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We woke up our first morning in Hohhot and began by feasting on the ethernet connection, just sitting there in the room, drinking cup after cup of Nescafe, which we whitened with some bizarre Chinese sweetened milk. We were coming up with some interesting ideas for a presentation that we planned to give in Beijing, but once the rumble in our stomachs became too loud, we shut our laptops down and grabbed the bicycles.  We hit the streets of Inner Mongolia’s capital.

Outside, the city of Hohot was grey and inviting, churning with traffic, noise and filth in all its monstrous glory.  In reality the population of Ulaanbaatar might have been larger, but there was a feel to these Chinese cities, a certain rushed feeling to the pedestrians, an ugency in the voices of the street vendors. It was intoxicating.  It was China.

The first thing we did was get on the cycles and head towards the train station. We had every intention of snagging a ticket on a train sometime in the next few days to the northern Chinese city of Harbin. When we got to the train station, we found the place to be a total madhouse, with lines stretching well past the metal barriers designed to prevent cutting, and plenty of hurried and grumpy people hoping to get a seat on such and such train before it sold out.

You see, dear reader, we’d made a bit of a miscalculation and arrived in China during the mid-autumn moon festival. This meant we’d be trying to get around the place just at the time when all its transportation systems are strained to the breaking point with people heading home to celebrate the harvest. We, for instance, waited in two different lines for 40 minutes to find unsurprisingly that only hard seats were left on all the trains to Harbin. 16 hours overnight on a hard seat is doable… We’re not above it, mind you.. oh we’ve seen worse… but at least we thought we might as well check out the busses before resigning ourselves to such torture.

The bus situation turned out to be even worse. There were actually no busses originating here and terminating in Harbin. If we wanted to get there, we’d need to change in some intermediary city, making the entire trip way too long and tiresome for even your two callused correspondents.

So we decided to improvise. Standing right there in the bus depot, we reshuffled the AsiaWheeling Northern China Itinerary, switching Beijing and Harbin, and thus adding in on very long train trip (from Harbin to Qingdao), and solving the probelem. And with that, we bought tickets on a bus to Beijing, and walked away brushing our hands together.

There was of course the presentation that we’d been working on for Beijing as well, so the next thing we did was to get on the phone with our dear friend MCK, who would be helping us arrange for the event to confirm the days that we’d be there. The new dates seemed to work for him, so all was falling into place.

Now it was high time to eat something, so we headed over to a Uighur noodles joint, and ordered two big bowls of spicy lamb noodles, and a few kababs. Central Asian food, Ya Habibbi, with Chinese noodles.

Filled once again with noodles, the true fuel of AsiaWheeling, we were taking to the streets in a way he hadn’t in some time. We were back in a city where the traffic speed was low, where the drivers were used to having cycles on the road, and where the city was designed with wheelers in mind.  In fact, I might even go as far as to say that Hohhot had the highest concentration of wheelers we’d encountered on the entire trip.

The city was overcast, but very comfortable, and we whipped along the large sidewalk/bike lanes, snaking around trees and generally enjoying the increased nimbleness one gets when riding a cycle with 20 inch wheels. Like Mongolia, Inner Mongolia is a Buddhist region of China, and we passed by not a few temples as we wheeled.

We also passed by some even more interesting sights, like this huge pile of freshly painted blue cycle rickshaws.

When we spotted a flashlight shop, we stopped. Our bikes had been too long without lights, and this seemed the perfect opportunity to rectify the situation. Scott bonded quickly with the owners, and by the time we had narrowed it down to a couple of savage miner’s headlamps, they were already practically giving the headlamps to us as gifts.

With the new headlamps bagged up and strapped onto the backs of our bicycles, we headed out into some of the more remote parts of Hohhot to do a little exploring.

The road we were riding on terminated directly into this giant pile of raw coal,

at which point we were forced to take a left. The left took us along a particularly trash strewn sewage creek , which we continued follow.

Even the path on which we rode, which ran along the creek, seemed to be constructed mostly of filth and many multicolored old plastic bags.

That path of garbage lead us back out onto a main street, where people were whipping by, carrying all kinds of goods in that way that you only really find in China

We took a right on that rode and rode it as far as it would go. When eventually forced to turn, we took a right, wheeling on past a School which was farming corn and raising sheep in the side lot, I hoped as part of the education of the children.

Not long after the sheep, we found ourselves at another large Buddhist temple. This one was huge and stark white with a gold stupa. There were a system of paths around it, so we decided to circumnavigate the thing, which was only partially successful, dumping us out onto the other side of the block where there was yet another large temple, or perhaps it was a palace, outside of which a group of men had set up a little campsite out of cloth and baskets and were the process of burning garbage in the street. We could not quite tell if they were burning the trash to produce heat (it was not particularly cold) or to get rid of it. Regardless, it was producing an acrid smoke that soon pushed us to leave.

We then found ourselves in a new “old style” housing development, where we purchased a few of those delicious jars of yak yoghurt and a couple bottles of water.

As we were sipping it, a woman came by to do shtick with us in Chinese. Scott did his best to hold his own, but as you can see by her smile, Scott was outshticked.

And with the outschticking came the rain. It poured down on us as we hurried to get back to the hotel before we were so thoroughly soaked as to wipe the stamps out of our passports, which we were still carrying in our pockets, so fresh we were from the post soviet world. As I rode through the wet streets, I skidded against some slick stones and fell off my bike. I was fine, and so was the cycle, but it marked an important moment: the first time I’d ever fallen off my Speed TR. Let’s hope it’s the last as well.


  1. Nihaoma | February 22nd, 2011 | 1:29 am

    “You see, dear reader, we’d made a bit of a miscalculation and arrived in China during the mid-autumn moon festival.”

    I think you meant Chinese New Year or spring festival. Mid-Autumn festival is in… well, Autumn!

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