Wednesday, November 19, 2008


From Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China

Most of you in the West know Sichuan from a spicy and pungent type of Chinese cooking (low, wet and green here, thus hot food). But, I’ll bet you didn’t know the city of Chengdu, the Provincial Capitol of Sichuan, has a population of 10 million people? Compare this to Xining with 3 million.

We discovered it was large cycling in here last night at rush hour. It reminded me of cycling in Shanghai. ‘Too many people!’ The traffic is crazy beyond description. But, here versus Xining, they at least try to go by the red/green light rules.

We are now roughly half way to Dali, Yunnan Province, where I plan to spend the winter. Zha yi’er’s bike computer added up a total distance of 1200KM / 720 miles, in 78 hours / 13 days (on the road), with an average speed of 15KM / 9 miles per hour. That’s not bad with on a loaded bike humping it through the mountains, up to 3,800M / 12,400ft. ASL. I suppose that’s slow for Zha yi’er, a mountain bike-racing competitor (my ethic, hearing-impaired cycling partner). But, he was good at stopping and waiting for me.

We make an interesting pair: One old American who can’t speak Chinese. One younger ethnic Chinese who can’t hear. How do we communicate? Better than you would think. I’m learning to ‘sign.’

The first day in Qinghai, was easy as basically downhill. The next two days in Gansu Province we got lost and climbed mountains we didn’t have to. Thus, the fourth day I opted to rest in a Chinese town.

Southern Gansu Province, is a serious of mountain ranges and Tibetan country (more yaks and sheep than humans). It’s primitive, yet friendly. We got invited to have lunch in a Tibetan household, where I had the best bread in recent history (and I don’t normally eat bread). They also offered the Tibetan tea with Yak butter. Zha yi’er, a Moslem, didn’t like the Tsampa (barley flour staple). I do, but I add sugar.

Actually on a vast plain (ancient sea) in southern Gansu Province we ran into the best honey (white and creamy) I’ve had in China.

We’ve ‘shot’ 13, one-hour cassettes (so far), and you’ll be able to see all this once edited into our series, ‘Discover China.’

Still in Gansu we climbed up to 3,800M (12,400ft.) ASL, before descending into Sichuan Province. Here it got interesting.

First, Zha yi’er hit a rock on the highway (going too fast), blew out a tire and damaged the wheel. But, he rode the flat down for about 5 KM. In the dark, I got the attention of two Tibetan boys living in a tent on the side of the road. These two boys couldn’t have been more hospitable! They helped Zha yi’er change the tire and then fed us. Then we went down another 20KM before finding a place to sleep. I think we did an incredible 150KM / 90 miles that day/night (14 hours)!

In northern Sichuan I discovered a town, I might like to live in (if I only knew the name? Note: I had Zha yi’er circle it on the map to remember. It reminded me of a Swiss village, as it has wooden homes (first I’ve seen in China). It also as an ‘Old Town,’ surrounded by an ancient wall. I remember the name of the largest hotel: ‘Sun River International Hotel’ (written in English). Not only does the town have wooden structures, but a clear stream with trees (Qinghai is barren).

Down and down we went, this from 3,800M down to Chengdu, the longest downhill I’ve ever experienced (but for short ‘ups’). This was compensated, however, by a steady 20MPH wind in our faces (hot air rises).

Here in this area of northern Sichuan I discovered yet another one of the 56 minorities in China, the Qiang (the ‘White Rock People’ I call the – as they decorate their homes with white rocks). We stayed in one Qiang Village, named ironically, ‘Tai Pei.’

This was one of the most friendly, yet primitive overnight stops. I made the mistake of eating their greasy food, and was over come with diarrhea in the middle of the night. No one had told me where the outhouse was. So, rushing, I had to get dressed, walk down a steep flight of stairs and out into a labyrinth of obstacles. Talk about a ‘shitty deal,’ there I was stumbling around in the cold and dark unable to find what I was looking for. I won’t describe the rest!

But, this family of Qiang so nice, they practically wouldn’t let us depart the next morning!

Down and down we went (on highway #213 (next to a beautiful, unpolluted (relatively) river. This is apple-growing country, and we bought (for nothing) and ate many!

