China’s Heartland

“To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.” – Freya Stark

 
I reported last from Jining, where I just barely outran a storm and avoided a soaking. It rained all night and I set off in the morning on wet roads under cloudy skies still spitting drops here and there, with a cold tailwind chasing me. Somehow I lost my highway, Route G208, while still in Jining. It’s often easy to do that in these big cities, with signage in Chinese and crazy dense traffic. It doesn’t help that the government restricts GPS accuracy to 500 meters, which means that I can’t always tell which corner I am stopped at, and out of town my location is often indicated to be off in the fields. I was already far from the city when the road became a country lane, separated from G208 by some five kilometers of agriculture. But it was good fortune after all, because it gave me the opportunity to get closer to the country folk, and the road went south for 50 kilometers to a little town where a right turn would bring me back to the main road. 

I have mentioned the contrast between the busy, prosperous cities and the seemingly forgotten countryside and villages. On this day I had a ride into the past, where some of China’s 300 million poor live on less than $2 a day. Cars and trucks were few, except for dump trucks with dirt or coal. The ubiquitous three-wheeled motorcycle/trucks were in abundance, carrying all kinds of agricultural stuff. Donkey carts, and the occasional oxcart, we’re working hard in this harvest season. Threshing and winnowing by hand was taking place on the best surface available, the paved road. The road also served as a surface to dry crops such as peanuts, corn, onions and garlic. Habitations were primitive, power lines were few, and water was carried in buckets. Everyone who wore eyeglasses had the exact same style: perfectly round lenses in black plastic frames. Old men and women carried extremely large loads of sticks or cornstalks, and small motorcycles carried whole families, three generations, in addition to big cargos. Bicycles were sometimes modern, but often they would not have looked out of place in 1900. Now and then, through this landscape of peasant toil, drove a Chinese couple in a Lexus or SUV. We were only an hour’s drive from luxury and opulence. 
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The town I reached, Chahar Youi Qianqi, an agricultural center with a population of perhaps 10,000, was a third-world village with one foot in the modern world. The four-story hotel was the largest structure, and my room looked out on main street, bustling with pedestrians, bicycles and motor scooters on this rainy weekday evening. I stood watching at the window a good long while before venturing out to find dinner (rice, garlic scapes, and a steamed fish with the head still on it). If I was a curiosity in the city, I was a phenomenon in Chahar Youi Qianqi. The restaurant filled up with spectators, and eventually a young English-speaking man was sent for. When he told the crowd I bicycled there from London, a murmur filled the room like the sound of bees in a hive. When I finished eating, my interpreter told me the meal was paid for. I proceeded to shake hands for half an hour, and stole a few kisses from women young and old, to the noisy delight of the townspeople. A round of picture taking followed. 

Next on my itinerary was the city of Datong, at 1.7 million the most populous so far. Center of a coal mining district said to be the one of China’s most polluted areas, it looked to me, as I approached it from the northern hills on a clear, windy afternoon, like a huge, gleaming metropolis on a twisting, shining river. Before I reached it, however, I had an unfortunate experience. Either I lost the main road, or the main road itself deteriorated into a rutted, puddled, pothole-filled nightmare of black mud and slime. Coal dust mixed to a sticky batter by recent rains and traffic stuck to my bike, panniers, shoes and legs. Sloshing through puddles of black, oily slime, with truck traffic suddenly grown dense, I had to my left and right only smoke-belching factories, awful looking truck repair yards, industrial detritus and urban decay. My face was spotted with my own splash and the spray from passing trucks and motorcycles. I have never been so thoroughly filthy. It seemed to go on forever, five kilometers or more of hellish punishment for my many sins. 

Then suddenly a traffic circle, a right turn, and I was cruising down a wide graceful boulevard with a separate bicycle lane separated from the auto traffic by shrubs and flowers. Rows of artistically designed street lamps disappeared into distance, and the road was lined with new, modern and very tall apartment buildings, all identical, with a handsome brick-red and bone-white treatment. Well-dressed mothers pushed expensive strollers on the wide sidewalks or cruised on electric motor scooters with toddlers on board. Amid this urban elegance, I was still a filthy mess. 

The city was a beehive of activity. At one point I counted forty cranes from a single vantage point. All streets were busy, all sidewalks crowded. Even the byways and seedy neighborhoods were full of life and bustle. The fall harvest holiday, a national week of celebration second only to New Years’, meant that moon cakes and flags were for sale everywhere, and oversized fireworks were on display every night. There were four major displays that night, in addition to smaller “wedding” displays, and almost constant neighborhood firecracker competitions starting in early morning and going all day and night. 

