honking trucks. And the only traffic jams we had to deal with were caused by colorful markets in the centers of small farming villages.

At km50 we hit the main road just outside the hideous outskirts of Zhuzhou, yet another massive city I’d never heard of before this trip. We pedaled happily past a sign clearly forbidding bicycle traffic onto a long raised viaduct resembling the Chicago Skyway and continued onward on the freeway-like highway for the remainder of the day.

--And it was the best road we’ve been on so far in the PRC : wide, with a good shoulder for riding, nicely graded and –best of all— hardly any honking trucks. With a continuing tailwind the kilometers clicked over quickly under our wheels. At km100 we stopped at an exit to the sinister-looking town of Liling, wondering if we should stop for lunch and perhaps a bus to our night’s destination. Both ideas were nixed, due to the perfect riding conditions. Exiting the highway also risked gettting flack from people at the tollbooth and being forced to take the old road, and at our current pace we could reach Pingxiang faster than any bus.

A couple of scary tunnels brought us to the Hunan-Jiangxi border, where we stopped for a water break. After a few moments of playing coy, the people hanging around –including a trio of cops—gathered up the courage to approach us and ask a few questions. Their accent was the strangest I’ve yet heard in China, sounding more like Finnish than Chinese, yet I managed to answer their most urgent queries, providing them with the usual spiel. For his part, Fred distributed postcards of comrade Mao purchased in Shaoshan, each of which we were both required to sign as a memento. Fred, given to hyperbole and generalization, claimed he already liked Jiangxi better than Hunan. ‘People are friendlier in this province, ‘ he proclaimed, ‘and they don’t honk as much.’

The remaining kilometers to Pingxiang were hilly and pretty. At the border the road had transformed itself into an ordinary highway so we were rolling right through villages and towns again, which meant there was more to look at and more to watch out for. As on any long day of cycling, the last ten kilometers were the toughest. By the time we reached the outskirts of town we had a sizable escort, mostly on motorbikes, competing for our attention. The most persistent of these actually proved helpful, aiding us in finding a hotel in this big industrul town of one million or so. Pingxiang feels more provincial than other towns its size we’ve passed through. I doubt, for example, that there’s a yuppie bar here. Even karaoke seems oddly absent. Instead, you have a more traditinoal, ‘old style’ Chinese city, slower paced and full of friendly folk. The ‘hello’s’ we get here feel less irritating, more genuine, somehow, and no one has made any effort to rip us off.

After stuffing ourselves with a huge assortment of dumplings and other treats (only a buck for seven plates of food) we caught a micro taxi –actually just a 3-wheeled motorcycle with a fiberglass hull—to the train station for a masochistic bout with idiotic functionaries and impatient, shoving ticket-buyers. On our walk back a bunch of boys (we’re convinced they’re cuter here than in Hunan) strode alongside us, instant friends. They invited us to join them for dinner but we’re too zonked, especially Fred, who snores in the bed beside me as I scribble these lines.

30 September, Pingxiang to Xinyu, 126km (f)

Finally ! ! ! A tailwind ! ! ! Will wonders never cease? I thought I’d never have an easy day of cycling again. Today as we mounted our bikes it picked me up and pushed me along. I’d forgotten what it felt like to be light and free on my bike and racing with the wind.

Helping me stay motivated was the georgeous scenery. Fields of rice ready for harvest stood on either side of the road. Later in the day we saw peasants cutting and hauling rice back to to the mills for separation and drying. We hadn’t seen a rice harvest in months and it was fun to watch the differences between Chinese methods and those used in South East Asia.

One shocking moment was when we left town. Just a few kilometers out we saw a group of cycle tourists heading towards us. We passed them without them understanding who or what we were and it took a moment for them to realize that we were doing the same thing and to double back. There were five of them and they rode down the highway side-by-side without care for the traffic. Not really well outfitted for the task on five speed bikes and without any protective equipment, at least they were touring. Surprising to find our first fellow tourists in China were actually Chinese.

After lunch the road opened up and became a huge and wide new asphalt affair that was absolutely empty. We shared it only with other cyclists and the wind started blowing at us again. I could tolerate a half day of wind after having the glorious morning tailwind. The terrain became more hilly and rocky and the dwellings were more traditional. Long two-story barns constructed of mud brick with intricate roofs appeared as the ugly cement mid rises disappeared.

The entrance of Xinyu appeared a few hours later. We had to follow a circuitous route into town and had trouble locating the center. We finally found it and a reasonably modern hotel. Our room had been well worn by previous Chinese occupants. (It is our theory that Chinese people are hard on hotel rooms.) Our room looked as though abortions had been performed on the carpet. I feared walking on it even in shoes. There were peach pits on the floor and the bathroom was decidedly unclean (the dirt-smudged ‘sanitized’ ribbon on the toilet notwithstanding). Surprising for a place that could only be a few years old. We escaped the depressingly dirty confines of our room for a walk about town.

Xinyu felt more communist than most places we’d been. Wide boulevards full of shops that had rather dated goods, big treeless parks and lots of sour-faced locals. After our walk and dinner along the park at a dog restaurant (no we did not eat dog, but could have….) we strolled through the park where some rather eager teenage boys tried to ‘pick us up’ unsuccessfully. After dark the park was happening. Full to the brim with Chinese townspeople amusing themselves at carnival style games and eating snacks. At one little stand you could throw darts at a board to win a prize. Fearless park goers walked behind and in front of the dartboard apparently trusting that the thrower would not spear them.

After a fun and eventful night we hit the hay dreaming about another morning tailwind.

