A walk in the park

January 25, 2018 § 1 Comment

Like the cruel ex you keep crawling back to, the Belgian Waffle Ride rears its ugly head again this April, beckoning you with a crooked finger to come enjoy (enjoy?) a pleasant ride akin to a walk in the park, a park filled with burrs, thorns, stones, chasms, and venomous creatures of every kind. Two years have passed since I last mounted up and completed this beast of a ride, but here I am again, signed up and ready to submit.

Since misery really does love company, you should, too.

In case you’re wondering why, I reached out to people who have completed the BWR in years past, or to their next of kin, and compiled a pretty interesting list of fake quotes to encourage you to pay your money, take your chances, and sop up that feeling of being completely done in as you hang your head over a tall glass of cold Belgian ale, or cold water, or over the rim of the toilet.

They might have said it, but didn’t

John,  2012 finisher: “They say the BWR is the most unique ride in America. I don’t know what that means. Aren’t all rides unique? Bottom line is that this one will kick your ass if you finish and kick it if you don’t.”

Scott, 2012 quitter: “I honestly had no idea what I was in for. Michael invited me, so I did it. I’m sure the scenery was gorgeous but I didn’t really see any of it. It’s hard to see with crossed eyes and blood coming out from your sockets.”

Bill, 2013-2016 finisher: “I’ve done this ride four times and it gets better each time. The course is never the same but it keeps some of the sections from year to year. The more you do it, the better you get at it, but the course always wins out. It’s the high point of my year.”

Joe, 2015 finisher: “It was a walk in the park, but with mines. I broke an axle and had four flats. But I finished. And they didn’t even drink all the beer by the time I got back to the start-finish. Good times!”

Tom, 2014 quitter: “Dumbest ride ever. I hated it.”

Ron, 2014 finisher: “The biggest mistake you can make is to try and race the BWR. Unless you’re an elite roadie and have a realistic shot at a top-ten finish, the best medicine for this bad boy is to keep a steady pace, don’t hop in with any crazy fast groups, and do not stop except for water/hydration. You’ll finish in a reasonable time and won’t feel like you just crossed the Gobi on your knees.”

Anne, 2016 finisher: “The BWR likes to advertise itself as a combination dirt-and-road ride, but it’s really not. The BWR is endless short sections of dirt stitched together by pavement. The pavement lets you just catch your breath enough for the next dirt or sand or rocks or scorpions or whatever, which are relentless. Definitely not a sprint.”

Arthur, 2012, 2014, 2016 finisher: “Doing it every year is a bit much. I don’t know if anyone has ever done all six editions. But I love it!”

Marco, 2017 finisher: “Crazy stupid hard. See you in April!”

Suzanne, 2017 finisher: “I’d like to see more women out there, for sure. It’s not a super technical ride, some people do it on their road bikes. The Wafer is probably better for sane people.”

Charley, 2015-2017 finisher: “The last two years I’ve done the Wafer. It’s harder than any road race you’ll ever do, and you get back before midnight.”

Phillip, 2014, 2017 finisher: “Love the BWR. it’s not just the scenery or the challenging route or the elevation or the hybrid road/off-road terrain, it’s the organization and execution and all the batshit crazy people who are actually happy to be out there.

Wade, 2016, 2017 quitter: “I’ve never finished a BWR. I will this year. And if not, the next.”

Duncan, first timer 2018: “Can’t wait. I’ve heard so much about this ride, it’s legendary. Whether I finish it or not I’m fired up about it.”

Matt, 2017 finisher: “There are lots of bike rides in SoCal, but there’s only one BWR!”

walk in the park

Michael Marckx, founder of the Belgian Waffle Ride



For $2.99 per month you can subscribe to this blog and pay to support what you might otherwise take for free. Click here and select the “subscribe” link in the upper right-hand corner. Thank you!

About SouthBayCycling.com: This the all-things-cycling blog about cycling in the South Bay and cycling in Los Angeles, maintained and authored by me, Seth Davidson, Torrance-based bicycle lawyer, bike racer, and personal injury attorney.

Richie Porte almost wins Tour Down Under

January 23, 2018 Comments Off on Richie Porte almost wins Tour Down Under

Cycling superstar Richie Porte pulled off another devastating near-win at the 2018 Tour Down Under, where he wowed the hometown crowd with another stunning second place at one of the world’s premier stage races.

“Almost won that baby!” Porte said as he gleefully smacked his palm after the race. Porte executed an impressive victory on the queen stage, mastering the dreaded Willunga Hill climb, then watched as Daryl Impey secured the overall on the following day. “Can’t win ’em all,” Porte said with typical Australian good cheer as he congratulated the victor.

Cycling in the South Bay sat down with Richie after his fantastic second place finish at the TdU to talk about his impressive career and his plans for 2018.

CitSB: Pretty awesome second place today, here on your home Australian turf.

RP: Yeah, it feels pretty good, almost as good as when I got second behind Hernao at the Tour of the Basque Country in 2013. That was an amazing day.

CitSB: Brings back memories?

RP: Oh, yeah, mate. I’d just taken the fifth stage, a real beast, from Eibar to Beasain and was six seconds down on Hernao, my teammate.

CitSB: Then what happened?

RP: Oh, I crushed it on the last day and took second overall. It was incredible. An incredible feeling.

CitSB: You were so aggressive on Willunga two days ago, I think the pundits had you down for the overall.

RP (laughs): What do they know? Y’know, 2013 was a great year for me. Second overall at the Critérium International, second overall at the Dauphiné, and second at the Basque Country. Seems like only yesterday!

CitSB: There are a lot of people on the inside of the sport who have you picked as as once-in-a-generation talent.

RP: I don’t know about that, but I’ve always said that anything worth doing is worth almost winning. I’d say 2013 was my breakout year for nearly getting the overall, but I had that second placing in 2014 at the Vuelta a Andalucia, kind of confirmed the previous year, you know?

CitSB: Yes, it really did.

RP: And then in 2015 I was the runner-up at the Tour Down Under; my first time to achieve a near win at our biggest domestic race. The fans were incredible!

CitSB: Yes, I remember. The hometown crowd was thrilled to see you come so close to winning!

RP: Right? Then the following year, in 2016, well it was kind of like a dream, y’know? I almost won the Tour Down Under again, twice in a row! Then I came within a few seconds of first place in the Aussie National Time Trial Championships. It was a giddy year!

CitSB: Almost winning year in and year out is tough to do. And then the way you stormed to second in 2017 at the Critérium du Dauphiné, again.

RP: The toughest, really.

CitSB: Let’s talk about the Tour.

RP: ‘Ave a go, mate.

CitSB: You’ve yet to stand on the second place on the Tour podium yet.

RP: Not for want o’ trying, mate. Not for want o’ trying.

CitSB: Your fans had you pegged for second in 2017 after finishing fifth in 2016. What happened?

RP: I think it’s clear that I could have nearly won the Tour in 2015 if I hadn’t been working for Froomey. Then in 2016 when I was the team leader I think it was pretty clear that I could have almost won if I’d had more support from my teammates, they were doin’ a bit too much ass scratchin’ when they should have been punching the clock, y’know? And it was pretty much guaranteed that I’d nearly have been the winner last if I hadn’t crashed out. That course was a bit of a joke.

CitSB: It was?

RP: Definitely.

CitSB: Any predictions for 2018?

RP: I’m targeting the Giro; I think a next-to-the-top-step is very realistic given where my training is right now, then carry the form over to the Tour.

CitSB: And finally nail down that coveted placing that no one ever remembers?

RP (giant smile): That’s the plan, mate.



For $2.99 per month you can subscribe to this blog and pay to support what you might otherwise take for free. Click here and select the “subscribe” link in the upper right-hand corner. Thank you!

About SouthBayCycling.com: This the all-things-cycling blog about cycling in the South Bay and cycling in Los Angeles, maintained and authored by me, Seth Davidson, Torrance-based bicycle lawyer, bike racer, and personal injury attorney.


Does bicycle education work?

January 18, 2018 Comments Off on Does bicycle education work?

I cannot believe I am sitting here writing a blog post about bicycle education. If there is anything more boring, I don’t know what that might be. Oh, wait, yes I do: Uninsured/underinsured motorist insurance and how it can protect you on your bike. That’s way more boring.

But like the Santa Ana wind dryness of insurance blather, bicycle education blather is a matter of life and death. It is dorky and requires you to slow down and pay the fuck attention, spend some time doing something other than shopping for bike porn. Like taking the time to buy and charge and put on front-and-rear lights, it’s well-spent time.

