Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"You Can't Sell a Car to a Foreigner"

Apparently if someone doesn't know the answer to a question making
something up completely is totally reasonable and a nationally
recognized tradition. My current favorite is that foreigners aren't
allowed to buy or rent anything in China. Recently my first wife and I
rented a flat in the wing pit of China. For those not familiar with
China it is shaped like a chicken in what is referred to as General
Tso's Chinese Chicken Theory. Recently the response we got from the
police when we went to go and register are foreign selves was "You can't
rent to Foreigners, its not legal". Which of course is not true and the
police should know since they are the ones charged with registering
foreigners. Obviously it is totally legal to rent to foreigners and in
some cases its better since we are dumb enough to pay more for less. To
illustrate my point further we were told today that "Foreigners can't
buy cars". This also is not true since there are many foreigners driving
around China right now enjoying the freedom of being behind the wheel.
I can safely say now that it is totally legal to buy a car in China, if you have evidence that you will be in the country for at least 6 months. I
know this because today we purchased a car from a used car dealership.This was after several trips to the used car district of Chengdu. I firmly feel that this is the last chance for most of these poor used cars to be used one last time before they die. Most of the cars in the used car district are of questionable sourcing and of even more questionable condition.
At first we were looking for a Beijing Jeep and thought that we had found one. It was a nice Yellow BJ2023 built in 2003. A little rough on the inside but not bad on the outside. Upon meeting the seller (owners and sellers may not be the same people) and taking note that the sign in the window specifically mentions no bargaining, we got them to pop the hood and start the thing up. At first everything looked normal and the engine sounded quite right. Upon further inspection of fluid levels and the oil in the engine I began to pander questions to the seller. As a side note, generally I try not to question the knowledge of people in the auto industry as you never know what their experience and expertise lie in, that being said I felt that the sellers in this case were maybe not as well informed as I would liked them to be. Of course now I realize that they were maybe just a little bit too used car salesman-like for me. When I looked into the radiator to see the condition of the radiator fluid I was not surprised to see it discolored and a little bit low. When I took the oil cap off the top of the engine and noticed the water condensation on the valve cover it was apparent that something was amiss.
Hearkening back to my younger days I was reminded of my second Subaru. My first Subaru was a 1978 edition of the venerable 4wd wagon, I bought this when I was 19 or 20 and spent a lot of time trying to spruce the thing up. After a catastrophic failure of the gearbox it was left to the care of Todd Martin's Subaru bone yard. This was of course after it had to be towed back to my parents house. My next Subaru however was a chance encounter whereby someone was looking to get rid of a small 4wd hatchback that may have had a bad motor. The story was that the car had frozen and after the thaw the block had likely cracked. In my corner however I had another motor that I could purchase cheaply and the car could easily be towed to the Martin's for repair. Also there was a small chance that there was not actually a crack in the engine block but that the freeze plugs could have been popped out in the freeze and all I needed to do was put them back in. Deciding to take a risk on the freeze plugs I pulled the valve covers off and low and behold the two freeze plugs fell out. Brilliant, I was going to get another Subaru to replace the old one and not pay anything. After popping the plugs back into their respective places and putting the valve cover back on I decided a test of the engine was necessary. I plugged the battery back in and started the car up. It ran, that was the first test. After buttoning up the rest of the bits that needed to be done I figured that I should make sure it was holding water. After driving it out to the yard and putting the hose in it I realized that they're really must not have been any water in it because it sure was taking a lot of water. Normally it takes a couple of minutes to get the radiator filled, this time however it was just drinking and drinking. The car was still running so it couldn't be that the water was going into the oil, or could it. Rest assured that when your car begins to puke out brown sludge the color and consistency of which resembles spoiled chocolate milk out of every orifice, the likelihood of successfully fixing the problem the first time was deemed very small.
Now I mention this because when I buy a vehicle I know to look for certain things that can be a sign of problems, and water in the oil is definitely one of them. In this particular case however the seller at first tried to tell us that it was perfectly normal to have water in the oil and that it was supposed to be there. He then tried to tell us that the water was from cleaning the engine, I questioned as to whether he had tried to clean the inside as well as the outside. Finally when all the cards were out, I asked him to drain the oil out and put fresh oil in as a sign that the engine was not taking any water. This is when the big guns were called in, out of nowhere a woman shows up and explains how this car is used and that if we don't want to buy it that is fine and not to waste their time. Feeling a little disheartened we decided to leave, though this was the best jeep that we had seen, I could not in good conscious take a risk on buying a vehicle that was potentially going to blow up on us.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Post Race Coffee

