Travel Journal

When you look like your passport it's time to go home.

Bike Ride

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There are 1.2 billion people in China. Every one of them must have a bicycle, maybe two. I saw a lot of bikes. In Yangshuo there are many three wheeled bicycles with flatbeds on the back for carrying dirt, rocks, paneling, fruit, and friends. You name it. Some of the handlebars have a second bar wielded about six inches above the main bar. This gives the rider a second, more comfortable, upright riding position.

It cost us 20 yuan ($2.50) to rent a mountain bike for an entire day. We rode about 10 miles through the farmlands of Yangshuo. The weather was overcast, ideal for biking. We also "rented" an all day tour guide for $6. (I paid as much for my Blue Mountain coffee at breakfast!) Angie is an English major and helped us with our Chinese too. She was great. After the ride she took us to a restaurant who's specialty is beer fish. Of course, it went well with the local cold beer. Or was it the local beer that went well with the fish? I can't be certain.

Yangshuo is geared to the backpacker although we saw many other weiguoren there. The shops that stretch throughout the town are packed with all kinds of hiking gear including North Face jackets for about 180 yuan. I bought Ruth a waterproof Columbia jacket with full zip out lining for about $20. The jacket would sell for about $200 in the U.S.

We saw some cliff hangers on our ride. We all looked up at these people hanging from the virtical face. I said to Angie our tour guide: "weiguoren shi shenjingbing!" (Foreigners are crazy!) She covered her mouth in laughter either at the weiguoren or at my Chinese. But she did agree: "Dui, dui."

As we rode along the country roads little old ladies came out selling flowers, postcards, maps, and various trinkets. We stopped to take a picture and the girls bought some flowers to wear on their heads for 2 yuan (25 cents). Ruth later told me one of the old woman opened a notebook with a few quarters taped inside and a note some meiguoren (American) had written for her that said: "I'm collecting U.S. coins. Do you have any you can give me?" Clever. These ladies were just a step above begging. They all wore sad faces and wouldn't go away even after you said: "Wo buyao" (I don't need).

We met a little old lady of 83 standing outside her home. She was so friendly. Lynn talked with her a bit telling her how much we were enjoying her backyard. The lady smiled and said it was her land that makes her live so long. Maybe!

After four hours of bumpy roads I couldn't find anyplace to sit that wasn't sore. Must be the bike.

We did a short walk around town with the intention of resting in the room before going out again for dinner. I laid down at 6:00 p.m. and didn't get up until 6:00 a.m. It must be the Yangshuo air.

Ruth said she went out for dinner alone.

A bad worker quarrels with his tools. -Chinese proverb
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Next stop, Guilin. We caught TWO taxis to the airport. We needed two because of all the luggage my travel partners brought. You know, SOME people don't go carry on. But I won't mention any names.

The first taxi Bill and Lynn caught. It was a 2.00 taxi, that means it cost 2 yuan per minute. We caught a 1.60 taxi. When we got out at the airport we discovered that their taxi didn't have a meter and their driver charged them 90 yuan for a 15 minute ride! That has got to be the most expensive fare any of us has paid since coming to Beijing. Our taxi driver had our bags on the curb and asked the other driver what they paid, thinking I'd pay the same. "Fapiao, fapiao, qin ni gei wo NI de fapiao." I told him. (Receipt, receipt, please give me YOUR receipt. ) He wouldn't move so I walked over to his car, opened the passenger door and pulled the receipt. It was 42 yuan. So that's what I paid. He wasn't too pleased. The hotel gave us a paper before we left with the taxi's ID and a phone number to report them should we be unsatisfied. I guess this is a problem.

Everything, everywhere is Chinese characters (What did I think it would be?). The Airport looks very organized. If only I could read the characters I'd know where to go. Of course, I hadn't a clue. I was trying to match the Chinese characters on my ticket to some sign, any sign, somewhere. I've got to learn these characters. Lynn wasn't too embarrassed to ask directions and we found our way.

When we got to the counter the ticket agent told me we were too early. Imagine being too early to check in? Our flight leaves in an hour and 45 minutes. She wrote the check-in time on my ticket. It was just 30 minutes away. So we found some coffee and hung out for a half an hour and came back.

