Danielle R Reed
520 Bridle Rd
Glenside PA 19038
Welcome to my web site. To learn more about what I do at work, please see the web site at the Monell Chemical Senses Center (www.monell.org). If you want to read about my recent bike trip to China, keep going….
Bicycling in China. In April of 2002, I flew from my hometown of Philadelphia to Shanghai to attend the Human Genome Organization International Meeting, where I stayed at the Oriental Riverside Hotel, near the Oriental Pearl Tower. After the meeting was over, I took a 3-hr airplane ride to the city of Chengdu, which served as a base for the bicycle trip. The bike ride started near sea level in the Sichuan Basin and we climbed steadily up over a mountain pass, to Rilongtown, near the Four Sisters Mountain, and onward, along a river gorge, to a town called Danba. To return to Chengdu, we retraced our route by public bus, and arrived on the outskirts of Chengdu, where were met by pre-arrangement and driven back to Chengdu. The bike trip took eight days, and the details and highlights are below. Peter Snow Cao, who developed this tour, has an account with details about route and elevations, which you may want to consult.
Choking in Chengdu. You may have heard of the Chinese city of Chengdu but I hadn’t. Although Chengdu is a very large city, probably rivaling my hometown of Philadelphia in population, it was unknown to me. I went there because I wanted to tour China by bike, bypassing tourist spots, and see its daily life. The only English speaking bike tour company that I could find, BikeChina, was located in Chengdu and so I flew to Chengdu from Shanghai.
In America in the 1970’s, there were a rash of made-for-TV movies designed to whip up support for clean-air legislation. A typical closing scene in these movies was of a body of a dead bird, unable to survive in the dirty air humans had created. The scenes in these movies came to mind as I got off the airplane in Chengdu in the People’s Republic of China. The air was dark gray, and I panicked, wondering if it was safe to breathe. In the airport, people seemed to be going about their business, so I had to assume that the air was not immediately fatal. I got off the airplane and breathed, and the air smelled normal, so I met my guide and collected my luggage, went outside and got a taxi, surreptitiously looking around for dead birds.
Mee Huang was my guide, a Malaysian-born Chinese woman, who, coincidently, was educated in England at the same University (Leeds) that my husband attended. She speaks both Mandarin and English fluently. In Chengdu, we stayed at Sam’s Guesthouse on a side street. During my five days in Shanghai, I had stayed in a five-star hotel catering to Western business people, with everything business travelers might want but without any features that might indicate that you were in any particular country, especially China. Sam’s Guesthouse was clearly in China, and our adventure was beginning.
Would you rather have people beg for money, or overcharge you? Although I biked through rural parts of China where people were poor, no one, during the entire trip, ever begged me for money. The only time I saw anyone that looked like they would take money from a stranger was a disheveled man who sat outside a monastery in Chengdu, and he sat quietly, in a daze, with a bowl for alms. However, just because there was no begging does not mean that we didn’t supplement the pockets of those we encountered along the way. Overcharging of foreigners is a common and legal practice, and the Chinese have no shame about trying to extract what money that they can from you. However, if you give them extra money without being asked, for instance, tipping a taxi driver, there is bewilderment and suspicion. Why would you pay more than the asking price? Tipping demonstrates that you have not understood the game in China.
What can a middle class American learn about China in a week? I speak no Mandarin other than to greet people and to say good-bye, and I only recognize the Chinese characters for male and female to choose the correct restroom in public facilities. To learn and understand about China, I relied on what I saw, not what people told me, and although sometimes frustrating, I was comforted by the American idiom “actions speak louder than words”. So there is a lot that remains a mystery, but I can tell you what I saw and how I interpreted what I saw.
Chinese children are the stars of the show. Because I was homesick for my son and daughter, children caught my eye first in most situations. I saw many children of all ages in the city, town and country, but I never saw an adult speak a harsh word to a child and I never heard a baby cry. Babies are carried around by adults, never left alone, and never put down on the floor. The babies were plump, clean and were usually the best-dressed members of the family. Whether this apparent love of babies is a by-product of the government policy that restricts each family to one child, or reflects a long-standing, natural love of children, I don’t know. I took several pictures of children I encountered along the way—I was shy about taking the pictures of adults because I didn’t have sufficient Mandarin to ask their permission, but everyone was always enthusiastic when I took pictures of children.
One of my favorite parts of the trip, the children of
One of my favorite parts of the trip, the children of China.
My white and foreign face was startling to babies, and they would often cry when I tried to play with them, which made me sad.