As you may know we have recently achieved the most honorable of Chinese positions, the drivers position. This means that Amanda and I will soon be joining the ranks of Taxi Cabs, Private drivers, trucks and the like by unanimously throwing off the shackles of two wheeled (bicycle) oppression and buying a car. Not just any car will do though, we will need something rugged enough to get through the urban jungle that is Chengdu and still retain some sense of civilized society. This means we will probably be getting an SUV of some sort. We however do not want to spend a small fortune and so will likely be getting something from the used car market.
The used car market is southeast of the University and costs about 20 yuan to take a cab out there in the middle of rush hour traffic, which could happen at anytime on any given day. The market itself is along a street between the second and third ring roads. Near as we can tell there are two main lots that have used cars for sale, each lot being made up of several small dealers who consign themselves to cleaning vehicles in the up times and drinking tea and playing cards in the down times.
The vehicles themselves are an interesting array of new and old new. Meaning that there are cars here that have been built in the last five years that were the latest model on the road in 1986. If I ever wanted to revive my dream of owning a brand new 1990 Volkswagen Jetta I could easily do it now and it would be licensed as a 2010. As you may have guessed this makes for an interesting cross section of vehicles. To have a three year old Citroen with all the fancy bells and whistles and the newer body styling sitting next to a boxy old looking carburated volkswagen with cloth seats. The worst part being that volkswagens weren't carburated in 1990, at least not in the states, so I don't even know what to make of the situation.
What's even more troublesome is something that was pointed out to me by someone. That is the fact that some vehicles that have the badges of say a toyota or a mitsubishi along with all the requisite stuff inside are not actually even made by those companies but are in fact rebranded versions of chinese produced vehicles. Worse yet is that they are mostly SUVs and they all lack what is the basis of an SUV. The Sport and the Utility and in some cases they even lack the Vehicle portion. How that is I don't know but it is paradigm shifting.
I digress however, this is the challenge that lays ahead of us in the next few days.

Now on to a much more interesting topic: Coffee.
Yesterday Amanda and I ventured into the coffee district, see in China everything is made up of districts. There is the hospital district, the Mao district (aka the center of town), the Car district (see above), the cell phone district, the computer district, the karaoke district (below our flat), and of course, the coffee district, the city is actually one big huajiao district. Amanda informed me that the coffee district would be a good place to get a coffee grinder and maybe even some coffee. Though we are not currently running low it is always a good idea to be prepared.
We rode out to the coffee district on our trusty new city steeds.

This is my new Chengdu city bike, not to be confused with a dutch city bike. Personally I am quite pleased with the bike although I have had to make some minor modifications to it since I got it. The seat post on their now is about three times longer than the one that it came with. It is equipped with anti-lock brakes, meaning no matter how hard you pull on the brake levers the wheels still won't lock up. The cranks are also now attached to the bottom bracket. As for the headset this was the bearings optional model and the original owner opted out. Anyway back to the coffee district.
Upon entering one of the many storefronts advertising their coffee wares I was surprised to find that this was no ordinary coffee retailery. In fact this was the hoity toity upscale variety that sells interesting and different ways of making coffee. Fortunately the prices were of more the Wal-Mart variety that us mouth breathers won't scoff at. After consulting with the wife about our coffee needs we decided on the little number in the picture below.

Even though it may look like something out of a chemistry lab, this glass menagerie makes a mean cup of coffee.

Here is the completed setup with water, coffee (in the top), and our new hand grinder on the side.
How does it work you ask? Well it's nothing short of a miracle or maybe it's just scientifintastic. As you can no doubt see there is a small alcohol burner under the spherical glass vial. The upper glass holder is connected to the lower via a rubber stopper and a glass tube. The coffee grounds are placed on the filter that covers the hole over the glass tube. Now the cool part. As the water is heated by the alcohol burner it creates steam in the area at the top of the vial. As more steam is added and the temperature raises the steam which is a gas pushes down on the liquid water forcing it through the glass tube. The liquid is thus mixed with the coffee grounds and starts the steeping process. However the process is not complete. Once all of the water is pushed up into the upper glass container the burner is removed. The gas in the lower chamber begins to condense which creates a vacuum pulling the liquid through the filter and back into the lower chamber. Leaving you with the perfect cup of coffee.

Isn't it beautiful, just remember to stir the coffee in the upper container before removing the heat.

Stay tuned for the following posts:

