Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Truth and Steel in China

New America Media, News Analysis, Xujun Eberlein, Published: July 29, 2009

(Note: the following text is my original draft, slightly longer than the NAM published version, and with links to sources. - Xujun)

Two seemly unrelated but notable events took place in China on Friday, July 24th. In the morning, the official news agency Xinhua published an article titled "Ten Suggestions for Local Governments on How to Respond to Internet Opinion" on its website. In a commanding tone, the article tells local governments:

When sudden incidents occur, the government should aim at the earliest time to issue press releases, grasp the right to speak, create first impressions, and lead the initiative. "Crisis management" is actually "crisis communication management." For example crisis management expert Norman Augustine advocates to "tell the truth and tell it fast." Some of the local governments in China sum up their experience as "reporting facts fast, reporting causes with caution." The "open government information regulations" require "being open as the principle, not being open as an exception."

(Update: I just saw that Danwei has a full translation of the "ten suggestions" today - h/t ESWN.)

Its bureaucratic style notwithstanding, the call to "tell the truth and tell it fast" coming from a government mouthpiece surprised some Chinese dissidents who have long been protesting China's strict media control. An active dissident on Twitter dismissed the article as "just some journalist's opinion," even though the official tone of the article suggests a high level policy instruction disguised as an opinion piece, which is not unusual in China.

As if setting up an immediate reality test for the government's new media policy, that very day a large mass incident erupted in Tonghua, Jilin. Thousands of workers of the Tonghua Steel Corp protested a private takeover of their enterprise, which had a 50-year history of state ownership. The steel factory had already suffered a failed privatization attempt from the same company. It was recovering from that and last year's financial crisis, when the renewed and expanded ownership was announced. Angry workers beat to death the new general manager appointed by the private company, Jianlong of Beijing, on his first day at work. The workers gradually dispersed only after the Jilin provincial government announced its on-the-site decision to have the private company withdraw from Tonghua Steel's business. Some Chinese netizens called the event "the first workers movement since 1949" – the year Communist rule in China began.

As a test of the new media policy, it seems to have failed. For three days, China's media kept totally silent on the shocking incident, not even the independent and daring papers such as Caijing said a word. On every commercial web portal, posts and discussions on the Tonghua riot were quickly deleted. The Western media first learned the news from a Hong Kong human rights group and reported the incident briefly on the 25th , all in a monotonous and minimalist way, quoting the same source.

Meanwhile, Chinese netizens acted quicker than the government's media controllers, and one detailed anonymous eye-witness account landed on overseas Chinese websites and was circulated around the world. It could no longer be deleted. (An English translation of this account can be found on Hong Kong-based ESWN, one of the most popular China blogs.) So far no Western media outlet has cited the far more informative account, whose content seems to be verified by various sources, including the government's own belated reporting. The speed of selection and elimination by internet surfers is amazing, and the quality control of the selection process is even more impressive.

China's media waited until July 27 to react. Curiously, this time English reporting led the way. The first report I found was published on China Daily's English site, titled "Manager killed in plant riot." This was followed by Chinese language reports that tagged along in a few major papers (apparently the smaller papers were still waiting to see which direction the wind was blowing). While the Chinese media did not follow the aforementioned policy advice to "tell the truth fast," they nonetheless acted according to the second part of it, i.e., "reporting causes with caution." Those articles were terse and dry reports with little analysis.

To be fair, for government-controlled media with a reputation for directing public opinion and suppressing real journalism, the attempt to "tell the truth" should be viewed as progress. The problem, however, is that the aforementioned policy suggestions treat telling the truth as a tactic rather than a principle; its author(s) apparently have not forgotten Mao's famous teaching, "Policy and tactics are the life of the Party."

While delayed factual reporting is better than no or distorted reporting, continued disillusion comes from the Jilin provincial government's bizarre media stance. On Monday afternoon, it issued a press release defending its failed effort to privatize Tonghua Steel, calling the takeover plan "carefully researched" and its implementation "legal," while using customary language to accuse "a small number of individuals agitating others who didn't know the truth" and starting the riot.

Though the Tonghua riot appears to be anti-privatization, internet accounts of the incident indicate that the primary cause of the workers' resentment was income polarization and crony capitalism. The general-manager who was beaten to death, Chen Guojun, was said to have an annual salary of 3 million yuan; in comparison, a Tonghua Steel worker's income may be as low as 200 yuan per month. Meanwhile, the Jilin provincial government's alliance with the private enterprise Jianlong was seen as an attempt to sell out the steelworkers to fill the pockets of the rich and powerful. The owner of Jianlong is said to have deep family connections with high-level government officials.

Whether or not the Tonghua workers' accusation of "collusion between government and rich businessmen" is true, crony capitalism is certainly an acute reality in China that has been addressed by many scholars, notably Tsinghua University's sociology professors Sun Liping and Qin Hui. An MIT economist, Yasheng Huang, also discussed it in his recent book, Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics : entrepreneurship and the state. An American journalist, Philip Pan, vividly described such realities in his book Out of Mao's Shadow. In my own exchanges with many people in China early this year, such behavior seems quite common. The institutional cause of China's crony capitalism is the lack of checks on power. As such, political reform is more and more urgently called for. Without political reform, the great achievements of China's economic reform might one day be destroyed by social upheavals caused by wealth polarization.

The media policy prescribed by the Xinhua article, even if it were followed, does not address this problem. While quick reporting might dampen the escalation of netizen outrage, it does not help the steelworkers. These stalwart symbols of labor's contribution to Communist China point at the necessity of new reform, and not new tactics.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

He's Arrived!

Bike Travelogue: the 22nd (and final) day, Santa Fe to Albuquerque NM 73 Miles

by Bob Eberlein

July 25, Santa Fe, NM – It is cool, but not cold this morning. I consider putting on a sweatshirt but am quite confident that being a little bit cold for a little while will be a nice contrast to the rest of the day. The road starts out as a big urban street – lots more motels go by so I was just at the beginning of that. The road is downhill, and I can cruise along. The stop lights are a little bit annoying but there is not too much traffic so I make good time. Once I pass Interstate 25 route 15 turns into a normal and relatively pleasant road with a generous shoulder and very little traffic.

It is still downhill, and I am making great time. I wonder if I can just coast to Albuquerque. The road ahead is perfectly straight and downhill, but header toward mountains. I begin to doubt that I will simply be able to coast. The road is going south, but I can’t, for the life of me, figure out what it will do when it hits the hills. Perhaps I am losing my touch, but I do enjoy a road that presents a mystery. I am heading south.

Eventually the mystery begins to resolve as I head into the hills and turn a little bit to the west. I will be going over these mountains; I guess it could be a challenge. But it starts as relatively short ups and downs, with some interesting vistas and one really great rock formation. I am definitely in a dry area that used to have an active river.

cool rock formations

After a time a come to the town of Madrid and it seems like a good time for second breakfast. Unfortunately I don’t see anything that looks like a store. There is a little café, but the people around make me a little uncomfortable. On reflection that is pretty strange, but this was like being blown back to the early 70s. I felt like a kid again surrounded by adults who had chosen a different lifestyle from that normally pursued. Madrid seems to be an odd artists Mecca. Perhaps it will turn into another Taos.

As it happens, it does have a hill climb that is pretty similar to what Taos boasts on either the High Road to Taos or the pass to Cimarron. Unfortunately the climb starts too low, and does not get high enough to make it a delightful mountain ride. Still, there is significant elevation gain and this does help to keep the temperature down, so the ride it not too uncomfortable. I pass a few cyclists going in the other direction – no packs just day riders.

the climb ahead

Having missed my second breakfast in Madrid I stop to down a little bit of water and a few cookies to keep up my strength, or perhaps spirits, on the grinding climb. It is daunting, partly because so much of it is visible from the bottom. But, like any climb, it eventually ends. At the top I try my cell phone on a whim and it actually has a signal. Amazed I call Xujun to tell her I am at the top of the hill. Unfortunately, or fortunately since I am just standing in the sun, I did not charge my battery last night and it is twirping out. Actually, this explains the odd noise I kept hearing which I thought was a strange bird.