I sat down with Gary Cziko, bible-thumping evangelist for Cycling Savvy, but the testament wasn’t written by a bunch of goat herders out in the desert, it was written by people who have a lot of bicycling and traffic engineering experience when it comes to staying off the grills of Rage Rovers. Cycling Savvy uses various instructional paradigms to allow riders to ride anywhere. Streets, sidewalks (where it’s lega), you name it. Although lane control is the default technique, the idea behind bicycle education is that people ride bikes all kinds of places for all kinds of reasons, and there should be a way to address their riding with sensible, practical, safe techniques.

Increasing bicycle education

Gary is now in his fifth year of teaching as a Cycling Savvy instructor. The number of actual courses and actual people who have been through his courses is shockingly low; more about that later and why it’s less important than you might think. After about 13 courses and upwards of 130 participants, I asked Gary what he thought the biggest obstacles were to increasing bicycle education in Southern California.

He didn’t miss a beat. “Two main problems, those who think they don’t need the education because they don’t ride on streets, and those who think they don’t need it because they have a lot of experience.”

Gary knows about that last part. “I was an edge rider for years but Cycling Savvy makes it easy and safe and it decreases the risks.”

“How are you going to expand that?” I asked.

“Cycling Savvy wants to exapnd. We have two online courses but need additional funding to market the curriculum. We’ve hired our first full time administrative employee, an associate executive director. We’re looking into partnerships with charity rides, SCNCA, USAC, and affiliation with clubs, much as we’ve done with Big Orange. We’ve worked with Sean Wilson at SCNCA to develop a complete skills system, from racing to training and riding on the road.”

Still, with only a few courses having been taught, along with a few hundred people who’ve taken the online courses, I wondered if Gary was optimistic. Dumb question. It’s Gary, folks.

“I’m encouraged by getting cyclists in the full on-bike training, not just the classroom, where we work with riders of all skill levels to teach them how to surmount challenging situations. What’s encouraging is that people are changed and enthusiastic and they want to share with others. The Cycling Savvy curriculum started in 2011 and reached 18 states in 3 years. But we need increased funding for courses that reach families and kids, courses for fondo riders, and of course for e-bikes.”

With  5-10 courses planned for 2018, the need vastly outnumbers available resources.

Or does it?

The ripple effect

Gary agreed that more instructors, more classes, more online marketing are crucial. He also pointed out that by educating a few cyclists you can education hundreds more.

“There’s a ripple effect,” he said. “When we started the training in Big Orange, people were unfamiliar with it. Now, even though most Big Orange riders haven’t taken the course, every club ride has at least one rider who has, and those riders take the reins and make sure that the group is using Cycling Savvy principles. By changing even one or two people, you can affect everyone who sees this kind of effective riding and who then tries it out. Of course we need training for planners and transportation engineers, too.”

When I asked him about the dreaded PCH, Gary was emphatic that bicycle education has educated drivers, too. “There’s less honking. Motorists are used to seeing large groups of riders out in the lane. Cyclists are less hesitant to use the full lane when it makes sense. One study found that there is more honking the farther you are to the right, which makes sense because they see you from a long way back and can adjust when you’re in the lane. But with edge/gutter riding they don’t see you until the last second.”

Getting your club educated

If you belong to a bike club and you don’t have a club-wide bicycle education plan, now is the time to get one. Cycling Savvy offers online courses and in-person instruction depending on the area. The courses are cheap and can save your life. Importantly, in our own neck of the woods, the Palos Verdes Peninsula, there anecdotally seems to be a lot less hostility than a couple of years ago; I chalk part of that up to the effect of people being more assertive and educated about where and how they cycle.

No matter how much you know or how experienced you are, these classes will open your eyes.



For $2.99 per month you can subscribe to this blog and pay to support what you might otherwise take for free. Click here and select the “subscribe” link in the upper right-hand corner. Thank you!

About SouthBayCycling.com: This the all-things-cycling blog about cycling in the South Bay and cycling in Los Angeles, maintained and authored by me, Seth Davidson, Torrance-based bicycle lawyer, bike racer, and personal injury attorney.

CBR Crit #1: Big bang theory

January 17, 2018 Comments Off on CBR Crit #1: Big bang theory

If you look at the SoCal bike racing calendar, it is pretty slim pickings for road racing. The first road race of the year, Tuttle Creek, got torn off the calendar, presumably to be rescheduled, where “presumably” means “if Steve gets around to it.” After that there is the Santa Barbara road race, famed for the dude who flipped off the bridge and miraculously survived with a Spidey save, the UCLA road race, and the Victorville road race. Everything else is basically a crit. The CBR crit series is especially like a crit. Having a race calendar with nothing but crits is like having a sex life with nothing but handjobs. You may get good at it, but it leaves a lot be desired.

However, Jeff and Kris Prinz have charged into their second year as owners of the CBR crit series. They have done an amazing job with it. The team area now sports a plethora of colorful tents and racers instead of its former aura, which was more reminiscent of a holding tank filled with alcoholic suicides. When the CBR races take off, they do so under a big inflatable banner that makes you feel like you’re special and not some dork in his underwear about to fall on his head fighting for a candy bar prime.

But most importantly, the CBR crit series is like a necessary encounter with a proctologist’s latex finger: Smooth, unpleasant, and over quickly. That’s crit racing, folks, so get used to it. Of course it is vastly superior to a 2km ITT where a pair of 70+ gentlemen fight for a world chumpionship jersey so that they can put rainbow stripes on their business cards and compare their exploits to Peter Sagan.

Go ahead and register now!

The CBR crit series is a lot of fun and I plan to be at all of them; I did a bunch last year, and the year before, and the year before … Now that I’m in the RFO (really fuggin’ old) category of 55+, it means that I can race three races all before noon, which is good, because in this category anything that happens after twelve gets hunted down and killed by my mid-day nap. But there are a lot of other great reasons to race the CBR series, for example:

  1. You’re supporting people who are doing their damndest to keep a niche, weird, socially awkward sport alive, and it’s cheaper than rehab.
  2. Bike racing is fun as hell when you’re not crashing, getting dropped, getting chopped, giving up, or having all your hair fall out and testes shrink down to green pea-size nuggets because of the steroids.
  3. Although losing sucks, and losing is basically all you’ll ever do at a bike race, the odds are better than PowerBall.
  4. Jeff and Kris have a cool podium you can stand on when you win (See #3).
  5. Madcap announcers Dave Wells and David “Raining Meatballs” Worthington are more fun to listen to than a drunk family squabble over who gets to eat the last Eskimo Pie.
  6. You can’t be a bike racer if you don’t race yer fuggin’ bike.

Especially, especially, especially #6. See you there.



For $2.99 per month you can subscribe to this blog and pay to support what you might otherwise take for free. Click here and select the “subscribe” link in the upper right-hand corner. Thank you!

About SouthBayCycling.com: This the all-things-cycling blog about cycling in the South Bay and cycling in Los Angeles, maintained and authored by me, Seth Davidson, Torrance-based bicycle lawyer, bike racer, and personal injury attorney.

The middle ground a/k/a FDR

January 15, 2018 Comments Off on The middle ground a/k/a FDR

There is a sweet spot in cycling for most people, located right in that middle ground between “pound” on the one hand, where everyone feels like they had eye surgery sans anesthetic, and “flail,” where you finish the ride and wonder, “Did I ride?” The South Bay’s Fun Donut Ride, or FDR, hits the sweet spot almost every time.

It’s a hard spot to find because any grouping of riders invariably attracts an outlier or two. The pounder whines because it was “too easy,” and the flailer moans because it was “too hard.” Of course no ride is right for every rider, all the time. But coming up with that Sweet Spot Ride, getting it started, and hardest of all, keeping it alive, is fiendishly hard to do, yet it’s precisely this kind of ride that builds community and participation in cycling. How to do it?

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Joann Zwagerman’s FDR.

Genesis: How the FDR came to be

I could give you the background of the FDR, but why? Joann has already done it for me. With a few edits and emendations, here it is:

Greg Seyranian had a South Bay ride called the Anti-Donut. I would show up week after week and pedal my ass off. It was mellow for them but it was totally challenging for me. I did my best to try and keep up. They never abandoned me and they always waited for me and I found that remarkable.

Once race season began and the Anti-Donut ended, I found myself looking for a similar ride. If you were a racer, you were on the Donut Ride. If not, you were looking for friendly people to ride with. Thus, the Fun Donut Ride, or FDR, was born. It is an inclusive, non pretentious, friendly, fun and challenging ride.