Help I'm being attacked by a crazy laowai

If Life's an adventure could you please let me know when the movie is out

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Miracles do happen

As many of you know Amanda and I have been studying for our drivers license exams in China. This is a difficult task since the study material consists of 1,300 questions of which 100 are pulled randomly from the list and used for the test. Since there is no manual for driving the only way to understand the driving rules is to read through the questions and then try to decipher the laws. Also the requirement is a 90% to pass.
Today we went to the drivers exam place which is about 40km away in the "Traffic Safety District" of Chengdu. This consisted of a cold ride in a hired car that for some reason the driver refused to use his defroster in. After arriving in the "Traffic Safety District" we were to find the building where the exam takes place and fill out the paperwork required for applying for the Chinese Drivers License (DL). The list of things required to get a DL are as follows:
1. DL from country of origin
2. Translation of DL from country of origin
3. Registration form from where you are staying
4. 3, 1 inch photos
5. Passport
6. Name in Chinese characters
7. two forms in chinese, one of which is the result of a health exam.
8. Something explaining that you can drive both automatic and manual transmission vehicles
After turning these forms in you are then eligible to sit down and take the exam. It's computerized with 100 questions covering a range of topics from how to stop in an emergency to which signs mean what.
So after spending the last few days studying for the exam I am pleased to announce that Amanda and I have passed the exam and received our chinese drivers licenses. This means that we can forget everything that we learned and drive like all of the other drivers on the road, or sidewalk, or where ever they see fit when someone gets in the way. I'm not kidding people will pull onto the sidewalk to go around cars and pedestrians that are in their way. Perhaps this is why taxi's can get you where you are going so fast.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

My side of the story (it's a little bit long as well)

Amanda has given her review of the race and I figure I should give my account as well. Skipping a lot of the festivities of the day before the race Amanda and I got up at a reasonable 7 am on Sunday morning to try and find some breakfast and get to the race since we didn't know when the actual race started. Luckily the restaurant next to the hotel was serving the racers a breakfast of chinese champions, aka not wheaties. On the table were hardboiled eggs, congee, baozi (which was being scrutinized for its mysterious contents), spicy peanuts, and something that had been pickled. Amanda and settled on the eggs and congee as our main staples and each had a plain baozi. The last thing I needed was a gut attack before a race so the rest of the stuff was out.
After breakfast we rode to the starting point of the race to meet the guy that was supposed to supply us with some new wheels as the single speed setup we had was not doing so well. I was willing to run pretty much anything with a cassette where I could set the gear I wanted and ride.Communication in china generally involves asking for something, explaining the problem, being told the wrong answer in several creative ways, having ten people push you out of the way to try and fix the problem and then maybe have them finally give up and leave you alone. Don't get me wrong people are very nice and helpful but when you add on the complexity of trying to run a single speed mountain bike in a race, mixed with already being a crazy foreigner they look at you with a little trepidation. We arrived at the staging area and wow it looked like a proper race with team tents, demo booths, and bars to hang your bikes on. We were met immediately with excitement even though we were mostly concerned about our bike situation. We set out to find guy who said he would fix our ailing thuroughbreds which was met with several people clamouring to help out in the situation. After one so-called shimano mechanic after another was unable to satisfactorily fix the wheel problem they finally gave up and said they would get us different wheels. The replacement wheels were less than ideal but given the energy it took to get this far I wasn't about to complain. We went about setting the bikes up, Amanda's went together spot on with no adjustments needing to be made. Mine on the other hand decided to pick up a knack of wanting to come off the big ring. I fiddled with it for as long as I could but ultimately couldn't get it any better. At 9:30am we were lined up for staging. It seems they decided to split the race into three groups. I think this basically turned the race into a time trial with a mass start.
At 10:15 they let the first group start, I was not sure if this was the start of the race or not but people seemed to be in a hurry to get up the hill. Finally the third wave was set to go up the hill and went they did. Amanda and I were at the back of the pack and were pretty quickly getting into the middle of it. Chinese bike handling skills aren't quite as daring as their american counterparts and so I was able to pass quite a few people on the downhill of the road while they were pulling the brakes. Going into the flat part of the road I noticed the first group stopped and lined up at what was apparently the actual start gate. This was much better for us as we were able to secure a first row start instead of the back of the pack where we formerly were. 
When are time came to get on the line for the start the tension was starting to hit me. I knew that the first three kilometers were going to be on flat road and that we would likely get spun out against the fully geared bikes (fgb) which I was prepared for, we just needed to get into a pace and catch the tale end of the pack as they wore themselves out with the sprint. With the starting whistle we took off, with the fgbs striding out in front at full sprint. Amanda dutifully got up to speed and began pulling each other down the street. We of course lost several places and a large gap was beginning to grow between us and the peloton. Still we kept a steady pace and were able to catch some of the guys at the back that had begun to wear out. We were also being trailed by one of the two other women in the race and another guy. I was having fun pretending to be in a road race and digging the scenery. The next turn up the road was the end of the flat and we were going into the hills which where I was planning on making most of my catching up. Gap between Amanda and I had grown and was keeping a good pace up the hill without having to get out my seat and stand on the pedals. This when I started to catch some of the people who had switched to lower gearing to lug up the hill. This is one of the nice things about single speeds is that your stuck with the same gear all the time forcing you to speed up when you want to slow down and slow down when you want to speed up. I was safely in a high zone 3 and feeling OK when I had my first mechanical. Going down a slight hill off the paved road and onto a dirt section I was pedaling through and I dropped my chain. While I was putting it back on one of the spectators ran over to try and help and really just made it worse. I got the chain on and cross mounted like I just got over the barriers. I got going at a good pace again and started to hit the harder hills and this is when I noticed how bad the chain issue was. Everytime I hammered down on the pedals the chain would go chunk! chunk! chunk! trying to go off the cog. This meant that riding hills would be mostly a pain and I was going to have to dismount to get up. After hitting a rolling section of double track I was hoping that this is how the rest of the race would be and that I could back into a pace. Not so. Rounding a corner in the double track I hit some bumps while pedaling which threw my chain off again. I put it back on and kept going, even managing to pass someone on the way. I hit my first steep hill in the single track and dismounted while rolling up, I shouldered the bike with the nose end of the seat on my shoulder and started up the hill. Turns out it was a bit longer than it looked and the bike got a bit heavy. Cresting the hill I once again mounted the bike and rode along the single track. This lead onto a road which took us back to the false start. We were warned that there was a hill that we were supposed to get off our bikes and run down, but I didn't believe it or rather didn't want to believe it. When I got there and looked down it, I have to admit that I was a bit intimidated but thought I could do it. If this were the states people would expect you to do it but this is China. The calls to get off set in and I decided to run it down.
After the run down it was the beginning of the end. The bike was really only functioning on flat ground but felt stable going down hill. One more short steep hill followed by a shallow long hill and I would be back on the flats. I hit the flats and pedalled myself out passing someone weaving across the double track and into a short downhill across a bridge and Oh crap! more climbing. What was this bloody Green water all over again. If there is one thing that i've learned from racing in the states is that if you go up then you'll come down and the down is what I'm good at and that was where I was going to make up time. The next kilometer or so was a mix of climbing and rolling hills the former would cost me some time but hopefully I could still close the gap. Alas this was not to be so, as I rolled over the last mound to the crest of the trail I saw the finish line. I mean seriously who puts a finish line at the top of a hill. I knew then that racing in China was going to be uh... special. I manage to pass one more guy before crossing the finish line rolling across to find a camera crew wanting to interview...Amanda. "You Wife?"
"You Wife?"
"Oh she's right there".
Something in Chinese. "You Wife?"
"She's right there" me pointing.
"Oh, thanks you".
The ride back to the start line was actually quite fun as all of the riding up hill wound up with us getting to go back downhill as well. I took advantage of gravity and let go of the brakes to get some much needed air across my face.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Race Report - 11th Water City Green Festival and Mountain Bike Race, Xinjin Town, Chengdu City, Sichuan Province, PRC

