China by Bicycle :: April -- October '98

Subject: Another one rides the bus.
Date: Wed, 23 Sep 1998 22:33:22 -0700

14:25 Liuyuan Hotel (Binguan), Liuyuan; Gansu--China SA 05 SEP 98

A bit more prolific of late am I. Not the muses by the tail so much as I just have the time to relax, and write, without the fuzziness of a day's ride to battle or the limited time to sightsee and shop for supplies or spare parts. Time.

The plan for today was to be somewhere halfway between here and Hami, in Xinjiang, the Uyghur Autonomous Region. Right now, I imagine myself pedalling uphill into the headwind somewhere just across the Gansu/Xinjiang border, sweating like a stuck pig, wishing I were back in the stuffily hot but relatively cool hotel room in Liuyuan where I tap this out. But yesterday I awoke with that nagging, back-of-the-throat scratchiness that says, "You're going to get the flu!" By the end of the day, stuffed up and mildly feverish. By bedtime, a decision to delay at least one day.

Got up this morning feeling improved, but still weak and my head feels crowded, throbs a bit. A day off in Liuyuan. Another day to write, and catch up on all the email. Something like 50 in the last few days. Not much of it junk mail either. And another day to knock off another or two from the list of backlogged ejournal titles in the "drafts" folder.

You remember Xiahe, with the prayer wheels. I've got more to say about that but I'll wait for the proper mood. It would be a shame to reduce the impact of the place with language that's not quite up to it. That, and because I'm holed up in a place of subtle charms when I feel I should be out riding into an endless desert. My head's still throbbing, by nobe id stubbed. And all this is leaving me somewhat irascible and self-indulgent.

While in Xiahe, and while getting to and from it, I was in email contact with Vivian. She'd been travelling through Sichuan, Gansu and Xinjiang, in her much-wronged FIAT Uno. Poor thing. The car, that is. Her travelling partner for this journey was bailing out, flying home to Harbin from Urumqi. Both a disappointment and relief for Vivian--not the best of partnerships, but this left her all the way across China, some 4,000 K from home and alone. A long way to drive through some of the world's most remote and barren country. Poor thing. Vivian, that is.

Fortunately, our dear friend Martin (another of my Beijing gang: a Czech who just completed his study of acupuncture in Beijing) was in the area, travelling with a group of Czech friends. We'd all last been in Xian together, where our paths converged for a couple days before again dashing off madly in all directions. She catches up with Martin and his gang in Turpan. He's agreed to accompany her for the long drive back to Beijing...long and at a break-neck pace, as it turns out. They need to beat Martin's friends, who'll soon be beelining on a multi-day train, back to Beijing. No easy task for a FIAT as maligned as this one's been.

Vivian and I are trying to establish a meeting point. At first we think a night together in Lanzhou. Then the FIAT gets cranky, holds them up for most of a day while a mechanic administers TLC. Communication through sporadic emails has us bouncing back and forth on days and times. Finally, Vivian establishes a firm date: August 8th, lunchtime in Lanzhou; they'll drive on toward Xian in the afternoon.

One problem. It's the 5th and I'm in Xiahe, two long days of riding from Lanzhou...and Emma's laid out flat with a stomach bug. Looks pretty hopeless. Assuming Emma gets over her stomach thing the next day, and we ride like madmen for two days after this, we still can't make it to Lanzhou by lunchtime on the 8th. Actually, Emma's never ridden 158K in a single day, and that's the length of the second day's ride. And the road crosses the mountains.

On the 6th, Emma shows some improvement. "I'll be able to ride tomorrow," she says. Vivian, Martin and I have discussed the possibility of an alternate route for them, one that would have them meeting us half-way to Lanzhou. That seems like the best alternative as Emma and I start the descent to Linxia on the morning of the 7th.

You might recall the rain soaked ascent to Xiahe, when I thought, "this is probably a gorgeous ride under clear skies." Well, it was. Gorgeous, and fast. I traverse the distance of just under 110 kilometers in just under 5 hours, door to door, including a useless stop at the Xiahe PICC (People's Insurance Corporation of China) for bus insurance (office closed; explanation upcoming), then hanging back for the first 5K making sure Emma's still queasy innards will make the journey, numerous stops for pictures of the valley, of monks standing outside their temples, of farmers harvesting their wheat by hand, and finally a couple or three stops for bing (ice cold) colas along the way. Twenty-two km/hr still stands as the fastest average speed I've posted this whole trip.