At the center of downtown were three or four thirty-story hotels, a Crown Plaza among them. I checked it out; only $90 for the standard single, up to $1200 for the “Presidential Suite”.  An elegantly uniformed traffic policeman directed me to more reasonable accommodations nearby. It was still a fancy place with uniformed doormen; I secured a room for $30. The staff provided me with rags and basins of water at the curb, and in half an hour I was clean enough to enter. I spent the evening cleaning my panniers and clothes, and decided to stay two nights, my first layover since Ulaanbaatar. In the morning I had a thorough, two-hour massage, then set out to find a bike shop. I had worn out another chain and cog set, and they were now so dirty and worn that they weren’t worth cleaning. After a long and entertaining search, I found a small pro shop that had the goods. It was hidden in plain sight, ironically, within view of my tenth-floor hotel room window. I left the bike overnight with the excited owner and had dinner before retiring. 

My bike was not only ready in the morning; it was spotlessly clean. The coal dust and mud, and the tar from my misadventure in Mongolia, were gone, and the bike gleamed and shined like new. Someone had spent hours on the project. The bill was for parts only, no labor. I rode out of Datong feeling much better than when I rode in. 
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Leaving town I had navigating difficulties, as I would have at the edges of many cities, due to road construction. They don’t close off construction areas here as they do elsewhere. Instead of flagmen, the workers control traffic by simply making speed bumps out of dirt or gravel, a common sense approach I have to admire. Cars wind in and out among the bulldozers and dump trucks, and where it’s too rough for cars, bicycles and motorcycles still go through. Construction workers lay down their shovels and help push motorcycles and bicycles up steep banks or over deep ditches. When this kind of highway construction spreads over a large area, with no signs, it is not easy to emerge on the proper route. It is time consuming. After an hour I was back on track, but still only five kilometers from Datong. 

The following week varied some. Pedaling through mostly flat agricultural countryside with light traffic (with the exception of one mountain pass marked by large coal mining operations), I stayed in a series of hotels, some nice and some not, in a series of cities, some large and some small, and ate at a series of big city restaurants, roadside noodle shops, and neighborhood vendor’s carts. 

The weather slowly changed from cool and clear to warm and hazy, until finally a temperature inversion engulfed the region in a thick, yellow, sulphuric smog. Normally many Chinese wear face masks; now everyone clutched them to their faces and peered anxiously through half-closed, watering eyes. My own eyes hurt and became bloodshot, headaches accompanied a loss of appetite, and for four days I breathed through a bandana. Through Taiyuan, Taigu, Jeixiu, and Huozhuo it worsened, and each night I washed black filth from my bandana, my clothes and myself. 

The sunrise viewed from my hotel window in Huozhuo showed that man’s pollution sometimes creates beautiful effects: a dimly glowing orange disc in a pale yellow sky. I skipped breakfast and cruised over to the train station, where a chaotic scene was taking place due to the ending of the fall holiday. I pushed my bike into the cavernous ticket hall so I could keep one eye on it as it rested against the far wall, and joined one of the six long lines of chattering passengers, mostly masked against the smog. In a stroke of good luck, the woman in front of me was a university student in a “Business English” course. She was terribly shy, and confessed that I was the first western person she had ever spoken to. Without her help it is unlikely that I would have, in the course of the next hour, placed my bicycle and gear in the baggage car, and my self in a train seat, bound for Xi’an, 500 kilometers southward. Because the huge city of Xi’an has several train stations, some of which do not handle freight, there was much confusion regarding my bike and kit. This resulted in a last minute scramble with railroad policemen escorting me through hallways and stairways at a run, and through crowds at a snail’s pace, onto a forty-car train so packed with travelers as to defy description. From newborns to ancients, we were four to a pair of seats, sitting on the little tables, and crammed standing up in the aisles until not another skinny kid could have fit in. The next six hours were quite stressful for all of us, made bearable by the good cheer of the passengers and the heroics of the China Rail staff. Food and drinks, normally served from carts in the aisles, as on an airplane, were passed from hand to hand, and payment passed back. Trash was removed the same way, and the emergency windows were opened to provide air; smelly as it was, the maneuver provided great relief. Children (and some adults) peed in cups, which were passed to the window and dumped. Somehow, by piling several people on the laps of others,  elderly women gained access to the car’s toilet. I, standing pressed between a beauty and a beast, ate but a few cookies and peed not. A few people got off at one station, and it seemed to make breathing easier. 

In Xi’an I got off at the right station, but my bike and kit didn’t. The staff couldnt have been more helpful. After taking my paperwork and giving me a comfortable seat, two agents worked the phones until my stuff was found at the main downtown station. An English-speaking customer was found to convey the news. With just a shoulder bag and mandolin, I took a taxi to the main station, arriving just after the freight offices had closed for the night. At least the air was better.

