ODOMETER: SAME AS DAY 4, SAME AS DAY 3
COLOR: PINE GREEN/GREY GRANITE
Well-rested, I set off this morning to climb Huang Shan, the Yellow Mountain . I forgot the given explanation for the name, but I submit a new reason – the endless tour groups, herded by megaphone cowboys, up the endless stairs, taking endless pictures of each other in YELLOW hats. (Note: look closely, and you will indeed see a monk (or a wolf in monk’s clothing), in a backwards baseball tour hat, with a man-purse, screaming into his cell phone, on the mountain.) “Climbing” Huangshan might evoke the wrong image – there is no trail through the pine, winding through a forest to a single summit. It is instead, flight after flight of stairs, punctuated with very welcome, and very expensive, refreshment sellers (cucumbers, corn, tea-boiled eggs and Sprite), to a circuit around many different peaks, famous trees, and rock formations. Or a cable car to the top, with a wait like Disneyland. Stairs are the way to go, giving a sense of accomplishment once you’ve reached the peak, and views you might otherwise miss. Yet despite the minor inconveniences, and with your quivering, jellified legs and loss of spatial perception, it’s worth every step. The peaks and views just beyond the sea of yellow hats are astounding, and deserve every painting, drawing and poem created in their honor. There’s not much to add; it lives up to the hype, a rare thing at any tourist destination. As I imagine most people do after they climb the mountain, I sleep well.
ODOMETER: eh. . nine hundred something.
Six days into the trip I’m able to wake up a little earlier each day, and it pays off this morning. I book it over to Jiuhua Shan – The Nine Glorious Peaks – a drive of a hundred km or so. The roads between level off, and I’m surprised to pass another westerner coming the opposite way, on a bicycle. The people in our mutual path must wonder what the hell is going on – first a man in bright yellow Spandex, with a bushy red beard, pedals through their fields, and then another, in full black leather, flies around the bend on a three-wheeled motorcycle. I wonder if it’s a full moon; it turns out to be and I’m not surprised at all. For a couple moments after I pass the biker, I feel envious, and a little guilty, for taking the easy way out, and trading leg muscles for gas power. Long bicycle trips are another love of mine, and it’s hard to beat the sense of accomplishment you get at the end of one. And then I remember the descending mountain roads I rode not much earlier, which he had yet to experience, the wrong way, and the envy fades into a self-congratulating laugh. I’ll stick with my 750cc engine – poor bastard is probably STILL pedaling UP the mountain. Ouch.
Jiuhua Shan is one of the four famous Buddhist mountains of China, and it’s stuffed to the brim with yellow-walled temples and more tour groups, but the atmosphere is decidedly calmer than Huang Shan. People are moving slowly from temple to temple, taking pictures, lighting incense and praying. It’s touristy, but it’s still in active use and it’s charming. I spend the afternoon walking up and down stairs, from temple to temple, and then drive on to Chizhou to spend the night.
The mountains were great, but by the end of them, I’m ready to get off the entrance-ticket path. I need to make up some kilometers and get intimately acquainted with the bike. I start early, and make it as far (which is not very, if you’re looking on a map) as Anqing, or perhaps Anjing. My road atlases are excellent, extremely informative, and already well-worn, but they are in Chinese, and by this stage I’ve started to memorize the Chinese characters for towns significant on the day’s journey. The signs are marked with the next sizable town, not the regional hubs I aim for. Although it’s China, and on the huge scale that no one (including myself) will shut up about, these towns are not measured in millions, but perhaps tens of thousands, many even smaller. You don’t ask for the way to Wuhan, but instead to Luo Tian, from Luo Tian to Baima, from Baima to Licun, ad infinitum.
The river the bike is named for, the Chang Jiang (Yangtze), blocks the way. An enormous modern bridge spans it, but is off limits to motorcycles and other vehicles that appear to be held together with chewing gum and honey. We wait together for the ferry. Up to the river, I’ve been following National Highway 318, which continues on for the next several hundred kilometers to my next major destination, Wuhan. Once I’m on the other side of the river, it disappears, along with other road signs I might be able to use for clues. I ask a few people, stare intently at my atlases, and then wing it. I ride out of town, and figure that sooner or later, I will hit something, anything, and be able to ascertain my location. I ride for long enough to get concerned. The road I’ve picked doesn’t appear to lead to anywhere desirable. It crosses an industrial area, and then even the big factories thin out and disappear. I can’t get a handle on where I am, and no one I ask seems to be able to help me. They all keep telling me, 206, 206, which my atlas tells me is on the OTHER side of the river, the side I just waited on for an hour to come to THIS side. For the first time in the trip, I really start to feel lost. I get some more faulty directions, and then decide to do it my way – go west. I navigate by the sun and lucky guesses, and miraculously end up back on the path to 318. From here on, I swear to myself to ride more on instinct.
