Triplogue - China V: Shanghai and Jiangsu

11 October, slow boat to Shanghai (a)

Yong warned us that the boat would be dirty, and she was right. The twelve-hour voyage from Ningbo to Shanghai is hardly a luxury cruise. Indeed, our vessel –the S.S. Sputumbucket looked as if it were on the verge of disintegrating into rusty chunks. Maybe the many layers of grease and grime that covered every surface were holding the whole thing together…

Our cabin looked as though it hadn’t been cleaned since the Song Dynasty. Worse still, we had to share it with an older Chinese couple. The man wore a Mao watch and his wife had an elaborate perm perched on top of her round head. When we entered they were noisily enjoying a feast on and around the cabin’s little table, scattering chicken bones on the floor and hawking up phlegm with gusto. We slung our bags onto our reed-mat covered bunks (good thing we carry our own bedding) and left for a walk around the ship as it made its long voyage down river to the sea.

First stop was the dining room –more like a mess hall, really. The food looked unexpectedly edible, but we weren’t hungry yet. "How late are you open?" I asked a uniformed employee who looked like he might have a clue. "Ten o’clock" was the answer that I understood.

On the boat’s chain-covered bow we met two sailors in charge of the anchor. The beefier of the two did all the talking and was very careful to use simple and well-pronounced Chinese, so we were able to have an actual conversation. He told me of all the places he and his well-traveled friend had been, how we would arrive at Shanghai at 5am (others had told us 6am, but we felt certain our new friend was right), and how dinner was free for all passengers.

This welcome fact whetted our appetites and drove us back inside. Back in the mess hall, all the food had been mysteriously cleared away, and it was only six-thirty. "Meiyou le" –there isn’t any more—barked the same gentleman who had been so friendly before. We tried to coax him into whipping us up some food, any food, but he would have nothing to do with us. When I told the woman at the gift shop (selling snacks and communist mementos) of our plight she passed on the information to her uniformed brass-tacks colleague. "You’ll get your dinner," our new friend promised us before marching into the canteen and pulling rank. We heard some shouting emanating from behind the closed door, and when it had subsided we meekly walked back in. Two plates of food (probably heavily seasoned with bitter chef’s spit) were slammed down in front of us. The kitchen nazi scowled at us angrily as we ate and told us we had to leave immediately unless we wanted to pay six kuai for the ersatz karaoke lounge he was setting up.

We politely declined his warm offer, having been invited –by the captain, no less—to the ship’s real karaoke lounge/discotheque. It was located one deck below and we went there straight after dinner. The karaoke had already begun. The captain (who was sailing the ship?) and the friendly woman who had helped us get dinner were singing a duet. We were whisked off to a table of other karaokers: two businessmen and their considerably younger female companions. "We’re staying in the cabin next to yours," said one of the men. I looked at the girl next to him in her clingy little ensemble and asked him if she was his sister. "Yes," he said with a little wink, "my sister."

Everyone around us insisted we sing, and after a couple of beers we reluctantly agreed, grabbing a couple of mikes for truly awful renditions of "Country Roads" and "Leavin’ on a Jet Plane" (other choices included Carpenters and Barry Manilow tunes –all classics in cornball-loving Asia). The girls became friendlier after our performance, probably at the request of their male companions. They nudged and prodded and stroked us and made all sorts of indecent propositions involving money. The initially asked price of 100 American dollars dropped quickly to 50 Chinese yuan. (The "sister" of our friend literally wrote "$100" on a post-it note and put it on her forehead! - F) Fred and I took this as our cue to escape to our quarters. Apparently there’s no getting away from B-girls in China, even on the high seas.

It was only nine p.m. but our cabin mates were fast asleep, snoring loudly. We had no real choice but to turn in ourselves, and I lay for what seemed like the whole night on my hard little bunk.

