Farms, temples and henna

April 19, 2013

We were fortunate to experience the last day of the Navraatre festival the next morning. Navraatre is dedicated to the goddess Durga. On the last day of the festival, local girls are worshipped as if they were the goddess. The children are brought into the house, have their feet washed and then offered money, food and presents like lunchboxes or pencils. The girls were all very cute and more than willing to pose for the camera.

The goddess

The goddesses

Our next stop was to visit the farm that belonged to a man that worked with Pooja’s dad. The farm was an hour outside of Delhi, so we had a nice time chatting with Ekta about what she is studying, life in Delhi and various other things about Indian culture. We visited a small Sikh temple before arriving at the farm. The farmer showed us his wheat fields and explained that he had just had a harvest and that in a few days he would be planting another crop. His entire family came out to greet us and show us around their house. We meet their three cows and two buffalos. We were served an amazing lunch with hardy glasses of buttermilk. The farmer’s mother offered to accompany us back to the US to cook for us. We immediately agreed to take her home with us, but she might have thought we were joking.

Baby cow

Nice necklace

Wheat fields

Wheat fields

Chandler, Grannie and I

Chandler, Grannie and I

After a round of photos with the family, we drove back to the city where Ekta took us to the ISKCON temple or The International Society for Krishna Consciousness. This temple focused on the teachings of Lord Krishna. We toured through a number of displays that explained the basics of the Hindu religion and the highlights of Krishna’s teachings.

Our last stop of the day was downtown Delhi so I could get henna on my hands. This is something I would never do in the states, but when in Rome… There were many designs to choose from, but I just allowed Ekta to do all the talking and decision making. The woman doing the henna did a good job and I have to let the henna dry for half an hour. Good thing I didn’t need to use the bathroom during that time. When we got back to the house, Pooja’s mom made a lemon-sugar mixture to help bring out the color even more. We had another superb meal with Jalebis for dessert and when to bed super excited for the next day.

Henna!

Henna!

Jalebi baby

Jalebi baby

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Hello Delhi

April 17 – 18, 2013

We arrived at the Delhi airport tired but excited for a new country. We got through customs and picked up our boxes with no problems. As we wheeled the cart with our boxes stacked up high, we went outside to look for Hari. Hari is the brother of Venky and Pooja, some friends from the US. We had never met Hari before so we were not exactly sure who we were looking for. Luckily, we immediately saw someone who was looking at us like he knew us, it must be Hari! We all shook hands and he led us over to a taxi to take us to his apartment. After an hour of chatting and a snack, it was time for bed as Hari had a big day planned for us.

The next couple of days were a whirlwind of activity. Hari took the 17th off from work to show around a few temples and to take us to some amazing restaurants. After not eating very well in China, India was like a vegetarian’s heaven! The first temple we visited was a Hindu temple, Birla Mandir. The best part of having Hari was that he was able to explain the significance behind everything we were seeing. Neither Chandler nor I were very familiar with the Hindu religion and Hari was able to answer all of our questions. We feel like we have a much better understanding now of what we are seeing.

Hari at the end of the dosa

Hari at the end of the dosa

Birla Mandir

Birla Mandir

We then visited a Sihk temple. Again, Hari was able to explain some of the differences between the two religions and the importance of the items on display. The last temple was our favorite, Akshardham. This ended up being the most beautiful temple we saw in all of India. Every surface, inside and out, was carved in intricate designs. The craftsmanship was just unbelievable. Unfortunately, photos were not allowed inside, so here is a link to the website: Akshardham. This temple had a number of exhibits dedicated to Indian culture and Swaminarayan, the inspiration behind the temple, including a movie and boat ride. The best display was the light and sound fountain show at the end, which was an amazing display of huge jets of water illuminated by colored lights all coordinated with a booming soundtrack of classical Indian music. We made one last stop to see the India gate before heading home and collapsing into bed.

