‘Cause Statisticians Like Us, Baby We Were Born to Run

Back.  Trip done.  And frankly, so is my mojo to write more for this blog, but some sort of conclusion I think is needed.  So, concerning my trip, with nowhere now to look but retrospectively, where has it taken me?

Korea.

To answer this question in the easiest manner, I would say 60,762 miles, to be precise.  That equates to 2.5 trips around the world at the equator, or 17% of the way to the moon.  On a more personal level, this meant in my year of travel I averaged 166 miles per day.  And how did I do this?

With 652 different vehicles, to be precise.  (My favorite was when I hitched a ride in the Ghanaian ambassador’s personal limousine in South Africa).  It also took three pairs of shoes. So, for the contest, this means Luke wins with his guess of 420 vehicles, and my dad wins with his mileage guess of 53,205.

 

But, while these statistics tell you one story –that I traveled fast and furious for a good while– it brushes over the nuances of the land and the people I came into contact with.  So, here are some more statistics:

Times Filmed For Television:  6 (Denmark 1, China 2, South Korea 3)

Countries:  31

Oceans: 3

There's worse seats for a 12 hour train ride.

Village Chiefs:  4  (Ghana)

City Council Members:  5

Royal Counts: 1 (Namibia)

Haircuts to Swords Owned:  5 : 1

Times Cameras Were Broken:  6

Rooms lived:  72 (or a different room every 5.5 days for a year)

Times in Jail:  1 (Accidentally in Belarus)

Number of Acrobats Friends With:  7  (Shanghai, China)

Rugby Games Attended:  2 (South Africa)

Fights:  1.5  (South Africa, France)

Casablanca.

Times Jumped into Amsterdam Canal:  1

Times Received Negative Response for Being American:  1 (Australian 40 Year-Old)

Times Had to Panhandle for Money to Legally Cross Into Zambia:  1

Fish Massages:  1, Tickled, Really Had to Pee (Cambodia)

Coldest Temperature:  -37 F  (Siberia, Russia)

Typhoid?  Ty-fun!  1  (Ghana)

Familiar Faces:  Friends Met I Knew BEFORE This Trip:  4

Weird Food:

Goat Face (Ghana), Chicken Gizzards (South Africa), Ox Tongue (Russia), Gelatinous Bone Marrow (France), McDonald’s (Austria), Snake (China), Snake-Skin (China), Cold, Pickled Chicken Feet (China), Cooked Duck Head: Cold, Sliced Like an Apple (China), Horse Tongue (China), Fermented Chicken Embryos (Cambodia), Beef Intestine With Red Fire Ants:  Cooked, Served With $1.5 Pitchers of Beer (Cambodia), Meal Actually Intended For 4:  accidentally Ordered (China)

I’ve also spent a really long time putting together a well-synched video of my trip, but youtube won’t let me play it with audio.  Apparently there are still these things called copyright laws.  Anyways, here it is a little more bland and silent, but nonetheless representative of my life this past year in 3 minutes and 35 seconds (that’s 58 days a second, for the record).

Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

Now comes the less glamorous and even harder portion of this experience, and that’s actually making this worth something more than just a heckuva’ experience.  I mean, it would be pretty selfish to spend all of someone else’s money and to not make this investment payoff, right?  Well, I’m preparing to enroll in the University of London Royal Holloway’s Geography program to study sustainable development, and I’m looking to tailor my education to focus on transportation of the poor.  In the few weeks I’ve been back it’s been undeniably my time in Africa and Asia seeing how bikes are able to be a ‘up by your own boot straps’ approach to fostering development.  So, while I guess this marks the end of the blog, it also heralds a whole new start towards my Watson odyssey.

Thanks everyone.

–Ben

Cambodia.

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Getting into Some Hot Water in Tibet


This post is slightly out of order, like always. After Thailand I spent a good chunk of time in Cambodia and Hanoi, Vietnam. I’d like to get around to posting entries on these places, but I figured I’d write on Tibet while I’m here and it’s fresh. So, while reportedly China has just banned time travel, not joking, I’ll do my subversive best to latter come back and try to touch upon these really interesting and enjoyable places.  [Also, due to protests China has blocked this blogging website.  Thus the long silence.]

One thing I missed upon leaving China for South-East Asia: The Look. It’s what I get when I use chopsticks. Before coming to China I prided myself in my versatility with the sticks. My stepsister and I had contests when we were little to see how quickly we could select single grains of rice. Suffice it to say, I’m not new to these Asian appendages, and used to pride myself in this fact. But here in China every time I pick up these ubiquitous instruments I get The Look a toddler receives in reaching for a glass on the edge of a table: it’s one of people observing impending disaster caused by child-like incompetence. It’s one of those things where now when eating I watch people around me to see what I am doing differently, and I can’t seem to figure it out. Nonetheless, I’ll notice entire tables stopping and staring waiting for the moment –could be for two whole minutes—when finally I drop a grain or two of rice as vindication of my incompetence. This then comes with a condescending spoon from the waitstaff, which regardless of how blocky and big the meal is, I’ll be given, like a sippy-cup, just to make things easier. That and the return of pollution-induced residue in my nose-filters were two-things I didn’t realize I had missed until they returned. You don’t know what you have until it’s gone. I also don’t reckon this is going to send me down in the annals of travel literature history as the 21st century Marco Polo, but in my entire time in China I haven’t seen a single plumber’s crack. Not sure if it’s because people are a little skinnier here than in America or pants are simply worn higher, but nope, no rear-ventilation here in China.

While I think these are all profoundly important cultural observations, my return to China is for the second prong into my sino-assault, and not just to muse on plumber’s cracks. My first few months here in China were to scope out the way bicycles are used in the cities. This time around I’ve come to check out how bikes are used in rural locales.

In many ways the question of ‘where?’ is more challenging to figure out for rural life than trying to check out bikes in the big cities. I mean, where in your country would you specifically go to see rural life? One of the core notions of ‘rural’ is the absence of a specific center, for instance like a city, so how can I look at a map and say “THAT’S IT!”? Well, I decided to play with averages, and sorta’ cheated. Yunnan: It’s the most geographically and culturally diverse region of China. I figured this would provide about the ideal setting for seeing how large swath of a country views the applicability and desirability of bicycles. And another aspect of Yunnan that appealed to me is that a portion of it is, in every way but how the People’s Republic of China drew the boundaries, Tibet.(1)  I opted to first go here, to Tibet, as I am pretty familiar with the country, politics, and economics from my under-grad dissertation. I also know enough of the language that I looked forward to being less of a linguistic fish out of water than I have been for many months.

Streets of Shangrila

Again, the folding bicycle has proved to be remarkable in opening up a place and its people to what my two feet alone cannot do. The gateway I chose to position myself out of for my jaunts into the rural countryside is the shamelessly renamed city of Shangrila, which in 2001 changed its name from the equally memorable Zhongdian solely to bring in tourists. While Shangrila / Zhongdian is full of giftshops catering to the Chinese tourists, it’s only a 10 minute bike ride from a non-commercialized Tibet, with grazing yaks and earthen houses.

Cycling through rural Tibet is pretty different from cruising around a major city, like Paris, Copenhagen, or Hangzhou in a lot of ways, but one crucial one that you wouldn’t immediately realize is that while in these aforementioned cities shelter from an unexpected downpour is the nearest building, in Tibet that nearest building might be almost an hour away. When I was studying abroad, my Tibetan home-stay father gave me the advice for living in a Himalayan climate that I should always have a short-sleeve t-shirt, a rain jacket, and a sweater with me at all times, because before the end of the day I’ll have needed all three.(2) It’s just as true here. So, suffice it to say it’s not uncommon while cycling here in a picturesque mountain valley in the sunshine you will simultaneously be drenched from a hard rain that’s a’fallin at the exact same time. I think the Japanese call this –when it’s raining and sunshine at the same time—when the foxes go on parade. I can’t remember if they consider it either really good luck or really bad luck, but anyways, to me it’s just really neutral, ambivalent luck I fittingly found my way to Nom’s.

In this hard rain that fell on my first day here, I invited myself into the nearest, meaning ‘only’, house within a good number of miles, and went to the packed-earth home with smoke coming out of the chimney, figuring that’s a good sign that someone’s there. In the house there was an old Tibetan woman, who welcomed me in, and invited me to a seat on their bench near her and the Franklin fireplace. My Tibetan language skills have digressed to being about equivalent to a loquacious three-year old, in that I can say “there is a tree!” “That is a dog. Big!” “I like radishes, I am American!” and other, simple declarative statements, but it’s hard to have a heart to heart talking about a big dog and radishes, despite my having become expert at getting the most mileage out of very few words while living in China. It’s hard to explain just how nice it was, going from stinging, cold rain into a warm Tibetan home, drinking yak butter tea and having a simple conversation with her while watching Chinese soap operas. While it doesn’t sound like much, being able to share simple pleasantries, my age, nationality, profession, and the fact that I eat meat was something really darn cool, and made me immediately glad I opted to come in out of the cold, cold rain.