There is a short steep descent, but for the most part the road continues along a high ridge roughly level. I just keep going until I get to a really spread out set of housing developments below what is clearly a ski resort. I don’t know if these are ski condos or just houses but there is no town, just the development. It is all kind of strange to me.

The road starts to climb slowly, but a big tail wind has kicked up so instead of going really slow, I simply go slow. I just plug along, feeling pretty hungry and hoping something like a store will appear. The road gets bigger and more cyclists appear. They seem very little interested in me, oh well. Eventually I do find a gas station store combo and buy a quart of chocolate milk. It tastes wonderful. The store is really busy, I guess it is the only thing around. Lots more cyclists ride by in both directions.

From there the road gets bigger and bigger. Usually there is a decent shoulder, so the riding is not bad, but the whole thing feels a little bit yuppie surreal. There are lots of cyclists, but this is not really the nice part of the road to be riding on. A couple pass me and say hello, but are only mildly curious about what I am up to.

Route 14 finally ends and this is where I am pretty sure there is a road that follows I-40 even though it does not show up on my map. It turns out to be NM 335 and is also marked bicycle route 66, which eventually becomes historic US 66. This road is basically downhill into Albuquerque, but now a big headwind has kicked up so I only make a moderate pace. More cyclists pass me in both directions.

The road is not really very interesting, and I reflect how much more fun it is to ride around the Boston area than it would be to ride around here. There are, however, probably lots more riding days here. Which one works better? Boston seems clear to me. These roads are too big with too much traffic. Plus it is a desert.

Eventually this road turns into historic US 66 which is an incredibly straight road that runs downhill about 10 miles from the outskirts of Albuquerque to the center of town. I stop at a Carl’s Junior for my final on the road fast food and all the root beer I can drink meal. It is a little bit too soon after my Chocolate milk and I have trouble finishing my hamburger. Still, it is a nice cap to the trip.

From there it is just down the long straight hill. Lots of traffic, stop lights, entering cars and similar obstacles. There are three lanes in my direction with no shoulder so I ride in the middle of the right lane. I decide to stop the stupid drivers, of which there seems to be no shortage, from passing too close. It works, and nobody seems to get mad at me so while they may be bad drivers, they are nice bad drivers.

The road is lined with miles of motels. The going rate seems to be 29.95 per day, though that may require a weekly rental. I am amused by all of this and also by the destruction of the Economy Motel on the left of the street. Still, for all its run down appearance there are not that many places that seem to be out of business. It just looks like business has never been that good.

I finally reach Rio Grande Blvd and call ahead so that Roberta and Robin can get a picture of me as I ride up to the hotel. There they are, a final photo op.

I started on July 4, the same day as the Tour de France, but they still have a day to go, and still will not go as far as I have. I look at the times and have to laugh – 81 hours, I can do way better than that, why I must have at least 200 under my belt by now. Gosh, I’m as good as a whole team. Still I will follow the end – it looks like Lance Armstrong has been a good team player and will help Alberto Contador to victory.

I am off the road, and into real life mode again. Or maybe not, I am writing this in a Laundromat as I wait for my clothes to dry. Who knows what tomorrow holds.

Total Distance 2425 miles. Average daily 110, riding daily 116.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Bike Travelogue: the 21st Day

bike sculptures in Taos, NM (photo by Bob)

Taos-10 to Santa Fe NM 87 Miles

by Bob Eberlein

Taos-10, NM – Having gone to bed tired, cold and downtrodden I wake up early in the morning. No email to catch up on, but I do complete my log for the day before. As light begins to filter into the sky I get up to have breakfast. I only have 4 pieces of bread left so decide to make it peanut butter and jam for breakfast in order to push me further into the day. Since I am at a campsite with a picnic table I take advantage of it and have my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in style.

Next I start to look at the bike. I pull off the rear panniers and put out the cover to my tent to catch any loose bearings. Then I pull of the crank arms to inspect. I discover I do not have the tool to pull the bottom bracket so make do with looking. The bearing unit has fallen apart. The thin metal guide which holds the bearings in position has fallen out and the bearings are not in that any more. It looks pretty bad, all in all. I can pack the remaining ball bearings into the race and they seem to stay, though there are not nearly enough to fill the unit. I do this, put in the bearing shield which has also fallen out to hold them in place then roll up some electrical tape and pack that around the shield. To keep it all in place I wrap the whole bottom bracket with several layers of electrical tape, and put the cranks back on.

This is not a pretty solution, but it seems to be viable. I am pretty sure I can make it to Taos, but I am not hopeful of finding a bike shop there. I wash my hands with water from the stream, pack up camp, pay the $5 fee to the US Forest Service and limp out onto the road.

Fortunately the road from my campsite to town continues to be downhill. I eventually pass out of the mountains into an area that could almost be suburban Boston except for the Adobe buildings. A woman out for a morning walk says hello to me. I continue into town. My bike randomly shifts gears as the chain drops from one chainwheel onto the next when the peddles wobble. I get to an intersection with a coffee shop and see a man with a bike drinking coffee. I ask him if he is from around here, and if he knows whether there is a bike shop. He says he is, and that there are two. One is just down the street we are on, and another about a mile down a parallel street. He says he thinks the nearby one opens at 9:30 and the further one at 10. He also says the one further away has better mechanics.

It is still only about 7:30 but I decide to check out the shops. I go to the nearby one, which is on the left. Even at this time of day there is so much traffic it is hard to cross the street. Eventually I do, it is a big place, opens at 9:30, and looks like it will work. I sit down in front of it and get my computer out to catch up on email and call Xujun.

After looking at my email it is still early so I decide to check out the other bike shop. I use Google maps to figure out the location, though the instructions I got at the coffee shop turn out to be right. I ride toward it and notice a McDonald’s at Taos, one of those rare McDonald’s that tries to blend with the local character, and figure I will come back for some more breakfast.

The second bike shop Taos Cyclery is where it should be. Smaller than the first, the sign on the door says it opens at 9. That clinches it for me. I decide to forget about food and sit down to wait. The shop is in a small plaza and there is an electrical outlet by one of the stores so I plug myself in. About 8:40 somebody rides up and unlocks the door. I ask him if they will open soon and he says 9. Ten minutes later he is back though, and I head on in.

I pull all my packs off the bike and my mechanic, whose name I never learned, puts it up on the stand and pulls off the cranks. He has a bottom bracket the right size so it is just a matter of getting the old one off, and the new one on. That turns out to take a while.

They do not have the tool to remove the bottom bracket; it is smaller than the standard. We resort to tapping it out with a screwdriver but it just breaks up the part. I try a Vise Grips, but only have the same effect. I am almost ready to give in to despair, but eventually Doug, the owner, comes over and explains we are trying to tighten not loosen the thing. That is helpful info, and pretty soon we do manage to get the old one out.

Putting the new one in starts out smoothly, but once it is in the crank is hitting the bike frame. This requires a spacer and the adaptation of the retaining bracket so that it will thread into the frame. That takes a while, but it does work.

In the meantime somebody has come in flaunting TGIFFF burritos. I couldn’t figure out what the last two FFs are all about but say I would love one. He says it is chicken but is seemed to have bacon, eggs and a whole bunch of other stuff in it. It is good, I guess, but seems to require a cast iron stomach. Anyway, it serves as my second breakfast and lunch combined.