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Xi’an is truly big, over eight million inhabitants in the city proper. It is called China’s Chicago, with commodity and mercantile exchanges, and the centers of the country’s banking and insurance industries. The train station itself was the size of a small city, with hotels, banks, clubs and supermarkets within it’s walls. The hotels were full, so I left to wander the city center. There are hundreds of hotels in this city, but because of the holiday  finding a room was not easy without a reservation. Near midnight I wound up paying far more for a room than I like to, and slept in far more luxury than I could enjoy. I could fill pages describing the over-the-top appointments, but I’ll restrain myself to just one or two. The lobby/lounge featured a Steinway grand piano on a marble island in a pool dotted with lilly pads and swimming with giant goldfish (these same fish swam beneath sections of glass floor as well), The computer in my room had a monitor the size of a large television screen, and a television the size of a large coffee table. 

I spent the morning in the lobby sipping coffee and writing e-mails. Then I went to the train station and retrieved my goods with a minimum of fuss and a lot of help from the China Rail folks. Then I was rolling again. I wandered aimlessly through Xi’an without map or plan for the entire afternoon. It’s too big to say I saw most of it, but what I saw was different from my travels so far. 

Historically significant sites are thronged by vacationing Chinese and a very few Westerners. Within the city these include the 1300’s era wall and moat that enclosed the original city, now in Xi’an’s center; important Buddhist pagodas; and the site where Chiang Kai-shek was held for nearly a year by Maoist forces during the Chinese Civil war and war with Japan. The city is home to many Hui people, a predominately Muslim ethnic group, easy to spot because of the white scarves worn by women and distinctive white hat worn by men. I found myself in their quarter at lunchtime and enjoyed some of their distinctive cuisine,

But Westerners mostly assiciate Xi’an with the Terra Cotta Army, located a few kilometers west of the city. There nearly ten thousand life-sized terra cotta soldiers, cavalry, horses, chariots and other figures were buried along with the most elaborate tomb in the world (larger than a football stadium). It is the afterlife home of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, and was discovered by farmers digging a well in 1974. The Emperor ordered work to start on it in 269BC when he assumed the throne at age 13. The reason it remained undiscovered throughout history is because the estimated 700,000 artisans, workers, engineers, artists and soldiers who built it were buried alive along with the Emperor, and the soldiers who sealed the chambers and concealed the entries were executed as well. They didn’t mess around with half-measures back then. Some weapons were excavated from the site and found to be in pristine condition, with chromium dioxide plating, a process that Europeans first developed in the eighteenth century. 

I was lucky enough to visit the site in 1983 when it was an archeological dig with a few small buildings and only a small portion of the grounds excavated. I actually got down in the pits and touched a few pieces. Today a huge climate-controlled hangar encloses the site, and the tourist infrastructure is said to be the size of a small city. After hearing how costly and crowded the site has become, I decided against a second visit.

At the desk of a small hotel near Xi’an’s center I met the first westerners I had seen since Ulaanbaatar. Jan and Mike, young engineers from Germany, were on an excellent adventure. They are both bicyclists and motorcyclists, seasoned two-wheel travelers already. For this month-long tour of China they chose to fly in and buy two cheap bicycles. After seeing Beijing and the Great Wall, they sold the bikes and bought a motorcycle. $450 bought them a brand-new 100cc Chinese moto, with dated engineering, pitiful performance, and loud horns. They put a couple of thousand kilometers on it and were in the process of selling it in Xi’an (it was pretty much used up, and they weren’t asking much for it). They are continuing their tour by plane, train, bus and riverboat before flying back to Germany. We had dinner at a sidewalk place with tiny stools and tables like pre-school furniture. The food was great, various meats roasted on skewers over a charcoal fire, crayfish (crawdads) and other good stuff. We also went out looking for a club or disco or bar, an excursion that found us in some pretty loud, expensive, crowded and disorienting places where we never did find a beer. But we had a good time and were back to the hotel by a reasonable hour, drinking beer from the store. Good guys; I hope to visit them in Germany some day.

I left Xi’an and had some navigation difficulty. The route I had chosen turned out to be an expressway and a toll road, no bicycles allowed. I took a paralell road that, after some kilometers, ended with a box canyon in front, a river to the left, and a tall ridge to the right, so tall I had to lift my chin to see the top. My map showed a small, squiggly line going over the ridge from the last village back, so I tried it. A narrow road, some concrete and some gravel, led through cherry and persimmon orchards clinging to the side of a very steep ridge. The road was as steep as any I have ridden, and it took two hours to reach the top. There I found a long narrow plateau with cornfields and a couple of villages, and a confusing network of roads, one of which finally brought me down to a highway on the right side of the ridge, and onward to my target city, a small one with a nice old hotel.
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The very next day I was faced with two routes leading to my destination, both about the same length. I am so happy that I chose the mountain route. Five hours of low-gear climbing brought me through the most spectacular rocky, steep, pointed-top mountains; massive light brown and tan rocks clad with green trees and shrubs, with a rushing river sharing the impossibly narrow canyons with the highway. After an hour, back among these giants, I was shocked to find villages clinging to the rocks and cliffs, and little plots of cultivated land here and there between rocks where the river had deposited some gravel. These mountain people looked tough, carrying sticks for firewood and buckets of water up the steep road. Their front doors were sometimes inches from the travelled lane. At one point a woman suddenly came out of a door and into my path. We climbed the hill side by side chattering in our respective languages for a while. She pulled two moon cakes out of a bag and handed them to me, and I ate them while we strolled along. 

