Manufacturing Stoke in the South China Sea
Posted on October 27, 2015
We rode south towards the Nan Mountains and as the temperature rose, the cornfields that had been a constant element of the scenery slowly transformed to rice, cotton, and sugarcane.
We shot by storefronts piled high with cotton drying in the sun.
The good new is that the bike is still running. The headset keeps coming loose, the fork travel is notchy, I constantly need to adjust the clutch, the headlight burnt out, and the rear springs produce a horrendous racket. I asked half a dozen places for a new oil filter before I learned that there is no oil filter. She’s a delicate little machine and anything plastic breaks off with the slightest bit of force. The drum brakes feel like I’d do better just putting my feet down to stop us and I have to get the revs just right to convince her to change gears. But even with all of her faults, she’s been plugging along for thousands of kilometers now, which is honestly more than we’d hoped.
The other good news is that we finally left behind the never-ending lines of trucks and cities packed so close together that the outskirts of one always seemed to touch the outskirts of the other. Open country lanes wound out in front of us, with ornate little bridges leading to villages, and pointy pagodas flanking the road. Even on this bike, it was fun railing through turn after turn on a road that snaked up a river gorge.
The perfect tarmac that we’d become accustomed to disappeared and was replaced by old concrete roads with ditches and ridges across the entire lane. Every one that we hit too fast jarred us to the bone and made me wonder how big a hit the bike could take without bending a rim or cracking the frame. Eventually the concrete and tarmac went away all together and we were left with a rutted, muddy, gravel road. We moved at an absolute crawl trying to avoid the biggest of the holes and wincing at the ones we couldn’t.
Crossing one rickety suspension bridge was a hair-raising affair. I could hear each board slap against the steel below as though it was trying to find a way to slip down into the underlying abyss and I could feel the whole thing swaying beneath me in the wind. I was fully puckered when I saw sections ahead with boards missing and just hoped there wasn’t a big enough hole to swallow my front tire.
We went out for a distinctly Chinese dining experience called ‘hot pot’, where you cook your own food in a little pot with a stove inset to your table. First of all, in China when anyone asks you if you want something ‘la’ (spicy), don’t say a little bit. The correct answer is no. A little bit makes you feel like you need to run around outside in the cool night air with your mouth open. Within the first few bites my tongue was numb. I had trouble regulating my little table stove, so that my pot was constantly roiling vigorously and I was talking to Jamie from behind a cloud of steam. I didn’t do a very good job cooking, but by the end of the meal my pores felt remarkably clear.
Lots of things in China are funny to western eyes. Sometimes they make us cry, but mostly they make us laugh. Here are a few:
Celebrity status. There just aren’t very many foreigners around in China, so we catch people staring at us all the time. Sometimes, out of the corner of my eye, I catch someone taking a photo with their phone. I like to imagine they think we’re famous people.
Lugis. Spitting seems to be the most popular way of sharing with your fellow citizen. People spit everywhere – into the public sink, at the restaurant table, next to your feet – it makes no matter, there is a universal aversion to swallowing your own saliva.
Smokytime China is a seriously smokey place. Nowhere is safe. People light up in the elevator next to you.
Duck herders. I did a double take the first time I saw an old guy walking on the road with a long stick behind a massive flock of ducks. It kinda made me happy.
Big Brother. When the police aren’t keeping tabs on us I’d swear that there is someone on the other end of the internet tube looking in. Access is chronically slow everywhere and I always imagine a little Chinese man in a little room manning an enormous internet switchboard examining every page I’m trying to load and deciding whether it’s fit for viewing.
Vegetarian stuff always has meat in it. There is no direct way to say to someone in Mandarin that we eat vegetarian. Jamie always tells people that we don’t eat meat, but the word for meat in Mandarin means pork. So that essentially communicates that we’re cool with cow, chicken, lamb, snake, dog, whatever. The next approach is to say ‘we eat vegetables’ and point to a menu picture of a dish with loads of vegetables and no meat in sight, but that often just gets a plate of meaty vegetables. And sometimes, inexplicably, results in a steaming bowl of meat.
Chinglish. Funny translations of English phrases are constant entertainment. Yesterday I bought a bag of “numb and spicy” flavored chips and Jamie got some peanuts that were “smelling in cream”. In one hotel shower there was a small sign that read ‘Before falling, please step carefully”, and the information sheet informed us that we would be “charged 60 Yuan for each additional bumhole”. I didn’t even know it was that kind of hotel.
