China by Bicycle :: April -- October '98

Subject: We used to dream of livin' in a corridor!
Date: Sat, 22 Aug 1998 10:23:51 -0700

23:59 Jiuquan Hotel, Jiuquan; Gansu--China :: TH 20 AUG 98

A corridor; a narrow passageway between two walls. On the left, to the south the Qilianshan, mountains rising hurriedly to their snowy rock peaks. Unassailable. Yes, a wall, articulate and resolute. On the right, to the north, sometimes mountains scattered in scattered ranges, a low wall, scalable, passable. Or a lesser desert, dunes rollicking in the distance. Low walls. But beyond these as sure a wall as any, though no visible barrier declares it, the Gobi. Fabled desert.

In Jiuquan the Bell Tower at the city's centre. Inscribed above four compass aligned arches:

North is the Great Desert (Gobi)

West is Yiwu (Hami) East is Huashan (beyond Xian)

South is Qilian Shan

The Hexi Corridor, east to west. The enduring road. Twenty centuries. A gunbarrel gauntlet.

Through these confining walls the greatest city of the East, Xian, traded goods and ideas, the concrete and tangible, the abstract and intangible, with the greatest cities of the West, Rome and Constantinople. Later, much later, the route passing through here would earn the name, Silk Road, but between the Qin and Tang dynasties one thousand years would pass and millions of camels would carry the wealth of nations from east to west and from west to east. Through this corridor Chinese armies stole into Central Asia or slunk back home. Buddha and Mohammed and Jesus Christ came through here, on the tongues of missionaries and in scrolls and books of sanskrit and other languages, some since long forgotten. The pious and fearful would pay tribute, hoping to purchase the favour of fate, and build temples and monuments, or scour caves from rock to fill with images of stone, clay and paint. And when China shut itself away from the world the Ming dynasty severed the highway at the corridor's narrowest point, Jiayuguan, Barrier of the Pleasant Valley, the western-most extent of the Ming Great Wall and the end of China's dominion.

Long before this the caravans would come and go for a thousand years, until European navigators could cross the great salt deserts. The Tang Dynasty, China's Renaissance in the first millenium after Christ, owes much of its greatness to the prosperity carried around the Taklamakan Basin on camels backs and in men's minds. Mankind's finest achievements passed through this corridor.

Such a wealth of cargo made the road itself wealthy, or at least a wealthy place to be. Towns sprung up in the oases amidst the green sipping up the glacial runoff. Where there was no water, irrigation. Where there was no irrigation, the camel's back. Until one traveller through the corridor would note, "upon leaving the gate of one town you can see the walls of the next."

And I cycle through this land today, hopping from Oasis to Oasis; stretches of desert between becoming longer and hotter with every pedal stroke westward. The towns are without walls, and sparsely spread. The rare camel forages at roadside though trucks rumble thickly through the radiant heat. Their westbound freight will likely remain within China, or if it is destined for lands beyond its value lies not in its fine craftsmanship, or the rarity of its materials, or the superiority of its technology. The value of China's goods today is bound to the cheapness of its labour.

But I am cycling, and these thoughts of history come helter skelter amid the ramblings of my mind. The Qilianshan, mighty peaks in their cloud shrouds. Slopes etched like crystal, jaggedly regular, sharp-angled. Across the desert the air flows south-west, uphill to the mountains. I see the eddies, the ripples, in the undulations of the parched land it roils over. To the north, far off, dunes ripple: the desert's most romantic image.

A VW Santana, China's most popular sedan, black of course. It passes the mirage, the impossible sight of foreigner, bicycle and trailer and, a half-kilometer later, comes to its senses. The occupants await my approach in its air-conditioned coolness then spring from the doors waving arms and cameras. "Pull aside, pull aside so we can take your picture with us!" I do not understand a word of their speech, but their intention is obvious. I laugh, gesticulate to the sun. "It's too hot!" The air is not cool, but moving through it cools. Pavement radiates warm jets. The sun bears down on an expanse like a gently sloping griddle. The Santanans continue beckoning. I pass them, "It's too hot! It's too hot!" In english. Insensible to them. I'll have to learn this phrase in Chinese, I think. I don't look back to see them take up the chase but in a few moments a black sedan rolls up, a blackened window rolls electrically down and an expensive camera protrudes. From inside, more beckoning. "Too hot! Too hot!" I cycle on. They settle for a photograph of a bemused, sun-burnt foreigner, eyes hidden under dark, dark lenses as he pedals like the madman he must be to think crossing this unmerciful landscape is fun.

