“It not a Great Wall. It’s an alright wall. It’s the Alright Wall of China.”
-Karl Pilkton, An Idiot Abroad.
After reading information about The Great Wall in his Lonely Planet China Guide and realizing many of the tourist sections of the wall were rebuilt in the 1980s, to include such ancient devices of revelry such as massive, German engineered slides, hawkers selling you skull caps with a single braid of black hair coming out of the back of them and pits filled with suicidal brown bears, Karl was left unimpressed by what some would consider one of the greatest feats of human skill and endurance of all time. Like Mr. Pilkington, I was very wary to see “The Wall”, as I was not interesting in see Great Wall 2.0. Not even 2.0. Mavericks upgrade. Shitty, cheap and simply a money grab.
The GREAT thing about the GREAT Wall is it is humongous. One, I shouldn’t be so judgement, so….yes…one…fine…gentleman attempted to walk the entire length of the wall. For starters, there isn’t just ONE wall. Regardless, He failed. Like not, you were SOOO close. No. He failed miserably. It goes over ice mountain ranges. Like, your ability to walk isn’t how it is in Skyrim in real life, sir. Its Lord of the Ring’s helicopter shot BIG. Back to the Greatness of this, the Chinese government simply doesn’t have enough resources nor care to “tourify” every inch of it and tourists aren’t going to be bothered to trek into the middle of no where to stare at a wall. Or so they think. I wanted to see The Great Wall. Or more so, the Real Great Wall, not the Fake Wall. Luckily there are enough people on the internets that feel the same way.
For all your up-to-date Wall needs, check out: http://www.greatwallforum.com/
Huanghuachang, the Great Wall that goes into a river, due to damming was the planned destination. Buses were researched and on a rainy weekend morning I headed out on a somewhat empty bus from Dongzhimen Central Station. Our excitement was a sweet as sugar, but the rain would not melt it. So maybe it was as sweet as honey as I think precipitation has no effect of that sticky substance. Through the outskirt hills of Beijing, in Huirou city. A few stops. Nothing unusual. Faces come on and off. Sits empty and fill. A pair of eyes meet mine.
“You going to Great Wall”
“Oh. It’s closed.”
Pause. From my research I knew that this was an unregulated part of the Wall. This means no ticket booth or official check in procedures. This SHOULD mean no opening or closing time. I was confused and in my confusion, we got off the bus and loaded into his vehicle. It was like so trance. Like trusting the white panel van full of candy.
“Where are we going?”
“To the Great Wall”
“What? I thought it was closed”
“Mutianyu is open”
Mutianyu was one of the horribly touristic sections of The Wall I had wished to never encounter. We had been duped. The man, who was wearing an official bus staff uniform, removed it. He was a Black Taxi Driver and we were at him whim, along with another white couple that sat in the car with us as well. I counted my wad o’ money. I knew that Huanghuacheng was no longer an option anymore, but I was damned if I was going to pay a zillion dollars to go pay a zillion more dollars to hang out with a zillion tourists on a 5 year old’s macaroni art project, deemed The Great Wall. We came to a “reasonable” deal. Exiting the black cab, we were suddenly drenched from above and from all angles, by rain and dripping hawkers. Pretty sure I don’t need a 4 foot statue of Mao made of the finest plastics. No, thank you, that’s awful kind of you, I just don’t think I am in the mood to buy a pet bird or cat or dog or ?. Though we did need an umbrella. Again, hard bargained, including using the line, I live in Beijing, I know how much this should cost, don’t fuck with me (yeah, I totally have no idea how to say that last line, but imagine that reaction). The adult umbrella was ridiculously priced, so we bought two kid ones. It was like walking on a tight rope, balancing the circumference of the small umbrella perfectly above our heads. Through hawkers row, lined with booths, flashing blinding lights into your retina, like maybe if you were blind you wouldn’t be able to see the piles of shit, drinks, t-shirts, shit and more shit being sold. But, to be honest, they are people just trying to scrape by, so I get it. I feel for them, but on a day where the clouds had opened both physically and metaphorically, I had very little patience to gab. Purchased expensive tickets with a glib smile plastered to my face plastered in wet hair. Climbed numerous stairs up and up and up. AND Viola! On the Wall. Or were we?