We rode into one city with the coolest two-wheeled transit system ever. Below the elevated roads for the cars was a network of narrow lanes for the scooters. It was amazingly liberating, zipping around the city without having to contend with truck and bus drivers. We flowed along the lanes like a fish in our school, unable to determine who was leading the way, being driven as much as driving ourselves.
When we arrived at a hotel, the receptionist immediately called the police without any explanation and told us to stay put. Apparently we’d landed in a town with a military base that was restricted to foreigners. Oopsie. The plice agent arrived and told us that we couldn’t stay in the town. Not this again! It was already dark and fortunately rear tire on the bike had just gone flat, so we weren’t going anywhere. I showed him the tire and after a half hour of questioning via Google Translate he seemed satisfied that we weren’t spies. We were allowed to stay in the town but he made it very clear that under no condition were we to leave the hotel. We had packet noodles to eat and so were perfectly happy under house arrest.
Our experience has been that almost no one China speaks even a little tiny bit of English. It seems odd since it seems to be studied in schools universally and there are signs in English all over the place. You can go to the most flash looking hotel with the word ‘International’ in the title, but it doesn’t matter – not a word. This is pretty understandable, really, with two billion people speaking Chinese, and very few foreigners about, why would anyone speak English. We’re completely dependent on Jamie’s basic Chinese skills to find somewhere to eat and sleep. My vocabulary now includes four words that I use up pretty quickly upon entering a restaurant. Without preface, I generally walk in and say “hello….beer…cold.” Seems pretty rude sounding, really. If I learn the word for ‘now’, then I can make my staple phrase unmistakably rude, “hello…beer…cold….….now.”
We rode for days through the Nan Mountains of southern China enjoying the scenery immensely. The landscape was dotted with these pointy little hills everywhere. Our road had us bouncing from one hill to another amongst the rice fields as we made our way south.
We finally reached the edge of the mainland and took a ferry across the across the Qiongzhou channel in search of a wave to ride on a big Island. I knew that there was swell in the water, so as the sun sank we raced to get to the beach (racing for us is 50 km/hr (31 mph.) We reached the south coast of the island a couple hours before dark and found the local surf club, which had loads of boards available to use. The last place I’d been surfing was two continents away on the west coast of Norway, so when I saw a ruler edged left hander reeling along the reef I was frothing to get in the water.
I traded waves into the darkness with just one other surfer – a guy from Cuba who was in China on a business trip. I had imagined riding this wave while slogging through countless Chinese cites and now I was trimming along one after another in the fading light. It had been too long out the water and I was stoked to be sliding waves again.
This wave really has no business being here at all. A cursory look at the map would tell you that the South China Sea is not the place to go looking for waves. Generally, we’re after an expansive body of water where a storm can get cooking over a large area, sending swell energy towards the coastline without the storm being right on top of the coastline. The biggest and most consistent swells happen in oceans, not moderately sized seas. Both the Mediterranean and the Caribbean outsize the South China Sea by a fair margin area-wise. Nonetheless, some magical combination of geography, atmospheric dynamics, and ocean conditions have created a wonder of a wave here. On the right swell, the reef churns out multiple pitching tube sections. My Cuban friend and I weren’t exactly hooting at each other in stand-up backside barrels, but it was still pretty fun.
The waves were biggest on the first night and slowly tapered off during the coming days. They ended up perfect size for Jamie to come out and surf and we had a super fun couple of days riding waves together. The swell finally just about died completely and I grabbed the paddle board to slide some micro waves and try to do something about one of the major hazards of adventure moto-scootering: the most ridiculous farmer tan you’ve ever seen. Three days before we arrived it had gotten too hot to wear my insulated jacket while riding, which quickly turned me into a two-toned moto-hobo.
We’ve ridden more than six and a half thousand kilometers across China during the last 6 weeks with barely any time off of the bike. It felt like pure luxury to just not be headed somewhere new every morning. The beach was gorgeous and I couldn’t complain about the company.
After 5 days of surfing we made ready for the journey south into Vietnam. We had the choice to head for a border crossing via Dong Dang or Dong Hung. On the way to Dong Hung we’d pass through Wang Dong. I promise I’m not making these names up. It’s pretty much impossible to map out a route through Southern China without giggling like a 6th grader.
Riding along the north coast of Vietnam sounds like it would be absolutely epic, but the problem is that we have no idea whether we’ll have a bike to ride. Given the information available, we most likely that won’t be able to cross the border with the bike. Like China, Vietnam restricts the entry of foreign bikes. We’ve been unable to find any account of a traveler successfully making this crossing with a bike and several accounts of failed attempts. Our only hope is that the absurdity of such a journey on this little bike makes them laugh enough to give us a pass. Fingers crossed.