Silk Road Crossing

Rural East China/Inner Mongolia

China Moment. A Big One

“No can stay here,” said the impromptu translator in a flat voice with a succinctly tense undertone and a tinge of sadness. She was stuck, between the policeman and us, desperate to help us, but obliged to obey him. She could not help us. We must go, fading light or no; mountains on all sides or no. We must leave the small village that had seemed so friendly when we arrived. We must go.

Our biggest China moment to date. More to come. Read on.

Out of Beijing

We waddled into Beijing’s rush day (all day) traffic and headed toward the edge of the city. Every cyclist should experience Beijing traffic just once: horns blare constantly, bicycles, pedi-cabs, taxis, buses, motorized and non-motorized three wheelers piled high with cardboard threatening to behead you, and street food carts threatening to dump a load of sizzling sausages on you if you hit them. It is every vehicle for himself in this hell-hole of confusion. Whatever you do, don’t look in your mirror, what you see will terrorize you, and besides you need all your wits to miss other cyclists, pedestrians and vehicles swerving in front of you, and bigger vehicles coming in from the side. There are few cars in the “bike lanes”, but at intersections everything goes. The only strategy that works is to look straight ahead and go for nearest hole; if it closes, brake, swerve to the next nearest hole, and threaten to run over smaller bicycles and pedestrians, give way to vehicles two sizes bigger, e.g. give way to buses and trucks, but not cars and never to motorcycles unless you have to. Never give way to other bikes or pedestrians; little old men are worth ten points, old ladies 20. It is actually pretty exciting, and we have an advantage with Claire being able to look out from the side while I concentrate on threading the needle; we try to be a little faster than the flow so we feel in control. It is particularly satisfying to pass one of the big black Audis favored by the Chinese upper class of bureaucrats and businessmen.

Leaving Beijing via the Marco Polo bridge; found by dead reckoning and dumb luck..


Though it took the better part of a day to cross Beijing, I didn’t feel like we were really starting on a long journey until we reached the Marco Polo Bridge. We wheeled over the worn paving stones and studied the lions guarding the passage. Some were eroded, some looked new. The arches span a now dry riverbed not unlike Tucson’s Pantano Wash. Small boats lay among the sand and weeds. Swallows dipped over the lions. We talked to an English speaking (relatively) young Chinese man and he asked where we were going, “You face many difficulties,” he said with a very grave face. He thought what we were doing sounded romantic. He could have meant a couple doing something together was romantic. Maybe he meant that it sounded like quite a lofty dream to him. Not that we haven’t heard it before in Beijing: Sue, an ex-pat who has lived and traveled in third world countries much of her life, asked us why we had picked something so difficult to attempt. The distance is much less than our other tours. The mountains could be really hard I suppose, and the deserts hot. These are not things we fear that much, although we are not as young as we once were, we are still fairly strong. What concerned Sue was language. Language was something we thought about, and I spent a lot of time trying to learn basic Mandarin from tapes. The times I tried to use it in Beijing met with mixed success, so we bought a phrase book to use along the way. We hope having the characters to point to will get the basics for us.

We rolled west off the end of the bridge and off the pages of the guidebook.


We managed to find the Chinese characters for the town we were hoping to make the first night. We had read that all signs had been required to carry both Chinese characters and pinyin; what we find is no pinyn, no businesses or road signs. Yikes. We try all day to find the characters that mean hotel, but are unable. At our destination, several buildings look just like hotels, columns out front, several stories, lots of red and gold trim, garish, big lobbies, just as you would expect a Chinese restaurant and hotel. The first one we tried, brought several people out to look at the lao wai (foreigners) on the double push bike. One of them thought he knew English. After several minutes we made out that there were no hotels in the town. Not one. So we rode back four kilometres and began asking questions at likely looking places, none of which were hotels. Finally someone recognized the character for hotel in our guidebook (one of five combinations) and gave hand directions. This led us to the center of town where we stopped at a building that had the hotel character over the doors! It looked right, lots of flash and employees dressed in uniforms. The manager came to us, and attempted to communicate. Finally I tried pantomime, using my hands to make a pillow beside my head. “Mei yo.” No have. He made an eating sign; his hotel was only an eating hotel. Huh? He began pointing down the street to the sleeping hotel, and finally delivered us there on foot. “Shia, shia,” we thanked him.


Claire in the middle of another futile attempt to get information. They were so willing to try, and it so seldom helped. It always took a very long time.