Hello everyone! Warning: this is a little long... it was a crazy weekend.

Josh and I are in Chengdu these days, enroute to our ultimate destination of Jiuzhaigou National Park. But, since I am to be officially based here, we are stuck for a few weeks. Of course the first thing we needed to do upon arriving was buy decent mountain bikes. We decided that we didn't want breaking parts, so we would get single speeds, and v-brakes. Plus, we would then move to Ohio really darn strong next winter. We carried a suspension fork that was previously on my beautiful Juliana race bike so that I could have front suspension. We forgot the posts for the v-brakes though... so I ended up with a front mechanical disc brake. We went to Giant to get the bikes. Mainly because I knew where it was and it was walking distance from our hotel. After about 30 min in the store I approached someone to ask if I could ask a question. We had seen a nice single speed mtb that looked to belong to a shop employee. Once they discovered that (a) one of the crazy big nosed people speaks Chinese and (b) we were interested in bikes like that one, we got some attention from the manager. Although he thinks we're nuts, he made us single speeds. They were about $500 each, including brain buckets (head cans, to be exact, in Chinese). It took only 2 days. Wow. The hotel let them into our room. Wow. Also, by the way, there is a race on Sunday. But you need to get there Saturday because it is a little far away.

Ok. So we got the address to register for the race. I told them that I could compete with the guys since there wasn't a girls cat. No problem. Single speeds, no problem. We test rode the bikes. Awesome. We didn't get hit by cars. Even more awesome. Or buses. That is a really great start. Saturday morning we left early for the bus station, braved the crowds, bought tickets, x rayed our backpacks (we had to learn to pack light - only a ski-touring sized day pack each), paid for the bikes to go on the bus, removed the wheels, and waited for the bus. We got herded to the front of the line because we are blonde. Honkies need to be taken care of. I saved seats (my first ever experience in China with unassigned bus seats) while Josh loaded our stuff. Success. 45 min later, we were in Xinjin, a town in the city of Chengdu (sort of - you have to think of the city as also being like a county). We got the bikes reassembled while being intently watched by the pedicab (Sanlunche, or 3 wheel vehicle) drivers. They really were fascinated by our crank brother pedals.

