Changing Emotions

„I am looking for a place for my tent and…“ I can hardly finish this sentence – and that’s not because my Chinese is too bad, I am pretty good on this sentence by now. And planed to have it followed by „Can I put my tent over there?“ pointing to the far end of the restaurant where it has a small parking lot. „Of course. You can put your tent here. Choose a place.“ I get interrupted by hte young man I was adressing. WOW!

I just cycled past this beautiful gorge – like, beautiful in a sense that I could hardly keep going as it was taking my breath away and I had to take pics of the different views, when I saw this restaurant with a terrace right next to it. I pondered. Should I? Shouldn’t I? Still I always have to give myself a small push before adressing someone for help.

Right now, I am so glad I did. I am full from a nice hot pot dinner with the extended family, had a bit of conversation with the daughter-in-law – who is an English teacher! How do I go for always meeting English speaking people everywhere, huh? – and let her two-year-old explore my tent. She was deadly curious when I started putting it up and very exited when she was allowed into it. Even though it was empty. A bit later we found out that my sleeping mat makes for an excellent trampoline.

I left with this weird mood this morning that I tried to describe in the other blog post. I didn’t feel like cycling, I was doubting my route and I had a not very yummy breakfast. Exchanged some messages with my best friend back home – who was just about to go to bed as I started – how miserable and lonely I am feeling.

Now, 75km later, I am so happy I went out of the hotel and this way. So many cool things happened. I saw awesome landscapes, stepped up to someone to take my pic after I climbed the hill – a bit later we had a group photo with everyone else who was at this praying-parking spot and the crazy cyclist. I stuck around a bit more, admired the prayer flags, ate the gifted oranges and asked a women in the traditional dress of the Mi-minority for a pic which she granted me.

This is the magic of bike touring for me. Emotions pass. You never know what the day holds for you. You have amazing moments. The food tastes great. Once you found a nice camping spot you are happy and if you meet families like this one – it feels like the best that could happen.

Plan changes

At the end of the described night, I put down my tent, let the ice melt in the morning sun while reading and enjoyed a delicious lunch at the Gesala Eco Tourism Zone, got gifted some cooked potatoes by a group of militairs and set for the down-hill.

This trip is different. Or this part of the trip, however you see it. The part, since I left Kunming. I had a plan and a place I was headed as usual when cycling. Like the first time I was going from Shanghai to Singapore. Or when going from Bangkok to Yangon. Or when going from Hong Kong to Hong Kong. I like this. It somehow makes life easy and straightforward when biketouring. I am busy with stuff like getting food, finding a plae to sleep. But I always knew where I was headed.

This time, I had to change my plans a couple of times as I am going to meet friends and we had to change the location. By now, it feels totally messed up how I am zigzagging around. So I was going straight for Litang in Sichuan – part of the famous Tibetan-Sichuan-Highway.  The distance should have been okay but.

At this point, take a moment for this: Have you ever seen pictures of Tibet? Try to remember them. Try to remember the scenery. The landscape. You see mountains, right? Friggin high mountains…

Before I started in Kunming I was worrying that the hills might be bad. And that I will be awfully slow. But how many times do we worry about something being bad and then it’s actually not THAT bad, right? Well… the hills were that bad. I sent stuff off on my rest day, about 5kg. Hoping it would go smoother and for the first day it was. But still…

One day I managed 26km from my starting point. And I climbed 1334m. I felt stressed about the distance I made. I was slow. I was exhausted. I was tired. That night was bad. I pitched my tent at a great, hidden spot around sunset and was inside my sleeping bag at 6.30. But not sleepy-tired yet. Wearing all my clothes, my raincoat stuffed at the bottom of the sleeping bag to keep my feet kinda warm, I patched a heatpad onto my shoulders. Still cold. Reading an e-book and sending some voice messages with friends I felt lonely. And defeated. And bored! I was headed for a tourist attraction not so far from last nights hotel but didn’t make it. It was 3km and therefore about an hour away from my camp spot. I couldn’t do anything but reading since I wanted to stay as much in my sleeping bag as I could. I only got my hand out to get to the next page in my e-Book.

I played around on maps.me on where to go and decided to aim for Xichang. Not to many climbs and a bus to Lijiang.

So, that’s what I am doing now. And it feels weird. It feels like I am cheating myself out of the hard stuff. And away from all this amazing views. On seeing this very different part of China.

