China by Bicycle :: April -- October '98

Subject: Mother Nature, the flirt.
Date: Tue, 09 Jun 1998 10:53:49 -0700

16:29 International Hotel Lounge, Taiyuan; Shanxi -- China :: SU 07 JUN 98

The International Hotel is just west of the Bingzhou, where I'm staying. I've just bought some gorp ingredients at the department stores across the square from the hotels. You know, nuts, M&Ms (plain and peanut), raisins. All I could find for peanuts were these candied things. Probably OK for the purposes of gorp, though wiall those M&Ms the mix is pretty sweet already. And the cashews were plain roasted. It'd be nice to get something with salt in the mix, to replace the stuff I sweat out while riding. There were some salted peanuts available, but I'm not interested in crunching through the shells.

Ever since the first couple days riding with Jay I've been very careful to keep a large supply of energy food handy whenever riding. Late in the afternoon of a full day's exertion (edging on early evening), even after a hearty lunch and an icecream snack or two, my body depletes its reserves. If I'm not paying attention, there's a 15 minute warning that the blood sugar tank is running on 'E': suddenly, I get very hungry. And weak. At this point, I'm already running on fumes and it's very important to get something, just about anything into the stomach, anything in quantity that is. A couple handfuls of something just won't do.

Pretty amazing how quickly it strikes, really, and how resolutely. Heart rate and breathing rate rocket up and I break into a cold sweat and get the shakes. Hmmm. Diabetic? Don't know. Never thought about that before. Happened twice with Jay in those early days. Once just three or four hours after completely stuffing ourselves with a late lunch. Both times we had very small stores of not too energy rich food. Mostly dry crackers and some dried meat. Once I just sucked back a couple of Sprite's and some crackers 'cause that's all we could find in the dark on a country stretch of road.

Rookie mistakes. Fortunately, both times we had enough in our bags, and were able to supplement with some rather unpleasant alternatives from whatever small shop stood where I ran outta gas. I'm not anxious to repeat those episodes, particularly in the more sparsely populated east of China and without a ride partner. So in the basket zap-strapped to my aero-bars there's a small bag of gorp, often accompanied by some fruit, say a banana or five, or maybe some dates.

I'll keep my eyes open on the road tomorrow for some salty peanuts. Well, that's if I can actually push on tomorrow.

I left the department stores, bound for the Bingzhou to drop off the goodies before cycling over to the Shanxi Grand, but waiting outside was an enormous, ominous angry sky barreling in from the east, from the direction of the Shanxi Grand. Thunder followed closely on the heels of lightning strikes as I crossed the square. Hmmm. Change of direction for Patrick and here I am, looking out onto Yingze Lu where traffic runs east/west and the rain plummets straight down.

The extra day of rest in Taiyuan was worthwhile, and it's been good to find a couple relaxing places to write, though the canned western music here at the International has me waiting for an "Attention Shopperz!" announcement--the same song on continuous repeat. And I've somehow managed to get down ventilation-draft from a smoker. Kaff, koff. I'll probably bolt for the Shanxi Grand when the storm abates. If it abates.

I hope this weather system doesn't continue into tomorrow. I've been pretty lucky with weather, though only by the slimmest of margins. The two riding days between Laiyuan and Yuanping squiggled through a maze of rain squalls. Mother nature seemed determined to give me a good soaking, throwing storm-cloud after storm-cloud in my path. But if Mother Nature was after me, Mother Earth was thwarting her every attempt. It went something like this:

Leaving Laiyuan on broken roadway. Men with pickaxes claw through the thin asphalt sheath, tearing squares from the roadbed, eight centimeters deep from shoulder to shoulder. After three days of deep valleys and high passes, the road finally, mercifully levels, except for the unmarked pockmark interruptions. Square edged, the gaps force me to brake for every in and out, bumping and pitching over the rough bared earth between. Sarcastically, I become nostalgic for the passes.