There were advertisements everywhere on lampposts for the race and some kind of a "Green Festival" going on, and a sign for where the race was. We figured that was registration. Fortunately we found actual registration on our way to there. It was 50RMB/person. That's about $6. We got: a hotel room, dinner, t-shirts, cloth numbers, water, breakfast, and race entry and support. I don't think we'll be needing any reimbursements this year. Getting to/from the race increased the price to 100RMB each. Still a steal. So we registered and were sent to our hotel. A nice guy with a strange perm decided to help us out. He spoke a bit of English and wanted to make friends with us. Some team called FBI had taken over our room as well as their assigned rooms, so we got a room on the 2nd floor and were given permission to take the bikes upstairs. At 1:30 we walked to find where we were supposed to be for "an activity" (i swear, that is all I was told). We decided to wear our jerseys since everyone was hanging out in their kits. We were Fasting (for our religion), so we weren't eating or drinking at this point. We walked about 30 min and hitched a ride with some officials. Then we ran into organizer man (the guy who made our bikes, Luo Wei) and he wanted to know why we didn't have our bikes. So we hitched a ride on a 3-wheeled motorcycle/truck thing full of watermelons back to the road our hotel was on. We got our bikes, put on our kits, and headed back up. We also grabbed some water just in case.

Turns out it was a tour of the city for them to see all the racers. We rode around the city being videotaped. Then at a fashion show stage (I am not kidding), all the teams introduced themselves. I hope it's ok, I appointed myself team leader. We needed a leader to do the introducing, and Josh's chinese isn't quite up to that yet. I was interviewed on stage. Then I was interviewed off stage. Everyone clapped. I introduced Josh. I tried to tout our sponsors, but everyone was more interested in the freaks of nature who grow blonde hair. I don't think honkies go to this town much.

Next our friend from earlier with the perm said he would take us to the 5 pm event. But first did we have time to visit his old school - the Sichuan Water Sports School. Ok, why not. So we watched the Sichuan Provincial BMX teams (men's and women's) practice starts and talked with the brand new provincial women's road bike time. They are a little wobbly still, because they didn't ride on road bikes before being recruited. Lots of scabby faces and elbows. Apparently they fall a lot. By this time it was becoming obvious that something was wrong with our bikes. We thought the rear cog was loose, but it turned out to be much worse. We have PVC pipe instead of spacers and things weren't really working right on either bike. After about 45 min trying to fix it with tools that belong to the Sichuan Men's Road and Track teams, we gave up. It was nearly 5 at this point and we thought we had to be somewhere at 5. But first we needed to be showed off more and were taken to meet the captain of the BMX team (I think) and a coach for the same team (the captain's wife). They were cool. They live in a really Communist era block with all the other athletes and have a cute dog. We had decided to start drinking water so we wouldn't be too dehydrated the next day (it's wicked dry here), and they basically force fed us oranges. So much for Fasting. A steady stream of people came in and out of the room for the next hour to look at the white people.

Finally our host agreed that we could go and he took us to the hotel. Wait. We needed to be somewhere, but we aren't sure where. But probably we should have been there an hour ago. Ok. He took us there and we complained to the guy who built the bikes that we couldn't race because our bikes weren't working. Back to the same disagreements about what was wrong and finally we were told we could borrow wheels on Sunday and he'd take them back to Chengdu for us and fix them there. Good. That will work. So we went and ate the nasty arranged dinner. It made me feel awfully sick. Seaweed and boiled duck was the first course. No carb loading. I taught Josh about how we have to toast everyone. We toasted all the tables and made everyone happy. Then we left and got noodles for dinner. Yum. That is better carb loading.

Sunday morning we had breakfast at the hotel (Josh's first Chinese breakfast) and headed up to the race start to be there by 8 am, as we were instructed. After standing around on mesh that caught on my cleats in a dirt pit (they covered it all with mesh) for a while, we started to try to find Luo Wei (bike builder dude). I should mention that they tried to make a real race scene. There were lots of tents set up in a U shape next to the main stage where all the townspeople were watching trick bikes, cheerleaders, and roller bladers. This was a major town event. They all came out to watch the show and to watch us bike around the city the first day. Also, it seems to be some kind of national race as there is a lot of prize money, raffled off trek and giant bikes, and teams from other provinces (Guangdong, Tianjin, and Gansu). It seems that some people from Sichuan on teams don't actually race and just bike to the races (most folks biked to the race), hang out, participate in festivities, and bike home after the race. Two other women braved the actual race with me. So the scene was a bit strange. A mix of Cascade Cyclists and racers. Anyway, back to fixing our bikes. We had to explain over and over again what we needed and people kept thinking we had been reformed from our stupid single speed ways (single speed mountain bikes are completely unheard of here. We will start a trend) and wanted to add shifters to our bikes. Finally we got our wheels to borrow and had our helmets and numbers checked. Josh never did get his bike to stop skipping. Interestingly, we found out that an average Chinese rider and/or racer knows nothing about bike maintenance. People kept trying to get us to have professionals help. Josh knows more than most of them do, I think. they kept trying to use adjustable wrenches instead of chain whips.

