China – It All Ends With Mao

***As promised, the final chapters of the journey.

The train from left Ulaanbataar at 6pm and before I knew it, I woke up 13 hours later just as the train was pulling into the border town Zamiin-Uud. The train arrived at 7am and I was eager to get across the border to China early. But my hopes sank when I found out that the luggage department where my bike was didn’t open until 9am. Even until my last moment in Mongolia, it was true: things never happen quickly in Mongolia.

The border crossing into China was a slow process. I was not allowed to ride my bike across the border area, so I had to find a jeep to take me and my bike. People were friendly though and before long, a Mongolian woman and her son took me in their jeep. We went from the border checkpoint across some no-man’s land, then through a Chinese drug test drive-through that was much like a car wash, before arriving at the immigration building.

The funny thing about being Chinese-American in China is getting treated differently depending on whether you are Chinese or whether you are a foreigner. At first when the Chinese border officials saw me wandering around at immigration not sure where to go, they would yell at me “What are you doing”! But after they looked at my passport and saw that I was American, they gave me special privileges like getting moved to the front of the line, or letting me pass through the border area on my bike instead of getting in a jeep. Time and time again in China, I encountered this double standard. If others knew I was a foreigner, I would be treated like a special guest. But more often people just ignored me since, at first glance, I was just another one of the billion Chinese people in this country.

There are some borders that simply lie in a field and change nothing; other borders are thresholds to a whole new world. I first experienced the latter a couple of years ago cycling through the Ethiopia-Sudan border at Metema. Now I experienced it again at the Mongolia-China border.  On the Mongolian side, the town of Zamiin-Uud was only one small street with a couple of small buildings and the train station. You hardly saw anybody on the streets, except for the jeep taxi drivers who lingered by the train station hoping to grab customers while smoking their cigarettes. But upon entering China, I was greeted by not just a border town, but a border city. Here in Erlian, China, though on the edge of Gobi Desert, there were things–lots of things–including a KFC! The experience was both dazzling and dizzying. It was immensely comforting to see the KFC logo with Colonel Sanders smiling down on me. Gone were the terrible roads in Mongolia. In China, the streets were covered with endless smooth pavement, exceptionally wide bike lanes, signs to tell you where you were supposed to go, and bike-lane traffic lights to tell you when to stop. The streets were bustling with people, shops, scooters, and electric bikes. There were large commercial banks, furniture showrooms, fancy lobbies, cosmetic shops, and shopping malls.

But the best of all was that there were so many places to eat. Oh, the sweet aroma of noodles, steamed buns, dumplings, congee, hot soy milk, and fried pancakes! The food of my childhood and the food of my dreams! No more Mongolian mutton soup! The side streets were filled with the brilliant colors of all the fresh fruit and vegetables you could think of. I could not help but stop at every food stand. Needless to say, I didn’t bike very far that day.

China border city Erlian (Erenhot) on Mongolia-China border

P1030916P1030915In the province of Inner Mongolia, road signs are in Chinese characters and Mongolian script. The road signs also sounded like propaganda slogans. “Protect the road, everyone has responsibility!” and “Please don’t drive when drowsy!”

P1030922P1030919Dinosaur fossils were found nearby Erlian in the Gobi Desert, so the Chinese decided to build giant dinosaurs to attract tourists.

For several days, I rode through the semi-Gobi countryside of Inner Mongolia. I rode past endless wind farms and grazing fields. There were villages every 30km or so, and larger towns to resupply every 1-2 days. Sometimes there were small mud huts off the side of the road with a simple handwritten sign for food and water. These were rest stops for long-distance freight trucks. The best thing about riding through Inner Mongolia was that it was very much like Mongolia except without the worries. The roads were good and the towns and cities were abundant in food and supplies. And though the locals spoke Mongolian to each other, they spoke Chinese as well and it was so wonderful to be able to talk to the locals.

Large wind farms

P1030927P1030951 Humble villages. In one of the villages, I didn’t see anyone in the maze of mud brick alleyways, so I knocked on a house door. The family graciously filled up my water bottles. As the man was helping me, his voice turned serious: “You must head South. It’s starting to get very cold and it’s very dangerous. The cold here is the type of cold that kills people.”