Gurudwara Bangla Sahib

Gurudwara Bangla Sahib

Akshardham

Akshardham

India Gate

India Gate

Hari had to go to work the next day, so he dropped us off at the mall while we waited for the Kingdom of Dreams to open at noon. We spent a little bit of time in a bookstore, but mostly in the food court eating chaat, which are Indian snacks. Chan’s favorite is papri chaat, which is a dish of little crispy wafers covered in chickpeas, yogurt, chilies and tamarind chutney. We ate until bursting. We even went to the McDonald’s because they have an amazing vegetarian menu and don’t serve any beef.

Chaat

Chaat

At noon we went to the Kingdom of Dreams, which showcased food and handicrafts from the different Indian states. There were also dance and puppet shows from the various regions. Around 6, we met Hari at the Metro station to go to Pooja’s parents. Pooja’s parents were great. We spend the evening chatting and getting to know them. Her mother made us an amazing dinner and her father arranged for us to visit a village outside of Delhi with Pooja’s cousin, Ekta, as a guide for the next day.

Dancing girl with pots on her head

Dancing girl with pots on her head

Camel

Camel

Getting ready to leave China

April 12 – 16, 2013

We spent our first day in the old city of Dali wandering around, looking at all the tourist shops. It is a community of artists. There are people carving, making jewelry and pottery around every corner. It was amazing to see that the stores didn’t all sell the exact same thing as we found all over Southeast Asia. We found a Buddhist center that served an incredible vegetarian buffet every lunch and dinner for ¥5, less than $1, per person. We took our meals on low benches along a narrow cobblestone alley, accompanied by a droning Buddhist chant while looking up at the tall mountain range that hemmed in Dali to the west. We ended up eating all meals but breakfast there.

Making a braclet

Making a bracelet

Buddhist vegetarian food

Buddhist vegetarian food

Chan and friend

Chan and friend

The remainder of our time was spent cleaning, disassembling and packing the bikes and panniers. It took us a while to find cardboard boxes to fit our purposes. We went around and asked stores selling refrigerators and other large appliances, before we found a bike shop willing to sell us some boxes. Our Surly bicycles have couplers that allow the frame to break down into two parts, so we can pack them into airline approved sized boxes. Traveling with bikes or oversize bags can be expensive, so we had to spend time constructing the boxes to fit the airline dimensions.

All in all, it took us three days to get everything done. We could have gotten the work down quicker but we enjoyed sleeping in and taking breaks to wander around town. We spent one afternoon in a puzzle shop attempting to figure out how to put all the pieces back together.

The pieces just won't fit

The pieces just won’t fit

Wuhua Tower

Wuhua Tower

The day of our flight, we work up early to put away the last of our things and tape up the boxes. We walked through most of town before finding a restaurant that was open. We then took a cab to the airport a few hours early in case there was a problem with the boxes we needed time to work out. When it was finally time to check in, the attendant didn’t even bother to measure the boxes to make sure they fit the specifications.

We had a short but very turbulent flight to Guangzhou where we had to recheck in the boxes to fly out of the country. This was actually a massively stressful moment, as Chan had estimated, based on China Southern’s absolutely ludicrous excess baggage tariff schedule, they could have charged us as much as $3,000 to send our bikes, as we were only technically allowed one bag each for flights between China and the South Asian Subcontinent. The check-in agent was confused about our ticket since it originated in Los Angeles over four months ago and she actually asked Chan how many bags we were allowed to take for free. Chan immediately said “two each”, she accepted his answer and we walked away without paying a dime. Finally, it was time for our flight to Delhi!

The last ride in Asia

April 11, 2013

Distance: 44.7 miles        Climbing: 3139.8 ft

It was raining when we woke up. We thought it really funny that the only day it really rains is our very last day of biking in Asia. We put on raincoats and covered our bike seats with plastic bags before heading out for some coffee, real coffee, not Nescafe. We found a trendy looking café and pointed to the only item on the menu in English, “espresso”. That was perfect with us as we both enjoy our coffee black. What was delivered with not even close to espresso. We were handed two 20oz cups filled with warm milk and maybe a dash of coffee to give it some color. Chandler and I were flabbergasted. Don’t know how that happened.

