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Published: August 8th 2018
Our stop in Tongliao lasted a bit longer than we planned or wished. On our first rest day a nasty cold started to sweep over our team. We tried to quarantine ourselves from one another but our efforts likely only prolonged the amount of time it took all of us to get properly snotty. We likely contracted the illness out on the road but the filthy air in the city was not helping, nor was the hotel's air conditioner. Given the heat and humidity, the aircon was the only option for maintaining comfort in our room, but something just never feels right about those machines, especially in old hotels where the filters have likely gone years without service. Looking around, it seemed that quite a few people were similarly ill. Our friend and college housemate in Beijing checked in with us and mentioned that she too had just recovered from a cold.
Luckily, the hotel was about as nice as one of those cheap, chinese business establishments can be, and certainly affordable. Also comforting was an excellent restaurant a few doors down. We have enjoyed getting to know several different schools of Chinese cuisine over the years. Food is
a pretty big deal for cyclists for obvious reasons and China rarely dissapoints. However, Northern cuisine has the lowest reputation and by the time we rolled into Tongliao we had fueled more than a few kilometers on greasy, salty, uninteresting provisions. And so, for a few nights, we became regulars at the bustling Mongolian eatery that was an easy stumble away. The staff came to know us quite well and managed to win Sylvia's affection with their unassuming approach. They would even seat parties of gawking, would-be paparazzi types away from us with a wink of actual understanding and compassion - a rare find in these parts. We can not fault people for being so interested in us. Even when someone (or a crowd for that matter) is up in Sylvia's face with a bunch of cameras and loud noises and pieces of pink junky toffee (as she tries to maneuver a slippery noodle into her mouth), we try to be compassionate towards them. It simply cannot be defined as rudeness, although in any western nation, it would be perfectly sufficient grounds to tell them to piss off. People go crazy for a little blonde girl here, and China has
never been known for its respect of privacy or quietude, especially when it comes to foreigners in remote corners of the country. None the less, when someone shows you that they understand, if only in some small way, it displays a sense of transculturalism that can make any place feel like home. Although noone amongst the staff spoke more than a few words of English, we received a note on the back of a receipt one night (when a group of diners had been particularly insistent on taking a hundred photos with us as we sat there, sick as hell, trying to eat/feed Sylvia) that offered an apology for the actions of the patrons. No one needed to be sorry.
We of all people knew what we were getting into being so damn white in a place like this. In fact, we forked over a substantial piece of our savings for visas, plane tickets, bike parts and baggage fees. Then we packed our beautiful, comfortable, Californian mountain dream lives away, condensed ourselves into some boxes, flew to China, and rode a thousand hot, dusty kilometers to be there; in a restaurant in some dirty city we can hardly pronounce,
surrounded by a bunch of loud, half-drunk, loogie-hocking, cigarette smoking, up-in-your-face-with-my-cheap-stupid-phone-camera types of people. If anything about any of this would be a surprise to us, we would be the ignorant ones. Because everyone else just came out for a meal with their family and friends and saw something crazy. They are just being their good old honest selves and if we are bothered by that, it is only us that is to blame. There is no tourist trail here, no international business scene and there may never be one. A Westerner is as rare as a zebra walking down the street. Our family, with our big, loaded bikes and a kid in tow, are more like a zebra riding a unicycle.
And so we practice tolerance. Tolerance for the heat, tolerance for the people, tolerance for the half pint of grease on every plate. And even in this moment, still fully engulfed in China, we can feel the joys of that tolerance in every move we make. It is the only lense we know of to appreciate a place like this and all of the wonderful things that happen to us every day, all day long. The friendly
smiles, the free meals, the thumbs-ups, the cooling weather.... All of it is so much more appreciated when we let go of the obvious negatives that could easily pile up on our psyche and render us thoroughly angstful. It is a difficult lesson that we have to learn and re-learn all the time but in some moments, out there riding in the verdant hills of Inner Mongolia, or eating a plate of delicious mutton dumplings, this lense allows us to see that in all of these experiences, we are simply fortunate. Fortunate, and nothing besides.
We rode out of Tongliao coughing and sweating in humid heat that was reminiscent of the Mid-Atlantic US. We limped from cold beverage to cold beverage with a healthy dose of popcicles when we could get them. It was hot at night and on several occasions we let it rain on us in our tent rather than put on the rain fly for the sake of staying cool enough to sleep. We were a bit miserable but the riding was rapidly healing our ailments and we knew it. As we rolled north, the terrain became more hilly and forested and we knew that we
had managed to avoid the desert that had been lurking just to the west for two weeks. A week out of Tongliao, a series of substantial convective storms built up and dropped impressive amounts of rain. The heat wave had blown itself up, and the cooler weather that followed was pure luxury. We finally wanted our sleeping bags, and cooking in camp became a pleasant experience rather than sweaty misery. The beautiful scenery and friendly people of Manchuria sweetened the deal further. By the time we stopped for a rest in Zalantun, our legs were legitimately sore but we had found our stride.
Zalantun was an ordeal that we have grown used to in our trips to China. We do not seek accommodation often when we are touring, and that is a good thing here. There may be a hundred little hotels on every city in China but only a few of them will and can accept foreigners. We checked into a nice, cheap place in Zalantun, had one of our bikes unpacked and were working on a second when to the front desk got a call from the police telling them the deal was off. We have experienced
this before. The hotel staff were sad, we were bummed and it was getting late. But in China, much like in other countries, a fairly large set of the population realizes just how ridiculous the law can be and they are willing to help an obviously well-meaning outsider navigate the system. One of the staff led us across town at full speed to a hotel that would take us, negotiated a reasonable (and very discounted) price, and helped us deal with yet another boyscout of a cop. In the end we had what we wanted; A cheap sink to do our laundry and some showers. The irony is that these laws are to help keep track of foreigners but in our case, we simply end up in a tent in the bushes by the side of the road. This very silly, very Chinese, totally perfunctory version of national security is everywhere. Again, we knew this, and so we simply smile and go forward. If you smile simply because you are laughing at the system privately you are still smiling, and while a smile will get you nowhere in Russia, it is the passport to China.