P1030962P1030963camping under a bridge and cooking typical camp food of noodles and veggies

P1030965P1030960CAMELS! (outside of the Gobi Desert) and dalmation horses

This sign was like my Rosetta Stone. Throughout Central Asia, there were road signs that read “Continuous Descent” in English. In English-speaking countries, we don’t have this expression and we don’t have such road signs. But seeing this sign made me realize that “Continuous Descent” was the direct translation of this Chinese road sign. I then realized that all the roads in the Stans with the “Continuous Descent” sign must’ve been built by Chinese.

P1030972P1030974 larger town Xianghuangqi. The people in this town were exceptionally nice to me. The owner at the noodle shop refused to let me pay for lunch. The woman at the internet cafe also went out of her way to help me.

Accessing internet as a foreigner in China is a tricky process and I was not always able to get it even though there were many internet cafes in town. Because of government censorship, internet access is highly regulated. Most of the internet cafes in China operate on a swipe card system. The only way to log onto a computer is to swipe a Chinese ID card. If you don’t have a Chinese ID card, you can’t use the internet. In the town of Xianghuangqi, the owner was really nice to make an exception for me and accepted my passport while he used his own card to swipe into the system. But several days later in the town of Zhangbei, I was not so lucky; I went to both internet cafes in town and was denied. When you travel alone for long periods of time, the days when you get to hear from friends on the internet are days of gold; when the internet is taken away from you, it makes for a very sad day.

P1030977P1030980 more roadside propaganda “Implement nutrition improvement policy, for the improvement of a million students!”; more wind turbines and solar panels

entering Hebei province; Huade city

P1030986P1030990P1030992P1030991the stark contrasts in China between city and countryside

I generally found people in the countryside to be suspicious of me. I wondered whether their suspicion was a lingering result of the Cultural Revolution, decades of unrest when people didn’t know whether they would live or die the next day; or whether it was from the rapid changes that were happening now with the massive industrialization and moving of factories into their humble villages. Perhaps both.

Once I started talking to the locals though, they became incredibly friendly and wanted to help in whatever way they could. Here is how a typical conversation went (such as this time at a police checkpoint in a village):

-Officer: Where’s your Chinese ID?
-Me: I don’t have a Chinese ID. I’m a foreigner.
-[looks at me wearily] Where are you from?
-But how come you speak Chinese so well?
-Because my parents are Chinese.
-But how come you don’t look American?
-Because my parents are Chinese.
-[blank look]
-They immigrated to America from China.
-[still blank look...I suppose the concept of immigrating to a faraway land like America is unfathomable if you live in a small village in China. Even if the village is within a day's riding to Beijing, the most populous capital, a small village in China is still a small village.]
-Which do you like better, America or China?
-It’s different, I can’t compare. America is my home, but China is my root.

The police officers smiled gently, acknowledging my answer, then eagerly asked if I needed anything. They filled up my water bottles and bade me farewell with yilushunfeng, that the wind always blows my way.

Zhangjiakou: large city. The Great Wall ran along the mountaintops. Delicious steamed bun breakfast.

nerded out at this massive power plant by the side of the road and took countless pictures of solenoids and cooling towers. SOLENOIDS

camping next to pipe lines

P1040020P1040026 more propaganda signs: “Develop the country to overcome poverty!”

P1040035P1040042 Abrupt crankle before Beijing welcomes you!

In China, instead of Smokey the Bear, you have Weiwei the Tiger to help prevent forest fires!

P1040064P1040068entering Beijing in the pretty fall colors

Nov 6 – Notes from the Final Day of Cycling, 60km to Beijing:

Staring at mountains, rocks, terraced farms, river,
Birds with tails shimmering in black, white, and turquoise
The autumn breeze, the willow trees, the falling leaves
Elderly villagers eating together, asking about their days.
Gorgeous sunny day for entering Beijing.
Filled with a vague but warm feeling: relief, safety, gratefulness.
The whole world could be in chaos but just in my own little world.
Thinking of the love I discovered on this journey.
Soon this life will be over, but the love with these people will linger in the clouds.
Hope it doesn’t all just become a dream.

It all ends with Mao: my brother flies from San Francisco to meet me in Beijing on the day I arrive on my bicycle.

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