The fog, which was as thick as being surrounded by a legion of Santa beards, made it difficult to tell exactly where you were. It felt as if we were on a road in the clouds. The rain was actually a blessing in disguise, as it cleaned the wall of most of the tourists and hawkers. Yet, with map in hand, I had alternative plans. I was heading to the greyed out area at the edge of the map. I was going to see the REAL wall. And no, you can’t go beyond this point sign or cement blockade was going to stop me. Up an over the blockade and finally, we were face to face with antiquity. The fog felt more appropriate here, as if it became part of the myth of the wall, something that existed on a scroll in waves of black ink. We stood atop a crumbling tower, one of the many guard towers that appear along the wall. We followed The Wall for a bit. Old growth vegetation fought its way up through the crumbling structure. At points it was hard to tell where The Wall was and if we were just aimlessly meandering, lost in a sea of evergreens. But then a small rock, a patch of rubble would lead us onwards. We walked for 40 minutes until the underbrush, became the overbrush and we had to turned back, in fears of being engulfed. This part, getting to touch the real stone of this magnificent work, the same stones that the builders had assembled hundreds of years ago at the orders of their Emperor, was the pay off. Done with the Real Wall, the rest of the Wall was simply the elaborate pathway back to the bus stop. But wait! The story doesn’t end there!
I had to go to the washroom. Not being completely savvy in ways of the public washroom at tourist sites in China, I thought there’d be toilet paper. There was definitely not. My favorite game ensued. Check your pockets and see what will work. Several receipts and the umbrella cover. FINALLY, I found an alternative use for those things. Velvety soft.
Famished from the walk and not interesting in indulging in the extremely out of place Great Wall Subway or Baskin’ Robbins, we tried the local inn. The food was meh, but it filled the gap. Unfortunately, the slow service led to us missing our bus. No problem, we’ll just cab somewhere and bus from there. Black carred it to a bus stop. A bus stop in the middle of nowhere. Like NOWHERE. Wait. Wait. Wait…..RAIN. NIGHT. Finally. Bus…..bus comes and takes us into Huirou, where we catch a connecting bus back to Beijing.
The Great Wall is an interesting place to visit and can make a wonderful great day trip from Beijing. Just realize what you are getting into, what you want out of the experience and research alternatives. I ended up making it to Huanghuacheng and it was more of the experience that I wanted. Again, if you want to see an easily accessible, no hassle part of the wall, Mutianyu, may fit the bill. One note: Bring some information about The Wall with you, as it will truly enrich the experience.
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Quick Dos and Do Nots of the Great Wall of China:
DO your research. There are many sections of the Great Wall to see. Make sure you find a section that fits what you want to get out of the wall.
DO NOT listen to people telling you alternative information than watch you researched, especially shifty guys on the bus. They might be simply black taxis trying to get you to pay exorbitant fares to go with them. The bus will get you there.
DO Bring supplies. Food, water, rain coats, toilet paper. It’s for sale there, but at three times the price. PLUS, I don’t think toilet paper is for sale out there. It’s just a good idea to bring it with you everywhere.
DO NOT listen to the DON’T WALK HERE signs. They are simply trying to prevent you from walking on the part of the Wall they haven’t charged people to walk on. It has nothing to do with Wall preservation. Do you see anywhere else “preservation” happening?
DO bring info about the Wall. It’s a magnificent marvel, but context makes each part of it that much more awe ridden.
DO NOT expect that you will be alone on the tourist parts of the Wall. It will be you and 85 billion people trying to get a picture of the pristine Wall, without dude picking his nose not in the shot.
DIRECTIONS and INFO
The Great Wall – Mutianyu (慕田峪)
Cost: 45 Yuan
The fastest way is to take bus 916快 (express) or 916, which run from Dongzhimen to Huairou Bus Station first, get off at the terminus (or Qingchun Road North End or Huairou North Street), Walk to the bus stop on the diagonal corner of the intersection and take bus H23, H24 or 936 (Huairou to Dongtai) and get off at Mutianyuhuandao. Again, these buses’ numbers change frequently. Best to show the symbols of Mutianyu to the bus driver.
