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SE Asia / China
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Hello friends and family of DownTheRoad.org. I am writing you from Kangding, China in western Sichuan province. We are taking a few days off from biking to acclimate to the altitude. We just rode from near sea level to 2500 meters (8,000 feet). From here we will climb several days to an altitude of nearly 5000 meters (over 16,000 feet). I am sure we will have to stop on the way up to acclimate more. We will remain at this high altitude for the next 6 weeks as we cross the edge of the Tibetan plateau. We have been busy buying warm clothes and I will soon be modeling my new Yak fur coat. This will have to be custom made extra large because the locals are not nearly as big as I am. I only hope that I do not get spotted by a hunting party.
We have picked up a companion for this remote stretch of China. Vincent from France bought his bicycle and touring equipment in Chengdu and is on his first tour. Vincent speaks fluent French, Japanese, Spanish, and English. He can decipher some of the Chinese characters which comes in handy when looking for hotel rooms and reading menus.
I hope this letter finds you well. I must comment on how shocking the devastation of hurricane (typhoon) Katrina and flood of New Orleans was to us. When it hit we were days away from a television but listened nightly to our shortwave radio for current news. Without seeing the pictures it was unbelievable. We heard of thousands suffering on rooftops waiting for help that all to often came late. Cindie and I kept asking each other "where is the vast American military to save the lives of our countrymen". I expected the sky to be full of helicopters rescuing people and the Gulf of Mexico filled with every type of craft and hospital ship. Instead we heard reports from News station helicopters describing suffering and dieing Americans who were living on rooftops for days. We felt the need to help but we are so far away and this made us feel useless.
When we finally reached a city with TV and Internet we could not believe what we saw. Thousands of people had still not been rescued from their roof tops. Cindie sat in a noisy Chinese internet cafe and cried as she realized how much people were suffering and dieing several days after the initial disaster. We have seen many third world governments ignore their citizens suffering because they did not have the funds or equipment to do something. I never thought I would see this in my own country. The world watched as America stumbled and fell. The non-American travelers we meet mourned our loss. They also said, "The American government is more interested in manipulating international affairs and fighting wars with our military than taking care of our own citizens". These conversations have caused me to question my countries priorities.
Now we are hearing about Hurricane Rita and again brace ourselves for the worst. We wish all of the victims these disasters a speedy recovery.
The Many Faces of China: Inner Mongolia and Shanxi, Provinces.
We spent two weeks in Beijing seeing the sights like the Forbidden City, Summer Place and hiked the Great Wall. We took several bike rides around the city and it is amazing how a city this large can be so convenient to bike in. There are separate bike ways and traffic lights for bicycles. It is the first time we have experienced a bicycle traffic jam.
Beijing has a well deserved reputation for being polluted. Rapid economic growth has also brought numerous coal burning power plants and toxic factories. The thick cloud of pollution stretches far from the city and even to the popular rebuilt sections of the Great Wall one hundred kilometers (sixty two miles) away. We visited two different sections of the Great Wall and one of them was so covered with a haze of pollution that clear pictures were impossible to take. I used to think that the only man made object that can be see from space was the Great Wall of China. After visiting these sections near Beijing, I now think that the only thing humans have made that can be seen from space is the plume of pollution that Beijing produces around the clock. In writing this I feel guilty every time I plug our computer into the wall or slip on my "made in China" shoes. We are all contributors to this problem.
From Bejing we headed north to cross the Great Wall of China and see how people live on the other side. It took us four days to leave the pollution and coal dust of Beijing behind. Reaching the most northern section of the Great Wall was very exciting. Here time had reduced the Great Wall to ruins, which only hint at the massive defensive structure it once was. Foreign invaders learned that a direct attack on the wall was hopeless and eventually learned to bribe guards to enter China. A similar method is used today by long term travelers from western countries to enter and remain in China.
We took a wrong turn and if it were not for the ancient wall to guide us we would still be lost. I like to say to Cindie that, "There are no wrong turns on the road that has no end" and this was a perfect example. We can not read anything on our map. It is all in Chinese. In fact, we can not read any of the street or road signs either. The only landmark I understood on our map was the symbol of the Great Wall snaking it's way across the country. We found ourselves on a quiet road with only the Great Wall of China to show us the way north. Once we found the correct road we crossed the Great Wall and headed into the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia.
Inner Mongolia is a beautiful place of endless grasslands, sheep herders, and long distance horsemen trotting to unknown places. The people were much different than the Chinese south of the wall. These were Mongols; feared by the Chinese for centuries. They were nomadic until recently, but old traveling lifestyles and warring habits die slowly. I really enjoyed the people north of the wall. They were a humorous but hard living bunch. They were the first group of people who admired and saw the usefulness of our high tech tent. Traveling far and light is part of the culture here.
