China by Bicycle :: April -- October '98

Subject: Abandon Ship!
Date: Wed, 05 Aug 1998 08:51:14 -0700

21:50 Yongjing; 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 their charges.

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 in town.

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 my inspection.

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.
  graphical element Attributed to Lao Tse
The Tao Te Ching
Chapter 31
trans. Stephen Mitchell