At three a.m. I got up to pee and stood on deck for a while watching a huge cruise ship called "Crystal Harmony" cruise past us down the Changjiang (a.k.a. Yangtse River). It looked like a dream. Twenty minutes later I was back in my bunk trying to sleep when our Mao-loving friend clambered noisily down from his bed and started brushing his teeth. I’ve never heard anything like it. It sounded like he was scrubbing the floor rather than his mouth. He finished up the task with extra-loud gargling and resonant bouts of spitting, then turned on the cabin’s bright fluorescent light and announced to the world at large that we’d soon be there. I told him we still had nearly two hours to sleep, but he didn’t care, leaving the lights on and exiting for an exploration of the deck.

Fred and I packed our bags, complaining and vowing to murder the man if we saw him on the street in Shanghai. We went out on deck and munched on an unsatisfying breakfast of cookies in the drizzly pre-dawn chill. From time to time our ship would blurt out a loud warning to other vessels, of which there were many. We were in the teeming port lining the Huangpu River now, but still a long way from docking. Finally, after watching an endless stretch of container cranes slip by, skyscrapers began to appear with a vengeance. Soon we passed the stately 30’s era buildings on the "Bund" (Waitan to the Chinese) and began the lengthy docking process. By the time we got off the boat it was five-thirty and I’d been up for over two hours. Yes, there’s something timelessly romantic about arriving in a place by boat, I thought to myself, but next time I’ll be taking the train.

Captain Crooner duets with our angel du jour

Shanghai sweatshop: with Nicolas and Yong


Jack and Leslie on their way to Hong Kong

12-15 October, Shanghai (f)

Gray skies and rain-slicked streets greeted us in Shanghai. Still groggy from insufficient rest and eyes full of sleep we rode along Shanghai’s Bund towards Yong and Nicolas’ apartment. The rain and rising sun lent a movie set look to the street scene. Could this be Chicago of the 30s? Yes except for the bicycle trucks hauling goods to market and all the Chinese people running around. A moment later we left Chicago for Hong Kong at dawn. We rode down a cement canyon lined with extinguished neon. Still a little out-of-sorts we stopped to ask a jogger directions. His attire was at best inappropriate for running: smart grey pleated wool slacks, freshly pressed white business suit, a tie and bright white running shoes. He didn’t stop moving to answer our question but huffed and puffed his way through his advice in a rich mixture of English, Chinese and Shanghai dialect that somehow both Andy and I understood.

Moments later we were on Yong’s doorstep at a hardly civil hour. Despite our early arrival Yong ran downstairs in her bathrobe, warmly welcomed us and help us haul our bags to the elevator. Motherhood seemed to have even further energized Yong. Upstairs we spied little Thibaut sleeping in the dull early morning light. Wisely Nicolas slept in while we drifted into a deep morning nap to make up for our early arrival and nearly sleepless night.

The dismal weather over the next days suited our activities. We hardly saw the streets of Shanghai, writing and assembling the pages you are reading leaving only to dine each evening. Good fortune put us here at Yong and Nicolas’ house. Because they run their business from their house we had their computers at our disposal and put to use all of Nicolas’ technology.

It wasn’t "all work and no play". We did manage to have dinner with Jack and Leslie whom we found only because Yong tracked down their guide’s beeper number through Beijing (resourceful or what?). Another night we went out for a culinary adventure. Yong and Nicolas took us to one of the neon drenched Hong Kong-like streets for a meal of serpent. After we sat down a live two-kilo kingsnake was brought to the table for inspection. Before the snake arrived a surprise appetizer came to the table. "Dancing" shrimps were swimming in a clear lidded container. They pressed against the top trying to escape the dish full of soy sauce, rice alcohol and cilantro. I decided to wait until the booze slowed them down before gaining the courage to dismember and eat one. They weren’t bad once I got used to them squirming in my hand before munching one. Drinking the blood and venom of the snake was something I could never become accustomed to. I tried both but wouldn’t repeat the experience. When our hostess burst the venom gland in the bowl of alcohol it flooded the dish with fluorescent green. "Mediciney" was Andy’s assessment, mine disgusting and boozy. Just when I was getting used to our "relaxing" stay in Shanghai it was time to explore the countryside.