We were lined up into 3 start groups about 45 min before the race started. We were in group 3. I was interviewed 3 more times. When we finally got to start, the race was really short. It was 3 km on road, 3 km on bad roads, and then 6 km on dirt roads. We were dropped nearly immediately. But we worked together and Josh nicely pulled me along. The race was mostly uphill, unfortunately. We would have done much better if actual handling skills were required, but the only part that was potentially fun (very Crosstoberfest-esque downhill section next to some steps), we were required to dismount and run down the stairs. I had chain problems early on and wasn't really allowed to fix them myself, even though other people kept putting the chain on the wrong cog. My chain was disgusting because someone had oiled it without wiping off oil earlier. Josh had major chain problems the whole race. I believe I finished 2nd to last (the guy in front of me didn't sprint for the finish, so I passed him 50 m from the end). The race ended with a hill climb that we then had to turn around and go back down to get to the prizes and tents.People wanted to interview me as soon as I finished and I screamed at them to go away. They kept filming me. I had kind of lost my cool and couldn't breathe (the pollution and my asthma don't go well together and the dust and race made it worse) and wanted to get a drink. I don't know if I will ever be ok with people wanting to interview me after a race before I even get off my bike. Especially when I finished nearly last (it didn't help that we started in the last group).

I was told that I actually came in 2nd among the women because I guess one woman didn't finish. Cool. Also, I won the women's single speed cat. Josh won the men's single speed cat. Cat of 1, but no matter. We met a nice lady who works for Procter and Gamble and speaks good English. She won the women's race. She's only been riding a few months and already races, so that's fairly brave for a Chinese woman. Cool. We put our bikes onto the demo bike truck to come back to Chengdu and walked to the hotel (but ate a bowl of noodles enroute) and grabbed a 3 wheeled motorcycle to the bus station. Back in Chengdu by 3.

Things to remember for the next race:
Take an extra kit - we each only had one and were stuck in our shorts a long time both days
Take my dictionary thing
Don't take so much stuff
Get a car and our driver's licenses soon
Take some food we find palatable

There is another race this weekend and our bikes will be done by then, but the mountain bike bit is short track and limited to 50 entrants, so we can't compete. It's near the city though, so we may bike there to watch. We're getting our bikes fixed by pulling apart the cassettes we bought to get the cogs from and using those spacers. The guy who made the bikes saved the boxes of parts we bought but didn't need on the bikes in case we changed our mind about those crazy single speed things. We're trying to get single speed tensioners so we can stop using the derailleurs we currently have.

We're missing you all and real mountain biking. I am going back to studying for the driving test.

Amanda :)

Winds of change.....ing gears

We are safely in Chengdu and have had our first Bike race in China. It was both the most interesting and frustrating event that I have ever attended. It seems that we talked ourselves into a regional if not national race in Sichuan province and were surprisingly the only ones on singlespeed mountain bikes. Thus we were each able to safely win first place in the men's and women's singlespeed categories, respectively. Even though we were the only ones in our respective categories I see this as a victory.  

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

From Macau to Hong Kong to China and into the lions mouth

For those of you not familiar with our travels, Amanda and I are traveling to China with our final destination to be Jiuzhaigou National Park in the Northern part of Sichuan province. If you are familiar with the General Tso's Chinese Chicken Theory then you no doubt know that Jiuzhaigou is at the intersection of the Sour Wing and the Sweet Breast, aka the saucy armpit of the great chinese chicken. If you are not familiar with General Tso's Chinese Chicken Theory then Jiuzhaigou is up the crick from Chengdu which is where we are currently. Where crick is Sichuanese for road, and the road is very long.
Updating a blog is a very difficult thing to do in China and takes a lot of practice to get right therefore my posts will likely be a bit slower to get out but hopefully a bit longer each time so that eventually they are the length of a short novel. I didn't know how much work went into updating these damn things it's almost a part time job. Anyway watch for the following posts:

I dream of Hanoi

There and Back again, a Water Puppets Tale
Yes Billy there really is a Disney Land in China

P.S. I will actually be trying to finish the tale of Vietnam and fill in the details of the rest of our travels.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Off to Macau: Special Intermittent non vietnam post

We are being summoned to Macau for some Culture and hopefully Gambling, and by gambling I mean more culture. Hopefully I will get a chance to work some more on my summary of Vietnam and post the rest of the pictures on picasa.
Toodles for now.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Vietnam Part II: The search for more motorbikes

