You may remember I left you dangling from a cliff last month, with the news that, half-way across Laos, three armed men had marched me off at Kalashnikov-point to an uncertain fate.
Several of you were good enough to write and ask if everything was OK.
J.S., currently of no fixed abode, North London area, wrote to say that this was a silly cliff-hanger because it was unlikely that a gang of heavily armed bandits would let me out on day-release just to send a round-robin email.
How little he knows about Laotian armed bandits! That is one of their favourite tactics.
Would you like to know what happened next? If not, look away now.
The three armed bandits (the Laotian, not the Las Vegan, sort) bundled me and my bike into the back of a Toyota pick-up, and drove at quite terrifying speed in the now-darkness along the mountain road. Perhaps ten minutes later, we reached a house, of sorts. Two armed bandits got out of the Toyota and went into the building, leaving one armed bandit to guard me and my bike. The two came out again and AK47-waved me inside, where I found an important-looking man sitting at a low table, drinking beer. Sharing his table were people who laughed carefully when he made a witty remark. He wore a leather jacket and nice boots. The perfect gangster king.
The man introduced himself. "Chief of Police Plod." (I forget his real name.)
When I went to writing school, I missed class the day they covered 'How to Handle Anticlimaxes', so I apologise if I fail to let you down gently here.
"My colleagues" - here he raised his head towards the three armed bandits - "tell me they rescued you from the Special Zone. Would you like some beer?"
This two-episode-spanning story is long enough already, and the interesting bit is over now. I'll leave it there.
(The beer was OK.)
Let us move on to matters of more pressing international concern.
I read in the press recently that there are moves afoot in the once-free and bonny lands of England, Scotland, and Wales to BAN KING-SIZED CHOCOLATE BARS. My memory, which rarely serves me correctly, suggests that it was none other than that loony-left maverick of the born-again nanny-state Conservative Party, David Cameron, who is trumpeting this straight-out-of-the-asylum policy. Or it may have been John Prescott, but I think somehow his own sense of self-interest makes this unlikely.
Anyway, the notion apparently is that We British are all getting Too Fat, and this is mainly because British chocolate bars are Too Big.
So, the political logic goes, make chocolate bars smaller and we will all get Less Fat.
How stupid do they think we are? If we, the Great British Chocolate-Eating Public, wish to eat large amounts of chocolate, whether in order to get fat, or for any other purpose, do the politicians think that, once King-Sized chocolate bars are banned, we lack the intellectual deviousness to buy two smaller bars of chocolate instead?
Is it going to be a crime now, to be fat? "I am arresting you on suspicion of wilfully exceeding European Bodymass Index guidelines, aggravated by deliberate consumption of King-Sized Chocolate Bars. You do not have to say anything, but anything you do say may be taken in evidence..."
Are politicians incapable of learning from history? Ban something that everybody likes, and what happens? It goes underground. Ban King-Sized chocolate, and The Man in the Pub and Outside the School Gates will be adding knocked-off king-sizers to his menu of smuggled fags, pirated DVDs and class-A drugs.
The chocolate companies, I am glad to hear, are fighting back. They reached a voluntary agreement to 'phase out' king-sized chocolate - and the minute the politicians were out of the door, starting producing super-sized chocolate bars with 'The Big One' printed on the wrappers instead. Nice move, guys. Care to send a few free samples?
What, you may ask, does all this have to do with cycling from Shanghai to the UK?
Well, firstly, it means there is more of an incentive for me to get a move on, for if I dally and dawdle too long, the ban might be in place and it will be too late to get my king-sized Snickers fix.
(The newspapers are also reporting that Veg Talk, the world's worst radio show, potato blight of Radio 4, is to be taken off the air, which will certainly make the UK a more attractive place to get back to.)
Secondly, as I mentioned in my last message, a long-suffering member of this mailing group was kind enough to send me a crateful of chocolate for Christmas. Most of this chocolate arrived in what is quaintly known as 'Fun-sized' form. It has long been a mystery to me what is 'fun' about a tiny bar of chocolate. King-sized bars are fun. Two king-sized bars are more fun. Fun-sized bars are - disappointing. Unless you are lucky enough to have received several bags, each containing about 30 of them. Then fun-sized can be fun. And pleasingly fattening too.