I go to the store to get some batteries for my camera, and also a loaf of bread. Come back and get some pictures of the bike shop.

I go over a map with Doug who tells me the straight shot to Santa Fe is a narrow busy road and that I should take what is known locally as the High Road to Taos (even though I am starting in Taos). He also says that Espanola is worth avoiding. Advice I would not take from the Wal-Mart bicycle guy I do take from Doug. And so I set off for the high road.

Only a block from the store there is a thunking every time I pedal. All this work and just trouble, I think to myself. I take a closer look and it turns out one of the bolts holding the small chain-ring is loose. An easy fix. I pull out my allen keys and tighten it up, and I am off.

Doug described a 5 mile climb to start the high road, and reality does not disappoint. It is getting warm as the sun comes out but as I climb the air cools so it is not so hot. The big problem is flies. I am going so slowly that the horseflies act as if I am standing still. The horseflies are more annoying because they bite. There is nothing to be done but wave at them, sometimes I wish I had a tail.

The road goes up and the mountains are beautiful, with a great vista looking back toward Taos. After that there is a descent, and I find some chocolate milk for a mid day snack, since the burrito took care of lunch. Food is followed by a brutal section of up and down riding. This is very much like New York, except the uphills seem steeper and the descents do not require as much braking. I am not sure what to make of that.

Eventually I come to what I can only describe as the edge of the desert. There is a very long, and very steep descent from the beautiful mountains to the scrub brush desert below. It is so steep that I hold the brakes tightly and creep my way down the hills. I get to the turnoff that will allow me to avoid Espanola and take it. But the road quickly turns tiny, and begins a difficult, and seemingly purposeless, climb. I decide to go back to the main road and deal with Espanola.

There is, however, a second chance. This time the road that avoids Espanola is recommended by a sign about the High Road to Taos and it looks like a more respectable road. With the exception of the odd cattle gate, indeed it is. After one more hard climb heading south I hit the road to the west and get to easier riding, that eventually takes me out to the main highway into Santa Fe.

I stop for dinner and rehydration. The cool of the mountains has given way to the heat of the desert and I am thirsty. It is only about 14 miles into Santa Fe and that seems like an easy ride to me so I set out. I climb for the next 10 miles. Most of it is not steep, but it is slow going and it takes a long time. By the time I reach Santa Fe the light is starting to fade. It is not getting dark yet, but soon will be and is later than I like to ride. I find a motel on the road and check in for the night. Not too impressive, but it will hold me.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Following Santa Fe Trail to National Forest

Trinidad, CO to Taos-10, NM 110 Miles

– bike travelogue by Bob Eberlein

Trinidad, CO – Even though I felt exhausted yesterday, I still get up early, work on email and am on the road a little bit after 6:30. Last night I had planned my clever route from Trinidad to Raton NM that would avoid the interstate. Using Google maps I figured out a path that required only two crossings from one road to a nearby disconnected road. I have a long list of instructions, and it starts by following Santa Fe Trail drive. This I do, the road is a residential road, but also it is clearly the old highway. After a while it runs right beside Interstate 25 and I can see a sign on I-25 saying caution bicycles next 10 miles. This leads me to conclude that it would be okay to ride on the interstate. Another sign, shortly afterward, on the road I am on saying No Outlet leads me to believe my route may not work anyway.

Santa Fe Trail (photo by Bob)

Nonetheless, I continue to follow the road I am on. Stubborn persistence is a quality I have always had. After a while it turns into gravel, but not too bad gravel, and then it just sort of peters out. I can see something that looks like it might be this road up ahead but no obvious way to get there. I am right beside the Interstate at this point and there are no barriers. I put on my running shoes and walk across the field, then the northbound lanes, then the southbound lanes and I am on the shoulder of I-25 headed south. All this happens without a car passing. The road is not busy this time on a Thursday morning.

As far as Interstates goes I-25 is actually somewhat deficient. Rather than a full lane width shoulder it has been built with a guardrail and a half lane shoulder. Thus it is still pretty annoying to have to deal with trucks passing, though this happens only a few times and they are going slower and slower.

The trucks are going slower and slower because the highway is going across Raton pass, about 7800 feet. So I just put it in a low gear and grind along, much like the trucks but much more impressively slow. The hill goes on for a long time, but eventually I get to the top, and get welcomed to New Mexico. Not a very impressive sign, but I still take a picture of it.

The descent is too steep to just let go so I ride the brakes for a mile and a bit. After that the grade lessens and I can just coast down. I come to a much nicer welcome to New Mexico sign and take a picture of that. Two young women are doing the same and running around giggling.

I take the first New Mexico exit into the town of Raton, which is actually just an exit onto the old highway. This road has no traffic and I ride it into town. Raton is full of no especially nice looking motels and has a little downtown that looks nice, but not special. I am not sure what its claim to fame is but I expect it is mostly tourists who want cheap places to stay.

I stop at a supermarket to get some bakery and milk. There is a bench outside that is clearly for smokers, but as no one is around I sit down on it to eat my second breakfast. Just after doing this two people come along who look, if not homeless, then at least indigent. One of them is smoking so I get up to move, but the other says stay and I don’t want to be completely insulting to them. I stay for a bit and eat. One says he has a bike but needs to get it fixed, and the other says there is a bike shop in Trinidad. “Maybe I’ll take my truck and go up there” says the first. It is not clear if he really has a truck. While the two seem to know the people around who pass by and say hello, the one sitting beside me asks if I have any spare change as I make to leave. The wind has shifted and the cigarette smoke is blowing my way.

I ride across the highway to finish breakfast under a tree. I check and there is a cell phone signal – what a surprise. After breakfast I get back on the road and make for Cimaron, where I plan to stop for lunch. The ride is actually much like Colorado was though I do end up chasing 3 deer. As I come up on them they panic and start to run. Because there are fences on both sides of the road they are hemmed in. I am a little bit surprised they can’t jump the fence, but they are small deer. Eventually they get bored running away and when I am even with them run the other way. This happens once with one deer, and a second time with two deer. The second time one of the deer actually managed to get through the fence by squeezing between the wires.

Fortunately, none of this caused an accident, though it was a little close as they would run back and forth across the road. A little later I came across a recently killed deer, at least this was not on my conscious.

I was expecting Cimarron to have some fast food places to eat but it is a more rustic town and does not have any brand names showing. I go into a restaurant that looks small in front but is huge behind. I sit down in a booth and order a sandwich. The waitress is polite, but hardly warm. I ask for lots and lots of water and she brings me a glass which she dutifully, but reluctantly, refills several times.

The food is actually not that good, and the service is annoying. At a fast food place I refill my drink when I want to and don’t get these funny sidelong looks from the wait staff as I work on my computer. Somehow, the romantic image of the local café is fading from my mind. Perhaps it is just the voracious thirst of the road that does this, or perhaps eating alone is a very different experience than with a group of people.

Cimarron claims to be the gateway between the planes and the mountains and it turns out to be a true claim. After I leave town I begin to climb and soon am following a small river up into the mountains. It is a long, about 15 mile, hill climb, but it is absolutely delightful. I move slowly and revel in the sounds of the river and the smells of the trees and forest that surrounds it. Eventually I come to a big open meadow and there are a whole bunch of summer houses around. If not for all the houses, it would be an absolutely delightful place to summer.

Eventually the road diverges from the river and goes up a switchback to a pass. At the top of that I can see Eagle Nest Lake below me. This claims to be the best trout lake in New Mexico, though I think it is a created lake and not natural. It sits in a broad alpine valley at about 8000 feet. Eagle Nest Lake is also where I intend to stop for food so I head down the road into town.

