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Out of the Raw and Into the Well-Done

We woke up our last morning in Hohhot and feasted briefly on the Internet before strapping all our things down onto our cycles and heading to our in search of noodles.

We ended up going back to the same Uyghur noodle place that we’d found our first morning here, and ordered a couple more bowls of lamb noodles, this time accompanied by a few Uighur kebabs, and what the Chinese call “Chuar.”

The symbol for Chuar is 串, which can be found throughout all over most mainland Chinese cities. It’s an easy one to spot, the Chuar character, since it looks like a kebab. Another character which I noticed it also looks a lot like 中, which is the first character of the Chinese word for China, 中国, literally translated “Middle Kingdom” or “Central Country”. That made us think. What if there was a chuar guo (串国)? Would that place be anything like our beloved Xiniang Uighur semi-autonomous region? And so with it we’d like to announce a new t-shirt: Chuarguo, in hope of promoting it as a pro-Xinjiang underground movement in favor of increased chuar consumption and support of Uighur entrepreneurship in the world at large.

And with that we hopped in the bus.

Even before the bus had left, the drivers’ started playing ridiculous kung fu movies, each of which seemed to be better than the last, and which continued to play throughout the entire ride to Beijing.

The highlight of the bunch and the final film was John Woo’s classic Once a Thief.

The ride ended up being pretty long.  For part way through, we hit some truly horrendous traffic, which had us waiting for hours in frustrating gridlock, making me wonder whether wheeling would not have been faster.   People hopped off and on the bus to relieve themselves and smoke cigarettes.  Looking out the window at our fellow stuck travelers, I began to realize that with the exception of busses, almost all of it was commercial drivers: mostly giant trucks transporting industrial and agricultural goods. China was moving so much stuff, that they could have a full stop and go gridlock traffic jam on a 6 lane highway in the middle of nowhere the most depopulated Provence of the country.   Most of it was product which was paid for by point B to be moved from point A.  This country never ceases to impress. Eventually, thanks be to Jah, we hit the open road again, and made it into Beijing only a few hours late.

It was by then well after nightfall. Gone were the days of blessed far north summer nights when the sunlight extended on until 10 or 11, and we were not quite sure where we’d been dropped off. What we were sure of was that it was surprisingly warm out. We had been able to wear the leather Jackets still in Mongolia and Inner Mongolia, but it seemed that here we would need to put them into storage deep in the bags, hoping for a reappearance in Korea.
It had not been this warm at night since perhaps somewhere in Turkey, or even before that. And I marveled at how quickly I became soaked in sweat just wheeling away from the bus station and out to the main road. Our only real goal was to find an affordable hotel, and knowing China, we figured that would not be too difficult. We’d wheel into the city center the next day.  So off we went, wheeling along and keeping an eye out for the ubiquitous Chinese business hotel. But, strangely, we couldn’t find any. Perhaps we were in the wrong neighborhood, we thought. Heading on further, and keeping our eyes peeled.
Still no hotels presented themselves. We did spot a delicious smelling cluster of restaurants, though, and decided that eating could only help our situation. So one giant sizzling plate full of fish and few plates of greens later, we climbed back on the cycles with not only full stomachs, but armed with directions from the waitress towards a hotel.

We found the place no problem, but it turned out they were not authorized to accept foreigners. This was something we’d never encountered in China before… and we were puzzled. The owner of the hotel apologized and sent us on up the street to another hotel, but that place was way too expensive. And I’ll be darned if this trend didn’t continue on well into the night. We would wheel up to a perfectly respectable and affordable looking Chinese business hotel and attempt to check in, they would have vacancy and be very friendly, but sad to inform us that we as foreigners were not allowed to stay there, and then send us on to a nearby fantastically expensive place. How is a man to choose freedom in such conditions?
It was thus that, at nearly two AM, exhausted, sweaty, and discouraged, we rolled up to a certain hotel whose name shall remain for now a secret. The owner of the place was just leaving after a long night of balancing the books, and walked by Scott just as his front desk manager was being sorry to inform him they not authorized to accept foreigners. Something touched the man about us. Perhaps it was seeing our haggard state, or being somewhat of a cyclist himself. Maybe it was Scott’s Chinese, which we must have sounded not unlike Scorat: Cultural Lessons for Choosing Freedom in Chinese Cities and Betterment of Glorious Partners of AsiaWheeling Global Enterprises. Whatever it was, he decided to cut us a break and do a little under the table deal making.
He let us into a room where we would be able to sleep, showed us how to use the bathroom, and how to flush the toilet by diverting the water from the sink to the shower via a large metal handle, and then spraying water into the keyhole.  But he never even gave us the key. Presumably we were never to do anything more than sleep, get up, and leave, so there would be no need.
The room was interesting. Not Chinese business, but it was nice, like sleeping on the futon in your unemployed friend’s basement apartment. It had two huge beds, which took up almost all the floor space, the rest of which was taken up by a low table on which was a complementary Windows XP PC. Having our own notebooks, we had no interest in the PC, but we were able to use its Ethernet connection to sync our email. Then we just crashed hard and woke up the next morning to leave. The owner wished us good luck finding a more legitimate place to stay and then we were back on the road, wheeling fully loaded again.

