Silk Road Crossing

Still in Beijing, but leaving soon


We’ve been in Beijing two weeks now and I’m still feeling a bit isolated. Solutions: be outgoing and keep trying, close up and lock everyone out, relax and try to think like a Chinese person. Considering China’s turbulent history, I’m trying to think more like a Chinese person. To have the open curiosity, the group mentality, the driven work ethic and the willingness to copy others. For the language barrier, we broke down and will carry two phrase books, one Mandarin and one for Central Asia.

I still get that tightness in my chest, like claustrophobia. Looking out at night the pollution is so thick, it’s like a fog, makes me think of hell. On the really bad days the sun doesn’t shine, it just smolders through the haze.

Negotiating the Great Wall

We’ve managed to navigate the subway, taxis, and the bus system. We took a commuter bus out to Huairou, then a smaller minibus to Huanghuacheng, relying on the kindness of strangers to help us get on the right bus. Since the 2000 edition of Lonely Planet said there was no charge to see the Great Wall here, we expected that by now there would be a charge by the enterprising villagers. What we didn’t expect was a series of tolls to pay. First, for crossing one woman’s property, then another, coming in to the watch tower, (I could have sworn that, after we handed over the money, the guy in the tower said ‘sucker’).

The fourth and final toll for us was demanded by a vociferous but good natured woman who blocked the steps as well as any half-back could. Prices seemed negotiable and we usually got our tickets for half what they were asking. At total of about $4.80 for a four-kilometer walk, not bad, considering the main tourist part of the Wall charges twice that.

I’d be curious to know some of the hilarious things that come out of our mouths. If it’s anything like the FriedShip Hotel, Braught Beer and Proot Loops we’ve seen on signs, then I’m sure we provide cheap entertainment. It does help to be able to point to characters on a map and we bought a China road atlas in the hopes of being able to navigate with the help of those who can read the maps.


Beijing recycles. And how: Three-wheeled push bikes (can’t very well be bicycles with three wheels!) carry a hundred kilos of cardboard, glass, plastic and foam to centrally located trucks where someone buys the collected stuff and takes it to, I don’t know where. They search through the public rubbish bins until there is little for the public servants to pick up. One result is a very clean city for the most part, and a livelihood for thousands. I saw one man who had such a load that he stood up just to keep it moving on a perfectly level street; a very good day for him.

We find Beijing fascinating, and are becoming more comfortable with it each day, at least the limited areas where we move. Without Zippy (I don’t want to ride here more than I have to considering the air quality) we don’t attract much attention and are able to absorb all the interesting people. The constant gray pollution gets to me sometimes and I yearn for clear blue skies and crystal vistas. Soon.

Speaking of the air quality; it’s bad, very bad; perhaps not as bad as Bangkok, where two-stroke motorbikes rule, but nearly so. Some people wear masks, and lots of people cough. We are probably smoking a couple of packs of cigs every day we stay here. When I blow my nose in the morning, the snot (sorry) is rust colored; and spit? I won’t go there. The US embassy suggests their foreign-service people spend a maximum of five years here, and that is wise. I don’t know whether or not China is adding pollution control to vehicles before the Olympics in 2008, but they certainly need to. I find it interesting that non socialist/capitalist North America, chooses to regulate auto emissions for the common good, while China, a Communist ruled nation chooses to allow auto makers to pollute despite the health consequences for the people. The world is becoming a very strange and unusual place.

We are ten days, and counting, behind schedule. Our missing/damaged bike parts took a few days to arrange for shipment from the States. The package has been in Beijing for five days already, and it’s looking like two more probably before we get it, in spite of the help we have received from Karen and the staff at the International School of Beijing.

Projects that would take an hour in the US, take a couple of days here. I lost my camera lens-cap somewhere at the Great Wall. Despite a spot-on suggestion from Karen, it took all day, a subway ride and two taxis to find a solution. This is not the fault of the Chinese, but our lack of understanding of their system, and inability of communicate. It could have something to do with Beijing being a city of more than 13 million, the largest city we have ever visited.

I had no idea how difficult the communication would be here; Claire did, but even she is surprised. We still can’t get Chinese to understand our pronunciation of bicycle! I am standing there pointing at Zippy, doing my best to say zir sing cher repeatedly, and they look at me as if I am saying watermelon while pointing at a bicycle. With our phrase book at least we can point to Chinese characters, but Karen warns us that a lot of Chinese in the countryside are illiterate and even that won’t work. That could be why the ex-pats travel in packs when they leave the city. Even after living here two or three years some still struggle with pronunciation and know few Chinese characters.

We are accustomed to preparing for long days of cycling in cold and heat, mountains and deserts; these are the challenges that bring out the best in us. So far this new challenge of a very difficult language finds our best wanting. We have cycled in France, Quebec and French speaking New Brunswick with no difficulty. Our poor pronunciation was likely to elicit a smile, not the blank look we get in China. As an Aussie once said to us, “You really stepped in it, mate.” This time he could be right.

It will be the daily basics, food and lodging, getting money, finding out how much something costs, that will challenge us most here. We have experienced one language caused dust-up on the streets here, and sincerely hope there will not be any more. If we find these taking place too often… We seek challenge, not conflict. We don’t want to become the ugly American by mistake; we’re here to make friends.

Having gotten that off my chest: A woman who spoke no English, managed to get us on the right bus to the village closest to the Great Wall at Huanghuacheng, and showed us where to get off. Another at a roadside restaurant invited us to sit and wait for the return bus, with no suggestion we should buy a meal. There have been many kindnesses from the Chinese, using pantomime mostly, to help we ignorant foreigners find our way around and get something to eat. The ever-present guards at stores and apartments are trusting of the backpack Claire carries, and we don’t feel unwelcome. The group of men who gathered around Zippy and me one day were simply curious in a friendly way. Without Zippy we don’t even elicit stares here in the ex pat part of town.

