First Days


September 8, 2009

Day One: Left Chengdu to parts unknown. Encountered difficulty: finding the right post office, getting our bank card to work, finding our way out of town. Visited a nice big plaza and took pix of Chairman Mao statue. Traffic eased as we got out of town, but were almost hit by a car coming onto the street from a side street. We both stopped in time. Then it got really, really hot and the humidity was killing me. We stopped twice and I chugged sodas; the sugar and caffeine kept me going for another half hour each time. Finally found a binguan after asking at least five times. Air conditioning! But nothing else works very well. Finally got hot water after dinner which was an epic. All we could find were streets filled with hot pot restaurants and they couldn’t really accommodate us for under 100yuan, and a lot of confusion. We weren’t that hungry.

Near a street market, we stopped for a meal of baozi, and met a nice family group and a regular customer. Lots of language issues, but lots of fun communication and laughter. The regular customer bought our dinner! We presented the family with business cards. Stopped for pastries to eat on the way back to the binguan. One was filled with sweetened squash! Wonderful.

September 9

Day Two: Went back to the same place for breakfast: two tea eggs, three jiaozi, two bowls of rice soup, and pickled vegetables: 5y or 70 cents for a great breakfast for two. Claire was made happy the one person who didn’t get a business card last night, and they all got to wonder at Zippy!

On the way out of town, one missed turn cost us about 3k, not too bad for getting out of a medium sized city.

We stopped at 39K. The heat/humidity index has to be over 100 because we are exhausted early; we have four months (or more) ahead of us, and some 12-15,000-foot mountain passes not many days away, so we need to ease into this thing! We should be getting into some cooler temperatures soon; today our closed plastic bags collapsed some, so we gained some elevation, but it’s still hot and humid, though the pollution is easing.

We would have done another 20 k, but are pretty sure the next binguan is 78k more. We’ll save that for tomorrow. We averaged less than 20k/hr even though there was much less stopping for traffic obstructions than yesterday. Today was riding near the edge of a 2m concrete drop/off into trees or an irrigation (empty) ditch. My shoulders and back are tired wrestling a fully loaded long wheelbase tandem. I’ll work into it.

I packed extra hex wrenches because I wasn’t sure I had all the sizes necessary to fit every hex bolt on the bike. Turns out I had, and I had probably 200g of excess baggage. We looked for a bike mechanic all morning and found one fixing an old bike for a waiting woman. I offered them to him, “I don’t want, do you want?” in Chinese (Wo bu yao, ni yao, ma). Claire knew how to say that! She keeps amazing me, and I keep using pantomime. At first he asked me how much I wanted, “Duo shao qian” (more money, less money literally). I told him I didn’t want any money, “Wo bu yao.” He looked a little confused at first, then happy. Those tools would have cost him quite a few bicycle repairs.

That little interchange, like many others we have on these trips, helps remind us how fortunate we were to have been born in a wealthy country. A small gift, like the reading glasses I gave the Uyghur man in far western China, or those hex wrenches, makes us realize how much we take for granted the little things that most people lack.


Today, it only took asking once for a binguan – it was right across the intersection. Bob impressed the whole front office of the hotel when a woman dropped her scooter coming down off some steps and he was able to fix something that broke. I could tell they were also in awe as he muscled the fully loaded Zippy up the same steps.

I’m learning that, in this language, context is everything. So many syllables sound so similar, (and with four tones, my chances of getting the pronunciation wrong is 4:1) that mumbling single words doesn‘t seem to work. If instead, I can prattle off a full line of words, people seem to get the gist. I’m also trying to memorize just the sounds of the last few syllables of the questions people might be asking us. Otherwise, I just get a deer-in-the-headlights look on my face.

Saw three dead pigs today – two in the river and one in the irrigation ditch. I didn’t think pigs had the chance to die a natural death here.

On The Road to Shangri-la At Last

Bob: After five days of building up Zippy, visiting pandas, exploring Chengdu, we are leaving. Claire has been organizing route maps from the China road atlas Peter Snow – Cao gave us. Peter has China bicycle touring company, but he bought us tea at a lovely tea house along the river, and shared information about our route. If you want to travel China with a guide, Peter is the man to contact.

We have enjoyed everything about Chengdu, except the poor air quality. Buildings across a single street have a blue/gray tint from the air. We will be glad to begin climbing the mountains, even if the stories we have been told about altitude sickness, harrowing long days for cyclists. There won’t be much air, but it will be clean at least! It will take us a couple of days to get across the valley and above the pollution basin. Then we will be in the mountains 10-15,000 feet for two or three weeks. We have already decided that we will need to extend our visas for China to leave time for altitude acclimatization and the usual, everything-takes-twice-as-long-in-China.

Lunch: Jiaozi, chilli sauce and spiced vinegar, with cold pejo (my spelling of how to pronounce beer).