Tibetan vulture.

For a good half-hour we talked and watched the love-triangle on tv (replete with a car-chase!), and I dried off.  I should by now be smarter than to be biking in jeans. Yet, despite our time spent inside together, the rain didn’t let up. Thankfully, like the rain, I wasn’t in a rush to leave either. So, in time, the rest of the family came in and sat around the stove with me to dry off and warm up. Eventually the eldest son arrived, named Nom (pronounced like the yard decoration, but I didn’t point this out to him. Asides, they don’t have lawn gnomes here, and I could see it would get into a weird conversation trying to explain what a lawn gnome is). Nom was a former monk, who received an exemplary education in Nepal in a monastery in Kathmandu.(3) It was good that he showed up too. My basic conversation skills had been milked dry after two hours, and no one else spoke English. Likewise, finding someone who could speak conversational English is rarer here than good music or bread, and that’s saying something. As the rain continued to fall, Nom and his family fed me about as Tibetan of a meal as you can get.

Don't talk back.

Yak butter tea I had learned –and it is definitely a learning process—to like while I was studying abroad. Imagine drinking a mug of butter, with a heaping spoonful of salt added, and a brief hint of black-tea (not enough to taste) and you got yak butter tea. If you look at it like a buttery soup, it’s a lot easier to digest, but after enough compulsory cups to be considered not rude, you can feel your veins clogging, and your stomach saying, “I Can’t Believe It’s NOT Better!” Following this was tsampa, which is simply ground millet flour mixed with yak butter tea. It’s essentially like eating whole-wheat flour mixed with water. We also warmed up slabs of yak cheese on the surface of the Franklin stove. Warm yak cheese is good in moderation, but it’s even harder than it is rich, which makes eating it in anything above small quantities something that hurts both your jaw and butter-tea abused gut. And while you can properly infer this meal wasn’t something I was putting away like it was a hotdog-eating contest, I don’t want to read like I disliked the meal. Like Johnny Cash sings about bread, “its not the barely or the wheat / it’s not the oven or the heat / but the sharing and the caring that makes the meal complete.”

In addition to the incredible gift of their hospitality, Nom gave me two invaluable and transformative bits of advice.  The first was that upon my leaving, I must, must, MUST check out the nearby lake, which he described a being stunningly beautiful, a heaven on earth, and I’d be horribly amiss to not see. When the rain finally let up, I followed this advice, and biked for a few hours from one village to the next, and to the next, etcetera, along the only road there was, looking for the lake, and only spying an endless field of grass with Tibetan horses and yaks, with no water in sight. While I didn’t find any actual water, it was fun veering off the gravel road and rolling on the smoother grass plains, biking with running yaks and beautiful Tibetan horses. Villagers were all ecstatic to see me, as anyone not living there seemed a rarity, and especially a foreigner. Simply just visiting with these people alone in search of Nom’s lake made the long-search well worth it. And even without these people, spying wild yaks running like pickup truck-sized mountain goats across a mountain slope above me, and spying two young male yaks fighting was such cool ‘Wild Discovery’ (“Wiiiiiild”) moment, that it was well worth a few hours biking. As the time drew near where I knew I’d have to be turning back or be caught in unenviable position of biking in the dark Tibetan countryside, I headed back, and stopped by Nom’s home. He asked “did you enjoy seeing the lake?” I told him honestly, that I loved seeing the villages, and the mountains with the wild yaks running across them, and the mountain valley with the grass and horses and domestic yaks were stunning, but I couldn’t find any water. “Yeah”, he said, “there’s no water in the lake.”  Thanks, Nom.

In parting, Nom gave me one last piece of advice that has proven to define my time here. He strongly advised that I must seek out a little-known therapeutic natural hot springs I could swim in, that would be very good for my health to bathe in because the waters have magic properties. It’s also located on the side of a mountain, beside a cave entrance, and overlooking a grand valley and …“Did you say MAGIC PROPERTIES!?! All-right!!!” He gave me the name written on a piece of paper, and the only advice was “it’s to the East of Shangrila.” I figured searching for Nom’s magic waters were as good of a reason as any to model the rest of my time in the area around, trying to find these secret, healing hot springs, as I’m planning on touring the countryside anyways, so why not have some purpose to my aimless wanderings? And, my body apparently was in full agreement. Now with a task –searching with waters that bestowed health– my body elected to give purpose to this task, and promptly got very sick in full solidarity.

Without going into too many details, while my stomach learned why the caged bird sings, other parts of my body would be more aptly described as the movie The River Wild.  Or maybe Easy Rider.  Or The Great Escape.  Or The China Syndrome. Ha-ha! Gone With The Wind.  But yeah, for too long I was waking up about every hour to get rid of The Right Stuff, which left me Sleepless in Seattle for a few too many days straight.  When the good, the bad, and the ugly finally Departed, I set off with zeal in search of these healing waters, to ensure my health, as my body kindly reminded me, is something really nice to have.

As a professor I loved having breakfast with each day at Hendrix College (the Harvard of America) would love to say, “’assume’ makes an ‘ass’ of ‘u’ and ‘me.’). When Nom told me it was to the east of the city, I figured, heck, Shangrila wouldn’t have more than one road heading out east, right? It’s a small, remote town.  So I’ll just bike to the east and keep showing my piece of paper that Nom wrote the name of the hot springs on. And, heck! It’s about the journey and not the destination. And asides, this is a great way to arbitrarily choose which surrounding villages I travel through, and in the process see how bikes are used in rural Tibet, the true purpose of my visit. Yet, while this idea of randomly wandering Tibet in search of a pool that only a few people know about and is hidden on a mountain sounds easy, take it from me, it’s not.

Before talking about distance, I should address the elevation. When I arrived in Shangrila I went to open a bottle of liquid soap I had brought with me, and the pressure difference between here and where it was last opened (in Hanoi, the same elevation as Chicago) was enough to shoot the contents on my face, the mirror, and mostly, on the ceiling. Shangrila lays in a valley, yet at 3,000 meters this elevation would make it one of the higher points in all of the lower 48. On some of the country roads that go over mountain passes here, I’d reach elevations of 4,000 meters (about 2.5 miles, or 30 times the elevation of most of America). Exercising at this elevation is akin to the conditional nature of a wind-chill. While the wind-chill is essentially saying, “yeah, it says it’s this cold, but really it’s this freakin’ cold”, biking a mile at this elevation is reallylike biking I’d say two, in how much mojo it takes to operate in the thin air. Anyways, biking from town to town was stunning and immensely rewarding, but also had the phenomenal feeling like my heart and lungs were working four times more than the rest of my body. I really liked this, because my back surgery has made my body feel older than it is, but I still love the reward exercise gives in making your heart and lungs feel all cleaned out and happy. So, I got this great endorphin-induced high while my legs and knees didn’t have to go through the rigmarole of getting worn out into spaghetti noodles to do so.(6)

Wiiiiiild yaks fighting.

 

My favorite stretch of roadway I called ‘The Valley of The Hats.’ I couldn’t come up with a non-Stephen King explanation for why everybody lost their hat here, other than the obvious, it’s often really, really, really windy in Tibet. From when I did my senior dissertation in another part of Tibet, each day would have 80 mph winds rip through the valley, as the sun heated up one portion of the Tibetan plateau while it cooled on another, and there aren’t any trees to act as a wind block. While there I lost my favorite hat, and my friend Katie-la lost her favorite hat (from Yak-Donalds) minutes after buying it. So, anyways, guess how many hats I saw on this 5 mile stretch through the valley? Seriously, GUESS.

34 hats. That’s an insane number of hats. There is a part of the ocean where the currents collect all the world’s garbage into a giant swirling mass of litter larger than Texas. My mind briefly toyed with the notion that perhaps like this Texan heap of ocean-litter, maybe all the lost hats of Tibet blow here. I’d like to think so, and I’d even more like to return Katie-la’s Yak-Donalds hat to her a few thousand miles from where she lost it, but alas. Also, alas, after a couple of hours of easterly biking, my piece of paper and me saying “hot water” in were getting looks showing increasing concern about my sanity the further I traveled down this road.

Cyclists on the outskirts of Shangrila.

By the end of the first day I realized this certainly, absolutely, positively was the wrong road, and this hunt for Nom’s magic water wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought. Rather than being like a heat-seeking missile for hot springs as I imagined I would be, I had found myself playing, ironically, the game ‘hot and cold’, navigating the endless Tibetan plateau solely by judging from people’s reactions to how nuts they thought I was to infer just how close, or more often, how far I was from my desired destination. While a mountainous task, it’s not everyday one has the shot at magically induced super-health, so, game on, Nom, game on.

