05 Aug 1998 08:51:14 -0700
Gansu--China :: TH 30 JUL 98
Waiting for Emma to finish her shower. I'm foobar. Cycled through
illness today. Nothing heroic: 76 kilometers at a 10.3 k/hr pace. A twenty-five
kilometer climb made it interesting, as did the thorough soaking from
the morning and early afternoon rain. No big deal, except I'm fending
off a cold too. And a couple of Pijiu (beer, large beer) have left me
somewhat loopy (and verbose).
The sun broke out late in the afternoon, illuminating the valley
we had climbed quite prettily. The lee side, the valley we descended into,
must be in a rain shadow. The lovely terraces disappeared, replaced by
grass cropped short from grazing horses and goats. Zig-zag, interweaving
pathways lead up steep valley slopes where herdsmen bark out orders to
The climb was a long one and, in deference to Emma's increasing
fitness, we stopped for brief rests every two kilometers. She's coming
along well and in no time we'll be zipping across desert at 150km/day,
no problem. Right Em?
21:50 Yongjing; Gansu--China :: TH 30 JUL 98
Anyway, a few days back we're trapped in this small railroad
town with 30km of mud road behind us, and who knows how much of ahead
of us. It's mid-morning and still raining, though more lightly than the
downpour of the night. I watch the merchants clear an inch or two of mud
sediment left by the torrent that had run past their shops overnight.
I imagine G310, our mud highway to Tianshui.
Times like these require some flexibility from the traveller:
we played it safe and decided on a train all the way to Tianshui, hopefully
knocking off all the mud in a few hours. At the station we discover only
three trains a day officially stopped in this town. One eastward to Baoji,
and two westward to Tianshui. One of these Tianshui trains departed at
9AM, a couple hours ago, the other at 11PM...and it goes all the way to
Xining, through Lanzhou. Hmmm.
The ticket office is closed, and no officials in sight. A young
man in a smart white shirt sits patiently in the lobby. He can't tell
us when the office might open again, so he heads out into the light rain
to track down someone who can. I stand under the front stoop, at the edge
of the platform, making a motion to join him every time he passes. His
gesticulations say, "No, that's OK. When I find someone I'll bring them
here." Typical of the Chinese.
A Tianshui-bound train draws up, stopping on the side rails
beyond the platform. It's not on the schedule; it's stopped here waiting
for an east-bound train to pass. Passengers look out at the yellow-jacketed
laowai, who looks back out at them. He's thinking about a Wallace Shawn
play, The Fever, in which a character wonders which of our selves reflects
our true nature, the self we believe ourselves to be--the one who goes
to dinner parties and talks politics and compassion--or the one any person
can see from a passing train. I wonder who those passengers think I am.
I can't comment on who they are. I wouldn't dare.
The young man in the damp white shirt has found someone in a
damp khakhi uniform, and I walk over to meet them. I take a place under
the eaves to protect my phraseguide while they choose to stand in the
rain. "Tianshui," I tell the short man in his rumpled uniform. The man
replies, "Ni qu Tianshui ma," at once correcting my pronunciation and
making sure he understands my assertion: "you are going to Tianshui?".
"Dui," correct, I respond. He points to the side-tracked train, speaking
chinese but the message is clear enough, "Get on that one, it's going
to Tianshui." I heft a pair of imaginary bags, tilt my head back towards
town saying, "Binguan." "Go get them, you have time," he says. "Zixingche,"
bicycle, "Wo Zixingche." I have a bicycle.
Ahh, yes, that's different. He crosses his index fingers. "Come
back at 10PM," an hour before the Xining train departs. I refer to the
phrase guide. "Piao ma," I can get tickets then? "Dui, dui, dui," in a
light tone, meaning yes, of course, no problem. I go back to the phrasebook,
looking for the word for 'tonight.' "Bike train tonight?" "Dui, dui, dui."
At about this point the ticket agent arrives in her damp white
uniform with blue epaulets and I follow her to her office which she enters
while I dutifully walk around to the wicket. There after a couple fruitless
minutes of passing the phraseguide back and forth across the wicket, I
convince her to meet me at the office door where, after about 10 minutes,
we establish the same facts: "Come back at 10PM with your baggage and
bikes; no problem getting tickets or your bikes on the same train." Oh,
there's one additional piece of information: only hard seat class tickets
are available. It could be a long trip.