A grand alluvial fan slopes down from the Qilian Shan. Each flood chooses the steepest path to valley floor, depositing rock and sediment until all paths are equal. No oasis here, only the sweeping, mathematical curve of parched land awaiting the next flood. The road climbs gently around the fan's base, cutting zig-zag westerly, now north-westerly, now westerly again and northwesterly. Telephone poles and high tension towers run ramrod straight and I cross under a sizzling flow of electricity like the mental image of frying eggs on hot pavement that sucks at my tires.

An hour of this then, on a northwesterly jog, the tall green trees of an oasis peep over the sloping horizon, the potential of their cool shade shimmering in the heat above the kilometers of intervening desert. But the highway jags westerly again and the potential remains just that while the sun swings past its zenith. I pedal, and pedal, hear the crosswind, watch the red-ribbon attached to the handlebar to judge its direction, and my pace against it.

Finally, an unseemly pair of buildings, parched and dust-beaten. Inside one open doorway half-empty shelves of boxes and bottles. I turn back, park the bicycle under the double-sloped tin roof sun-break in front, then head for the open doorway. The sun pummels the exterior walls and they cast off a radiant heat, but inside a cool breeze courses through an open back door and out the front. I ask for two Jian Li Bao, Chinese gatorade, then greedily slurp back the warm soft drink before bothering to check out the room's inhabitants.

Five Chinese men sit quietly on simple wooden stools. They offer me one but I point to the bike, slap my bottom and shake my hand, "No thanks." The cool moving air is delightful. They are waiting, waiting out the early-afternoon heat. Outside, the sun beats down, begins to take aim at the windows, seeking a path into the coolness within. I finish the second can and head back out into the desert, into the sun, quickly moving under the protection of weather-beaten tin.

There's an enduring image of the desert and now that I've experienced it on three continents I wonder if it's not universal. Here, the wind rustles and whispers around the tin and through the saplings struggling by roadside, their days as shade trees a sucker's bet. Somewhere a rusty hinge resists the insistent tug of a swinging sign or door. Forlorn. There is nothing else to hear but your own footsteps crunching through dusty gravel, amplified by the silent land.

But also, because there is so little else, the desert offers an opportunity. Scarcity, paucity, spareness, the clutter of life in the vivacious wetness removed. What is left? The desert is a place of seeking for those who would seek, introspection. Those who patiently look and listen find a grand, vibrant variety, in the desert and themselves.

If you know me, or you have read my other travels, then perhaps you know this already: I love the desert. I have skittered and trundled across great expanses in Australia and the American Southwest, like an ant skitters and trundles across a playground sandbox. I feel small and vulnerable in these places, and as if something much larger than I, more significant than I, is at work. Something as exuberant and guiltless and artfully devious as the child who notices the ant in the sandbox. Murphy must have loved the desert too.

In Lanzhou, for the second time, after Xiahe, we began preparing for the desert, the great expanses we'll find in Xinjiang, beyond the Hexi Corridor. We made saddle bags to carry the two four litre water bags Emma brought from Korea. They are a marvel of execution, despite the deficient craftsmanship of the cobbler who stitched them together for us: water bags held firmly to the rack.

But on the trial run in the field, a broken spoke. Some combination of additional weight (water is massive!), bumpy off-road terrain in search of a campsite and 3,000 kilometers of preceding usage. Compounding the problem, the break goes unnoticed through 120 kilometers of the next day's ride, weakening other spokes no doubt. Again, compounding, in the course of removing the cogset to replace the broken spoke, I damage the hub so that ball bearings no longer race freely around the axle: now, an annoying, debilitating and, eventually--inevitably--destructive moment of friction on every revolution.

Back home, no problem money could not resolve in the next big town. Here, in China, land of a bizillion bicycles, the nearest replacement is perhaps 2,000 kilometers away, in the opposite direction, in Beijing.