16 October, Shanghai to Suzhou, 115km (a)

Riding out of Shanghai this morning I never forgot for a moment that we were in China’s largest city. The fact that Shanghai is also one of the P.R.C.’s richest towns was harder to believe, however. Our route (suggested in Roger Grigsby’s "China by Bike") led us out of town on a nightmarish road paralleling the railroad tracks. The air quality assaulted our exposed orifices, our itchy eyes constantly treated to squalid sooty scenes out of Zola or Sinclair. The day’s only saving grace was a serviceable tailwind.

We had pedaled for over forty kilometers before we saw any signs of rural life, and these were only glimpses caught in gaps between factories –most of which were brand new and sporting flags of Western powers, indicating their J.V. (joint venture) status.

Shortly after negotiationg our way through the ghastly suburbs of Jiading, we stopped at a trucker-style restaurant by the side of the highway. A trio of young, heavily made-up girls beckoned us inside, promising all the dishes we craved. They ushered us into a "box," a grimy closet-like room (available in virtually every restaurant and karaoke parlor in China). We ordered quickly but the girls –all three of them—kept pestering us. The most irritating of the three wouldn’t stop shouting in my ear from a proximity that can only be described as intimate. "Guo le" –"that’s enough"—I said until I was blue in the face, "who’s doing the cooking anyway? We’re hungry." They left us alone, but only for a moment. One or the other of the girls would come back in, thrust the menu in front of me and indicate a dish, asking, "Don’t you want this?" This quickly grew tiresome in the extreme, but the final straw was when ear-shouting girl burst in with a plate of pistachios and proposed a number of things that weren’t on the menu. She insisted we buy the pistachios not for ourselves but for our female companions, i.e. the tacky trucker whores who ran this bogus restaurant. Starving or not, we decided to take our appetites elsewhere and hit the road in nothing flat. Pedaling away I thought how great it could be to be a horny straight man with some yuan in his pocket, as commercial sex opportunities in the People’s Republic of China are truly ubiquitous. Massage parlors, karaoke bars, cafes, hotels, restaurants, even barber shops offer up prostitutes as part of their services. Given the proliferation of these kinds of businesses (to which Fred refers variously as "whore salons", "whoretels" and "whoreoke"), there are plenty of clients.

A few kilometers further we saw a pair of "drive-thru whores" –thinly masquerading as hitchhikers—jump into a truck that had pulled over. Fred and I were careful to pick a restaurant in the next town that featured actual food. A very friendly old woman set us up with a couple of bowls of greasy noodles and chased away the crowd in the sidewalk when it got too thick.

We escaped the unpleasantness of the main road for twenty kilometers, turning onto a still-busy secondary road running alongside a barge-filled canal all the way to Kunshan, yet another large Chinese town. For the better part of an hour we fought our way through crowds of weaving, clueless cyclists, swerving to avoid all sorts of obstacles in this hectic city.

Suzhou was still over an hour away, but we had already penetrated the far-reaching industrial wasteland that surrounds it, breathing in new flavors and smells with every push of the pedal.

Suzhou itself looked genuinely nasty until we crossed the circular canal that marks off the old part of the city. Suddenly we were plunged into a network of narrow tree-shaded streets positively swarming with cyclists. We stopped at the first place we came across –the unimaginatively named Suzhou Hotel—and checked in.

An evening walk yielded few surprises. Like a lot of big towns in this prosperous area, Suzhou is abuzz with signs of rampant capitalism, especially along the wide main streets.

The next day we made a concentrated effort at being tourists. In the morning we twisted our way through fascinating little alleyways to the Garden of the Master of Nets, supposedly the most exquisite of Suzhou’s famous gardens. Fred and I failed to appreciate the place, though, so swarmed it was with tour groups. We got out in a hurry and moved on to the much quieter "Surging Wave Pavillion", where only the occasional spit could be heard.