Emma, who knows any attempt to join conversations and negotiations
only confuses communication, has waited patiently in the lobby. While
I explain the situation, we go back to town for some lunch/breakfast at
the little fanguan across the street from our hotel. Actually, with three
tables and three 'private' booths, it's by far the largest restaurant
I've looked over the maps and guidebooks and there's not really
much on the tourist trail between Tianshui and Lanzhou. What we'll find
for certain is 250km of mountainous terrain along the same fat red line
that has been nothing more than dirt road for the last 30 odd kilometers,
and may extend as dirt for who knows how much further. Sitting out under
the fanguan's front stoop, sheltered from the rain, I explain this to
Emma, suggesting that taking the train all the way to Lanzhou might be
an option. The mud's pretty deep on main street's concrete surface. Emma
replies quickly, "sure."
It's an afternoon of errands. A little shop containing three
seamstresses and two foot-pedalled sewing mends the pocket on a pair of
pants, the drawstring on my pack and the padding on my cycling shorts.
Two of the seamstresses can't help but giggle through the palms of their
hands as I show them the crotch-pad and how it's separating from the shorts.
Four Yuan. Fifty cents. I leave the clothes with them.
The cobbler at the corner of "Main St. and 1st Avenue" (these
two streets comprise the downtown business district, perhaps 150 meters
total length) squats under a 3 square meter tarp strung from the corner
building. I like his face with an easy grin revealing sparse, crooked
teeth. Light in his eyes. He's making bags from the same plastic tarp
material providing his shelter. I show him the fraying shoulder-strap
and brandish a piece of webbing. We gesticulate for a few minutes about
how I want the repair made but he's more interested in the construction
of the bag. I didn't bring the phraseguide so we speak to each other easily,
and incomprehensibly, in our own languages while he susses out the repair.
I am not a cobbler or an artisan. I've no skills when it comes
to constructing objects from cloth. I watch contently and confidently
while he turns the bag over and over and inside out, assuring himself
what goes where and which seams are structural and which cosmetic. After
a bit he pulls out a large sturdy pair of shears to pull the seams where
the fraying shoulder strap is separating from the bag. He turns the bag
some more, tests the seams, fits the strap inside the openings he's just
made. Not yet satisfied, and out come the shears and out come some more
seams. Using a hand-cranked sewing machine with heavy black thread through
the needle and a pairing of clear, fine monofilament nylon with a red
'tracer' thread, he deftly stitches the bit of webbing to the shoulder
strap just below the frayed section, leaving a tab to fit into the seam
he's just opened. Intent, methodical. I love watching skill. It doesn't
quite fit the way he'd like so over and over, inside out, a few more stitches
pulled and a couple more refits before he deftly stitches the whole thing
together. Repair complete.
What separates the artisan from hack repairmen and the rest
of us is the attention to a total aesthetic. The repair was complete but
my bag did not quite meet with his approval, yet. He turned it over some
more, inside out some more, yanked at straps and seams. Brandishing some
spot on the bag that didn't meet with his approval, he'd speak a long
stream of chinese. I didn't bother telling him I couldn't understand a
word, just nodded my head and grunted the assenting "uhhh," I'm listening.
I couldn't understand, but his meaning was clear. "You know, this seam
is pretty weak and this other shoulder strap is likely to come apart just
like the first one. I could strengthen it with a few stitches if you like."
I don't argue with artisans. "Dui, dui, dui. Xiexie la." Of course, thank
you! In ten minutes he reinforced several other weak points in the construction,
each time seeking my approval, before finally handing the bag back for
Not that I needed to, but for his pleasure I thoroughly inspected
each of the repairs and reinforcements, tugging at straps and analyzing
seams the same way he would. After an going over every stitch I announced,
"Hao la!" That's great! And handed him a 10 Yuan note. He gave 7 in change.
Just 3 yuan for all that expertise and a total of perhaps 25 minutes labour.
About 40 cents. Well, about 60 cents if you're a Canadian.
I remind myself that in this country a teacher's salary is as
low as 300 yuan a month.
