The Bromance Continues: Chris and I Go Sweater Shopping

A monk walking towards the temple in Langmusi, a town where I was much warmer with the help of my new sweater.

 

Those readers of this blog that have helped fund our adventure will be glad to know that both Chris and I are careful with money. Which is the nice way to say it. Others might prefer the terms “scrooge” or “stingy.”

We have worked hard to earn our reputation. We never go to a breakfast buffet without also grabbing food for lunch, and we always bring our own peanuts to the bar.  When a bus we took back from the Himalayas dropped us off on a New Delhi street corner at 3 AM a winter morning, we did not rent a hotel room.  Instead, we went to an all-night outdoor café, where Chris and his girlfriend and I dogpiled against the freezing cold and slept on a ragged couch.  In Uzbekistan, when we went to go to see the ancient fortress of Kiwa, we did not pay the 15 dollars to go see the monuments. We contented ourselves to blend into European tour groups, seeing those monuments we could sneak into and skipping those we could not. I tell these stories with pride.

The problem arises when we disagree on expenses. Chris and I share a bank account.  Chris is stingier than I (as he admits). I have had to learn to absorb his venomous glances whenever I order something that isn’t the cheapest item on the menu. I sigh and go along when we pick a different restaurant over a one dollar difference in dish prices.  But our spending ideologies really came to a head when we went shopping to get me a sweater.

The setting was Luqu, a truck stop outpost in the highlands of China’s Gansu province. In early October, with winter’s first cold front sweeping Central China, it was freezing.  The 40 kilometers of downhill that had ended the ride that day took me to the edge of the hypothermia.

Buying a sweater was not a difficult mission in Luqu.  There were many stores that sold clothing. Some were clothing stores, with goods presented on racks and tacky LED mood lighting in the ceiling. Others were village general stores, where one could buy a screwdriver or some sugar or, occasionally, a sweater.

The first store we passed was an outdoor clothing store, which sold Chinese knockoffs of the North Face and Jack Wolfskin. I started to cross the street towards it.  Chris stopped me in my tracks.

“Naw, man. That’s going to be way too pricey.”

I relented. He was probably right.  There was a budget, which we had never discussed but was understood, of 100 yuan (16 dollars) for this sweater. I viewed this as a guideline- that is to say, 100 yuan unless we discovered a garment that was not cheap Chinese crap and I might wear past the next few nights camping.  Chris seemed to view this as an absolute.

Chris guides me into a general store, which had an eclectic variety of shirts and shawls hanging from the ceiling on wire coat hangers. Nothing there.  I take us to a clothing store, which has something that kind of works but is double our budget. We continue like this down the road, visiting more of the general stores, digging through piles of clothing next to bins of flashlights and alarm clocks.  No sweaters.

Then we came across the shopping plaza, the crux of the Chinese town.  There were LED signs everywhere and gaudy street lamps that were rip offs of Europe, except with many more bulbs.  There, we found what we were looking for—a line of clothing stores that each tried to fit as much cloth as possible into their tiny storefronts. They would surely have cheap sweaters.

It was in the second of these that I rediscovered a quality I have long known and admired in my travel buddy—Chris has very little vanity. At that moment, though, it made him an unwieldy shopping partner. He parted the sea of clothing and pulled out a purple cotton v-neck, with a faux suede lining and a graphic of a dead fish on the front.

“How about this one? It’s only 80 yuan.”

I swallowed my horror. I tried hard to think of a reason why this sweater wouldn’t work that Chris would accept. Couldn’t find one. As an instrument of warmth, the sweater was viable.

“Nah.”

Chris sensed the engine of my reasoning.

“I don’t get why you’re so picky! It’s just an underlayer.”

I preferred not to venture into the logic of my vanity (it does not hold up well in debate), so I shrugged and suggested we try the next store. There I found what I was looking for.  A collared black sweater, thick cotton, thin cut with a zipper that came down to the chest. Classic and versatile.

I asked how much it was.  150 yuan.  This was undoubtedly the foreigner price, but seemed acceptable to me.

“I’m getting it,” I announced as I inspected myself in the mirror.

Chris bit his upper lip and looked at me with scorn.  Finally he sighed and turned to the salesman.

“130 yuan.” The finality in his voice implied a ceiling, and the salesman simply nodded.

After we paid and left, warmer, I couldn’t help but thank that Chris was there. We tend to agree on almost all our expenses, but the pain point on money is higher for Chris than I.  That has saved us a lot of money this trip.  Chris always gets the better deal.

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China: The Last Bike Tour Begins

“You’ve got to be kidding me” I said, eyeing the cop car pull up outside the hotel.