Maybe it was just a fluke? Maybe it was just that moment? I don’t know.

It’s the small things in live that count.

Da-dong. Da-dong. Da-dong. Something is not right. I can feel it every time my backwheel turns while I’m working my way up-hill. I am 15km in into a 21km climb and awaiting an equal descent. Started yesterday in the afternoon, I woke up to a flat tire this morning. Couldn’t find what caused it and just put in my spare tube. And now – again. Of course I checked to make sure it’s nothing stuck into the tire that would cause the next flat. But here I go. Another one. This time, I will have to patch. I sigh. I hate this. This is the part of bike touring where I can’t be matter of fact see it as part of it.

So, first thing I do, is eating some soul-comfort chocolate I bought at an international supermarket in Panzhihua. Then I get to work; tools out, bike apart, detecting the pinch and so one.

But, It’s the small things that count in live, right? I empty my tool bag. I empty the pannier where I store my tool bag. I can’t find it. This tiny piece of sand paper needed to roughen the tube so the tube, patch and glue become one. I use stones instead but to no success.

There I am, grand-daughter of a galvanizer, all alone, somewhere in Sichuan, not able to fix a simple flat tire.

More chocolate, packing of stuff and pushing of bike. What else could I do? No-one there to pick me up if I a) throw a tantrum or b) break down crying and I feel like I might need my energy.

On two kilometers of walking I meet one woman who totally ignores me and two men who try to help but can’t and learn the Mandarin word for sandpaper before approaching a young guy who simply puts my stuff into his truck and gives me a ride to some colleagues of my grandpa. (And yes – I am soooo close to the summit and do the whole downhill in a car…)

I buy sandpaper and fix the tire. Easy, as I know where it is broken. But by now, there is another pinch, and another one and another one… We eventually find 8 (!) more holes… And decide that this is madness and I walk into Yumen where there are two stores selling bikes. And that’s what they do. They are selling bikes. But not bike parts.

„Go to Panzhihua. There you can buy new tubes“

Laughing? Crying? The man who helped me find the second bike store feels sorry for me and explains me, I could just take a bus. For his sake, I try to look not-totally-devastated, nod, thank him and wonder, if I should just abondon this trip and my crazy idea to cycle north from Kunming while walking past Yumen’s beautiful lake.

Back at the work shop I am in for a – good – surprise. The other tire has been fixed!

Off I am, finally cycling again and getting another 25k done.

So, distances this day: cycling 27km, pushing 2km, walking 3km, car 23km.

Trying to get to Panzhihua

How I finally get my rest day after being turned around on the road twice and totally exhausted by all these mountains.

Puh. Was this a good idea? I am out of training. I am carrying lots. And it’s hilly as …. Well, to be honest, these are mountains. Six days on the road and I am exhausted. The higher I get, the lower my mood and moral get.

When bike touring, it’s always the first week that’s the hardest but maybe all this is too much A cold start after two months rest in Kunming, right into the mountains with a loaded bike? Having done 10k in like two hours is frustrating as… frustrating can be, I assume. Fitter or on flatter ground, I get a kick out of having down some k, seeing a bit of the landscape, passing villages, getting food. But with this speed, the landscape is not changing that much, I only came past a few houses and didn’t have an opportunity to stock up on food or water.  

Cyclist with helmet and filter mask in the foreground. Burning trash in the back ground.
What’s the problem about using plastic? It burns so well, doesn’t it?

Okay, on the bright side – it never got so steep that I had to take the bags off to first push the bike and then get the bags. Or the other way round. I could always ride the downhills. No flat tires. But no piece of flat road either.  Sometimes I am even cycling up-hill, but have to cross to be able to do it. So whenever a truck comes, I have to stop. And push until the next only extremely steep – as in compared to really extremely steep – part comes to get back on the bike. On the other parts this attempt will only get me to fall.

Yesterday I was turned around again. The small Y-road that I was going was closed and I had to take the big G-road around the valley. Two hours after I started cycling I past last nights camp ground. Another half hour I came past the small village where I bought water and had a small chat. More hours later, I was back on the G-108 where I turned off the night before. So after cycling for 70k my goal, my rest-city, is only 10k closer.

maps.me feels like a life-line. I keep checking the topo, how many more k of this uphill?? The last part until the outskirts of Panzhihua will be a total drop. I am almost at the border off Yunnan and Sichuan. The road will cross it a few times at it’s highest points. The sun is burning. the view is stunning – I force myself to look up from time to time – I am out of food and slow.

