China by Bicycle :: April -- October '98

Subject: Getting to Xiahe
Date: Thu, 20 Aug 1998 08:32:45 -0700

Gulang Binguan, Gulang; Gansu--China :: FR 14 AUG 98

We rise early in Linxia. One hundred and ten kilometers of climb await us. Emma will push hard for seventy kilometers and take a bus for the final climb into Xiahe. We're not sure how steep this climb will get, but we're pretty sure the turn off the main valley at 70K will become steep enough to end her day. We figure we're somewhat shy of 2,000 meters of elevation and Xiahe quite firmly resides at 3,000 meters. A long climb, we're sure. Perhaps 75% of our weight is stored with the hotel. Light as possible.

We check out into a grey coolness, cycling out of Linxia looking for breakfast. While noiselessly gobbling up our tangmian and mantou (noodle soup --which the natives heartily slurp, showing their approval to the cook--and steamed bread), the morning's scattered raindrops coalesce, the pavement blackens, reflects the cars and bicycles, the pedestrians and umbrellas. That white noise sound of tires on soaked asphalt. SSSHHHH, sssSSSSHHHhh.

Emma rides ahead into the light rain while I batten down the hatches. "Don't wait for me. I'll catch up." Rain jacket; glasses with the clear lens; rain booties; a hotel shower cap protects the top zippers on the rear rack bag. My rear fender broken off while loading the bike on the bus roof rack when making my way from Yan'an to Xi'an. Missing it now. Something will have to be done. For now only some plastic tarp to protect the trailer bag. Not enough, I know. Then, into the rain.

I've cycled nearly three thousand kilometers in China. Unfathomably lucky, I've been. Not a single day dominated by rain. A few brief showers, an afternoon of light drizzle. Today I will be drenched. Today I'll wish I bought the optional detachable hood for the rain jacket. Today I'll wonder if anyone will ever invent a breathable fabric which won't soak through.

By the time I catch up to Emma, about 15K later, my feet remain warm and dry and water still runs off my jacket. I'm pumping at about 18 to 20K per hour and slow to match Emma's 15 to 16K. We chat, briefly. She says she'll try to maintain this pace. I tell her she has all day to cover the 70K and so a slower speed would be sufficient, however, if she wants to push her limits, 16K would be a good test. For the first few days' ride from Xian, she couldn't maintain much more than 12K on the flats let alone 16K on a relentless though mild climb.

"Don't wait for me," she says. I pedal off. The trip meter reads 15K. 95 to go.

An image, indelibly stamped. Head down, arms stretched to reach hands high on the love handles, pumping, pumping; in the wet-mirror pavement the silhouette. A little superman, a little hammerhead shark, a little science fiction flying machine. I cut through the rain. Only the white noise of tires and my breathing.

My breathing: always a short melody repeated. Usually, just some random collection of notes endlessly round. Once, climbing to a high mountain pass while a storm crept up from behind, a song by a Canadian group called Rush:

Bruised and sullen storm clouds
Hover light of day obscured.
Looming low and ominous
In twilight premature,
Oh thunderheads are rumbling
In a distant overture.
On other days other songs, appropriate to whatever's running through my head, or what's happening outside it.

Today, a Steve Miller instrumental from the album Book of Dreams. Don't recall the name. [NOTE: turns out it's Babes in the Wood] A pair of two bar phrases. Usually the first phrase, round and round. Sometimes the second follows. No reason. It just does.

I think about Emma and her Lamaze breathing. A deep breath in and two shallow exhales in quick repetition. I think about this because this Book of Dreams tune happens to create this Lamaze rhythm. I think some more and realize I often fall into this pattern quite naturally when stretching my endurance. Interesting.

A long ride. Your mind wanders through random territory. Rain like this. Stopping in the open is no fun. You're rolling. Relentless climb. Relentless rain. Get it done with. A muslim cafe. Covered tables outside. Tea pots. Babaocha; eight treasure tea: delightful sweet and fruity. But you're soaked through now, and it's cool. Shiver at the thought of stopping. Ride, ride. Get it done.