Several of you have been astoundingly generous over the festive period. The prize for the most unusual offer of assistance goes to D.S., a dentist from Cornwall, who has offered to count my teeth FREE OF CHARGE on my return home, and to replace any which may be mis-shapen or missing - whether because of overconsumption of Mars Bars, 716s (see later), or otherwise.
A.H., himself no stranger to the rigours and hardships of life on the road, has very kindly offered to send me a bottle of whisky, a pork pie, and some back issues from his collection of Playboy magazine, to be collected from Poste Restante, General Post Office, Tehran, Islamic Republic of Iran.
Alastair's contribution, I notice, comes without a GiftAid tax rebate, which suggests that he is either unemployed, or on the run from the Inland Revenue - either of which might explain his exploits here:
A week ago I was in Dali, a nice-ish sort of a town in the middle of Yunnan province in China. I wanted to take it slow and easy for a while after ten days hard riding on cobbled roads. Some chance. There was a message in my hotel room from the Dali City Public Security Bureau, which sternly lists a number of forbidden activities, including "ambling in the hotel", on pain of criticism and/or punishment. "Wenching" was also on the list of no-nos, while outside, in the carpark, a notice said: "Dear Guests, Do Not Garn the Animals".
'Garn' is one of those words that ought to exist, but, to the best of my knowledge, doesn't. Yet I think we all have a vague notion of what it means. There were, in any case, no animals on hand to garn.
Some people think my beard is a subject of public interest. Since beards are fundamentally the property of the Liberal Democrats, who have enough troubles at the moment as it is, I think mine should be left in peace. However, in China, few things are left in peace. As I cycle through villages, people routinely call out 'Ma Ke Se', which is the Chinese name for Marx, as in Karl Marx.
All Chinese schoolchildren have to study Marx, because he was the inventor of Communism - but what sticks in the minds of most rural folk is the fact that he had a famously bushy beard (see
). And so I get called Karl Marx.
Except the other day one guy called out "Se Da Lin" instead, the Chinese name for Stalin - who, though he sported a well-preened moustache, was always, to the best of my knowledge, smooth of cheek and chin (
). Somebody, I suspect, wasn't paying attention during his Communist Party History classes.
All of which serves as a rather laboured introduction to this month's long-awaited CAPTION COMPETITION.
C.W. of Surrey has got the ball rolling with this caption: "Osama bin Laden joins the Staines Massive" - though there is some debate over the correct spelling of 'Massive' in this context.
They are going to ban men-only clubs, too, I read. My application to join the WI is already in the post.
There now follows a short story, entitled 'Post Office'.
Monday. I walk, nonchalantly, into Dali Post Office, poste restante section. I am expecting delivery of a parcel containing a winter jacket, special delivery from WL Gore, purveyors of GoreTex and other fine fabrics.
A buzz of mostly short, dark strangers hovers around the counter.
The woman behind the counter looks up at me, and quickly looks down again.
"Hallo," I say, to warm things up a bit. "Has my parcel arrived yet?"
This in pidgin-Chinese.
She-behind-the-counter isn't Russian, but I swear to you she said Nyet. At least, her body language said nyet. You know, the not-looking-up, not-interrupting-that-important-bit-of-fingernail-picking, sort of thing.
I retreat to my hotel, looking for animals to garn.
Tuesday. Dali Post Office, poste restante section.
Me (in better Chinese; I spent the night before practising with a dictionary): Hallo has my parcel arrived yet?
She (behind the counter): No, we will call your hotel when it arrives.
Me (silently): Yeah right.
I amble back to my hotel, enjoying this liberty while I can. Once inside, I walk at a brisk pace, as per regulations.
Wednesday. Dali Post Office, poste restante section.
Me (cheerily, getting quite fluent at this now): Hallo, has my parcel arrived yet?
She (back in Soviet mode): Nyet.
Me (unfazed): Are you sure?
She (sure): Yes.
Me (still strong): How odd. It was sent from Shanghai over a week ago. Could you perhaps just check for me please, if you're not too busy?