And then –  a car stops. A door opens. A young guy walks smilingly towards me. He offers me a lift and I am far from saying No to that. Happy, relieved, thankful – we manage to get everything into his van. He invites me to lunch (and orders more food than a starved cyclist can eat! I am impressed that this is possible) and once we are out of the worst part, I hop back onto the bike. I don’t want to miss out on all of the downhill I worked so hard for! 

After check-in and a foto-session with the hotel’s employees I have one of the best showers of my life. And wear the cleanest clothes ever for dinner.



Learning Chinese Characters

Remember the last sentence of this article about learning to speak Mandarin? I may quote:

“It will get easier – once you start learning the characters. “

Awesome! And here I am – learning the characters. My teacher writes them with ease on the whiteboard. I draw awkwardly something on a piece of paper that kind of resembles her hanzi. After a while some of them look even kind of neat – and I get promptly praised by my teacher. And of course I promptly feel proud.

In some ways the characters do help. Since so many words sound the same, only the characters can reveal some connections.

The word for ‘worry’ is made up out of two characters that – by themselves – mean ‘carry on your shoulder’ and ‘heart’. Isn’t that fitting? If I worry about something – it moves my heart and it weighs on me – like something that I lift onto my shoulder.

For a while I wasn’t able to remember the word for ‘wallet’ – which I had only seen written with the Latin alphabet.. My life could have depended on it – until my teacher reveals to me it’s made up of the words for ‘money’ and ‘bag’ – which I both know. And suddenly it sticks. – If I had seen and known the characters I would have figured that out on first sight.

And then, there are these situations:

“What is the meaning of this ‘xing'” I ask holding up a piece of paper with the character for ‘xing’. “That’s the same as in ‘bu xing’ – not possible” I nod. I wish to live in a world where paper has three sides – one for the character, one for the pronunciation and one for the meaning, as my teacher continues. “If you take this ‘xing’ and ‘ren’ – the meaning is construction worker. If you take ‘ren’ this ‘xing’ and ‘dao'” – at this point she is fishing for one of the other pieces of paper I’ve been drawing on until she finds the ‘dao’ that is part of ‘zhi dao’ (meaning: to know) as well as part of Daoism – finding it, she continues “and this means ‘sidewalk’.”

At this point – I realize how futile my wish for three sided paper is.

Embrace the poetic of the language, I hear my roommates word echoing in my head. I embrace it.

Back on the road – and reason #437 to love China

Shit. This time, I was pushing my luck to far. And my bicycle. Two hours ago I was in a lovely city with hotels, supermarkets and flat roads. The thought of a night at a hotel wasn’t appaling too much.

I just left Kunming after lunch and was so happy to be back cycling. I didn’t want to stay at a hotel when I could camp. Get the whole feeling of being on tour.

Now I am in the middle of the mountains. Well… technically not the middle yet. For the middle I was missing another 5k or so. But I am 12k in. Far enough to feel like I was in the middle. Hard 12km. Beautiful 12km. Or, beautiful 9Km (3km were a busy G-road where I was either be run over by trucks or fall into the ditch if I didn’t keep my frontwheel perfectly straight).

And it’s getting dark – that’s the optimistic view. Actually it was almost dark. The paved road ahead is covered in rocks from a recent rock slide. My front wheel about to loose grip but at least I am cycling – and not leaning forward, pushing my bike as before. And some time after this.

During the sections that are nice to cycle, I get my noodles out and eat them like a cracker. It’s dinnertime, I need energy and I want to keep going.

So, almost dark – even for the optimistic – I get my headlamp out – which isn’t as bright as I remembered it to be. Sh… I turn it off. Whatever’s left of the battery life I will use to suss out my campsite and set my tent. But there is no campsite. Still. I remind myself I still have energy left. I can still do it. I started late with the cycling this day. So it wasn’t like I did 80k already. Actually, I left Fumin thinking, I would like to do at least 50k today and camp. But… To my left it goes down, to my right it goes up. The two flat tent-sized pieces of land I spotted where the entrance to a public toilet and a garbage site. Not appealing. The sky is getting darker and darker – it feels like it’s completely dark already but I know it will get pitchdark soon.