It has been a few days since my last post and the wife and I have been all over Vietnam since, or at least flown over Vietnam which is like being all over.
After arriving in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh city) and finding our hotel Amanda and I decided to do a quick walking tour of the area. We started by finding the necessities of tourist life in Southeast Asia, i.e. bottled water and Wi-Fi. Bottled water was easy as there were plenty of Circle K's and 7-Elevens. The Wi-Fi took a little longer to find but upon walking around the block we found several cafe's that stated their Wi-Fi'ness.
For Dinner that night we had decided to go to a Vietnamese restaurant suggested in the lonely planet. The food was quite good and a very fair price for the amount that we got. We had a dried noodle dish with Tofu and Vegetables as the main and fried spring rolls with shrimp. We also had a mixed vegetable dish that was quite good.
The next day was set aside for a walking tour of Saigon. We started near our hotel and walked following the lonely planets suggested route. This took us to several highlights throughout the city most of which related to the French Colonial History, Vietnamese culture, and the Emancipation from Franco-American Imperialist Forces.
The key points that stood out for me were the Post office, the Notre Dame Cathedral, The War Remnants Museum, and the Ho Chi Minh city museum.

Random Extravagant French Government type building

Cathedral of Notre Dame

Interior of Notre Dame

Neon Mary

US Army Tank outside of War Remnants Museum

US Army Chinook Helicopter also outside of War Remnants Museum

The War Remnants museum serves as a reminder of the brutality of war and the impact that the american forces had on Vietnam. The general theme of this museum was to show graphically the violence that occured whilst the american military was campaigning in Southern Vietnam. To this purpose the museum succeeds very well and I was left with the feeling of a pit in my stomach. As this was the first time that I've visited a "communist" country I didn't expect to see the flip side of the coin that is the propaganda against the "American War" and a plea for peace. Many of the atrocities that were commited by US soldiers are pointed out while those of the Vietcong are mostly ignored. What is well documented for both sides is the cost of the war on both sides, the cost in dollars for what was really an unnecessary war and the cost in lives of Americans and Vietnamese.

We topped off the day with a meal at the Tandoor restaurant which was a couple of blocks down the road from our hotel. The food was quite good we started out with sweet lassi's and moved to skewered homemade cheese with vegetables and a curry with naan to top it off. After dinner we had juice at the top of the Sheraton hotel with a view of the city.

Saigon on a clear night

Tuesday was our last full day in Saigon so we decided to take a tour outside of the city to the North. After purchasing tickets to a tour from our hotel, not necessarily a good idea, we caught the bus first thing in the morning. The tour guide was a cheerful vietnamese fellow who had a lot to say but not all of it was worth hearing. Rather he talked incessantly about not much at all. What he did say seemed to tow the communist propaganda party line of the celebration of the reunification of North and South Vietnam.

Why this particular tour was not such a good idea, the bus that picked us up was quite cramped and the driver was frankly, scary. Besides the fact that the tour guide was very talkative we also stopped at a Handicraft studio outside of Saigon. The handicraft studio was made up mostly of people with disabilities that created the usual wares that one can find on the streets of Saigon. There were a lot of wooden lacquered plaques with inlaid mother of pearl as well ornately decorated plates and vases, to full table and chair sets with prices up to US $13K or VND 26,000,000 or so.

Preparing the Pottery for Lacquer and Decoration

A finished plate on display for sale (Notice the subtle bicycle theme)

A beautifully carved chair with mother of pearl inlay
After the handicrafts village we attended to noon day ceremony of a uniquely Vietnamese minor religion that combines the tenants and traditions of several major religions into its own unique flavor. Though the majority of the architecture some kind of Chinese Hindu fusion, subtle details on the interior suggested Buddhism and even Catholicism. When we arrived the paritioners were in full chant or possibly song with instruments playing and many tourists taking pictures.

The main hall

The Three Saints (Victor Hugo is one of them, can you guess the other two?)

The Temple from the outside

While the temple was interesting and certainly unique amongst the few buddhist and chinese temples that I have visited it certainly wasn't the highlight of the tour which was to visit the famous tunnels of Cu Chi. These are the tunnels that played a vital role in the operations of the Vietcong against the Americans during the war. The tunnels served as supply routes for southern troops as well as sneak attack, escape routes, and living quarters.

The area is a restored portion of the jungle that was heavily fought over between the Americans and the Vietcong. Upon arriving at the tourist area and beginning along the path through the jungle it didn't take very long before I started to hear gun shots in the background. These were not echoes from the past but actual gun shots from several different types of guns. As it turns out the people who run the area have set up a firing range where tourists can shoot military rifles for VND 20K per bullet (about USD $1). This did not add to the ambiance of the place but a reminder of the tragedy that befell this place over 35 years ago. This gunfire in the background did not sit particularly well with Amanda, as she needed to be fed ice cream in order to better block out the noise.

The first part of the tour consisted of showing the tricks of concealment that the Vietcong used in order to disguise their tunnel openings from foreign eyes. These tunnels have been enlarged or as I like to call them american sized so that tourists can fit in them, even so it was still a tight fit.