Eagle Nest Lake, the town, is there only to support the people who come to the lake to catch the trout. It has small motels and such, but I really don’t like it. I go to get some milk and some guy wants to tell me how bad the bike he got at Wal-Mart is and how the drivers in Esponosa are terrible. The whole conversation seems kind of odd and I run away to drink my milk and eat my leftover second breakfast in peace. It is cold, and I put on a sweatshirt.

The road from there runs along the broad valley and the wind has kicked up into my face. Frustrated, and more tired than I thought I would be, I sit down on the side of the road to see if I can get a signal for email. I can, though it is weak. I check email and then continue on.

My original plan was to get to Agua Fria and then camp down in the National Forest that follows. But looking more closely at a map I see there is a mountain pass just after that and don’t feel I have the energy to do that. So I decide to just find a place to camp down. I ride along and fail to do so and find myself climbing the mountain pass. Oh well, I continue along. It is just two miles of switchbacks and I am at the top. It is late in the day but there is plenty of light. I get to the top, 9010 feet, and try to take a picture, but my batteries are dead and the camera refuses to let me.

Frustrated I begin my descent, I don’t want to camp too high up as I suspect I will be cold. After a while I stop to put on another sweatshirt, then continue descending. It is generally a pretty easy descent so I just let the bike go and enjoy watching the mile signs go by. I come to an organized campground and check it out but it is designed for RVs and does not look attractive. I decide to just find a spot off the road but as I descend everywhere becomes houses. I am pretty sure I am in a National Forest, but apparently it is a well inhabited one.

As I am peddling on one of the short flat stretches my crank makes a funny noise and I look down to see that the bearings are falling out. The crank started a little bit loose, and has been getting worse, but I thought it would continue to wobble along. I was wrong. I need to pull it apart and see if I can convince it to take me on for another couple of days. If not, I will be hitchhiking.

I want to try to repair things in the morning but I can’t stop where I am. I put on my running shoes and push the bike through the flats then coast. I am afraid if I pedal all the bearings will fall out and I will have nothing to work with when I try to repair it in the morning. Eventually I come to an official National Forest campground and settle for the night. Not surprisingly, there are no cell signals at all here. I will not be able to communicate tonight.

I am very close to the road, but also right beside a stream. The sound of the stream drowns out the road noise and makes for a pleasant sleep. Tomorrow I will have to see if I can get my bike to work again.

110 miles today.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

"Maps and reality don’t always match up"

(Bob's bike travelogue continues from yesterday's post "Western Kansas is so refreshing!" This one is from Colorado, some 2000 miles from home.)

"Welcome to colorful Colorado"

Lamar to Trinidad CO 137 Miles

by Bob Eberlein

Lamar, CO – I get up early, and have my jam and bread for breakfast. I still have a little bit of leftover chocolate milk and this poured over ice is a nice variation from water. Outside is cool enough for a sweatshirt; Lamar is about 4000 feet so it gets a little colder at night. It is a little after 6 when I get on the road, and it is a very big road. I am not sure how it got so big, as I thought I was basically in the middle of nowhere. But big it is, and mostly trucks at this time of the morning.

By whatever process the road got so big, it gets small by intersecting with an interstate onto which most of the trucks disappear. So I am back to a pretty ordinary road with a decent, but gravel strewn, shoulder. The land is actually not that much different from Kansas, pretty flat with some extended up and downs. The wind, out of the north, has been shifting around to the south. The complete reversal is surprising to me, but I guess there are no big bodies of water to give any consistency to the day’s winds up here.

Santa Fe Trail

I stop in Las Animas for second breakfast then continue on with only about 20 miles to go before my planned lunch. Too short, I know, but it seems better than too long. Lunch is early at La Junta and it has turned warm so I tank up on liquid at a Carl’s Junior. I take my time catching up on email in the restaurant and move out. It is 80 miles to Trinidad and that seems too far so I plan to just ride and then stop when I feel like it. I am getting tired of having to make all these goals, feeling a need to relax.

On the map the ride from La Junta to Trinidad looks pretty pleasant. There is a river and a railway and we just follow upstream along what I hope will turn into a nice river value. Little towns dot the route. This is the Santa Fe Trail and that will also be fun.

Maps and reality, of course, don’t always match up and that is definitely the case here. The terrain out here is interesting. It starts out very plains like and slowly, on the horizon, mountains emerge. I love watching the clouds on the edge of the earth and seeing if any turn out to be mountains. This is, of course, what the people traveling the Santa Fe Trail would have been doing, and I am moving much faster than them. Traffic is light and the road is narrow and straight.

Of course the interesting terrain is only one part of the experience. The road runs through scrub brush and dry grasslands. On each side of the road is a low barb wire fence, and there are railway tracks on the right. The towns that dot the route are, at best, a few broken down houses and there are actually only two of those. The rest are either abandoned or apparently did not ever exist. The sun is high in the sky.

I had planned to stop for lunch along the road but there is no place to stop, no trees to seek shade under. I finally come to a few trees by the roadside with a gravel access area and pull over. It smells like drivers have been doing their duty here from time to time, there are flies, and there are mosquitoes. The poop and flies I understand, this is what I would find at similar spots in the Mediterranean and the two go hand in hand. The mosquitoes are a bit of a puzzle, for there is no water in sight.

I eat a few cookies, snatch down some water and move on. There are consistent markers along the side of the road. They started at 72, with 79 miles to Trinidad. So I know how far till the road ends. At mile 27 there should be a town. I clamp down and just ride. The road never changes. It is not really hot, but it is warm and the water in my bottles does not taste great. I count down the miles till 27, and before I hit 28 there is a sign for a town. Off the road is a building that looks like it might not be abandoned, then again maybe it is. There is also a house just ahead. I go to the house to try to get water. No one answers the door but there is a hose in the front yard and I fill my water bottles from it. The water tastes awful.

I continue on, now knowing that I really do need to make it to Trinidad. I am hot and thirsty and my feet hurt but I press on. There is no pleasant place to stop and finally, as the afternoon wears on, I lean my bike against a post and hide in the shadow it casts. It is not much, but it is better than the open road. I eat a few more cookies and drink some water then move on.

There is a military training ground off to the side of the road and signs elsewhere saying that land is not for sale. Apparently the army wants to expand the facility. I continue along and see a big building down a road. It seems like a factory in the middle of nowhere and I am puzzled. It turns out it is a prison, a good location for that.

Finally my milestones go under 10. I am counting each of them carefully, just trying to get to the next one. The road finally emerges into land that is cultivated. There are irrigation ditches and now there are trees. At this point I am tempted to just stop under the trees and fall asleep. The shadows they cast from the low sun are completely refreshing. 4, 3, 2, 1 and finally the highway I am on ends. Now I know there are 7 more miles, but I hope something will appear sooner.

My hopes are never met, the road just continues to wind on. More ups and downs, some of the downhills pretty big, and I just let the bike go, numb to the exhilaration. Finally the vestiges of a town appear. There are some businesses, a movie theater or something like that, and eventually a little sign saying Trinidad, elevation 6000 and some. Here the road forks and I am at a loss which way to go. I expect entering a town to be intuitive, but this is anything but.

I stop in the shade of some U-Haul trailers and get my computer out to look at Google maps. Based on this I take the road up the hill. Houses, a dentist, not much on it but I continue along. Just as I start to enter what looks like a town I notice a Motel. I stop, that is the end of this day, thank goodness.

137 miles today.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"Western Kansas is so refreshing!"

(Note: If you've read yesterday's post How Strangers Go out of Their Way to Help a Bicyclist, you might want to know what happened next to Bob's bad wheel. The story continues below; at the beginning of this log he was some 1900 miles from home. – Xujun)

Garden City KS to Lamar CO 102 miles

by Bob Eberlein

Garden City, KS – Knowing full well that I won’t be able to do anything till the bike shop opens at 10, I decide to sleep in and don’t wake up till quarter past 5. Oh well, some habits just won’t go away.