After a rewarding and weary Day One for the hunt for the magic water, I returned to Shangrila, worn out. It was here I made a major cultural discovery. On my way past a school I spied an ice-cream cart. One fun Watson introspective game to play, is, judging by my actions, interests, and allocation of time and money, what is the second topic I seem most passionate about? Unequivocally, it would be good street food. It’s cheap, reflects local preferences in cuisine, is often locally grown, and employs the working poor, and often utilizes bicycles. These were all good enough reasons for me to justify buying an ice-cream cone after a long, hot day in the dry, dry Tibetan plateau. I asked the woman how much it was, but the price she quoted was so insanely low, that I instinctively doubted my broken Chinese language skills, and intentionally gave her a large bill, just so she could make the appropriate change for me. Turned out I heard here right. A double-scoop cone of pineapple and raspberry ice-cream costs 12 cents. The first cone had the traditional customer-owner relationship dynamic, but I’d like to think after that we viewed each other as teammates. The first cone went down like a warm-up round to a hotdog eating contest, so, why not another, right? The second one was satisfying, but not satiating. And heck, I really did bike far, it really is dry and hot, and I really do need all those extra calories after working that hard and having been sick. Really. That struck me as sound enough reasoning to justify both the third and fourth, but after nearly 50 cents in ice-cream I would have just felt like too much of a pig going up for a fifth. Moderation is key. Although so is having a daily routine. And while typically a grown, strange looking foreigner lurking around daily around an ice-cream cart outside of a school would probably elicit a different response in America, here it is like I am a local b-list celebratory, like the local news anchor, hanging around the ice-cream cart. Having high school girls, naturally in a swarm, come up to you and giggly tell you “YOU! LOOK! COOL!” while hearing this and eating 12 cent ice-cream cones would have probably been the coolest thing in the world to me ten years earlier, really now it just caught me off guard. I mean, what would you do? Figuring it was the safest answer I could think of, I said “YOU! DO! TO!” Fortunately, this was undeniably the perfect answer, as they all ran off, laughing, giggling, and hitting each other on the back for the compliment from the foreigner eating his third ice cream cone.

So, cheap baby scopes of ice-cream provided the capstone-finish to each of my days in search of Nom’s magic hot springs. It was a good thing the ice-cream was there too for emotional support, as after my first day in failing to find Nom’s hot springs, I scoped out a map, and like spaghetti noodles hanging out of the strainer of Shangrila, far too many roads were laced across the undulating mountainous topography on the map to make this a simple task. But really, if it was ‘The Sword in the Mud’ the story would be lacking, right? Figuring the challenge would make the reward all the sweeter, I heroically swallowed my ice-cream of daily defeat, and resigned myself to more days of incredibly rewarding cultural exploration by bike in rural Tibet. Dark days that try man’s souls.

In my wanderings on these small, obscure rural roads, slowly chipping away at the places the hot springs might be hidden, natural mini-adventures occurred each day, as I expected, but nonetheless delighted me in what peculiar shape they took. They’re all small, inconsequential tidbits, but like clips in a really good montage, in aggregate they made a really moving experience. For instance, biking by a farm, I shouted simple greetings to the family picnicking out in the field in Tibetan, and biked on. I saw a young teenager sprint to the house, and didn’t think much of it, until a few minutes latter I looked back after hearing a mousey-squeak of rusted gears to see him sprinting to hell-n’-high water to catch up with me in his beat-up mountain bike. I slowed to let him catch me, and all he said was “hello”, and evidently just wanted the experience of biking with me. Like a shadow, he rode next to me for most of the next hour, and then, just as suddenly, said goodbye, and turned to go back to his family. Sweet and simple. Also a very different experience from when the elderly Tibetan man put on his wife’s traditional head wrap and jokingly proposed we kiss, batting his eyes and pretending he was a pretty young girl.  He wasn’t.

Or the time I was biking by a construction site where about 20 Tibetan men and women (there is no glass-scaffolding here, with women working in equal numbers in construction) were compacting the dirt to make a house. They shouted “HELLO!” to me, and from my bike I shouted the same back, only in Tibetan. They were pretty tickled by this from a foreigner, so they all gathered quickly around on the roof they were working on, and I could hear them talking, but because I was a distance away I couldn’t make it out. They then all turned and shouted “I! LOVE YOU! VERY! MUCH!” It was my turn to be pretty tickled, and I, laughing, told them “LOVE! YOU! TOO!”

Chocolate Friends.

Or, the time when I sat in a meadow to eat a snack I had brought with me and drink some water, when a nak (female yak) walked on over to inspect, and presumably finding me up to snuff, decided now was a good time to rest from her yak-duties, and sat facing me, three feet away, like we were about to have a coffee-date. Conversation was stilted, but it was good company, nonetheless.

Also, when I was recovering from being sick I was really jonesing for some dark chocolate, and the nearest I could find was milk-chocolate “coins”, which like pistachios, I think are more work than they are worth, and after nibbling a few I just tossed the bag of chocolate coins into my bag, figuring there hasn’t yet been a point in my life where I’ve regretted having chocolate readily accessible. The logic still stands, here in Tibet. Kids, being kids, are either fascinated or utterly terrified of this tall, weird-looking westerner, so going through these really poor Tibetan farming villages I’ve found it pretty easy to buy their friendship initially with my coins, then letting them fart around with my bell and lights on my bike. It’s pretty clear from the kid’s instant adoration that chocolate isn’t something that’s handed out like candy.  IT WAS A BIG DEAL getting these treats. In my year of traveling I have so often had no clue what to do, and so, so, so many times an absolute stranger would be my saving grace, for no explicable reason other than to just be nice. I feel like I’ve accrued an epic karmatic debt, and it feels really good to be able to do even something small, like bribing children’s love with chocolate, just to be doing something nice for others in return.

On the similar vein of kindness beget without reason, I was really happy to be able to help out a Tibetan woman of grandmotherly-age. On my way back to Shangrila after another long day of exploring rural Tibetan life and not finding Nom’s magic water I saw her walking, and I knew from coming that way earlier in the day she had a long way to walk to the nearest settlement. With a quick hello, some small talk, and a pat on my bike rack, she hoped on without saying a thing, sitting sidesaddle, hands across my engines. Really, conditions couldn’t have been more perfect. It was sunny, and all slightly downhill for the next 5 miles at a gentle enough slope I didn’t even have to pedal. When we reached the right group of earthen houses, with a squeeze she let me know “here’s good” and hoped off.

It took my five days, replete with these mini-adventures, but finally I found it. After feeling up to tackling the most particularly hilly road on the map, I found myself for the first time getting more comprehending looks than ones telling me I was utterly mad. Always a nice thing. The hills were incredible, massive and picturesque, and on one descent where I could see from here to America I was able to get my little foldie’ up to 40 mphs (I elected to not push it further). After doing charades and a lot of hand-arrows I finally found the community in which the hot springs were located. Nom had told me the hot spring pool was located halfway up a mountain, next to a cave, and overlooking a grand valley. The problem was the community was nestled in the nook of a mountain, where every direction was next to a mountain, and consequently every path led up a mountain. I wasn’t too worried in that I figured finallypeople here would know where the springs are. I walked up to some elderly Tibetans, and, as respectfully as I could, greeted them, introduced myself, where I was from, asked how they were, and then asked if they knew where this was, pointing to Nom’s paper (I have no clue how to say the name. Chinese is Greek to me). They couldn’t read Chinese, and no one else was in sight. Feeling like I had come all this way to be struck down by illiteracy by all parties involved was too much to handle. Realizing there wasn’t any other alternative, I pulled out my limited Tibetan and said “Hot Water” –“sapo choo” and did what I think was a remarkably accurate impersonation of geothermal activity. “Sapo Choo” and my giggle-eliciting charades hit pay dirt, and I was pointed in the right path. After pushing my bike to the top, a process that took about an hour of heavy breathing, I finally beheld my long sought destination.

12 Cents.

 

It was just a bunch of mud with a few trickling rivulets of boiling water issuing up from the ground. That’s all. Figuring, I had worked for five days to find this, the least I should do is actually touch the water, and maybe, just maybe, some of the good health will be absorbed. Debating whether it was worth it to climb down into the muddy pit that had been dug to hold the water, a Tibetan grandmother who had been tending some nearby yaks walked over to me to visit. She seemed to read my mind and pantomimed the front stroke, and made clear that she was advising me to go for a swim in water not deep enough to fully submerge my foot in. Having already been toying with the idea of getting close to the water, this woman’s suggestion was the “all right! I’m doing it!” push I needed. I jumped down and promptly submerged in over a foot of the vilest mud imaginable. Mud made of organic material that had been rotting and festering for probably more years than I’ve been living. It was rich and aromatic in the worst of ways. I didn’t really know what I was thinking –it was plainly mud down there, but the old woman looked absolutely shocked, like some Himalaya magic had just occurred, perhaps from the foxes on parade, and the brimming, tranquil mountain pool had suddenly gone to this muddy mess, rather than being the same cesspool of goop moments earlier she had told me to do the front-stroke in. Figuring I now had no reason to worry about getting muddy and all the more reason to get to the water to wash off, I worked like Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen to get to the trickle of hot water. In probably not my wisest move, without testing it first, I plunged my muddy foot into the boiling water, and was shocked! to find, gee, go figure, the boiling geothermal water was really freakin’ hot. In a long, belabored process I’d splash and wash the mud off me in a manner that was quick enough to not burn myself too much, and in the process overcame one of my minor phobias, started by the movie Dante’s Peak, in that I wasn’t boiled alive by rouge volcanic geothermal activity. –That’s always a nice box to check off at the end of the day on whether you had a good day or not.