Maybe today is your biggest ride? Your first group ride? Your first FDR? Whatever it is, I hope you feel like you’ve accomplished something at the end of it even if it’s just eating your first donut with chocolate sprinkles in ten years and making a few new friends!

Thank you everyone for all your support! Ride on and be safe!

Exodus: How riders joined the FDR

As we all know, it’s fairly easy to start a ride. You tell a few friends the time and place, give them a general rundown of the route, and three of them show up. If you invite a hundred people, you can expect maybe four. Everyone does the ride, has a more or less good time, and then you do the ride for a couple more weeks, and participation increases a bit or stays the same.

Then comes the crunch moment. It’s the day for “your” ride. You’ve told everyone you’ll be there. But yesterday you got a bo-bo on your boo-boo, or maybe a boo-boo on your bo-bo and it’s feeling really ouchie as you lay there in bed with only thirty minutes to crap, air your tires, drink some coffee, pull a pair of shorts out of the dirty hamper, and scurry to the start.

What do you do? You roll over, of course! This isn’t your job! It’s your hobby! Those wankers know the route! You’ll be there next week anyway! Snxxxxxxxzzzzzzzz!

Of course your pals see it differently. They get to the start and you’re not there. They check their phones. They call you. Someone finally rouses you and you groggily text back, “Boo-boo on bo-bo, out.”

And guess what? You just drove a wooden stake through the heart of your nascent ride. Because for a ride to continue, the person who started it has got to keep showing up. It’s like being married, only far worse because at least when you’re married, rolling over and snoring is an accepted part of lovemaking. Requisite, actually.

What Joann figured out with the FDR was that if you’re cycling in the South Bay and you want people to commit to you, you have to commit to them. And that means a date, a time, a place, and a commitment to be there “til death do us part.” Week in and week out, the FDR went off with Joann present to shepherd her lambs, and it went off in some pretty extreme situations.

Broken hand? No worries, Joann sagged in her Rage Rover. Broken wrist a few months later? No worries, Joann sagged in her Rage Rover. Ride founder overtrained and barely able to move? No worries, Joann either did the ride, sagged in her Rage Rover, or rustled up a deputy. And this last part, “rustling up a deputy,” has been a great innovation because the FDR’s success has led to its having two routes: A fixed loop around the Palos Verdes Peninsula, and a variable route that can venture pretty far afield. Having a deputy means that the fixed FDR route always takes place, and people aren’t left showing up to a ride where they are the ride.

Revelation: You can make an FDR, too

Joann’s FDR has brought a lot of people into cycling and now serves as a focal point for people who are looking for a regular ride–not too hard, not too soft–and for event organizers who want to get the word out about their event. From Phil Gaimon’s Cookie Fondo, to the Belgian Waffle Ride, to Rivet Cycling’s Santa Barbara ribs extravaganza, people in the cycling community recognize that FDR is there for the community as a whole.

This, of course, is how you grow the cycling donut, and then get to eat it, too. One rider at a time.



For $2.99 per month you can subscribe to this blog and pay to support what you might otherwise take for free. Click here and select the “subscribe” link in the upper right-hand corner. Thank you!

About SouthBayCycling.com: This the all-things-cycling blog about cycling in the South Bay and cycling in Los Angeles, maintained and authored by me, Seth Davidson, Torrance-based bicycle lawyer, bike racer, and personal injury attorney.

Hotel dinner challenge redux

January 8, 2018 Comments Off on Hotel dinner challenge redux

It’s funny how when you write everything with pen and paper you entirely forget about using a keyboard. Nothing to plug in or turn on, no socket to search for, no concern over how much battery you have left. You just take out your notebook (those under age 40, “notebook” originally meant a paper pad for writing), and get to work. Takes up zero space and weighs nothing.

It was the last full day of my trip and it turned into another odyssey, this time to a truly horrible place called the Yunnan Wild Animals Park. Getting there involved a ride to the end of the subway line, and then a couple of miles walking along very busy streets, where I got to appreciate one basic design fact: China knows how to pour concrete,

I found the park, which was an animal abuse area masquerading as a zoo. It was all horrible, but the lone sad orangutan gazing out at us while people shrieked and pointed and banged on the glass was more than I could bear. I had never seen an orangutan before and didn’t realize how large they were and how utterly human. This one lay on his steel display bed, so sad that it made me want to cry, his giant black eyes occasionally blinking, and I wondered how many decades he had left inside that tiny little cell.

I had expected some kind of park where there were paths and wildlife, but instead it was indeed “some kind of park,” the hideous kind. I saw only a handful of wild birds the entire time I was in China, less than twenty, despite countless hours outdoors and travel to some pretty non-urban places. The fact is that most of China has no wildlife of any kind left, not even house sparrows. What can be eaten or caught, which is everything, had been.

I found the main road and walked another couple of miles but my feet hurt so badly from the pavement that I couldn’t walk fast enough to get warm. Walking slowly, cold, is its own special displeasure. Another bus stop, another series of complex ciphers, another freezing wait, another uncertain trip, but 32 cents and heating, so there was nothing to complain about. Since the value of one yuan is about sixteen cents, and since people in the markets and on the street will bargain and haggle over one yuan, it gave me pause that despite its incredible wealth, the poverty in China is so profound that sixteen cents is an amount of money worth working for.

The bus seemed headed for downtown, which was a joyous feeling, until we made a left heading out of the city, which was not. I got off and figured I was close enough to find a subway station, and the plethora of scooter cabbies meant I was never really close to being lost. At the bus stop where I alit a woman was making gyoza, so I ordered fifteen. She was surprised but shrugged. I was starting to learn that when people responded to my perfectly mangled Chinese with surprise, I was usually saying something insane, so pay attention. It was fortunate I did, because instead of reaching for the gyoza tray she lifted the steamed meat bun container, fifteen of which would have amply fed a hungry family of, well, fifteen.

“No, no,” I said, pointing to the gyoza.

“Ah, gyoza! Why didn’t you say so?”

I felt like saying, “Because I am a fucking idiot,” but it was so self-explanatory as to have been redundant.

Her husband steamed the gyoza as I shivered and shook on the plastic stool, but when they came it was well worth the hypothermia, which the gyoza banished. I smothered them in soy sauce and fiery hot peppers, took out the reused wooden chopsticks (“Disinfected!” a sign on the wall promised) and got to work. Yum. As I ate I watched the woman do the meticulous work of rolling each gyoza skin, carefully fill it, pinch it closed, and line it up on the tray. Each one took about two minutes and the cost of each gyoza, retail, was twenty cents each. At the end she had small gob of leftover dough, about the size of a pair of dice, and instead of chunking it she put it back in the dough sack and returned it to the refrigerator. And I remembered, sixteen cents.

I was still northeast of downtown and figured I’d walk until I got cold again. It took a few hours to get back to my hotel, during which time I began trying to keep note of all the different things being sold at the hundreds of tiny shops and stalls and on blankets spread out on the sidewalks.

They included vendors who sold only chickens, toys, shoes, vegetables of every kind, guitars, haircuts, scooter repair services, donuts, games, bread, bikes, gyoza, noodles, used books, posters, printing services, silkscreening, tailors, medicine, beauty products, real estate, cardboard recycling, chicken coops with live chickens sold separately, pineapple carving, noodle dough, rag cleaners, garbage pickers, plumbing supplies, supermarkets, convenience stores, Chinese medicine, medical equipment, hairdresser/barber supplies, bags of every size and material, lottery tickets, internet cafes, roast duck, hot pot cafes, smog masks, thermoses, slippers, slipper liners, pots and pans, toilets, jewelry, diabetic foods, smoothies, wieners, nuts, feng shui furniture, gourds, necklaces and bracelets made from beads, safes, educational software, tracking devices, miscellaneous home goods, Playboy brand menswear, eyeglasses, picture frames, batteries, community health centers, blood banks, cigarettes, surveillance equipment, security guard supplies and clothing, uniforms, electric scooters, urns, wedding services, inns, sake, oranges, flowers, and even an old mendicant lying on the pavement in his underpants, thrashing his leg stumps and rolling on his belly while playing a sad song from a boombox and begging for money.