At the sleeping hotel, a dozen or more employees, dressed in matching blue smocks and black slacks, except for the cooks who wore white and little French chef hats. Very cute. They stood in two lines facing a manager looking person who seemed to be giving them a sort of pep talk. They responded in unison to each exhortation with enthusiasm. This reminded me of an Amway meeting, where the budding entrepreneurs are whipped into a frenzy of Capitalistic fervor by gung ho leaders. I was witnessing the collectivist equivalent, I think. Then, because we had auspiciously (foreigners are good luck) arrived at the opportune time, they all lined up on both sides of the steps to the entrance to accept us. I hesitated, expecting to see the red carpet roll down the steps at any moment. Of course no one understood a word we said, but they smiled and gestured that we come inside. Finally a manager appeared and Claire got us a room. Zippy would have to stay outside. This must be a very fancy place. How much would it cost? $14 US, including breakfast delivered to the room. The toilet was down the hall, typical squatter, and the shower up one floor. However it did have CCTV9 for an unusual view of world affairs, and more importantly, the weather.


Planting time in eastern China.


Open air blacksmith.

Grinding stone. High tech scales.

Grinding stone and high tech scales weighing strawberries.

Day three was a lovely ride through peasant countryside with beautiful views from a couple of steep, short passes. After 68k, we decided not to go on, but stop for the night. We were so happy to find the only hotel in the village with the help of a student. We booked the room. There would be no shower, or perhaps even no wash room, but surely we could do a PTA bath, and besides, we had a place to stay, to rest. The process took an hour or so, something we have come to expect. Time to enjoy the friendly village for awhile and get some food before bedding down on the boards-and-blankets hard bed.

No Can Stay

This however, was not to be. A rather dour looking man arrived from the police station across the road, and asked to see our passports. This we expected. As a mater of law, foreigners have to give passports to hotel personnel, who record them so police can know who is in their province. A bit much, this personal visit, but hey, it’s their country, and I am a guest here. He looked long and hard at our visas, and at us, then went away indicating he would make some telephone calls. He returned with two women who spoke some English. “No can stay.” The woman said. Apparently this village, and the next 100k of Route 108 were closed to us. We would have to leave. Now. We pantomimed that we had ridden long over big hills, and we were tired. “No can stay.” Even going back was not an option since we would have to go all the way back to San Po, and we could not do it before dark, or at all this early in a ride. Several options were explored and all were rejected. We would have to do the impossible for no fault of our own. We considered camping, but every flat spot is recently planted and we don’t want to ruin someone’s crop. Also it is illegal in China. Jail can result.

Finally, just to get rid of us I think, she said we could stay in a village a mere 20k away, according to her. “Not far.” Her directions were vague, “Right after second crossing.” Supposedly there was a hotel there. We had no choice. Half the village turned out to watch the lao wai pack up and pedal out of town in the evening light. As far as I could tell, no one spoke up for us. I gather that is not an option in this country when officialdom is involved. The Police are respected here, even when they are capricious. As we rode away on a small road not on our map, no food, no prospects of accommodation and tired, we tried to figure out what kind of threat we were to this small village. Perhaps a dissident lives there, and we were suspected of trying to deliver American propaganda to him, or bring him a special message from George W. Bush, a code to begin the revolution? Maybe the area is closed for military reasons, but it didn’t seem to be a military type of area, small peasant farms and a village or two, no power plants; the road would cross the Great Wall in a few kilometres, but Wall crossings are often on this route, including, we thought, the little side road we were on.

How many times will this happen? Can we retain our sanity knowing that we can be turned away at any town or village where we seek rest? Claire downloaded a map of closed area on the way to Inner Mongolia, and today we noticed that the route(s) we planned for getting there were all listed as closed areas. We don’t know how we can get there from here. Even if we manage to thread the needle between closed areas, a local Policeman could decide his village was closed; it all appears to me to be arbitrary. They still don’t want foreigners wandering the countryside unescorted. What we have read about China being open now appears to have been premature. We have never faced anything like this; if we knew the language we could have a heart to heart with the Police about how to deal with this, what areas are closed to lao wai. But we cannot communicate. Mostly the Chinese are helpful, and try their best to please us, sometimes too much. But I think the Police are perhaps a bit paranoid of losing their jobs if the wrong official discovers us in the wrong place..

We left in the lowering sun, with uncertain directions and tired legs, discouraged. About the middle of the pass nearly 20k along, we realized we had missed a turn, and were lost. The sun was down and darkness not long off, and we were still climbing in our lowest gear (about four miles-per-hour). We hoped there would be a village on the other side, but didn’t know. What we did know was that every flat piece of land was a walled terrace, and had been recently planted with someone’s precious garden, which we didn’t want to disturb.

In the gloaming, the downhill and the beginnings of a village; and a false start with finding a hotel. Finally, we were saved by Ma and #1 Son.