The pause is useful as it allows me to catch up on email. This is one big difference from 25 years ago – communication. Even riding across the US back then the most one could hope for was a pay phone once in a while. And of course this is the first time I have ridden when I actually had a job and a family. Life changes, but the good news is I can still get up in the morning and keep on riding.

I show up at the bike shop about 20 minutes before 10. Five minutes later a man about my age shows up and unloads his bike from his car. He is from a town some 30 miles away and is dropping his bike off to be tuned up for an upcoming event in Colorado. It is a really nice bike, also a Trek, but a modern one with top of the line components. It probably retails for four to five thousand and he asks me to watch it till the shop opens so they can take it in. Ah, western Kansas is so refreshing.

As we are talking another person shows up. He is from Dodge City and has to come here for anything related to his bikes. A good decision back in Jetmore not to go to Dodge it seems. He actually used to live in the Boston area back in the 70s but left when the local economy went south. That was slightly before I moved to Boston, but it is interesting how economic fortunes fluctuate. Soon afterward another man shows up with a bike. When the doors finally open at 10 we converge on the shop. But the convergence is not in a Wal-Mart crush, the last man holds the door for everyone else to go into the shop.

The shop is run by one man with two young women working for him. The man is on the phone and I speak with one of the women and tell her I need a 27” rear wheel. After a while she comes back with two choices and the man, off the phone at this point, recommends one as slightly stronger saying that neither is really designed to stand up to use on a packed touring bike. I am nearing making a choice when I notice that both are actually 700c wheels, like yesterday, so ask again if they have a 27” wheel. This time the man disappears into the back and returns with one.

It looks like I am in business, I ask him to change the freewheel, which he does by putting on rubber gloves and then pulling it off the old wheel and carefully putting it on the new. After that I take the wheels outside to swap the tires and the tape over the spokes. As I do this I study the rim and I know that it will only be a matter of a few weeks before it disintegrates under load, something that has happened to me a couple of times before. My current wheels, on the other hand, have stood up to everything I have done to them with no complaint. I actually had an extra rim that I carried everywhere in South America over two decades ago expecting something to break, but it never did.

I decide to keep my old wheel, and try to replace the bearings and axel when I return to Boston. Whether I will do this, or just let it gather dust, is an unknown.

With the new wheel in place and I am back on the road before 11. Now it feels like I am riding a bicycle, and not some torture device. Life is sweet. I race some earth movers that are building a new road, apparently doubling the highway near Garden City, and then just start to ride. The winds start from the north, which means a crosswind going west, but slowly shift to be out of the east. A real bicycle and a tail wind to boot. Life could not be sweeter.

I stop for lunch about 1 at a little café. I am either invisible of look too much like a vagrant to be of interest to the waitress so after about 10 minutes I leave and go to a Subway where they take my order (I am the only one there) and I have lunch. I have observed this before. People at fast food style places are invariably nice and respectful. Waitresses, and waiters presumably, clearly do not see me as a desirable customer. This is probably training, the fast food servers are told to be always polite. The people with more judgment are not so consistent.

After lunch I get back to my tail wind and just make miles. I stop after a while with a flat front tire and eat some raisins and peanut butter. My seemingly lost raisins had reappeared somehow, and now I finally finish them off. All this under the shade of a tree in another cemetery. Again the grass is well mown, though everything is brown from lack of water.

I ride on, then stop for some chocolate milk and to get another jar of peanut butter (never leave town without it). After that it is clear sailing to the Colorado border. Though I left at 11, I have made good time and think I will be able to make Lamar, the first place that appears to have any accommodation. I ride on, pass through Granada (where I thought I would make it to) and get to Lamar. The time has changes to it is only 7 local time. I find a motel that is run by people speaking Mandarin. I ask them where they are from in Chinese and we chat a little bit in Chinglish. There are three of them and they are amused by me. The room is small, but there is a bed and a desk so I am content.

102 miles today.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

How Strangers Go out of Their Way to Help a Bicyclist

(Note: This one continues from Bob's bicycling log I posted yesterday. Before you read it, there's more to the story you need to know. That day when he was heading toward Burdett, KS, Bob called around noon from Great Bend to tell me his target, which was on Route 156, in an area that looks largely uninhabited. After our chat, I Googled to see if I could find a campsite for him, but with no luck. Just when I was about to give up, to my delight a place called "Elaine's Bicycle Oasis" popped up in the search results. It is in Bazine, about 20 miles north from Burdett and "a nice resting place for cross country bicyclist." But I had no way to tell Bob this because there was no cell signal in his area. The only thing I could do was wait for him to contact me through his computer. It was quite frustrating.

After he arrived at Burdett in the evening, not only there was no cell signal, but his laptop phone also stopped working. Fortunately we could still communicate through email.

With his unexpected bike trouble, there was no way for him to reach Elaine's Bicycle Oasis. Worse, it didn't look like he could find a bike shop anywhere close. I decided to take a chance and call Elaine's Bicycle Oasis, hoping to find help somehow. Can you imagine? Elaine, a woman I've never met and who didn't even know me, was so kind and helpful! As soon as I explained Bob's situation to her, she said she had a friend Dave living in Burdett who might be able to help. She called Dave right away, and Dave drove east of Burdett about 4 miles to look for Bob, but didn't find him. At the time I had lost communication with Bob again and couldn't find out his exact location either. I sent Bob Dave's email address, which Elaine gave me, hoping he would contact Dave in the morning. I myself also had a few brief email exchanges with Dave, who said he would go look for Bob again at sunrise. I could tell from his words that he's a man with a great kind heart. For some reason, I felt he's probably one of our generation, because it's hard to imagine young people these days would go out of their way to help a stranger like this.

Anyway, I'll let you read Bob's log now and, if you are a bicyclist who might ride across Kansas, you should definitely consider stopping by Elaine's Bicycle Oasis, for she surely will be the kindest host for you. And if you pass by Burdett, please say Hi to Dave for us. We'll never forget his generosity! – Xujun)

Burdett to Garden City KS 77.7 hot noisy difficult miles

by Bob Eberlein

Burdett, KS – I wake up lacking the enthusiasm to do too much, but still around 5. As my computer had died and I had gone to sleep last night Xujun had gotten in touch with Elaine who runs a bike hostel who had gotten in touch with Dave who lives in Burdett. Unbeknownst to me Dave was driving around looking for me. He was looking in the wrong direction, and would not have found me anyway. I hide well when I camp by the road.

I send an email to Dave and he replies right away. I tell him where I am and he says he will drive out to meet me in half an hour. I push my bike partially packed up to the side of the road so Dave will see it if he drives by then go back down the hill to break camp. I am just adjusting all my attachments when Dave drives up. We throw the bike in the back of his truck and he takes me to his house. It is getting to be around 7 in the morning.

I went to take another look at my wheel and tinker with it a bit. In addition to the bearings gone haywire the axle which has one part sliding onto another is not staying together. Between my seat which is starting to come apart at the seams and my wheel it looks like my ox died and my axle broke. I really feel like I am on the Oregon trail (though actually it is more the Santa Fe trail at the moment and I have had the nerve to attempt a short cut.)