Older children were curious about me, and friendly—they would often rush up and try out their English. Common phrases were “hello, bye-bye, and how-are-you?” By US standards I am a well-educated person, having a Ph.D. and so forth, but I am ashamed to tell you that the average Chinese nine year-old child speaks more English than I can speak Mandarin. My impression was that speaking English is “cool” in China, an opportunity to impress your peers and is not perceived to be giving in to the Ugly American. Chinese people were proud to speak English in the same way that English speakers are proud to order French food in French restaurants speaking fluent French. It impresses friends. Teen-age children would often greet me in English, and when I replied in English, they burst into embarrassed giggles. Several of the teenagers strived unsuccessfully to convince their friends that they spoke English with foreigners all the time. No one, however, was fooled by this display of moxie.
Hill People, Town People. In the rural regions near Chengdu, there are native people wearing traditional dress and they worked on plots of land and raised vegetables, fruit, chickens and pigs. These people are referred to as “Hill People” or sometimes, more sinisterly, as “Trouble People”. Walking through small towns, it appeared that people in native dress and those in ordinary dress spent time together in small groups. Older women wore native dress in higher proportions compared with younger women. It appeared to me that generational differences may be a source of tension within the Hill People, as young men and women leave the Hills and move into the city. I compared the Hill people to the Amish people near where I live in America. The Amish are a community who support themselves on farms, follow a religious code and live apart from mainstream American culture. The comparison may be nonsensical to those who know more history of the Hill people, but that is how it looked to me.
Spitting and poop and BYOTP. No description of rural China would be complete without a discussion of spit and poop, and to summarize the situation, there is too much of both. The men living in rural China and the small towns smoke cigarettes constantly—so much so, I found myself wondering whether the air pollution was caused solely from tobacco combustion. And because all the men smoke (at least this is my theory), they have respiratory infections and spit phlegm constantly, even in restaurants with linoleum floors, even in buses, and on the floors of the hotels, where you can see the dark outlines of dried spit. Women also spit, with gusto and precision. While I am on the subject of sanitation, I want to discuss toilets. I drank very little water and tea in China to avoid having to use the bathroom. The bathrooms have poop smeared on the floor and piles of damp used toilet paper everywhere, and would usually have a hole in the floor that you would squat over. The toilets looked bad and smelled worse. I learned to stuff my nostrils with strips of “moist towelettes” brought from the US before entering a bathroom, and found that I could use the bathroom much better if I didn’t have to smell the fecal brine. Even in the more modern hotels, the bathrooms are not cleaned, and I longed to scrub every toilet I saw with bleach until my hands bled.
If you are going to use the toilet, bring your own toilet paper. Upon opening my purse, wads of unused tissues and napkins would fly out in a disordered mass—everywhere I went, I collected tissue for use as toilet paper. Here is another shocker: used toilet paper does not go in the toilet, but rather in a basket next to the toilet. Nothing should be put into the toilet that you don’t want to see floating in the river. There are no sewage treatment plants in the parts of China I visited other than the cleansing power of the river. And as a side note, I never saw anyone wade or swim in the river. I tried not to think about where the fish lived prior to ending up on my dinner plate.
And so what about the bike? People who choose to travel in a foreign country by bicycle are often an odd lot, perhaps only unified by personality traits such as independence and the love of detail seen at a slower pace. Therefore, I would suspect that most American and Europeans who have a taste for a bike tour in China are not candidates for a “bike tour” organized by a professional because they like to do things their own way, at their own pace. As you might expect, my first inclination was to do a self-guided, self-supported tour. However, after communion with my more mature self, I realized that to bike in rural China, alone, female, White, and speaking almost no Mandarin, was more than I could do. And so I signed on for an organized tour, which, because no one else opted to come along with me, was composed of Mee Huang, my guide and I, so in some ways I had the best of both worlds: freedom to do anything that we could both agree to, someone to speak Mandarin and navigate the more difficult transactions, and company with someone who also loves to ride her bike.
If you are interested and have read this far, you will be wondering whether an organized tour is for you. What I learned from my experience is that it is probably physically possible to bike most places in China, but that there are few routes that are beautiful, safe and able to teach you about the Chinese way of life. To find a route that you will enjoy at least part of the time, you need to rely on local opinion from someone who understands your values. In my case, Peter Snow Cao organized the trip, and it would be hard to imagine a more ideal tour for me—along a beautiful and lightly traveled road, up into the mountains, and into the shadow of Tibetan culture. There was plenty to see and no other tourists in sight, and I never would have found the route on my own.
