My first cycling gaol was to get cycling legs and that’s going to take a while.
My second gaol came as a sort of happenstance, thanks to my Chinese teacher who lives in Shanghai. Her name is Merry Song.
I had been hanging out at Wikipedia the night before my lesson, hoping to come up with some idle chatter I could kill the time with and thereby avoid having to do the lesson I hadn’t studied for and review the kanji I hadn’t memorized.
“Do you speak Shanghai dialect?” I asked.
“No, but I understand it. My husband is from Shanghai.”
“Is it hard to learn?”
“No harder than Mandarin,” she said, meaning, “I’m Chinese and have lived in Shanghai for twenty years and my husband is from here and I still can’t speak it so, for you, impossible times a billion.”
“Oh. Do you speak any other dialects?”
“I can understand and speak Yunnan because that’s where my mother is from and that’s where I grew up.”
“Wow. That’s a long way from Shanghai, isn’t it.”
“Yes, it’s very far.”
“Do you still have family there?”
“Yes, I go back every year.”
I looked at the map. “How long does that take?”
“By plane it’s only a few hours. But by train it’s two days, about.”
“So you always fly?”
“No, I never fly. I always go by train.”
“Gambling. You sit in the train and meet many new people and chat and each time you go through a different area the food is different and play cards and gamble. Also there are different flavors of cigarettes in each region and you can smell them richly in the train compartment. Do you like to gamble?”
“No,” I said. “I’m extremely risk-averse.”
“You should take the train from Shanghai to Kunming some day. It’s very fun.”
“Yes. It’s a little expensive, slightly cheaper if you take the regular train.”
“How much is that?”
“About fifty US dollars.”
“For a two-day train trip across China?”
“Yes. But high prices can’t be avoided nowadays. I had a student who once came here and did this.”
“Did he like it?”
“It was wonderful. He learned so much about Chinese culture.”
“About gambling. He learned gambling and hospitals. They had to take him off the train one day because he ate bad food and got very sick. The taxi driver took him to the hospital and stole his suitcase and wallet and passport. It was very amusing to hear him tell the story about trying to get help in a rural village high in the mountains of Szechuan.”
“Oh yes, he had many funny stories. He had studied Chinese like you, but like you he really couldn’t speak or read or understand anything, like a small baby, very helpless. And they gave him some traditional medicine in the hospital and he got much sicker so they suggested cutting a hole in his skull to relieve the pressure and drain the fluid, but at the last minute there was an earthquake and all the power in the hospital went out. Many people died, but he did not.”
“He was taken back to Beijing and arrested because he had no passport in a disaster zone. Soon it was all straightened out.”
“Let’s see. He arrived in March and was back home by October.”
“Then what happened?”
“I’m not sure. I think he lost his job and the illness was bad for a while but eventually he recovered and can walk again.”
“Sounds like a great trip.”
“Yes, it was very memorable. I tell all my students about how exciting it can be when you are off the normal path and adventurous things happen.”
“What’s the best time to do this trip?”
“I would recommend March.”
“Are there bicycle rentals in Kunming?”
“I don’t know.”
So that’s my 2017 cycling gaol: Find out if there are rental bikes in Kunming after I arrive there from Shanghai by train.