We pop a little tyvek in as a spacer for the axle and hammer it down. The bike seems a little bit more manageable than it was last night, and I decide I can probably press on from there myself.
Thank you, Dave and Cathi! (Photo by Bob Eberlein)
Dave’s wife Cathi makes me some breakfast – cantaloupe, pancakes and eggs. It is a wonderful treat to get something cooked instead of eating jam on bread. Though I guess I am getting spoiled because when I was young I used to think just peanut butter on bread was sufficient fare for every meal of the day. Dave manages the computers in the local schools and tells me a bit about the system. It really is a different world from what I am used to. They expect to have 10 kids in the sixth grade this year. The vast difference in population density from suburban Boston makes me reflect on the nature of education and the educational system. Then I reflect, ironically, on what the METCO program (the outgrowth of the court imposed school desegregation action) would look like in Kansas. Get on a bus, 48 hours later get off. Then class? I guess it would be tough.

Dave prints me out what he can find on bike shops in Dodge City, about 40 miles away, and Garden City, about 75 miles away. The Dodge entries are old and suspect. Dave advised me to go to Jetmore then phone around to see what is really in Dodge, figuring things will be open by then.

I thank Dave profusely, get on the road and warble off. My wheel is still pretty flakey and will go for a while then push itself into the fender or make a grinding noise. It is kind of like hitting the breaks every few seconds. Still, I muddle on to Jetmore not feeling too confident about getting any distance that day. In Jetmore I stop and get some bananas and milk (ok and a little chocolate too) for a snack. I have a good internet connection and call the numbers in Dodge that Dave found for me. One is a different business. The other is a generic voice mail. I Google bike shops, find a sporting goods store and call them. They sell a few bikes but not parts and the man says he thinks Country Pedaler is still in business. He looks up the number and it is the same one I tried before.

Discouraged, I decide to try for Garden City, which is 50 miles anyway. Still, I am not hopeful and expect I will end up hitchhiking in the end. A few miles out of town I drop the packs and pull off the read fender. This, I figure, will at least get rid of the constant braking from the tire hitting it. It works. I have gotten the bike to the point were it just constantly grinds, bumps and wobbles. What an improvement.

It had rained a tiny bit in the morning, but as the morning wears in to afternoon the sun comes out and it turns pretty hot. About 20 miles out of Jetmore I get to Kelvesta. Not much there, but there is a Church with a water spigot. I drink some not hot water and fill my water bottles. That is the last nice place to stop before Garden City. It is too hot to feel hungry so I press on about 35 miles to go.
After a while I decide it would be a good idea to eat something even if I don’t feel hungry. I stop at one of the rare trees and eat the rest of my fig bars with warm water. The thought of sandwiches just does not do it for me. I have forgotten about the banana I bought but did not eat – perhaps that will become a late night snack. No cell signal – not even sure why I checked.

I get back on the road and ride. The bike is noisy, the traffic is a little heavy, the road is narrow, it is really hot and my feet hurt. I keep thinking how nice it would be to walk instead of ride so any time I want to snap a picture I could just do it. This is ironic since all I really want to do is get off my bike and get it fixed. I press on but my feet hurt so much I need to stop for a minute. There are no trees. I stop in front of a sign that advertises some organization is keeping the road clean and position myself just right to get shade. I ponder what it must have been like to cross this land with a cart drawn by dead oxen. I guess I am lucky.

The water bottles are so hot it is disgusting to drink from them, but I still try. I know I am not keeping up with my sweat, but the distance to Garden City is counting down. There are little sign posts 16 miles, then 14 (how could that have only been 2 miles), 11, 8, 6 then a sign welcoming me to Garden City. Actually nothing much changes except that the water towers are visible in the distance.

Eventually things resolve themselves and there are the Home Depot and Wal-Mart that Dave said I would encounter. I see a cop stopped at a light and decide to ask him directions. As I ride up he waves and smiles at me and drives off. Pretty strange I think, but a little down the road he stops under a bridge and gets out of his car. Apparently he wanted to give me some shade to talk to me.
I ask him about a bike shop and he points me at the most obvious candidate from Dave’s list and tells me they are closed on Mondays (a common thing for bike shops) but I can look in to see if anyone is working. Otherwise it will be Tuesday morning. He also tells me if I ride through town there is a motel that is not expensive and clean, though I don’t remember the name he tells me.

I ride to the bike shop and indeed it is closed. I can’t see anyone inside so decide to go eat some supper and start rehydrating. As I am returning to the strip with fast food places I double check the list Dave printed for me and there is another candidate nearby. I head there, a place called the Tinker Shop. It is run by two old men and is semi organized chaos. I like it, and they do have all kinds of wheels hanging from the ceiling. I go in and they hunt around for a wheel and can’t find my size but do find one that is a slightly different size (mine is 27 inch and they have a 700C rim which is a little bit smaller). It will work, but I need a different tire and all the road tires they have are 27 inch. That is actually the reason I chose that size some 25 years ago – easier to find tires. Go figure.

So still on the burping bike I head to McDonalds for an Angus Burger (these are actually pretty good) and lots and lots to drink. I check the internet for motels in town and all are over $65. I decide to take the cops advice and ride to the other side of town. I am also quite cold because of the air conditioning and want to return to the warm outdoors. A bank thermometer puts the temperature at 98 – pretty warm I guess, so it is not long before I again don’t like the sun. After riding through town I do find another motel – the Soft Pillow Hotel – it calls itself though everything inside says Super 8. Apparently it recently disfranchised. The rooms are only $45 so it seems a good place to put my head. I can get a good night’s sleep and catch up on things I need to do.

77.7 hot noisy difficult miles today.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Bike Trouble and Nice People in Kansas

by Bob Eberlein

[Note: This is Bob's bike riding log last week from Burdett, Kansas, some 1700 miles from home. For his previous log see "Lost in gravel (but never in China) ." More coming soon. – Xujun]

Last night in LeHigh I found a cornfield bordered by trees and set up camp for the night. I put the tent on the bare dirt bordering the field. Hard, but smooth.

Hidden in the corn fields (photo by Bob Eberlein)

I woke up early on the hard ground, not such a restful sleep. I guess I am too used to soft beds. Still, I am up and on the road a little after 6. It is pretty cold and I am wearing both a sweatshirt and tights. Sunday morning is truly delightful; the drivers are all moving slowly and being very considerate. I almost come to think that all of Kansas is like this, though I should know better. I continue along route 56 to McPherson to stop for second breakfast.

I first go to McDonalds intending to wash up and try breakfast there – something I don’t think I have ever done. I wash up and there is a big line – apparently everyone converges on McDonald’s at about 8 on Sunday mornings. Go figure. I check my email – great signal, and give up breakfast because there is still a line. I ride on till I find a Kwik Mart and buy a quart of milk and a couple of donuts, my usual fair. MacPhearson is a strangely affluent town. I sit down next to the elementary school which is beautiful with a lovely park next to the river beside it. A police car, that looks just like those in Boston, drives by and nods at me.

So strange. I think this must be oil money since after heading out of town there are a number of gas and oil fields. Not real big, but big enough for the town to do well I guess.

I continue west on 56. The wind is blowing out of the South Southeast. Almost 180 degrees opposite what I had yesterday. While I travel west I have a reasonably tail wind. Of course whenever a truck goes by in either direction I am nearly knocked off the road. I stop for an early lunch in Lyon. It is warm so I drink lots and lots as usual.

I make reasonable time to Great Bend. The terrain continues to be open prairie with small hills. The road curves around a little big, but is generally pretty straight. Great Bend is a good sized place and I settle down for a late lunch, again drinking lots but only eating a regular cheeseburger. Actually I ordered a double cheeseburger but that was what I got (and what I paid for). There is still no AT&T signal so I use the computer to call Xujun and chat with her.

After lunch I go roughly south for 20 miles to Larned and it is very slow going. My tail wind has turned into a nasty head wind when I turned south. I slog it out to Larned then turn straight west on 156 and again have a tail wind. My goal for the day, I decide, is Burdett, some 22 miles away.