The next day's ride, another spoke breaks. I ignore the subtle, intermittent but now recognizably tell-tale twanging. "It's just the trailer rocking on its hitch," I think and don't investigate for kilometer after kilometer. At least this time replacement is easy.

And so, between the rumbling trucks, and over the whine of hot tires on hot pavement, and above the whispering air, I listen. Are the spokes twanging? Stop and squeeze each pair...tension seems right, none broken. Nothing yet from the hub, no screaming bearings. I want to cross the desert surrounding Hami. I want my reliable bicycle back, or would gladly pay dearly for a replacement hub, but there's nothing to do now but listen and hope the desert ends before the inevitable sound of failure arrives.

Emma's bike is a collection of creaks and screams. I don't know how she can stand it. I listen for every sound, trying to know what it is so I can eliminate it. I tell her, "when you buy a new bicycle, memorize how it sounds. Whenever it sounds different, do whatever it takes to make it sound new again." New sounds are a sign of age, of wear, of something out of joint. They rarely go away on their own and the problem causing them usually gets worse to the point of failure.

A while ago, early in this trip, it seemed my left pedal developed an intermittent squeak. I did nothing. The squeek grew louder, more periodic. An email to my bike shop back home brought a quick response, "it could be a loose crank, which you should check and tighten if necessary right away or you'll round the crank.... That would be bad." Well, "bad" meant replacing the crank, (the long piece of metal connected to the pedal). Fortunately, I was in Beijing when this happened, so it was not necessary to FedEx a new one in from Canada.

All these thoughts about my equipment run through my mind, interspersed with bits of history as the Great Wall comes into view, running along the corridor like a river on edge. I listen for a bit, then let the landscape lead me elsewhere. On a delicious descent, I count the meters between crumbling beacon towers with the cyclometer, 500 to 700. I wonder about the men who dug the wells, then dug up the earth, ramming down moistened layers between molds up to 8 meters high. Molds removed, the sun baked the earth to stone. Is it 5,000 kilometers from Jiayuguan to the shoreline east of Beijing? And this, I think, back when Europe was sunk in the dark ages, the 1300's, the early Ming Dynasty.

A wall is only as good as the soldiers defending it, so I wonder too about the men garrisoned here. A bulge in the wall. A squared enclosure, one edge tangent to 5,000 kilometers of wall. Were men barracked here? Atop the foothills of the Qilian Shan, beacon towers, and also on the peaks of the smaller Langshou Shan range to the north. Yes, a garrison. I imagine a barbarian tribe. Mongols or, long before the Ming when the wall was longer though less imposing, when the Xiongnu posed the chief threat to Chinese rule.

But all the history I've read says the western reaches of the Ming wall were never tested. They seem to imply that the wall was unnecessary. Is there no better indication of a wall's impregnability than the fact that no would-be conqueror chooses to test it?

Genghis Khan breached the Great Wall. I've heard he simply bribed the guards. A wall is only so strong as the men who defend it.

I forget the landscape for a while. Genghis Khan invaded China, conquered the whole thing and so began the Yuan Dynasty. I guess that would have made China a puppet state of the Mongol empire. His grandson, Kublai Khan sat upon the throne in Beijing and the Polo family awaited his orders for a year in Zhangye a couple hundred kilometers west in the Corridor from the place I had this thought but now a couple hundred kilometers east from my typing it up here in Jiuquan. Apparently, many Han Chinese, the majority nationality of China, don't like to think their country has ever come under the rule of foreigners, so the Mongol Yuan Dynasty and the Manchu Qing Dynasty are typically referred to as rule by "minority nationality," a blanket term for all the non-Han Chinese living within China's borders.

The countryside here is fabulous, in this constricted passage between mountain ranges. The jagged, broken wall of rammed earth frolicks along the valley floor, the crumbling work of man squarely mimicking in form the saw-tooth ridgeline of the Langshou Shan. I stop for a picture, hoping the little white dots of sheep grazing on the lower slopes will be visible as sheep in the photo and not seem like so many specks of dust on the film.

A little further on a small group of men huddle amongst a small flock of sheep. Beyond them, the Qilian Shan's mane of clouds casts sharp shadows on angular slopes. Off the bike again, camera ready. The herdsman approaches as his sheep shy away. I motion to him, to the camera; "Can I take your picture?" He shakes his hand, "No."

