Hello world!

Whew, so I decided that I wanted the latest and greatest version of WordPress.  Unfortunately I ended up having to nuke the gratefully short WordPress database to get things working again.  At least the newer version looks a lot prettier.  Also, thankfully, I haven’t actually left on my trip yet.  This makes this process a lot easier.

Anyway, the software chose Hello World! for the title of the first post by itself.  Which is kind of funny, because this blog is about bicycling, more or less, around the world.  I was kind of thinking it should be called Eric’s Triumphant Freedom Tour, 2011.  Or maybe The Adventures of Axl Lane.  Why?  I just like that name.

So, this is a continuing story of something I began a few years ago.  Somehow I got it into my head that I was going to ride a bicycle across the United States.  I don’t know why, I’ve just been a cycling nut since I was knee high to a grasshopper.  I’m a software engineer by trade and mission creep kind of comes with the territory.

First overnight was to pick up a car 150 miles away or so.  Second time was San Jose to Salt Lake City.  Third, I rode from Santa Cruz, California to Boston, Mass.  Really, I’m just too lazy to figure out how to

write out Massachusetts.

Ping Yao

Fourth, I took a few weeks and rode a few hundred miles in China.  It just got a little too

hairy for me and I cut that one short.  Plus those thousands of miles through the desert in China and Kazakhstan didn’t excite me.  I’m trying again this year, just a little wiser.

Hopefully.  All this with a full load and solo.  The interesting thing for me going to China is that I frequently go to bed at something approaching sunrise.  When I go to China I’m perfectly in sync.  Maybe I’m living a few time zones away from where I should be.

It’s getting kind of fun to pick up things out

of my touring box that I’ve bought along the way as I’ve packed up

my gear.  Socks bought in Nevada.  A lupe bought in Beijing.  That kind of thing.  Oh, the memories…

This time?  I’ve got my eyes on the Big Kahuna.  Again.  Friday I’ll be in Beijing, heading north through Inner Mongolia to the Russian border.  Then on to Irkutsk, Yekaturinburg, Moscow, and St. Petersburg.  Followed by a good dose of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, (or maybe Belarus?) Poland, Czech Republic, and Germany.  Not sure if I’m going to hit the Atlantic in the Netherlands or France.  Sometimes I like to surprise even myself.  I used a web program called Marengo GPS Route to create a route of my own.  Estimated distance, about 7,500 miles.  Or 12,000km  for those of you who don’t speak American.  That’s what I like about the metric system.  Makes it sound more impressive.  The trip might go over 8,000 miles for all I know.  Especially if I’m feeling spry at the end of this and want to ride down to Morocco.  I was kind of thinking doing this sort of thing in Africa, even having done Eurasia and North America, might be the definition of insanity.  But I guess other people do it.  There’s also Australia, which is crying out to be circumnavigated, and South America, which I would genuinely look forward to.  Europe itself needs at least a summer to pick through.  Crossing the country in 2009 I met a couple in South Dakota that were heading for Tierra Del Fuego.  I guess they made it, too.  I’ll try my best to update this blog, but I’m going to be in Siberia, you know.  Plus it can be a bit of a battle to find the energy.  This is really an exhausting way to travel.  As the French well know, to travel is to work.

I’m on a new set of wheels, now.  My Novara Safari was getting a  little sketchy so I left it in China in 2010.  Gunnar Bikes, a part of  Waterford Bikes has a nice frame, designed for the Great Divide Route called the Rock Tour.  I bought one from American Cyclery in San Francisco and rode it 60 miles home.  So far, I like it.  I think it’d make a good full rigid or hardtail trail bike as well.  The only thing I didn’t like is that my Pletscher Twin Legger kickstand didn’t fit, so I had a local builder braze a bracket on for me, then blacked it out

Just barely fits. Bummed I had to let the air out of the tires.

with some Chassis Black, a spray paint used for restoring car frames.  A useful though expensive addition were S&S Couplers.  A little searching around local discount stores netted a suitcase big enough to fit my mountain bike wheels.  Altogether, my two bags are just a bit under the 50 pounds (20 something kg) each limit.  One bicycle and another one for gear.  With my clothes in one pannier as carry on.  Clever, eh?

Why Freedom Tour? Well, it sounds like a ’70s rock band tour.  Plus I sign divorce papers Wednesday afternoon.  We were just a little too different.  Reading this, I reckon some of you might empathize with the petitioner.