I return to the binguan, still raining, get the computer and
write some email and ejournal before heading back for main street to get
a connection. Emma's reading Women in Love (DH Lawrence). She's overburdened
with books and would very much like to finish this one off and leave it
at the bottom of the next hill. A book lover, she can't just drop it before
reading the last page even though Lawrence's dialog and language frustrate
her. While I write Travelogue, she can't resist reading passages out loud.
Being not particularly fond of Mr. Lawrence myself, we have a giggle over
some of the awkward dialogue and psychological description.
An oblong ovoid sign showing a telephone handset and a string
of chinese characters is posted beside the door of one of Main Street's
shops. You won't find many payphone booths in China, but you'll see this
sign everywhere. Small businesses connect a timer box to their business
line and charge for outgoing calls. Often, the business buys two or three
additional lines. I've connected to the internet from newstands, clothing
shops, corner groceries and even a hair salon. It's less hassle than using
the one or two Post/Telecommunications offices which require first a deposit
and then a wait for an open booth. And these 'public phones' provide much
better lines than most of the hotels I've connected through. The hotels
in Baoji and Xian were particularly frustrating, and expensive, with incomplete
connects and dropped lines the norm. It could often take me an hour to
establish a connection sufficient to transmit and receive my email.
So I'm resolved to using these merchant's lines. It's usually
kind of fun. I walk up to the phone, putting my right hand to my ear like
a handset and say, "Beijing." The merchant nods and, if the phone is locked
for long distance, flicks a switch to unlock it. It gets interesting when
I pull out the computer, detach the RJ-11 jack from the back of the merchant's
phone and jack it into the modem.
This is noteworthy. Only twice has anyone objected to this process,
and they were both uniformed rail employees running a convenience store
at the station. bureaucrats. In other countries throughout the pacific
rim, including Australia, Canada and the US, it's often impossible to
convince the owner of a phone line to allow you to connect this way. But
in China I don't even bother asking, just unplug the line and jack in.
Other than a doubling or trebling of the curiosity factor, most merchants
hardly even flinch.
So on Main Street I go through the formalities. Hand to ear,
"Beijing." "Dui," the small group in the shop says. Out comes the computer.
The crowd gathers in. While switching lines, the gathered crowd attracts
a larger audience. The person sitting by the phone gives up their seat
so I can more comfortably operate the computer. I hear the comments floating
around as the phone dials and connects, on the first attempt. The crowd
hushes and crowds in when someone calls attention to the weird sounds
emanating from the computer. Twenty or so people gathered into this tiny
shop. The lucky ones can see the screen and they explain to others what
they perhaps cannot comprehend themselves as windows and dialog boxes
flash across the screen; scroll bars depict how much of a message remains
to be transmitted, how many more messages there are to download. A large
mirror above the phone allows me to watch the curiosity and wonder and
befuddlement in the various faces. Small children, young men, old women.
Wide eyed. In a few minutes, I disconnect and the timer box beeps out
that the call is complete and displays 4.2 Yuan. When I brandish a fiver
a couple people point to the shop-owner, sitting quietly behind the gathered
crowd. I get a single Yuan note in change and "Zaijian, Zaijian," my way
out of the shop. Goodbye, goodbye! And many of the crowd respond in kind.
One of the emails is from Vivian. She may be coming through
Lanzhou in the next day. There's a possibility of crossing paths there,
but she doesn't know yet that I'm thinking of going there. I'll call her
cell phone later in the day--she's in the mountains southwest of Lanzhou
at the moment and probably not reachable. It would be cool to cross paths.
But for the moment, there's the rest of the afternoon to kill. Back to
the hotel for a nap and to respond to my email. I notice the skies are
clearing. In the sunlight, vivid green terraces look like topographical
lines on a map, and clamber up the steep slopes to the mountain peaks
revealed for the first time since we left Baoji.
~~~ Responses gratefully received ~~~
Weapons are the tools of violence;
all decent men detest them.
Weapons are the tools of fear;
a decent man will avoid them
except in the direst necessity
and, if compelled, will use them
only with the utmost restraint.
Peace is his highest value.
If the peace has been shattered,
how can he be content?
His enemies are not demons,
but human beings like himself.
He doesn't wish them personal harm.
Nor does he rejoice in victory.
How could he rejoice in victory
and delight in the slaughter of men?
He enters a battle gravely,
with sorrow and with great compassion,
as if he were attending a funeral.