It's a fat red line on
27 Jul 1998 09:36:10 -0700
at 18K marker, G310; Shaanxi--China :: SU 26 JUL 98
Highway G310, the straightest line between Baoji in Shaanxi
province and Tianshui in Gansu province. A fat red line on my Chinese
road map. We spent most of today in hot anticipation of finally reaching
it. Ahhh, pavement! Bliss!!
We'd begun the day in Baoji, booming railtown on the Wei river's
north bank, and probably the source of Shaanxi's favourite beer, known
by the town's name. The Chinese road map shows no bridges spanning the
river, but I couldn't imagine such a large city, at the very end of an
expressway, provided no means for reaching the main westward artery, G310,
paralleling the Wei's south bank. Riding out of the city, we found bridges,
plenty of them, but all crossing some minor river or tributary of the
Wei. It seemed we were stuck on the north side, with the rail way, while
a ridge of mountains divided us from our goal. Unbelievably, the map was
correct: no way to reach the Wei!
The map showed only local roads west of Baoji, and these meandered
off into the mountainous territory far north of the Wei before winding
back south to dead end at some small railtown along the rail line. It
looked like we were in for a disheartening backtrack through a very nasty
construction zone, a couple dozen kilometers retraced eastward to the
last bridge connecting the Wei's north and east banks.
But when asked, "Tianshui?" the locals kept pointing us westward
down some minor road. In disbelief, I dug out the map, pointing to Baoji,
to Tianshui, to the Wei River. I kept repeating, "Qiao?" Where's the bridge
to get across the river? I'd get a confused look back. The local would
trace along the rail line, find some small burgh some distance away, point
and say, definitively, "Qiao!" Well, this was usually accompanied by a
whole lot more which I couldn't understand, but the point was made: some
unmarked road nearly paralleled the railway line and would eventually
bring us to a crossing of the Wei. OK, let's give it a go.
The minor road narrowed. And narrowed. A kilometer or so after
passing an enormous Mao statue (facing due east, of course) in the centre
of a traffic circle, the asphalt ended a few hundred meters before the
whole roadway appearing to completely end in a farmer's field. Oh, man!
I turned around just as Emma caught up. "Looks like were taking the donkey
track to Tianshui," I told her.
This was just 8 kilometers into our journey. Earlier, over breakfast
of cold rice noodles in chilli sauce and these fried bread things filled
with either egg or leafy greens, I'd told Emma we'd be picking up the
pace today. "Averaging 12.5 kilometers an hour over the whole day, including
rest times. If we can peg the speedometer at 18k/hr while riding, that
should enable us to put at least 80K behind, camp roadside for the night,
then just one more day of the same to reach Tianshui." Backtracking would
kill any dreams of reaching Tianshui in two days. Emma, trooper that she
is, was up for it. Now backtracking seemed inevitable. We're obviously
not on G310. But here too, the locals were smilingly adamant. Yes, continue
along this way and you'll reach Tianshui! It wasn't that simple, of course.
I'm skipping all the map pointing, phrasebook brandishing and gesticulation,
but again the message was clear enough. Tianshui: go west old man.
So we did. Bouncing and jouncing along on an uneven dirt road.
We'd only pedalled a kilometer or so when the pair who'd urged us on caught
up on their motorcycle. They wanted our autographs! While signing the
notebooks they'd obviously just bought for the occasion, I took the opportunity
to ask more questions, get out the map, double-check with the phrase guide.
Yes, in about 30km, there would be a bridge across the Wei. Smooth sailing
But he was trying to tell me something else and I couldn't get
it. "Wo bu dong," I said. I don't understand. After thinking about it
a moment, he pointed to the dirt track beneath us. "Lu," he said, meaning
'street' or 'road'. Ok. Got that. He held both hands up toward the mountains
saying, "shan." OK. Mountains. Another word I know. Then he voiced a rumbling
sound, like thunder, while cascading his hands downward.
"Landslide!" I think Emma and I both caught that one immediately.
Yes. Landslide. "Shuh woo gongli" down the road, he said. About
15 kilometers. "Bu hao" for cars. Not good. "Meiyou," there's no way around.
But, "hao la" for bicycles. Bicycles can get around fine.