But what I didn’t see were bookstores or magazines or newspapers. The only bookstore in the entire city that I’d seen, Xinhua, was owned by the Party’s biggest “news” organ, and reminded me of East Germany in the days of the DDR. Nothing is deadlier to a police state than books, so you have to vet them with great care, and predictably there was hardly anything in Xinhua worth reading, especially literature or history or biography, i.e. “things with a different version of the possible than that espoused by the state.”

This is the big tradeoff in China, truth for security, and although people didn’t seem very happy or enthused about the prospects of tomorrow, which promised the same brutal toil of today as they battled for profits in 16-cent increments, the knife fight in the mud of selling useless shit on the street or in a cramped rented space, China also felt incredibly safe. And healthcare was available everywhere at little cost. And hundreds of millions were experiencing a rapidly increasing standard of living which included, for some, 100% carbon that was made fully of all carbon, purely.

China has 1.3 billion people and is incredibly heterogeneous, and heterogeneous nations have the potential for massive unrest. Through surveillance, a total police presence, a consumer economy, a corporatist state, and a continually rising standard of living, it offers stability, safety, growth, and a meaningful chance to participate in the global economy, soon to dominate it.

Is that worse than a corporatist state that openly wars against its racial and ethnic minorities, that humiliates the poor, that reserves healthcare for the rich, and that provides primarily for the profits of the richest? If freedom is so important and such a distinct part of our “special” democracy, why do so few people exercise it even to vote? Why is our “freedom” expressed in moronic captivity to football and professional sports? Why is our freedom of speech mirrored by a fundamentally illiterate and innumerate society?

Most importantly, if you don’t like China’s approach, what steps will you take to make sure it doesn’t happen here?

The fact is that free people die young, whereas properly enslaved people live longer. The older I get, the more I appreciate the extra minutes and hours.

Back at Hotel Unhelpful Clerks I collapsed and it was just barely three o’clock on New Year’s Eve. I watched TV for four hours, enjoying the amazing personality cult of the Great Leader. It was done with none of the heavyhandedness of the DDR, DPRK, or USSR, but cult is cult. And to be fair, Xi Jin Ping is a much better, smarter, more thoughtful, more humane, and a better human being than Trump or anyone in the current U.S. congressional majority, and much of the minority.

China spends billions on education, feeds, clothes, and provides healthcare for its poor children, and is continually struggling with how to raise standards and not simultaneously wreck the earth’s environment completely. Best of all, since all TV is run by the state, there is zero screaming on the news, zero attack-dog politics, and no bad news of really any kind. The repeated messages are:

  1. Be happy.
  2. You’re lucky you’re Chinese.
  3. This is our century, our world.

The surfeit of happiness and good thoughts made me hungry, so I decided to brave the hotel restaurant one last time for dinner. They seated me at a lone table again, but this time in front of the cashier and manager’s business desk, facing the rear of his two computer monitors, and boxed in by a refrigerator.

I felt like the orangutan, as the table sat squarely in the entrance so every patron could analyze my menu choices and my facility with chopsticks prior to being escorted into the free range dining area, which was private.

We hashed out the menu thing and they brought a delicious lamb and vegetable dish. My waitress from the first night had ended her shift and was in street clothes, but nonetheless stayed around until I finished eating to make sure everything went okay, i.e. I didn’t leave hungry. Having conquered the mighty Hotel Dinner Challenge I deemed it time to take on the Hotel Coffee and Tea Lounge Challenge, so I removed downstairs to the cafe.

I had little faith in the barista despite the fancy espresso machine, and she was nowhere to be seen, and I had nothing to do, so I grabbed a tourism guide for Kunming and began thumbing through it.

Who knew?!?!?!?

Kunming and its environs are packed with countless amazing travel experiences, exactly zero of which involved miles of frozen tramping along freeway side paths, zero of which involve seven-hour bus trips, zero of which involve haircuts and tea swindles, and all of which look tailored to show you a great time. If only I had known that things like travel and tourism guides existed, hidden as they were in the hotel lobby that I had passed through every day, given away for free, and spread out on large glass tables!

The barista took my order and brought out a beautiful cappuccino with a milk heart in the middle. It was the best coffee I had had since leaving home, and was $1.66 cheaper than Xingbaka. As the coffee warmed me, I thought of home. I missed my friends. I missed my bicycle. I missed my family, and I really missed my wife. Time to call this a wrap. Time to go home.





For $2.99 per month you can subscribe to this blog and pay to support what you might otherwise take for free. Click here and select the “subscribe” link in the upper right-hand corner. Thank you!


My tea button is bigger than yours, and it works

January 5, 2018 Comments Off on My tea button is bigger than yours, and it works

My alarm went off at 4:30 but I didn’t go off until six. After a quick shower in lukewarm water I scanned my map, which had blow-up sections of all the main cities in Yunan Province, including Pu’er. In tiny characters at the bottom was a list of bus stations and which destinations they served. One of them listed Pu’er, so my only task was to show the name of the bus station to the front desk and ask them how to get there.

When I approached the desk with my map they scurried but I nabbed one. He scowled at the name on the map and shrugged. “I don’t know that place.”

He took it to his co-worker, who was equally perplexed. “Go to the subway,” she said. Back to square one.

I left the hotel and decided to walk to the main train station, which was a mile or so beyond the nearest subway stop. I got there and saw nothing besides a local bus stop, so I decided to do what they had been saying all along, that is, go to the subway. I wondered what magical thing would happen when I appeared at the subway to direct me to the bus stop.

Halfway there I saw a giant green sign for a travel agency touting tours throughout Yunan, and paused before it, wondering whether it was time to seek professional help. A woman darted out from the crowd proffering a business card.

“Where would you like to go? I’m a licensed travel agent!”








“Returning when?”


“Tonight?” She looked perplexed.

A man in a shabby black coat ran up, also holding a business card. “We can do that,” he said.

“We can?” asked the woman.

“Of course!”

“He’s is my colleague, Wang. He is excellent and will be a good friend to you.”

“How much?” I asked.

“180 yuan,” he said, about $28, which seemed steep but not unaffordable.

“Okay,” I agreed.

They both brightened like Christmas trees. “Follow me,” Wang said.

We began walking back to the train station, then turning down various side streets until we reached a small office filled with people holding massive suitcases, and everyone was in a huge hurry. The man brought me to a woman. “Here,” he said, like a fisherman delivering a giant tuna to his happy wife. “My hao pengyou.”

“When do we leave?” I asked.

“You want to go to Dali instead?” the fish wife asked.

“No. Pu’er.”

“Dali more famous. And pretty.”


“Dali is much better. Pu’er is old country town.”

“What time do we come back from Pu’er?”

“What time do you want to come back?”


She wrinkled her nose but didn’t miss a beat. “Okay.”

It didn’t seem very organized. “What time does the return bus leave?”

“You just call me and I’ll come pick you up.”

I could see several people smiling when she said that. Something was wrong. “No, thanks,” I said, and started walking.

My two hao pengyou sprinted after me. “Come back!” they howled as the tuna swam away. “You will love Pu’er! Great price!” I opened up my long stride. If they were going to follow far, they were gonna need some lungs. After a minute I dropped them, then headed back towards the subway.

At the entrance a bunch of motor scooter cabbies were standing around looking for fares. “Where you going, friend?”

I showed the cabbie the name of the bus stop on my map and told him I wanted to go to Pu’er. He whistled. “50 yuan.”

“Too much.”

“Bus stop too far.”

“15 yuan.


“15 yuan.”


“15 yuan.”

“I will take you to the bus stop where you can catch a bus to take you to the bus stop to catch the bus to Pu’Er. 15 yuan.”


I climbed on the back of the scooter and we shot off into traffic. It occurred to me to be scared, but I decided to focus instead on not falling off. It worked.

He whipped into a sad parking lot with a handful of small, sad, dirty buses, and offloaded me. “That’s your bus, number C71, cheap!” And off he sped.

It was cheap, only 5 yuan, or 80 cents. I boarded and waited as the bus filled. We took off, and it became clear why the cabbie had wanted 50 yuan. We were taking a very, very long trip. After half an hour we reached the massive South Bus Terminal. I got off and went in. A bus was leaving for Pu’er at 10:30; my timing was perfect. You have to give your passport to buy a ticket for a bus that goes out of town, so the government knows who’s going where. The ticket cost about $28, which again seemed pricey for such a nearby destination.

I boarded and soon we left. My seatmates across the aisle were well provisioned for the trip with several bags of mini-tangerines, thermoses of booze, and a stack of bread cakes. They were enjoying themselves immensely before we had even left the parking lot.