The troop of Chinese officers who got out forced their way past the hanging curtain of the hotel’s front door like they were on a drug bust. “Bu!” they yelled, pointing fingers at me. From behind the check-in counter, the hotel owner received an animated lecture about why she couldn’t host foreigners like us at her establishment. When the cops left, she looked at us with helpless eyes, motioning us to pack our stuff and go back out into the below freezing temperatures.

“AHHHHH!” Morgan yelled, storming up the stairs to retrieve his bags. I unlocked our bikes. In the space of an hour, it was the second hotel we’d been kicked out of in the nameless highway town. The place was dirty — a trucker’s stop, not a tourist destination — and apparently the police wanted us to move on to a more foreigner-friendly city. “It’s okay! — the next tourist hotel is only 37 kilometers from here!” a junior officer told us. He just didn’t get it. I looked outside, and saw it would be dark in 20 minutes. With the bikes, we had no choice but to camp in the freezing cold. And without enough time to get fuel and camping supplies, we bought a couple of cold rice buns from a sidewalk stand that we could eat with peanut butter after we found a campsite in the dark.

Still, I couldn’t help but laugh. “The bike touring days are back my friend!”

Despite the situation, or maybe because of it, Morgan turned to me and grinned. The difficulties were so typical of our method of travel, and in a way I think we both missed them. We’d been off our bikes, waiting for visas and covering stories in Kyrgyzstan and Northern China for more than a month and a half. It was time for another cycling adventure.

Day one didn’t disappoint. Even before the hotel hullabaloo, we got all the elements of a proper bike tour. There was an escape from a major city – Lanzhou — whose 3 million Chinese motorists fought us for space on the roads. There was a brutal hill climb, with steep switchbacks revealing stunning views of terraced corn fields and Buddhist pagodas. There was a desperate search for a lunch spot, which finally went down at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that cooked us up a delicious lunch of homemade noodles. And then, of course, there was the hassle with hotels.

Chowing down lunch with the locals

It might not have been an issue if the first hotel owner could read our passports. He had to fill out registration forms, and because the police station was conveniently located next door, he figured he’d just ask the head officer there for some help filling it out. “Oh no no. Don’t do that. I can explain!” I tried to say. But he just smiled and waved for me to come with him.

The police captain was busy slurping a bowl of rice noodles when we entered his office. He looked annoyed at first, until he noticed me standing behind the hotel owner. In seconds, I watched his expression morph from surprise, to amusement, to stern determination. He picked up a phone and started making a flurry of calls. The only words I could make out in Mandarin were Zachingcha (bicycle) and MeGwo (America). Occasionally, he would look up at me and nod gravely. We’re totally screwed. I thought. And we were.

After the officers busted us at the second hotel in town, Morgan and I commenced a search for a campsite. It was no use; we couldn’t find open land anywhere. Within kilometers, we entered another town that never seemed to end. Trapped in a concrete jungle, we dodged carts and pedestrians with the dim lights of our head lamps.

Like all things bike touring, though, it did turn out alright in the long run.

“Chris, I think we’re out of that police station’s jurisdiction by now.”

Morgan was right. Even though we’d only gone a few kilometers from the truck stop, the new unnamed town felt like a different world. Suddenly we were surrounded by opulent mosques and Chinese Muslims walking around with felt hats and head scarves. A call to prayer bellowed above the bustling of the street. Women looked away from us shyly, while men tucked at long beards suspiciously as we passed. Gone were the round-faced truckers and stern policemen of the truck stop. So we decided to try our luck finding a hotel in the Muslim city. The police there might not know of our embargo just a few kilometers back.

It worked. An hour later, after some more confusion with hotel owners over how to read our documentation, we were finally checked in. The day was over. We could relax, and we tossed away the cold rice buns in favor of wolfing a huge bowl of steaming noodles. Then we collapsed onto our beds.

Day one of bike touring in China: Conquered.

It feels good to be back.

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What’s in the Stare?

There it was again. The unnerving stare. The boy was peeping at me from the shadows of the doorway. How long had he been watching me this time? I raised my eyebrows and smiled at him. His inscrutable expression didn’t change. Slowly, awkwardly, the smile melted from the corners of my mouth. The ensuing stare-off was uncomfortable.

I’m quite used to stares after two years of travel. At this point, I even consider being stared at a badge of success. It means I’ve succeeded in getting out there, away from the places tourists are common, or locals jaded towards outsiders. I find the resultant range of expressions fascinating. Some stares are bold and unashamed, some shy and tentative. But most interesting are the emotions behind them. The cliché “eyes don’t lie” is often true. I’ll catch hints of warm welcome, wide whites of wonder, or a simmering edge of anger. Stares reveal important clues of what people think of me and help guide my interactions in unfamiliar places.