Chandler finished his milk drink and I donated mine to the trashcan, we headed out of town. Chan was heard to be saying “milk was a bad choice.” The road was empty for several miles. We passed through farm lands growing wheat and eventually found ourselves climbing again. Right as the hill was starting, we saw a huge puff of dust and then the traffic started piling up ahead of us. As we rolled up we saw a huge truck filled with rocks that had flipped over on our side of the road. The trail of fluid leading up the road implied that the brakes had gone out and the driver drove himself off the road and luckily hit a big pile of soft gravel on the shoulder which slowed things down pretty quick. The driver was already out of cab wandering around, and a nearby excavator was already on the way over to clear it off the road, just another day on the road in China. Thank goodness we weren’t in there a few minutes earlier.

Wheat and mosoleums

Wheat and mausoleums

Oops

Oops

The road climbed and climbed up through trees and little towns. We were on a route filled with people learning to drive. We have seen scores of these little cars, usually VW Santanas with exclamation point decals on the back packed with 5 or 6 students and a grumpy looking old man. Every so often, the car would pull over and a teenager would hop out of the driver’s seat to trade places with another teenager, who then drove off, honking the whole time. Chandler got a huge kick out of telling me that it was referred to as a “regular fire drill” here. The hill kept going up forever when we finally noticed wind turbines dotting the summit and knew we were done. We had one last downhill all the way into town.

Turbines at the top of the hill

Turbines at the top of the hill

We rolled into town and went to the first place any American would go: the Walmart! We considered camping out, but weren’t sure if the Chinese knew about Walmart’s parking lot camping policy. We got a quick snack and headed back out of town. We had not realized that old Dali City is 10km outside of new Dali City, but we thrilled that were was actually a bike path the entire way.

The Walmart in China

The Walmart in China

Old Dali City turned out to be a dream. It was SUPER touristy, and pretty much as stereotypical as it could get, but for some reason we loved it. The main city was surrounded by stone walls studded with towers with ornate ancient looking roofs. We found the MCA guesthouse close to the center of town but off the main road, so it was quiet and very peaceful. They had a huge storage area for the bikes and Chandler was able to haggle the price down to fit our budget. Then we found a restaurant which served pizza, burgers and homebrewed beer. We celebrated our last day of riding with shots of belly warming scotch and completely blowing the budget on dinner.

Waiting for our victory feast

Waiting for our victory feast

 

Going to Weishan

April 10, 2013

Distance: 26.7 miles        Climbing: 1781.5 ft

We started the morning with a lovely ride along some old local roads heading out of town. We were able to spend a few miles pedaling through farms and a residential area before merging up with the old highway. Since the main highway went north through a different valley, this old route wasn’t too bad with smooth pavement and little traffic. We were in a valley following a river, which meant we were struggling against a monster headwind. It didn’t really seem to bother us. We had an overcast sky which meant cool riding and were both in wonderful moods.

Heading out of town

Heading out of town

Farmed river valley

Farmed river valley

We didn’t have too far to travel to get to Weishan, an ancient city situated in a long valley which managed to be left unscathed by the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. We were looking forward to reaching a more touristy town, dreaming about cheese, real coffee etc, but took our time on the road. We stopped to buy some strawberries and tomatoes on the side of the road. The wind was really blowing and swept the hat off the woman selling the fruit. Luckily, it landed right in my arms, which she appreciated. I noticed we paid the same rate for our strawberries as the Chinese trucker who had also stopped to make a purchase.

Strawberry lady

Strawberry lady

As we approached town, Chandler and I became more and more excited. We passed buildings with old styled roofs, the kind I had envisioned all buildings in China to have, and murals. It appeared that we were finally going to a town with some culture!

Mural

Mural

The center of town was easy to locate because it is built up around the Gongchang Tower. Shooting off from the tower were cobblestone roads lined with tourist shops and antique sellers. We hurried to find a hotel before setting off to explore the town. We walked up and down every street in the old town admiring the architecture before deciding it was time for dinner. Weishan is mostly visited by Chinese tourists, so there were no restaurants catering to Westerners, meaning no vegetarian food. Chandler was excited though. He found a place serving steamed dumplings with a delicious spicy dipping sauce. We also stopped in a bakery across from our hotel for desert, which as usual, turned out to be a disappointing exercise. Our “butter bread” baguette looking things turned out to be covered in a cloyingly sweet salty mess. Chan managed to power through them, waste not, want not… right?