The traffic was horrible and an hour flew by, then a second, though we had left Kunming completely and were flying down the expressway. I turned to the guy nearest me. “What time do we get into Pu’er?”

“5:30,” he said.


“Yes. It’s a seven-hour trip.”

Now it all made sense, everyone laughing at the travel agency when I said I wanted to return that evening; the “high” fare; the extensive provisioning of my neighbors. It was also clear that I would be spending the night in Pu’er.

Pu’er sits at well over 10,000 feet, and the bus never went in a straight line for more than a couple of minutes. We plunged down huge mountain passes that descended for ten miles or more, and clawed our way out with the vintage diesel engine groaning and bucking up the grade every inch of the way. I wondered if the bus would break down, but then put aside my cynical superiority complex. This was China and it wasn’t this bus’s first rodeo. They knew what they were doing.

By the third hour I was famished and dehydrated, and my seatmate offered me a bread roll which looked delicious but which I could never have chewed with my dust-dry mouth. “Thanks but I’m too thirsty to eat,” I said.

He nodded and pulled out a giant bag of mini-tangerines. “Here.”

I began peeling and devouring them, and they were probably the tastiest things I’ve ever had. “Hunger is the best sauce,” as Sancho Panza was so fond of saying.

We struck up a kind of traveling friendship; he and his pal were going to Pu’er for a short vacation, and soon the whole bus knew that I had thought it was one hour’s drive from Kunming, generating much hilarity.

About an hour from Pu’er, the bus really did break down. We pulled into the village of Tong Guan and all got off the bus. The driver called the main office, and they advised him to “fix it.”

With a much put-upon look he opened the engine compartment, poked around, then took out his toolbox. Everyone stood around and watched, along with a great many villagers for whom this was capital entertainment of the finest sort. No one was shy about offering advice, either. One man seemed to have very decided opinions about the repair job, which he punctuated with spitting. Everyone smoked. No one got angry. Broken buses seemed like a part of the ticket purchase, and the driver’s filthy and well-worn wrenches alternately inspired confidence and despair.

After half an hour of very intense wrench work, the driver took off his greasy mechanic’s apron, took a photo of the repair job, and texted it back to HQ. They were not impressed, because he began cursing and kicking his tools. He finally went over to a small side storage compartment, unlocked it, and pulled out a fat coil of baling wire. Everyone had an opinion about this latest development and Mr. Very Opinionated began expectorating with such vehemence that I feared he might spit out his tongue.

The driver climbed halfway into the engine compartment, and fifteen minutes later he emerged black from head to toe with only a short snippet of what had originally been a fifteen-foot coil, at least. He ordered us all back on the bus and off we went, another hour of dreadful mountain road with death at every turn, bound to this earth by nothing more than a flimsy strand or two of cheap wire. There is a metaphor there somewhere, and if you find it, it’s yours.

The arrival in Pu’er was anticlimactic. We shuffled off the bus and as we alit my pengyou mentioned that if I were really in a hurry to get back to Kunming I could always fly. If I wanted to have a good time, a really good time, a really, really good time, I could spend the night and hang out with them. “There’s an airport here?” I asked.

“Yes. Tiny town but has an airport.”

“How tiny?’


I kept forgetting that tiny in China and tiny in the USA meant different things. By now I knew that the best shot outside a bus terminal or subway station was just to stand around and I’d have a pengyou in no time.

Sure enough, a group of illegal cabbies began chattering about me until one came over. “Where to?”

“Airport. Is there a flight tonight to Kunming?”

“Oh, yes, many.”

“How much to the airport?”

“30 yuan.”

I was too tired to haggle. If he didn’t murder me en route I’d not worry about the four dollar cost. “Okay.”

Pu’er was bustling on a Friday evening. I saw young people everywhere and the town consisted of, it seemed, one endless main street. My illegal cabbie seemed nice and was loquacious and inquisitive, but his accent was an impenetrable firewall. I imagined his questions and supplied my own answers, which seemed to work.

In a few minutes we reached the airfield, which was smack in the middle of town. “You’ll have to get out here,” he said. “The airport police know me.”

I exited and walked into the airport and up to the one ticket counter. “Any flights to Kunming?”

“Yes. In one our. 900 yuan.”

I handed her my passport and credit card. She entered my info. “Sorry, flight is full.”

“Oh. That was quick. Do you have another?”

“Yes. 11:00 PM. 2000 yuan.”

“Wow. Okay. I’ll take it.”

She took my credit card. This was the first time I’d used it in China. “Sorry, Chinese credit cards only.”

“I don’t have enough cash.”


“No cell phone.”

My friends who had traveled in China had told me that without WeChat to pay, I’d be fucked. Now I was, as I contemplated another full day on the Baling Wire Special.

“Tomorrow’s early flight is cheap. Only 600 yuan.”

“I’ll take it. How early?”


“Perfect.” I shelled out the bills.

“Come here tomorrow at 10:00 for your ticket.”

“I want my ticket now. I just paid you for it.”

“No ticket now. Come here tomorrow.”

“Can I pay then?”

“2,000 yuan. And maybe no seat like now.”

“Can I have a receipt?”

“No. We will remember you.”

I gave up and left. At least I’d get to see Pu’er. Then I realized I had no place to stay. I hailed a cabbie. “Where?”

“Nice hotel that takes American credit cards.”

He nodded and off we went. We pulled up at Jing Land Hotel and he opened my door. “15 yuan, please.” My illegal cabbie really had ripped me off a whole $2.15.

I entered Jing Land in fear, fear of credit card declination. Fear of sleeping on a park bench. Fear of arrest for vagrancy. “Do you have a room for tonight?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you take foreign credit cards?”

“Of course!”

I never bothered to ask the price. I did not fuggin’ care.

The Jing Land Hotel was a big step up from my $33/night crash pad in Kunming. At $42/night I got more space, a nicer bathroom, hotter water, and two free condoms placed thoughtfully next to the toothbrush. I decided to walk around for a couple of hours and called the front desk to ask if they had a map of Pu’er.

“Staff will bring to your room.”

Soon there was a knock at the door and a pretty housemaid was handing me a map. “20 yuan, please.”

I was about to pay, a bit surprised a the $3.33 price tag, almost three times more than the awesome maps I had bought in Kunming that were already falling apart. “This isn’t even new,” I said, looking at the ratty edges and tears forming along the creases.

“Yes, it is.” I stared hard at the holes and ragged edges, so she doubled down. “Brand new.”

“Here I am, 400 km away from a provincial capital which is itself thousands of miles from anywhere and I’m about to argue over two dollars and some holes in a perfectly serviceable but shitty little map,” I thought. It was half principle, half cheapness, half stubbornness, and half annoyance at spending the day on the Baling Wire Express. Then I thought about the park bench I wasn’t on, the vagrancy charge I wasn’t facing, and her pretty, smiling, lying face. At least if you’re going to lie, don’t do it by halves. “Okay,” I said, giving her the 20 yuan. China won again.

Outside, Friday night was going full blast, but the main street was nothing but retail shops. I figured the food was elsewhere but after an hour couldn’t find it, and the few restaurants I passed were shuttered. One place was open, down a side street, called “World of Steak.”

The bored staff were playing with their data aggregator/tracking devices, and hopped to attention when I came in. I pointed to the Steak in a Box on the menu pinned to the wall.

“Cola or juice?”

“Water, please.”

“It comes with cola or juice.”

“Can you make it come with water?”

“Cola is better.”

“I believe you. Can I have some terrible water instead?”

“Okay,” she gave in, giving Team USA its sole goal of the tournament.

What came out of the kitchen was amazing, and not just because it took half an hour and sounded like thirty people were taking apart an old car with hammers. It was amazing because there was nothing there. The girl brought out a large drink cup 3/4 full with a lid shoved far down into the cup and from which a cute, curlycue straw protruded.

Atop the lid was a tasteful arrangement of a celery stick, a carrot stick,  seven french fries, and about ten tiny, tiny cubes of meat. Each french fry had a ketchup-and-mayo face drawn on it. The whole thing was about three bites of food. It tasted great, but my last meal had been almost fourteen hours prior. I figured I’d do the hour walk back to the hotel and go to bed hungry again, which most certainly would have happened had I not passed two old women hawking baked sweet potatoes. The potatoes were huge, hot, and all carb. I bought one and sat on the curb to enjoy my dinner. That night I slept like a log.



For $2.99 per month you can subscribe to this blog and pay to support what you might otherwise take for free. Click here and select the “subscribe” link in the upper right-hand corner. Thank you!


