My hubris certainly gets the best of me at times. Lying in a bunk at the Banana Hostel in Haikou, Hainan (the provincial capital of Hainan Island in southern China), I couldn’t help thinking how easy it would all be. “Several days, ha! Like it even compares to traversing the Silk Road for 6 months! Or backpacking Sao Paulo to Mexico City! Or even my last cycling trip for two weeks in Taiwan! This will be like Malawi vs the 94 Dream Team!”
Oh, what naive stupidity! Don’t you know by now to never overestimate yourself and never underestimate the elements???
I woke up the next day at 7:30am on the dot. I performed my Muay Thai stretching routine to get the legs lose and limber, brushed my teeth and baptized myself with the grimy faucet water. With molecules of H2O dripping down my face, I looked into my eyes and said, “Time to go. Time to cycle Hainan Island!” I said a short prayer to the travel gods and walked through the door.
Though I overestimated myself and underestimated the elements, I’ve learned from my previous travels to never, under any circumstance, lose faith while on the road. I don’t care if you’re the most atheistic person on Earth, always respect the travel gods because if not, they will most certainly disrespect you!
Tim (the bike rental guy) was already waiting for me downstairs just like we had planned. He bought me to his house/office, took a copy of my passport, handed me the middle aged Giant road racing bike, loaded up my backpack onto the rack and I rocketed out the door.
Before getting on the main stretch of highway that would bring me directly into the mountainous interior of Hainan, I needed to fill the tank up with fuel. In motor biking, you do this with petro. In cycling, you do this with carbs, so I devoured a bowl of slimy white noodles off the street. The lemon stung, chilies burned, MSG pinched. It was, how do you say, the breakfast of champions! I told goodbye to the husband and wife noodle vendor and jumped back on the bike. They curiously asked, “Where are you going?” I responded, “I don’t know!” Without another word, I peddled off into the mountains.
It’s true, I really didn’t know where the hell I was going. To be honest, the whole trip was planned out like one of my lesson plans with little thought or logic. I just moved to Chengdu a month ago and have been busy adapting to a new city, meeting friends and balancing two jobs. I knew that Mid-Autumn Festival and National Day (two of the biggest holidays in China that usually fall on the same date to make one mega break from work) was coming up at the beginning of October. With 8 days off, I knew an adventure had to take place, so I decided in the course of several minutes that I would circle the island of Hainan on bicycle.
I looked at a map of Hainan for several seconds and said, “Eh, easy. Looks like if I take this middle highway for three days, then come up this big road for another three days, that’d be enough to semi circle the island in a week period. If I run out of time I can take this side route and hit the ocean in a few days. If I really get exhausted I can take a left here and hit a deserted beach. That would be a nice place to camp for a few days. Ah, what the hell, I’ve got three options, I’ll figure it out when I get there. Just go then play it by ear, always better that way now isn’t it, Trey? Done!” I shut the map, contacted a bike dealer down in Haikou and bought a ticket. The entire process took less than 10 minutes.
I didn’t know much about Hainan except that it’s dubbed the “Hawaii of China” and it’s the number one tourist destination for Mainlanders. I also knew that the main party hot spot of this island was called Sanya in the most southern tip of the island. I knew this because a former friend of mine went down there for the Mid-Autumn Festival and National Day Holiday of 2009. He said “it sucked” and was “full of tourists.” Since then I never wanted to go, but the way this trip was looking based off my 10 minute research scheme, I would have to pass through it eventually. All major roads in Hainan lead to Sanya.
Thirty minutes into the trip the Devil’s pitchfork began scrapping my skin. “God, it certainly is hot!” I exclaimed, “much hotter than I anticipated.” Pulling over for a water break, I looked at the map and noticed that Hainan Island was more south than Hanoi, Vietnam. That’s very south. And being this far south in the beginning of October equals nothing but intense beams of cancerous UV rays. I splashed water on my beating forehead and said, “Fuck it, at least it’s not cold,” and began pedaling again.
Not too much longer there was a massive construction project in the middle of the road. For the next several miles my wheels would slowly roll through a torn up, rocky gravel pit. Moving at a snail’s space and trying to avoid puncturing a tire on some of the numerous jagged objects, the heat really intensified since there was no breeze generated from me pedaling 30 km/h. “Jesus, it certainly is hot!” I brushed the sweat from my brow and realized that I was already sun burned. Knowing that overheating and being brunt to a crisp with no sunscreen would be a huge obstacle on the road, I felt a slight defeat. After an hour, the elements already struck, and struck hard.
This particular construction project also had loads of dump trucks and bulldozer crisscrossing back and forth. They kicked up dust, jetted out thick clouds of pollution and honked loud with piercing horns. Each time one passed it’d rattle my spinal cord and shake the ground beneath me. I hate these big trucks while cycling because they deceive life as we know it. They turn into massive, powerful giants from the underworld while you become nothing but a weak ant. Cyclists, on the road of life, are the smallest, weakest, and most fragile beings out there. I morphed into an ant. I hated being an ant.