Most of the side canyons had a little rushing stream, but several had terraced fields, none larger than a half acre, rising back up into the mist. One canyon had a concrete dam, with a little village at the foot of it, and a couple of acres of corn and cabbage along the river. Near the top a Buddhist shrine with a footbridge across the river far below tempted me over, and to my surprise I found a little restaurant there, and rooms. I ate lunch but since it was still early, I resisted the urge to stay overnight. I was invited into the kitchen, where small wood fires in brick stoves kept big woks hot and chased my chill away. 

Because the mountain pass had slowed me down (two hours of zooming does not make up for five hours of crawling), I was still quite far from the next city when I rejoined the main highway. I was wet, it was getting dark, and a steady cold rain looked to be staying that way. I turned on my lights, pulled my wet hat on tighter, and put my head down for three more hours. I reached the huge, luxurious (and cheap!) International Hotel in Shangluo (another surprisingly large city) at 8:00PM. That’s how I came to make a bath, a dinner and two beers seem like heaven on earth. Image

 
The next four days were similar; long days on flat roads through countryside and villages busy with the harvest. Smoke from burning crop residues and general air pollution kept the air hazy and my eyes sore. The weather has been warm and rainy, but not unpleasantly so. 
 
I’m afraid I am not a very good tourist. The cities I am staying in are full of history and attractions, and there are hot springs and waterfalls nearby that attract Chinese honeymooners and vacationers. But I pedal, rest and eat, and in the evening stay in my hotel room with a beer or two reading and relaxing after washing the day’s grime away, and looking at the map for tomorrow’s ride. Tonight I have good wi-fi in the room, so I’m sending this off to my son Henry to post for me. Thanks for checking in and THANKS! for the e-mails. I’ll be posting again from Hong Kong in just three weeks. See you all soon!
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The Gobi

[Note from Henry–Billy is now in a part of China where all WordPress Blogs (and many others) are blocked by internet censorship (damn Communists!). He had initially sent out this update as an email on September 23rd, I am publishing it here for him now.]

Hello Everybody!

Well, I made it through the Gobi desert safely. I’m in the Chinese Province of Inner Mongolia. The Chinese and Mongolian parts of the desert are nearly the same geographically, but they couldn’t be more different culturally.

Heading south from Ulaanbaatar on nice pavement, I kept looking for the edge of the desert. These steppes were pretty desert-like, with no trees or bushes, no water in the gullies nor in the bone-dry stream beds. But growing amid the sage and tumbleweed was enough dry, yellowish grass to support occasional small herds of twenty to forty horses and cattle, and larger flocks of sheep and goats. Here and there a ger, or a group of several, stood at a distance from the road, with a few horses nearby and a truck or motorcycle parked outside.

And there was water. Small shallow ponds, from a half-acre up to a couple hundred, were to be seen several times each day. I know they were shallow because the water was knee-deep on horses walking far from the edge. I think they were temporary, because they supported no aquatic plants, frogs or fish, and were surrounded by tracked-up muddy margins which gave the impression that they were shrinking. It looked like the desert to me but, hey, I’m from Vermont.

Before the end of the second day the pavement ended. There began a 250-kilometer road construction project. A large sign declared that the $31,000,000,000 “Millenium Challenge Highway Construction Project” was funded by the United States, engineered by a Korean firm, and
built by a Mongolian construction company with workers from many countries. With another large project planned to the south of this one, it will provide the first paved highway link from China to Russia, something the Soviet Union prevented during their tenure of strong influence in Mongolia. And it will mean the loss of one more wild desert track for adventure travelers to traverse in Asia’s least populated region.

The new highway was in various stages and, where I could, I used the new roadbed, nowhere paved but often smooth and packed down. Because the concrete culverts were unfinished, I had to leave the smooth part every kilometer or so, make a short, hair-raising descent down an embankment (I only fell twice), and, after crossing a gully, attempt a short, gut-wrenching ascent on the other side (I only made it twice). In all I spent about a third of the time using the new roadbed.

Though it was deserted for long stretches, I met many road workers. The engineers and surveyors sometime spoke English. At least twice a day I played music for the men and women taking breaks in the shade of a truck or excavator, and several times I joined them for lunch; rich mutton soup with noodles and onions, ladled from big pots on small wood fires (the wood was, unmistakably, surveyor’s stakes), served with spicy hot pickled cucumbers and sweetened mare’s milk tea. They gave me bottled water. Although I started with ten liters, I was running on low rations and deeply appreciated their gifts.

