China by Bicycle :: April - October, 1998

Subject: Seeking harmony in the Middle Kingdom
Date: Fri, 10 Apr 1998 08:53:58 -0700

01:10 Nan Lin Hotel; Suzhou :: 10 APR 98

Ooy! My legs are stiff. Over 100 kilometers between Shanghai and Suzhou, all by bike. You know, I've never cycled this far in one day. And Jay, despite his nearly complete lack of training for this trip, is in better shape for it than I. He's burning up the road at a clip a good 5K/hr faster than my training speed. What a workout.

But worth it. The guidebook we're using suggested spending the night in Kunshan, about 40K back down the road. A very pretty little town. Actually, the first pretty little town we'd yet seen. However, Suzhou (pronounce: Sue-Joe), is equally pretty in parts though much, much larger. Along with Hangzhou (Hong-Joe) it was considered one of the two most beautiful cities in China. The real bonus to Suzhou was finding the Nan Lin. We've got an absolutely sumptuous double at 200 Yuan (8.26 Yuan to the US dollar). Jay was asking, "Where's the soap?" I pulled out a box from the display of complementary bathroom items including combs, toothbrushes, shampoo, bubble bath. "Don't stay in fine hotels much, do ya Jay?" Motel 6 it ain't.

But I'm getting ahead of the story.

We left Hong Kong in hard sleeper class. It's not as bad as it sounds. Each compartment contains 6 bunks and each has the firmness of a brand new futon with plenty of foam. Stiff, but not the wooden slats one might expect if they've recently travelled by train in, say, India. I happen to like sleeping on futons and later that night I'd get a great sleep.

One of my guidebooks wrote on its first page something to the effect of "The information in this book is undoubtedly wrong." China's on the move, a fact that is easily apprehensible in just the first few hours of entering it. The guidebooks say, "it's almost impossible to get bicycles into the country by train." In fact, it couldn't have been easier, and more secure. Guidebook says, "China runs on dual currency, and dual pricing: one for the Chinese and one for foreigners; expect to pay two to four times the going rate if you don't at least look Chinese." So far, the only time we've been noticeably overcharged was in a Hong Kong restaurant which graciously supplied an English-language menu including somewhat embellished prices. Just to make sure the slight didn't go unnoticed, we were charged an additional 10% at the register when paying the bill. Grrr.

The FEC (Foreign Exchange Certificates, I think) have been completely abolished so that foreigners and Chinese all pay with Yuan. Quite a few other little niggly changes but I'll cover these if the context of future entries ever begs it.

6:52 Nan Lin Hotel; Suzhou :: 10 APR 98

It's impossible to enter a country for the first time without expectations. We have images in our mind from high school geography classes, from the evening news, from novels and films. And in the case of China, there will be the inevitable comparisons to the verve and colour, the aesthetic of the ornate found in all the China Town's across the west. I'm thinking specifically of several blocks of the orient plunked down in Vancouver's East Side.

I'm not certain this exported reality was ever true of China herself. Perhaps it is as Chinese as sweet and sour pork, a concoction for the sweet-tooth westerner diners. The rural countryside offers little indication of it. On a train bound for Shanghai, mile after mile of farmland passes by. "Abject simplicity," I tell Jay. In the buildings here seems no attention to beauty, aesthetic appeal, or harmony. Harmony, the lack of harmony is most difficult to understand. If nothing else, the Chinese 'science' of Feng Shui can be thought of as the art of harmonious design. In Hong Kong, I know that rarely is a building erected without design approval of a Feng Shui master. The landmark Bank of Hong Kong tower is one example in a cityscape of hundreds.

Harmony, a central tenet to oriental philosophies: Taoism, Confucianism. Yin and Yang; the balance between opposites. On the train I am scrunched up in the narrow fold-down seat opposite our compartment, leaning on the even narrower table below the window through which the countryside rolls by. Looking for harmony and finding none of it in the squarely angular concrete and brick construction. The forms resemble those of apartment rows the world over, except here the rows are broken, jumbled and many of the apartments remain unfinished, though tenants moved in long ago. (There are a roof and four walls; openings ready for windows and doors; balconies waiting for railing to be installed.) Architectural lines seek alignment from one building to the next but lead instead into open space or oblique intersection. A building stands alone and at a disjointed angle to a pair of rows nearby. Two of its blank, windowless walls await the adjoining apartments which neither space nor alignment will permit. A thought has been begun but can lead nowhere.

What confounds most of all is the stark contrast to the countryside itself. It is also a man-made construction of fields--plots, really, no larger usually than a suburban lot. Here the raised earth dividing plots undulates and weaves a mondrian pattern, no two plots alike and each filled with a different pattern. The smooth green velour of a mature rice paddy or spikey rows of newly planted rice jutting from a muddy brown pool; furrowed lines of vegetables; colourful fills of yellow mustard and purple clover. Here the beauty is abundant, well-tended, probably not with an eye to the aesthetic of beauty itself but to the implicit harmony of the organic. That or it's simply a triumph of green and bright colours over the buildings' drab, grimy concrete greys and muted red-earth brick; a victory of the farmer's care and attention to their crops over the rubble-strewn yards of the village.

As night fell and the countryside disappeared into inky blackness, I wondered why such a contrast.

~~~ Responses Sought ~~~

If you overesteem great men,
people become powerless.
If you overvalue possessions,
people begin to steal.

The Master leads
by emptying people's minds
and filling their cores,
by weakening their ambition
and roughening their resolve.
He helps people lose everything
they know, everything they desire,
and creates confusion
in those who think that they know.

Practice not-doing,
and everything will fall into place.

  graphical element Attributed to Lao Tse
The Tao Te Ching
trans. Stephen Mitchell