The first 10 of that go smoothly, then my rear tire starts rubbing on the fender or the stays. I can’t figure out which. I stop to look at it and everything seems fine. Then I try to ride and again have problems. The bearings in the rear wheel are worn, have been from the start of this trip. That makes the rear wheel (and front wheel and crank) a little bit wobbly. This has been an annoyance till now but not caused any real problem. There seems to have been some failure back there however, perhaps the bearings have come out of their race, and the tire goes thwap against something every third revolution. It is worse when I don’t peddle.

I do make it to Burdett finally, but there is no store or gas station in the town. I ride into town and see an older couple on their porch. I ask them if I can fill my water bottles and if they know of anyone who might have a rear 10 speed wheel they might want to sell. They show me to the sink for the water and ask me to come and sit down while they phone a few friends. We are looking for a guy named, I think, Ell, but he is no where to be found and does not have a phone.

The woman takes me for a drive around town to see if we can locate this character, but no luck. She also calls her son to see if there are any bikes that have been left near his business – apparently they take these to a prison where the prisoners rebuild them then they give them to kids. No luck there all the bikes are gown.

I am astounded by the efforts they have gone to in order to help a stranger. I thank them profusely and waddle out of town. I find a spot between the road and some railway tracks – hidden from the road but not the tracks, and settle in for the night. I will figure out the wheel tomorrow.

127 Miles today.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Lost in gravel (but never in China)

Bob has been on the road for over two weeks now. Each day he rides about 120 miles and is either soaked by rain or his own sweat and he is either riding the bike or the bike is riding on him. Often he can't find a motel or campsite at the end of the day and he has to put up his little tent in the fields.

A bicyclist in America is much lonelier creature than in China, he feels, for he rarely meets an entourage here, let alone farmers offering him steamed buns or waving to him. Of course he does not get arrested by police for no reason either.

He doesn't have a GPS, and sometimes neither the paper map nor the Google map helps. Here is a note he emailed me when he was in Missouri last week:

I open up the computer and do have a signal from Verizon to connect to the internet. It is too bright to see clearly so I take out my rain coat and cover my head. I check Google maps, but even though everything is there, none of the little roads have names or numbers so I can’t figure anything out.

A lady driving by stops to find out what is wrong. I tell her I am fine and she says the crossroad drops down to the highway after a mile and a half, but that it is gravel.

I decide to take just a little bit of gravel road. They have just put down new gravel and most of the road is unrideable. Sometimes there is a path in the middle, and sometimes the edge works, but it is not good. Instead of a flat road this goes up and down like the waves in the ocean. Slow climb up, then really hard braking down. Eventually I change shoes and walk the bike both up and down. Then, when it becomes a bit easier I ride again.

After 4 or 5 miles I am pretty sure things are not as I thought they were. I seem to be headed west, so suspect I took the wrong branch at the very beginning of the gravel. There is a crossroad that runs south so I consider that but decide to give the road I am on a little bit longer. I get to another crossroad and try that. Down a big hill there is a field and the road clearly ends. Back up the hill and I start backtracking. I take the first crossroad I saw up a hill and then ride into a farm to ask directions, and get some water. It is hot, and I am drenched in sweat. The nice thing about a bike is that there is always a cool breeze and the gravel has taken that away.

I am told that the road I am on does go directly to the highway after about 3 (not 1 1/2) miles and get some water. I get back on the road, a steep downhill that I have to get off my bike for. After that, though, it is smooth sailing. The gravel is packed down and it is easy to ride. I switch back to my riding shoes and continue down. In what seems like short order I see cars passing in front of me. Two train crossings later I am back on pavement. It even has a road sign.

Missouri is not, of course, the first place I have been lost. Nor is it the most lost I have ever been. That record probably goes to Italy where I was half a day on the wrong path.

The interesting thing, though, is that I never got lost in China. I had expected to get lost, perhaps really lost, and so was careful. Still, it surprised me how clearly marked the roads were. I can't read Chinese, but I can read a map and compare the map markings to the signs of the road. I had an official Chinese Map Book (about 80 fen if I remember correctly) and I would just look at the next town on my path and compare it to the signs. At the time, there weren't very many roads in China, but it still impresses me to this day how well that worked. I guess there are some aspects of forcing uniformity on a country that really are helpful.

And here's another note in which he recalls his biking experience in China 20 years ago:

I rode probably 120-180 kilometers per day then. The roads In China were generally pretty rough. Many of the roads were lined with trees. No real big trees, probably thanks to the Great Leap Forward in which all were cut for fuel, but still trees. These were not natural forests, but rows of single trees on each side of the road painted white at the bottom and providing welcome relief from the sun. As I rode along admiring this I was only rarely out of sight of someone. There were no houses or buildings along the road but there were fields, and there were always people – working the fields or traveling to and fro. Many of these traveling were on bicycles, or moving vast quantities of material in pedal driven three wheel carts. Those moved only slightly faster than the pedestrians, and I was always inspired by the patience and persistence of the drivers.

And of course there were regular bicycles. These were much lower tech than what I was riding, with only one gear. Usually there were just one or two riders together and I was somewhat faster so I passed them and they muttered something to the effect of foreign bicycle. It was nice to know that there was nothing personal about their perception of foreignness.

From time to time there would be more than one or two people, and if they were younger people that made things interesting. They didn’t want to simply be passed, they wanted to look, and they wanted to compete. So what started out as a few riders could become almost a swarm as we picked up more and more riders who jumped on for the chase. Fortunately there were almost no motor vehicles, and those drivers were used to masses of people on the road in any case. My entourage, as I like to think of them, would stick with me till we got to an obvious destination, or a hill that I could ride up but that was not practical with only a single gear so they dismounted and walked.

The riders were often friendly, never hostile, but most frequently just curious. Sometimes I stopped and they gathered around and simply marvelled at my foreign bicycle. It was the same machine, but in a form they had never imagined.

More of Bob's bike trip logs are coming.

Previous log: The American Bicyclist at Large and His Adventure in China

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The American Bicyclist at Large and His Adventure in China

Bob starts his month-long bike trip across America today – what an interesting thing to do on July 4th! I wish I could go with him but I was never much of an athlete.

He is using the same Trek bike he traveled with in China almost exactly 22 years ago. In July 1987, Bob had ridden it across China – from Harbin to Chongqing – to fulfill a date with me. It took him three weeks in the wind, rain and sun, during the night sleeping on the roadside in his tiny tent and green sleeping bag. He was probably the first foreigner to do such a bike trip alone in PR China. He had taken tons of interesting slides along the way; too bad I have no way to digitize them.

Bob told me later he often wondered if the Chinese roads were built as a punishment to bicyclists, but at least a bike had the advantage of easily negotiating its way through the unbelievable mass of human powered traffic; a car would not have been much faster than his bike. No cars: an unusual thing about China.

His goal had been to take an ambitious bicycle trip to Tibet. Instead, he found himself on the way to Chongqing, to meet a Chinese woman he fell in love with.

He sent me a letter whenever he ran into a post office. In Xi'an he gave me an estimated arrival time, July 22, probably late afternoon. He was amazingly on schedule until the second last day, when he was arrested in a rural town a few hundred kilometers outside of Chongqing.

About noon on July 21nd, he was stopped by a policeman in a green uniform, whose motorcycle was parked by the roadside and who said to the bearded foreigner in Chinese, “You are under arrest,” or something to that effect.

It was out of the blue. Bob, the “American bicyclist at large” – as he referred to himself then – immediately recalled a sign he had seen somewhere outside Beijing, “Foreigners Not Allowed Beyond This Point,” in both Chinese and English. But this was the Sichuan Province, about two thousand kilometers from Beijing, and he hadn’t seen any such sign around. Nor had he seen any sensitive construction like a military camp or prison. The only curious thing was that he heard people speaking in Shanghai dialect, which he recognized from having lived and taught in Shanghai for nearly a year. He was not aware of the migration of many defense factories from Shanghai to Sichuan in the 1960s, preparing for the Third World War that Chairman Mao predicted would soon be started by the American imperialists.