Chairman Mao

January 4, 2018 Comments Off on Chairman Mao

I left the hotel at 5:30 and the streets were deserted except for a handful of cars and electric scooters. Whether you like it or not, China is our future, and our future is electric. The scooters were silent except for the sound of their tires, and it struck me that despite the darkness no one bothered to use their scooter headlights, perhaps to save battery run time. Nor are helmets required; it was strange seeing so many bare heads on motor bikes.

But of all the things that were strangest and most disturbing about China, none was even remotely as disquieting as the constant surveillance. The video cameras were everywhere, every sixty or seventy paces, and they were matched by a constant police presence. The public security apparatus was on every street corner or not far from it, and you quickly dispensed with any notion of privacy or unobserved activity of any kind. Although I was traveling phone-and-computer free, I could easily see how total the surveillance becomes once the state has the power to intercept all digital communications, which are your thoughts. I was glad that my paranoia was benign, accepting that the monitoring was constant, but not really caring other than to note how effectively the surveillance modified behavior and thought.

The Chinese goal of total thought and behavioral control, however, wasn’t simply for the purpose of maintaining political power, but to maintain political power through a consumer economy that was constantly raising the standard of living. The vibrancy and energy of China is not easily observable in art or culture, but is overwhelming in its manifestation of consumer activity and the development of financial structures that  enhance and accelerate the growth of domestic spending.

Commerce, in other words, was everywhere, but art and those things requiring independence of political thought, especially dissent, were nowhere to be seen. This played hand in glove with the total ascendancy of data aggregator/tracking devices, which keep a billion-point-three people glued to screens that alternated between carefully tailored political messages, advertising, monitored peer-to-peer and peer-to-network communications, and music. And selfies.

Sound alien? Check the mirror …

At any given time in any given crowd, the great majority of people were bent over their data aggregator/tracking devices, oblivious.

Sound alien? Check the mirror …

As I made my way downtown, hungry, I passed a woman with a small cart on which she was energetically cooking up what looked like the most extraordinary breakfast burritos I had ever seen or smelled. I ordered one and she began frying an egg and mixing in all manner of ingredients over a flat pan that was heated by coals.

However good I expected it to taste, after going to bed hungry and stomping the streets for an hour to further stoke my raging appetite, it was a thousand times better. It was also filling, fresh, and hot, and set me back a total of $1.20. Before long I had a hankering for coffee, and could not resist my generation’s equivalent of McDonald’s, which is Starbucks, or “Xingbaka.” I swore, falsely it turned out, that this would be my sole stop there, and slunk in, embarrassed, for my tribute to American industrialized food. Nor was I surprised at the incredible price of $7.00 for a grande latte, for which I could have bought five street burritos.

And I have to admit that it tasted very, very good, enhanced no doubt by the deep loneliness that had set in after an entire two days of no contact with family, friends, or news from outside the Great Firewall.

On the way back to the hotel I felt pleased to be able to find my way around a pretty big city with nothing but a map written in Chinese, but I was dispirited at my difficulties in speaking. As it turned out, reading was much more useful anyway.

Along the river I passed an impromptu flea market where vendors, none of whom was under the age of about 70, had spread out the most useless of wares I had ever seen, and for which they had, incredibly, no end of customers. Old blankets, old belts, stained kiddie shoes, ancient underpants with frayed edges, rusted toenail clippers, plastic and glass jewelry of the lowest sort; it looked like a supplemental income program for the aged.

Finally something caught my eye, proving that there is one born every minute. An old woman was selling Chairman Mao pins and old banknotes and medallions. We began haggling. She wanted $1.40 for a couple of tiny pins barely worth a nickel, so I offered her eighty cents. She laughed and we haggled some more until I got them for a dollar. Then she tried to sell me a broken transistor radio. Remember those? I moved on.

Sort of wondering about why I had stopped to buy a memento of one of the all-time mass murderers, I passed another blanket with a similar layout. I made the fatal mistake of pausing for the briefest of seconds, and the old duffer was instantly pushing a collection of canceled Chairman Mao postage stamps into my hand. “Fifty dollars!” he said.

I thumbed through the plastic display case which couldn’t have been worth more than five dollars, probably closer to fifty cents. I offered him two dollars and he said he couldn’t take a penny less than twenty-five for such rarities, so we went back and forth until he put them down and offered me an equally useless collection of stamps bearing Sun Yat Sen. One thing about negotiating in China that you need to learn early and often is that you always lose. It takes time to know the value of useless crap, and to make it worse you know and they know that for you, five bucks is a cup of coffee–except at Starbucks. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that they have a mercantile culture dating back five thousand years. Plus, there is national pride at beating Americans, and especially tourists, in any negotiation.

I finally caved per the script and shelled out the insane price of ten dollars. I took no comfort in the happiness he got out of the deal. Then I noticed that the Chairman Mao stickpin lady had been standing off to the side, scowling. She had followed me and monitored the entire transaction. As I left she sidled up beside me.

“He defrauded you. What a rip-off! A cheat! You were burgled in plain daylight!”


“He’s a notorious cheating old man, a criminal, a thief of the worst kind. I would have sold you those stamps for nine dollars.”

“Quite a bargain.”

“Right! That old man is known for cheating everyone. He even cheats his poor old aunt.”

“Aunt? My goodness! How old is she?”

“She’s a hundred and three, totally blind. He steals from her all the time. Look,” she said, reaching into her bag and pulling out the identical Mao stamp set that the old man had been hawking. “Nine dollars, only for you because you are my good friend.”

Whenever a Chinese person who you don’t know calls you a good friend, you are about to get fucked. The old man had said it about twenty times and here she was, another street thief, calling me a good friend for a dollar less.

“Good friend?” I asked.

She brightened. “Hao pengyou! Hao pengyou!”

“Hao pengyou price is $1.00. Not hao pengyou price is $9.00.”

“$1.00 not hao pengyou.”

“Hao pengyou price is one dollar. Not hao pengyou price is fifty cents.”

She thought about that for a second and saw the way the negotiation was going, and vanished. It was almost 8:30 AM and I had succeeded at my first full morning in China. I had gotten breakfast, walked for hours, had coffee, bought some crap, learned the city layout on foot, and most importantly for cultural understanding and global relations, had made at two hao pengyou.

About the time I reached the hotel I was feeling peckish again and happened to look down a narrow alley filled with carts, each cart the site of a major culinary operation. The tastiest appeared to be the spicy flat-noodles-in-a-paper-bucket guy, and I was struck again at how much skill and actual cooking went on for a buck twenty. He cooked my noodles on the spot and I wandered over to the curb to sit and slurp.

The eating was extraordinary and the noodles were brimming with flavor and brimstone. My eyes and nose discharged immediately but I couldn’t stop eating. I had thought the burrito lady was queen, but decided that the noodles-in-a-bucket guy was king.

Back at the Hotel Celerich I continued having difficulties with the staff, or rather they continued having difficulties with me. The essence of the problem was that they did not give a shit about anything, and my butchery of Chinese combined with their inability to speak English meant that all interactions were to be terminated as quickly as possible or, better yet, avoided at all costs. There was no talk of hao pengyou.

This time I wanted to know how to get to the city of Pu’er, which appeared to be an hour or so away, and is the most famous city in China for tea. You can’t go to tea shops in Kunming without seeing a display of the big round wheels of dried Pu’er tea for sale, wrapped in beautiful paper.

Asking the front desk dude about getting to Pu’er caused almost as much stress and confusion as when I had asked where I could find razor blades. After much back and forth with the other staffer, and repeated searches on his data aggregator/tracking device, he ended with a question.


“Yes. Pu’er.”

Dali is much nicer.

“I don’t want to go to Dali. I want to go to Pu’er.”

“Dali is more famous.”

“I still want to go to Pu’er.”

“Today? When coming back?”

“One day trip.”

This caused another round of consternation and discussion, with no one really believing that I wanted to do a day trip to Pu’er. I knew I was fucked when the manager came over and kept glancing at me with incredulity every time they said “day trip to Pu’er.”

He straightened his jacket. “No train to Pu’er. You should visit Dali.”

“I don’t want to. What about a bus?”

More consternation. “Bus okay.”

“Which bus?”

“Bus stop at train station.”

“Which station?” It was like pulling teeth from an angry tiger.

“Go to subway.”

“Which one?”


“Which bus?”

He shrugged. Everyone had done their best to give the visiting idiot exacting instructions and they now had better things to do, such as anything but this. I returned to my room, defeated at another negotiation but pleased at having been defeated using only Chinese.