My swimming buddy made up for her Nom-like advice with this stunning photo by the "pool."

 

Concerning Nom’s therapeutic, secret mountaintop, cave-side hot spring bathing pool, there wasn’t, not even for a moment, a sense of being let down. Rather, it was a fitting cosmic reminder that beyond any doubt the search for this mud was the real reward, and never, no matter how nice the pool would have been, it wouldn’t have been anything more than me swimming in some hot water. It’s also I think perfectly fitting that both times I followed Nom’s advice to go seek out some amazing water, there wasn’t any water to behold. I mean, really, that’s something. Yet, in one manner I think he was right. I can only assume through some extreme-condensation that the water in this formerly brimming pool must have had some residual super-magic in it. While the extended exercise in the crisp mountain air I think has done my body good, and while this is just anecdotal, my new ability to read minds I think is worth noting, and cannot be solely attributed to cycling in the Himalaya. Though, to risk sounding less than humble, being a mind reader now isn’t really all that much of a change, as it seems China only has one thought on its mind: “You can’t use chopsticks.”

 

 

Ahhh! Thought I wasn't going to post a picture of the magic hot springs, didn't you? Here it is!

Note:  In the weeks since I first wrote this (China banning this website has delayed my prompt replies) I’ve asked some Chinese friends why I look funny eating.  It actually isn’t my chopstick-use, as I’m the same as everybody else, but my rigid, uptight n’ “proper” manners.  Trying to fit by my western conditioning to not slurp, hunch over, and spit bones on the floor just wasn’t fitting for the greasy places I was eating in.  I was kind of like watching the Queen of England trying to eat a sloppy joe.  Somethings just shouldn’t be done elegantly.

(1) Tibet has been gerrymandered by the government of China to redefine in the debate for Tibetan independence what is actually Tibet. Just like how the region of Tibet in China is referred to as “The Tibetan Autonomous Region” –so, why are you asking for autonomy if it’s in the name?—cutting out about 1 / 3rd of the country of Tibet likewise shifts the debate in their favor. Interesting tidbit, but the Dalai Lama likes to point out that according to the Chinese he’s not Tibetan, as his birthplace according to China isn’t in Tibet. Hard to find a fella’ more widely recognized as being Tibetan, but that’s just the author’s opinion.

(2) He also told me ALL Tibetan women look like bullfrogs. “Their eyes are too far apart.” This was incidentally while he was watching a “report” on Indian supermodels, and swimwear modeling. It should also be noted my home-stay mother didn’t speak a word of English.

(5) The Tibetan Buddhist monastic system is a terrific education system, certainly more like a boarding school than a navel-gazing place with bald men going “om” without end. It is even more remarkable when you consider that it’s better than a good number of American basic schools as far as teaching fundementals, and this is in countries where the education is normally far, far worse.

(6)And for a brief tangent, honestly, if they want, I could see China in the future absolutely dominating professional cycling. With such high quality, high elevation roads to train on, in my inexpert opinion it sure beats out the conditions the world’s current top athletes train in Europe.

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CONTEST! GUESS THEM’ JELLYBEANS! YEA-HAWH!

Hi, y’all!  In the spirit of Conway, Arkansas’ upcoming ‘Stuck on a Truck’ contest, I thought I’d have a vehicular contest of my own.  I’ve been like a hawk, and kept a bird of prey’s eye on counting every vehicle I’ve traveled in in my round the world trip.  I’ve also kept a pretty darn good approximation of my total miles.

So….The Contest!

1)  What is the Total Number of Vehicles I’ve Traveled In?

2)  What’s the Total Number of Miles I Have Traveled?

And of course there are prizes for the winner of each.  For both categories it’s entertaining crap I’ve picked up in Africa.  It’s worth it, and I’ll mail it to you once I get home.  Just post your guess for each question.  And if you’re feeling shy, you can post under some anonymous name, and I can still see the email you enter and no one else can, so don’t worry.  LASTLY!  ‘Price is Right’ rules.  If you’re over, even by one, tough muffins, cupcake.  Results will be posted when I get home and winner(s) announced.  

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Thailand

Here’s what happened to me upon immediately crossing the Laos / Thailand border:

In compliance with my fellowship’s guidelines and to alleviate fretful family I entered an internet café to email the news of my crossing the border into Thailand.  After ten minutes at the computer desk a rat the size of a nearly-fully grown cat that had been chilling under my feet (unbeknownst to me) decided then was an a-ok time to leave.  I did too; to grab a meal.  At the street side café outside I had an incredible Thai “spicy salad”, and afterwards the owner proposed a …well I am sure the culinary services is a very old proffession, but he made clear that an even older one was likewise available.  Upon leaving the street-side stand I almost was blindsided on my bicycle from a man (holding a pick-axe) riding an elephant that stepped out from behind a parked semi.  Welcome to Thailand.

I wasn’t really sure of what I expected or hoped from Thailand, other than good food.  My purpose of visiting was to be a (hopefully) educational and leisurely transit from Laos to Cambodia taking full advantage of the presence of a Vietnam embassy in Bangkok, where I could get a visa to enter the country.  Due to the only available means from the rat-infested, brothel of a border town to Bangkok was a night train, I wasn’t able to get to the Vietnam embassy before it closed for the weekend.

Burning Bush.

Figuring a “forced” weekend in Thailand wasn’t allll that bad of a thing, I resigned myself to a five minute google search for “great”  “beach”  “Thailand.”  Three minutes in I thought I found the perfect spot.  To me at that time it was like God had cartographically placed a burning bush, a signpost telling me exactly where I should go after missing the Vietnam embassy by a few short hours:  the island of Phuket.  Which to me, read as“Phuket, I’m going to the beach.”  

I think if there is one concept I already subconsciously knew but crystallized while in Thailand is the difference between travel and vacation.  And frankly, at the time this idea of a vacation really appealed to me.  While I have been traveling for ten months and have had a lot of really rewarding and joyful experiences, they’ve come with a fair number of trying and exhausting moments here and there that, in aggregate, made the idea of laying on a sunny beach for a weekend with no purpose sound heavenly. 

Phuket is a damn touristy place, at least along the coast.  It’s a large island, 40 km long, and 15 wide, with some of the most famous destination beaches in the world.  I arrived there at the tail-end of the low season for tourism, but over a month before the rains were supposed to come.  What ended up happening was more biblically akin to God speaking to Noah than one of those passages where God recommends great getaway destinations.  In the 3 days I was there we received 50 inches of rain. That’s as tall as parking meter.  And guess what?  The region normally receives 1 to 3 inches of rain in all of March. That’s 16 times more rain in three days that I was there than what they get normally in the entire month.  The cosmically entertaining thing about this whole fiasco is that all the tourists were in the dark about the coming floods.  It wasn’t on any of the international news pages when I was first there, no one spoke of it, and either to not scare away the few people left, or out of a pragmatic “what can you do, it’s rain?” none of the locals let on it was anything other than unseasonably early and heavy rainfall.

The upshot of the torrential downpour and the ensuing substantial flooding was almost no one wanted to be on the island.  Go figure.  So, I got these great beaches all to myself, because people don’t like swimming in the rain, presumably so they don’t get wet.  The downside was that I narrowly avoided having to be evacuated by the Thai navy.

It really was really great swimming. Really.

In a stroke of good fortune I avoided being stranded there for a good number of additional days, by opting to escape the island –just by luck, it still wasn’t on any of the major news sources I compulsively read daily– when a few hours latter would have been all but impossible.  Most of the roads on the island were already flooded beyond any measure of safe driving, so to get from where I was living to the central bus station I had to do a near 40 km bicycle sprint, in the pouring rain, of course.  And my rain jacket had ceased long ago to be waterproof.

