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