The work crews seem to be men from the nearby villages. In jackets and trousers, white-collar shirts and slip on shoes, the men chip away at a roadbed which a couple days ago would have seemed gloriously smooth. Now, for some incomprehensible reason, random patches are marked "in need of replacement." A few of the deleted asphalt squares have been refilled, to no detectable overall improvement other than a fresh pitch blackness stretching for several meters.

Finally the periodic construction ceases. The valley steepens to accommodate the quickening river. I am treated to an unexpected but most welcome and exhilerating high-speed 20 kilometer glide. Relaxed, feeling the flow of countryside and engineering as roadway sometimes follows the patterns of earth and rock and othertimes cuts through them, imposing the perfect line required by four wheels and an engine on the unconscious earth. While above the broken clouds shuffle, congeal, darken.

It will rain today. Somewhere. Often. I wonder if I will be there, and how often?

Fifteen centimeters of reinforced concrete cures in the oncoming lane, forcing all traffic into the narrow remaining lane. Forced over debris; the tell-tale hiss. New tube in place; the other packed away for tonight's repair.

At a fork, a decision. To the left, following 108, more valley crossings--a certain high pass--sullen skies rumble their intent and the lane of concrete continues around the bend. To the right, a shallow valley leads to plains and a low valley crossing, clear skies above but a mound of earth bars the bridge, an incomprehensible but ominous sign pitched in it. Vehicles clamber over the mound, but how far are they going? Across the bridge, dust rises in their trail.

I choose the known over the unknown. 108 leads into rain but nothing indicates a blocked road. I choose wet over possible reversal.

So the flirtation begins. Mother Nature seems intent on soaking me, throwing a barrage of squalls in my path. Yet every time the rain clouds draw low, bomb-bay doors opening, the valley swerves, out-flanking the squall. A few drops hit their mark; otherwise spared.

And then there is simple dumb luck. Climbing, hungering...a small village and a recognizable character: fanguan--restaurant. Not much but hunger dictates and the food does not disappoint. The squall comes through, kicking up dust and debris before settling them again with a brief but thorough spray. My audience of small children diminishes, though a few remain undaunted, the imploring curiosity never leaving their faces, nose pressed literally to glass as the strange, dirt and grime crusted man pores over maps and poorly manages his chopsticks.

The village is unique and unforgetable. Typical in style of construction. Brick walls coated thickly with mud and plaster are painted dull manila yellow. Debarked tree trunks are ceiling joists supporting the lathe of narrow limbs on which the grey curved roofing tiles are laid. Inside, all is whitewashed plaster. But all exterior walls have been whitewashed and on them crooked lines of black characters are scrawled and scrunched, hand painted. Oh, if I could read them! Where the roadway cuts into the Earth, the bared rock is whitewashed and filled with characters too.

Scripture? Propaganda? Local laws? Not poetry..the presentation, the form connotes prose, or simple statements; not pretty enough for poetry. Perhaps stories?

The camera is buried; an urge to press on. Drying asphalt, vapour rises. I ride, knowing later will come the regret.

9:07 Zhongdu Hotel, Pingyao; Shanxi -- China :: TU 09 JUN 98

Broken squalls interleave sunshine and scattered droplets. Weaving through the valley, climbing, climbing. Compass swings through four points. East, then south, then north, then west, east again and south. Steep, rocky, narrow and low, a geological maze in its velvety cloak of low brush and cottonwood. Here the rain cannot find the solitary rider. Valley evades each storm cloud looming; headlong into darkness the road turns and I escape again, and again, into the sunshine. The gurgling river bubbles bemusement.

Finally, the valley widens, the mountains rise and the sky opens to reveal its daylight blue. Between the river and road peasants work the land, cajoling corn and wheat and vegetables for stir-frying. Ahead the river bends sharply while the road continues straight on between a pair of Great Wall towers, a gateway between valleys.