A truck is coming up behind me – I would love to stop it and ask for a ride, but the way his engine is working hard on the uphill, it probably won’t be able to keep driving if stopped. So on I go. My phone is out of battery by now but it doesn’t really matter as there is only one road anyw….

Oh – Sh…. the road devides into two sections. Should I go up or down? Time for a rest, while the very last bit of light slips away and the night sky with countless stars appears. I admire it while waiting for my phone to suck energy from the battery pack.

I still have energy. I can keep going. And I still have food and water left. I peptalk myself. Feeling devastated and stuck won’t help me anyway, so I might as well keep my spirits up. If needed I’d just cycle (and push) through the night. 55K to Jiashizhen. A city big enough to have a hotel to sleep all day. At my current average that’s just a bit more than 11hrs and chances are I find a campsite before.

And this is the moment, where I can hear it, waiting for my phone and calculating the time until I reach my destination in my head. Is it really coming out of my direction? I turn around and see the headlights of a car! Oh yeah! Smiling, I wave my hand in the way you do in Asia to stop a car, and it stops. I ask for help, for a lift. Hoping. Even if they would take me 10k I would be happy. Then it would be only 9hrs to my next destination and rest. 

Long story short – my new friend tried to talk his boss into letting my camp at their construction site and ended up calling two work mates that gave me a lift back to Fumin while he was giving me advice for an alternative route. The road ahead was apparently closed for construction – which is why they were there.

Oh, and in case you are wondering:

#436 is ordering insane shoes from Taobao

#438 are awesome, 24hrs Spas with party-dinner-buffets (not dinner-party-buffet, it really way party-dinner)– you will learn more about that later in this blog. Promise!

But how do they do it? – Living in Kunming without knowing Chinese

Short overview of how to get by in Kunming or China in general if you don’t speak Chinese.

My teacher looks at me in total bewilderment. She switches to English and keeps repeating her questions „But… how do they do it? Just… how do they live here?“

I had just learned the word for room-mate in Chinese; it’s literally „house-friend“. Which I think, has a beautiful connotation that the German word „Mitbewohner“ lacks. It just means „person you life with“.

My roommates here in Kunming are Dutch and English. My Dutch roommate knows a little bit of Chinese. Vera is working on HSK Level 2 and Ellen is just on her first words since it’s her first time in China and she just arrived about a week ago and planning on taking lessons once she is a bit more settled in, found an apartment with her – Austrian – boyfriend. He actually studies Chinese and has easily the highest level between the four of us.

So, how do you do it? How do you cope and live in Kunming without knowing Chinese? You can cope, maybe not as easy as in Shanghai but then Kunming-people are incredibly helpful and I came across English speakers a couple of times already.

In General

The wide-spread of mobile phones makes many things easier – and less adventurous. There are some translating apps where you can talk into in your language and they answer in the desired language. But there are still some misunderstandings, sometimes the internet connection is way to slow and it just takes the fun out of things.

Plus, there are a few things that are very good to know: the words for the numbers up to ten, how you indicate them with your hand and how you write them. And there is one sentence that has been vital for me and was among the first expressions I learned. „I want this.“ It opens the door to almost anything – as long as you can point to it. It doesn’t mean you are eloquent or especially friendly – but it helps yourself and the other person in sucessfully handling an operation.

In the following there’s an insight in a couple of everyday situations and how I cope(d) with them without knowing the language as well as coping methods.

How do you take the bus? Or metro?

Amaps is a great help. It’s a map-app designed for China. It not only gives you walking, cycling or driving directions but you can use it for buses as well. Works like a charm….

ONCE you got used to it. Since it’s been designed for China, everything is in Chinese. You have to give it your destination in Chinese. But it can cope with PinYin. Pinyin uses the latin alphabet for phonetic transcription so you don’t need to install a Chinese keyboard on your phone.

Using it without being able to read Characters isn’t too hard either since it’s using a lot of icons for things like „walking“ or „bus“. Plus how it’s made up it’s not rocket science but similar to google maps.

It’s obvious which is the bus number you have to take and it even shows you on which side of the road your bus stop is so you don’t end up going in the wrong direction.

What really gives me a hard time is following it’s spoken instructions as it not only telling you the important things like „turn left“ but asking you to take care on the road. It basically feels like it’s talking non-stop. But if follow the dot on the map, it’s easy.

The only thing giving me a hard time are bus lines that seem to divert. Goingtowards the city centre the bus line number 1 turns either left or right at one point. I haven’t figured out how to tell which of them I am on.