When we got back there were three lines open. We found one and waited for the ticket agent to finish up with the man in front of us. Unlike ticket agents in the U.S. she sat down behind the counter, we couldn't see her face.

Just as the man in front of us walked away, her hand reached up from behind and slapped a plastic CLOSED sign on the counter. So we wheeled our carts to another line (Remember the travelers I'm with didn't do carry-on so we had mounds of luggage on two carts.) No sooner had we maneuvered to another line when a hand come up with the pink closed sign. Soon every line was closed. So there we stood obediently at 8:10 a.m. without anyone to check us in.

Our flight was uneventful. Lynn switch seats so she could play Scrabble with Ruth. They wanted to finished their game from the Great Wall. Bill showed pictures on his PC of Brison and Brandon, his grandsons, to the Chinese guy next to him. I read.

The plan was to arrive in Guilin and take a luxury bus to our hotel about an hour away. Yangshuo is less crowded and more beautiful. But how to catch the bus, which bus, what direction? These are questions the inquisitive mind needs to know.

We found an Information Counter that pointed us in the direction of a shuttle. We boarded the small shuttle bus, loading the suitcases into it's front seats. (All the other travelers had carry-ons that they held in their laps.) Bill reminded us that we could have just rented a car for 300 yuan and saved the trouble.

After about 15 minutes the shuttle stopped to let us off. There were no busses in sight, just shops and restaurants. "Gonggongchi che zai nali?" (Where's the bus?) We asked. She responded with a pointing finger. So we headed off pulling our roller bags behind us. Bill trailing behind pulling two rollerbags. I've seen him happier. We were the only weiguoren (foreigners) around. I take that back, there was an English guy traveling with a Chinese girl who were just as lost. They were going to the same place, so we stuck together.

Our bags rattled over bumpy sidewalks and through streets cracked, patched and potholed. Bill trailed behind us yanking his two rollerbags over curbs threading his way through slow rolling traffic. We found a bunch of private busses in a huge parking lot about two city blocks away. Several drivers approached us offering rides. We wanted a 13 yuan non-stop ride. Impossible. Was this the place with the luxury bus? Who knew? How do you say "luxury" in Chinese? We wondered aimlessly, accosted by 10 or more drivers. No one seemed to know anything about the bus we wanted. Finally, the Chinese girl got us headed in another direction. We left the private drivers behind. We could hear them drop a yuan from their price with each step away. We walked three city blocks and discovered the bus station we were looking for.

The bus was beautiful and cheap. Just 13 yuan. We rode in comfort and watched the unique Guilin mountains reach up from behind pools and farmlands just off the side of the road. Oxen pulled at plows stuck in the land guided by Chinese as has been done for centuries. I fell back into a contemplative mood, awed by the unusual landscape. We passed motorbikes with cages of chickens strapped to their back fenders. We passed three wheeled trucks hauling yellow bags of stuff. The trucks have no front hood or fenders. The engine block sits on one one single front wheel and runs three belts looped back to the drive shaft.

The bus pulled up into yet another lot with mini-bus taxis parked in rows to the side. Now what? We unloaded our bags from the bottom of the bus, it rolled on and left us standing alone with a mountain of bags. The rest of the bus riders scattered in every direction. The English guy and his Chinese girlfriend wished us well.

The Chinese are very curious, so soon a crowd gathered to peer at the paper Lynn pulled out with the contact information of the hotel. At first I was apprehensive about everyone crowing so close, but soon there were smiles all around. They were trying to be helpful. They'd look at the paper, talk among themselves and then gesture in two different directions. There was no hiding that we didn't know where we were going. Once I embraced my lostness, I became one with my vacation. We called the hotel and soon rented another taxi to take us a few blocks down the street. Bill pulled out a calculator to add up all the busses, taxis, and shuttles we took to save 300 yuan it would have cost for a private car direct to the hotel. We saved $20. That's only $5 each. But hey, that's enough to buy three silk ties! Which I did.

We found our rooms clean and Asian simple. Our two windows look out over the busy street of vendors and a Guilin mountain peak. I flipped open my iBook which immediatly sensed the free wireless provided by the hotel. Who would have thought, way out here, in the middle of China, I'd have wireless? Cool!