From below, the roadway to the pass is a puzzle, some psychologist's probing gestalt. Deep, inclining cuts in the mountainside disappear around scalloped valley walls, never to emerge. Elsewhere emergent roadway appears, unlinked to the other haphazard cuts. I climb and climb, puzzling out the pathway.

And I am recalling events of days past. It is late afternoon, again; a long day of riding already, again; a high, steep mountain pass, again. But I am undaunted. And more than pride is at stake. I stop to photograph the valley stretching back beyond the Great Wall towers and see the storms congealing, squeezing into the barrel-like gap in the mountains. Motivation. A handful of gorp, a mouthful of water, head down, twirling, breathing.

Distant thunder. Percolating weather. Head down. Twirling. Breathing. Not today, you don't. Not today.

The road climbs and bends into scalloped recessions, some revealing a whole new valley with its own illusionist roadway. They swallow me up. I piecemeal together the connections above, calculating distance and time, and marvel at the serpentine engineering below. Whenever the approaching rain is revealed, I adjust the odds of reaching the pass before it. And each time the answer: "perhaps I will; perhaps I won't."

Above, bells dingle from the necks of goats, these precarious on the loose stone and gravel, munching on brush clinging to rocky mountainside. I marvel at the tenacity. His back to a white-washed trunk, the goatherd seems unimpressed either by his flock's sureness of foot or the weather soon to soak them.

The top can never come too soon, while headway seems slow, never gaining so much ground as it seems you've worked for. Attainment unequal to the effort. Until, suddenly, you are there. At the top, I scramble up a roadside mound of rock and earth for a last photograph, and to stick out my tongue at Mother Nature.

She replies with a chortling, thunderous laugh, rises out of the valley depths. Behind me. I've been out-flanked. Wet for sure.

Cycling through the gap I look down into magnificent, steep valley filling rapidly with churning grey cloud. Brake inspection, clean the glasses, batten down the hatches and go!

Aaah, speed! Surprised roadworkers. Thumbs up! Shouting, "Hellooooo!" Past the construction site, free and clear, I plummet down as the first intermittent drops splash. No shelter, only freefalling roadway and mountain rock. Ride on into the pelting rain. Feel the road reeling beneath, the symmetry of lean against curve, while the drops begin to soak through. Magnificent valley revealed as sun battles storm. No question of stopping to photograph now. Water runs in rivulets, driven up my arms by rushing air.

Wheeling, reeling, leaning, braking. Valley floor races up. All too soon I am there. And, inexplicably, the rain stops.

It just stops.

Puddles and soaking road. It rained hard here. Am I blessed? A reprieve? A joke? The clouds sag over the valley walls, peaks disappearing into the greyness. I look for potential shelter in abandoned roadside buildings. No hotels to be seen, only those distasteful roadhouses.

I climb alongside a new river. Coal trucks lumber downvalley under tremendous loads, heaped high above the box walls of their dual trailers. Each boulder precariously placed by hand to overhang the edge, yet the load holds. Unloaded, they race back upriver. On and on through the night.

Before long, hunger coincides with the appearance of a restaurant. Inside, tasty, oily pork, hot tea, steamed bread, rice and braised tofu, a little too braised. Ten Yuan for a bed, gesticulating hands tell me. Why not? So, a little later, I spread my sleeping bag and air mattress across the dirty linens to drift off to sleep. A little difficult when every tickled hair might be a louse, and every few minutes the coal trucks rattle and roll by, their headlight's glare slipping through the window. But soon enough the rain comes, muffling the distractions. I sleep deeply.

~~~ Responses gladly received ~~~
When the great Tao is forgotten,
goodness and piety appear.
When the body's intelligence declines,
cleverness and knowledge step forth.
When there is no peace in the family,
filial piety begins.
When the country falls into chaos,
patriotism is born.
  graphical element Attributed to Lao Tse
The Tao Te Ching
Chapter 18.
trans. Stephen Mitchell