Ma and #1 Son. Ma and Number One Son


Just as some women in the next town we’re telling us no, no binguans, a woman came from behind and said yes. Ma saved us. Ma is mother of two sons. Number One Son got us settled into the most rustic of our accommodations yet. (Hey, if you want a doorknob with that, go somewhere else.) Ma moved the plants out of the way and pulled off the dust covers while we unloaded the bike. After dark, Number One Son walked us down to the fandian (restaurant) and helped us order. The only problem was, we were still gesturing to the first page of the menu, so we got the cold dishes. Corned meat and greens. We decided the greens were too risky only after several hungry mouthfulls. (Yes, you guessed it, Claire got to spook the chickens and visit the family short drop in the middle of the night, but it wasn’t too bad because we’d both taken some Pepto Bismols right after dinner.)

Guanxi is a Chinese concept of connections or support from others. So far, we have no Chinese guanxi. Over lunch after leaving Ma’s, we realized we’d made a terrible mistake: we’d left behind Bob’s saddle cover with a significant amount of U.S. Dollars tucked inside. We’d have to go back, thirty kilometers up and over the pass, but what would we find?

We checked into another binguan on the way, unloaded, and kicking ourselves and each other, climbed back over the pass. Funny that we hadn’t noticed the Great Wall as we passed that way before.

We rode into the courtyard and there was Number One Son. And there was the saddle cover laying atop a steam radiator. It was empty. I checked under the beds while Bob huffed. Number One Son came out from a side room and quietly showed us the roll. He handed it over to us and we counted it out. Bob handed back $40. Number One Son asked how much that was in Chinese Yuan. The equivalent of 16 nights in that room at what we paid: $2.40.

Ma came to find out why we had returned. Number One and Number Two Sons gestured to the saddle cover. It was clear she didn’t know about the money and we didn’t say a word.

Before we left, Number Two Son copied down their contact details and Number One said “guanxi” while pointing to himself and handing over the paper. We understood. We rode back over the pass with a lighter load.

Beast of burden. China’s beast of burden.


As with our other tours, the best part of the day is the cycling. Our day progresses with the community around us. Kids ride to school. Workers with shovels jutting out behind their bikes ride to work in ditches or fields. We stop for frequent breaks, buying fruit and visiting with vendors. By afternoon, many people take naps wherever their head falls. In one eerie village, just about everyone was napping, some over sacks of flour, some up against doorways, some draped over concrete walls. All were asleep, all except one woman who opened one eye just as we passed. Wonder what she thought she saw. After school, kids ride alongside, glancing over and murmuring to friends. Some boys race us. As they reach home they all drop off, while we still have kilometers to go. We arrive tired but inspired; we don’t grow weary of the daily cycle and the changing scenery of each day. Zippy is our ambassador and he brings the international language of the smile closer to everyone.

So why then, would we choose to give up the best part of our day and put ourselves on a train? At this point, there are enough reasons to justify the departure. A main one being that we started out behind schedule and would rather miss riding Eastern China than Western China. The rural areas seem less polluted, the riding has been great and the service people we’ve dealt with have all gone out of their way to help us through the language difficulties (to a fault at one point when the Chinese chorus surrounding my little phrase book got to be just too much.) We’re hoping for something a little different out west, though we’re not sure what. “Be careful what you wish for…” At least the Hexi Corridor will be more accustomed to through travelers and closed areas won’t be a problem. As usual, we’ll hope for the best and plan for the worst.

Proud Ma.

Everyone shows off their most precious possession.


Camping is not an option in this part of China. We get blank stares when we ask via the phrase book. Everyone here lives in a village within bicycling or walking distance of their fields, and there are many mini-busses each day for shopping trips to larger towns. Travel is not something rural Chinese do.

There are several kinds of hotels, some of which do not offer a bed. This makes it hard using pinyin or the phrasebook, but we have finally found that bingyuan is the best bet to use, and it only takes asking about three people to get something.

We’ve had everything in bathroom facilities from: ensuite with shower and hot water, in Beijing, an open shower room with an attendant trying to give me a massage, a porcelain bowl and a thermos of hot water for a PTA bath. Often the shower is broken or just a dribble, or the lukewarmish water takes a half hour to reach your room. We’ve had to fix the plumbing ourselves twice so far.

The toilets could be western style sit down, but with a flimsy or broken plastic seat. Some Chinese apparently are so confused when confronted with a western toilet that they squat, feet on the seat to do their business. Mostly the toilet is down the hall, a short porcelain trough in the floor with manual flushing. After a few tries, I actually find these preferable to western style toilets; the position, if your knees can handle it, is not all that uncomfortable, and the (ahem, the squemish can skip a couple of lines here) cleanup is much easier due to the natural spreading of the cheeks. This is a good thing since there is never any toilet paper available. Then there is the long drop (Claire says it’s an all too short one); a slot in a concrete floor, perhaps with a divider between you and your neighbor, perhaps not. Smoking is very popular here, particularly in toilets, as is loud grunting and deep sighs. Hey, whatever it takes! Most of the long drops in the country don’t smell so bad, as they are harvested to spread on the fields. One at a town train station was so bad I began to wonder if ammonia could explode with the next drag on my neighbor’s cigarette: “Lao wai and local resident killed in toilet explosion. Area evacuated. Train station closed for repairs.”

