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


Anonymous said...

very interesting post! i'm really looking forward to reading more of these posts. any photos of his younger riding days?

Xujun Eberlein said...

Thanks for your interest! He has lots of slides from his bike trip in China, but we haven't got them digitized yet. Will try to do that after he's back home. And I'll post more of his current travel logs soon.

Anonymous said...

any chance we will be able to read the posting from the starting days of Bob's trip?

Xujun Eberlein said...

I will post some of his earlier logs after I finish posting the more recent ones. :-) He didn't take photos the first a few days.