China by Bicycle :: April -- October '98

Subject: Again, the dust.
Date: Thu, 27 Aug 1998 21:45:21 -0400

22:09 Wouma Hotel, Jiayuguan; Gansu--China :: SA 22 AUG 98

We woke late this morning: Emma wrestling with her bed all night struggling against insomnia and me caught in a fit of writer's bliss. Not many moments of that for me lately. Lethargy at the keyboard, or a few paragraphs then lights out. But last night a rambling, disjointed connectedness. And well after 4AM before finally signing off.

So we woke late this morning, packed ourselves up slowly, chatted in the lobby with Israeli expats living in Jiuquan. It was noon before we finally rolled the bicycles through the lobby doors, into a scene I'd not seen for a long while.

In Cangzhou, in the first month of riding with Jay, we woke to yellow air and a city coated in dust. I wrote of the ensuing day, headlong into the dust storm that would, more than a week later, reach distant shores. A few people on this list, from North America's west coast, commented to me about the Chinese dust that cluttered their skies for a time.

So I knew when we exited the lobby what the sallow, thinly yellow air meant. In my daily cycle log the night before I'd written "the desert intrigues, winks coquettishly" but today it threw down the gauntlet, "I dare you."

Fortunately, a short ride scheduled for the day or I might have just turned the bike back into the hotel and rebooked our room. Twenty or so kilometers in the blustery dust seemed no big deal. Jay and I survived much worse. We pushed off, the wind picking up as we eased out of Jiuquan's downton into sections of one-story buildings and then into the countryside.

Our luck: a wind from the northwest and our heading nearly due west. A headwind, yes, but not the debilitating head-on variety such that even a level road seems a steep climb. The air

A few kilometers out of town we find an Eastern Jin Tomb, on all the tourist maps, and head off the highway across the gravel road and into an eerie expanse of gravel and burial mounds lying subdued beneath an atmosphere of dust. Air you breath in and chew, grit crunching between teeth. Two-rut gravel pathways criss-cross the visible expanse; we follow the road most travelled and find a brick building with bright flags waving stiffly in the wind, its iron doors sealed against the dust.

I push at the doors which give a little but grudgingly hold their place. Then, from inside they are pulled open. I'm not certain who's more surprised, myself or the young woman behind the doors. The moment passes, a man steps into foreground and we ask if this is the so-called "Art Gallery" tomb recommended by the lonely planet guidebook. The name is different, but it's the approximate distance suggested by the guidebook which states quite firmly, "only one tomb is open to the public." It must be the place.

In fact, it's a small tomb, and the paintings in its two chambers are simple in technique but bold in line and elegant in execution. Simply beautiful. There are scenes from daily life during the Eastern Jin Dynasty: ploughing the fields, a band of musicians. There are gods and mythical creatures: a crow with three legs, a fiery tailed tiger, dragons clawing their way into the scene like Kilroy. In the burial chamber itself, three walls and the ceiling are roughly bricked, the plaster and paintings lost, but on the fourth wall images of three sarcophogai along with the weapons and household implements the dead will need in the after life.

23:11 Fei Tian Hotel, Dunhuang; Gansu--China :: TH 27 AUG 98

All the artwork is executed in black and a red now long faded to orange on a white-washed background.

Were today another in the desert heat we'd been experiencing, the subterranean cool would have been refreshing, but today it chills a bit. I get some partial explanations on the contents from the 'curator' and after about 20 minutes underground we climb back into the dust fog shrouding the countryside. After a few "zai jian" (good-bye) we cycle back into the gloominess, back into the wind.

It's a long slog. Em's tired from the previous days' rides. We're passed by two men on identically too small single-gear chinese bikes. Their legs bow out, gathering in the wind. Vegetables hang from the basket and in a plastic gunnysack over the rear rack. Their shirts billow and flap.

I keep pace with them for a while and they try to make conversation. "Where are you from?" Etc., etc... It occurs to me now, I should learn how to ask questions of them. Still, I enjoy the responses my answers get. And if I start askng questions, I'll have to soup up my chinese pretty quick in order to understand the answers.

Finally we heave ourselves into Jiayuguan. Find a hotel. Check in. Lug the lighter bags up five flights of stairs, leaving the heavier ones for the hotel staff who silly enough to check us into a fifth-floor room in a hotel with no elevator. We wait for the hot water to come on. It begins raining.

Eventually, we shower. We walk a block through Jiayuguan looking for a restaurant. It's an eerie town, matching the eeriness of the day. I tell Em, "Somebody should hang a big neon "VACANCY" sign over this place. It's like the business district of a city on the Sunday of a long-weekend. Little traffic, few bikes, infrequent pedestrians. It's unprecedented. Every other Chinese town, city, even village, has a bustle to it, a vivacious, jangling crowd of humanity striding, cycling, driving through its streets.

A great dinner of cucumbers marinated in vinegar, shredded cabbage marinated in some unidentifiable but marvellous sauce, fried rice, sweet&sour pork, bamboo shoots and mushrooms (shoots stunningly tender, and green), and some other dish I can't recall. After, we walk home in the heavy drizzle. I'm hoping the rain will rinse the air.

~~~ Respond, please ~~~
The Tao never does anything,
yet through it all things are done.

If powerful men and women
could venter themselves in it,
the whole world would be transformed
by itself, in its natural rhythms.
People would be content
with their simple, everyday lives,
in harmony, and free of desire.

When there is no desire,
all things are at peace.
  graphical element Attributed to Lao Tse
The Tao Te Ching
Chapter 37
trans. Stephen Mitchell