In, Vancouver, having millions of dollars gives you access to the easy life and many people make that quite visibly apparent. From the fantastical, to the ridiculous, it’s not to hard to sound like the narrator from Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous in our not so humble city. Yet with such an influx of millionaires, the castles, the ridiculous cars, the restaurants with “homecooked” meals costing more than your home (or whatever hovel you can rent), none of it really surprises anyone. The gentrification of Vancouver replaces shelters and iconic structures with vegan donut shops and while it all seems distasteful, sadly, we are use to it.
In Beijing this gentrification process is happening as well. The old “hutong” living quarters are being replaced by malls and apartment blocks, but with the such limited space and possibly also the language barrier of not knowing exactly the purpose of the new buildings, the replacement facades don’t seem to delve into financially engrossing statements. Yet once you leave it’s epicenter, get out into the outlying districts, Beijing doesn’t seem as Beijing-y anymore. There is space, vast amounts of unused land, fields, even rivers (though the water in them looks like a liquefied rainbow). People with money head out into these vast expanses, that boarder along some of the poorest areas in the city and recreate worlds they have seen in advertisements and on the television. Since travelling to and from China yields a wealth of it’s own problems, this is the next best option.
Two and half hours of cycling north from my little hutong in the centre of the Dongsi District, which is 15 minutes on foot from the Forbidden City, I was first struck by image of trees. Not planted trees, but trees that were growing on their own accord, wild, uncontained, unplanned. Passed the last subway stop, the wide road heading towards the northern mountains is covered in dirt and garbage falling off and out of trucks, and buses and commuters who come from hours and hours a way to go to work in the hub. The financial pressure of city life allows for nothing better. People live in packed rooms of 10 or 12, in dorms, many miles from their places of work, just to say “I am a Beijinger”. Then again, I can’t say that their lives would be any better back in whatever province they came from.
Yet I wasn’t riding out this way to investigate this phenomena, but actually the polar opposite situation that Beijingers live, lavish and drape themselves in. Messing around on Google Earth, the night prior, I clicked on a picture from the north of Beijing that revealed a beautiful French chateau. What? That couldn’t be right. This was a rouse that would have been ending up in the middle of nowhere with nothing to show, having me grasp for photo ops of cool vegetation to justify my journey to myself and others. Searching “French chateau Beijing” in google peaked even more interest. The house, according the Chinese news, which made it a tad more reliable than google, said that this house did, indeed, exist. And here I was, standing in front of a replica of 1651 French Chateau. Specifically a replica of 1651 French Chateau, called Château de Maisons-Laffitte, located in the unknown, quaint village of PARIS, FRANCE. The replica, built on land that use to be occupied by wheat fields, is actually a luxury hotel and conference centre built by Mr. Zhang for a whopping 50 million. That’s dollars, not yuan (that would be like 5 followed by 75 billion zeros yuan). The landscape, the baroque architecture, the moat surrounding the house, even the staff wearing French period clothing, attempts to and succeeds to mimic it’s source material. Zhang originally wanted to shoot for the Palace of Versailles, but said it was “too big”. Mr. Zhang, I think we’ll let that one slide. No, what you have done here, complete with helicopter landing pad, wine museum, spa and French named restaurants, seems like the logical choice compared to that. The opulence is immeasurable, though I find it laughable, that with such a wealthy history of extravagance, rather than focus on exoticism, a proud Chinese business owner wouldn’t draw upon the his own history filled with massive palaces, temples and gardens. It seems to be a thing in China to idolize the outside world, that rich is better when it’s foreign rich. That’s whooole other post.
Now, I have seen in Beijing a reconstructed medieval Austrian town, which I will post pictures of once I have found them. Yet, once you get up and close to it, you can see the amateurness of it all. The uninspired murals, the lack of attention to detail. This copy, on the other hand, is a work of art on it’s own. Yes, ridiculous, absurd, out of place, but it’s there, so all one can do is admire it, walk through it’s vast dining rooms, ornate sitting rooms, ball rooms, rooms you have no idea what their function is, but possibly they are functionaless rooms just to remind you that when you have lots of money you don’t have to have a purpose, you can simply be.
After a exploring the grounds, the fountains and purchasing a 4 dollar water! (water in the city costs for the same product like 20 cents at most), I left this place, feeling I had discovered something not many people who live in Beijing know exists. Well now you do, so you have no excuse not to try and see this remarkable anomaly.
