For folks who travel by their own pedal-power, we spend a surprising amount of time at gas stations. Upon pulling in to a relatively isolated one to scout the bottled water situation, an extremely energetic attendant started jabbering away at us while gesticulating wildly. Repeating over and over in Mandarin, “I don't understand. I don’t speak Chinese," only elevated his antics. We couldn’t deal with it and almost rode away, but then he disappeared. Stupidly thinking we had been left in peace, we started munching on some snacks, only to have him return with a watermelon in one hand and a butcher knife in the other. He insisted we come inside, where he hacked the melon in to slices on a flimsy and grease-smeared white plastic table. Another attendant, also in a royal blue jumpsuit, slept across three chairs. We were forced to sit in the two remaining, and dribbled juice all over the place as we ate slice after slice while Mr. Hyper suddenly became quiet watching sensationalist CCTV news, but not for long. As soon as Matt paused his watermelon consumption, he was invited to a table tennis match with our new friend. Yes, there was table tennis set up in the main indoor space of the gas station. Through it all, the dozing attendant did not rustle, not even when a ping pong ball hit him in the rump. Matt held his own for a good twenty minutes, then finally a lone customer pulled in for some gas, thus giving us a natural break to say our thank yous and goodbyes and pedal on. We took this as a lesson that sometimes the most annoying people are actually the most well-intentioned.
In Datong, when we met up with our host from Warm Showers, the first thing Hong did upon entering his bicycle shop/guest quarters was halve a watermelon. We learned a very effective slurping strategy by his example, a brilliant way to avoid the messy juice dribble. We ate a few slices but soon left for lunch, the rest remaining on the coffeetable. Over the course of the next two days the watermelon sat there in its original spot. At first I intended to eat more, but our guests kept us so well fed that it would have been impossible to fit even another juicy bite in my stomach. The poor rejected watermelon began to wilt, while cigarette butts encroached on its space, and I imagine the outer layer likely took on a distinct smokey flavor from Hong and his friends. As we were leaving, Hong finally dumped the sad red fruit in the wastebin, almost like a grsture representing the finality of our departure.
Not long after, on a hot sunny morning, we passed by a collection of roadside vendors offering only their local watermelon. We contemplated buying one, but decided the extra weight would not be desireable for the big elevation gain we were about to tackle. Cresting the pass after a 2000+ foot climb, we were greeted by a group of traveling companions who had passed us in a small truck on the way up. They had waited at the summit vista point to snag a photo with the hyperventilating foreigners on the bulky bikes. While still catching our breath, we posed with every possible combination of people in the group for a photo shoot. They were giddy as they piled into their little truck and continued down the other side. About an hour later, at the bottom of the big hill we had just descended, a truck pulled up alongside us. I glanced over and was startled to see a woman thrusting a watermelon at me with outstretched arms. It took me a second to realize it was the same group from the photo session at the pass. Then they dropped back to be parallel Matt as though they expected him to grab the watermelon and tuck it under his arm while riding on the narrow shoulder. We slowed to a stop and they did too, despite a few semi-trucks trying to honk them off the road. I looked back just in time to see the watermelon handoff to Matt. We yelled “xiexie” (thank you), but they were gone before we could even wave goodbye. We just stood there for a moment, Matt awkwardly holding a watermelon, slightly dazed from the unexpected turn of events. So he strapped the hefty little guy to his front bicycle rack and we pedaled on.
We didn't even end up eating the melon that day, so quite ironically, Matt lugged it up to the top of our next hilly pass, the exact scenario that prevented us from buying a watermelon the day before. However, it was totally worth it (especially for me)! We found a shady and breezy tunnel leading to a traditional community tucked away from the highway and devoured the whole thing. Even though it was warm near the rind from baking in the sun all day, the core was cool. It was, no question, the best watermelon we had ever eaten!
An understandable correlation that we experienced was that the less significant the road, the more random people would be super interested in us and would feel the need to take 100 photos of us with them. We started strategizing our breaks to be in places where no one was around just to be efficient with our time, but even then people would pull over just to check us out. We joked that there must be a social media contest awarding great prizes to people who post a picture with us to their QQ account. After a run-in with a particularly persistent gang of young men, we were nearly convinced that our fantasy was for real.
The whole thing began when they sidled up next to us on their mopeds, too close for comfort, trying to take pictures in their phones while in motion. When that didn't work so well, they commanded us to stop. Given that we were working hard up a long incline, we didn't want to lose our momentum, as it is never fun to start once stopped on a hill, especially all loaded up. They didn't have the patience to wait until we got to the top, getting bossier with their insistence that we stop for their photo. So we leveled our briefly without stopping and started downhill. Now desperate, they boxed me in on all sides and the guy in front of me slammed on his brakes. A bike with cantilever brakes transporting 250ish pounds (bike+gear+body weight) downhill cannot stop as fast a little scooter with some scrawny boys. Seeing that I was about to crash in to them, they accelerated just in time. My stubbornness with this annoying game instantly transformed into blood-boiling anger. They were not going to stop until someone got hurt, and that someone was most likely going to be me. And even then, they would still want a picture! I pulled to the side of the road and stopped, screaming every combination of profanities that came into my mind while they kept a safe distance. Once I got that out of my system and calmed down a bit, they approached, quite unfazed, and started snapping away as I faked a half smile. And then they were gone. Now we had to face a collection of cars that had pulled over in the meanwhile. I was still feeling a bit surly during the next round of photos, but a girl with a sweet, shy smile promptly produced two pears for us after she got hers. A wave of guilt swept over me for not being very friendly to her. I chased after her, reaching her just before she got into a basic grey van, and asked for her photo. While I was on this emotional rollercoaster, Matt had the presence of mind to capture most of the absurdity on GoPro. Reviewing the footage after the fact, we saw that the girl in the van had actually pulled over, pears in hand, several times before we actually stopped for the aggressive boys. We were so focused on them that we had failed to notice her persistence of a different kind, that of generosity.
Since the hot days of summer have come to an end, and we have begun to ascend the Tibetan Plateau, I doubt there are many more fruity incidents in store for us. But one thing is for sure, the stories we now have are definitely worth their weight in watermelon.