Bangkok feels such a world apart, that I don't even know if it's relevant to put into this post. Despite being anxious for the rough reputation Bangkok has, I liked it, and I found it friendly and easily navigable. There is a mono-rail that runs through the city that gives it a Disney World feel, and this connects to boats you can ride up and down the Chao Phraya River for a whopping 50 cents for an hour's journey. This is from the outskirts of such a trip on one of the three days I spent here post-flood, and went exploring by bike. The traffic --some claim the worst in the world-- paradoxically was a glass-half full for biking. Because all cars are inching along everywhere, it was like bicycling through a parking lot, with all the engines running, and no high-speed morons who can wipe you across the pavement with inattentive driving. All in all, I found the city charming, peaceful, and clean. I think in a lot of ways it's like Las Vegas, with a similar debaucherous reputation, but in actuality your reality of the city is what you chose to make it.

The bus (the last one off the island) I came to call the “Water Torture Bus”, because the roof leaked a slow bead of water over my seat, and every 20 to 40 seconds a droplet of cold water would hit me in the face.  Not so bad for the first hour or two, but six hours in it gets tiring, especially as I was soaking wet, the air-conditioner was on full-blast, and when the bus swerved to avoid a car passing too close to a man walking with an elephant my camera shattered (yes, the one I bought three days earlier in Bangkok to replace the one I drowned in Laos).

It was hard to be hating my life too much though in seeing the heart of the flooding we were somehow still able to travel through.  I mean, it’s tough to bitch about being wet and with a broken camera when you see people’s entire livelihoods’ under water.  Between this bus and the next that eventually carried me to Bangkok I passed entire houses under water, except for the very peaks of their eaves.  At one point there were people in dugout canoes in the driving lane next to us.  It was only because of the sheer size of the bus we were able to get out at all.

These are pictures I snagged off the BBC. They're taken around Surat Thani, which is the heart of the flood that I had to travel through.

It was a double-decker tourist bus, but even with all that tonnage, there were a few iffy moments where you could feel the current of the roadway pushing the wheels with the 4+ feet of water on the roadway.

BBC News Photo

Frankly, I didn’t like Phuket.  The lack of luck is only a part of the picture, but rather the heart of the touristy crap really nagged at me.  Westerners were coming here and getting everything they liked and wanted from back at home without actually experiencing, let alone enjoying the warm n’ welcoming local culture.  To me, that’s the difference between traveling and vacationing.

I don’t mean to sound like I am speaking from a high-horse here, and to proscribe to go backpacking around the world and rarely do laundry, but I just think its really important when visiting a place to come away with more than just pictures of beaches, but to also enjoy the gold that is the joy of cultural exploration, and in the process expand your understanding of the world. 

Likewise, I think its really important to try to be a benign visitor to a foreign country, and to not through your economic choices encourage a place you value to become a cheap and crass, commercialized generic spot that is the same in Florida as it is in Mexico, and any other beach destination.  To me, this type of international travel is like those who hen-pick out the watermelon and blueberries out of fruit salads; you’re missing out seriously and the consequences of your actions make the end product less-desirable for us all.

A lively market I stumbled upon in Bangkok. This is to apologize for my long-windiness.

I don’t mean either to be suggesting that the sole purpose of relaxation is anything to shake a stick at.  After all, that’s why I came to Phuket.  I think it’s an important thing to do, but also to not let it prevent you from appreciating how cool and wonderful, beautiful, and interesting people are throughout the world. The few days I was on Phuket made it crystal for me that while you can have been to someplace, the degree to which you’ve experienced it is a spectrum, and not a simple stamp in your passport.

Stolen BBC News photo

I’ll probably say this a hundred times more, but traveling with my folding bicycle has been a godsend.  After living in areas in China where it would be more than a week before I’d see another white person, suddenly finding myself in the Orlando of Thailand was too much of a values-shock for me.  The folding bicycle though was great, in that it allowed me to get to some of the more remote beaches, and, even better, to explore inland and to see what life is like for the people who actually live there.  In short, it got me out’a Orlando.  The anecdotes may seem trivial, but just experiences like buying a really great piece of grilled street-meat, and my tipping the guy out of appreciation resulted in him wanting to share his gratitude with me for my kindness and small conversation by forcing an ear of corn into my hands.  Or, when the torrential rain became too torrential, I would find the people of Phuket always, without a thought, ready to invite me into their homes, and out of the rain.  Often to eat boiled peanuts.  Conversations were simple, but the kindness was appreciated, and I think you don’t get this type of non-jaded generosity in touristy meccas, like where I was lodged only a few miles away.

This is the image the camera repairman took to prove to me the camera was working again, $70 later, and in Bangkok. All is right in the world.

Here’s what vacationing in a foreign culture is like without trying to appreciate the local feel:  It’s like you going to a fancy restaurant and ordering chicken nuggets off the kids’ menu.  You’ve gone through the effort of coming here and you’ll have paid for it anyways, so why not take full advantage of what there is to appreciate before you?  Plus, you’ll feel more nourished.  To me, that’s traveling versus a vacation, and in telling someone you’ve been on vacation versus “out traveling” implies more hardship, but also some greater purpose; something more akin to a journey of discovery and challenge than a period of simple indulgence.  And so while a lot of the bull I went through in Thailand I don’t really ever want to go through again, I’ve also been through it, and while I can’t yet process the value in the experience explicitly, I’m glad I was there and for whatever unperceivable ways it has benefited me.  And heck, the food really was good.

They say half of cooking is presentation. Exploded frogs for sale. Saw these for sale at a market on the outskirts of Bangkok.   

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Hangzhou: In Search of the Quintessence of Chinese Culture

This blog is out of order, slightly.  I went from living in Tianjin to Hangzhou, and then on to South East Asia.  Apologies.

Hangzhou.  It’s where I’ve been living for the past month.  And about the name?  Don’t worry, it’s hard to say.  Hangzhou is another one of em’ giant, difficult to sound-out Chinese cities that most people outside of China haven’t heard of.  But it’s worth remembering nonetheless, because it is the most beautiful mega-city I have ever been to, and is worth a visit if you’re ever in China.

On one hand it is a modern city.  There is a large freeway system “ringing” the city, a massive subway system being built, and there are high rises and skyscrapers.  It’s also twice the size of Los Angeles.

And on the other hand?

On the other hand, to boil down a lot of Chinese history into the processed meat of story-telling, Hangzhou has been a place where different Emperors for over a thousand years have been spending big bucks to make the city as pretty as possible.  And they already had a mighty helping hand from Mother Nature, with beautiful mountains, bamboo forests, and misty tea fields abounding.  After about a thousand years on something like this, you’d reckon correctly that they’ve done a decent job on building beautiful buildings and landscaping to compliment her work.

Hangzhou is famous in Chinese culture for being incredibly beautiful, specifically in the area where I am living, which is called the West Lake district.  Here famous poets over the centuries have written about scenes around where I live that have come to essentially create a poetic scavenger hunt, where you are supposed to find the 10 famous beautiful scenes around West Lake they wrote about, such as ‘Dawn on the Su Causway in Spring’ ; ‘Curved Yard and Lotus Pool in Summer’ ; ‘Moon over the Peaceful Lake in Autumn’ ; ‘Orioles Singing in the Willows’ ; ‘Evening Bell Ringing at the Nanping Hill’, and other eyesores.  While this presents an interesting way to explore a beautiful city, I decided to eschew this traditional challenge, and instead to set out to hunt the much more elusive white whale for travelers: the Quintessence of Chinese Culture.

I’ve come to Hangzhou to see how a bike-friendly city in China rolls, and what life is like.  To do this, I thought it only logical to see how a public tool like the bicycle is used, by spending most of my time out in public, seeing normal life in Hangzhou, and how the bicycle integrates.  And what better way to do this than to bike, right?

To say it frankly, research here has been awesome!  Biking around all day, exploring, and it being “work” is not a bad gig.  I’ve gotten myself some wheels –a folding bicycle, that has some serious big-boy gears, so I can go whip-snap fast.  It makes me feel like I am riding around on the Batmobile, because everywhere I go people stop to stare, and see me fold or unfold the bicycle.  (takes 15 seconds). And the staring is pretty unabashed too.  I mean people walking across the street holding the basket of laundry they were folding, or walking out of a restaurant to see what I’m up to.  It’s particularly interesting because folding bicycles are common here, although they are typically $60 flimsy hunks of metal, and not high-quality mango-colored rides with a funny looking Westerner on top.

The portion of Hangzhou that borders the famous lake here is one of the ritziest places I have ever been.  For instance, on my daily commute from where I live to the heart of the city I bike by dealerships for Rolls Royce, Lamborghini, and Austin Martin.  Porsches on this stretch are about as common as rice in China.  I typically get caught at the red light by the Versache and Armani stores.  So, to say this is a spendy section of town is spot on.  In this part of town I stopped by the ultra-expensive Hyatt to use their fax machine while on my bike.  I’ve seen the aforementioned cars that cost more than a house parked out-front on a daily basis, but when I went in the car-hops –who park these bajillion dollar cars– were really excited to see my bike, and sheepishly asked if they could take it for a test drive.  This is the same guys whose job it is to drive these dream cars, and they were instead blown away by my bike.  Allll right!