Of course, there is a sad side to this project. The land that use to be wheat fields fed up to 800 now landless peasants, before being occupied by this singular property. It’s depressing to think that a golf course, use to be fertile ground that provided life sustaining food for many people. Mr. Zhang DOES give the people, as a collective a $45 a month stipend and offers to hire them to maintain the land for $2 a day… Check below for directions and more info!
INFORMATION: Name of Place: Beijing Zhang Laffitte Chateau (定泗路) Directions: Get on Metro Line 5, heading north to Tiantongyuan North. Get off at Tiantongyuan North, exit on the East side, Exit A. Cross passed all the vendors, across the small street that is jammed with taxis, walk north a bit until you hit an intersection that is coming out of the parking lot. Make a right and cross over the main street. Walk north for a bit along the sketchy big road (named Litang Rd or S213). You will come to a bus stop, which should have a bus called 860路. Show the bus driver the name of the Chateau, which should help him tell you when to get off. If not, you can also show him the stop which is八仙庄南大街. Don’t be shy to ASK, even if you don’t know basic Mandarin, people are quite willing to help if you are persistent and simply show them things they can read, as opposed to trying to explain yourself with wild hand gestures and your mom’s dance moves (also awkward looking in front of a packed bus full of locals, trust me, it’s been done). If you have any other questions, tips, ideas, please email or comment on this post. Plus, if you want a moving visual of China and other adventures of have partaken in, check out my youtube page. PS – Really? 6 subscribers? Are cats knocking shit off tables THAT much more entertaining. If they are…. Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL59E469A3DF414464 Twitter:
It’s hard to consider living on the road without the feeling that you are shirking your duties. What these duties pertain to, at least in myself, relate to a sort of “suppose to” list of life stages that at certain ages in on the relatively short stint on this earth I have been indoctrinated, through all forms of nurture, that I must hit. Part of the process of living on the road is considering the validity of this society-enforced template of growing up. For me, it didn’t work.
Since this is a travel blog, I hesitate to address bold life statements, so I will keep it as a series of personal revelations. I was introduced to travel by my parents. We did the traditional North American family trip to Mexico every other year. It was nice, but felt surreal, cultural mummification, as if everything you saw was in stasis, ready to perform for the next tourist. That sounds quite ignorant, but I was younger back then and that’s what family trips to those tourist meccas kind of enforce. It wasn’t emersion, but simply a dip in a highly regulated pool.
When I was 24, I was invited to perform in a play in the Czech Republic. I had never been to Europe before and had never travelled on my own. As part of the trip, I planned to do a sort of quick jaunt around the country. I planned meticulously and was very excited to finally travel at my own pace.
I planned for two weeks and ended up living in Prague for an additional 4 months teaching and then three more months travelling around Eastern Europe. I returned back to Canada for a girl. As I stepped off the plane at the Vancouver International Airport, I realized how seriously mistaken I was for doing so. I felt a sudden void inflate inside of me. And that was it. I was infected with the travel bug. Right away I knew this could not be a sometimes thing. I had to figure out how to make this an all time thing.
The traditional aspects of life weighed upon me. Yet in my own rebellious way I had started to challenge, question and answer them.
TA = Traditional Aspect
R = Response
TA = If you get tattoos, you can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery.
R= I am dead, who cares where they put me. Throw me into the ocean, I don’t need to waste land.
TA = Okay. Well, if you get a tattoo, make sure it’s something you REALLY want.
R= It’s just skin. And don’t use the “but when you’re old it will look…” Because when I am old, “I will look”.
TA = Get married, have kids.
R= Monogamy works for some people. It sounds nice in a pastoral poem. You have kids, I’ll be the cool uncle that your kids want to be.
TA = Get a stable job, you don’t want to be poor!
R= International teacher and adventurer is a full time job. It’s stability is concrete in that I am not tied to a steadfast location. Contract ends, I find a job here or move! The world is my job market oyster. I am never poor, as I always have enough to eat, cloth and roof myself. The rest of wealth is stored in the emotional bank and I am pretty happy with the numbers.
TA= But that’s not normal.
R= I strive to be as abnormal as possible. No! It boils down to happiness. That is why I hesitate to generalize. If a suit and tie and Lambourgini make you excessively happy, then do it up. For me, a suit and tie are constricting and a car as a representational of more than cutthroat work ethic, an unshakeable faith in class delineation and sad attempt at becoming the human superlative is as confounding as you may find my excessive facial hair at times, my spontaneous tattoos and my amplified emotional states.