Is it dangerous to bike in China? Even on a carefully selected route, Chinese roads are deadly—in eight days, we saw three serious accidents. If you are hit and killed, that makes you only one of many people that day who died on their bicycle. The drivers are generally skilled and not at all malicious, which made a change from the US countryside, but anything can and does happen on the roadways. To say accidents, fatal accidents, are common is to indulge in understatement. If you are hit but not killed outright, there are no medical facilities that Americans would recognize as such, and my guess is that some types of trauma would be fatal in China whereas the same trauma would not be if you were injured in the US. Reading this from the safety of your home country, you may be inclined to scoff, but I developed a healthy respect for the hazards of bike riding in China, and it is not overly dramatic to say that death lurks around each corner. Even though you will be the only one doing so in the whole country, wear your helmet.
The philosophy of beep. In China, when a vehicle passes you, either on your right or on your left, they are legally required to honk. If you are an American or European, you might imagine that the constant “beep, beep” sounds annoying, but in fact, it serves as a reliable warning of what is happening behind you, and is an assurance that the driver has seen you, and intends to pass you safely. I learned to love the constant beeping, I was safe because it felt like lines of constant communication were open between the driver and I. When someone in the US honks at me while I am riding my bike, it makes me so angry I often shout or at least make an impolite gesture, but not so in China.
They were the best of roads, they were the worst of roads. Good roads in China are smooth, swept, free of holes and a pleasure to ride along. Bad roads in China are dirt ruts full of rocks, dust and mud. I never saw a good road that didn’t look brand new, and the bad roads look like they have been there for three thousand years. My bike was a hybrid without front suspension, but I would have worried less and been more confident with a more rugged mountain bike fitted with tires with deep tread. Road bikes and touring bikes will not do, unless you are positive that there will be only high quality roads. Given the fast pace of construction in China, there is almost no way you can predict what road surfaces you might find, so the mountain bike is the safe choice.
I spend time trying to incorporate bike riding into business or work-related travel, so, rather than carry around a big bike case, I decided to get a bike that unscrews and fits into a suitcase. Steve Bilenky at Artistry in Steel made me a bike that fits into a suitcase small enough to be checked as regular luggage by most airlines. Although I love the color, I wrestled with the bike when getting both in and out of the suitcase. I am not mechanically inclined, and when my husband first explained the concept of a bike that fits into a suitcase, I had an idea that I would push a discrete button on the bike, and it would fold itself up in a puff of smoke and be stowed neatly away. It doesn’t quite work like that.
This is my “unscrewable” bike that fits into a
suitcase. If you look closely, you
can see evidence of poor bike nutrition (i.e., the half-empty Pepsi
bottle). The handlebars are still
in good shape but this would change after the bike fell off the roof of the
bus on the return trip from Danba.
Mee Huang’s bike fell off first and took the brunt of
punishment. She fared less well,
with a taco’d wheel and rim.
This is my “unscrewable” bike that fits into a suitcase. If you look closely, you can see evidence of poor bike nutrition (i.e., the half-empty Pepsi bottle). The handlebars are still in good shape but this would change after the bike fell off the roof of the bus on the return trip from Danba. Mee Huang’s bike fell off first and took the brunt of punishment. She fared less well, with a taco’d wheel and rim.
Rules of good bike nutrition flew out the window. Although extreme views about sports nutrition exist, there are some basic rules to which most people subscribe. I violated the basic rules, and paid the price. First of all, there are no sports beverages in rural China, and so the drink choices are Pepsi, orange soda, a yellow drink that looked like urine, bottled water and tea. You can construct from those options suitable hydration for long bike rides, but two factors kept me from drinking enough fluid. First of all, frequent drinking means frequent bathroom stops, and this was something I wanted to avoid because of the filthy toilets. A note to the men reading this monograph—you may not have the advantages you think. Although the sanitation is poor by US standards, I never saw a man urinate out of doors, and my interpretation of the frequent number of rural toilets is that al fresco bathroom breaks is poor form, even for men working in fields and forests. My second problem, which kept me from drinking enough fluid, was the unexpected nausea and extreme fatigue. It reminded me of the way I felt during the first three months of pregnancy. Putting anything near my mouth, even my toothbrush, revolted me, and I had to force myself to drink even a little bit. This problem resolved when I adapted to the altitude (up to 14k feet), and is evidently common among people who go up too far, too fast.