On my wanderings throughout the city, I came across a studio for a caligraphy master. Hangzhou is home to the prestigious Chinese Academy of Art. I watched him for a long time admiring his thoughtful meditation before he would fire off some rapid fire paint strokes, and then meditate more on his art. I realized there isn't a worse job for me than this one which requires perfect spelling and handwriting so good it is artistic.

As self-serving as it sounds –I think on a social level it is really important for bikes to be viewed as cool.  So, so much of the developing world wants to own a car because that is the status-symbol of life in America, and so many people want to be like what life is portrayed to be like where the streets are paved with gold.  To say that the world cannot handle over a billion people acquiring a car is a vast, vast understatement, so anything to change this mentality I think is valuable.

To quickly switch gears for only a second, in America it is interesting to see the sudden rapid rise in The Cool of The Bike, due to the style of New York bike messengers becoming the in-thing for twenty-somethings, with fixed-gear bicycles, and the accompanying fashion.  In the book Pedaling Revolution (about bikes in the U.S.) there is a good passage about a hipster bike advocate in Portland who focuses on getting people to bike by not appealing to their sense of helping the world, their community, quality of life, or physical fitness, but on making the image of being a biker cool and sexy.  I think this type of effort is working too, and I have seen twenty-somethings in affluent circles of America, Europe, Africa, and here in Asia too all embracing this “cool” identity crafted initially by a few cool cats in New York.  I think there is a lot to this approach of change through being “cool”, and so I don’t mind being seen as the American who has a cool bike, especially if it might do a little to alter a perspective for something better and more obtainable.

Tea fields. 25 minutes by bike from the heart of the city.

In addition to all the attention, having a versatile bicycle like this has been a godsend.  I got talked into riding it after reading David Byrnes’ (of ‘The Talking Heads’ fame) book, ‘Bicycle Diaries’, which is his musings on different cultures around the world and how he has experienced them with his folding bicycle.  (It’s a fun, quick, and insightful –especially for a rock star- read on culture, cities, and life).  Anyways, my bike has been perfect to getting to far reaching sections of the city, and seeing what life is like away from all the glitz and glitter of the affluent lakefront. 

I like riding on these backstreets because, as Tom Waits says, “this is where the real people are.”  One thing that has really fascinated me here in Hangzhou is seeing the massive presence of working tricycles.  These are essentially flatbed delivery trucks that are pedal powered.  People hire them for everything.  Delivering trucks, windows, people, flowers, mattresses, anything.  And I mean anything.

This man was very happy to pose with his freakishly huge oysters, which he was selling off the back of his tricycle.

I really don’t think there is a limit to what they’ll take, or how large the load will be.  Frequent sights are entrepreneurs who pedal around on these working tricycles collecting recyclables of all sorts to sell to recyclers.  They then pile then sky-high, and they’ll take everything, especially big items like TVs, air conditioners, and water heaters.  I find these bikes fascinating for a lot of reasons, but particularly because they are beautiful demonstrations that motor vehicles are necessary a lot less than we are prone to think in the West, and that I firmly believe the bicycle is the engine for mobility and employment for many of the world’s poor.

Here in China bicycles are frequently used by poor people to establish street-side vending companies, selling everything from fish tanks to sushi, flowers to socks, books to reading lights.  I’ve seen it all.  Even b.b. guns.  It’s a no-rent, no operating cost venture that allows the owner the flexibility to move to where the customers are throughout the day.

Chairs.

In Africa and here now too I’ve been impressed with the bicycle’s ability to be a ‘helping yourself up by your own bootstraps’ development tool, and I am just surprised that so few governments and development groups don’t value it for this, and promote it accordingly.

An automated bike checkout stand. All you need is a credit card or a bus pass and it's yours for an hour for free.

Despite this, here in China, where there are many, many poor people, the bicycle is being actively opposed (I went on more about this in my previous entry on Tianjin).  One of the major reasons is exactly for what I just wrote about.  It’s the vehicle for the poor, and why should something with such lower prestige be prioritized when people want to be in something, well, cooler?  While this is true of the National Government’s stance, and the public opionion by and large, what I really like about Hangzhou is that this city has decided to maintain being cool with the presence of bikes.  And how!

Two of those mechanical rides outside of department stores and supermarkets that you put a coin in and children ride in. Freaky-creepy. The one on the left is named Jayce.

When I was in Paris, Vienna, and Barcelona I was able to see two of the world’s largest public bicycle share systems.  If you are not familiar with how they work, it’s quite simple and genius.  You swipe a credit card or a bus card (which makes you fiscally responsible for its return), which unlocks a bicycle located at designated stations all throughout the city.  The bicycle is yours then for free for the first hour, and you can return it to any other station throughout the city.  Any time after that is only a minimum charge.  The checkout and return is done all electronically.  These systems are incredible, and people in cities with well-developed systems wouldn’t trade them for the world.  It makes public transportation all the easier, (or not even necessary), in that you can grab a bicycle anywhere near your point of origin, and then dart to the nearest bus stop, subway entrance, or pizza stall and be there 3 to 5 times faster than if you had to walk.  It’s great!

Man enjoying his cigarette. Hangzhou has a beautiful second layer to the city. They built the current highway overpass system OVER the previous highway system, which is now only used by bikes and e-bikes. This man is watching the river below him from the bicycle highway overpass, while the highway goes over and by him.

Anyways, while I was very familiar with these systems, and a huge fan of them, Hangzhou has done it unlike anywhere else.

Apparently this isn't in Love Park, Philadelphia. Who would'a thunk? Here's to Bike Love.

Hangzhou (and a surprising amount of other cities in China) have decided to follow suit of these European cities, but being Chinese they decided the only way to do something is on an unprecedented scale.  Hangzhou is home to 50,000 bicycles, which dwarfs Paris’ 25,000 Velib` bicycles (the world’s third largest, but the most famous).  One of the reasons China has been able to do so many more is that they’ve custom-ordered a lot of Flying Pigeon’s crap-tastic red bikes, which cost $70, compared to Paris’ great $1,200 silver-colored wonder-bikes.  They’re basic workhorse bikes meant to be used and abused, and while no fashionable Parisian would be caught dead on one, these bikes are–not exaggerating—being ridden on every street, and waiting at every intersection.  It’s beautiful how popular these bikes are.

While I still think the Parisian program is by far the best implemented, the one here is very popular, and it seems like Hangzhou represents something special in the history of the bicycle in China.   I think it’s the beginning of the second age of bicycles in China, this one more systematic and centrally controlled (gee, go figure) and integrated into a more comprehensive transport system.  E-bikes are going to continue to dominate personal mobility in the cities, but the compact density and aforementioned transportation issues of China will necessitate major programs like these.

Conjoined puppies. A GREAT idea for a children's ride. Another one of those coin-operated children's rides.

And don’t quote me on this, but from the information I have been able to find online SEVEN of the ten largest public bicycle share systems are all in China, so there’s some testament to both their viability and popularity.  The only reason they’re not better known is that, rightfully, all their praise is getting drowned in the news of the congestion and the rising auto-mobility of the Chinese. It will be interesting to see how these two strands, e-bikes and public bikes, develop in this country that is itself developing quicker than a Polaroid.

Searching for it.

In addition to the ubiquitous red bikes and working tricycles, around the touristy West Lake there are countless Chinese tourists on rental bikes.  One quality I really like about the bicycle is the magical romance to it.  In basically any flat tourist-destination on this wide earth I’d be willing to bet my pair of hooves that there are bikes for rent.  It just seems people appreciate the bicycle for the deliberately slower experience, and consequent joy the bicycles afford.  While cute and whimsical, there is also life-value to these things that shouldn’t be dismissed.

So, it is interesting seeing bicycles in Hangzhou, because depending on where you are you’ll see happy blushing honeymooners running darn near into trees on a bicycle built for two, locals commuting on the city’s free bikes, and people who have never quit biking, and are still riding the same iron horses that they’ve been riding since time began.  It’s a cross-section of so-many different bicycle microcosms that it just makes exploring this major city blissful.

Life here has been very enjoyable.  I am starting to get into the “groove” –if there is such a thing—of living in China while knowing essentially no Chinese.  I question its existence because the limitations of this groove are frequently revealed to being not that capable in confusing situations.  Point in case?  Asking to use the bathroom and being given an application for a home loan.

In a way, this is a good solution.  The Chinese are noted for their long-term planning, and this is kinda’ a solution like “if you give a man a fish you feed him for a day, teach him to fish and he’s set for life.”  I mean, if I owned a bathroom this never would have been an issue in the first place, right?

Restaurant Roulette: The Menu

Another issue is being illiterate when things are only written in Chinese characters.  This is most often an issue in the game that I have come to call “restaurant roulette.”  I’ve had my second-best meal here by randomly pointing to a crazy mess of characters.  Though, I’ve also been served a racquetball-sized brain in broth.  You win some; you lose some.