This time we pushed on towards Tiananmen square, scanning all the way for a noodle shop. There were plenty of people wheeling as well, and a very intense police presence in this city, really unlike anything we’d seen in China. There was going to be none of the usual white crimes of AsiaWheeling, like running red lights or dashing across an intersection in between signals. Here the cops were on the job and tuned in to bikers, shouting at you if you crossed too far over the yellow line which marked where cyclists should wait when crossing the street.
We continued to wheel, keeping eyes peeled for noodles, but to my great indignation, they continued to be a scarce commodity. When we passed our third McDonalds I turned to Scott “Three McDonalds and no noodles? Are we still in China?”
And it was true, Beijing felt different than any other Chinese city we’d been to in this great country, and different then it had felt in 2008 when we first visited. It was so… shiny and clean. People we so orderly, toeing the line. Where was the raw? Where was the yelling? And where were all the damned noodles?
Finally, after much searching, countless McDonalds, KFCs, and Pizza Huts, we found a restaurant that was not a noodle house, but was at least a down home Chinese restaurant.

We ordered a large plate of pork with cumin, a cucumber salad, some white rice, and drank many pots of their tea, so much in fact that the tea in the pot became so exhausted by repeated soakings that we were no longer able to detect the actual tea flavor by the end of our time there.
Now, with some food in our stomachs, we continued to wheel on, past Tienanmen Square.

Even Tienanmen felt significantly different than the last time I’d visited, which had been on a cool and misty day. Today the sun was blinding and there was not a cloud in the sky. I realized then, also, that I had not ever seen Beijing with so little pollution. It was really quite amazing.

When we spotted a China Mobile office, we called a waypoint to buy a SIM card. We were able to do this no problem, but were quite surprised to find that here in Beijing SIM cards cost about 100% more than had we bought them in, say, Hekou.

A phone would be important, so we decided to purchase one SIM card to share between the two of us.  Scott ran in and executed the mission while I sat outside and just played the ukulele. Most of the well dressed Beijing pedestrians had no idea what to do with me. I must have looked like a filthy homeless vagrant (which is what I was) and Beijing is not a city with street performers. So most pedestrians, as they passed, would just glance at me uncomfortably and then avert  their eyes while walking onwards stiffly. Doing our best to push peoples limits here on AsiaWheeling, on rendition of BlackWater at a time.
Scott came out triumphant with the SIM card and ran over to buy a peach from a man and his wife who were roaming the streets with a peach selling cart.
Just then, our man MCK called, and as luck would have it, he knew of a hotel not one block from where we stood just there and then. It was a place by the name of Hai Na Binguan, and we strolled in to find that they even had a vacancy for us. So we headed up to the room, pleased to see an Ethernet cable hanging out of the wall, and that the bathroom was on a raised platform, covered in deafeningly screechy sliding smoked glass doors and headed out for a quick sunset wheel.

We began by heading down a large street near our hotel, lined with block after block of restaurants, making our way down the bike lane which ran, strangely enough, through the middle of the sidewalk. As we wheeled along, people called out to us, sometimes even in English asking us to come investigate their restaurant or their wares.

When was the last time that I had been yelled at on the street to advertise a restaurant… I can’t even remember… what was Beijing becoming? Bangkok?

We wheeled on, through shockingly manageable, well organized, and mostly brand new streets, able to get almost anywhere, without ever having to ride on a road with no bike lane, and spending an unprecedented amount of time waiting, under the watchful eyes of multiple traffic police, at stoplights.  A new Beijing sprawled before us.

After taking a huge loop, circumnavigating and eventually plunging back into Dongzhimen, we headed across the street from our hotel to try out the Uyghur restaurant there. We ordered a cucumber salad, a variety of Chuar, a big bowl of spicy Lakman, and some of that wonderful Uyghur bread called nung. The food was very good, but the nung was truly incredible, cooked in a large coal burning oven outside the restaurant, and brushed with oil and spices and browned on the char grill before being served.
As we were leaving, we stopped by the register to pay, and thanked in owner in his own central Asian tongue. “Rakhmet.” We were admiring a large calendar on his wall, featuring a large gold accented photograph of the K’aba. He came over to us, and seeing the mustaches (which are a symbol of being muslem in China) asked us if we’d been on the Haj?
“No,” Scott replied in Chinese “But hopefully one day, Insha’Allah.”


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