Oh, and by the way, as an afterthought, in a couple kilometers
it starts to get hilly. This he put simply by waving a hand like a leaping
dolphin while saying, "Liang Gongli," and holding up two fingers of the
other hand. He waved us on, "you'd better get underway..." then reached
up to the low, overcast sky and cascaded his fingers down, "...it's going
Hilly indeed. Though the track proved to be intermittently paved
with a warped and creaky asphalt, it also grew increasingly steep, and
each hill an increasingly long climb until they weren't hills anymore,
but passes. Climb, climb, climb, climb. Of course, where there's an uphill
there's a downhill following but it's pretty difficult to take full advantage
of these when the bumpy dirt road is intermittently attempts to unseat
Midway into the second climb Emma asks, rhetorically, "I guess
this means we won't make Tianshui in two days?" I reply with a wry grin.
I turn long climbs into a meditative experience. I voice some
simple melody of my own, or whatever song's running through my head at
the moment, and use the rhythm to pace my breathing and the turning of
the cranks. Spin, spin, spin. La di da! Spin, spin, spin.
Emma is essentially still in training and not quite able to
power up the hills, yet. Our multiple rest stops draw the long climbs
out even longer. Our average speed dropped to below 5km/hr. The last major
climb of the day rose steeply for a few kilometers to a ridgeline along
which the road continued to climb for several kilometers more at a slightly
reduced pitch. Our game was trying to figure out two things: When would
it end? and Where does it go? The peaks ahead proved to be stepping stones
to peaks beyond. A car would disappear around a corner, and reappear as
if from a wormhole. "Tell me, what did I come to China for?" Emma asked
at one point. "The challenge," I replied.
But always, and despite the dense, humid fog which had our sweat
running in rivulets down arms and legs, bullets on our foreheads, always
the improbably clinging terraces of corn and sunflower and tiny mountain
villages with their sweeping views of deep tree-ridged valleys and ravines.
Beautiful. Extreme. Fantastic. Later, Emma would recall these visions,
these impossible scenes, and admit, "This is what I came to China for."
All I could do was agree.
7:08 Fandian at 18K marker, G310; Shaanxi--China ::
MO 27 JUL 98
She also commented on the ubiquitous habitation of so remote-seeming
a place. "We'd go a couple hundred meters and see another person." Yep,
never more than a kilometer without another face. We're not even 50K from
cosmopolita, from Baoji, though the sense...remote, removed, displaced.
The people cling to the steep slopes with an impossibly easy grace equal
to the thoughtful, graceful lines etched there by terrace and footpath.
And everywhere they are clinging without any concept of how hard their
life seems to those of the West.
Finally, the long, long climb peaked. The road turned downward.
A little gingerly, respecting the loads on our bikes, we dropped down
into the valley below. Yes, I could see it now; the valley running south
and along its floor there was the road which would lead us back to G310.
We rolled and rolled and rolled around bend and hairpin all the way to
the valley floor. And there were told to follow the valley north.
Hmmm. Not right. But the stream rippled northward, and two more
locals corroborated: Tianshui that way, north. Perhaps the valley doubled
back to the south where surely the river Wei must be?
So down the slight valley grade we went, following as it turned
westward, but never south. Shortly we missed the graded surface of our
steep climbs and descents because here no graders had passed in weeks.
Bump and grind, pitch and yaw, small quagmires, and small villages of
dumbfounded and amused villagers. "Hello! Hello!"
I stopped at one of these, one large enough to be worthy of
a cartographer's notice, and showed a shop owner the map. "Which town
are we in?" sliding my finger along the rail line and three towns marked
on the Wei's north bank. After a couple moments the merchant pointed assuredly
to a circle, then with insistent jabs he pointed at the soil between his
feet. "Jiege, Jiege." Literally, 'this, this'--and he pointed back at
the map, at a small dot on the Wei River's south bank, at a small dot
I explained to Emma, "Well, if what he says is true we've been
along G310 all along." But I couldn't believe it. I'd had locals point
to dots on the map before and "Jiege, Jiege" only to mean we were in the
county of the same name as the town. Obviously this county must straddle
the Wei. "We must be pretty close to the Wei."
Finally the valley opened into another and its stream emptied
into a larger river's south bank. Yes, there across the river, the railroad
tracks dive in and out of tunnels. There goes a train now. And the river
flows due east. Sure looks like the Wei.