Clouds and grey air thick with rain pellets obscures the valley. This would be a pretty ride, I think, on another day. Still that relentless 3% grade. Climbing, climbing. Below me on the pavement, superman or Buck Rogers cuts through space. A manta ray, not a hammerhead. That graceful flight with the love handles like a rays' twin scoops. Head down. Breathing, breathing to Steve Miller. Still the rain falls steadily.

At 60K it's too much. Tibetan faces, and Muslim faces and Han Chinese faces--all surprised faces--watch from the dry warmth of their doorjambs as the yellow contraption glides through town on whiteness tires. Too much. Fingers wrinkled. Hair matted and dripping. Spirit sagging. A fandian, a restaurant, with a wide, sheltering verandah for the bike. At the end of town. I pull off, scramble off the bike and through the doors, already stripping off gloves then jacket.

"Tangmian?" One man in the restaurant. "You," which is literally something like "have," but means to me, "Yes, I can serve you some noodle soup." I'm hanging gloves and jacket from door handles and add to my order: "Cha!" Tea! He smiles from the kitchen, and waves me in.

Chinese kitchens. Typically, a pair of large, covered woks sunken into a counter top. Beneath them wood or charcoal or coal burns a bright orange. Water vapour trickles from the edges. For boiling water. For noodles of rice, or egg, or wheat. Or jiaozi, the little wrapped dumplings with such a variety of fillings. Another pair of fires burns in a second stove. A bright flame kicks up with a mild roar, streaming through a small round hole in the stovetop. Here for frying. For searing meat and vegetables.

He motions me to this stove, my benefactor, my saviour, holds his hands before the flame in a gesture everyone knows: come warm yourself by the fire. Ahhh. Heat. Long, lanky, dark with a face warm as the hearth, he hands me some tea. Warming inside and out.

He disappears for a little while, leaving me to the marvelous warm/dry and tea for a spell before returning with a stool. We sit by the woks, stoking the fire beneath them, bringing the water to boil. Rivulets of vapour rise from my shirt and shorts. Warming. Drying. We talk about where I am from, how long I've been in China, where I've been and where I am going, that my friend is following behind somewhere but will probably only cycle 70 km today and bus the remainder.

19:52 Bei Dajie street bar, Zhangye; Gansu--China :: TU 18 AUG 98

After a while a few locals wander in, all men, one in a Police uniform. This is a popular fashion nowadays. Everybody's wearing Gong An shirts and vests, insignia and all, so it can be difficult to pick out actual officers. In any case, it's through the whole story again, to everyone's delight. Questions flying from all sides. Perhaps the uniformed fellow is genuine after; my benefactor cedes his stove side stool to the man. Or perhaps this is only a kindness to the most inquisitive of the lot.

I've recapped the itinerary up to about Pingyao when another local excitedly enters the kitchen, speaking no words I can understand except 'pengyou,' friend. It takes a few minutes to sort out that he's saying Emma has just cycled by the restaurant.

"Pengyou qu Xiahe!" he repeats.

"Wo pengyou ma," my friend? I ask.

"Dui, dui, dui!" Yes, yes, yes!
I pull the sleeve of my shirt.
"Huang ma!" Meaning, "she's wearing a yellow jacket?!"

"Dui, dui, dui!"
I'm impressed and let it register on my face. "Hao la!" That's great! And give a big thumbs up. The tangmian's almost ready. At the pace Emma's set for herself, it'd take me ten kilometers to make up the lost minutes. I'm waiting for the tangmian.

It's good. Thick with noodles and slices of meat. Plain steamed bread tastes mighty fine dipped in the spicy broth. The locals leave me to my food and I hear mah jong tiles being mixed in the dining room. Not a bad way to spend a rainy afternoon, I think, between mouthfuls.

