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Wheeling Fully Loaded

For some time we had been contemplating a new strategy for wheeling fully loaded. You see, dear reader, up until this point, I had been consolidating my belongings by strapping my technology bag onto the top of my pack and wheeling with the entire thing on my back, while Scott would put one pack on his back and one on his front.  An illustration from Surabaya, Indonesia may be found below.

This system worked fine for short missions, but it had a number of marked drawbacks. We were rather top-heavy and as we rode, blood flow to our heads was painfully restricted at times. In addition to that, the weight of our entire inventory was concentrated on the points where our rear ends made contact with the seats. And as you, dear reader, can no doubt imagine, this develops into a painful situation after extended amounts of wheeling.

Back in Vietnam, we had just awakened and ordered the cheapest coffee in Sa Pa, which was true to advertisement, served at our hotel, followed by another down the block.

In order to get up to Sa Pa, we had taken a winding but steadily uphill road. The road was about 35 kilometers long, and originated in Lao Cai, the Chinese border city.

It was our plan that day, to strap our technology bags onto the rear racks of the speed TRs and ride with only our packs on our backs. This, we hoped, would alleviate much of the strain and top-heaviness. So in the courtyard of our hotel in Sa Pa, we spent some time working on properly strapping technology bags onto the rear racks. We shook the bikes back and forth simulating the g-forces of a downhill ride. It was a pretty smooth road, but based on our preliminary wheel on our first day in Sa Pa, we knew there were a few sections of construction that would test the security of our arrangement.

As we were obsessing over our bikes, a crew of five or six Vietnamese men came by and insisted on taking photos with us and the Speed TRs, trying on the Maui Jims, and generally assessing AsiaWheeling. We did our best to satisfy their appetites for documenting their interaction with foreigners, and stood for photos with each of them individually.

After checking and double checking our setup, we climbed on the bikes and began to coast downhill.

It was glorious. With about half the weight of my gear off my back, I was set free to enjoy the thrill of whipping down the road, drinking in the lush green of the scenery. Traffic was very light, and with the aid of all the potential energy that we had racked up on our ascent, we were wheeling at nearly the speed of the few cars and trucks with which we shared the road.

As we grew nearer and nearer to the border town of Lao Cai, we started to notice fellow wheelers as well, like these two women transporting a startlingly large load. They both greeted us heartily, sharing the camaraderie that only those riding long distances downhill through the mountains of northern Vietnam can.

As we descended, the temperature rose, and the cool thin mountain air was replaced with a thick humidity. As we leveled out into the outskirts of Lao Cai, we began to sweat profusely, and with it came the hunger. We had forgotten to eat, again, and madness quickly ensued.

With little more than knowledge of the general direction of China, we set out searching for a Pho place. And for the first time, it was difficult to find. For one reason or another, we had inserted ourselves into the industrial goods and paint-trading section of town. So it was with sweat pouring, maddening hunger gripping us, and serious delirium setting in, that we wheeled the last four or so kilometers, which brought us to the river that separates the two countries. There we found a restaurant.

It was mostly empty, with only the odd table of Vietnamese men, feasting on very Chinese-looking chicken and greens dishes, and ripping huge lungs-full of thick tobacco smoke from a long bamboo water pipe.

Though we shared no language, the owner of the shop was supremely determined to communicate. He helped us park our bikes and took us into the back of the shop to select our food from the ingredients he had stored back there. The meal was amazing, consisting of roast chicken, cucumber salad, and rice.

As we picked our teeth, the owner, and the rest of the fellows in the restaurant came over to join us and discuss (mostly non-verbally) our mission, the nature of the Speed TRs, and our previous and upcoming waypoints. We ended the interaction by all taking a large rip from the huge water pipe. This induced a giant fit of coughing and a brief period of delirium. After the effects of the rip wore off, it was as though we all were made brothers. Warm regards were exchanged, and directions to the border of China were drawn for us on a napkin.

We wheeled on, with the help of the napkin map, easily finding the border crossing, which was marked by two giant arches on either side of a bridge. We exchanged the last of our Vietnamese Dong for Chinese Reminbi and headed to the border.

