China by Bicycle :: April -- October '98

Subject: No, no, no; a little humanity, please.
Date: Sat, 06 Jun 1998 11:54:46 -0700

20:37 Some Fandian along G108; Shanxi -- China :: TU 02 JUN 98

Power went out a while ago, so I write by candle light.

A note on language. Chinese often comes across as poetic when translated literaly. Perhaps because fewer grammatical articles exist to clutter articulate words.

I've decided that while Lonely Planet insists 'fandian' means "hotel for foreigners and rich locals," in the past few years the regular and poor locals have adopted the term for their own use. It now equally applies to a roadhouse. Undaunted by the previously discussed fandian experience, I am billeted yet again at another roadside attraction. Dinner was fulfilling, and I've extracted a price for the bed: 10RMB. Down a fraction from last time. Owned and operated by a small family of three: he mines/prospects for gold; she minds the store while he's away; the five year old girl is proficiently cute and holds long conversations with me in Chinese. I intermittently respond with 'uhhh,' the Chinese equivalent of 'uh-huh,' as an indicator of, "I'm listening."

Now, let's try the last few days a little more descriptively shall we?

The white-washed concrete kilometer markers refer to it, in that ubiquitous Chinese red paint, as G108. Highway 108. Vivian suggested it as a route to Xian. I was skeptical. It's a thick red line on the maps. Only the expressways, which don't allow bicycle access, are thicker. I rode such thick red lines into Beijing, harried by buzzing traffic, deafened by truck klaxxons. And mile-upon-mile of decrepit villages and towns. A negative impression.

G108 begins without pretense, and without any marking. Find it; stay with it through the factory land of West Beijing, where coal dust swirls from truck upon truck, forming thick, soft shoulders of black girdling the beaten in highway. Stick it out. In a dozen kilometers the rewards begin.

Now begin the lessons: discipline, fortitude, pacing. Climb and climb above the city haze, winding and winding up the mountain walls. On clear days these dominate the low Beijing skyline but today they springboard into the China most tourists never see. Dig deep and climb into the deep. Always one more switchback it seems, one more goodbye what? The northern mountains corral the smog shroud. Only a few emergent smokestacks shape the city. Goodbye, Beijing.

Now drop, drop into another China. Not like the busy, populous eastern plains. Not like the megatropoli of Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing. Drop into the valley. Cottonwoods line the path, trunks white-washed below the China-red line painted at shoulder height, sunlight flutters over

Another day to finish; I drift off to sleep...

10:40 Bing Zhou Hotel, Taiyuan; Shanxi -- China :: SA 06 JUN 98

While every corner of an incline reveals more roadway to climb, the declines always end so quickly. Enough time only to savour the elation of speed before the valley floor rears up to offer another incline. With inclines, savour the opportunity to gather in the land.

Terraced hillsides, villages of red brick walls and charcoal clay rooves. Tidy. Tended. Clean, elegant lines. Small plots, small buildings, gathered close. The square symmetry of architecture contrasts the organic flow of agriculture.

Over a small factory a pair of flags hangs languidly in the still air. One is unmistakably the Chinese national flag but the other reveals only patches of red and white. Could it be? Scanning and scanning, turning to look back as the roadway climbs beyond. A puff of wind reveals two fields of red bordering a field of white. In the center, a red maple leaf. A good omen.

The road is mine, nearly mine alone. A trickle of traffic. A few cars pass, slowing: thumbs up, or "Hello!" A van enthusiastically offers bottled water, gladly accepted. The trucks allow space, and mercifully hold their tongues reserving horn blasts for urban cyclists. Some other bicycles struggle with the grade, or glide by downhill. Rusted, battered steel creeks and moans.

Another valley ridge precedes another exhilerating descent. I would savour it all the more if I knew it to be the day's last. Here the long climb begins, upriver, upriver. Valley walls increasingly steeper, bare rock punches through the foliage. Kilometer after kilometer my pace slows as the water's flow quickens.

In a rhythm now. Pedaling. Pedaling. An established pace difficult to stop. In a town a stop for bananas, and another more water to stave off the afternoon heat. Only long enough to buy, then pedaling, pedaling again. Feel the legs as the pedals twirl, muscles drive the crank arms full circle. Pedaling is twirling, twirling. Breathing, breathing. As the valley closes in, as the river progresses from ambling to arching, to driving: twirling, twirling; breathing, breathing.

Roadway shoulders too steep for willows and cottonwoods. Drop another gear. Sun bears down. Sweating. Twirling, twirling; breathing breathing. Fatigue. Twirling, twirling; breathing, breathing. Drive the body on. Drink deeply then, twirl, twirl, twirl. For hours legs can pump. Keep the rhythm. Twirl, twirl; breathe, breathe. Another banana, twirl, twirl, twirl. Handfuls of peanuts, raisins and chocolate. Driving, driving. For hours legs can pump. Keep the rhythm. Twirl, twirl, twirl. Breathe, twirl, breathe.

For hours, but not forever.

Another cycle pulls alongside. One gear, one pair of legs to pedal, a passenger side-saddle on the rear rack. Young boys. Young eager boys. Grade-school english conversation. "Where are you from?" "Where are you going?" and "Where did you learn english?" "Which is your village?" Stock questions cannot fill the distance. We pedal through comfortable silences.

"We are going swimming. Please, will you join me?" Yes. Time for a break. "It is not far." But the reservoir is far enough and welcome.

~~~ Responses Sought ~~~

Empty your mind of all thoughts.
Let your heart be at peace.
Watch the turmoil of beings,
but contemplate their return.

Each separate being in the universe
returns to the common source.
Returning to the source is serenity.

If you don't realize the source,
you stumble in confusion and sorrow.
When you realize where you come from,
you naturally become tolerant,
disinterested, amused,
kindhearted as a grandmother,
dignified as a king.
Immersed in the wonder of the Tao,
you can deal with whatever life brings you,
and when death comes, you are ready.

  graphical element Attributed to Lao Tse
The Tao Te Ching
Chapter 16.
trans. Stephen Mitchell