Just a day and a half or so to my flight.  Bags are packed.  This server, which has been in my house for the past ten years, has been moved off into a big room of them somewhere in Fremont from Host Virtual.  I gave up on my DirecTiVO a few months ago and my Roku streaming video player has been quieted.  Netflix and Hulu canceled.  My aquariums, which actually netted a few admirable specimens for credit at Dolphin Pet Village, are empty.  Call me self confident.  I don’t expect to be back for a while.  If it wasn’t for the dishwasher, all I would be able to hear is the ringing in my ears.  Some of you are probably getting tired of all of this name dropping.  I’m actually hoping to accomplish, at some point, check in my hand placement.  So I can do this on someone else’s nickel.  Sure.  Go ahead.  Call me a sellout.  BTW, it’s a Kenmore dishwasher.  Maybe if it wasn’t for the Seven Up and Seagrams 7 I wouldn’t be getting this jocular.  Google Adwords, are you listening?

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Buckle your safely belts Dorothy

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After a four hour delay my plane got into Beijing at almost nine PM.  Rather than wait for a cab I found the same area I put my bike together at last year.
This took a couple more hours.  What is funny is that the airport security and maintenance didn’t mind.  Actually they looked kind of amused.
Before leaving I gave my bike’s suitcase to a janitor and another took the cardboard box I had my gear in, like setting fire to the ships on the shore.  Not a scrap remained.
After setting off in the direction I thought my hotel was in I realized I was completely upside down.  By the time I found the right road and my hotel it was four AM.  But now I know my way around PEK. 
The Crowne Plaza at PEK is really nice, BTW.  I chose it because it’s next to the highway to Russia. Finding it was worth the effort.
Speaking of which, practicing Russian has helped my Chinese.  I can understand and be understood.  Ever moreso. While listening in on the Russians sitting behind me.
Only took 10 years of casual practice.

Anyway, had some work to do on the bicycle and took some time to organize my gear. Also, riding in gale force winds is inconvenient.

I’ll start north tomorrow. I promise.

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May Day!

 No, no emergency.  Just a special day here.  Coincidentally my first day is the first of May.  It’s the equivalent of the Fourth of July in America.  I pass by several bursts of fireworks during the day and lots of confetti from firecrackers on the streets.

I take National Highway G101 for the first forty miles before seeing a frontage road, County X002 that I take for the next twenty where a local helps me find a room.  While there’s some traffic, it’s much less than the National Highway.  I also get to pass by half a dozen old villages.  It’s really interesting to see a mix of the old and new as the country modernizes.  Old thatch brooms and decades old bicycles mixed with new Hyundais, Buicks, and VWs.

The traffic on the national highway is a nightmare, although I think it’s a product of the holiday.  For the first twenty miles out of Beijing the cars are slowing me down.  Only one major wrong turn, which lost me maybe a mile.

Anyway, the north end of Beijing is much more pleasant than the south was last year.  My throat and sinuses hurt a little from the pollution, though.

One funny thing that happened:  a few guys on the side of the road gave me a “heeeellllooo!.  I responded with a “neee haooooo!”  The woman on the electric scooter started to smile.  Then I said it to her and it almost made her crash from laughter.

Looking forward to reaching the Summer Palace tomorrow.  Only five or six miles on the highway.  I’m hoping that the state road I’ve chosen is as quiet as the county road I rode today.  Maybe I won’t make it tomorrow.  It’s 60 miles in the mountains.

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First milestone reached!

I reached the end of X002 and got dumped back onto G101.  One thing I’ve noticed is that the wind out of Mongolia is a constant and not always beneficial travel companion.  I keep wondering what it’s going to be like for those last few hundred miles when I have to head due west.  Sometimes it gets a little gusty in the gorges too. 
At least the air clears up and so does the traffic.  First scare:  a semi passing me and a pint sized oncoming van both try to take the middle lane narrowly avoiding a devastating wreck.
The first 45 miles are uphill and it starts to get dry.  I was looking for someplace to stop towards the end but it turned downhill around mile 50.  Good thing as the Sun was getting low.  I got a good gravity boost which helped cover the last 30 miles past some small farming villages quickly. My Tilley’s hat keeps its shape and stays on tight at 40mph.

About the time I was wondering if I had missed Chengde somehow , one last climb over a pass dropped me down into a city covered in neon with a number more skyscrapers on the way.  The drivers on the freeway get to cut straight through the mountain.  I find the Jing Cheng Da Jiu Dian, another very nice hotel.  I don’t mind paying.  I have almost 1,000 miles of Inner Mongolia to cover.

Tuesday I visit the Mountain Palace, pick up a few things, and get some road food at a local supermarket.  I get dinner for about a dollar: one supermarket deli sandwich and a bottle of Chinese Snow Beer. 

China Unicom draws me inside one of their shops for a sim card.  I like that they don’t even ask for a name.

As I write on Tuesday night there’s a classical Chinese band playing on the street.  I’m going to try to get some video.
Tooling around gets my total over 150 miles.