The river finally fills the ‘Die Xi’ Lake, one of the most beautiful lakes in China. Stunning was the view from our vantage point above on the highway. The color, aqua-marine (translucent green).

It was here we saw a sign on a roadside building that read, ‘Earthquake Museum.’ I thought how interesting they’d build a museum so rapidly (only seven months since the ‘big one’ on 5/12). It wasn’t until inside (they unlocked the door for us – no charge) that the Museum was to commemorate the 1933 earthquake that wiped out the village of Die Xi. China is earthquake country!

Down and down we continued…

We finally got to a town, where the hotel had a hot-water shower (first in a week). Ah, it’s the little things in life. Whereas Zha yi’er wore only one set of clothing (even slept in them), I bring much clothing (to change into if I can’t shower). Note, the reason my bike so heavy.

This town also had a much-needed ATM machine.

Down and down we went… It getting greener and warmer every 10KM we went.

Part of the reason I opted for this route, is that Chinese highway #213 goes right through the heart of the 5/12 earthquake area (northwestern Sichuan). And it was here, beginning in Wenchuan (mentioned in many news accounts), we began to see the damage: The first thing I noticed was the guard railings on the side of the highway twisted and crumpled like pretzels, power (or telephone) lines on temporary bamboo poles, sides of the surrounding hills fallen into the river, cracks in the concrete infrastructure, major KV lines (100,000 volts) fallen from their steel skeletons (high on the hills), destroyed shacks, and many pre-fabed temporary buildings where the survivors are housed.

I can’t remember what night, but a night of ‘hell,’ for me, as we went on after dark (which I don’t like), the traffic beyond your comprehension (‘the honking madness of China’ I call it). Thus, it was so dangerous, a damaged two-lane highway, with no shoulder. Worse, long, unlit tunnels, one a record (for me) 3KM in length. I put on my lights and prayed all the way through (one slight mistake and ‘curtains’). And there wasn’t just one, but a dozen!

Then we came across stopped vehicles (nothing ever stops like this on Chinese highways unless they can’t go). Turned out to be 5KM of vehicles having to wait for the police to let them through a damaged section (only space for one way traffic). This is when a bicycle comes in handy. We threaded our way to the front to discover a tunnel. I thought the problem was in the tunnel, but no it was on the other side. So, we again threaded our way through jammed trucks, buses, automobiles, a million motorbikes and finally got to the front of the line, and just in time to be one of the first to be let through.

You can, at 69-years of age, get to the end of your endurance (patience), and I was nearing mine. Zha yi’er, sensing this, stopped and asked a man (in a hard hat) where we might spend the night. He drew Zha yi’er a map. Amazingly, in the dark, we found this temporary-building village (where survivors now live). Note, this is one of the hardest hit areas (near the epicenter – right on Longman Fault).

We arrive, two strange looking travelers on bicycles, only to be greeted as if we were celebrities. I can’t explain the warmth and friendliness of these homeless survivors. They took us in as from a storm. They gave us a room, and cooked dinner for us. I will never forget one little girl with her leg amputated below the knee and a fresh scar on the back of her hand. But, she didn’t seem down or depressed, hobbling around on her crutches. I think they were all just happy to be alive. We had a good time that night. In fact, they fell ‘in love,’ with Zha yi’er the girl with one leg giving him a present!

We slept in a nice room, in fact, better than many of the previous.

The next morning we discovered the dramatic scenes of destruction: entire buildings fallen down, hillsides caved in destroying a highway, crushed vehicles, bridges down in the river. At a commemorative boulder (‘5/12’) we were interviewed by three men from a TV station (from Chongqing).

We made it all the way (100KM) into Chengdu that day (yesterday), spending the last hours trying to find Sim’s Cozy Guesthouse (where I’d stayed three years ago). Ironically, we end up at ‘Sam’s’ not ‘Sim’s’ where I am composing this in my hotel room (they have WIFI too. Don’t ask me why ‘Sam’s versus ‘Sim’s’ too confusing to explain. Sometimes you just go with ‘the flow!’

Happy to be alive this day, 19 November 2008!

From Chengdu,

P.S. The night of our arrival (yesterday) I indulged myself with some decadent bakery goods!