Zalantun was a big
turning point for us as we finally began heading west after weaving our way north for over a month. A friendly family who treated us to a meal in their restaurant a few days earlier told us that this leg of the journey would take us through deeply beautiful country and they were not lying. The road conditions were mixed to put it kindly but the climbs were fun and mellow and the scenery was some of the nicest we have experienced in 10,000 kilometers of riding in China. The food was really nice too, as were the people serving it and the campsites were the most peaceful of the trip. The people have continued to fawn over Sylvia but as she has become more outspoken in her revulsion, people have begun to back off. We have intervened less and less as the trip goes on. She knows who she likes and she quickly warms up to those people. Far be it from us to override her intuition when she is not in the mood to be bothered by the gawking public. It is an important alarm system; that so many people cannot so much as approach our child without
her lashing out at them. The truth is, she comes by her attitude honestly. The two of us are all smiles on the front, but we also like to be left alone. Our diplomatic skills are learned survival necessities gleaned from years of cycling in the middle of nowhere. The riding part of these tours is the fun part, and the social and cultural aspects are a supreme exercise. We can choose to either accept or carry resentment. Again, the lesson is tolerance and it is a hard, long lesson indeed.
Riding this last section we have shared the road with a mix of lumber trucks coming from Russia, Chinese tourists in RV's headed to the northern plains, and local mushroom hunters in motorcycles with giant bags of fungi strapped over their saddles. We passed over the Greater Khingan Range and up on to the Northern Mongolian Plateau where recent rains have the wildflowers (and the mosquitos) in full bloom. Being out in the steppe is romantic for us as it reminds us of so many of our tours in Asia. Sylvia loves it here and we have spent extended hours in camp picking flowers, following insects, kicking a
ball around, and scratching mosquito bites. The steppe is sublime and it rewards the slow paced traveler with a delicate beauty that is mostly obscured by the fast pace of motorized transit. Like the tundra or the desert, the high plains of Mongolia hold a secret that is better observed on foot, and best observed on the hands and knees.
We pulled up a tantalizing 20 kilometers short of the border city of Manzhouli when we spotted a park dedicated to the Wooly Mammoth in Jalainur. One of Sylvia's favorite books is titled Mammoth In The Fridge and she talks about it all the time. We found a place to sleep in the eerily new city of Jalainur (as opposed to the old one a few kilometers south) and she delighted in riding her bike around and checking out the huge sculptures of the Mammoths until she got hungry and wiped out after side swiping a curb. She was then surrounded by a crowd that immediatly appeared to take more pictures of her but she roared at them so robustly that several of the group recoiled in shock and they actually went away. Two years old and already scaring
the tourists; that's our little girl. One of the convenient things about children is their portability. You can simply pick up a screaming child, carry them away, and give them noodles. If only someone could do that for us adults.
The next day we rode the final windy push to Manzhouli. For those unfamiliar with this glistening hulk of a city out here on the prairie, it is quite the big deal for tourists from both countries due to its simplified duty-free border-trade zone. This should be of particular interest to Russians who can easily cross the border through a simplified visa regimen and purchase loads of cheap Chinese goods. But the purchasing power of the modern Chinese means that the whole town is full of tourists from all over China who have flocked here to shop till they drop. Most of the businesses (thousands of them) are labeled in Russian, which makes it easy for us to read our way around town. But the scene on the street is 99%+ Chinese/Mongolian. Many of the stores specialize in Russian goods and they are bustling with people buying things like chocolate, jam, vodka, and matroshka dolls as fast as they
can. The whole town is like a huge outdoor mall selling everything from sundries to household appliances. We got the feeling it would be like this over the past few days as we made our way here in a steady stream of tourists taking photos of camels, flowers, us, and every cow in sight. It is a real spectacle out here at the "end of the line" and our Russian visas are glowing hot in our passports, allowing us to go beyond the pale line where few can travel and even fewer would want to.
Few though they may be, the relatively small flow of Russian shoppers in Manzhouli render us slightly less interesting. It is a relief to be less popular. For example, on our walk home from a lovely hotpot meal tonight, Sylvia was only asked to pose for a half dozen or so photo sessions. This is quite different from being totally surrounded at all times. It is a relief and a foretaste of times to come.
This trip to China has been all we asked for and more. Friends of ours who have worked and traveled in more developed parts of China in recent
years have expressed true conviction that the rapid growth of this ancient country will continue into the next decade. Our time here has us feeling like this might all be the biggest Ponzi scheme in history. Maybe we are both right. Either way, they are really going for it here and that is an exciting thing to see. This is a great time to visit and we will continue to recommend that anyone who is interested come and sample it for themselves.
As for us, we are ready to welcome a cultural change. We have felt this way every time we cue up at the border to leave China: We are ready to leave, but we will definitely be back. All three of us hold ten year visas and we are already talking about our next trip. For now however, we look forward to the stoicism of Russian culture, even though we are intimately familiar with the challenges it can bring. To put a twist on the theme song for the sitcom "Cheers": Sometimes you want to go where nobody's glad you came.
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