Street view

Street view

Gongchang Tower

Gongchang Tower

We went to bed excited for the next day, our final bike ride in China from here to Dali City.

The neverending climb

April 8 – 9, 2013

Distance:  50.4 miles           Climbing: 5344.5 ft

We woke up feeling great after a wonderful night’s sleep and had another dry meal. Good thing we carry lots of dry goods and quick snacks with us, otherwise it would have been a rough morning. When Chandler returned the key to our room to the owner of the store, he tried to slip in ¥20, but our friend refused to accept our money. We figured we would buy a few extra bottles of water from them as it didn’t seem like they got much business.

packing up

Packing up

We said good bye and immediately started climbing again. The weather was cool as we made our way up the mountain. We passed by a number of abandoned roadhouses, no longer needed after the construction of the new highway. I got a bit discouraged when we would approach what appeared to be the top, only to find the road snaking further up the mountain. I swear we were climbing forever. While it was tiring, we were traveling through some of the most beautiful scenery of the trip so far.

Big hills

Big hills

Kung fu master or tea farmer?

Kung fu master or tea farmer?

We had a victory feast of triangle cheese, crackers, dry ramen and bananas with chocolate and peanut butter when we reached the top. We had just completed our biggest pass to date and were ready for a relaxing downhill. Downhill we went, but it was anything but relaxing. The road was in awful condition, covered in potholes, cracks and poorly repaired potholes. It was more comfortable to stand up than sit down through the jarring ride. I was just as tired when we finally reached smooth pavement after standing up for 20km as I was when we finally finished the climb.

We then pedaled through a valley where the traffic and wind picked up and our moods started going downhill. The lack of consistent meals has made China a challenge for us to maintain positive attitudes. We stop for snacks, but that can only go so far before we find ourselves in the same predicament again.

We had one more much smaller pass to complete before reaching town. The road rolled up and down several times, confusing us as to where the actual top was. We stopped for an Oreo snack, thinking we were finally done climbing for the day, but ended climbing up two more small hills. Finally, we reached an area overlooking a huge valley with a city nestled against the mountains.

We pedaled through town until we found what looked like a new hotel. Chandler went inside to check out the room and prices, while I was entertained by the locals. Several children got up the courage to chat with me and eventually showing me their English school books. We finished the night with the usual plain ramen noodles for me and street food for Chandler.

Chan's double dinner

Chan’s double dinner

The next morning we listened to a baseball game and were treated with the Red Sox beating the Orioles. After that, it was time to fix the stove. We figured that if we could just find a bit of leather, Chandler could make a new gasket, replacing the flimsy silicone one that came with the stove and was now in pieces. We ended up walking all through town, passing the commercial area into the industrial area with people welding outside and huge semi truck mechanic shops. It was only when we had given up and were returning to the hotel that Chandler spied a cobbler mending shoes on the street. He looked through the old lady’s pile of cut up old shoe scraps and selected two different thickness of leather. Back at the hotel, he made a copy of the broken gasket and our stove was working again within minutes.

Industrial area

Industrial area

After our luck with the stove, he decided to tackle another problem. His front wheel had been making some noise so Chan took apart the front hub and found some grit had made it through the seals and trashed to bearings inside. Armed with the words “ball bearings” written in Chinese thanks to Google, he made the rounds through the industrial area stopping at all the motorcycle repair shacks. Motorcycle bearings don’t use ball bearings, so he struck out there. Finally, he found a few bicycle shops but the owners were absolutely clueless about ball bearings despite Chandler’s intricately drawn section views of a bicycle hub. All the bikes in the shops were absolute crap and the owners didn’t seem to know anything about them except maybe how to bolt the wheels on. Frustrated, he was finally able to find of all places at a fishing rod store (fishing reels use ball bearings) that also appeared to repair bikes. He was able to get a handful of used ball bearings a size too big, but they were better than the shattered ones rattling around in his hub and would hopefully limp his bike to Dali without causing too much harm.