It was also dawning on me that one of my difficulties wasn’t simply my obtuseness, although that did explain a lot. The other problem was that in Yunan Province they speak heavily accented Chinese at best, dialect at worst. Back in the hotel room where the television announcers spoke with a squeaky clean Beijing accent and everything had subtitles, I could understand a lot. Why didn’t the locals walk around with subtitles? It was as if I’d learned English from an Internet teacher in London and made my first trip abroad to Biloxi.

I got cleaned up and went out for my second sally of the morning, hoping to get my hair cut. I passed a decrepit hair salon with a bored hairdresser standing outside with her hands saucily on her hips, daring any passers-by to come in for a trim.

“Haircut?” I asked.

“Of course!”

“How much?”



She sat me down and got work. We chatted and I mentioned wanting to visit Pu’er.

“Pu’er? You like tea?”

“I love tea.”

“Pu’er tea is the best. I have a friend who is from Pe’er. I will introduce you to my friend. My friend has a tea farm in Pu’er. Friends. Okay? I will make you hao pengyou. Come back in half an hour, okay?”

Despite the danger words of “hao pengyou,” I agreed. I didn’t have anything to do anyway, so why not get murdered? I left her excitedly talking to her pengyou on the phone. She had been speaking to me nonstop about the pengyou for about twenty minutes the second I mentioned Pu’er, and I understood basically none of it, only nodding and saying “Hao,” when it was obviously time for me to say something.

She spoke with a crazy thick accent and I was mildly concerned about the friend and what I had agreed to. I thought the friend was perhaps going to drive me to Pu’er and show me around, but wasn’t sure, and then I also wondered about the wisdom of taking off with a stranger who was so sure she had found a hao pengyou, i.e. a sucker. Still, the haircut would have been good for $50, and a Hollywood movie star cut for the $2.50 it actually cost. I wandered around for half an hour and came back.

Meizi was very happy to see me, and a cluster of young men were standing around her, although they turned out to be with the adjacent shop, a motorbike repair place.

“Watch my store!” she said, and they all grinned as she had obviously told them about the hao pengyou, and off we went.

I tried to keep track of the streets and turns as we walked farther and farther from the beaten path, which was hardly well beaten.

“There!” Meizi pointed. Her friend was on the other side of a busy street, raising a hand and smiling. I was relieved to see that the friend was a woman and not another cluster of motorcycle mechanics holding large tools. Maybe we would be driving to Pu’er after all.

“Are we going to Pu’er now?” I asked, but they were talking excitedly and paid no attention to me.

We kept going down side streets until we came to a gate. “This is Xiao Lin’s house,” Meizi said.

“Oh, well,” I thought. “I hope the kidnapping quarters are comfortable.”

We entered and as the heavy iron gate slammed behind me I saw we were in a garden. Against one of the enclosing walls was a small tea ceremony table with a large chair in the center and a carved wooden bench opposite.

Xiao Lin sat in the chair and motioned me onto the bench, facing her. Meizi sat off to my side. “Would you like to try the new tea or the old tea?”

I had no idea what was going on, other than that, at a minimum, tea was going to be drunk. “New?”

“Okay!” Xiao Lin said brightly, and reached into a large wooden crate, taking out a small bag of tea. She and Meizi spoke without pause and I understood nothing, not so much as a word. It occurred to me that they were speaking in dialect. It would take me pages and pages to describe how Xiao Lin prepared the tea, and the tools and accoutrements involved, but suffice it to say it was complex, and what was more unusual, the tea cups were only slightly larger than thimbles. This was a tasting. The teapot itself was quite small, and like the teacups was made of glass so you could see the color of the tea.

Xiao Lin poured my first cup, which was delicious, and then told me to smell the cup as soon as it was empty. The aroma was so sweet and complex, it filled my nose and ran through my palate like a gentle aromatic current. I mimicked Xiao Lin as she tested each sip, swishing and swashing the tea around in her mouth.

She continued to brew and pour and brew and pour until we had drunk I don’t know many cups. “Are you hungry?” Xiao Lin asked.

“Yes, a little.”

She called loudly and a servant appeared. After a minute the servant began bringing out dishes heaped with chicken, sausage, celerich, steamed rice, pickles, and fruit. The chicken was all on the bone and still had two huge black chicken legs with feet attached.

“Country food,” she said. “Healthy for you.” I passed on the claws.

With lunch done she smiled and said “Now let’s try the old tea.” She carefully removed a wheel of dried tea from its paper wrapper and showed me the date, 2004. “It is thirteen years old, very good.” She took out a small screwdriver and rather indelicately hacked off a corner and put it in the teapot.

Xiao Lin’s family has the only CERES certified organic tea farm in Yunan, and she had the servant bring out the certificate. The tea was ready and we drank it. It was indeed delicious, free of any bitterness at all, smooth and fresh and completely clean on the palate with no aftertaste, but I’m not sure I would have waited thirteen years for it.

Plus, no one seemed to be in a hurry to set off to Pu’er, so I kicked back and drank cup after thimbleful of rare tea, water gurgling in the pond, listening to the two women talk endlessly. One of the other side effects of untethering was paying less attention to time. When I checked my watch almost three hours had passed. I had drunk at least a hundred of the tiny thimblefuls, maybe more, and although I had lost count my bladder hadn’t. It stood up and roared.

“May I use the bathroom?” I asked. It was more of a desperate plea than a polite request.

I entered the large house only to see that it wasn’t so much a house as a business office. Along the far wall was a display case filled with round after round of paper-wrapped Pu’er tea wheels. I used the bathroom and when I came out the two women were standing in front of the display case.

“Would you like to buy some tea?” Xiao Lin asked.

“Sure,” I said, relieved to finally know the shot, and even more relieved that she hadn’t called me her hao pengyou.

“Which one would you like?” she asked, a trick question because nothing had a price tag.

“Which would you recommend?”

“You seemed to like the old tea?”


“Then this one.”

“How much is it?”

“30,000 yuan.”

I did the arithmetic, $500. I had brought a total of $700 cash for the entire trip. “Uh, no.” The whole operation was way out of my league and I started backing for the door, afraid some kung-fu security guard would jump out and demand payment for all the rare tea I’d drunk.

“It’s okay. I have a cheap one for 15,000.”

“No,” I said, reaching for my wallet. I pulled out about sixty bucks and handed it to her. “Thank you for the lovely afternoon.”

Both women held up their hands in dismay. “We are friends! Hao pengyou! No money, please.”

At the utterance of the dreaded words, I placed the cash on the desk and turned to go. It had been an amazing afternoon but I was getting worried. Xiao Lin saw me set down the cash and ran off into another room, reappearing with a round of tea, and shoving it into my hand. “Because hao pengyou.” We were at a stalemate, so I took it, smiled, and left.

Back outside the compound I tried to retrace my steps. Somehow I found a main street, too, took out my map, got oriented, and headed back to the hotel as the sun set. I managed to slam a bowl of fiery noodles before staggering into my room. It had taken three hours to get back to Hotel Celerich. My back, legs, and feet ached. I fell immediately to sleep.



For $2.99 per month you can subscribe to this blog and pay to support what you might otherwise take for free. Click here and select the “subscribe” link in the upper right-hand corner. Thank you!

I’ll not have the celerich, please

January 3, 2018 Comments Off on I’ll not have the celerich, please

I want to write down my misimpressions while they are still fresh and ridiculous, and before reflection can smooth them out into something reasonable or faintly true.

Kunming was my top travel choice because of its mild winter weather and not having much pollution “for China,” as they say. When I arrived the sky had been smudged over by smog and if I had had to come up with a metaphor for this place when I got off the plane, I would have said that China is a cough, because cough is what I did on and off for my first several hours of wandering around town, not a horrific, torrent-from-the-eyes-and-bloody-sputum cough, but rather a little something stuck in the back of my throat that refused to be hacked, swallowed, or spit away.

I had studied the map of the city before leaving California and committed the city to memory, but like lots of things that get committed, it’s not because they are in tip-top shape, and I promptly forgot everything the minute I arrived. Trouble started at the Dong Feng Square subway station when the exit machine refused to accept my ticket and wouldn’t let me out. I lummoxed from wicket to wicket without success, trying my ticket each time until a machine finally just ate the card but still wouldn’t let me out. It was symbolic. I had navigated the entirety of the trip, unplanned layovers and planned, figured out the trains, but was unable to get out of the damned station.