This is not a woe as me narrative, quite the contrary. You should be not just proud of the quirks you are allotted, but the quirks you develop out of experiencing life and discovering what you want of it. Because as I said before it’s a short stint, a snap of the fingers and I did not want to wait until I had to sit on a geriatrics filled bus to be hurled around this planet. I want to see it by bicycle. I want to see it in slow motion. I want to see it now and bask in it all.
Extended family dinners are awkward at times. The question, “what are you doing?” is always asked. I respond in earnest and a lot of the times they smile, in confusion, as if that will remedy their feelings of judgement. I know many of them don’t understand me, but at the same time, they all came around and support me. Good family will always do that, so don’t worry about the disowning factor. You can’t live as a source of vicariousness for people anyways.
So dream. If it’s in line with their dreams, great. If it is off the beaten path, unconventional, constantly moving, great as well. Pursue it all. Fail. Pursue more. Succeed. Nothing is damning. Love your careers and families; maybe I’ll see you somewhere on the vast highways. And it’s not our cup of tea, but we’ll understand why each other like to sip it. Because it makes us happy and that’s the crux of it all the why questions you can ask about existence.
Tourism in China is a weird thing. The Olympics of 2008 in Beijing spotlighted this once stigmatized powerhouse in a new light and the influx of tourists, curious to discover it’s rich history and culture, came pouring in from all directions. And the Chinese government sort of understands the process to deal with this. People want to be able to access the sites, the flavors and people that Maoist China tried to subjugate, repress and ultimately uniform (They use none of those terms, nor did the Maoist government do ANYTHING like that).
Their solution to this semi-new venture, tourism, is what’s strange. Like a flawed translation on many English signs throughout China, there seems to be a bit of a miscommunication of what international tourists are interested in seeing and how what their interested in seeing is expected to be presented. That’s a vast generalization, but for myself, if fly half way around the world to see something, I want to see something that is at least somewhat authentic and real. That’s the difference between seeing it in person and via media. Attached to this authenticity is an indescribable feeling of achievement, a connection to something beyond one’s own world, and the thrill of experiencing, immersing and discovering something new for yourself. Yet China’s approach to their unique cultures, languages and especially places, is reconstituting, rebuilding, modifying rather than preservation. Many of the historical sites that survived the Red Guard are being remodeled to provide a Disneyland-like, rather than an emerging experience in history. The grit, the real businesses, even the buildings themselves, have been replaced by five star accommodations, vendors selling chachkies and pre-fab, historical facades. One of China’s famous UNESCO heritage sites, Lijiang, almost lost it’s heritage status for attempting to rebuild the ancient black tiled roofed town as a resort, after one of it’s many earthquakes. It’s everywhere. Look in your China guidebooks. 9 times out of 10, the historical building you are standing in has been rebuilt. From Qianmen Business District in Beijing (torn down and rebuilt exactly the same) to large sections of the Great Wall.
Though maybe this is a very North American stance on tourism. Maybe China is focused on local tourism, since for Chinese nationals, it’s very difficult to impossible to leave the country. On that subject, I simply have my observations of large buses, unloading their leader with their volumed up megaphones and umbrellas, followed by hoards all wearing the same hats, so they know who they should follow, blending into an earthen colored mass, filling up quaint, quiet and historical places with bursting commotion, noise and refuse. Pictures are snapped, mechanically, fingers are held in peace signs, or two hands come together to complete an unbelievable heart, occurring in no matter what venue, winding cobblestoned street or tranquil holy temple. I fear though that the “real” China that the international community strives to locate is fast becoming theme parks, parades or simply, like the hutongs of Beijing and Shanghai, being demolished for shinier, newer facilities, that cheaply emulate something that could have stood for a thousand more generations.
The sun blinds us as we pedal towards the main square of the city. My jacket is dark blue from sweat, but mostly rain. All that stops me from sailing off in the wrong direction, is the dark lines of the cobbled stone in front of me that don’t catch the glaring setting light.