Overall, despite the flames of Hell and blistering skin, things were good. I was full of energy, confidence and carbs. There were numerous shacks selling water and fruit every few kilometers and a small village with restaurants was never more than 15 kilometers away. I would occasionally stop for three icy waters- putting one in my drink holster under my legs, another all over my head and face and another into my gut.
I’d also ask for sunscreen everywhere but that proved to be about as successful as the Titantic’s maiden voyage. I did manage to pick up some cheap sunglasses, however, and I took off my helmet in favor of my Saints cap to keep the sun off my face. That would made a slight difference, though my forearms and legs were bare to the gleaming bright ball of fire in the cloudless sky.
Later, I stopped for lunch and filled up on chunks of fried pork fat with stir fried green peppers, sweet onions, a goliath bowl of rice and hydrated with more water, tea and fruit.
I hung around the town for a while in the depths of high-noon and watched the locals enjoy their long awaited holiday. It was October first, the day the Chinese Communist officially took over the country in 1949, and everyone was commemorating the CCP victory with food and drinks (quite similar to any Independence Day or National Day setting in any country). Occasionally, a barrage of loud fire crackers would explode from the distance, startling me into believing there was a drive-by or mass murder. I assured myself that I wasn’t in New Orleans and those kind of things don’t happen in China.
Continuing northwest on Highway 223 after a glutinous meal, hills began to rise from the flooded farm fields. I was making such good time before that, but these hills, although still relatively small, were still enough to significantly lower my pace. Along with this slight impediment, I couldn’t help feeling that there was an evil presence following me. Little things kept chipping away at me, almost like your opponent landing quick and solid leg shots to your thigh minute after minute in a MMA fight. First, it was the heat and ever building sun burn (which was turning communist red on my forearms and legs by late afternoon). Second, my water holster mysteriously fell off in the middle of a steep incline on a mountain, meaning one of my spare water compartments (essential for riding in 33 degrees C plus (100 degrees F)) was gone. Third, my backpack and sleeping bag tied to the back rack kept falling off. This was seriously annoying! Every time I’d get to the top of a hill and shoot down for the free fall (providing rest, adrenaline and a cool breeze) the damn bag just went flying off the back. It killed my momentum! After much inspection, I knew I’d have to buy another rope to help secure my belongings.
My goal was to make it more than a hundred kilometers that day, but the little annoyances kept chipping away like another kick to the thigh, a swift jab to the eye, a hidden knee to the gut; they were mounting up. I was still in control of the fight in the early round, sucking up the strikes and showing the judges that my opponent’s little weak blows weren’t phasing me, but they were and building up.
After hours of cycling it was close to night fall and I made it past the 80 km marker. Plus, right around the 80 km mark I was already in the town of Tuncheng, so I thought it’d be best to call it an early night, jack up on as many bowls of rice as possible and get some rest. I used my primordial instincts and began inspecting the town for a spot that deemed safe and secure to lay out my sleeping bag. The town looked a bit dodgy and dirty, but nothing too intimidating. Plus, I’d rather be in a town than jungle since I’d rather try my luck with a human than wild animal from the wilderness. I actually have a shot of winning against the former. Right when my radar began bleeping, sensing a nearby safe haven, a smack dropped me right between the eyes… literally!
It was a single rain drop from the heavens. Then another, and another, and another, until all its little friends decided to join it. Minutes later, a downpour erupted, and all plans of sleeping outside came to a halt. I didn’t have enough money to sleep in a hotel (even a cheap hotel) every night, that’s why I bought my sleeping bag in the first place, but I did have enough for a few nights. I found a dump (absolute shit hole I should say) right by the train station where all the washed up prostitutes hung out and checked in for 50 Yuan (8 USD).
The room was dreadful with lonely walls and a musty stank. Mosquitoes buzzed in and out of my ears as I examined the bed for any seminal fluid and used condoms that needed to be avoided. Luckily there were none. A dead cockroach lay on the bathroom ground while an army of ants covered his carcass ripping him to pieces. The line of ants stretched from the floor, up the wall and outside into the pouring rain, all the way back to the nest to serve the queen. I couldn’t help admiring the ants- so disciplined, so strong, so diligent! That’s some serious work for such little guys, against an ugly roach and water droplets 4X the size of their body. I let them continue working and didn’t disrupt them. Plus, they were on my side, they were killing roaches, one of my worst enemies on the planet.
Moreover, I myself was an ant on the road. Instead of hating the fact that I was the little guy on the highway, I accepted the fact that that would be the role I had to follow for the next several days. Instead of hating my new found evolution, I learned to find strengths and qualities of being an ant.
I showered and went immediately to sleep feeling a little tired and crispy. Despite some hardships, I was feeling good and knew I’d be ready for the next day. I pledged that I would make up the extra distance that I didn’t cover that day and that I was going to turn myself into machine of non-stop speed and endurance. I lay there peacefully, listening to the torrential downpour and whisked away into dream world. The ants continued working all through the night.
Stay tuned for Part 2- by FAR the most challenging day of the trip. Coming soon and only on Trey Archer’s Xtreme Travel Blog of XtremeTravelStories.com -Travel Hard