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When I wasn’t using the under-construction roadbed I was struggling. No temporary lanes were provided; a network of rutted tracks on both sides of the construction zone served the thirty or so trucks and cars that passed me each day. Hugely overloaded tractor trailers crawled along in first gear, and every single motorist slowed, honked and waved. Thirty a day is not a lot; hours went by sometimes between caravans of five or more. The dirt tracks looked like braided strands from above (check Google Earth between Ulaanbaatar and the Chinese border). On the ground they swerved around rocks and gullies, ruts and sand, and the occasional mud bog (there had been rain a week ago). The
surface varied from hard washboard to packed rocky gravel to loose sand. Every few meters I faced a fork; one way was better, but which one? In loose sand I struggled to stay upright, straining in low gear. I was on and off the bike a hundred times a day, maybe more. I’ve been in easier mountain bike races.

After several days I noticed fewer horses and cattle, then fewer sheep and goats, and fewer people. There was more bare sand between the sparse vegetation, less grass. To the horizon, in every direction, was nothing but earth and sky, nothing man made but the road.

One day I made a big mistake. A short section of packed gravel had been spread with tar. I tested it; hard and dry. I proceeded slowly. Down a slight grade it got thicker, and before I could react I was sliding on a half-inch of liquid tar, as slick as oil. With luck and concentration I eased it onto the shoulder, almost falling when I lightly squeezed the brakes. I landed with both feet on the gravel, fortunately. But the bike and panniers and mandolin were a mess of tar. Pushing through the sandy soil clogged my fenders with a tar-and-sand mess that brought me to a stop. It took a half hour to get going again, using stones to scrape the goo from my tires and fenders (there are no sticks, remember?) Then I was a mess. To took all my rags and all my naphtha (Zippo lighter fuel) just to clean the mandolin case. I could no longer bring my panniers or shoes into the tent, and I got tar in there anyway, and on my sleeping bag. Probably on my clothes, too, but they are all black so I can’t tell. To make matters worse, that night I camped off the road a few hundred yards, walking through grassy weeds that had barbed seeds, like tiny darts that stuck to my shoes, socks and tarred bike. What a mess! It took an extra hour to set up, and I cooked in the dark. I called it “Camp Tarred and Feathered”. Now, two weeks later, I’m still dealing with
tar every day.

Halfway through the Mongolian part of the Gobi stands Sainshand , a town (or city) of some 10,000. I arrived with half a liter of water, worn out and dirty. I sat in a run-down hotel bar with a cold Tiger beer in my hand. Restaurant supplies were arriving; whole butchered sheep were carried in and placed on the dining room tables. Burlap bags of potatoes, carrots, onions and cabbage piled up on the lobby floor. Milk arrived in large metal cans. I had to wonder what this town lives on. An unpaved east-west highway crosses here and three railroad lines converge; maybe that’s enough. There were apartment buildings, stores, restaurants and bars, and at least four hotels. The main intersection had a traffic light.

I took a room at another hotel, the largest in town. It was fine except that the entire city was without power, so the water was cold and there was no wi-fi. No one spoke English, but the front desk people graciously charged me half the posted room rate. The cold shower wasn’t so bad.

Next day I loaded up on water and groceries and headed out again. The smooth pavement didn’t last long. Now the road was a braided maze of tracks in the sand, with no construction and no culverts. Miles-long zig-zags skirted deep gullies and brought me to the other side; I could look back across and see my tracks where I had begun the detour hours ago. Here and there I pushed the bike through soft sand. Nowhere could I go faster than a jogging pace. Instead of a hundred kilometers a day I was making perhaps forty, and falling asleep at night more exhausted than ever.

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Now I was in the Gobi; camels were the only livestock. Iconic desert movie cliches were everywhere: a long-horned cow skeleton bleached white by the sun; twenty buzzards picking at a dead horse; lizards scurrying across my path; tumbleweed rolling by; a snake disturbing my lunch. Far from any dwelling I passed a man on a camel leading a dozen other camels; we tipped Fedoras at each other without stopping. Once a family of three passed me on a small motorcycle with bags of food and jugs of water hanging front and rear. One day a car stopped and dropped off a passenger, then sped off. The woman was forty or so and, except for tall black leather boots, was dressed for town in slacks, a white frilly shirt, earrings and painted nails; she carried a purse and two tote bags bulging with groceries. After saying hi to me, she walked off into the trackless desert. Scanning the land carefully I finally saw a speck of white far, far away; her ger, at least an hour’s walk from the highway.

I will never forget he desert sky at night. Stars rising and setting on the very horizon, so clear and bright I shivered in the cold watching them rather than go into the tent. I could actually sense the globe turning. Shooting stars lit up the whole landscape, and I felt like a primitive organism on planet earth, with few thoughts, only sensations. Not a single light shined from city, home or auto, and the silence was complete. A week or more of this, every night, is enough to change anyone.