The available food posed challenges but also provided bright spots. Americans cherish a hope that when they visit somewhere new, they will be able to eat the locally grown or caught foods. For instance, if you go to the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, you hope to eat fresh, locally caught crabs. American tourists are often disappointed because refrigeration and freezing of foods is pervasive, and your seafood dinner in Maryland is likely to have been caught thousands of miles away and frozen. Similarly, Americans like their ethnic cuisine authentic and criticize the American versions of foods: Taco Bell is not real Mexican food and the corner Chinese restaurant does not offer real Chinese food. I am reminding you of these details as a way of prefacing what is good about rural China. There is little or no refrigeration, and the food you eat is all grown locally and fresh, at least in the sense that it has just been picked or killed. And if you have been searching for authentic Chinese cuisine all your life, you can relax. You found it.
This situation has a downside: no matter how hard you search, you will only be offered authentic Chinese food. There are no other choices. In rural China, you do not swing into McDonalds for fries and a cup of coffee. Since neither Mee Huang nor I can read a Chinese menu, she would go into the kitchen, see what food they had, point out what looked good, and asked the cook to prepare it. This is system that worked well for me because I never had to look at the kitchen and every meal was a surprise. Mee Huang, however, bore two burdens: she never complained about the kitchens, but I am sure that she saw bits of dead animals and filth. Second, she had to find something that I could eat when faced with few choices. Mee Huang is a vegetarian and I am not an enthusiastic carnivore, and it seemed best to avoid all meat products, especially after seeing the windows of tripe and chicken feet displayed in the markets. We ate vegetables, noodles and rice and sometimes eggs and tofu. Although good sports nutrition would dictate frequent small meals, it is not feasible when biking in rural China. There is no way to put rice and vegetables in your back pocket for later. There is some snack food, like packaged cookies, but it is stale and overpriced, and never looks appealing enough to buy unless you are starving.
Chinese food for lunch and dinner is common in the US, but a Chinese breakfast was alien and unappetizing. After several attempts, I did learn to pick my way through a typical Chinese breakfast. In the more sophisticated places we stayed, we were offered porridge of watery rice, little buns of bland white bread, peanuts, fermented tofu, fermented cabbage and tea. This seemed to be a standard breakfast in the same way that you would go to a Denny’s in the US and get bacon, eggs, toast and coffee. The shock for me was eating rice porridge with no salt, butter, sugar or jam. It was too bland, and tasted like something you would feed a sick baby. The bland buns of bread, when filled with peanuts, could almost pass as an American style peanut butter sandwich, and became a staple food item for me. The fermented tofu tasted like a well-matured Stilton cheese, which I enjoy, but not for breakfast. I gave a wide berth to the pickled cabbage, and noticed that the Chinese diners did too. My guess was the proportion of Chinese who eat the pickled cabbage for breakfast is the same as the number of Americans who eat the parsley decoration served on restaurant meals.
We were cycling in Sichuan province, which is famous for its spicy food. I like spicy food and I was disappointed because the cooks would hear from the waitresses that I was a White Foreigner and then would not add chili to my food. We sometimes suspected the cook would add my extra chili into Mee Huang’s food to make up the deficit, which made her mouth burn and her stomach upset. Occasionally, cooks and waitresses would make an attempt to give me something they thought a White Foreigner would enjoy—I was happier than you might imagine to have strawberry jam one morning for breakfast, and a kind cook made me French Fries with catsup on another occasion.
A word about my drug of choice. During the first three days of the bike trip, I felt progressively worse and worse, so much so that I became scared. I felt sick but I didn’t know why. As it turns out, it was altitude sickness, but at the time, I attributed it to the lack of coffee. In Shanghai, at the luxury hotel, there was plenty of coffee but as we moved further and further into the mountains, coffee was non-existent. However, at the nadir of my illness, Mee Huang discovered powered “Nescafe”, which is sold at extortionate prices and is composed of instant coffee, chemical cream, and sugar, and is sold in powered form. My lust for coffee was intense, and I developed an understanding about the base nature of the drug addict. The coffee did not cure my altitude sickness but it did make me happy.
A word about the Chinese drug of choice. I am unsure if the tea drunk by the average Chinese person has any type of psychoactive drugs in it, but I assume it does because people drink tea the same way that Americans drink coffee. Chinese workers have a metal, plastic or glass cup, not unlike an American style coffee cup designed to accompany you in the car, and they take their cup everywhere they go. There are constant refills of water for the tea, and tea is sipped morning, noon, and night. It is always tea-time in China. I assume that tea must be an addictive substance, otherwise, no one would go to the trouble to heat the water. Frankly, it didn’t do anything for me, and did not damp my thirst for coffee.
The sheets are clean but the floors are dirty. Our trip was planned so that each night we would stay at a hotel: the hotels were similar in style, but differed in the degree of comfort. The key issue was the availability of hot water. If the hotel had hot, running water 24 hours a day in the room, we knew we had found the best hotel available. The next step down was hot water available during certain hours, or sometimes, we had to ask to have the hot water turned on so we could shower. There were rooms with running cold water but not hot water and there were rooms with no running water.