Hotel beds appear to be a wood base with a few layers of old blanket serving as a mattress; the pillow is very heavy and feels like rice grains. This sounds bad, but I really like it, and my back and neck like it too; I sleep soundly and awake refreshed.

So Chinese.

The better hotels (ones that cost more than $12US a night) seem to have huge staffs. It is fun to feel like royalty for 12 greenbacks, but it seems a little silly. Who pays all these people? Is it some sort of make-work thing for keeping unemployment down? But with so many people around I can’t understand the poor electrical, plumbing and generally run-down condition of many of them. All the employees seem to want to serve the few guests, and nobody does cleaning or maintenance. Here I begin to doubt my China Century theory. A country doesn’t achieve world dominance with clean toilets; they do it with technology, manufacturing acumen, and marketing skill. All these seem to be high priorities for the Chinese. Their curious mix of socialism and capitalism could be just the thing for world success; just don’t plan on traveling outside main tourist areas soon.

Welcome home to Beijing

The train ride from Laiyuan back to Beijing was an introduction to Chinese trains. After a false start with the 1400 hour train, we managed to get onto the 1600 with some help. The attendant walked us the length of the train so we could pay Zippy’s baggage fare. After we found a seat, attendant walked us back the length and uprooted someone so we could sit. We both felt bad about it and got to sit facing the two who now had to sit upright for the trip because of us. We were lucky to have a window to open but after five hours, we both looked like coal miners.

Navigating Beijing by compass at midnight

Our train from the countryside arrived at 10pm at South Station. We had never heard of the station, but managed to find one on a map we thought it might be. All we needed to do was navigate through the dark streets of Beijing and find our old hotel, and hope they were still open when we arrived. The station is not on a main street, but deep in a square of dark hutongs. We followed the largest group of people getting off the train until they scattered among the hutongs, off to a known destination, unable to help us. We resorted to dead reckoning, using our cycle computer and compass to go in the general direction of where we thought our hotel was, deep in another section of hutongs. We alternated following north hutongs, and east hutongs, until Claire recognized some pedestrian bridges in the general area. We crossed over the big street, took a short west and plunged into the hutong we thought would lead to the hotel. Lots of people were out late, eating, groups of young men laughing, young women holding hands and singing. Life does not go to sleep early in Beijing. But our compass told us we were headed back south again; not a good thing. Claire asked a cigarette seller, using the phrasebook, and I stood holding Zippy and watching some people load a truck with beer. Hummmm. That beer distributor store front looks familiar. “Claire! There’s the place where we bought our beers!” In minutes we were home, back to the Far East Hotel. They remembered us; or Zippy most likely.

Being alone and lost in a large city at night is not what we do often on Zippy. We seldom ride him at night in Tucson. But we had no choice, and the hutongs are such busy places, even late at night that we never felt threatened. In fact a very fortuitous stop for Claire to affix a small light to my helmet led to some positive feelings about the people we will meet next. As I stood holding Zippy, a group of 30 something men were nearby bantering, calling out selling. Then I noticed something about them. “You’re not speaking Mandarin?” The one man who appeared the leader said, “No. We speak Uzbek. We are Uzbek from the West.” That is where we are going next. We talked about Uzbekistan and how we were hoping to go there in a couple of months. They all laughed and talked to us in Uzbek, asking questions as always about Zippy. I was pleased that they did not ignore Claire, as we had been led to believe about Central Asian men. Maybe it was because she was wearing a scarf to protect her hair from the coal dust of the train, and my scruffy salt and pepper beard is beginning to show; we will at least appear to be trying to fit in… They offered nectarines to us and we ate them; so sweet a late night treat in the midst of an adventure.

China's future. The Future of China

I took this photo of the young man on a night hard seat train into Beijing. He is well dressed, yet probably hasn’t bathed in three days. He is going back to the city from visiting ma (mother); back to hustle in one way or another, to ride the back of the thrashing dragon that is the rising China, to either climb high on the dragon’s neck and see the world below him, or be thrown back to his village to clean the long drops, plow and plant, or run a tiny store. He is pensive on the long hot and coal-dusty ride. He is young and has energy. His education is incomplete, but he just might make it with hard work, and luck. He doesn’t know how this will turn out yet: Nor do we.


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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