We got our little lost on our way to an old preserved corner of town featuring old city walls and gates, a big bridge and a high pagoda. Here we watched amazing amounts of canal traffic jockey for position to pass under the bridge. Each vessel was piloted by a couple. While the husbands would take care of the tractor motor and steering from the stern, the wives stayed standing at the bows, using poles to measure water depth and push off from obstacles, and shouting out directions to boats coming the other way. We walked around through an ancient neighborhood clinging to the sides of canals big and small. People cranked buckets of water up from fetid wells, watered their tiny vegetable gardens with urine (why?) and gossiped with each other in noisy dialect. It was hard to believe that KFC was just around the corner.

From here we cycled out to the countryside in search of a 1700 year-old bridge. Since we had no map, we were at the mercy of the directions given us by passers-by. No two responses were alike and it began to feel like a wild goose chase. But since it was a lovely day we stuck to it, and finally caught a glimpse of our goal from a large bridge crossing the aptly named Grand Canal, an imperial relic still very much in use. A couple of wrong turns later and we were there: a smallish bridge of many arches leading nowhere. As we started riding on the bumpy old thing, we came upon a pair of foreign devils, Amaury and Lala. Respectively French and Argentinian, they were studying Chinese in Shanghai and decided to visit Suzhou only for the day. They gave us their number and we said we’d call them to invite them to a party next week chez Yong et Nicolas.

Back in town we treated ourselves to haircuts. It was my first Chinese haircut so I wasn’t fully prepared for the elaborate pre-cut shampoo treatment/head massage, which took over an hour. Afterwards we ate at our new favorite restaurant –featuring an English menu, friendly service and delicious chow. It was Saturday night and while we’d previously committed to check out the nightlife, neither of us felt quite up to it. All of the tourism had worn us out.

Trapped in the whores' "box"


Crab vendor explains his marketing strategy


In the tranquil gardens of Suzhou


Amoury and Lala on the ancient bridge

Jacques and Louis show us the way (and their Versailles-like domicile)



Lake Tai

18 October, Suzhou to Wuxi, 93km (a)

Many of our days of riding in China seem to run into one another. Most riding days have involved busy roads, blaring horns, flat terrain, rice and filthy industry. The towns dotting our route are generally grey cement expanses filled with cyclists and kamikaze taxis. Exiting Shouzhou was little different than leaving any other huge town. There were kilometers and kilometers of bike lanes full of cyclists some carting absurdly bulky loads on their bikes-cum-pickup trucks. All seemed to be impeding our hasty departure from the dusty and grey burgh. Once on the cement two-lane highway I quit into a coma of pedaling and introspection blotting out the doppler-effected blurry moan of the horns on the on-coming trucks.

Suddenly I came awake. I wasn’t simply avoiding a fellow cyclist this time it was a motorcycle. Bicyclists come in a few different flavors:

Coma girls: (in all fairness there are coma-boys too!) who ride into traffic staring only at their front wheel, have no concern for who or what may be in a collision course with them.

Weavers: regardless of their speed they ramble about in the bike path or road with no rhyme or reason.

Competitors: see our sporty bikes and outfits and rush to keep us with us or pass us until they tire and careen off the road to catch their breath. (Andy’s least favorite)

Competents: the rarest breed, ride with awareness and consideration to all around them at an appropriate speed.

The Curious: the most common, it is surprising how these folks can ride a straight line while looking back over their shoulder at us.