My benefactor's back, on his stove side stool. We exchange a few words. He's looking through the phrase book. I sometimes use it as a ploy to earn some private time while eating a meal. Having a roomful or streetful of eager, curious Chinese watching you eat can be somewhat disconcerting, even after a few months of getting used to it. Often it's enough just to plop the phrase book on the table after using it to order. Someone will pick it up and thumb through it until they find a question they'd like to ask. They show me the book, pointing to the question and sometimes trying to read the english translation. I either reply in my minimalist chinese or point to the appropriate answer in the book. Everyone smiles and nods appreciatively and the person with the book busies themselves with finding another question while everyone else chatters amongst themselves about my response. I've got time for a few more mouthfuls while in a state of virtual solitude.

My benefactor finds the question, "How old are you?" "San shi qi," I reply. Thirty seven. I turn the question back on him, "Er shi jiu," he says. Twenty nine, the same as Emma. I tell him that, "Wo pengyou er shi jiu." And he smiles.

I rarely finish a whole bowl of tangmian. Don't know why. I just run out of steam. About half way through I ask for the phrase book and find the expressions for, "That was delicious!" and "I'm full." Can't seem to keep these in my vocabulary. I stand up, between the two small fires and the kind man that have so warmed my soul on this wet dreary day. "Hao, hao la. Xie xie." He just smiles and follows me out to the dining room where my wet things are still wet and hanging all about.

Getting into them, the gloves and booties and jacket, and rearranging the bike to try and keep some of the rain out of my baggage, is less of a chore than actually pulling out from under the dry harbour of the restaurant's verandah. I wave good-bye, "Zai jian!" See you later, though I think I'll never see him again. "Bye-bye!" he replies.

By now, Emma's got more than a half hour on me. At the restaurant, they told me the turn off to Xiahe was 13 km away, approximately the 73 km mark for the day, Emma's target destination before hopping the bus. She must be keeping to that 15 km/hr pace--passing me just a half hour into my stop, which means she's already more than halfway there and I'd have to crank out better than 30 km/hr uphill to catch her. Yeah, right. I slip back into the 18 to 22 km/hr climbing pace used so far.

I'm thinking, head down watching superman in the pavement below. I'm thinking this grade is easier than I'd expected, much easier. Thinking that maybe Em will have something left and try for Xiahe. Hoping. With 3,000+ kilometers to Kashgar, we've got to start picking up the daily pace. I'm working out in my head how many days of riding we'll have to do riding at our current 60 km/day. It's not pretty. Over two and a half months to go and almost all of it spent in the saddle, pedaling and not getting very far. I'm hoping Em will dig deep...and find something in herself.

And I'm thinking, wow, this valley must be magnificent on a bright sunny day.

And I'm thinking, ugh, am I wet.

Before long, the turnoff to Xiahe. No Emma in sight. I try to think back how many buses have passed this way.

23:13 Ganzhou Hotel, Zhangye; Gansu--China :: WE 19 AUG 98

This is the road to Xiahe. Familiar in the way trees line its course. In the wet pavement my manta ray shadow flies through the overhanging branches. I'm doing about 20k/hr. The same pace since departing Linxia five hours ago. Legs pumping and pumping. The valley is narrower, its sides steeper, but the floor rises at the same mild climb rate.

I'm thinking maybe Emma's still cycling. I hope so.

The climb is shallow, but nonetheless unrelenting. And the rain too. I'm soaked throug and through, stop on a bridge for a drink and a gorp. Hmmm. 10km down, 25 to go. Pedalling and climbing and still now sign of Emma. I'm thinking maybe she's on a bus. Climbing and climbing against the river's flow. I cross it again. Another break. Hmmm. 20km down, 15 to go.

I've seen pictures of Xiahe. It looked dry, parched, as if rain rarely if ever fell. But this valley is green and lush. One of my guidebooks described Xiahe as a 'dusty little town.' Perhaps the valley curves at some point, acts as a rain barrier. I draw nearer. The rain continues. Only the climb is as relentless.

A truck passes by, two blond heads in the cargo bay. "Hey! How are you doing!" I hear. Westerners. "Great!" I reply as ironically as possible. And they are gone.