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Somewhere along this stretch, at an altitude of about 5000 feet, I passed from the Arctic watershed to the Pacific. Not that there’s much water to flow either way, but the last rivers I crossed, in northern Mongolia, flowed north to the Arctic Ocean. The next rivers I cross, in China, will flow south and west to the Pacific.

I pushed hard to reach Zamin Uud, the Mongolian border town. I was low on water, for one thing, but another error was causing me distress. I entered the desert with a nearly depleted salt supply. I had used it up, and eaten my four salty pickled Umeboshi plums, a medicinal and survival item I carried all the way from home. After four hot days
with no salt I was having headaches and my eyes were sore. I saw Zamin Uud on the horizon at sunset and decided to ride there in the dark rather than camp. My light was plenty bright for the slow speeds. I hit the edge of this town of maybe ten thousand people at about 9:30PM.

I’m pretty sure it’s the worst town I’ve ever been to. On the outskirts the dirt tracks I had been following just widened out into a big dusty lot with dozens of huge, overloaded trucks parked or idling or moving, men and dogs and cars and motorcycles churning up clouds of dust which, lit up by headlights, gave a menacing, apocalyptic appearance to the scene. Everyone was wearing dust masks and they seemed to glare at me in fear or anger or something other than welcome. Traffic followed no pattern; cars passed me on the left or right, approaching or overtaking. The center of the four-block downtown was paved but still dusty, and busy with people coming from a crumbling train station, carrying or dragging overstuffed boxes and bags. The men all looked tired and mean.

One hotel was full, the other had a choice: hot and cold water for $23, or just cold water, daytime only, for $17. What would you do?

I managed to get a beer and a meal next door while they warmed up the water, then washed a week’s worth of grime and tar off in a pretty dirty bathroom, then slept like a marmot for twelve hours.

Zamin Uud didn’t look any better in the daylight. The hotel staff seemed happy to see me go. Money changers approached me with huge stacks of Mongolian and Chinese currency in hand, and hustlers of several varieties harassed both me and the travelers still coming from the train station. Even the taxi drivers looked like thugs. I mounted the trusty bike and rolled down the road.

But one town won’t change my love of Mongolia. I’ll remember the fenceless land and endless sky, the horses running free, and the open friendliness and warmth of the people. It was not hard to communicate with Mongolians. Despite the lack of a common language, their open hospitality and natural gestures were easy to understand. The landscape constantly reminded me that I was in a remote, sparsely inhabited corner of the globe. But at the same time I felt at home with the people I met. Picture the white-haired New York City Christmas tree man and the Buddhist nomadic herdsman’s family laughing it up in a dark and smoky ger late at night while the wind from the steppes howls at the door. I really love the place.

Down the road was China. Mongolian customs and immigration couldn’t have been nicer. A kilometer separated the two nations’ border facilities, and apparently China doesn’t allow pedestrians or bicyclists to traverse the distance. A a number of entrepreneurs with little Chinese jeeps are authorized to take passengers across for a fee. I declined and rolled down the road to shouts and frantic arm waving. At the actual border (an actual red line on the pavement), I was stopped by armed Mongolian soldiers in a panic. Behind them were armed Chinese soldiers in a similar state of excitement. While one soldier spoke anxiously into a walkie-talkie, the other made clear to me with sign language that if I went further I would be handcuffed and jailed. The Chinese soldiers seemed ready, even hopeful, smiling to each other. I stood straddling the bike in Mongolia with my front wheel inches from China, trying to bluff the four soldiers, pointing at my bike and then at the road ahead.

At that point I was rescued by a Chinese fellow in a van with his family, returning from Mongolia. He spoke a few English words; he was an off-duty policeman from a nearby city. He told me to get in the van. I resisted, still hoping to ride my bike. He was pissed. He grabbed my handlebars and, with his face inches from mine, growled, “Obey!!”

I obeyed. I removed my panniers and mandolin and loaded into his van, sitting in back with his daughter and baby grandson. At immigration and customs he sent me into the building with my luggage and drove off with my bike. To my surprise, the paperwork was brief and there was no inspection of my stuff. On the other side of the building he picked me up, and after showing our stamps to another soldier, we went down the road. A pretty crazy border crossing.

The Chinese border city, Erenhot, couldn’t be more different from Zamin Uud. Wikipedia says 16,000 people (2006); I would have guessed 40,000. Wide, smooth, clean streets bustling with traffic; pedicabs, little scooters with toddlers in baby seats, three-wheeled motorcycle/trucks with everything from produce and live fowl to bricks and steel. There were tall buildings, some under construction, modern hotels, shops of all descriptions, street vendors, parks, statues, artistic monuments, trees (trees!) and wide pedestrian walkways, all laid out on a grid on a perfectly flat landscape. Wi-fi everywhere. When I stopped, guys crowded around me admiring the bike. They’re not shy, squeezing the brakes and thumping the saddle. The clip-in pedals are a hit. I quickly learned the word for “generator”; and of course “USB” and “iPhone” are the same in English and Chinese. That really
causes a stir in the crowd. (After all, it is the coolest part of my rig.)

