China by Bicycle :: April -- October '98

Subject: Lost and Found
Date: Wed, 17 Jun 1998 08:59:32 -0700

07:46 Ji Zhou Hotel, Ji Xian; Shanxi--China :: WE 17 JUN 98

Spent the first third of yesterday looking for Highway 309 westbound, finding it, losing it--10 kilometers of road construction, often over loose pumice--then, finally, finding it. Until today I'd never been misdirected by a Chinese. It's great. "Hmmm, which way?" Find a local, usually a simple matter in such a populated country, say "Ni Hao," and either show them your Chinese map and the characters for the next town on the road, or learn to say the name of where you're going. "Hukou!" It helps if you point in the direction you think Hukou lies. "Hukou," they'll repeat and point you in the right direction.

Linfen is a fairly large town, so far the second largest in Shanxi after Taiyuan. But my Chinese road atlas provided no city blow-up so I knew it could be difficult to find the main road out of town. It was. And the first Chinese I asked pointed resolutely west. A dead end on a small road. So I tried the next road south, a wide avenue, and also a dead end. The next Chinese man I asked sent me in the right direction.

An interesting note: Chinese women don't appear to like giving directions. They'll nearly always defer to a man if one is nearby.

On the next three occasions an intersection posed the "which way?" question, my instincts said, "go right," and the local said "go straight", with a firm motion of the arm and a resounding, "Hukou!" Each time, I should have followed my instincts. This lead me on a very unscenic ride along the two long legs of an isosceles triangle while 309 was the short leg.

It's partially my own fault. Hukou was over 100 kilometers down the road from where I was asking directions. It's a fairly natural response for people to provide whatever answer you seek, even if they're not sure of the answer. It's best to name the next town down the road, or point to it on the map. Actually, this works out rather well sometimes since the local might vigorously point straight down to the ground, "You're here!" Or even better, point behind you. You're making better time than you thought.

Anyway, the unnumbered roadway I was directed onto was in the midst of significant widening. The mess sliced through villages, leaving half-houses along one side or the other of the expanding roadway. This wouldn't have been so bad if the method of Chinese road widening weren't to tear up the entire surface for a 10 or 15 kilometer stretch, or longer, then pile the new road base as a three metre wide meridien down the middle of the highway. When the base material is loose earth and rocks this produces two narrow, uneven lanes, or sometimes only one. You pitch and roll and bounce and jostle along at under 10km/hr. However, the base material through most of the towns was a broken rock the likes of which I've never seen. Like pumice, fist-sized pumice. Absolutely amazing I never got a flat.

What's worse, a three or five kilometers into this I began noticing my compass, which said "You're going south." I didn't have to look at the map to know I wanted to west. Hoping I was already through the greater portion of the construction, I plowed on.

Turned out I was about halfway through and halfway down one of those long triangle legs, well astray to the tune of an additional 20km. Plowed on, was misdirected twice more, this time resulting in only a couple additional kilometers.

The next third of the day began 10 kilometers before rejoining 309: climbing. Fairly gentle at first but steeply out of the valley for seven kilometers up onto the Loess plains. And it was midday, with a high hot sun, the thermometer next to my compass reading nearly 40C. It would climb nearly to 50C, the highest temp the thing will record. Pant, sweat, drink, sweat, pant, drink. The grime coating me from all that road construction and the ever-present coal smoke ran in rivulets down my arms.

At least the valley was pretty, and the air gradually clearing of the polluted smog which had accompanied me since leaving Yuanping over a week ago. The beauty index went up a notch or two in parallel with the increasing steepness of the roadway until, about 35 kilometers in, the climb to the pass began. Seven kilometers of the lowest gear. But beautifully forested mountains and some villages clinging to the hillsides.

At the end of this began the long decline onto the Loess Plateau. And again the beauty increased. The yellow Loess soil seems to be a millenium or so away from sandstone. The road carves its way through the earth without need for dynamite; the nearly vertical walls on either side look as though they've been spread on, like plaster. The lower hills here are terraced right to their blunted peaks, patches of wild green clinging to the terrace sides while on the terrace flats burnished winter wheat is harvested. After hours of arid climbing in a treeless valley, the willows and cottonwood return and I roll through village after village rarely falling below 20km/hr and not often needing to pedal.

A front had blown through the pass as I climbed it. Mother nature yet again choosing only to sprinkle me with a cooling mist while rumbling and flashing storm clouds scolded me for my impertinence. Beyond the pass, onto the Loess, the air cools and the sky becomes a vivid blue in the smogless atmosphere. I ride, and ride through the remarkable countryside, the long day's arduous and frustrating beginning all but forgotten.

It's not all downhill from here. I need to climb over to another valley before descending down to Ji Xian. Thankfully, it's not a long or exceptionally steep climb. My withering legs are thankful. On the long descent to my hotel I am paced by two Chinese men astride a motorcycle. They smile, and laugh, and give a big "Thumbs Up!" everytime I pass them on the steeper slopes, then smile with another thumbs up when the roadway flattens or inclines and again they pass me by. This continues under the darkening sky for the 20 kilometers remaining to town where I watch their taillight disappear into the busy streets.

I haven't arrived in a town after dark since Jay and I were making our way to Beijing. One hundred and forty-six kilometers today and nearly 12 hours to do it, including stops. A long day so even the somewhat grotty, mildewed hotel room is welcome, particularly since it provides an indoor swimming pool for a bathtub. The hot water comes one minutes after my initial disappointment. I soak and recollect. Then recline on the bed to watch World Cup highlights of the day. Before long, exhaustion overtakes and the sleep is deep and dreamless.

~~~ Responses Happily Read ~~~
He who stands on tiptoe
doesn't stand firm.
He who rushes ahead
doesn't go far.
He who tries to shine
dims his own light.
He who defines himself
can't know who he really is.
He who has power over others
can't empower himself.
He who clings to his work
will create nothing that endures.

If you want to accord with the Tao,
just do your job, then let go.
  graphical element Attributed to Lao Tse
The Tao Te Ching
Chapter 24
trans. Stephen Mitchell