Now you see her....

Now you don't!

As we moved along many different sites were pointed out, such as craters from american bombs that were dropped on the jungle. This one in particular was dropped by a B-52 bomber.

Crater Left over from bomb dropped by a B-52
These tunnels stretched for several km's in some cases and were smaller than the 80cm x 120cm size that they are now. Amanda and were two of the only people to make it out of the 100 meter tunnel that tourists are allowed to enter. Most of the others in the group used one of the earlier exits to escape the cramped and hot clay quarters.

Entrance to one of the preserved tunnels of Cu Chi (American Sized)

Tank gutted and left over from the war

The conclusion of the tour was a Vietnamese war propaganda film that told of the beauty and splendor of Cu Chi before the american war and how the Vietcong had to use engenuity rather than shear numbers and massive artillery to defeat the american. The film made one point very well, that the american military did not fully understand the powerful bond that the vietnamese have to their individuality and their willingness to fight to the very end to keep it. This has been a historical theme since being controlled by the chinese, to the europeans and finally the american occupation.

Upcoming posts:

Hanoi by plane or by train?

Inland Empire: The Ancient city

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Walking tour of Saigon

Yesterday Josh and I decided to take a walking tour of Saigon (specifically, we were in district 1 of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), which is also known as Saigon). We hit most of the main sites to see in the city and walked a ton. Now I look like a serious tourist because I got so many blisters from my chacos that I am reduced to wearing sneakers now. Boo.

Our day started with breakfast at our hotel and then coffee at the Australian chain Gloria Jean (the Brodard Cafe is the one we are going to. Apparently it's famous. I've never heard of it). We then walked to the backpacker bit of town to start the tour. Along the way we managed to purchase plane tickets to Hanoi for tomorrow and a sim card for our cell phone (this means that theoretically you can use our google voice number to call us now). We then saw a touristy market which could have been in any city in se asia (or even HK, for that matter) and a statue of a man on a horse.

We visited the Ho Chi Minh Art Museum (mediocre but in a cool building), the Ho Chi Minh City Museum (ditto), looked at the Hotel Villa (a French building repurposed for government used), another modern government building, and then had lunch at a place which was obviously quite popular and filled with locals and foreigners alike. We also had icecream as a mid-morning snack. It's really hot here. I don't think that we could be fasting and am glad that we chose to not fast while we're traveling here.

After lunch we went to the War Remnants Museum which was a bit depressing. Americans are portrayed quite poorly in all the museums here and it is difficult as an American to look at the displays and understand where they are coming from and not get really annoyed that they are so one-sided. I am all for anti-war displays and to show people the horrors of war, but I am sure the VC were not saints either. Plus, there is no discussion of the trauma to Americans - the draft army, the problems at home, the poor way soldiers were treated when they returned home. On the other hand, it was kind of cool to see the various captured planes and helicopters and it was interesting to learn a bit more about the war.

One of my favorite things to see was a local market. We walked through it right before having ice cream and as always, that was really cool to see. I love seeing how people live. I like the history stuff and seeing the sights in guidebooks, but I also love seeing markets.

It's interesting also the things that are similar from country to country in Asia. for example, we walked past the US consulate and just like in China, there were hordes of people squatting on the sidewalk across the street from the consulate and no one on the consulate side. That alone made me look and see that yes, we were at the US Consulate. We actually were allowed to walk on the sidewalk in front of the consulate, unlike in China.

Other than all this travel, things here are going ok. We still have some outstanding bank issues that we're dealing with; I just found out that I had a paper rejected with an invitation to resubmit, which will take a lot of work to deal with; I have a skype meeting at 5 am on Tuesday and have to hope that the poached internet at the apartment in HK will work; I think I was accidentally assigned to room with a boy at the conference in HK, so I will probably commute from the apartment Josh is staying at. We also decided to try to bribe people to help us carry our excessive quantities of luggage to China - we are offering lunch in exchange for carrying our bags. Maybe it will save us a lot of hassle. Even 2 people helping would be fabulous. 4 would save us completely on excess luggage fees. Hopefully some of the other Fulbrighters will bite.

We're off to see the tunnels today as well as a temple.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Ho Chi Minh City or bust

We flew into Ho Chi Minh City last night at about 5pm just in time to get into traffic in the downtown area. I have never seen so many motorcycles on the road. They are some of the most fearless riders that I have seen. Granted these aren't the 1000cc monsters that they have in the US but none the less they will go fast enough to get somebody in trouble. Apparently the motobikes rule the road as it seemed that there were three lanes of traffic and only one of them was being used by regular cars. Not to mention that the direction of traffic is purely voluntary at places.
We are going on a walking tour of HCMC today and hopefully we will post some pictures when we get done. Ta Ta for now.