China by Bicycle :: April -- October '98

Subject: The calm before
Date: Sun, 26 Jul 1998 09:03:52 -0700

23:04 Wu Gong Hotel, Wu Gong; Shaanxi--China :: TH 23 JUL 98

Underway. An arduous day for Emma, with throat, chest and nose congestion. Still, we made a few more kilometers than 80, after an afternoon start on a hot, sunny day. On the other hand, this was on flat terrain so under normal conditions I'd have expected 100+ kilometers. As it is we arrived in Wu Gong after darkness had settled in. Not a habit I'd like to get into.

Emma said that for the first part of the trip she could observe the countryside while riding, inner voices having a conversation, "Ooh, look at that! <random thought; random thought> Hey, that's neat! <random thought>..." And so on. As the afternoon wore on this became more like "Hunh, look at that. <When is this going to end!?> That's interesting. <How much farther?!>" Eventually she was reduced to, "<Hotel, Hotel, Hotel> <pedal, pedal, pedal>." I could see the single-minded intensity in her eyes.

I can commiserate, having been there myself. Your awareness reduced to pumping legs and lungs. But I also know the warm sense of accomplishment after mastering such conditions. We'll see how she feels in the morning.

It's also unfortunate that by the time the countryside emerged from Xian's urban sprawl, Emma was already quite fatigued.

All this is partly my fault, I guess, in addition to the purely physiological ailments she's battling. Emma likes to take a riding break at least every hour. I've been known to cycle for several hours straight and today I was hot to make tracks out of the city. I no doubht pulled her along in the early part of the day well past her normal spacing. Sorry Em. From now on we'll break more frequently.

Not that there was much to see for most of the day; not many places compelling us (or at least me) to stop for awhile. A few places, like Pepto Bismol Creek and the village of Strewn Rubbish Corners, urged us along. Industrial and commercial sprawl in gradually gave way to rural farmland. This latter part was pretty enough but Emma was in "<Hotel, pedal, hotel, pedal>" mode and I was concerned for her and getting the both of us to a respectable hotel before nightfall. I failed. Still, our headlights worked well and we were able to glide the final 8 kilometers downhill into Wu Gong after a satisfying dinner of beer, chicken and peanuts Sichuan style, and some noodle soup. Actually, rather more noodle soup than either of us could tackle.

I'm not sure how these places of rest manage to space themselves so poorly. Several pass by much too early to consider stopping for the day. Then there's not another until your endurance threshold nears, or has been completely surpassed, or you're cycling in complete darkness.

22:06 Qi Shan Hotel, Qi Shan; Shaanxi--China :: FR 24 JUL 98

Emma's "a different person" tonight. It was slow going today, but we did manage to log just shy of 70km. Emotionally and mentally she's much improved, though her body's lagging behind a bit.

Nothing of real significance on today's ride, so I'll finally get around to what this post was originally intended to do.

My last night in Xian: warm, quiet. I begged off from Emma who was a little trounced already by the stuffy noggin which would make the coming day so miserable. She went back to the hotel and to bed and I was off, ostensibly for some shopping but also to just have a relaxing walk. Sidewalks filled with Chinese men in tank tops and shorts, or pants and golf shirts, the shirt hems sometimes pulled above their stomachs in the evening's heat. And the Chinese women in their panapoly of fashions, from evening gowns and pumps to flip flops and frumpy pullover dresses. I walked, filling myself with the night time street life--it's too hot indoors without air-con, the city lives on the sidewalk.

At the city wall, I ante up the 8 Yuan (one US dollar) foreigner's entry fee and climb 15 meters up the steep steps, and find an open air disco playing old ballroom tunes while a few dozen people shuffle nearly aimlessly about the dance floor. I walk, and find myself turned into a light breeze wafting above the city. Down on the street they cannot know the perfection of coolness skirting the rooftops. Instinctively my arms raise up and I sense the air roiling over my wings. I dip left, then right then glide level a few strides.

The top of the wall is wide, wider than most city streets, with battlements along its outter perimeter and a low retaining wall along its inner. Approximately every 300 meters of its 13.7 kilometer circumference, beacon towers rise with hipped, double-tiered rooves outlined in tungsten yellow light strings. Between each beacon tower, three or four squat buildings, perhaps guard houses when the wall protected inhabitants rather than attracted foreigners. Now you can buy a Coke, or some rubbings from the stone library known as The Forest of Steles which is just a few hundred meters from here.