Motley Chinese cycle tourists


One of the few traditional hamlets left in Jiangxi


Goosey gander and doggy dinner


National Day in Nanchang


Fighting for fast food at Donald's burgers

1 October, Xinyu to Zhangzhu/Nanchang, 97km (a)

Leaving Xinyu this morning, we felt like salmon swimming upstream. It must have been rush hour, with a huge tidal wave of bicycles flowing into town –fifteen solid kilometers of Flying Pigeon-straddling commuters. Leaving civilization behind, we climbed up through forests of carefully arranged pine trees, then down through plantations of bushy plants that might have been mulberry for silkworm food. Back on the alluvial plain, rice was in the process of being harvested. The latter part of today’s ride, though, looked like Nebraska or Kansas, with barren rolling hills and nary a soul in sight.

We stopped for lunch in the nasty little railroad town of Linjiangzhen, watching villagers outside unload cages of dogs from atop buses. They were of the big, German Shepard type, bred for their meat rather than companionship. The noodles we had ordered were so spicy as to be almost inedible, and we wasted no time getting back on the road.

The wind had kicked up and was blowing straight at us, making the cycling no fun at all. It wasn’t hard convincing Fred that we should bus it from the next town to Nanchang, Jianxi’s capital city.

An hour and a half later we were crossing a huge bridge over a huge river into the huge town of Zhangzhu (also known as Qingjiang –why do so many Chinese towns have two or more names ?). Finding a bus took no time at all, and soon I was looking out the window from my perch next to the driver, very glad indeed that we weren’t riding on such a busy road.

Outside Nanchang the road joined a superhighway that looked like it was teleported from the future. When the town appeared Fred and I were stunned. It seemed to go on forever in every direction, with no apparent center. Is Nanchang the LA of China ?

We rode into what people had indicated was the center of town, along a broad avenue filled with all kinds of traffic. Nanchang is the kind of place that makes you realize that these people (i.e. the Chinese) will soon be masters of the planet. We stopped beside a massive square decorated with big balloons and giant portraits of Mao and Zhou En Lai. ‘What"s going on ?’ I asked one of the many people milling about. ‘It’s National Day,’ he reminded me in a tone usually reserved for speaking to morons (a tone I find myself using a lot in this country full of ADD sufferers). The same man told me that the best hotel in town was just down the street.

The Jiangxi Binguan is not only the best hotel in Nanchang, but by far and away the best place we’ve stayed in China. Built for communist officials in the ‘60’s, the rooms are huge and solidly constructed, and it’s the only place we’ve seen that features actual character. Add in great food, incredibly helpful staff and a whopping 50% discount (on the country’s biggest holiday, no less) and you’ve got the recipe for bestowal of the BikeBrats Award for Excellence in Lodging.

We had decided to join my father and Leslie in Hangzhou rather than in the mountains, due to our aversion towards climbing and lack of anything warm to wear. So our main concern upon arrival in Nanchang was getting tickets out. Both the front desk and the business center told us that the first available train tickets they could find would be some six days later –not an acceptable option. ‘What about CITS ?’ we asked, referring to the Chinese tourist authority allegedly able to fix such problems. The response wasn’t a welcome one : ‘CITS has an office right here in the hotel,’ the desk staff informed us, ‘but they won"t be open for another four days due to the holiday weekend.’ The thought of a four-day weekend in this land of workaholics floored both of us. We caught our breath and asked what we could do. They told us to try the train station, where we elbowed our way to the window only to get the same negative response.

‘How about flights to Hangzhou ?’ I continued to pester the receptionist. She told us that the only flight available was the next morning, but that they wouldn’t take bikes. Some brainracking yielded the idea that we could ship the bikes by train and fly the next morning. As both of us were looking forward to a well-earned day of rest after three tough days of riding, we weren’t exactly thrilled by the prospect, but we accepted our fate as the only one available to us. We went upstairs, packed up our bikes with everything we wanted shipped, and went down to the business center to buy the air tickets. A last-minute call informed us that the train wouldn’t ship our bikes without our possessing tickets, and we found ourselves back at square one. I put on my most pathetic expression and asked once more if anything could be done, to which the remarkably clever young woman behind the counter said, ‘Yes, there is actually one possibility. Come back here at nine-forty-five and I’ll know if we can find you some train tickets somehow.’ Just how this ‘somehow’ works is a mystery to me in byzantine China, but I assume it has something to do with party connections. In any case, we figured we were now entirely at this woman"s mercy and went to one of the hotel’s many restaurants for dinner.

Here we ran into a large group of Americans adopting Chinese babies. One couple sitting at the table next to us were feeding a totally adorable little girl. ‘Next time we’re going to Vietnam,’ her new mom explained, ‘you can get boys there.’

During our post-dinner walk around town we were overwhelmed by the masses of humanity. The town’s central square was now jam-packed, as were all the streets around it. Thousands and thousands of people, and all of them Chinese. It wasn’t easy fighting our way through the crowd, but the diminutive stature and general calm demeanor of the people made the experience more bearable –festive even-- than the expected claustrophobic nightmare. Nevertheless, we sought a quieter way back, wending our way through a labyrinth of narrow alleys and getting utterly lost.

We made it back to the hotel just before the appointed hour, and the woman at the business center was wearing a big smile when we ran in, fairly panting in our anticipation. ‘I found you a pair of tickets,’ she said with a hint of triumph in her voice, ‘but they’re for tomorrow rather than the next day and they’re in hard sleeper rather than soft.’

‘We’ll take them !’ we chorused, and went upstairs for bed, sad to be leaving this interesting town a day earlier than we’d hoped, but happy to be on our way to see Jack and Leslie. Both of us felt ready to see some familiar faces among all the alien strangeness of the Middle Kingdom.

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