Outside passport control, we were accosted by a large group of currency changers who, though we had no interest in their services, insisted on continued interaction and soon encircled me. One of them reached out and removed my Maui Jims from my face, placing them on his own. I prepared for battle, and called over to Scott for reinforcement.

Just then, a customs official exited the building and yelled out to the men in Vietnamese. The group began to disperse, and I grabbed my glasses back off the man’s face. That was twice now, that I had taken those spectacles from a would-be thief.

The border of China and Vietnam is not the friendliest of borders, and I believe very few tourists cross at Lao Cai. Officials are strict and gruff, and your fellow travelers are mostly scrubby Chinese and Vietnamese traders, chain smoking cigarettes and shuttling large loads of consumer goods across the bridge on large hand-pulled wooden carriages.

We waited in line for some time, and then even longer, as the customs officials scrutinized every stamp and visa in my passport, before allowing me to exit Vietnam. For Scott, the process was even longer. I was lazily doing laps around a large flagpole in the middle of no-man’s land when Scott emerged from Vietnamese passport control. “What was that about?” he asked.

“No idea.” Speculation, however, is invited in the comments.

On to China! We climbed on the Speed TRs and, with a great deal of gusto and excitement, wheeled toward the rather Klingon-looking archway that symbolized the entrance to China. Our attempts to wheel across the bridge, however, were foiled by a Vietnamese official who forbade riding into China. So it was with slightly less billowing sails that we crossed under the great angular concrete archway into China.

One thing was obvious from the very beginning: the Chinese run a very tight ship. We were immediately, and respectfully greeted (in Chinese) by a starched and uniformed official who showed us where we could park our bikes in order to enter the customs building, which was a large and brutally unassuming structure. Inside the customs building, we were greeted by two more immaculately put together chaps, who greeted us in polite and formal, though heavily accented, snippets of English. After seeing the many Chinese visas and entry and exit stamps in Scott’s passport, he was waved on to passport control. Mine, on the other hand, was carefully inspected, detected, and scanned stamp by stamp, presumably to confirm the authenticity of my documentation. Though it took some time, it was done with the utmost professionalism and politeness. Finally, I was ushered over to passport control, past a large door labeled in large English type “Further Interrogation Room.” It seemed their discussions with Scott had alleviated all skepticism of AsiaWheeling, and I was flagged through with no further problem. Meanwhile, Scott’s bags were being carefully inspected, at the culmination of which, the customs official removed a certain bottle of Burmese smelling salts, which we had acquired in Sanklaburi, Thailand. They seemed to pass inspection as well.

We were in China, but the bikes were still in no man’s land. We were beginning to confer about how to best retrieve them when the Chinese officials once again proved their organization and foresight, by showing us back through the customs and allowing us to ride our cycles around and out into China through the same entrance that large cargo trucks use.

And we were in, bikes and all. The city was called Hekou, and so far it appeared to be the usual AsiaWheeling border town. It was a jungle of import-export businesses, and bustled with small-scale international trade. Women who appeared to be prostitutes roamed the streets in short skirts and high heels, strolling in packs. We poured out of the customs building into traffic, wheeling our way through an immense gridlock of Chinese men and women, transporting all nature of goods.

There were a few important missions we needed to complete: we needed Chinese SIM cards; we needed to find a hotel; and we needed to wheel the city of Hekou. We were still in the jungle of import-export businesses, so we headed on toward the interior of the city. On our way, we passed a bus station. We had spoken to the honorable Stewart Motta since our encounter with him in Lao, and at his recommendation, our next waypoint in China was to be a predominantly museum town by the name of Jianshui. Jianshui was also positioned conveniently between the border town of Hekou and Stew’s current residence in Kunming.

Inside the bus station, Scott demonstrated his Chinese skills, quickly manifesting for us a couple of tickets for early the next morning to Jianshui.

We declined a number of offers from fellows at the bus station to provide us with professional female companionship, and climbed back on the cycles. We soon found our way to the riverside, where we called a waypoint at a roadside juice stand, where the owner came to join us at our plastic table, explaining to Scott in Chinese where we might find a cheap hotel, what price we should pay, and how to find SIM cards. We thanked him, and after finishing our freshly blended mango juices, headed off toward the hotel and SIM card district.

