I bounced around a muddy corner on my mountain bike and nearly ran into the side of a water buffalo. The stupid thing barely looked up and just went back to its never-ending chewing.
After breakfast, I hired a bike for US $1 and decided to go find an adventure like the good ‘ol vagabonding days. The day was sprinkling rain, as usual, but I took my chances anyway and hit the streets.
That bike was the best $1 I have spent so far!
I got out of Dali in about 20 minutes and rode through the north gate onto the main road. I could see the enormous Erhai Lake just off to my right, so I made a direct path for it. On the way, I passed rice field after rice field, all full of animals and workers toiling in the land. They were standing in knee-deep mud and their pitchforks never stopped moving through the air. These people work hard! Never mind that today was Saturday. No such thing as rest for these men and women; they were too busy working to feed themselves and the rest of their fellow countrymen that live in the cities.
I stopped off in one roadside shop for some water and ended up talking to a very nice Chinese guy for almost 30 minutes. He spoke about as much English as I do Chinese, so we met in the middle, and it worked! We were both 32 years old, only he had a shop, wife who I met, and two adorable kids. He bemoaned his financial situation. And here I was pissing around his country on a bike in the rain. He didn’t understand, I think, but we joked about how old we were both getting and how crazy life really was. This was probably the best interaction I have had with locals so far; my old Chinese teacher back in Deng Feng would be so proud!
I made my way down to the lake and took a muddy path into the tiny villages that are strung out all around the lake. The narrow, brick streets were even more maze-like than the hutongs in Beijing. I was riding through a very small farming community, and the structures were ancient.
The smells of wet earth, straw, and flowers mixed in the lake breeze. It has been raining so much that most of my time was spent watching my front tire to avoid wiping out in a muddy mess. From both sides, Chinese kids would yell “Hello?” in a question form, like they weren’t sure if it was correct or something. As if they said hello wrong, my neatly folded demon wings would pop out of my back and I would carry them away for eating. When I would smile and return their hellos, they would be so overtaken with excitement that they would cover their faces and jump up and down laughing. At one point, I had about 10 kids chasing me on my bike through the streets. I would slow down to let them almost catch up, then start pedaling again which would cause an eruption of giggles.
I rode for nearly seven hours total, and it was obvious that my bottom was going to be not so happy about it in the morning. I made a circuit around the lake, visiting Xi Zhou, where I found a tiny market square and the best jiao se (pork dumplings) I have eaten in China — for 40 cents!
I then made it to Zhou Cheng, another village just large enough to have two petrol stations. I was running out of time before dark, so I started back on the upper road, which is smaller and rougher. The rain decided not to cooperate and escalated from a refreshing mist to nothing short of a torrential downpour. I was drenched from head to toe. People were staring at me from the dry safety of their front porches: the Chinese definitely do not like to get wet. Even the chickens were smart enough to join them on the porch and looked at me blankly as I struggled by with my bike.
I had enjoyed nearly three hours of a downhill coast on the way to the lake. Now, I had to pay the price and grind back up the stubborn hill. Damn your laws, Newton!
As the rain was running in a steady stream off of my nose, I heard a loud pop! My bicycle had decided to give up before my quivering legs did. I spent nearly 20 minutes in the pouring rain trying to get the broken chain back onto the gears properly, and when I finished, I was covered in slimy grease that eventually made its way to my face and everything else that I touched.
The rain stopped just before I came over the crest of the hill. I stopped to catch my breath and my sanity for a moment, and hanging over the lake were two distinct rainbows — a double! There was rain between them but I could see the welcoming north wall of my Dali home below me. I knew that I had survived and now had one more story to tell.
This was an old-school, vagabonding adventure like I had so many of last year, and it reminded me also of why I travel solo and prefer to do things like this alone. Sure, I love the company when I am at the hostel or in the pub, but it just would not have been the same with another person along, unfortunately. I learned so much about the daily life of these rice farmers just by observing as I rode.
Life is great!