China by Bicycle :: April - October, 1998

Subject: Jay.
Date: Tue, 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 awaiting us.

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 Mr. Whale?"

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 right."

"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 noon today.

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 author.

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.

  graphical element Attributed to Lao Tse
The Tao Te Ching
Chapter 10.
trans. Stephen Mitchell