Not looking good

Not looking good

Sleeping at the gas station

April 7, 2013

Distance:  47.4 miles           Climbing:  2795.3 ft

The morning started on a rough note. Chandler noticed the gas canister for our stove was leaking, when he investigated the problem, he discovered the pressure gasket was torn. Looks like no eggs for breakfast. We had a little disagreement about moving on or staying another night while we fix the problem. In the end Chan didn’t think we could find a replacement part locally so we decided to leave town.

We then had to make a choice between taking the old road to Dali or the new road. While the new road looked appealing with its fresh pavement, we weren’t interested in the traffic that would surely accompany it. The old road was a few miles longer, it promised only one pass to climb instead of two. We decided on the way out of town because it was easier to find the old road than the new one. Our moods weren’t the best as we peddled through the usual gas-smelling outskirts. The pavement was broken up, there was a very small shoulder and lots of traffic.

I was beginning to wonder why we had bothered with the old road, our pace picked up and the traffic thinned out. We cycled along a valley bottom, next to a muddy river for a few miles before we hit a construction site. As we waited in line with a number of cars, an excavator loaded a dump truck up with dirt and rock from the side of the road, sending giant clouds of dust in our direction. Now, I was sure we had made a mistake by not taking the new road.

A little construction

A little construction

When we finally made it past the construction site, the riding conditions improved greatly. After a little while the muddy river joined up with a deep green river. Once again we were riding along the Mekong, this time on the western bank. There were trees lining the road to give us shade the terrain was flat and we were making good time.

Mekong River

Mekong River

After crossing the bridge, the road began to climb. We spotted a large dam on the river, which was the first one built on the Mekong by the Chinese in the 1980s. We started looking for a place to camp, but the terrain was really steep on either side of the road. After the first mile of not finding anywhere that looked suitable for camping, Chandler made a suggestion. He saw a road coming up that led to the reservoir behind the dam. Chandler thought that might be a nice relaxing spot to spend the night. I wasn’t as interested though. The side road climbed up a ridge for a mile or so and if we were going to climb up a mile, I wanted to continue looking on the main road. We got into a big fight, which ended with mutual silent treatments and us continuing up the road.

Big dam

Big dam

We didn’t bother talking to each other for the next two hours as we just climbed up and up and up. We passed through several small villages and farms, but there was nowhere to camp. I was becoming a little desperate when I noticed a family sitting outside their store all waving and smiling at us. Next to their store was an abandoned gas station used to keep a pile of wood dry. I hollered for Chandler to stop and said we should ask if we could camp next to the wood pile.

We turned our bikes around, bought a bottle of water and somehow managed to communicate with hand gestures that we wanted to camp. The man running the store agreed once he understood that we had a tent. We then decided we should have a beer to relax. The family immediately invited us to sit with them and pulled up some stools for us. They offered us tea and Chandler and cigarette. Chandler does not smoke cigarettes and said no, but the man offered again. Chandler said no again but they man became more adamant and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Chan took it to maintain the peace, thinking he could just hold onto it when the man whipped out his lighter and lit it up for Chandler. The situation was so ridiculous that we just laughed and Chandler smoked it like a cigar, not inhaling the smoke.

Finally relaxing

Finally relaxing

Goofing off

Goofing off

We had a pleasant time attempting to chat with the adults and teasing the little boy that was running around. After watching the sun set and finishing our beers, we said good night. The owner then gestured for Chandler to follow him to an unused building next to the gas station. He unlocked one of the rooms and offered it to us for the night. He sweep it clean of bugs and dirt and helped us carry our bikes up the stair to stow them safely inside.

We could not believe our luck. The bikes and tent fit in the room perfectly. We were in such good moods that we weren’t bothered by the stove being broken. We had a dinner of dry ramen, tuna and crackers and Oreos for dessert. Then we watched with a movie on laptop and fell asleep.