Helping Hands

By Stephen Ewashkiw | January 9, 2014

8061 km so far.

We are leaving Fine Yoga Retreat this morning and heading south. How far we will get and how/if we will manage to get our bikes on the train is anyone’s guess at this point.

Uncomfortably Numb

It was -1C/29F this morning as we were preparing to head out and start our first proper ride in six weeks, so we layered up as much as we could and hit the road. We had 35 km between us and the train station, and we gave ourselves plenty of time, with low expectations about our abilities after such a long break.

Rural road in the morning mist, near Chibi, Hubei Province.

Rural road in the morning mist, near Chibi, Hubei Province.

I know that right now much of North America is stuck in a polar vortex, so what I am about to say may seem ridiculous to many of you. But -1C is freakin’ cold when you’re riding a bike. Our hands and feet were none too happy about it, and before we had gone 3 km they were frozen.

Taking a thaw break, near Chibi, Hubei Province.

Taking a thaw break, near Chibi, Hubei Province.

Fortunately, I warmed up as we rode and gradually the feeling came back into my fingers and most of my toes. Jane was suffering though, and she was still thawing her feet out when we got to our second train station of the day.

Oops, I am getting ahead of myself.

Vague Expectations

We spent some time the past few days doing research about taking a bicycle on the train in China, not wanting a repeat of our experience getting our bikes shipped from Beijing. The information we found was sketchy and contradictory. Not a great start to clarifying the situation.

One guy took his bike on the bullet train out of Shanghai without any problems. But, he was only going a short distance. Other sources told us that because the bullet train doesn’t have a luggage car, we wouldn’t be able to take our bikes on it. Instead, we would have to ship our bikes to Maoming on the train, which would take 3 days. If this was our only option, we could take the bullet train to Guangzhou, spend the night, and take another train to Maoming, where our bikes would theoretically arrive the following day.

Saint Teresa

With this ‘information’ in hand we decided to head to the main railway station in Chibi to try and ship our bikes. We pre-arranged with Teresa to have her available on the phone if we needed her help. She speaks Mandarin and we knew the person working the baggage desk wouldn’t speak English.

Unnecessary new builds, Chibi, Hubei Province.

Unnecessary new builds, Chibi, Hubei Province.

We were right. We found the baggage shipping area at the station, and there was a nice man working who tried to help us. He had me start filling out a form, but when it came to writing my name, he got a bit confused. We couldn’t understand why, so called Teresa.

She was amazing. She talked to him, relayed messages back to us, and really did everything possible to help. It turns out he couldn’t type an English name into his computer system, and he couldn’t just make up a name for me in Chinese, because it had to match my ID.

When Teresa explained that we had shipped our bikes from Beijing, he said, “Well, Beijing is a big city. This is Chibi. We are small.” He wasn’t being difficult, it’s just the way it is; I could see his computer and the keyboard was mostly Chinese characters.

He offered to call the other station and see if we would be able to take our bikes on the fast train. They told him we could, as long as we took both wheels off. This would be a bit of a pain for us, but if they were right, we would have our bikes with us and be in Guangzhou before sundown.

Without Teresa’s help, most of this exchange would have been impossible. We are so lucky to have friends like this, who are willing and able to help when we need to call on them. Thanks Teresa! You are truly amazing.

No Such Thing As A Free Lunch?

We hopped on our bikes, feeling relieved, but also not wanting to celebrate yet, because it could all go pear-shaped when we got to Chibi Bei, the bullet-train station.

At the train station I asked for two tickets for us and our bikes. The ticket seller looked at the bikes, and couldn’t have cared less. He sold us two tickets for the train to Guangzhou and didn’t charge us anything for the bikes. Could it really be this simple?

We weren’t sure what would happen when we tried to board the train, but just had to take one step at a time. Since we had tickets, and the train left in an hour, we had to scramble to get some lunch.

Jane thought she had spotted a noodle shop about 500 m back, which was the only option, since the train station is set amongst a forest of new, uninhabited buildings in various states of completion.

So we rode back to check it out. Several people were eating, many more standing around outside. People said, “Hello,” and “How are you,” as we got off our bikes and took our helmets off, but this was almost the extent of their English.

Apart from, “Sit down. Eat. Rice?”

Well, it sure looked like a restaurant. And it sure seemed like one. I pulled out our We Don’t Eat Meat card, and showed it to them. No problem, they assured us. Did we eat eggs (asked by bringing an egg out from the kitchen)? Did we want noodles or rice (mian or mi fan)? What service! What a great find! Good eyes Jane!

Jane’s note: I’ve got hungry eyes.

As we were sitting, waiting for our food, I started to notice that everyone else was in some sort of uniform. There were women in cleaners’ uniforms, men in security outfits, and more women in formal customer service dress. Then I saw the ads in the window for the empty new-build apartment buildings next door.