The motorcycle whizzed by me, pulled in front and slammed on his brakes in order to make a right turn. I grabbed both brakes as hard as I could slowing only a little before smashing into the back of the bike and flipping up into the rider’s mom on the back of the bike. Mom wouldn’t have any of this so she began screaming at me in her unintelligible dialect while I was still in a daze. When I finally found my bearings I leapt to my feet and started screaming at the driver just as Andy arrived and joined in with Chinese to complement my English expletives. To our surprise (not) a crowd formed. As I started to take stock of the damage to my bike and me a whorey looking woman started to giggle. I asked her to get lost in rather impolite Chinese. I was remarkably lucky to be whole and virtually unscratched. Andy made mention of getting the Gong An (police) and the motorcyclist apologized and disappeared down the road. I ached and thought I might have to stop riding. Somehow I rode through the pain.

A few short hours later we were at near destination, so we thought. We could see lake Taihu but couldn’t figure out how to get to the hotels across it.

After trying all our options around the lake we decided to head back towards Wuxi and find the lake from there. As we retreated two white guys on bikes appeared. Middle-aged Jacques and Louis work for a French company and live in the Taihu Venice Gardens (a nasty 70s-ish styled apartment and condo complex with an Italian theme). It is the only place that foreigners can buy near Wuxi. They invited us up to their high-rise apartment to get a bird’s eye view of the lake and find our bearings. Had we rode around the lake it would have taken less time, for J&L insisted on escorting us at a snail’s pace. All the time Jacques narrated our tour while Louis remained silent.

We finally ended up at a fun 50’s hotel on the lakefront, electing to skip the more luxurious and expensive newer models. Andy went for a ride around the lake while I slept-off my accident. That night we dined with John and Carl vacationing here from the States. John, a San Francisco native living in New York City, is an artist and his travelling companion Carl a German living in John’s home town. We ate together and laughed about our respective observations of China and the Chinese.

19 October, Wuxi to Jintan, 106km (a)

Riding in and out of big cities in Europe and America is almost always a headache, but in China it’s usually a piece of cake. This morning’s big city –Wuxi—wasn’t even on our route really, but I thought we might be able to find a decent map of Jiangsu province there.

We zigzagged along tree-lined boulevards before crossing the boat-choked Grand Canal and entering Wuxi’s glittering center, full of office towers, luxury hotels and KFC’s. We asked a bespectacled guy in the street where we could find a map and he suggested the train station, some distance off.

Once we’d made our way there I left Fred to guard the bikes at the edge of a vast concrete plaza while I went off in search of a map and a snack. The only map I found was inadequate but I bought it anyway, along with a bagful of scrumptious vegetable dumplings. Crossing back to where Fred was, a guy came out of nowhere, thrusting a map into my hands, an excellent map of Jiangsu. I recognized my benefactor as the guy in the street from before, marvelling at his generosity and industriousness. When I looked up a huge crowd had gathered across the square and while I couldn’t see him, I suspected Fred was at the center of it. Sure enough; I fought through the tightly-packed throng of several hundred onlookers to find my riding partner. He told me how he had used my squirt gun to fend off a taxi driver who was grabbing at his helmet. The ensuing histrionics had drawn the crowd, as well as a policeman or two who tried to disperse the staring masses.

We left town following the path of least resistance, a tiny speck among the pedaling masses. Fred seemed unhappy biking in the busy cycling lanes, but I enjoyed the slow-motion chaos. After a while we were on the open road again, snaking through endless rice paddies under gray skies. We lunched on roadside vegetables and rice before setting off on quiet country roads. It was a longer route but infinitely more rewarding. We were instantly plunged back into a place where bikes rule the road and agriculture constitutes the local economy. The road was bumpy but I felt great.

Suddenly we came upon an unusual sight for China: several dozen old women were chanting and making little oragami-esque boxes. It was obviously a religious rite but I didn’t understand the exact significance. Of course we generated a great deal of interest when we stopped. One of the women insisted we kneel down in front of a little alter and kow-tow (along with ping-pong, one of the few Chinese words in the English language) as she sprinkled us with water. She also filled our water bottles and blessed our bikes. We contributed a dollar, an act that was duly recorded in their account book. We knew we were in the deepest countryside when she asked how much it was worth in Renminbi (back in Shanghai, Yong could tell you the day’s exchange rate to the third or fourth decimal).