One of the great things about a cycling trip is all the personal time you get to mull things over. As Emma says, "Random thought, random thought--Ohh! Look at that!--Random thought." One of my random thoughts. "Just take the bus down to Lanzhou, you idiot!" Of course. Leave the bike in Linxia with Emma, take the bus down and back the same day. Lunch with Vivian and Martin. Em gets another day of rest, which she'll no doubt need. Perfect!

I check my watch. Hmmm. It's Friday. The PICC office in Linxia will probably close at 6 PM, but it could close as early as 5 PM. Check the odometer. Check the watch again. Check the speedometer. Hmmm. Better pick up the pace.

I don't mind the effort at all. Love speed.

Back at the Linxia Binguan I arrange another room. It's quarter to five PM and I manage to convey to the receptionist through my halting chinese and several references to the phrase guide, "I need bus insurance."

Yes, bus insurance. The Lonely Planet says:

A regulation requires foreigners who travel by public bus in Gansu to be insured with the People's Insurance Corporation of China (PICC), regardless of whether they have taken out their own travel insurance or not.... Travellers have managed to avoid paying insurance by showing someone else's papers or getting a Chinese person to buy it for them. Some buy the ticket on the bus itself, but drivers often demand a generous 'tip' for their compliance. Frankly, it's less hassle just to buy insurance and forget the whole thing.
Normally, I'd be half tempted to just show up without insurance and wrangle my way onto a bus. On the other hand, why invite hassle? Especially when you've got places to be, people to see?

"Aaah, yes," the receptionist says in Chinese, "you can get that here." Ahh, great, I think. I'll check in. Get the stuff in the room, have a shower, then come back and settle up the insurance. That was easy!

A couple hours later I'm sitting on the bed. Freshly washed. Knock-knock on the door. A hollow-eyed Emma. A deer in the headlights. Poor thing. The plan for tomorrow's looking better all the time. I let her settle in to a comfortable--prone--position.

"Please tell me I don't have to ride tomorrow?!" She groans.

"You don't have to ride tomorrow!"

She looks at me. That, "are you serious?" look. Either that or the headlights are very bright.

"I'll take the bus to Lanzhou in the morning and come back up in the afternoon," I tell her. Wanly, she smiles. Wan is about as full as she can manage.

She showers. We go out to dinner at this great Muslim place where we order "Jirou Sui Bian," which is how we got a great stewey pile of potatoes, chicken, red and green peppers, onions all slathered in a savoury gravy-like sauce the last time we ate in the restaurant. Different cook this time. He's not going for it.

"Sui bian" means "whatever you like." It's a favourite expression of mine and I've used it with mixed success at restaurants. "Jiding" is boneless diced chicken while "Jirou" is chopped chicken with the bone still in, so all I'm asking is for the cook to prepare a chicken dish for me, he can pick which way it is cooked. However, you have to be careful when ordering food this way. I had "Yanrou Sui Bian" once and all I got was a pile of cold, boiled mutton. The restaurateur came by a little later, and by her gestures and my somewhat lacking comprehension of spoken chinese, I figured out she was asking, "Do people from your country often eat a plateful of cold, chopped-up mutton?" I tried to convey the idea that, "Hey, I asked for mutton served any way you like, and you served I eat it." I'm not sure she got the picture.

Anyway, our cook's demanding something more definitive than "Jirou Sui Bian," so we dig out the phrase guide and go through the contents of the dish. A while later we get something similar to the miraculous original. And the pijiu is ice cold. Pijiu is beer. And it's cheaper than water.

Refreshed, rejuvenated and slightly inebriated, we make our way back to the hotel. Fortunately, I remember to go to the front desk for insurance. I'm lucky, the same woman's at reception. I ask about the insurance again, "gonggongqiche..." hoping the reference to bus will trigger her memory.