Last week we met a lost looking American couple in a street market. They were looking for the silk market, and had been delivered to the wrong one by a taxi. The woman was in a panic, “I just want to get out of here.” We were in the process of sharing our street vendor food with a beggar boy; the market was busy with hawkers vying for their attention, showing fake watches and pirated DVDs. It was just all too much for her. Claire hailed a taxi for them and showed the driver the characters silk market in Karen’s taxi book. The man, more typically American sized than me (fat), was unable to fit himself into the back seat, and barely managed to squeeze into the front. He looked pretty miserable, but at least we got them to the silk market. I hope the woman was buoyed by the great prices she would find there.

Through Karen, we have met several teachers at the International School of Beijing. They are American, Australian and Canadian for the most part, and one notable Greek, George who lives in the flat below Karen. They get together at a different restaurant each Wednesday evening to catch up on school gossip, and plans for holidays. These ex pats live quite a life here. Their school is as up to date as any I have ever seen in America, and the support they receive as teachers is even greater. The high tuition is paid mostly by embassies of many countries from all over the world, for their employees’ children. The pay is good, and the local prices are cheap, so they needn’t deny themselves much of anything on a daily basis, and take amazing holidays during school breaks. One group is getting up plans for a summer trip from Beijing to Moscow on the Trans-Siberian.

They all seem to have an ayi, a maid and cook, who takes care of their daily needs: cleaning, cooking and shopping. Karen says she resisted at first, but is now so happy for Cui’s (pronounced Tui) help, and friendship, that she couldn’t do without her. She is also happy to be providing a major part of Cui’s family income, and an amazingly low greenback number.

As I write this, Claire’s in the kitchen with Cui, learning how to make jiaozis (dumplings); the two women laughing at Claire’s attempts, somehow communicating through a shared task. It’s good to hear Claire laughing!

We are living in luxury in Beijing, thanks to Karen’s wonderful hospitality. We have our own room and bath, a TV to watch CNN International, and are in walking distance of food shopping and an ATM. It makes the wait here much more tolerable, but I just want to be riding, doing what we know how to do, instead of waiting for the signature of some bureaucrat with time on his hands. Now we will be facing much greater heat in the deserts of Western China and Central Asia. The language problems might make the going even slower.

Tibeten begger.

The rising tide of consumerism in China does not lift all boats…Ethnic minorities come to Beijing for a better life and often end up begging. This boy was most likely from Tibet. They sleep in the streets and beg. We shared our lunch.


In a market area near Karen’s we’d stopped to buy jyen bing, an egg and spring onion pancake. A miscommunication led us to buy two instead of one. When we turned to go, a very ragged beggar boy attached himself to us. He never said a word but made it clear he was looking for food. He appeared to be about seven years old. I searched the faces of the vendors; all expressions were blank but all eyes were on the boy. One woman tried to shoo him away. We turned and strolled, the boy walking between us as if we were family. Away from the vendors, I handed off the extra jyen bing to the boy, as if he were my own.


Hard to believe; the part doesn’t fit our hub.

We retrieved the package from the US, on the 11th day, and I had trouble getting it to fit on the hub. So we went to Wind Speed bicycles, where the best mechanic in Beijing works, and let him take a look at it. “No fit hub. Not for iss hub.” DT Swiss Hubs make hubs with no part numbers; we ordered tandem hub parts, and they must have more than one tandem hub; they neglected to let us know that small fact and sent two of the possible three parts. Guess which one we needed; the one they didn’t send.

That we didn’t cry is not because we are such strong people, but because we have become numb to the seemingly endless string of negative events trying to keep us from the road. Perhaps we could find someone in Beijing who could machine the part to fit, if, if, we spoke Chinese. We can’t even pronounce bicycle correctly, how could we explain how to machine a part to fit another part which has to work perfectly with a third part, and still support the wheel with all the weight it will carry, etc. etc. So, we will go ahead with a less than bomb-proof bicycle; it is the only other choice rather than abandon the entire project. We aren’t ready to do that yet, despite all the difficulties. Without the drum brake, our rims may very well not make the 15,000 or so kilometers we expect the journey to be. So, we will deal with that when the time comes. We have a spare wheel and a spare rim at Pima Street Bicycles for shipment to us in some remote village of Central Asia. It could happen! Really.

You won’t hear from us for at least a couple of weeks, as we head out of the city and toward a couple of crossings of the Great Wall and into Inner Mongolia. We don’t know how far it will be to the next ATM, perhaps three weeks, and we know there will be little camping; accommodation in small hotels should be available, if we can communicate. The food will be interesting, I am sure. Wish us well, and you be well.


Silk Road Crossing — 4 Comments

  1. Pingback: Tai Shan » Blog Archive » Now That’s How to Travel

  2. Pingback: Tai Shan » Blog Archive » The New Bohemians in Beijing

  3. Hi Bob, Hi Claire,

    I was just checking your web site and came across the photo taken in Nallihan-Turkey.(all three of us togather.) Good memories 🙂
    You are always welcome to visit me again in Nallihan

    All the best for you guys and have a happy new year

    Orkun Ates from Nallihan-Ankara/Turkey

  4. Hi Orkun! What a treat to see you found us again. As you can see we haven’t quit adventuring, back to Asia twice since the Silk Road and Australia again. Hope all is well with you. Yes we do remember well our time together in the Nallihan square. It was a highlight of Turkey since your English is so good. All the best.

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