The Kyrgyz boy in the yurt was different. I couldn’t crack him. There was mystery in those eyes, secrets in his utterly blank expression. It drove me mad with curiosity — What was behind his stare?

Our culture gap was certainly wide enough. The boy, not more than 7 years old, was the youngest member of a Kyrgyz goat herding family. We were staying in their yurt, pitched along the edge of Song-Kul Lake in central Kyrgyzstan. Finding the place was a pure stroke of luck. Morgan and I had rented backpacks for the weekend to do some trekking, and on our second day were hit with a heavy snowstorm. We were woefully unprepared for it. As we scrambled away from lightening along a trail disappearing under fresh snow, we picked out the outlines of goat herds in a valley below. One of those herds belonged to the family we were staying with.

“Come come, you stay.”

The family occasionally housed hikers like us, and we readily accepted the offer for a spot in their yurt for a modest price. Not only would we escape the worst of the snowstorm, but it offered an opportunity to witness a disappearing lifestyle. With the growth of mobile connectivity and mass migration to the cities, traditional nomads of the Kyrgyz highlands are on the decline.

Their life is tough. My first impressions were of the mother. She was among the hardest working women I’d ever seen – constantly moving as she milked horses, made flat bread, cleaned the yurt, and mixed yogurt with broad arms and calloused hands. Her husband never lifted a finger. He sat on a stool spitting sunflower seeds into the snow and bellowing commands at his three sons. When they weren’t clambering beneath his directives, the youngest – 7 and 10 years old – would retreat into the warmth of the yurt to play with a frayed deck of playing cards and read comic strips from an old newspaper. The eldest son went straight to his smart phone, texting friends in the capital and listening to the latest Russian pop music.

As for Morgan and me…well, you could usually find us next to the stove. Compared to the Kyrgyz, we were total wimps in the cold. For two days, our forays into sub-zero degree temperatures were followed by tactical retreats back to the indoor fireplace. It was cold enough we didn’t mind the smell of the burning cow dung.

It was after such a retreat that I found the boy staring at me again. After my smile failed to produce a response, I tried to imagine what he might be thinking.

The family monitors their livestock from the front of the yurt.

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Kashgar: Photos of the Animal Bazaar and Night Market

A merchant guides one of his goats into the neckline at the Sunday animal bazaar

A deal for the cow is closed. A cow costs about 600 yuan, or 100 dollars.

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Stuck: Three Weeks in a Hostel with Dirtbags

Day 7.  No exit in sight.  Word on the web was that our passports had arrived in LA, would get to the Chinese embassy that day.  It would be a while before they actually put a sticker in it and FedEx brought the docs back to Bishkek.  In the meantime, stuck.

Stuck. That was the first thing I thought about when I crawled out my tent and looked at the silent tent city in the backyard around me.  This was home, the Nomad’s Home.  It was a private residence behind Bishkek’s bus station, owned by an entrepreneurial family who sheltered the masses of cycle tourists, mountain climbers, and trekkers who passed through the city after their adventures through Central Asia. Five dollars a night to sleep in your tent. Since the Chinese had stopped issuing visas, the place had become a refugee camp of stranded dirt bags.

I was the first of them out of the sack. No one else obeyed the roosters from the house next door, and no one else got to take a hot shower.  The water heater was the kind a student puts in their Manhattan pad, but there was one shower for twenty people.

I had Nomad’s home to myself in the morning, and it made it my favorite part of the day. I’d go for a short walk on the streets of Bishkek to buy fresh nan bread from the clay ovens, the traffic starting to rumble but still with some semblance of order. I’d fill the electric kettle from the pipe sticking out of the ground in the middle of the garden, and when Chris got up we’d make strong Nescafe and survey the tent city and have massive breakfasts of bread and cheese.  Then we’d plan the day, discuss progress on the story we were working on and assign research tasks.

Day 7.   It could have been day 6, or day 5, or day 15. The days blended together, 7 contained the same routine as the rest.  It was the same routine as the other hostels we’d stayed in too.  Dushanbe, Khorog, Osh—all the cities were along the bike tourist’s path, what we privately called the dirtbag trail.  They were the caravanserais of the modern silk road.  All had tent towns in yards, and the same lazy feel only unemployed travelers could exude.

We were almost done planning when the tents started stirring.  Our Isreali friend, Nathan, sat next to us at the row of picnic tables.

One corner of the tent city.

“You going to eat the rest of that bread and cheese?”

“We were probably going to save it.”

“I’ll buy it off you.”