All around us China was just churning with activity. Men strolled the streets yakking away on cell phones while wearing no shirts. Construction workers furiously bent and welded metal in the streets. Beautiful women zipped around on silent electric mopeds, and everywhere things were growing, being improved, remodeled, or torn down to make room for the future. Acquiring SIM cards was easy, and the staff at China mobile was exceedingly patient and helpful.

Armed with newly active phones, we headed down the street where we saw a giant gleaming Chinese business hotel.

Scott went inside, and firmly bargained them down to the price that had been communicated by our juice-making friend. It worked, and after declining more offers for paid companionship from a woman who had set up shop with a large placard of optional women at the base of the elevator, we headed up to our room.

The room was stupendous and cheap. For about US$20.00 dollars per night we were enjoying a spotlessly clean room, with new shiny fixtures, and the solid kind of furniture one expects at a place like the Westin. We had free in-room Internet (Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter were, of course, blocked by the Chinese government). We took only the time to pound a little water from the in-room water bubbler, and change into our Speed Matrix biking jerseys, before heading back out for a wheel.

The staff of the hotel, which was no doubt used to Chinese businessmen and international traders who were mostly interested in feasting and paid companionship, seemed baffled that we would head back out into the heat of the day, after just arriving sweaty and disheveled from the savage wheel. But thus is the habit of the AsiaWheeler. China was just too new and fascinating for us to separate ourselves from it by a pane of spotlessly clean hotel window glass.

We wheeled down the road, stopping briefly to purchase refreshingly affordable water at a brand new giant supermarket, and then headed down the road that skirted the riverside. On one side was China, on the other was Vietnam. The Chinese side was clean, orderly, and marked by gigantic blocky, brutalist structures. Meanwhile, the Vietnamese side was mostly undeveloped, covered with mineral extraction operations and tent cities. It’s true that Vietnam has one of the fastest growing GDPs in the world, but China was the clear winner in this race. We wheeled on past another large border crossing, this one for rail only. On the Chinese side, there was a huge brand new facility, imposingly constructed from concrete and glass, which dwarfed its modest Vietnamese counterpart.

On we wheeled, the opportunity to explore the wide smooth roads that connected the brand new housing and administrative developments of Hekou was too tempting not to. The sun sank low and hunger took hold. We had just made it back into the neighborhood of our hotel when we wheeled by a street filled with restaurants, and the glorious smells coaxed us in. We dismounted and walked the Speed TRs, scanning for a place to eat.

We finally selected a restaurant at the end of the row. It was one of the standard kind of Chinese joints, with no menu, instead just a giant bank of ingredients in an open cooler. We were invited inside to select from the ingredients, and once we had selected some, were expected to enter into an involved discussion of how we would like them to be prepared. This, we unfortunately lacked the vocabulary to execute, so we just asked the waitress to choose for us, and headed over to the table.

The meal that arrived was amazing, a truly emotional experience.

As I leaned back from my feasting, I was overcome with the delightfully new vibrations of China. The traffic, the food, the attitude of the people, it was somehow perfect for AsiaWheeling. This was a decidedly new chapter, and I could tell already it was going to be a glorious one.


  1. Val | July 5th, 2010 | 8:05 am

    Great entry, Woody!

  2. Joe | July 5th, 2010 | 10:10 am

    Yes a Good one, action!

  3. Diane Heditsian | July 5th, 2010 | 1:12 pm

    I agree. I love how you contrasted the two countries. Can’t wait to join AsiaWheeling in Turkey! I missed the photo of the two women with the well-distributed packs. I’m getting a little concerned about riding with the pack.

  4. Woody | July 8th, 2010 | 3:09 pm

    @ Diane

    You’ll do just fine riding fully loaded. And thanks to Prevlaunch 2: Return of Prevlaunch, you should have to do so very rarely.

  5. Woody | July 8th, 2010 | 3:16 pm

    @ Val
    @ Joe

    Thanks you guys.

  6. Mark/Dad | July 11th, 2010 | 4:13 pm

    The crimson soup with greens was striking!

  7. AsiaWheeling » Blog Archive » [P|B]usan Ho | February 12th, 2012 | 11:54 pm

    […] more like a border town and though I might have been mistaken, I think I even detected a hint of Hekou, mostly in the concentration of brothels and strip joints. While the less than savory […]

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