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 .