The Chinese don't shake or nod their heads in the negative and affirmative. "No" is an upraised hand shaken side to side. Now that I'm thinking of it, I'm not sure what the gesture for "yes" is.

The 35mm lens rarely leaves the camera. I point it at the sheep, at the mountain. The shepherd crouches to my right in his rough wool felt cape, a small whip held in the hand emerging at his shoulder. The shepherd in the extreme right of the viewfinder, looking into the camera, his crooked, stained teeth exposed in a subtle grin. The moment is right when one of the other men, in a brilliant purple double-breasted jacket, walks toward us and fills the viewfinder above and behind the shepherd's shoulder. I know neither of them realize they're in the camera's field of vision. I do something I never do: I take the shot. I don't feel very guilty.

I leave the shepherd and his companions to their mild dry land and cycle on toward the hot dry and the Oases further west. Further east, now days behind us, the Hexi Corridor began. I'm not certain where cartographers place it, but I'd say Gulang, 60km east of Wuwei, demarks the striking change in geology. From Lanzhou we climbed out of the Yellow River valley up one of its tributary valleys. Nearly two full days of steady climbing upriver in mixed conditions, including a powerful, soaking thunderstorm on the second day. The valley itself offered mixed geologies and microclimates from lush farmland or grassland to sections of arridity and sedimentary geology mindful of northern Arizona's Painted Desert.

But for the first day out of Lanzhou it was like riding through China's version of a central New Jersey commercial strip. A narrow roadway through uninvitingly shabby towns combined with constant rumbling trucks along with their blaring klaxxons and choking exhaust. Uggh.

But the further we withdrew from Lanzhou's ecomonic grasp, the more peaceful the countryside and roadway. Even the miserably wet and cold weather of the second afternoon was enjoyable in comparison to the previous day's ride. Besides, under the cool grey cloak of the sky the rolling grassland promised, "I am beautiful; wait and see."

Late in the afternoon, up valley, a break in the clouds racing our way. We climbed and climbed to meet it, then turned up the valley's side to a break in the ridgeline. A short, steep climb. Two kilometers straight up the slope to the gap.

Small mobile villages of Tibetan tents in their summer whites with blue trim. And the first sections of old crumbling Great Wall. Earlier than Ming, I think. It crossed the valley and in the brightening sunshine I looked back to see it. Breathtaking. From the gently rolling grassland hillsides erupted rocky sawteeth, and leading up to them a serpentine wall of rammed earth, the tell-tale scoop of earth to one side accentuates the wall's height.

Then the top, the pass, and on the other side. I took no photographs knowing film could not do justice. I think words will not either. Burgeoning mountains obscured by shadows of clinging clouds sparkling yellow in sunshine's late-day radiance; rich green grass, vibrant, on foothills amid the darker shade of evergreen glades rising to mountain slopes. See deep, deep down, villages and the weaving road.

Two days of difficult, miserably soggy ride, and this to even the score.

A long, long descent into Gulang, the city itself a reminder of the New Jersey landscape, though unable to displace the warmth of the perfect valley.

From Gulang the valley opened and opened until, by Wuwei, there seemed to be no more valley, only the Qilian Shan rising obliquely from the plain. From there the seamless farmland become increasingly broken into stretches of grassland, then grassland broken by scrubland, then scrubland broken by desert and oasis. And here we are, in Jiuquan.

A rather abrupt and awkward way to end this post, but it's very late (or, rather, early at 4:13AM), and the post is already very long (perhaps too long to pass my own 20K email filter) and I've just plain run out of things to say...

~~~ Responses Appreciated ~~~

She who is centered in the Tao
can go where she wishes, without danger.
She perceives the universal harmony,
even amid great pain,
because she has found peace in her heart.

Music or the smell of good cooking
may make people stop and enjoy.
But words that point to the Tao
seem monotonous and without flavor.
When you look for it, there is nothing to see.
When you listen for it, there is nothing to hear.
When you use it, it is inexhaustible.

  graphical element Attributed to Lao Tse
The Tao Te Ching
Chapter 35
trans. Stephen Mitchell

"The ocean is a desert with its life underground
And the perfect disguise up above."

  graphical element America
from Horse With No Name.