All of the people here, apart from us, were staff. It slowly dawned on me that this was the staff canteen, but seeing that we were hungry, they had just decided to feed us, too.

The staff canteen, after lunch, Chibi, Hubei Province.

The staff canteen, after lunch, Chibi, Hubei Province.

When it came time to pay, there was no way they would accept any money. They weren’t set up for it, and they hadn’t fed us to get anything in return. They were just being kind.

Chinese people continue to amaze us with their generosity and kindness.

Bikes On Board

Back at the station, we wheeled our bikes inside and started taking off panniers to go through the x-ray machine. An employee came over, looked at the bikes, and shook his head. “Lo, lo, lo.”

“Yes,” I replied, “yes.” After a few rounds of this, he just laughed at us and let “yes” win. Excellent. We were past the next hurdle.

In the waiting room, there was more to-ing and fro-ing of staff trying to figure out if we could in fact take our bikes on the train. Eventually they decided yes, we could, as long as we took our tires off. Taking the tires off isn’t hard, but it leaves us with a luggage problem. Not only do we have to carry all of our panniers by hand, we also need to carry two bike frames and four tires.

Luckily, we still had our giant Chinese bags, and we managed to fit most of the panniers and the tires inside the two of them.

The staff members helped us cart our stuff down the length of the platform, showed us exactly where to stand for the door we would need, and waved goodbye. I am trying to imagine the staff at VIA or Amtrak being this helpful. I’m finding it hard to picture. Again, when you need help in China, there are always people there to offer a hand.

Bike on the bullet train, Chibi to Guangzhou.

Bike on the bullet train, Chibi to Guangzhou.

This makes travelling here much less difficult than it would be otherwise – and it is a reminder of the innate, loving humanity that lives in us all.

Back On The Train (Gang)

In Guangzhou we had to somehow get our bikes 20 km across the city, from the South train station to the East, where trains to Maoming depart tomorrow morning. We wanted to do this journey tonight and stay at a hostel near the train station, rather than navigating the city first thing in the morning.

Neither of us fancied riding through the heart of China’s third-largest city in the middle of rush hour, so we thought we’d try our luck on the subway. A staff member told us we would have to take our wheels off to get on the train.

Argh! We had just put them back on after the bullet train ride!

After trying to sneak on with our bikes fully assembled, and getting caught, we took our tires off again. When the train came, two staff members helped us load our stuff on the train. We didn’t ask them to help, they just decided it was what they should do. Thanks ladies!

It was rush hour, so as we headed towards the city centre, the train got jam-packed. We had to transfer lines right in the heart of the city. It was a little comical, trying to carry mountains of gear through the crowds, but somehow we managed to do it all without losing anything, without the train doors closing with one of us on the train and the other on the platform, and without falling over onto anyone with our bikes in hand.

Once again, we had plenty of hands offering help to make our task a little easier. Getting off the train at our transfer station, a tiny woman lifted Jane’s bike frame so Jane could get the bag of tires off the train too. When we arrived at our final station, my water bottle fell off of my frame while I was climbing the stairs. A woman sent her toddler over to pick up the water bottle, while the woman helped me carry my bike up the stairs.

I can’t imagine the same thing happening at King’s Cross.

We made it to the hostel fairly effortlessly and thanked our stars that they had beds for us (even though mine was actually a couch). We checked our bikes in with the 24-hour manned bike and scooter lock-up in their basement, and wandered out for food.

It was a long day, but thanks to so many kind and helpful people, we managed it without too much stress. And now we are back in the south, where we can feel all of our fingers and toes all of the time.

Totally worth it.  

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  1. Comment by Cassie

    Cassie January 14, 2014 at 6:24 am

    Wow. And I skipped my bike ride today because it was 34 degrees out. Pansy alert! Good work – getting through a day like that without a panic attack is a major success.

    • Comment by Stephen

      Stephen January 16, 2014 at 4:56 am

      Well, we had to cycle in this weather if we wanted to get to warmer weather. No choice for us!

  2. Comment by Diane

    Diane January 12, 2014 at 8:50 am

    Loved this Stephen. It is interesting what you now consider ” without too much stress”. Not for you maybe!

    • Comment by Stephen

      Stephen January 13, 2014 at 4:57 am

      Thanks Diane. I try not to let the things I can’t control stress me out. I do my best in the situation, stay focused on the task, and things go as they will… Stressing doesn’t help me, Jane, or the situation.

  3. Comment by David B.

    David B. January 11, 2014 at 6:22 am

    Very nice post!
    Kindness rules, good for you!

    • Comment by Stephen

      Stephen January 13, 2014 at 4:58 am

      Thanks David. Kindness does rule – and the Chinese are masters at kindness.

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