English is rare except for “hello” and “howayoo?”, both of which are shouted to me from sidewalks, cars and motorcycles. I guess it’s obvious I’m a Yankee.

At the main intersection on town I was showing off the bike to a group of Mongolians and I heard a thick Irish accent, “Need a hand there mate?” James, an electrician from Ireland working on a Mongolian wind power project, was stranded in Erenhot waiting for turbine blades to arrive. He was to accompany them north along the same treacherous road I had just poured two weeks of my life into, and he wanted to talk. And I wanted to hear some English!

We went to an Irish pub. There are Irish pubs in every country I have visited so far, almost every city. Sitting down to a couple of Guiness stouts, James told me his story in a colorful Donegal brogue. He doesn’t give a damn about Irish politics. When the economy went downhill he found that working in Mongolia for an Austrailian wind power company was just the thing. A small town kid, 25 or so, he has learned what it is like to be a gawked-at minority, and living in a ger with Mongolians has broadened his outlook. He is so red-haired, green-eyed and freckled that in Asia he is regarded as a freak. The money is good. He loves his Guiness and his iPhone, and has nearly got over his disgust at Mongolian housekeeping. “I got a me a Hoover and a generator,” he said, “I’ll teach them bloody bastards right livin’.”

The Mongolian owner of the Irish pub spent an hour helping me find ethanol stove fuel. He drives a Hummer back and forth from Erenhot to Ulaanbaatar and loves life. He also loves Zamin Uud, where he has a restaurant and is in the Chamber of Commerce. I told him I would soften my criticism of the town in my blog, and I have.

Then a shy young Chinese man named Li helped me find the essentials of my camp cuisine: bread, cheese, fruit, rice, raisins. It was easy but for he cheese. We finally found a nice sheep-milk cheese at a Mongolian specialty shop. He spoke no English but had an English dictionary on his phone, and I had a Chinese dictionary on mine. Some fun.

He took me to meet his mom. She was a pretty woman working in a retail fashion shop. Li conducted the conversation: how old? (me, 60; mom, 43); children? (me, 3, grown; mom, 1, grown); married? (both divorced). We had quite an audience. It was awkward but in a nice way. I played her a tune right there in the store, bowed and kissed her hand. Applause. Encore. Applause.

Errands complete, I mounted up and headed south. Erenhot is famous for its dinosaur fossil discoveries, the richest source in Asia. Along the smooth, flat highway heading south past the archeological sites the city has placed hundreds of actual-size, anatomically correct metal sculptures of dinosaurs, all the species, in lifelike poses among sculptures of the trees and plants of the dinosaur era. For three miles it is hard not to imagine, what if they were real? Finally a pair of stylized sauropods make an arch over the highway. It’s pretty cool.

Then I was back in the desert. This time the terrain was as flat as flat can be in all directions to the horizon. I don’t think I’ve ever been in quite so flat a place except for the Bonneville salt flats in Utah, and even then there were mountains in the distance. The road was four lanes with a wide shoulder and almost no traffic. I made 60 kilometers in no time, gliding past an airport, a huge air force base, some big communication installations, and hundreds of wind turbines.

Up ahead I saw a dark cloud of black smoke drifting across the road. I couldn’t see a source, but as I got close sniffed to see what it was. It turned out to be a bug storm. Like a snow storm only bugs. I put my head down and pedaled on, and they piled up on my hat and arms like snow on a parka. They were tiny winged gnats, not biting, but buzzing and crawling. The air was thick with them. I got through, stopped and brushed them off my bike and body. A few minutes later I rode through another bug storm, hopefully my last ever.

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I scanned the featureless landscape for a campsite. In a sense it was all campsite, all the way to the horizon. But a fence ran along this divided highway on both sides. China, not Mongolia. A tiny desert town appeared on the horizon, ten kilometers away. There were some big, low, attractive buildings, neatly landscaped, that I couldn’t identify, and the rest were hovels. One hovel had the weathered skeleton of a pool table outside, and a six-foot tall stack of empty beer bottles. A bar!

A woman emerged and immediately made beer-drinking sign language. I nodded, we went in and she popped open a nice warm one. It was a bar and general store of such rough character that a movie set designer couldn’t have done a better job. Most impressive was a large pile of gigantic leeks on the floor. I won’t try to list the merchandise; they had everything a desert rat could wish for. After one swig she made sign language for sleep. Surprised, I nodded. She led me out back to a brick bunkhouse and opened a door. Four cots with straw mattresses, a pile of blankets, a dusty brick floor, one bare bulb, one wooden table. She bent down and scratched 15 in the sand. 15 yuan is $2.37. That’s a record for me. I nodded. She led me to an outbuilding where she pointed out a big earthenware crock with water, a dipper and a plastic wash basin. The ameneties.