I cycle on a ways, Emma some distance behind, and contemplate
the possibilities. A hundred feet ahead a group of men stands beside the
road. Maybe they can explain why such a large river is running away from
the Wei? I don't want to believe the alternative. A loud crack. The men
scatter. A forty foot tree falls from the road side, straight across the
road where the group had been standing. I shake my head. For multiple
Fortunately, there's just enough clearance under the fallen
trunk to squeeze the bike underneath, and a couple of the tree fallers
assist. On the other side, I draw out the map again. Point at the previously
described village, point back down the road. "Dui," <correct>, comes
the reply. Point at another village further west on 310, point up the
road in the direction we're heading. A nod. "Dui." Resignedly, point at
the muddy water flowing 30 meters to my north. "Wei He," I say. "Dui,
At least my sense of direction is vindicated. I did everything
right to get us on the G310 but just couldn't believe the result.
Emma arrives a few minutes later and the tree fallers lift her
bike over the fallen trunk. Her breaks are squeeking--"Not a problem,"
I say--and she thought something was rattling, but couldn't figure out
what it was. It seems to have gone away.
I share the news: "We've been on G310 the whole time." We look
at each other, no doubt the same question running through both our minds.
Who'd a thought the fattest, reddest line on the map would be mostly dirt?
"Are you sure?" I point to the river. "The Wei He. And there's the railway.
It's the next day now, and Em still doesn't want to believe
it. "There's gotta be pavement!" I joke. "Yeah, we'll get on the train
and two kilometers later G310 will become blissfully smooth asphalt with
a separate, spacious bicycle lane all marvellously shaded with willows."
But yesterday's journey isn't quite finished yet. I'm just going
to finish it up without much effort to prettify the language.
A few kilometers later we found the landslide. An entire rock
face had tumbled over and through the roadbed, carving a huge bite from
the surface and leaving a pile of rock five meters high on whatever remained
of it. The slide is at least a week old. A week ago my friend Vivian attempted
to come this way but had been turned aside at Baoji due to "road construction."
This was the obstruction. There was no sign of any construction, or any
intent to begin it either.
As we unloaded the bags for the portage across the slide zone,
the skies that had been teasing us with sprinkles all day decided to tease
us with another light drizzel. Emma discovered the source of the mysterious
rattling: one of the screws holding her pannier rack had disappeared.
Fortunately, it was no more serious than digging a replacement screw fromt
he spare parts box at the bottom of my duffel bag. But the drizzle became
a light rain, lightly soaking all the things pulled out of the duffel
bag while repairs on Emma's bike were underway.
My family think I live a charmed existence. My father used to
talk about my guardian angel all the time, as if I were the luckiest guy
on earth. I figure a truly lucky person would never find himself in this
kind of situation. But I have to acknowledge that perhaps there is a guardian
angel who only intervenes when I'm teetering on the brink.
As Emma and I start the job of repacking our bikes we're both
looking upriver a kilometer or so at the cluster of buildings. A big cluster
with some white tile buildings, a town, with a restaurant certainly but
maybe a hotel? We can't quite make out where the river runs, but it looks
like the town's stacked up along the northern side of the valley and the
rail line runs right through the town. It'll take a bridge to reach. Oh,
The irony. There was a bridge, of course. The one all the people
along the way assured me was there. And our salvation laid not in crossing
it from north to south to attain G310, but in crossing it south to north
to leave it. It's not a fine hotel. There's no shower or bath or even
running water in the room. The floor is bare concrete and a fan moves
the moist, warm air through the room. I'll leave the description of the
outhouse to a darker moment. But it's dry, and there's a decent restaurant
across the street. And a train station around the corner.
It's raining this morning. Hard. G310 will be a quagmire, probably
for the next couple of days if, indeed, it is unpaved all the way to Tianshui.
If we repeat yesterday's pace, just over 5km/hr over an 8 hour day it'll
take five days to traverse the remaining 150 kilometers to Tianshui.
But there's a train station. We may yet reach Tianshui by nightfall.
~~~ I Love Responses ~~~
Do you want to improve the world?
I don't think it can be done.
The world is sacred.
It can't be improved.
If you tamper with it, you'll ruin it.
If you treat it like an object, you'll lose it.
There is a time for being ahead,
a time for being behind;
a time for being in motion,
a time for being at rest;
a time for being vigorous,
a time for being exhausted;
a time for being safe,
a time for being in danger.
The Master sees things as they are,
without trying to control them.
She lets them go their own way,
and resides at the center of the circle.