The land was no longer crowded with the billion plus Chinese and we could now camp. The rolling grasslands of inner Mongolia are like an endless golf course. The grass is kept short by grazing sheep and horses and the sky is blue due to the absence of pollution. Technically it is illegal for a foreigner to camp in China but the conquered Mongolians have little use for Chinese laws when they are not convenient. They never reported us to the police. Camping gave us the opportunity to wander into the wide open unknown. Real freedom for a traveler is not having a destination. We picked a route across the area on the smallest roads on our map. Often we navigated solely with our compass.
During our time in the forgotten parts of northern China we entered many small villages in search of water or a road west. I am certain that every inhabitant had never seen a foreigner since the time of the silk road and were fascinated by us. They would surround us in crowds of curious people of all ages. As we rode deeper into the unknown our shortwave radio alerted us of political problems ahead. The BBC is banned in China but the reporters find their way into the middle of violent protests, file the report over the internet and the radio signal reaches my tent. We purposely avoided the conflict zone but the political fallout of an oppressed people battling the authorities still found us. In larger cities the Pol*ice (Blue Meanies) feared people gathering on the streets and the influence of foreigners. We were two Americans surrounded by big curious crowds. The Blue Meanies broke up the friendly groups of onlookers by swinging clubs and yelling. Occasionally they would forcefully strike someone. This made my blood boil. I have never felt oppression in a country before.
Things grew worse as we rode south. We had a big scare while we had our computer connected in an internet cafe. Cindie was making a telephone call over the internet to our health insurance company to straighten some things out. This totally freaked the Blue Meanies out. The only word they knew in English was "stop" which they yelled repeatedly. Luckily Cindie had finished her phone call but I was still posting files and updating our website. I knew that if I was unable to complete uploading all of the files at this time the web site would look strange and possibly not work at all. I also knew it would be a long time before I would be able to connect to the internet again because we were heading out into the sticks. I had to stall. I told Cindie, in Spanish (we never know how much English is really understood by officials) that I was still posting and to stall. She already knew this but acknowledged anyway. We could both see that there were eleven more files to post. We acted totally confused and did not understand the English word "stop". They went into a stern speech in Chinese which I could only guess was about how they were protecting the national security of China. We listened patiently, like we understood everything. We answered back with our limited Chinese and said "I no understand". I glanced down at the screen; eight more files to post. They repeated their plea to disconnect and I replied with "The China Internet fast - very good" (which is a big fat lie). He happily said something else about how great Communist China is while I listened patiently. Chinese officials are overly patriotic and swell with pride when they hear something good about China. With three files remaining to post, I ask him to repeat himself. He gave the speech again and then made the motion for me to unplug from the internet and give him our computer. I unplugged the power cord slowly so the computer was still running on battery. The screen read "processing web updates". The network cable was still plugged in and the site nearly updated. I fumbled around with the network cable pretending that I could not figure out how to unplug it. After what seemed like an eternity I heard the "beep" that signaled the data transfer was complete. The loud sound frightened the already nervous officials and they jumped back. I unplugged the computer and slid it back in it's case. Relieved that the computer was disconnected from the outside world they turned there attention to us. I heard them say the word passport in English and I replied in my broken Chinese "hotel room" and started walking away. I told Cindie in Spanish to just keep walking and not to turn around. There were a few tense seconds but they never followed us.
This is just one of many experiences we have had with oppression here. The world over here will not last this way forever. For now, I have to be satisfied with telling a few watered down stories of our personal experiences with oppres*sion. I want to slip out of the country over the border in one piece. I have a job to do. Once we reach free countries I will write it all down in one chilling book. Truth is stranger than fiction.
After that we regularly had officials looking over our shoulders especially in internet cafes or knocking on our hotel room doors and asking redundant questions and scrutinizing our fixed up Chinese visa. As inconvenient as it is for us, the oppres*sion is much worse for locals. We can put up with it and then leave. They have to deal with it their entire lives and must hide their resentment or face unthinkable punishments. This is a situation that we are getting used to but no human should accept. For me, freedom was only noticed once it was gone.
I do not want to make it sound all bad it wasn't, I truly enjoy Chinese and Mongolian culture. There are many wonderful stories that will have to wait to be written in our upcoming book about our travels in Asia. Like the traditional farmers who saved us from a terrible rain storm and made us a delicious lunch or the ruff and tumble Mongolian horsemen who did not believe I didn't smoke and insisted that I smoke one of his cigarettes. Cindie had a fit about this and I coughed and got sick to my stomach.
After weeks in backwater China we reached the famous city of Xian and took in the equally famous archeological site of the Terracotta warriors. We only spent a few days in Xian. Because we only have a few months left on our visa we then took a train to Chengdu. We want to spend the remainder of our allowed time in China among the exotic and colorful Tibetan and minority cultures in southwest China.
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SE Asia / China
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