The Santo Chino Ride continues, and Christopher now finds himself at the base of Huangshan in Anhui Province, struggling to wake up early enough to climb the mountain (he’s not a morning person). We’d like to make one clarification: In yesterday’s report, we failed to mention the full scope of Hands on Shanghai‘s Rising Stars program. In addition to the mentor program we mentioned, the bulk of the money generated from the Santo Chino Ride will go directly toward paying for the educations of the urban poor — children who come from families trying to survive on less than RMB 300 (US$36) per month. You can donate to the trip here.
The plan on paper is broken up into three-day sections – two days riding (600 km), one day rest. It’s a very soft schedule, averaging just 50 km/h for 6 hours of riding a day, but it’s not a race. I was advised before the ride to be up at 6 a.m., get a jump on traffic, rest for a couple of hours, and continue in the afternoon. This sounds great on paper. In practice, 6 a.m. is goddamn early. My usual and quite common approach to this also involves all of the hours BEFORE 6 a.m., yakitori, and no small amount of alcohol. Adjusting to make this the beginning, and not the end, of the day is going to take some work. I left Ningguo around noon.
The roads I stick to, marked as National Highways or Provincial Roads, are smaller than their grand names. Generally well paved and almost empty, they wander the rural Anhui countryside. It’s gorgeous, the kind of beauty that is one of very few plus sides to the notorious underdevelopment and poverty of this area. This is where your ayi is from, and where Westerners come to adopt little girls. The incredible character that is Mr Chen, the lifetime leather man who made my riding suit, always talks about getting the fuck out of “big-town” Suzhou and coming out here for some hunting, fishing and blind drunkeness. Now I see why and it’s on the top of my list of things to do in 2007. The colors here are all shades of agriculture green, and the red of the exposed hillsides destined to be bricks. Rows of tea cover some of the round hills. It looks familiar.
I’d like to say I was astute enough to pick up on it myself, but a little reading tells that the industries of this region are pretty basic, and generally exploiting the natural resources – timber, bamboo, gravel, and women. The book doesn’t mention the last one, but it’s fairly obvious. All of the others show up on cue – mountainsides are being scraped down into gravel, and eventually cinder blocks. Big piles of timber are piled in every town with more than 10 houses. Three wheeled carts motor down the road covered in ginormous bamboo, extending 2 meters in front and behind them, with a small space left in the middle for the driver’s head. Roof tiles, red bricks and graded piles of rocks are everywhere. It’s building supply central.
The rice fields of the previous day become fewer and farther between. They’re replaced with cabbage, sugarcane and potatoes as I get higher into the mountains. The myth of pristine, hand-picked, organic countryside vegetables that sing to you when they’re ready (thanks Kylie Kwong) dissolves pretty quickly once I notice the plastic pesticide backpack a lot of the women are carrying. They’re soaking the plants like it was Miracle-Gro and the prize for Giant Fuzzy Melon at this year’s fair was 25 million kuai and a bottle of Chivas.
The villages become clusters of 20 or 30 houses, some with electricity, some without, but nearly all covered in hanging cabbage decoration. Maybe it’s not decoration; people are getting ready for winter, and drying anything and everything from poles, balconies, trees, bridges, and flat roadside pavement. Cabbage, firewood, corn, striped underwear, nuts, chilies, fish, it’s all on display. To make an admittedly stupid comparison, it’s a world away from Shanghai, and it’s exactly what I came for.
My modest 50 km/h is pretty suicidal on these mountain roads. Every 20 meters is a blind turn, a hill to drive off, and some trees to smack into, ala Sonny Bono. I slow it down to 30 km/h and wonder what Cher is up to these days. I stop at a sign for a lake reservoir, and when I drive down into the small parking lot, this view comes out from behind the trees. Look at the picture, I’m not going to describe this one.
(On a brief side note, Wang Baohua is one of three primary sponsors, the guy who actually built the motorcycle, and has entertained my mechanical naivete at his Suzhou factory. He saw me off the day before, and gave me a bright yellow banner for his motorsports club, which I intend to photograph at every scenic spot as if it was my girlfriend.)
The road continues on like this for another hour or two, around pine trees, tiny towns and people staring at the bike as I drive through their village. I’ve long thought country people to be much more friendly, and generally found it to be a fair assumption, but my unofficial ‘Slow Down, Wave and Smile under the helmet’ survey meets blank stares. Positive reception hovers around 15%, and I padded the figures with schoolchildren once I realized the direction it was taking. Maybe it’s the light.
I arrive at my stop for the night, Tang Kou, a small stretch of hotels, tourist buses and people in red hats. It’s at the base of Huangshan, Yellow Mountain, the pine-covered misty stone-faced mountain immortalized in Chinese poetry, literature, painting, etc. . . The paintings never show this town, and there’s a reason. I pick the hotel with the most neon – if it’s got this much electricity, it’s bound to have 24 hour hot water – perform the nightly packing down of the bike, eat a quick dinner, and crash. Tomorrow is the day to climb Huangshan.
COLOR: FADED PINK/CREAM
The magical transformation into Morning Person doesn’t happen today either, and 6 a.m. comes and goes. By the time I get up it’s a little late to start on Huangshan, so I take a rest day. I catch up on my writing, reading (Rory Stewart’s The Places In Between), internet miscellany and route planning. The day looks pretty much like this, but I’m happy with it. Relationship with the GPS ain’t getting any better. I contemplate a change in route, trading out a northern route through Shaanxi for a western path through northern Sichuan province. I decide to head to the Three Gorges Dam and pick my path from there. Recommendations are welcome, in the comments on Shanghaiist.