"Yes, you can get it at the PICC office on Dong Dajie tomorrow morning at 8 AM."
Well, not in so many english words, but I get the drift. Say what? "Jeige!?" I say, pointing at the counter. Literally, I'm saying, "This!" but it's often used in this other sense, for example when I'm asking directions. For example:
"Do I go this way to get to this town on the map?"

Response: "Jeige!"
Which means, "This!" or "You are already in this town." Sometimes I think of it as, "You are here!" No doubt inappropriate, but I sometimes use Jeige this way and so far everyone's caught my meaning. The woman behind the counter at the Linxia Binguan does.
"Bu, bu, bu: PICC."
Literally, "incorrect, incorrect, incorrect: PICC," but pretty much the same meaning as, "no, no, no: PICC." I decide not to get into it. "Xie-xie le."

10:14 Baiyinguolieng Binguan, Korla; Xinjiang--China :: WE 23 SEP 98

"Le" is useful. When plopped down at the end of a sentence it adds a note of finality. When ordering food, you might ask for three dishes, some rice, some beer and then say,

"Hao le."
Which is literally something like "good, done," or "good, enough," or "that'll be good enough". "Xie-xie le," is a simple way to politely end a conversation.

But DAMN! I was really hoping to be on a bus by 8 AM, not standing at an insurance office counter wrangling with paper work.

20:00 Baiyinguolieng Binguan, Korla; Xinjiang--China :: WE 23 SEP 98

In the morning I drag myself out of bed, pack a day bag and head on down to PICC. On the way there I check my watch, and realize it's Saturday...DOOH! Nobody opens at 8 AM on a Saturday! Of course, I'm right. I think it opens at nine. At least the indecipherable series of characters is followed by several columns of times and the one at the bottom indicates: 9:00--11:30. The preceding line must be Friday's and it indicates the office remained open until 6 PM.

I curse the receptionist. Loudly.

Several Chinese look my way. None of them understand english, of course, and I'm not worried about inadvertently shouting an actual word of chinese in anger since the 'tch' sound is found only at the beginning of a chinese syllable. Knowing I haven't offended anyone, I start walking to the bus station, considering my options.

I choose between them several times, which means walking back and forth on the same two blocks for about 20 minutes. Wait for the office to open; hassle my way onto a bus; wait for the office to open; hassle my way onto the bus. Meanwhile, I'm trying to figure out just where the bus station is. Directions given by other foreigners at the hotel indicated my back-and-forthing should have taken me past it two or three times by now.

Finally, I opt for risking the hassle, hop in a cab, say "gonggongqiche" and 2K down the road am dropped conveniently by the back entrance to the bus station. So conveniently, in fact, that a bus tout is haggling at me, "Lanzhou! Lanzhou!" before I've managed to pay the cab fare. He's trying to take my day pack while I'm digging around in pockets for one last kuai, so I have to repeatedly and firmly remove his hands from it.

Cab fare paid, I turn to the tout.

"Dui, Lanzhou. Dou xiao chen?" Correct, Lanzhou. How much?
There're buses rumbling their engines trying to get into and out of the narrow station entrance, blaring horns at the taxis dropping fares in their path, blaring horns at the touts still working at getting one more passenger for their bus. I'm not sure I hear him right but my tout says something like, "yi shi ba," which is the same fare I'd pay at the wicket. 18RMB. A little over two dollars US. Hmmmm.

I climb into the minibus, take one of the last remaining seats, and watch the show.

The tout vigorously works the crowd and the other seats are soon filled. But we're not leaving yet. Hmmm. A couple more clamber on board, are a little disappointed to find no more seats remaining but resign themselves to a stool placed in the aisle rendering it practically useless as a passageway. A third is not so easily resigned and the tout must physically bar the door to keep him from exiting. A small struggle ensues, some words exchanged--curses no doubt--some more pushing, but the tout will not relent. After three or four minutes the new passenger does, and with the glum complacency of a chastised puppy takes one of the proffered stools.