The road goes back up into the mountains, high into the mountains. It twists sharply and often, and decays every minute I ride. The riding is rough and the km markers that were flying by before slow down to a crawl. There is no substantial town for another 150 km. Driving in a vehicle with power-steering, you might not notice the quickness of the curves, but the motorcycle requires alot of physical coaxing to maneuver fluently, and after a couple hours, I’m worn down. I grip the handles so hard, that late in the afternoon, the entire right handle, including the throttle actually twists off the handlebars. Fuck. With nothing to anchor the throttle, it’s impossible to use. It would be as if the gas pedal of your car was suddenly floating in space. The bike coasts to a stop, and I try to figure what to do. After a lot of cursing at passing motorists, curious enough to slow down to a near stop and stare, but not generous enough to actually help, I manage to jam the handle back on and continue on my way. I concentrate on the riding, and don’t have many pictures to show for it.
It’s a drab, gray day. It’s felt like 5.30 in the afternoon all day, and tints everything miserable. The mud brick houses aren’t so charming anymore, despite the mountain views and terraced hillsides behind them. I ride until it gets dark, and contemplate pushing on for a few more hours, to the town that might have a hotel. It’s not safe – steep and twisting, slick from the rain, dark and with no guard rail to catch a mistake. I promised myself before I started I wouldn’t ride like this, so I start looking for a house with electricity to stop at for the night. I come to a crossroads, and I’m lucky to find a tiny restaurant/hotel among the four buildings there. They cook me a meal, and take me to one of two rooms upstairs. Sparse is the correct word. It’s a large couch with a sheet on it, and the wife points out the chamberpot at the top of the stairs if I’d like to return the food during the night. I couldn’t care less, roll out my sleeping bag, and immediately crash. I didn’t realize how tired and on edge I had been through the mountains. Stressful driving.
I woke up early and found my bike surrounded by all 12 or 14 residents of this cluster of houses, all of them asking me questions I couldn’t understand. I pack up, the owner wishes me good luck, explains the path ahead, and then drives off with me to point out the right direction at the fork in the road. It’s a gorgeous blue day as I come down the twisting paths, out of the mountains I thought would never end, and my mood returns to normal. My internal organs are still rattling like a fishing lure when I arrive at the border of Hubei province. There’s a small sendoff committee of mobile bacon, and the roads instantly improve. I like Hubei already. This guy plastered on the sides of farmhouses helps also, as do these. I read about them before, standing guard in Anhui, but had to yet to see one until today. It’s more, surprise, farmland. Fields of cotton are today’s unique feature, along with wheat-blocks. The harvested wheat is laid across the highway for passing vehicles to drive over and crush – a milling of sorts. Towards the end of the day, they pick out the big stalks and the chaff, sweep up the grain and go home to play cards (not sure on the cards part, but it’s a damn good likelihood.) My no-map navigation takes a blow when I fly 40 km past my turn-off for Wuhan, capital of Hubei. I go through alot of gas, and on one of many stops today, I meet the guy driving this – it is clearly the front end of a Star Wars X-Wing, the space fighter jet Luke pilots down the equator of the Death Star, bolted to the side of a sport-y looking motorcycle. I can’t imagine the amount of Glad Wrap cling film this guy goes through in a year. He rushes over to my bike and asks a million technical questions about it, to which I politely answer “America. 26 Years Old. I live in Shanghai. Not married.” He’s not fazed at all, is jumping up and down like a little kid to sit in the driver’s seat. Go for it, man. We can hardly communicate, but we share a moment, take some pictures, and he points me in the right direction, before he zooms off into hyperspace.
I take 318 into Wuhan, the sprawling capital of Hubei. After so much time riding on empty roads, the city traffic and space is a little daunting again. I pick a hotel on the edge of town and crash. Tomorrow is a rest day.
A friend from the city recommended the Yellow Crane Pagoda, where I spend half of the day. I rest, relax and find a McDonald’s. Morgan Spurlock is a jerk, or perhaps in better shape than me. At the end of his fast food binge, he felt fat, depressed and tired. At the end of mine, I felt fantastic and energized. Maybe he just needed a week of pig ears, beef hearts, and oil-boiled (what happens when frying goes wrong) vegetables for dinner before he started. I walk around the city, type up this mess, and plan how to get out of here to the Three Gorges Dam.