In China, unlike other parts of the world Bob had ridden through, he was almost always part of an entourage. With so many people riding bikes there were always a few who would keep pace with him, curious about him and his foreign bicycle. Sometimes they would talk, but as often as not they would just stare. Still, they were not unfriendly and at times he felt like he was simply part of the landscape. With a helmet on his head and bushy beard covering his lower face, however, it was not a challenge for the policeman to pick him out of the crowd. Still, Bob was calm; after a year, no longer could anything be thought too strange, for this was China.

Getting back on his bike Bob followed the police motorcycle to a dusty branch of road leading to a town building. In a second floor room two officers talked to Bob in Chinese, their manner a strange mix of friendliness and official business, leaking curiosity at times. They asked for his passport, and they asked why he was in this area where foreigners were not allowed (which he had no idea). After about an hour, when Bob’s crude Chinese could not address their questions satisfactorily, they fetched a local English teacher. The teacher, who it turned out had never seen a foreigner in his thirty-odd years of life, apparently was delighted to see a real English speaker in town. He tried to help both sides with his basic English. The interrogation went on for a prolonged time, whether because the teacher caused more linguistic confusion, or the confusion led the officers into better humor, Bob did not know. In the end, the officers required merely a fine and a confession.

“One hundred yuan for trespassing in a prohibited area. Two hundred yuan for unauthorized use of a vehicle,” the police told Bob. Whether this was truly a prohibited area, they did not say. The total was more than several months of the local English teacher’s salary. Bob paid the fine, then scribbled on a lined piece of paper, inserting as many words as he could to fill the page, to show that he took the confession as seriously as the Chinese.

The following is his hilarious "confession," which he reconstructed for me afterward:

It is apparent to me now that my appearance in an area of the countryside where I encountered the constabulary was cause for some concern. Though I was unaware of any interdiction relative to myself in that specific area it is beyond a doubt true that I was indeed there. This said, it seems appropriate that I pen my name to this document in recognition of the fact that this is indeed what is expected of me. Therefore I am doing so now. Though the device by which my humble bicycle has become a vehicle whose legality is in question remains a deep mystery to me, it seems best to accept circumstances as they have presented themselves. In the future I will endeavor to avoid any such encounters and heartily refrain from any flagrant presentation of my own existence in any location at which it might be deemed offensive, inappropriate or otherwise outside the scope of day to day affairs.
Signed, this 21st day of July, 1987

The local English teacher orally translated Bob’s confession to the officers, stammering here and there. The officers looked satisfied. They told Bob that he must wait in the town’s hotel until the next morning to catch a train to Chongqing, as he was not allowed to travel by bike in this area. Could he walk around town by foot? Bob asked. Yes, that would be okay, said one of the policemen, with unexpected friendliness.

The English teacher volunteered to escort the American to the hotel. Then he disappeared. An hour or so later he reappeared. A bit timidly, he asked if Bob would like to teach an English class in his school. The surprised Bob said yes.

In a two-story clay building, a typical low-key town school, about twenty students sat behind their desks in a well-disciplined manner. Boys stared at the big-bearded foreigner and girls giggled softly. “Good afternoon,” Bob said.

The kids imitated him in neat unison; their teacher smiled proudly. The curiosity and seriousness of the children made Bob temporarily forget his arrest. He taught the class some simple English vocabulary for half an hour with much enjoyment.

Before Bob left, with a nod from the teacher, a boy presented a triangular red scarf to him with both hands. Such a red scarf was the mark of Young Pioneers, Bob knew, the official children’s organization in Communist China. Despite any political connotation of the scarf, this gesture of honor from the innocent elementary school kids was in such ironic contrast to Bob’s unexplained “criminal” arrest, he was both touched and frustrated.

He was put on the train to Chongqing early next morning. The modern transportation was many times faster than his Trek bike, of course, and it took less than two hours to cross the distance that he had planned for at least a full day. However he had no way to warn me about this shift to an earlier arrival. There was no such a thing as cell phone at the time. There was not even a land line in my house.
I received his Xi'an letter on Monday the 20th. That night I woke up with a start to the sound of rain pelting the roofs and drenching the earth. I lay in the dark thinking, How is he going to bike in such weather?

The downpour lasted two days. Tuesday I stayed awake through most of the night, finally drifting into dreamland near morning. I slept in, only to awake to loud shouts from downstairs: “A foreigner is looking for Xujun! An old foreigner!”

Old foreigner? Bob was only twenty-eight. It must be his beard!

It was about nine in the morning. Who knew when a bright sun had driven away the wind and rain! I put on my jeans and shirt in a fluster, grabbed a hairbrush and ran downstairs while combing my waist-length hair. Outside my apartment building, on the sidewalk, under the hot Chongqing sun I saw six-foot-tall Bob, in his red McGill University T-shirt, standing in a circle of onlookers five-feet or shorter. Those townsmen of mine were silent; their gazes unmistakably fixed on the foreigner’s face. Bob, his wide forehead blackened by sweat and dust, appeared quite baffled by this silent spotlight of so many human eyes. His one hand held the loaded Trek bike with a helmet hanging on its handlebar, and the other held a small notebook, in which I had written down my address in Chinese for him a month and a half before in Shanghai. He looked at this person and that in amusement, making inquiries in both English and crude Chinese: “What? Shenmo?” He tried to move in one direction then another; the crowd retreated and advanced with him like an unbreakable giant rubber band.

It was not a novel scene to me. Although the largest industrial city in southwest China, and in the 1940s China’s wartime capital bustling with American and British diplomats, since 1949 Chongqing had rarely seen foreign tourists. When I was an undergraduate student in Chongqing University in early 1980s, one day on the street I ran into an American professor who worked for the Sichuan Foreign Language College. It was the first time I had seen a white man with my own eyes instead of on a screen. At that time I was extremely tired of the mandatory politics class in school, and I had the sudden impulse to know if American universities had similar classes. The American man was buying a roll of high-quality toilet paper, the kind we ordinary Chinese regarded as a luxury, from a small grocery store on the side of a main street near the Liberation Monument. I heard him speaking fluent Chinese to the store clerk. I approached him and asked my question. “Yes,” he said. “Of course American universities have politics classes.” We were both speaking Chinese, but he looked baffled. His answer and expression confused me and I wanted to probe further. Just then, I noticed that the two of us were surrounded by a large crowd of onlookers, so large that they blocked traffic on the street. Embarrassed by the hundreds of eyes staring at me, I ran out without saying good-bye to the professor. Not until many years later, when I became a graduate student at MIT, did I realize how ignorant my question was. It’s not that American universities did not offer classes on politics. The difference was that to take the class or not was your own choice, not a mandatory imposition on daily life.

Now, once again I faced a band of staring humans, and my steps halted. I hesitated to step into a trap, to identify myself with the tall foreigner. But Bob had already seen me. He waved, smiling warmly and irresistibly. I squeezed into the ring.

“How should I greet your townsfolk?” he asked me in English.

Seeing the foreign man talking to a Chinese woman, the crowd became lively. A young man taunted, “Yang guizi!” and laughter ensued. Some touched Bob’s bike – few rode bikes in hilly Chongqing. I said nothing and led him out of the encirclement. The crowd reluctantly opened a breach to let us go.

I still remember that morning vividly after 22 years.

Update:  Some friends asked how I met Bob.  Here is an earlier post that answers this question:

"Why Did You Come to America?"