Claire: I’m trying to eat more adventurously on this trip and so far, the spicy Sichuan food is very tolerable. Good thing Bob has had me in training for the last few weeks. (I’m beginning to absorb just how Sichuan food burns twice.) Tonight, we had mapo doufu, a regional tofu dish that is very spicy. We also actually did get green beans this time: wonderful crispy fried and salty. I’m sure our restaurant hosts thought we were out of our gourd for not wanting rice, but it was already more than we could eat and we hate wasting food, after all, there are starving children in America.

Those of you who know us and how we try to eat so healthy at home should know that our anti-inflammatory diet stayed stateside. We’re back on the see-food diet: we see food, we eat it.

I should mention here that Sim’s Cozy Guesthouse is very warm and hospitable. We got to meet Sim finally tonight and he was able to give us some good information, being a cycle tourist himself. He even gave Bob some Chinese herbal medicine for a rumbling gut. The amenities are great here and we fully appreciate that this may be the only place we’ll stay in that has in-room Wi-Fi.

Lucky: Leaving finally! I’m ready to rock and roll!

Pandas In China

My worst fears have been realized about not being able to connect to FB, or Twitter  I was told this morning that China is blocking social networking sites here in Chengdu, perhaps all of the country. Apparently this started about three months ago. Our FB friends can communicate with us directly by posting a comment at the bottom of the blog, just as if it were FB.

So far we are able to post on our own site, but we will be careful with words. Panda eating

We will still post still photos, and narratives of our travels. And Lucky will still be able to do his blog!

Lucky and a cousin panda

Today we went to the Panda Breeding Center to show Lucky his cousins; here’s his post:

What a day. My cousin pandas are big, even the babies are big, and they are always eating  something called bamboo. I hear my friends P-bear, Foster and Lai Lai talk about it, but they don’t eat either. The Chinese people are proud of their pandas. There were lots of Chinese there making flashes with little cameras and getting into the pictures. I got into  Bob and Claire’s pictures too. I think I’m prettier than those pandas. The old ones just laid on their backs and ate bamboo, but the young ones wrestled and pretended to bite and rolled around. One even slept in a tree. I guess they really are bears. Claire liked the babies best. I’m jealous. She coooed over me, but nothing like she did with the baby pandas! We even got to watch the bottom end of the baby feeding process. Evidently, baby pandas need lots of help with keeping their stuffing moving through and nurses are on constant display stroking tiny panda butts (theirs didn’t have tags that said Made in China). Bob and Claire cheered for that panda when he finally finished.

Claire: It was really fun to see so many pandas and yes, the tiny ones were really adorable, but the cubs, up to a year and a half were more fun to watch. In slow motion, they loll and wobble and tumble and wrestle. They gum, and paw and flop and blink and yawn. Every move they make is absolute innocence and honesty. With the adults needing most of their day just to feed, I don’t understand why the little ones, who are growing so fast, aren’t constantly hungry and lean. Their diet must be very rich.

The rest of our day was fun too. We rode into the center of Chengdu to meet with Peter Snow-Cao of Bike China Adventures He was able to offer lots of very helpful advice about our route: he confirmed that it will be grueling. On the way home, we got lost three times, it was great.

Bob: Now I know why we get lost so much; Claire likes it. Hmmmm. Claire shot another video as we wove through traffic on our way home. Per the above problems, it will be awhile before you see it, but worth the wait. Most of the people we ride with in Tucson will know that I prefer hills to flat traffic rides, but that I have a fair amount of testosterone for an old guy. Well, there is something about Chinese traffic, chaotic, crazy, dangerous, that brings out the old mountain bike racing instincts and skills from twenty years ago. I get into a zone and we merge with the throngs. I absorb the pattern of traffic flow, read “body language” and know when to challenge the cabbie, and when to track stand and let him pass. It is thrilling and calming at the same time, and I can’t get enough of it. I could do without the deepening cough I get from the horribly polluted air, but it will only be a few more days before serious elevations will have me wishing for air of any kind, polluted or not. Peter says our, now generally set, route through Tibetan cultural area (better than Lhasa he opines) will reach elevations of 15,333 feet at least. Yikes.

Sichuan foodTonight we tried another of the family fandians in our local hutong, and had even more fun than before. This time Claire took photocopies of food pages from a travel guide so we would have some idea of what we were ordering. We ordered fish and green beans and eping pejo (they are big and we share) When the fish dish came it was huge and loaded with all the things I love, garlic, chillies and ginger, also tiny bones and the head and tail. The strange head meat (brains?) was tasty. When the green beans came they were peas. Oh well, 50% isn’t bad. Everything was delicious. There was a general loud banter between the staff, regulars and the lao wai (foreigners). Everything we did was watched with general approval of our eating style. One other diner loudly proclaimed that Claire was very good with chopsticks, and better than me. True.

Life is not easy for most Chinese, the average wage here is about 10 kwai ($1.46) PER DAY. Our expensive, for them, dinner this night, because of the protein, was about $6. We made their day. Our average daily expenses so far in China, $29 including the panda tour and special van from the airport. Travel doesn’t have to be expensive to be fun.