The valley narrows further, green, lush. Valley walls rise steeply into the low, grey ceiling. I wonder how much higher the mountains are. Impressions of coastal British Columbia, home...until a porcelain stupa disrupts the illusion.

And still climbing. A small village. Eyes follow me from under the warm dry protection of tiled and earthen rooves. Faces, so many faces. People on the road. Cycling, walking, on mule carts, or just resting beneath the cover of trees. Never more than a kilometer without some visible soul. Old men and women, couples, someone waiting for the next bus, small groups of labourers, and children, everywhere children. The most beautiful children. Soil and ruffle juxtapose warm wide smiles and bright engaging eyes.

But no Emma. Ten kilometers to Xiahe. The bus, I think. Or she pedals like a madwoman today. The latter, I hope. Rainy days are good days to duck your head down and just spin.

The valley opens up, walls dip low, peeking out below the ceiling of cloud. A Tibetan monastery, unmistakeable with its bands of rusts and browns and white circles, its flat earthen rooves and gold-capped spires. It rests in the craw of a side valley where temples and prayer halls climb the shallow slope.

Were it not for the rain, farmers would be in the fields harvesting ripened wheat, a golden spread of honey on the valley floor. And I notice the rain has stopped. A sliver of blue in the clouds. Five kilometers to Xiahe. Emma. The Bus.

Traffic thickens. A couple forks in the road, though the path to Xiahe remains obvious. A greeting sign: "Welcome to Xiahe" or something, in english, chinese and tibetan. A strip of small buildings. The edge of town. Now coalescing, gathering up like a big breath before the deep dive. Street crowded with pedestrians, bicycles, taxis on three wheels and four, with pedals and engines. Horns, congestion, coal smoke tickles my throat, coaxing a cough. One eye on the burgeoning town, the other steering me through it. Shops and restaurants below and residential above. Banks in their ubiquitous white tile, a government office in communist yellow. And the odd bus station, though now I can't recall what seemed so odd about it. Brown tile?

Sunshine seeks breaks in the clouds, slithers between to illuminate in bright green the shallow, grassy slopes of the north valley and the rutty, rocky slopes of the steeper south. A wide band opens up across the city. Ahhh, sunshine in the late afternoon. And in it, a yellow jacket ahead. Riding a bicycle.

It must have taken a while to unload and reload the bike. Or perhaps she made it afterall? I ride up quietly behind, pull alongside while she's looking away. I resist the urge to say, "Fancy meeting you here." Instead, when she turns to the left there's my grinning face. "Fancy meeting you here," she says.

She asks where I've come from, whether I've already been to the hotel. I smile back. She's quizzical. "You're just getting here?" I raise my eyebrows. "I beat you?!?" I finally respond. "Yep."

As we ride to the opposite end of town, looking for the guide-recommended hotel I explain about the restaurant, the fire, the tangmian and the yellow-jacketed pengyou who rode by. She's jubilant. "I can't believe I beat you!"

She rode without long breaks, a few brief stops just to get off the saddle, munch some gorp, take a breather. One hundred and fourteen kilometers, uphill at a brisk 13km/hr average pace. I figured she had it in her.

The beautiful Labuleng Hotel has no vacancy for two tired and wet cyclists. If Xiahe were another ten kilometers further up the road, she could probably will her body to make it. But she's used it all up. Psychologically, with the destination achieved, she already flushed her reserves. Fortunately, it's downhill back into town and we coast into one of the standard chinese hotels. We check-in and flop down in the room to wait for the hot water to come on so we can soak in the warmth of beauties and victories while forget the soaking chill of the rain.

~~~ Responses Please ~~~
The great Tao flows everywhere.
All things are born from it,
yet it doesn't create them.
It pours itself into its work,
yet it makes no claim.
It nourishes infinite worlds,
yet it doesn't hold on to them.
Since it is merged with all things
and hidden in their hearts,
it can be called humble.
Since all things vanish into it
and it alone endures,
it can be called great.
It isn't aware of its greatness;
thus it is truly great.
  graphical element Attributed to Lao Tse
The Tao Te Ching
Chapter 34
trans. Stephen Mitchell