My legs hurt but my cycling shorts save my butt.

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Word for the day

Ciprofloxacin.  Don’t go to Asia without it.

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Welcome to Inner Mongolia

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I’m now three days out of Chengde.  After a day and a half of slow then very abrupt climbing I crossed over from Hebei Province into Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.  Funny, they didn’t even have a Welcome Center.  Plus the longest tunnel I’ve ever been through.  I measured a little over a mile.  I think I liked going through the mountain than over it, though.  Then a day and a half of abrupt then slow descending.  Two nights of staying at $5/night village hotels.  One of them even had a hot shower.  The other had an outhouse with boards to squat over to go.  GSM service kind of works just about all the time.

Today after a quick 50 mile jaunt I arrived in Chifeng.  Everything looks new and there’s more construction on the way.  Deciding to treat myself (I like to do this, you may have noticed) I stop at the first nice high rise that catches my eye, the JinDi.  Very new and I got a corner suite with a computer at a desk.  For $60/night.

My rear wheel was worrying me a little.  Things were wobbling in the back where they shouldn’t have been.  A quick application of my Leatherman and my spare hand and it feels perfect.  Apparently the bearing cups came loose.  Who needs special cone wrenches, I say.  I will monitor the situation.

I’m getting the hang of this country, but any time I have to find/rent a room, buy food or talk to a curious local it can turn comical pretty quickly.  Basically any time I have to talk to somebody.  My pronunciation and verbal comprehension is pretty hit or miss.  Sometimes it clicks and sometimes it doesn’t.  It takes a lot of mental energy.  Especially since I’m going to cities I don’t even know how to pronounce with characters I don’t know.  Usually I just say “Bei fang” (north area).  Basically, for Westerners, tonal languages such as Chinese are very difficult.  It practically takes a native ear.  People I talk to will have a sense of humor about it if I do.  I wouldn’t even attempt the language with the phrasebooks in the guidebooks.  Try taking a semester at your local college before setting out on your own here.  Or maybe a year.

Out of Chengde I took Provincial Road S354, which was very busy.  Trucks … trucks …  trucks.  Then S253, which was pretty quiet.  At the Inner Mongolia border, somewhere in the middle of the tunnel, it turned into S206.  For a while this was a good wide four lane, then it put me back onto a muddy and potholed two lane as they finish up the four lane.  I don’t know how the little VW and Honda, etc. sedans make it through.  But it was nice as it was a chance to go back in time, going through old villages.  I hope they maintain this route.  The locals need it and it’s a good bike route too.

Now I have 295 miles on the odo after six days of roller coaster mountain ranges.  The wind out of the west can really be a mother.  I get to skirt to the east of it between here and Ulanhot, where I have to turn left for the Russian border.  If the winds I’ve seen are any indication, it could really be a bastard getting to Manzhouli.

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Stranger in a strange land.

I’ve been in China almost three weeks now and a couple of people are wondering if I’m still alive because I haven’t published anything lately.  I just have half a dozen uninspired drafts.  Maybe I should call this publish or perished?
I’m now up near the Russian border in a small town on provincial road S203.  Not counting one mistake that cost me a day and 60 miles, I have 900 miles.  This route between Manzhouli and Ulanhot is a beautiful ride, by the way.  Narrow but quiet with many farming villages and a variety of livestock browsing alongside the road.  As Jerry Pournelle used to say, “highly recomended!”  Just expect a lot of small climbs and the occasional gale blowing the wrong direction.  Like the storm that made me rest in this cafe in this small village where I’m writing now.  Tomorrow I’ll make at least a metric century if not an English one.  I promise.
This is a very challenging place to be a foreigner.  Don’t expect to read the phrases in the back of those guide books and get anywhere.  Chinese is a tonal language, which means pronunciation has to be perfect.  I was married to a Chinese woman for ten years, and mine is still hit and miss, but we weren’t trying too hard.  Depending on the listener and my own state of mind.  A year’s worth of college Mandarin might be enough for the adventurous traveler.  If you’re just going to the tourist traps, just go and have fun.
Lots of things are still hard to find.  Men’s antiperspirant, for one.  Clothes washers and dryers for another.  Lots of different hair care and toothpaste, though.  But many don’t quite yet get the latter. 
The food is also very different.  The only thing I can find are Oreo cookies.  Be adventurous.  I’ve found some soft drinks and sausages that make excellent road food.  I haven’t seen anything truly familiar since the McDonald’s in Chengde.  When I buy a bowl of Ramen the shopkeeper will always have hot water.  There are frequently signs selling hot water along the road.
Indoor plumbing is still a novelty in some places, and hit or miss at that.  Sometimes I have to keep the bathroom door shut.  Lots of hotels have different levels – no shower, no toilet up to shower, toilet, computer, and TV.  I swear I’ve stayed in converted jailhouses on a few occasions.  Once I was concerned that the door might be locked from the outside.  I’m getting the hang of what to ask for.
The people are almost always friendly and patient, but I sometimes have to warm them up.  Even the police occasionally stop me to take a picture and give me water.
If you have questions, maybe I’ll have answers :) .