She-behind-the-counter abandons her counter, putting on one of history's greatest-ever displays of unwilling, and goes to a desk at the back of the room, several yards away. She pulls open a drawer the size of a matchbox, inside which, to no great surprise, my winter jacket, being rather larger than a matchbox, is not.
She (pleased): I've looked, and still nyet.
Me (falling back on the old use-made-up-official-terminology ploy): I wonder if perchance my parcel might inadvertently have been stored in the Parcels Slightly Larger Than A Matchbox Department?
She (worried): Unlikely.
Me (charming): Unlikely, I agree. But do you think, if you could spare a moment at some point, you could have a quick look?
She fusses through a door, to what I suspect must be the Parcels Slightly Larger Than A Matchbox Department.
Moments later, she reappears.
She (shameless): There is a parcel here, we have been waiting several days for it to be collected. Is it yours?
Me (sarcastic, but I doubt she notices): Good gracious me yes I think it might be. What fine piece of good luck that it should have been delivered here, of all the post offices in the country!
She (more shameless still): That will be 3 yuan storage fee.
So I am now the proud owner of a GoreTex Windstopper jacket.
It is, incidentally, pink. Very pink. Several times pinker, in fact, than the pinkest thing I have ever previously laid eyes on.
That, and very warm. I will wear it in solidarity with the Liberal Democrats.
Now today is Chinese New Year's Day, heralding the start of the Year of the Dog, bad news for me as the local Tibetan mastiffs don't seem to like cyclists very much, and are mostly much bigger than I am.
Here in Zhongdian on Chinese New Year's Day, all the shops and restaurants, and everywhere else you might normally expect to find a bite to eat, shut down. This is reasonable enough. What I find slightly galling is that I could still, if I so desired, buy a mobile phone, or a cordless power-drill, or a pair of corduroy trousers. Or even get my hair permed. All things which might reasonably be put off until tomorrow.
But eating, today: no. Not possible.
Or so I thought, until I dragged my wasted, starving body round town a third time, and finally found an open shop which sold biscuits. Biscuits!
And not just any biscuits, either. '716' Biscuits.
'716s' have an interesting history.
They were originally developed as ammunition for the People's Liberation Army's revolutionary 716 calibre machine gun, the first weapon of its kind in the world to use a rectangular barrel.
The 716 machine gun was not a conspicuous military success (the 716 ammunition it used was so hard that it bounced back off rocks and injured the soldiers who fired it), but before it was decommissioned, PLA commanders made an astonishing discovery. The specially-developed 716 ammunition could, with only very slight alterations to the manufacturing process, be eaten.
716 rectangular 'biscuits' have been staple rations for PLA troops ever since.
They do a tremendous job at knocking the munchies on the head. One 250 gram packet quickly eliminates any sensation of hunger - replacing it with an acute loss of the will to live.
If you would like to try these gastronomic monstrosities, just send me half a dozen Mars Bars (King Sized, or, if these are not available, The Big One), and I will send you a packet of 716s in return.
One other thing. Enriched uranium.
I learn that my esteemed father has recently reached the venerable age at which the Government, god bless'em and their organically-grown unbleached cotton socks, sees fit to offer him a Winter Fuel Allowance.
I am curious about how this works.
Does a man knock at the door, remove his hat, and say, "Hello, I'm from the Government, I'm here to help", and then, proffering a small lump of charcoal, say: "Here is your Winter Fuel Allowance, it's got to last you till March, so don't burn it all at once"?
Does the lucky allowee have a choice as to the kind of fuel he gets?
Can he insist on his inalienable right to the peaceful development of nuclear weapons, errr, I mean energy, and expect 100 grammes of enriched uranium through his letter box every month, with a "with compliments" slip signed J. Straw, pp T. Blair?
Well, those are some of the things which occupy what passes for my mind as I wobble along the roads of south-western China. Apologies for the lack of cycling-related content in this edition. Will try harder next time.
Wishing you all a Happy New Year (Chinese) of the Dog, and thanks for reading,
PS You can leave a 'public' comment in reply to this email via the 2wheels blog, www.2wheels.org.uk/blog. You can add your comment anonymously, should you so desire. Margarine-thieves from Bolton need not apply.
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