Here is a travel tip: when you check into a Chinese hotel room, do not change your clothes when you arrive. If you do, you will be naked when the hotel staff brings you two enormous thermoses of hot drinking water. The thermos bottles of hot water are huge, and can provide enough hot water for many cups of tea. The bottles keep water so hot for so long that they seem magical. I would pour hot water from a thermos that had been in my room for 24 hours, and find the water burning hot.
By my standards, Chinese hotel rooms are somewhere between dirty and filthy, and there are usually things that previous guests left behind, like cigarette butts and old soda bottles. The floors usually have a smattering of mud, dirt and dried spit and I would never walk in the room unless I was wearing shoes or slippers. However, even in the dirtiest hotel rooms, the sheets had been changed—they are not clean, exactly, but you could tell they had been washed and dried. My coping strategy was not to look carefully at anything that I encountered in my hotel rooms. Mostly, I looked out the window and watched the activity and the scenery outside my room.
Some passing social commentary. Biking in suburban Philadelphia, I feel sad that the farms and open land are being turned into homes with lawns. The change seems so rapid. Compared to the suburban sprawl we complain about, however, there is ten times more construction in China than the US—this seems like an exaggeration, but it is the honest truth. No matter where I was, I saw something being either built or renovated. The aftermath of such an explosion in construction is hard to judge, and I plan a trip back in ten years time to see the outcome, but the immediate effect is that most people working look purposeful and satisfied, and there is a sense of optimism, that electricity, roads, clean water and prosperity will come to everyone. I felt pity for no one I saw, and my impression is that the average person thinks better times are ahead, and they are all working hard to make it happen. Maybe no one feel sad to see that houses and factories have replaced the farmland.
Disneyworld meets Pandaworld. Some people in China, however, must be mindful about preserving land and rare animals, because they created a nature preserve for the Giant Pandas. Woolong is the name of the nature preserve, and part of it is an enclave where tourists can visit the Pandas. It has a hotel with clean rooms and hot water, a restaurant with white tablecloths and a menu, and landscaped lawns. When I looked out of my hotel room, across the lawn, I could see a construction site for the new hospital for the Giant Pandas, and beyond that is the place where about 40 Giant Pandas are kept in captivity. Coming to Woolong was like going to a zoo for pandas. Some pandas are babies, and they have a jungle gym to play on, and trees to climb, and frankly, are so cute that any attempt I might make to describe them sounds saccharin.
The meaning of the Giant Panda to the Chinese people is similar to the meaning of the Bald Eagle to Americans. They are both important symbols, but there is a slight twist for the Chinese. I didn’t realize it, but the Giant Pandas are also important money-makers and those workers that care for the Giant Pandas are under pressure to make sure the Giant Pandas are happy, healthy and reproduce as often as they can. Giant Pandas are rented to zoos around the world and a worker at Woolong told me that one zoo in the United States paid ten million US dollars for a ten-year panda rental. While I visited, impatient and expensively dressed Chinese men came, and were given tours of the areas off limit to the public, and these men had their pictures taken with the youngest pandas. My guess is that this is the political equivalent of dinner at the White House.
For a price, ordinary tourists can have their pictures taken with an adult Panda, and although I am ashamed to admit that I did it, I too had my picture taken. I may sound silly, but it was wonderful to be that close to a Panda, and it was a joyous moment for me—although my conscious was telling me that it was wrong to exploit an endangered species by turning it into a circus animal.
Love at first site in Woolong Nature Preserve. Many people have wondered if this animal
is a real Panda, and I can tell you that is certainly smelled like
one. If you look at the Panda’s
hands, you will see a treat, perhaps sugarcane. This Panda was well habituated to sitting next to tourists
and seems to be enjoying himself.
The staff at Woolong raise money by taking pictures of the tourists
with this tame Panda.
Love at first site in Woolong Nature Preserve. Many people have wondered if this animal is a real Panda, and I can tell you that is certainly smelled like one. If you look at the Panda’s hands, you will see a treat, perhaps sugarcane. This Panda was well habituated to sitting next to tourists and seems to be enjoying himself. The staff at Woolong raise money by taking pictures of the tourists with this tame Panda.
And in conclusion: Although he meant it in a different context, Lance Armstrong had it right. It is not about the bike. Biking is one way to slow down, look around, be open to people you meet, get dirty, hungry, and thirsty and feel gratitude when you lay your head down at night. It is not the only way, but it is a good way.