A couple more passengers and finally we begin rolling. At least as far as the gate where we're held up a good 15 minutes by a traffic epidemic combining pedestrians, mule carts, bicycles, fare-dropping cabs and buses arriving and those supposedly departing whose touts, including our own, aren't quite satisfied that their capacity has been exceeded.

Bicycling is, on the overall, if you've got the time, and the legs, a much more enjoyable means of travel.

Finally, a couple more passengers wedged in, we depart the station which is already on the outer reaches of town so before long we're into the countryside. I'm reconnoitering for the bike ride tomorrow, and also keeping an eye on the tout. I want to be prepared when he comes collecting fares. I don't have long to wait.

The young chinese fellow next to me hands him 18RMB. No change.

My turn.

I offer him two 10 RMB notes.

He quite seriously holds out four fingers. "Lanzhou. Si shi kuai." 40 RMB.

I return the look. "Yi shi ba." 18. He shakes is head, still holding up four fingers. "Si shi."

"Yi shi ba."

"Si shi."

I point at the fellow next to me. "Ta she yi shi ba..." Him 18... Deliberately point back at myself, "...wo yi shi ba." 18.

For the first time, the tout smiles, mischievously.

Pointing to my right: "Ta she Zhongguo ren..." He's Chinese...
Pointing at me: " Meiguo ren!" You're American!

I lean forward a bit.

"Bu! Jianada ren!"
Wrong! Canadian!

Then sit back. "Yi shi ba!"

I get a stream of chinese in reply ending, unsurprisingly, with...

"Si shi!"
I sigh theatrically. Yank another 10 RMB from my pocket and offer it along with the two he's so far refused to take.
"Er. Shi. Ba!" Twen-Ty-Eight.
After his performance barring the door, I'm not surprised at his adamance.
"Si shi!"
Stretch my arm, holding the cash closer to him.
"Er shi ba." "Si shi."
Lean forward.
"Er shi ba."
He knows I don't have insurance.
"Si shi."
I know he knows, and that he knows that as well.
"Er shi ba."
He takes the money.
"Si shi."
Now I've got him. Sit back.
"Er shi ba."
Not ready to give up yet.
"Si shi."
I point at the money in his hand. Shrug my shoulders. You shouldn't have taken it if it wasn't your final price.
"Er shi ba."
He waves at me in disgust.

I let him 'forget' to give me change.

Little victories.

The countryside rolls by, while I make mental notes the steepness and length of hill climbs, and the gloriously long descents. Busy little towns where we can get water, or bing koLA, or a little something to eat. Some mosques in one town, alongside the main road. I'll have time to investigate these while waiting for Emma.

We're still picking up the occasional passenger, though some are smart enough not to walk fully on board a crowded looking bus. These peer in the doorway, see an aisle full and back away, to the tout's utter frustration.

No one has gotten off.

We're nearing Lanzhou and after a steep, winding climb through a rocky gorge enter a surprisingly long--and steeply declining--tunnel. Labourers chip away at cracked tile. Looks like hell in here with all the dust and exhaust fumes, the yellow light dissipating quickly in the fog. And the concrete roadbed seems to be in worse shape the the walls these troglodytes are faced with reconditioning. This will not be any fun to cycle through, even with the favourable drop. We break out high on the side of a deep valley, and the descent, if anything, steepens.

Oooh! This. This WILL be fun!

We descend, and descend, snaking a consistently steep line that never seems to close on the valley floor. Ten or fifteen kilometers from the tunnel, the grade decreases somewhat but there's still no sign of the city and I know this range will drop right into the lap of Lanzhou. If Emma can make the tunnel tomorrow, we'll finish the last 40 kilometers or so on a precipitous glide home.

Finally, a cityscape emerges. The bus pulls into the west station and I take a cab across town to our meeting place. It's 11:30. I'm early.

The Master gives himself up
to whatever the moment brings.
He knows that he is going to die,
and he has nothing left to hold on to:
no illusions in his mind,
no resistances in his body.
He doesn't think about his actions;
they flow from the core of his being.
He holds nothing back from life;
therefore he is ready for death,
as a man is ready for sleep
after a good day's work.
  graphical element Attributed to Lao Tse
The Tao Te Ching
Chapter 50
trans. Stephen Mitchell