How do you get a metro card?

There are three ways to pay for the bus. Either cash, by app (only an option if you have a Chinese bank account) or by card. The down-side of the cash version is that you throw your money into a box. Bus is 1 or 2 Renminbi so before I had the card I was holding on like crazy to my one-renminbi bills to have enough for the bus.

My first try on getting a metro card wasn’t succesful – even though my Chinese skill were already at the amazing level of being able to say „I want to buy a metro card“ – like I knew all the words AND the right order. But the clerk at the booth just waved me away. So I eventually took a picture of someone elses to point to it. Worked like a charm as it gave me enough self-confidence to walk up to the booth again, smile and ask for a metro card which I hold in my hands minutes later.

But have done the „I want this“ picture thing many times before in China.

How do you buy food?

Apart from a splendid amount of affordable restaurants there are more sources to food: Supermarkets, markets and people selling from the back of a truck.

To be honest, at the start, China was sometimes overwhelming in a way that I didn’t want to deal with any of these options and decided for a pack of Oreo-cookies to be a whole meal.

Supermarket feels the easiest as it involves the least interaction. You go through the store and put everything into the basket you’d like to have. You can go to a small one in your neighbourhood or to a big one of a foreign chain where you will also get loads of imported products. The smaller ones in many places don’t sell vegetables and fruits though.

So you will want to opt for going to a market. It feels scary at first – I felt a bit vulnerable and unsecure. Going to a market stall involves a lot more communication then I could master. It works with pointing, taking the food as well. The situation is pretty obvious actually. Many stall owners would have a calculator to show me the price if I didn’t understand it or I would just give a rather large bill.

Buying from the back of a truck is working pretty much the same – it’s just that they have less variety. Here in Kunming, most times they are selling one or two kinds of fruits.

It’s worth the bit of akwardness as I get a load of nice veggies for a really good price.

But of course, I don’t want to cook everyday.

How do you order at a restaurant?

Yunnan has the best invention ever, when it comes to ordering food without any language skills: Fridge restaurants! All the food they have is on display, you just go and point what you want to have, sit down and get surprised which food has been fried, cooked or become a soup. But it’s the best way to really get what you thought you ordered.

Other places offer a a variety of options. Many places have pictures of the dishes so you can point at them and hope it turns out what you think it is. Most times it works out alright – it’s more noodles and less vegetables most times.

Another option is to point at other peoples food and indicate you want that kind of dish. Sometimes the staff hands me the menu, completely in Chinese. I explain that I can’t read but they insist. So I just point to a couple of dishes and hope to not get Chicken feet. I opt for the cheaper dishes as they are most likely to be vegetables and/or eggs.

The English Speaker

Many times, when it got more complicated, „the English Speaker“ evolved. Like the other day at the pharmacy – many times when I was somewhere and there were some conversational issues – the English speaker would show up. It would be someone being called from outside – like this one lovely time when I was in a small store in a city somewhere between Hong Kong and the Vietnamese border – a young student who loves to watch English movies and speaks a conversational English was fetched from the street to assist me. At other times, someone would overcome their shyness in speaking a foreign language and simply go for it. If the English speaker can’t be found among the people that are there, she or he will be called on the phone to translate. Like this one lovely day on my first biketour, just outside Xiamen, when I was sad and lonely, eating an early lunch and I think, the people around could tell I wasn’t in a good place. They called an English speaking friend basically so she could ask me if I was okay and if they could do anything for me.

The last resort: calling a bilingual friend!

This is the best joker ever if you are in China and you can’t speak the language. If you have a Chinese speaking friends who also knows English (or German or… whatever language you have in common). It’s pretty much the reverse version of „calling the English speaker“ as you are calling „the Chinese speaker“. Many times one of them saved me when I was desperate because something just wouldn’t work out. This summer, when I arrived in Qingdao, I needed to take a ferry, was totally exhausted by that time and couldn’t figure out where to buy the tickets. Even though there were people trying to help me. So eventually, I called Huan who helped me out by translating. Within a minute all the communication issues that had been going on for twenty minutes were solved and I got my ticket.

So

Yes, it’s much easier when you are in a country where you speak the language – but it’s also less fun at times. Plus: whenever I handle a situation here I feel a bit like a hero. And the sales person as well. Or she is simply smiling with relief when I walk off with the desired item.