The town of Yangshou has narrow streets like some of the European towns. There are all kinds of shops. Much of the same stuff we saw in Pearl Market I saw here. We ate at the corner China Cafe recommended by the Hotel and discovered later that it's run by the same owner. The food was great. I had hot steamed vegetables in a clay pot. Ruth ordered chicken satay (the outside kind). But Bill, being the adventurous kind, ordered Schnitzel. The restaurant got him back. They delivered it with chopsticks.

We walked through the streets but I was out by 8:45, dead to the noisy street sounds below.

One joy scatters a hundred griefs.-Chinese proverb
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I can tell you that 5:00 a.m. is very early when you go to bed at 12:00 a.m. Our plans were to get in bed earlier but there was so much yet to do before leaving.

Eric dropped us off at the Atlanta airport and it was then we realized that we wouldn't be together for a month, the longest our family has ever been separated. It was kind of sad to say goodbye but he'll be busy with Conyers and his Hawaii/California trips while we are gone.

We got to the gate, ate a Burger King breakfast sandwich. We'd just finished when we heard our names called out. We turned around and saw Mike, our United Airline pilot friend. We met Mike about six months ago at a Borders. Ruth was returning a Chinese language book to the shelf when Mike asked if she was trying to learn the language. That lead to a conversation about China and our desire to become fluent. Anyway, we received a few emails from Mike giving us great advice on things to do and not do while in China. (You can read more of the details here.)

Mike is now training on 747s because United has switched from the 777s on their route to Beijing. Too bad Mike couldn't be our pilot because the ride into Beijing was dicey. We bounced around quite a bit. I wished that Mike had been at the helm. He's flown to Beijing 156 times! (Well, at last count anyway.)

After a quick picture with Mike (he was boarding our first leg to Chicago), we found our seats in row 54. Our seats were so far back in the plane we had to pass through a time zone. Mikes says there are 550 seats in the thing. This thing is big and heavy. (In the pilot's communication with the control tower he referred to our flight as "flight 851 heavy." No joke.) It took us so long to get down the runway I thought we were just going to taxi into Beijing.

This is a long flight. A VERY long flight. It takes 12 hours to fly from Chicago to Beijing. The flight includes three meals, four movies, and unlimited drinks. I would helpfully remind Ruth how many hours we had left. For example, after going three hours, I told her we only had twelve more hours to go. She loved that.

The first "meal" was really a packet of pretzels. The postage-stamp-sized Fiesta Mix ain't much of a fiesta. I think I may have found three broken pretzels in the packet along with a tablespoon of salt. Ruth tells me that if the airline quit giving out the little peanut snacks they'd save 15 million dollars a year! Where does she get this stuff?

The plane was full but we still had to get up to empty the bladder. There were all kinds of people in the isles. The carts in the isles still serving the food, blocked up traffic. We have to shuffle around in the cabin like square tiles on a plastic puzzle.

Every so often our progress would show up on the projector screen. We were on our way to the North pole, it's faster to loop up to the north and then back down to Beijing than go straight due to the circumference of the globe. But get this, at 32,000 feet the temperature on the other side of our window is 65 degrees BELOW zero.

We ate, slept, read, and watched one of the four movies. At the end of the flight we heard our names called over the airplane's PA system. "Will Dave and Ruth Terry please identify yourself to one of the servers?" We did. The next thing we know the captain appeared with a bottle of Brut 1415 Champaign. It was Mike who called our pilot and asked him to give us a bottle. How cool is that? (taibuhaoyisile)

We caught a taxi to our hotel. The driver drove as if no one else was on the road. He never stayed in the lanes. Often he drove with the car straddling the line! I guess the lines in the road are just suggestions.

We unpacked and took a walking a tour around the hotel. We enjoyed some chiwanfan (dinner) at a restaurant for $2. They didn't speak any English. I know the numbers so was able to pay and get the correct change. The food was great. The tea was fantastic. (haochi haohe)

We crashed after realizing that we had never seen the sun set today. We've been up for about 24 hours with short naps in between.

This post may be a reflection of the little sleep we've had.

Airplane travel is nature's way of making you look like your passport photo. -Al Gore

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China 2006

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