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Even lonelier road than US 50

Inner Mongolia S203 keeps getting quieter by the mile.  It’s being turned into a four lane and I am using the finished part of it.  The old two lane is narrow and almost done for.  Even the cows and horses hang out on it without concern.  I keep wondering what tone Chinese cows moo in.  Today I was just thinking about how bitchin’ this road was, and ended up singing Bitchin’ Camaro.  That’s the great thing about being here.  Nobody else to look at me funny when I sing weird shit at the top of my lungs.  Unfortunately the only line I remember is something about doing donuts on somebody’s lawn.

I think I have two day’s left of riding to Russia.  I’m now in a small city whose name I’m not sure of what it would be in English.  Signs are in Chinese, Mongolian script, and, something new, Mongolian printed in Cyrillic as used in Outer Mongolia.

I love it when I’m trying to navigate through a strange city in a foreign country whose language I barely understand.  By bicycle.  Especially at night.  Without a map.  Ulanhot was pretty interesting that way.  The way in I chose just happened to be through a dark slum.  But I did manage to find the downtown.  It took three hotlels to find a room.

Anyway, I’m just getting the hang of this country and I have to throw everything out and start fresh in Russia.  Sometimes I can have a conversation for a few minutes without getting lost, but it’s hit or miss still.  I’ve been practicing Russian at the top of my lungs out in the grasslands.  Only the occasional cow can hear me.  I’ll have to see how it goes.

I passed the 1,000 mile mark yesterday, about 60 miles north of A’er shan.  Just before I stopped for the night.  I found a small store and a family of Mongolians.  They were kind enough to find a bed for me after a bit of drinking.  They even taught me a couple of words in Mongolian.  Services are pretty sparse out here and I’m not quite comfortable about stealth camping here.

The mountains ended just south of A’er shan.  Google Maps says they maxed out at about 3600′ or so.  It certainly did get nippy.  Together with the gale force winds I’ve been getting beaten up a bit.  Now it’s flatter grasslands, like South Dakota, but still stormy.  I began two mornings ago with light snow flurries, which stayed with me until I crested and rolled down the other side.  Even more remnants of drifted snow.  Not a good sign as I am at about 50 degrees north and have a couple more degrees to go.  Three layers of long sleeves and I can still wear shorts.  Even the Mongolians wonder if I’m cold.  It’s supposed to warm up  this week.

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One country down

A little slow, but I’ve reached the border of China and Russia.  I had one nice calm day to knock down 80 mostly flat miles, then the winds came back with a vengeance to make me earn every last mile to Manzhouli.
Before I left the last city I realized I could learn a few words of Mongolian on signs from the Chinese I know and the Cyrillic Mongolian.
When I stopped last night to polish off some snacks to get the energy for the last 20 miles, I couldn’t believe where I was – within spitting distance of the borders of Mongolia, Russia, and China.  Ten miles out I passed a police inspection station where they gave me a couple bottles of a popular iced tea drink and asked me questions, mouths agape, about where I came from and where I was going.
My odometer says almost 1300 miles, but I double checked it against my GPS and the distance markers to find it about 10% high, which gives me somewhere around 1100 miles not counting my mistakes.  I’ll have to adjust it a bit.
Manzhouli is a fascinating city.  It’s a shopping destination for Russians.  Sometimes I’ve been speaking both Russian and Mandarin with the same person and the shops have signs in both languages.  The buildings are also mostly in a European style.  There’s even a Kentucky Fried Chicken, but I haven’t seen a Denny’s.

This part of the trip has been pretty uneventful.

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Manzhouli border crossing

Whew, I just spent a day screwing around trying to get to Russia.
First:  They will turn you around if you are not on a motorized vehicle.
Second:  They will tell you to take a bus.  The bus station is a very large red building on the right, a kilometer or so west of the city on wu dao jie (五道接).  It even looks like an old European bus/train station.
The ticket was 71.50RMB.
It took me about 15 miles of screwing around, so I bought a ticket for tomorrow and used the lateness in the afternoon as an excuse to stay at the Shangri La, a very nice hotel downtown.  Even has Wifi in the rooms.  It’s the kind of place that has six pillows on a six foot wide bed.
It’s a bit of a negotiation process to get a safe spot for my bicycle sometimes, but a little perseverence pays off.
I like Manzhouli too.  Relatively clean.

路平!

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