28 Apr 1998 11:32:33 -0700
0:15 Fang Yuan Hotel, Beijing -- China :: 21 APR 98
I know I've written about this before somewhere, but it bears
repeating. After a three weeks or more in travelling mode--particularly
after being constantly on the move for those weeks with little more than
a two or three night stop in any place--I grow weary of travel and just
want to say put for a while. I knew this the moment I hit Beijing: this
was such a time, and an appropriate place to stop.
Jay doesn't appear all too thrilled with this city; it's still
not up to what he was seeking. But Jay seeks something a little different
from his travels than I. He seeks a level of interpersonal interraction
I actually envy. (I'm more likely to try and understand the entire culture
while looking through a telephoto lens at the individuals. Jay prefers
a 20mm so he can get in their face.) This involves rolling into villages
and hoping one of the villagers is willing to put you up on their floor.
Besides the fact that I'm not carrying a bedroll of any kind,
we're not really able to explore this type of encounter. (Actually, little
different from the longhouse experience Katrin and I had in Borneo, way
back in 1995.)
So Beijing has become the end of the road. We were both intending
to slip in a visit to a section of the Great Wall north of Beijing, but
neither of us is particularly motivated by the tourist traps most assuredly
Jay's something of an enigma for you all. I'm not sure how much
insight I can add. Like myself, he's lived a variety of lives though his
present is tied up in being a photographer. In the past he's travelled
extensively, cooked professionally, studied photgraphically and, most
recently, driven a cabbie.
I know Jay through mutual friends I met at a wedding to which
I was invited as a guest of a guest. It's an unlikely connection but such
unlikelihoods are often the source of good companions. Jay is that and
more: he's a challenge. He keeps me limber and attentive, honest and thoughtful.
That, and his endless shenanigans keep me amused. So his mind, his wit
and his tongue are all equally sharp and woe to those who find all three
edges turned on them.
Jay's a little disappointed that one object he's been carting
around seems to have little effect on the locals. There's this rubber
sperm whale he's zap-strapped to his handle-bar stem, and few of the Chinese
have given it much notice at all. Sure, there was the time when the Hong
Kong train baggage personnel prodded and squeezed it, wondering why it
made no 'toot'ing sound, like a good bicycle horn should. And there were
a few other times when folks would give it a visual going-over. However,
there's been little laughter, few inquiries, and no feigned disinterest.
(Of course, Jay claims that rather than disappointment he's simply surprised
at the lack of response. He also claimed early in the trip that he had
no expectations about what he'd see in China though yesterday he off-handedly
commented that an old section of Beijing, featuring scads of Imperial
Chinese architecture, was more what he'd "expected to see.") So Jay wonders
aloud in a squeeky "Oh no! Mr. Bill!" voice, "Why doesn't anyone like
I'm not sure. But I tried this explanation on him: "Jay, there's
so much about your bike that is completely out of the ordinary in China,
completely alien here, that a little rubber whale strapped to the handle-bar
stem seems hardly an anomoly worth noting."
"Oh," he replied, "never thought of it that way. You might be
"Yeah," I continued, "and about the time they even notice the
whale, along comes another alien two-wheeler towing a little trailer with
a bright yellow bag and flying a bright yellow flag." You see, the whale
itself is a trifle compared with the bizarre contraptions it's accompanying,
not to mention the two big-nosed foreigners.
It was Jay's idea to bicycle China in the first place.
Unless his flight is delayed, Jay'll probably be going through
US Customs sometime in the next few hours. He flew out of Beijing at about
He's pretty disappointed with the number and quality of photographs
the trip has produced. A number of factors conspired against him, for
example the weather has not cooperated being dull, overcast or downright
miserably wet most days interspersed with just a few bright days. Frustratingly,
those few days of good light typically appeared in the middle of exhausting
rides of over 100 kilometers. Nor did we find much on those days of any
real visual appeal.
Much of the Chinese countryside we rode through was at its best
when plainly unremarkable. During our first day's ride from Shanghai to
Suzhou, the countryside was so relentlessly and unflinchingly ugly that
a plot of yellow flowering farmland surrounding dilapidated, sooty housing
along the ink-black waters of a refuse strewn canal was written up in
the cycle touring guide as, "Beautiful scenery here!" Relative to the
rest of the day's ride, I suppose it seemed tremendously gorgeous to the
Even without these obstacles, it seems certain Jay was doomed.
He's a photographer of people who likes best to get up close and personal,
shooting with a short lens. This necessitates quickly developed relationships
with his subjects. The ability to communicate is key. But Jay experienced
unparalleled difficulty in communicating with the Chinese. Besides the
fact that very few speak even so much english as the "Hello" a lucky few
could manage, he was amazed to discover the universal sign for "chicken,"
thumbs in your armpits with arms flapping while clucking and bobbing your
head, has no meaning in China. (Though it does generate some rather bemused,
even bewildered looks.) Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, India: wherever he's
gone where English-speakers are hard to come by, sign language and gesticulation
has gotten him through. Except in China.
And as if that weren't enough, the Chinese proved to be the
most reluctant photographic subjects he's ever encountered. Sure, they'll
ask to have their picture taken with the foreigner, but if the foreigner
turns the camera on them...FOOM! It's off to the races. Jay's probably
got three or four exposures with a Chinese hand covering the lens in an
attempt to keep him from taking someone's picture. More often than not,
it doesn't even get that far. He noticed when walking through a market
the locals were more receptive of him when the camera was slung over his
shoulder--with the lens facing behind him--than when slung around his
neck--lens facing forward and, presumably, ready to snap a photograph.
In fact, the mere recognition that a camera lens was facing them would
often put a sneer on a Chinese face, or cause them to turn their back.
So Jay had a frustrating time of it. I think he got enough images
to fill out an article about bicycle touring in China. (I'll be able to
fill in any gaps. I'm a thing photographer. The nice thing about things
is things don't have attitude problems toward photographers.) But that's
not what he was after at all. He wanted to develop a relationship with
the people and bring his vision of them to us all.
~~~ Responses Sought ~~~
Can you coax your mind from its wandering
and keep to the original oneness?
Can you let your body become
supple as a newborn child's?
Can you cleanse your inner vision
until you see nothing but the light?
Can you love people and lead them
without imposing your will?
Can you deal with the most vital matters
by letting events take their course?
Can you step back from your own mind
and thus understand all things?
Giving birth and nourishing,
having without possessing,
acting with no expectations,
leading and not trying to control:
this is the supreme virtue.