Ill preparation is part of my existence. I seem to feed off it, like as if the time constraint, the lack of supplies is a challenge to be faced, rather than a careless burden that could have been avoided. Everything is purchased last minute, bikes, locks, cellphone, GoPro gear. I don’t even consider proper shoes, clips, tubes or even a fully packed practice ride around the city. My route planning is also off, delusional that we could bike 50 km, even though Rachel has never biked long distance in her life. Plus, I hated doing things for endurance. I get no thrill in pushing my body, without allowing my mind to indulge in the culture and history that whizzes by without me giving it a second glance. And yet, with all that said, this week was all about Rachel’s endurance.
The first destination outside of Amsterdam was the old university city of Utrecht. We prepped for several days prior, getting bikes at second hand stores and markets, getting film equipment, etc. People who go to Amsterdam for that one immature purpose, miss the heart of why this city is so magnificent and how effortless it seems to be as awesome as it is, from it’s bakeries, to it’s architecture, to it’s wonderful herring and stroopwaffels. Besides the bike and camera stuff, we also had a chance to taste wonderful fresh stroopwaffels at a local market, all thanks to our fearless leader and host Dennis. If you don’t know what a stroopwaffel is, I will not bother explaining it, because I feel if I do, I will not do it justice and undersell it, even though it will sound as if I was 14 year old prepubescent girl talking about Justin Bieber. Just look it up. We also had a chance to look at a few museums, including Anne Frank’s house, the Rijks Museum and the Church in the Attic and the wonderful Rembrant’s House. We also saw the dark tryptic work of Frances Bacon, which was on display at the New Church and had a good chuckle at the Sex Museum. After all said and done, it was nice to see Amsterdam again and knew that we would be back at the end of our trip to see a bit more before heading home (so many museums!!).
The journey started out in a tangle of bungie cord and confusion. Putting on the panniers and gear for the first time made me come to the realization, when under the gun, it really looks better if during the actual event you had the entire procedure written into memory, rather than ad-libbing as you go. Many questions arose that morning:
What are all these straps for?
What snaps to what?
Where is this going to fit?
How does this even go on?
Lucky our couch surfer Dennis came to the rescue and explained everything in laymen’s terms, which is a nice way of saying, he had no other choice but to talk down to us. So after some trial and error we were off. Or were we?
Now, Rachel is amazing at many things. The one responsibility I have is to route plan. Now, when you route plan you have to take into account various factors, such as weather, terrain, wind etc. I did most of that, except for one essential piece of the puzzle, that without this one piece, the entire picture reads as unartistic nonsense, derelict of any rhyme or reason for it’s creation. When route planning you have to take into account as to who is cycling. Now, I thought, well 60 KM, no problem. Rachel, on the other hand, has never cycled a distance longer than 25 to 30 KM, so double that length, is quite a big deal. Needless to say, my acute blunderbuss led to many yelling fits at the elements, at the hills, at a innocent tree, whoever or whatever was around to receive a verbal lashing got it. But I shall cut out such details from our trip, because the first week’s scenery and adventure much overshadow such inane parts.
The bike paths in the Netherlands are wonderful and we easily exited Amsterdam without much issue. Along the river, we say a regatta race taking place, sponsored by the drink of champions and people who piss in public areas with no shame, Henieken. Over several lovely bridges, passed the Hermitage Museum, the Dutch extension of the Russian Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Then south, along another river, passed section off plots of land by green painted chain fences, where small gardens were just starting to show their bulbs and stalks through the wet earth. The weather was cloudy and it looked always on the cusp of raining, but thankfully, day one, we didn’t see a drop of precipitation.
And then we were lost. The scent of the trail had gone missing and we are in a random residential area in Amsterdam Zuid. Asking around, after several wrong turns, through a university campus, dead end, turn around, we were off to Utrecht. Everything was on our side, the weather and the wind. Through some city and then WOOMP, into the countryside, with windmills and cows on all sides. Picturesque scenery overload. Small towns with people going about the daily routines gave life to the colourful backdrop, ancient structures with beings sitting inside of them reading books at a kitchen table, playing with their children or sitting outside at tables drinking cold beer and laughing, either at stories told or at the two strange figures, one with some sort of attena coming out of his head, pacing swiftly by on four wheels (two bikes, four wheels, yay math). The antenna, being the go pro camera, that while it looks a bit silly, is way better than the filming system I had on my last cycling trip in 2010, which involved me holding a handy cam in one hand and steering the bicycle with the other. The danger factor isn’t the concern, but the effort to do both things at once, film and steer and the shaky result, was like forcing people to watch one of those terribly amateur bootlegs of Lord of the Rings, lot’s of action is going on on the screen and you as the audience really want to enjoy it, but you are not sure what exactly is happening and the cameraman seems to have been sitting on a mechanical bull while filming it.