Another good example of a “win some”?  My old $13 shoes from Paris have been hurting me, and so I have been trying to go shoe shopping here.  “Trying” is the key word, as the largest size I’ve been able to find I last wore when I was 13.  One young store clerk told me “We no have shoes for your big hooves.”

I thought it was crazy seeing a street vendor selling a horse-shoe crab, so I took a picture. The man got really excited and picked up the crab and wanted me to hold this basketball sized creepy thing. I just kept thinking "this is what killed the crocodile hunter!" and ran away.

My life can be broken into two distinct places here in Hangzhou.  The first is around West Lake, which is the rightfully “immortalized” lake where all the pretty landscaping, pagodas, and such have been built.  Surrounding most of it are large bamboo and fern filled temperate forests.  When I get the itch I go for a bike ride through these country roads, and carved into the hillsides and the few places where a flat plot of land can be found China’s finest green tea grows.  It is quaint, rural, and beautiful.  Yet, on the flip side, the same ten minute bike ride from where I am living and I can enter the major city, where there are massive buildings, malls, and all the hubbub of life in a city twice the size of Los Angeles.  I know I’ve told you that, but it still just blows my mind that such diverse juxtapositions exist side by side.

One of my primary research methodologies could basically be described as just dootin’dooting around, checking out the city.  In a cool documentary I saw a year or two ago China’s most famous photographer was able to so amazingly capture ordinary life of people in China by cruising around on his bike and shooting what caught his eye.  (It’s incredible work, and very bicycle-centric, so I highly recommend it. Here it is).  Like bicycles themselves, this method struck me as fun, practical, and easy, and so that is a major pillar in a lot of my days.

Undeniably the most bizarre highlight of these bicycle-escapades was when I was cruising through a more poor area of the city, a good distance in every regard from the Ferraris and the Rolls Royce’s.  In this part of town the roads are alleyways, crooked, narrow, puddle-ridden, and everyone is moving everything at once.  TVs, garbage, piping, all going lickity-split in an area about as wide as a bowling lane.  It was in one of these less-busy and little-wider back roads that I saw the odd sight of two –for the lack of a better phrase—“professionally cute” four year olds with roller-suitcases and a film crew of fifteen people around them, all wearing matching jackets and with four cameras.

Cute woman with a common folding bicycle.

The crew kept ushering people away and giving the index-finger-to-the-lips gesture to indicate “quiet, we’re filming!” and would usher past cars with the same gesture.  For whatever reason they let me be, so I snapped a few pictures, and just tried to figure out what the heck was going on.  My best bet was it was the Chinese equivalent of ‘Kids Say the Funniest Things’, because the producer would come up to the little girl, tell her directions (in Chinese) and the little girl would just go on a monologue for a few moments that even though I didn’t know what she was saying was undeniably incredibly cute.

Another of China's great "huh?" warning signs. For those who have seen the movie 'Pie', I think it is advising against THAT.

Like I say, professionally cute.  The director then came up and she then directed the little girl to go and talk to the dopy westerner about 6 times her height wearing a banana-yellow cycling jacket.  She had me from “Hello.”  And by that I mean beyond her greeting in Chinese I didn’t have a clue what she was saying, and I was suddenly feeling foolish and exposed on national television.  Like before she rambled on a whole litany of questions to me while the four cameramen all squeezed in around me to get my blank panicked look from all angles.

While perhaps I didn’t handle my shot at big-time Chinese television fame, it is entertaining that I’ve now been filmed for both Danish and Chinese national television programs this Watson year.  Who would’a thunk.

Eels. Make a great first pet for those with children.

One thing I’ve found on trips into the poorer sections of town that I’m still not entirely won over is their idea of decorating the outside of a building.  It’s like something if Ed Gein were the editor of ‘Good Housekeeping.’  I imagine a Chinese home decorator here would say,  “Got a desiccated pig head?   Good.  Great.

Babe II: Pig in the City

Just hang it up outside your door entrance and weave its tail through where its neck otherwise would be.  Like meat book ends.” It also seems that if you don’t have a pig head, leathery ducks are the next best option.  Or fish.  Or whatever.  On some level it is cosmically ironic seeing your goose-heads also drying next to your drying laundry, it just doesn’t strike me as …cozy.  Also, on one of these trips I watched a man skin eels.  I had heard it is really tough to fillet a living eel, and this man did it like I shuck corn.  You just can’t get this kind of entertainment at the Lamborghini dealership part of town.  On a related note of culinary adventures, In a mega-grocery store I walked into I found in their seafood section a table about the size of a teeter-totter full of live turtles in mesh bags that you’d typically package grapefruits in.  Hmm.

Live turtles in bags at a grocery store. Moderately priced, as turtles go.

Another item I am less than enamored by?  Chinese batteries.  It’s like the Chinese take especial pride in just how bad they can make their AA’s.  Looking over my financial records, I’ve seen I’ve bought a trillion damn batteries.  Since I’ve gotten here I’ve gone through enough to make a Great Wall of Batteries.  It’s now part of my daily routine:  get dressed, brush teeth, batteries.

Another thing they seem to pride themselves on is how incredibly creepy they can make those toys kids sit in and ride outside of supermarkets.  They’re everywhere here, and guaranteed to be deranged, and to mentally scar your child.  I’ve made it a point to start taking pictures of the worst of them.

And on the vein of cultural acclamation, I’ll put a whole-hearted plug for a book that I think will make the world a better place.  I can only hope this book is an undeniable success.  As everyone, including myself, admits, the next century belongs to the Chinese, and as social and economic interaction necessitates more and more Chinese to learn English I can only hope they’ll be “makin’ an a’ffer we can’t refuse.” The possibilities of this book which I spied at a local store are endless.  I mean, can you imagine an entire population of millions of Chinese speaking like Forest Gump?  Clint Eastwood?  Dolly Parton?

So, I guess to conclude, If you want another prediction on where the future of China is headed, there is going to be a whole generation of messed up Chinese kids speaking like the godfather hanging pigs heads outside their apartment.

Found it.

And that is the Quintessence of Chinese Culture.

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A Night at The Movies

Greetings!  Well, it’s been about forever ago since I last had either an internet connection that wasn’t mind-numbingly slow, or living under the Great Firewall of China, which doesn’t allow access to Youtube.  Anyways, I thought I’d take quick advantage of my time here in Thailand to upload three short clips I’ve had ferreted away from France, Ghana, and China.

This first one I am most proud of.  It’s a collection of photographs of bicycles I saw on the streets throughout the major cities I have so far been to in China (Beijing, Tianjin, Hangzhou, Shanghai, and Kunming).  I think the rest of it’s pretty self-explanatory, so if you’d feel so inclined, grab a bowl of popcorn, dim the lights, kick your feet up, and enjoy the two minutes and fortythree seconds of this film by clicking the image below.

The second film is a collection of short video clips I took while cycling through some of the more charming towns I saw in the Southeastern corner of France.

Lastly, the final film is a collection of all the video fotage I shot in Ghana (it’s only a minute or two, like the others).  This one might be a little more confusing, so I’ll give you the director’s commentary below.  

  • The opening scene is a pan of the scene from where I was living, and would spend my evenings watching the sunset and seeing how far I could spit watermelon seeds.
  • The second clip is from when I was in the first town in Northwestern, Ghana, where the bicycles from the Village Bicycle Project had just been delivered.  The guy is riding his new bicycle for the first time, and yes, that’s a real rooster.
  • Next is a clip from when I tried helping a girl fetch water back from the village pump.  I was miserably weak, and couldn’t carry the bucket at all on my head, but nonetheless, you can tell all involved in pumping were having a heck of a time.
  • The next clip I really like.  It is still in the same village, and is near dusk, where all the young men of the community were essentially doing drag races through the main path in the village, starting a kilometer or two outside of town.  This happened each day we handed out bikes, and would often be the must-see event for the entire community, where everyone would come out and sit on the logs underneath the tree watching them race into town, like a night at the races.
  • This is from where I was living with the Peace Corp volunteer in the same community.  The children all gathered around outside of where we were each night because we were the most interesting sight in town.  This is from when they very sweetly did a song and dance for us.
  • “Snap my picture” is a pretty common demand by kids here, and after a while you just have to start pretending your batteries are dead.  This is a bunch of kids hamming it up for me when I told them I was going to take a picture, just so you could see the great performance they go through in posing.
  • This chaotic clip is from my first ever Ghanian Farmers Day.  This holiday is a lot bigger there than Ghanian Farmers Day is in the States.  Everyone from everywhere gathers in the nearest community, and sings, dances, and drinks the local ferminted millet drink ‘pitoo.’  This clip is of a dance where young women would take turns entering the drum circle and just start dancing like a tommy gun.  It is even more impressive in that she’s doing it in about 100 degree heat, and high humidity.
  • The next short clip is from the same gathering for Farmer’s Day.  It’s just an awesome dance he’s doing.  You can also tell everyone is wearing their sweetest get-up for this biggest day of the year.
  • The next clip I think is pretty hilarious.  In my entries on Ghana I wrote about how I was pretty often the most interesting thing around, and people would just stop and stare at me.  Well, this is from when I was in Northeastern Ghana in the town of Kandiga conducting my research.  I was waiting for the people who I was going to talk with to show up, and this is how many kids gathered around me to watch me fascinatingly drink from my water-bottle.
  • The next clip I shot to give you an idea of what the hour-long motorcycle ride into this same village was like.  This is the “major” road we would ride in on.  It got a lot smaller and bumpier after that.
  • The next clip is of market day in another town in the same region I was researching, called Sirgu.  Market day rotates amongst communities every three days, and is a time for people from all around to gather, and get what they need and visit.  In the clip you can here “blika”, which is the beginning of the prolonged greeting that is said about 400 times a day.
  • The last clip is another one of kids staring at me, while I am waiting to conduct an interview, although as you may guess these fella’s weren’t too bad of company either, despite being a little shy.
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Laos

The following entry is about my journey across Laos to the capital, Vientiane.  There are not any pictures from the capital, which will be explained below.