You know how minor annoyances at home become soul destroying panic attacks when you are ten thousand miles away and untethered to your iSecurityblanket? Yeah, that.

I went over to the ticket office and explained my problem, and the clerk smiled and gave me a new ticket. It was the first smile that had been directed at me, and one of only a handful I’d seen at all. Here’s something to remember, fuckers: The next time you see a foreigner having trouble, smile. They will remember you forever, and go home with tales about the friendly American who smiled at them and helped them out of some completely pedestrian jam.

Walking out of the station, where I was accosted by dozens of motor scooter cabbies, I realized that the dearth of smiles had a reason. China is one hard fucking place. The people look ground down, and the veneer of a first world nation that’s plastered everywhere is belied in the exhausted and harried faces of the people on the street. What’s to smile about when you just worked sixteen hours, ten days in a row?

Kunming itself is a small city of six million, and is charged with the energy of all those people hustling and busting their asses to survive. My plan had been to walk from the station to my hotel a couple of miles away, which began shakily as I stepped around a street beggar with no hands who was doing calligraphy with his stumps.

[Note to self: You think you got problems?]

But things deteriorated quickly and after three hours I was hopefully lost, wandering around on a memory filled with giant potholes, crevasses, and yawning chasms. Each time I asked directions I got either a different explanation or something that I couldn’t understand, or both, and the farther away I got from the center of town, the rougher and more worn things and people looked. They also had zero time for some dumb American mangling their language.

If you’ve ever been lost in Japan you know how kind and helpful people can be to strangers. If you’ve ever been lost in China you will know how you flat fucking do not matter, period. Time is money and you are an expense, and no one is impressed with your shitty attempts at Chinese, either.

At one point I was wandering through a park filled with deaf people signing, at another I was off on a side alley with tiny shops specializing in carved personal seals, then another street filled with shops that framed scrolls and then a cluster of governmental buildings. One corner had three vendors selling sweet potatoes baked on the lid of a steel barrel, and no matter where I went there were police stations everywhere. I would guess that there was a police station every five hundred yards, but don’t think they are there to act as your personal tour guide.

I learned this early on, when I asked a cop a simple question, “Excuse me, where is a nearby public toilet?”

“I don’t know,” he said.

Much worse than the pollution, which wasn’t too bad, and the indifference, which was restorative in the way of an ice bath, was the surveillance, which was nasty. You are watched and followed and traced every second in China, all the time. And although it oddly feels safe because there’s a cop every ten feet, it’s the fruition of what George Orwell prophesied so presciently in 1984. Big Bro is flat fuggin’ everywhere, and you’re the star of your own personal surveillance movie.

I will also say this, and experienced China travelers can feel free to correct me, but solo travel if you can’t read Chinese would be hell. Even if you can read it, it’s rough sledding until you get the lay of the land. In my case I gave up at finding my hotel after four hours of stumbling around, and hailed a cab. We drove forever and it cost less than three dollars.

My hotel, the Kunming Gui Hua Hotel, was a fair deal for $150/night, and the steal of a lifetime for its actual cost per night, which was $33. I got a spotless room, a huge bed with a mattress hard enough to smash ice cubes on, fresh linens, a spacious bathroom, and an efficient if not warm-and-fuzzy staff. Early January is the nadir of the travel season, and the weather is somewhere between warm and chilly.

One of the things most exciting to see were the thousands and thousands of rental bicycles. You needed a cell phone and e-pay account to rent one, but they cost about 80 cents every half hour and were ubiquitous. With the weather pleasantly cool, nothing would have been more comfortable than having a city bike to explore on. But untethered etc. etc.

I washed up and got ready to go to the hotel restaurant. If there were one area where I thought my expectations would be exceeded no how matter how high I set them, it was going to be dinner, and all I can say is that dinner ended up being a complete failure. The death spiral began in the elevator, where I was going down to the second floor along with the very nice lady who turned out to be my waitress. We started talking but I only understood about one of every four words, two of which were “restaurant” and “dinner.” She also said that my Chinese was very good, a vicious lie and what I would learn over the course of my trip was a predictor of terrible outcomes.

She escorted me into the dining area, which had about twenty 10-tops, and the only patron was I. She was so excited to have me there that rather than seat me she began quizzing me about what I wanted to eat, because when she had asked me if I wanted a menu, I told her I didn’t understand. Somehow I had forgotten what “caidan” meant. Actually, I didn’t “somehow” forget it, I was in a constant state of foreign language brain freeze, which is what happens when someone speaks to you in a foreign language and your whole brain turns into white noise and you stand there like a complete fucking idiot waiting for the picture to resolve into something you understand but it just stays white noise and you just stay standing there like a jellyfish.

So she thought we would have to play a game of 20 Questions, or in my case 200 Questions, in order to figure out what I wanted; I still didn’t get why she wouldn’t just bring me a menu. Finally I tried to say I liked everything, always a risk even at home, much less in a foreign land where they serve Fresh Fish Heads in Honey Hot Pot. Here again I made things worse because somehow she thought I wanted tofu.

“Okay!” she smiled. “You like tofu? Okay!”

“No, no!” I protested, imagining a six-course extravaganza of tofu, but this protest put us back to square one of her trying to figure out what to bring me. After more discussion we learned that Seth likes Sichuan cuisine and he likes really spicy food. She dashed off and I began to wait, wondering what I would get and wondering how much of my mouth, gums, teeth, tongue, lips, esophagus, and butthole were going to be incinerated in the process.

After a bit she appeared with an entirely harmless scoop of white rice and some chicken mixed with a vegetable not spinach and not celery that I’ll call “celerich.” She anxiously waited as I took the first bite. “Too spicy?” she asked.

“It’s fine,” I said, unable to detect any spice at all, zero, nix, null. It was however tasty and would have stacked up well against any Chinese restaurant I had ever been to back home, and since it was obviously a prelude to bigger and better and spicier things, I devoured it and waited. A full day of travel and walking makes you hungry.

A few minutes later she returned. “Are you still hungry?”

“Yes. Very.”

“Do you want more rice?”

“No, thanks,” I said, but didn’t know how to say I wanted a couple of more entrees.

She nodded as if she understood. “I’ll bring more.”

She next reappeared with a heaping plate of the celerich, and I grimly ate it, next time determined to ask for a menu, which is when I realized the word for menu was what she had been saying from the outset.

At about this time a large party of what sounded like four hundred arrived, but they were in the adjacent elegant Dragon Room and I remained alone in the Great Hall of Celerich as people laughed and hollered and had the party to end all parties, which obviously took all the time and attention of my waitress. Somewhere between the fiftieth and two thousandth silent repetition of “May I have please have a menu?” I fell asleep at the table, awaking half an hour later to boisterous cheers from the real dinner party and to the twin realizations that no one cared about me and that I would be going to bed fearfully hungry.

I headed for the door, where I was met by a phalanx of four wait staff asking if I were okay.

“I’m fine, just hungry. I want to pay.”

Telling your Chinese dinner host that you are fine but hungry is a cruel insult, like them telling me my Chinese was great when I couldn’t understand the word “menu.”

“We will give you every food you desire,” said one.

“Here is a menu!” said another.

“Chicken or beef?” said a third.

“I’m sorry but I waited half an hour, I’ve been traveling all day, I’m tired and need to lay down but not at the table.”

Just then the distressed manager ran up. “Don’t talk to them!” he said. “They can’t speak English!”

“But I was speaking to them in Chinese.”

“They don’t understand your Chinese, either. What is the problem?”

I could barely understand him, and it occurred to me that if my Chinese were even partially as horrible as his English, then everyone I’d spoken to since arriving had suffered greatly. I told him my story and he only understood “no waitress,” at which he became livid.

“What? No waitress? Where is she!” he commanded, just as she appeared, in great distress.

Now I felt terrible about the prison camp she would be sent to, but not bad enough to eat another platter of celerich, so I signed the check and left. Out like a one-eyed batter at 7:30, I was up like a jack-in-the-box at 4:00, ready for the day. But apparently I was the only one in Kunming so ready, because everything was deathly still outside, and as a peek out the window confirmed, even the good folks across the street at the Liver Disease Center which, judging from the vast quantities of hard liquor on sale everywhere and advertised ceaselessly on television, must have been doing a land office business.




For $2.99 per month you can subscribe to this blog and pay to support what you might otherwise take for free. Click here and select the “subscribe” link in the upper right-hand corner. Thank you!

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with bike lawyer torrance at Cycling in the South Bay.