When we stopped to ask directions to the next town, a teenage boy with bad skin insisted he accompany us. Surprisingly, he kept up with us for quite a while before ditching us at the edge of Changzhou, a town much bigger than either of us had expected. It’s a sprawling disorganized spaghetti bowl of a place with grindingly slow traffic, evil pollution and gawking idiotic citizens: all in all, a city not high on my list of places to which I hope to return.

From Changzhou we took the road towards Jintan because it looked small on the map. The reality was yet another wide concrete job with four lanes of auto traffic plus a spacious bike lane on either side. The forty kilometers to Jintan went quickly and without incident. Our day’s intended resting point looked monstrously ugly coming into town, full of disgusting factories belching out black smoke. In front of one such factory, a yuppiesque guy told us that the town’s best hotel was the Zhongxin, and it wasn’t long before we were checking in.

After a street dinner and our nightly walk, I took advantage of our hotel’s amenities in the sauna/massage center. Of course girls were on offer, but I was able to find an old man to scrub me all over, soap me up, bathe me and pummel me into a mushy pulp. It was the perfect recipe for a good night’s sleep.

Funeral preparations near Wujin


We didn't find Jintan especially "sanitational"

Andy helps with the harvest


Entering Nanjing through Zhonghua Gate



20 October, Jintan to Nanjing, 110km (f)

Late in the afternoon we glided down a long hill, basked in the warm afternoon yellow sunlight, passed through the massive city walls of Nanjing and joined the throngs of Nanjingers on bikes. It was a nearly perfect end to a nearly perfect day. Had it not been for the good Samaritan who’d given us a map the day before the experience might have been quite different. When we awoke I gazed out the heavily tinted hotel windows and anticipated something very different. First, the flag on the neighboring building was full and blowing in the wrong direction. Next, the sky was grey and a chorus of horns whined in the street below. The first part of our journey on the miserably trafficked 321 was more interesting than the day before. It was littered with all forms of pedal-powered vehicles hauling all sorts of cargo dead and alive. The rice fields on either side of the highway were heavy with grain and looked ready for harvest. Soon we curved up towards the hills and the grain gave way to tea and scrub.

We dropped into another valley. This one was lined with rolling hills, and we spied a massive temple complex atop a little mountain. The mountain had the same name as the town we were seeking so we accidentally turned up the road to the mountain before realizing our mistake. On our way we passed farmers harvesting rice –the first we’ve seen in this part of China. I tried to photograph a surly farmer winnowing rice with a shovel but we were shooed off by one of his grumpy companions. Returning to the 321 for a few meters before turning off and saying goodbye forever to the highway.

The rice harvest is conducted differently here than in Indonesia from my observations this is the methodology:

Cut the rice at the base of the plant

Bundle it and lay it across the base of the plant in the field to dry

Richer farmers have machines that separate the rice grain from the plant, or poorer ones lay the stalks on the road and let passing traffic do the job

The rice is winnowed using a shovel to throw the rice up in the air over the road

Rice is dried on the road to be bagged and sent for processing

(some very wealthy farmers have very sophisticated harvesters, the first we’ve seen in use in Asia)

On every inch of our ride for the remainder of the day the road was full of rice and farmers engaging in this process.

At the first town we arrived at Andy asked directions from a driver he met on the street. As usual a huge crowd formed while I circumnavigated a traffic circle in the wrong direction. A peasant, worried for my safety in the empty street cautioned me to turn around. I stopped to take a picture and a woman gestured that we should climb the mountain to go to the monastery. A sign just before the town indicated that we were in "a Taoists’ paradise." A few yards down the road we set up the bikes to take a picture of them with a young water buffalo. He was very enthusiastic about Andy’s bike and began to lick the tire and rack. I thought about trying to mount the buffalo and like Laotse riding to Tibet. In effect we would be in a few days, riding a big jet-powered buffalo to India.

