Friday, October 2, 2009

Sept 24-25: China Bites Back (Dabu to Donghuayuan)

Our next two days on the road were a little more eventful. Our first day was ridiculously smoggy. The morning started out well, winding through mountains with beautiful red vines climbing down them and very picturesque cornfields squeezed in the valleys and every tiny little crevice in the hills where there was at least a couple square meters of flat space with soil.

But before lunch, we started reaching more populated vineyards getting closer to Beijing.... the scenery would have still been beautiful except that we couldn't see the backdrop of mountains through the smog. It was worse than we had seen yet so far.

The afternoon got complicated again when we looked for a hotel. We had lunch at a city with lots of big ones that definitely would have taken foreigners, but decided to continue on upon the locals' advice that the next town had lots that would also take us in. This wasn't exactly true. So after an hour of going aroud town asking each hotel with a helpful local motorcyclist that showed us around, we ended up chilling out at a local restaurant whose staff kept bringing us local grapes while we waited for someone they called to help us. Turned out it was the police, who ended up escorting us about half the way to the next hotel that took in foreigners 15km away, making sure that we were clear on the directions to get there before they left. They were also very friendly and almost shy when they talked to us, telling us "You are wonderful people" in slightly broken but very enthusiastic English, blushing when we complimented them on it, checking our passports more out of curiosity than anything (they later asked me in Chinese where we were from, so it became obvious that the passport check was less than thorough...:)

Our escort out of town...

When we pulled up to the one hotel in the region that accepted foreigners we were a little dismayed - it turned out it was a huge resort with hot springs a little beyond our budget. After awhile explaining that we were just looking for any old hotel that we were allowed to stay at, they let us stay in the hotel/living quarters that seemed more for the staff than the tourists, which was back in our price range. We did get to enjoy some of the amenities of the resort though, including the onsite bowling alley.

The only local hotel where foreigners could stay.

The next day we got out of the densely populated vineyards and into a more secluded area around a dam-made lake with only a few huge resort/mansion type places around the lake and quite a bit of new road construction. The lake could have been beautiful, but you could hardly tell the difference between it and the polluted air!

We also biked on our first dirt roads in China. This proved very unfortunate, as Mike somehow got a rock or something stuck in his chain which caused the rear derailer to bend 180 degrees and get caught in the spokes... it happened so fast but was a fairly major problem.  Mike managed to clean it up and reduce his bike to one gear, but it made for a slow ride as the chain kept jumping and ceasing and we didn't want to waste a new chain just to get a better one-gear ride going.

After a couple slow kilometers, we decided to flag down a little truck that drove us in to the nearest decent-sized town while our French buddies raced us in on their bikes.  Coincidentally, Morgan's axle actually broke about a kilometer later, so it was perfect timing when we pulled up behind him and added him and his bike to the truck, too!

Morgan jumps in the truck

Once we got to town, we started looking for someone who could repair the bikes.  This fellow managed to repair Morgan's axle but couldn't do anything that Mike hadn't already done for his own bike.

This led to an interesting cultural learning.... once he had finished working on Mike's bike I made the mistake of directly translating the English phrase "Well, thanks for trying!"  As soon as it was out of my mouth, he cringed and a couple of the girls watching the whole ordeal suppressed a giggle.  I really should have said a very common Chinese phrase that translates to "Well, there's no solution!" which kind of implies less of a personal failure on his part, I guess.  I think it kind of grated on him that he couldn't fix the problem, cuz he proceeded to call all his buddies in Yanqing, a much bigger town about 30 km away, to see if they had the part Mike needed.  As a result, we spent the next morning driving into Yanqing on the taxi he had arranged, going to several bike shops that he called ahead to, making sure they had the parts we needed....

Turns out they didn't have good enough parts to fix it either... all of the rear derailers out in the country seem quite primitive, probably because all the bikes around here are single speed.  This time, when we returned with the broken bike still in tow, I knew better to say "Thanks for all your help, but there's no solution, I guess!"

The taxi then took us the last 70 km into Beijing where, lo and behold, the very first bike shop we see has every part we need, both to fix Mike's bike and to do a bit of a tune-up, replacing our chains and cassettes.  Our bikes were good as new within 3 hours of arriving in Beijing.  Just the first of many examples of the dramatic difference between the countryside and the big city!

Us, our bikes and the taxi driver's wife on the way to Beijing... (He picked her up for the trip to the big city, once we realized we needed to go!)

This fellow replaced all the parts we needed and fixed up Mike's bent spokes, and we were rolling again that night.

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