In my misspent youth, I have stayed in cleaner and more comfortable jail cells. Even so, I kind of enjoyed the place. A kind of Chinese cowboy hole in the wall. Two sheep poked their heads in the door to say good night. I cooked up some rice with garlic scapes, had a couple of beers, and finished reading Crime and Punishment by midnight.

The smooth pavement and dead-flat terrain continued and a tailwind pushed me south at a fast clip. I had been expecting more unpaved desert struggling, and had loaded up with a week’s worth of water and provisions. Now I was traveling at four times the pace, and reaching surprisingly large, modern cities every day.

In these cities I am a curiosity. On the map, Sonid Youqi looked to be a little burg with ten streets. On the ground it was huge, with a central square, monuments, skyscrapers both new and under construction; the works. Searching for a place to eat with wi-fi, a was directed to a new hotel with a fancy restaurant. The restaurant guests crowded around my table and an English speaker helped me order enough food for three men. Four waitresses lined up and stared at me.
The manager of the hotel served me and introduced me to the owner. Through the English speaking diner they offered me a free room for the night and free meals. Why? I don’t know. I don’t like to waste a tailwind, but after the previous night’s hole in the wall, a deluxe suite seemed like a reasonable choice, even though it was not yet three o’clock.

From there south I was still in the desert, but soon I saw trees and crops growing. The trees were aspens and evergreens planted in long rows, thousands of them, growing in slight depressions with circular dikes around each one, to hold irrigation water. The crop land was irrigated. Huge fields of leeks and squash and other crops were being harvested by hand, with hundreds of laborers loading caravans of small trucks. The surrounding hills were treeless sand and rock, but the valley floors flourished. Villages were squalid and primitive, cities were large and modern. The highway continued to be smooth, traffic increased, and I passed large factories and quarries.

At one factory a friendly wave from some squatting cigarette smokers brought me to a stop, and they made sign language for eating. They brought me through the factory gates and into the cafeteria. It was 2:30, between meals, and we passed through the dining room (metal tables and benches for 200) and into the kitchen. Here two strong women and a couple of young helpers feed the workers from an ancient scullery. Wood- and gas- fired brick ranges held thirty-gallon woks, and the tile sink was big enough to climb into. They seemed to be butchering their own sheep and pigs, and making tofu from soybeans. I was served a big bowl of beef stew with ginger (it had several hard-boiled eggs in it), a gooey deep fried fritter with sweet bean paste, and a large white dumpling, barely cooked, with no stuffing in it, to dip into my stew. I sat at the kitchen table and the women joined me. I couldn’t stop looking around at the high-ceilinged room with oversized antique kitchen equipment.

In addition to taking rooms in the inexpensive hotels, I camped in the desert a couple of times before reaching the agricultural lowlands of Central China. I may not be camping any more. Not only is it forbidden by law, but the land use patterns here discourage it. With a high population density for centuries, every scrap of land is in use for something: vegetables grow right up to the edge of the road, and the fields extend back to the bare hills, too rocky and steep for a tent. Old old stone cottages are surrounded by stone walls in the countryside, and a donkey, goat or cow is tethered on any corner of grass that might have escaped the plow.

Cycling toward Jining, a bustling city busy with construction cranes, huge storms swept the hills to the left and right, with thunder and lightning. I could see that the rain was heavy just a kilometer away, but I was only lightly sprayed with the cold rain. With five miles to go and a tailwind, I fled the storm, hoping to reach a downtown hotel before the storm caught me. I haven’t put out such an effort since my
racing days. I reached the city center and a fine hotel minutes before the storm swept in and darkened the streets, sending citizens scurrying. The torrent lasted only a full twenty minutes, and it was fine to behold from the lobby.

With plenty of time to reach Hong Kong, and the rigors of Siberia and the Gobi behind me, I am taking a more relaxed approach. I have lowered the pressure in my tires for a more comfortable, although less efficient ride. I still push hard when I’m in the saddle, but for fewer hours each day, and I am covering only fifty miles or so, sometimes less. There are more distractions here with all the people and cities. It seems funny that with six weeks and over a thousand miles of cycle touring left, a good long trip by any standards, it feels like I am at the tail end of my adventure. Surely there will be more adventure to come, but I ride along with the feeling that I just
have to cruise down to Hong Kong, book a flight, and take my seat until New York is in view.

Two ideas alternate in my mind. First, I miss Vermont and Greenwich Village and most of all my kids and grandchildren. Second, this is the life, and I would set out on another year-long tour after Christmas without hesitation.

But there are compelling reasons to stay closer to home next year in addition to friends and family. Music, writing, skiing, and gardening are all things that I love and miss. On my to-do list, there are mountains to climb, roads to ride and streams to paddle right there in New England. With only my camper to call home, and a promise to myself to develop new forms of livelihood, I have challenges enough to keep me busy. These and other thoughts of home sustain me as I wend my way south toward Hong Kong.

I’ll keep you posted.

With Love,

Billy

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