Around 3pm, we stopped at a lone restaurant in the middle of small town. I had a club sandwich and Rachel had an egg salad sandwich. Both hit the spot, giving us that burst of energy we needed to make it to our final destination for the day. Passing some house boats where people were out on their deck drinking red whine and people watching, we turned right into the city. Utrecht at around 6pm is full of students, biking in all directions, home or to the library or to an eatery, actually these are simply assumptions, who knows, they could be off to a cuddle party, I can’t be the judge.
We pushed on through the hordes, along the river, through the old buildings of red brick, that looked as if they we covered in flowing blood that was darkening in hue, as the sun dipped farther down behind them. A right turn and we were at Louis’s house. He was our host for the evening, a wonderfully jovial man, with a silent laugh and amazing electric viola skills. He greeted us with a banana, which seems perverse, but he actually presented us with the fruit, a very edible and peel-a-ble banana, intuitively knowing that the first day of cycling is hard. After locking up our bikes, we dragged our blue Ortlieb panniers up 3 flights of stairs, that I would consider to be more ladders than stairs, as you are forced, due to their verticality, to climb up them on all fours. I could imagine a night of drinking and being faced with this challenge. I can imagine a five minute climb, turning into an Everest ordeal, involving a lot of awkward body positions and several steps backwards and by steps I mean brutal falls.
That night, Rachel made a wonderful pasta and we drank wonderful local microbrewed beer and watched video of Louis at last year’s pride parade in Amsterdam, which involves 80 floats going down one of the larger canals. Louis’s float, which I don’t remember exactly who it was sponsored by, had a large Teddy Bear on it and a bar. Before reaching a bridge that stretched across the canal, the large inflated bear had to be deflated at a rapid pace and then inflated again once the bridge was cleared. Quite a process that involved some training prior to the actual parade day. It reminded of a Buster Keaton film called The Boat, which involved a similar gimmick. Behind their float, was a small boat, where a two woman, both in wedding dresses, celebrated their 16 years of marriage together. The magnitude of this event was impressive and the 700,000 people that attended just added to the epic proportions of it.
It was a wonderful evening, which again reminded me why I love couch surfing over hosteling. You can visit the museums, you can eat the food, you can even share some words with some locals, but actually being in a local’s house, eating with them, conversing with them, that’s where cultural exchange actually occurs, where you are no longer seeing a country as a tourist attraction, but as a visceral experience, with a unique soul and stories to be told in singular identifiable voices of people you have had the pleasure to be in the company of.
We awoke to a cat in our face. Chip, 16 years of age and grumpy looking, sits on my chest, starring at me expectantly. Louis has gone off to work, trusting us to lock up and be on our way. And we were, quite rapidly, out the door, down the three flights of ladders, out the door, bags on the bikes, sun peaking behind clouds, a slight ting of rain in the air and off we go, over bridges and cobbles and bike paths of painted red.
We were rushing for the border. Day 3 and we were crossing from The Netherlands into Germany. And yet, our Dutch friends never ceased to amaze us. This museum sign is literally in the middle of nowhere on some back country road. Since of our hurry we never did get to check it out. Lucky for me, the internet let me have a second chance. PS, my friend biked all the way to Budapest, this being his only faux injury. No poles with museum signs were harmed during the taking of the picture.
The crash museum website:
With Southbend in my rearview (figuratively speaking) and only a few towns ahead til the end of Washington, I set my sights on the town of Ilwaco. Unfortunately, due to a late start and my wandering soul’s good intentions to take everything in, Ilwaco was not where I would end up that night.
Passing the 4,000 intertidal mudflats, the numerous shells strewn about by accident or by design, put this part of the world’s secret on display. The Willapa oyster, smoked, friend or cooked, a gumbo, a burger or raw, was apparently the creme de la creme of oysters. That’s quoting a local resident. Despite what the episode may say, I did for lunch have a fried Willapa oyster burger, and while yes, I’d rather have breaded fish or beef between those two buns, this was pretty damn good with homemade tartar sauce.