“50 Som,” I said, and pocketed the dollar worth of Kyrgyz money.

As he ate, the rest of the hostel filled in around us on the benches.  Pretty much nobody had changed since they day before. I’m sure we all stank, but nobody could smell it anymore. Thano, an American we’d befriended, and an English couple riding tandem across Asia looked seriously hungover.  Everyone looked dirty.  The electric kettle started working overtime as the crowd despaired for coffee and the wifi slowed to a standstill as Facebook loaded on 11 devices simultaneously.

The only exceptions to the dirtbaggery were the Australians Cat and Alex. They emerged from their immaculate tent as if they were hiding the fountain of youth in there, or an American Apparel photo shoot. Cat came out already wired off life, cracking jokes about vaginas. There wasn’t a wrinkle or stain on her clothing. Then the pair busted out Lavazza—Lavazza!—and made coffee using an airspresso machine, a little white contraption that forced the water through the coffee grounds with a bicycle pump.

The hostel always paused for a second when Cat got up.  She seemed like she got airdropped from downtown Melbourne every morning.  She was hot.  After a month in the mountains, none of the guys could suppress a look. But it disappeared as fast as it came.  There weren’t any single girls as Nomad’s home, and even if there were, the backyard was not an inviting venue for shenanigans.

Chris and I were different than the rest, too, though not in the cleanliness category.  People just referred to us as “the reporters.”  We were the youngest, and had been gone for the longest, though Cat and Alex gave us a run for the money in those categories.  We were the only ones who worked. It set us apart from the rest of the travelers, and made the slow pace of Nomad’s Home a little jarring.   We’d promised each other this would be the last such venue we stayed in. When we left in the morning to do interviews or research, the crowd was halfway through their coffee.  When we came back that evening, around 7, nobody had moved. The crowd had just started on the beer.

The community of Nomad’s Home was gripped in boredom.  Stuck. Stuck in their tents in that yard, stuck in that city that couldn’t dazzle a cockroach, stuck in the numb routine of the hostel.  The wonders of the orient—fantastic adventures with food and culture and the teeming Han masses, vistas of rice paddies, the promise of movement across that enigmatic quilt of cultures—China!—was two days travel away.  We tried not to think about that.  So the place was infected with low-grade alcoholism, the vinyl table cloths sticky with beer.  It was a well-tested method for passing empty hours and lubricating friendship.

Chris and I abstained that night, recovering from a bout of heavy drinking with a source the night before.  Instead we made pasta, simmering homemade sauce with a kilo of tomatoes and green peppers and salty cheese. Thano and Nathan sat down with us.  Thano had had a hellish day at the Russian embassy.  They’d asked him for everything from a birth certificate to a HIV test.

He sat there with a long face and a liter and a half of Khivoe in front of him.  Khivoe was the official beer of the hostel because it cost less than a dollar a liter and came with some free corn nuts. Behind us, the Aussies were drinking it too, lambasting some kangaroo politician who thought global warming was a farce.

We ate to the clinking of forks for a while, though I was trying to come up with a novel topic of conversation.  It was always like that at Nomad’s home. Things would start a little slow.  Then you’d reach an inflection point—somebody would say something interesting, and there would be energy for intellect, or not, and then you’d talk about visas, weather and food.  Those talks were worse than dead silence.  The emptying of our plates was such a junction.

Thano saved the day.

“So we get a call, right now, from a guy in a lab in Downtown Bishkek.  There’s been an outbreak, and the Zombie Invasion is starting.  We’ve probably only got a half hour before it gets to us.  What do we do?”

Chris, Nathan, and I sat straight up at the question. We thought hard- the question was hard. Ringed by 15,000 foot mountains and close to the furthest point in the world from any ocean, Bishkek is not where you’d want to get stuck in that situation.

We delivered our suggested strategies.  We talked about fuel needs, how long we could survive in the mountains with basic supplies, how long cash would retain value in a world apocalypse (about 48 hours).  We talked weapons of choice, whether it would be safe to raid an armory, the proper way to strip a policeman of his weapon and ammo.  It was a fantastic fantasy.

The Englishmen joined us later in the conversation, and pointed out that not even the nomads can stay in the mountains long during the winter.  A break was taken so more beer could be procured. But after about an hour we had our strategy down (go to the American Air Base and beg to be shipped out), and the conversation winded down with it.

Then somebody asked a question about visas. Damn, I thought. And we were having so much fun.  Stuck.  The thought washed over me again—stuck.  It pierced the numbness and made me long for China. It made me want to ask for a glass of beer.  I slipped quietly away into my bag instead, ready for another day of waiting.  There would be 16 more.

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