It’s not a good thing when your country is described as having been “bombed back into the stone age.”  Laos has perhaps the least sought international distinction as having been the most heavily bombed country in the history of the world.  During the US / Vietnam War the United States ran over a half million bombing missions over the country, dropping more than 5 million tons of bombs.  According to Wikipedia “just over 10 percent of this bombing was indiscriminate, with 3,580 of the sites listed as having “unknown” targets and another 8,238 sites having no target listed at all.”  In short?  There wasn’t any rhyme or reason to where or, more importantly, who these bombs hit.  The worst of it is that a lot of these we dropped were cluster bombs, which split apart to release a lot of tennis ball sized “bombies”, of which 30% didn’t explode, but just lie waiting in the dirt ready to explode at a pin-prick, or the drop of someone’s foot.  So, with a country already devastated by the world’s worst bombing (more bombs were dropped on Laos than all of Europe by both sides during WWII), getting back together again for a country dependent upon agriculture (and hence a lot of walking through rural areas were massive de-bombing campaigns have not yet been conducted) makes grass-roots development all the harder.  Campaigns have been undertaken to get rid of these sinister remnants, with 88 square miles of the most heavily trafficked and populous parts of the country, this is still only a dent for this heavily rural country that is twice the size of Pennsylvania.  While my trip through the country was 100% safe, as the areas around the country’s essentially two roads is safer than Iowa, it was nonetheless readily evident to see that Laos continues to be both a very rural and a very poor country, that has been largely ignored by the rest of the world.

And so, while reading about this country with the tragic past, and with all the hardships of the present, you’d be predisposed to think of the collective mentality of the place as being equally dower.  One really beautiful thing I have come to realize in my travels, is that by and far, it seems people who have it harder off are the friendliest and, seemingly, the happiest people I’ve ever met.  While for me Laos was really just a conduit from China to the next countries between me and reaching Hanoi, Vietnam (and consequently I wasn’t able to linger as long as I would have liked) my brush through the country was incredibly warm and welcoming.

Before entering Laos I had read online that it was easy-cheesey to find a bus on the Laos side of the border.  Wrong-o.

Me about the enter the Laos border (the golden thing), passport in my ziplock bag in hand. (I also have a helmet, I just hid it for the photo).

After crossing the border by bike, I found myself with nothing but a few grass-hut bars, food stands, and locals playing broule, or bocce ball (Laos was a former French colony, and they continue to dig the game, and coffee.  I agree with both decisions).  After talking to some of the broule players, I figured the best idea was to continue biking along the only road there was –where else would I go, right?—and hope for the best.  About 20 miles later I found The Best.

I waved down a night bus bound for exactly where I was going –Vientiane, the capital in the south on the Laos / Thailand border.  On top of that, instead of having uncomfortable seats (which I thought were obligatory in the Third World, and a sworn enemy of tall Americans with portions of their hip removed) it instead had bunk beds, with windows that opened all the way to my midsection as I lay in the comfortable bunk.

Get on the Magic Bus.

The day was a perfect summer day, and the scenery in Laos is absolutely stunning.  It is like Hawaii, without the beaches.  A tropical and mountainous paradise.  The one and only road is a spaghetti noodle that is laced up, down, and along the lush mountains of the country, which made the ride a beautiful one.  Life in Laos is also primarily lived beside the road, and outdoors, which made me hanging out the window like a dog all the more enjoyable.  People coming back from the rice fields or hanging in the shade of their houses would wave and laugh and shout out to me as they saw me, and I happily did the same.  Also, I don’t think I mentioned an important detail.  Apparently Laos has a beer that is worshiped as a holly-grail amongst beer-aficionados.

My second camera wouldn't always take a picture right away if I was moving. Thus the unintentional self portrait of me talking to the women waving and laughing and saying hello to me as they are walking back from the fields. I made a mental note to remember I was listening to 'Sympathy for the Devil' when I took this. Fun Fact.

It’s brewed from locally grown jasmine rice.  It’s called Beerlao (creative), and comes in three flavors, is readily available, and incredibly cheep.  All in all, not a bad way to pass a day.

Upon reaching Vientiane 12 hours latter, I began to prepare for my onward journey.  I had read that depending on the depth of the river, there was an alternate option than the one that I had planned to enter Thailand, which involved a two or three day boat ride along the Mekong River.  Figuring that my fellowship focused on both essentially understanding how transportation affects people, and, consequently, how these people live, that this wasn’t a bad idea to check out, nor a boring means to travel, so I began to look into it.

I was advised to bike about 15 miles out of town to an area where boats docked.  After getting hopelessly lost and spun around in the equatorial heat, I finally found where some boats were docked.  I was hoping to find a passenger barge, which I had read locals used when the river depth permitted.  Instead I found three river barges, tied side-by-side, perpendicular to the riverbank.  The riverbank itself was a near vertical drop of fifteen sandy feet, and I looked at it pretty questioningly.  Nearby were two local village women preparing to go to the river to bathe, and they saw my “how the hell do I do this?” look, and laughed and showed me a narrow path, that was about one degree less than a sheer drop off.  With me laughing (thinking I was going to fall) and them laughing (also thinking I was going to fall) down this path, we reached the water’s edge where the nearest boat to the shore was tied up.  I didn’t fall.

I then saw the gangplank.  It was ten feet long, and about half as wide as my foot.  The women laughed at my obvious intimidation, and called one of their grown sons down to show me how to walk across it.  He came down, ran across it like a squirrel on a telephone wire, and they all laughed, and waited to see me go at it.  From the summer I worked trail crew in Alaska I had learned from crossing (much wider) fallen logs –which we often used as bridges to cross large streams and small rivers– it is best to go quickly.  So that’s what I did.  Or, more precisely, that’s what I did up until about 7 of the ten feet I was supposed to go, and then fell five feet down into the muddy Mekong below me.  I Spluttered, and thrashed to get out of the water as quickly as I could (my wallet and my camera were both wisely in my pocket). The women roared with laughter, to the point that I think, happily, that this might have been one of the funniest things they had ever seen in their lives.  Upon reaching the shore, I eventually joined in with them, realizing just how damn ridiculous I looked.  I ended up eventually getting up the gangplank by abandoning all dignity that hadn’t already been washed away by hugging my way up it, like a three-toed sloth.

After hopping the gaps from one barge to the next, and then the next  -this I was good at– I finally found the captain taking a nap in the engine room of the final barge.  His physical demeanor spoke that he wanted to be treated with the utmost respect, and so I tried to act accordingly, like I was in a job interview.  The preposterousness of the situation struck me though, that here I was trying to act dignified, while I was dressed in sopping wet clothes, and having to brush the water out of my face.

It turns out my Laotian baptism was all in vain.  After some hand-drawn maps and a lot of charades, we established that all three boats were going the wrong direction, and that no boats were going where I wanted.  I also found out that this cost me the second camera I have had to buy this Watson year.

Me biking from the China border with Laos. Though this looks like me also biking to the Thai border with Laos (if my camera had been working), which would have been a better ending photograph for this entry. So, with that, I'll lie to you and say it is, and hello Thailand!

In all though, it was probably well worth it.  I suspect years from now I’ll forget the lost money of replacing my Kodak, but not the moment I shared with those women.  When I hopped from one barge to the next, to the next, to reach the gangplank again my two friends, the women who were going down to the river to bathe, saw me again and how sopping wet I was and began laughing just as beautifully as before.  An incredible heart-warming, genuine laughter that if I had the choice all over again, I’d give the Mekong my camera without a second thought.  Some things don’t need a photograph to remember, anyways.

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