So yes! No Ilwaco, yes to some random town called Naselle that had not much more than a shopping centre, a church, a gas station and a motel for 30 bucks a night. After sneaking my bike in the room (they had told me I could keep it outside…if I had to argue for it’s right to stay inside like people due, I would have seemed a bit off), I went to the a-joint restaurant/pub/karaoke bar for some eats and a beer to wind down. Lucky for me, it was karaoke night and in a small town like this one could only imagine the wonderfully unique inebriated locals that would come spitting their sorrows into a song. Well tonight was a good night, because it seemed to be biker night. Not just any type of biker, but as I sat at the bar conversing with the bartender a wide-stanced shadow lured me to see who had entered into our midst. There stood the large sized lot, posed like a pose take a photo, tattoos faded, masses of blotchy colors, hair blowing in the wind. Drinks were consumed like bullets from firing squads, laughs drowned out conversation, slaps on the back would have hospitalized me. Their women sat on their laps, my knees hurt from thinking about such weight situated on my frail frame. Nothing was frail about these ladies, their saliva was iron ore, their sweat was ethanol, their glance made doors where walls once were. Then the singing commenced. Duets, solos, manage a trois, a guy constantly laughing and talking to his friends instead of singing, you name it, it happened. A large man, who reminded me of Gimli from Lord of the Rings, perched tidiously on his stool beside me, the leather screatching beneath him as he swivelled to catch the performance. We talked, I don’t remember about what, partly because it was about nothing, partly because his English has turned into slurred jargon. He introduced me to “Bill, Ted, Ryan, Ethol” a slew of characters from his motley crew. It was his turn to sing, he stared at me for support, so I sang loud too, not knowing what the hell I was singing. He asked where I was staying.
“Right here, at the Inn”
“Wellllll….whhhhhy don’t you come stay with uuuussss??”
“Well, thank you, but I already paid for my room”
“I can take care of that”
Not wanting him to take care of that or me or anything, I slowly slunk out, like Alice at the tea party and passed out in my room, exhausted and beer smelling.
The next day I packed, returned my key and zooooom, I was on the Columbia River, one of the widest rivers in the US, Oregon was on the other side, but it was still a world a way. Many boats over the centuries have been engulfed by this moody body of water and I saw a few victims washed up on the shore. Lewis and Clark, the great explorers almost died in the Columbia several times. I tried to imagine crossing such distance in a canoe. I looked at my arms. Not much there, I would probably have capsized two strokes in. In boats, unlike bicycles, there are no downhills, no cruising. And before me stood my only way across this monstrosity of H2O that separated the two states. The Megler Bridge, one of the largest bridges in the states, over 4 km in length, I wasn’t really sure if bikes were allowed to be on it. Well, there wasn’t really an information booth insight, unless I wanted to round the bend, go in the wrong direction, back to Ilwaco. To hell with it, it was windy, so might as well throw caution to it and see where it flies. And fly I did, cars zoomed passed me, my camera tried to capture the moment I crossed over the boarder, you barely can make out the Oregon sign. Winds tried to hurl me off the side into the blue below. Not a single car honked, so I knew I was in the clear on that front. I wasn’t in the clear for many other fronts. Headwind tried to blow me back into Washington as well. The clouds were heavy and looked like at any moment they would unleash, slickening this already terrifying crossing. At the last moment, the bridge turned upward, into a steep incline. So this is where the boats go under….so happy it’s at the end and so suddenly. My legs screamed at the sudden hill, my hands worked quickly, changing my gears around so I could manage. There was no possible way I could stop and readjust. Finally, the incline, declined. I was in Astoria. I was in Oregon.
Washington had been my learning curve of the basics of touring. Oregon would be the intermediate and hard level as the landscape turned into a roller coaster of peaks, cliffs and gullies. As I sat in a coffee shop, staring at the poster proclaiming that Ninja Turtles had been shot in this town, I thought of how great this trip has been a rekindling my inner child, how much fun it was to play again, how one should never loose this light, this light that keeps one exploring, and wondering and being curious about all things, making the world new everyday.