In the next town an old commie dude took us under his wing, indicating the way to Nanjing and to a noodle shop. It was nearly impossible to eat. A small crowd of 10 peasants gathered and stood five meters from us and watched our every move. The commented to one another laughed and pointed.

A short time later we were in Nanjing, where the Lonely Planet Guide refers to the traffic as "complete chaos". It was that; Andy was knocked down once and bumped into more than half a dozen times. He unloaded his squirt gun on some of the less coordinated comas, weavers and competitors. Just as we were about to search for lodging we met Steve Jackson. He and his wife are professors at Nanjing University, known as "NanDa." He teaches business and she English. NanDa was famous for an incident twelve years ago involving a black student who was dating an Asian. The scandal resulted in huge demonstrations and the hasty departure of several African students. Steve escorted us to the faculty hotel and guesthouse where they managed to accommodate us for next to nothing on campus. Further, Steve and his wife Pat invited us to dinner.

We mistakenly brought wine to dinner not knowing that our hosts were avowed Bahais. I likely made another error at dinner. When another guest put forth the argument that relationships (guanxi) were more important than marketing in China. I explained consumer behavior, the three P’s and distribution, shooting holes in their rather feeble arguments perhaps too ardently. Another guest joined the fray giving more asinine examples. Steve and Andy quickly changed the subject and we were shown the door soon afterwards. Guess I failed international relations tonight.

21-24 October, back to Shanghai (a)

After a full day of playing tourists-on-bikes in Nanjing, we felt ready to return to Shanghai. Chinese tourist attractions, I’ve decided, are never worth the price of admission, and they’re all the same: badly restored imperial monuments filled with schlocky souvenir huts and lots of vendors screaming at you to buy cokes. They all seem to feature uninspired landscape design, long walks up tree-lined avenues and hordes of spitting Chinese tourists. The tomb of the founder of the Ming Dynasty, for example, ought to have been interesting, but it was not. And the view from the top of the mountain we climbed via an excruciatingly slow chairlift was poisoned by all the women demanding we pay supplementary entrance fees. We did manage to find one free attraction in the Changjiang Daqiao, the bridge crossing the Yangtse, though we were forbidden to ride upon it. Also impressive and free was the huge Ming wall surrounding Nanjing, the longest city wall in the world.

It was more fun wandering around the streets of Nanjing’s crowded center. Across from the dormitory for foreign students we serially met Mandy –studying Chinese through John Hopkins—and Josh –on a travel break from Beijing U. Both had interesting tales to tell of their experiences in China. Other memorable highlights were stumbling upon an outdoor roller rink and finding shoes for Fred (only 12 kuai) in the night market. A young Chinese guy we met in the street told us that he knew of a gay bar in Nanjing, but we declined his offer to take us there, figuring we’d do better in Shanghai.

--that’s where we are now, busily preparing for tomorrow’s departure to Bangkok and onwards to India. Yong and Nicolas are giving a party tonight, with a buffet dinner of Beijing duck (it’ll be our third duck dinner in a row; we’re meat-loading in anticipation of India). Right now it’s eleven a.m. Nicolas is having a Chinese lesson, Fred is busy at the other computer editing photos, Yong is getting business done on the phone (I’m convinced her talent for this is unparalleled) and the adorable Thibaut is having a nap.

The next couple of months should be interesting, traveling with neither a computer nor a fixed itinerary. We’ve saved India for last, figuring it’ll be the most intense part of our voyage, and the place we’re most likely to fall seriously ill. We’re both looking forward to it though, ready for some color after China’s relentless gray. At the same time we’ll miss China’s amazing vitality and innocence, the friendliness of its people, the tasty food and the hundreds of millions of bicycles.

Time to put this mess up onto the Web…

Bikes on their way to the impound yard


Long river, big bridge: end of the line in China

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