8:13 Qi Shan Hotel, Qi Shan; Shaanxi--China :: SA 25 JUL 98

I walk across grey brick Ming Dynasty walls, mentally unreeling my sketchy history of this place. Chinese people sometimes say of Qing and even Ming artefacts, objects made a century or more before the American Revolution, "they're not that old." The Chinese erected this current city barrier sometime in the earliest history of my country, but back when the world was flat, back in the dark ages of Europe, the city walls then encompassed an area ten times larger. My schooling left me with the impression that Constantinople was the most significant city on earth.

23:50 Baiyin Hotel, Baoji; Shaanxi--China SAT 25 JUL 98

Baoji and the luxury of a fine, clean hotel with hot running water. Our first since leaving Xian three days ago. Always seems to be something not quite right, though, no matter the quality of the hotel. In Room 1301 of the Baiyin Hotel, we had the aforementioned hot running water, but the valve for selecting bath vs. shower was stuck on bath. There was no way I was crawling into a bathtub with someone as filthy as me, so now we're fed, rested and showered in Room 1509. Someday the ejournal will see a "Chinese Hotel" ejournal entry, so I'll leave further details for another time. But I do have to mention the floor attendant attempting to turn the lever to "shower" and instead having the washer and several other valve parts wash out the tub faucet. We're both thankful for the hot water.

Anyway, Constantinople and Xian. China and Arabia underwent concurrent periods of renaissance. The 400 year long Tang Dynasty, which began late 6th century, saw a flourishing of art, design, language, technology and science, and the centre of all this was Xian, the Capitol of the Chinese empire, the last stop on the Silk Road and, therefore, a cultural throughway for not only trade goods but also new ideas and means of expression. By the time the Ming Dynasty rolled around a millenia later, Xian's role had been diminished to the position of frontier town. The Silk Road had been eclipsed by maritime trade, and the Chinese capitol long before moved to the east.

23:50 Baiyin Hotel, Baoji; Shaanxi--China SAT 25 JUL 98

A little to the northwest of Xian is Xianyang. There's not much left now but when Qin Shihuang established the Qin Dynasty in 246 BC, he made this place the capitol of the first united Chinese state. Shihuang (meaning First Emperor) not only united China but standardized everything in sight, including chariot and cart track widths, coinage and the written form of the language still in use today. And as a monument to his greatness, he buried himself in arguably the worlds greatest mausoleum. Even if all that's left at the burial site is a very large mound of earth, it's a mound of earth guarded by at least 7000 life-size terracotta sculptures of warriors and cavalry also entombed 1.5 kilometers to the east. Three pits of figures have been unearthed so far and though not all the figures have been dug up, all those uncovered to this point have been unique in physiological appearance and guise. Even with just the first ten meters of the large pit (210 meters by 60 meters) excavated and recreated, it's an inspiring sight. I imagine the subterranean force, column after column of archers, infantry, cavalry, charioteers, all buried for 2`000 years guarding China's long-dead first emperor.

Despite the accomplishments of its first emperor, the Qin Dynasty didn't outlast the lifetime of its second emperor. Four years after Qin Shihuang's death his son was overthrown by the revolt which established the 400 year Han dynasty and a new capitol, Chang'an just outside modern Xian. This dynasty prevailed for 400 years, expanding China well into Central Asia and thoroughly establishing both the Silk Route and Chang'an's prominence as arguably the world's greatest city.

And I am walking into the cool night breeze along walls which are a paltry few hundred years old. The familiar coal smoke from the city's cooking fires rises over the battlements with the breeze. Ahead is the slim silhoutte of a dragon, head raised to the sky standing tall on hind legs, fore-claws scraping the air while the tail winds sinuosly up the erect body. The effect of figure against night sky is better than the artist's original intention so I leave the garish colour behind and carry the livelier image away.

For a while I clamber up onto the battlements, drawn by song. Below, through shade trees of the park ringing the city wall's, a woman's amplified voice sings Chinese opera to an audience of two or three hundred. Men in tank-tops and shorts, or with pantlegs rolled above the knee; women in light, filmy summer dresses; sipping tea, waving off the humidity with their fans. I linger for a while and imagine myself guarding ancient Chang'an, the center of the Middle Kingdom.

~~~ Thanks in advance for responding ~~~
Know the male,
yet keep to the female:
receive the world in your arms.
If you receive the world,
the Tao will never leave you
and you will be like a little child.

Know the white,
yet keep to the black:
be a pattern for the world.
If you are a pattern for the world,
the Tao will be strong inside you
and there will be nothing you can't do.

Know the personal,
yet keep to the impersonal:
accept the world as it is.
If you accept the world,
the Tao will be luminous inside you
and you will return to your primal self.

The world is formed from the void,
like utensils from a block of wood.
The Master knows the utensils,
yet keeps to the the block:
thus she can use all things.
  graphical element Attributed to Lao Tse
The Tao Te Ching
Chapter 28
trans. Stephen Mitchell