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Archive for October, 2007

In the bike shop again

Monday, October 29th, 2007

“Where did you get this Arab from?” asked the bemoled man with the fierce eye brows of a Buddhist demon sitting behind a desk.  “What are you talking about?” exasperatedly questioned Ms. Wang, who had brought me into the realm of this man in search of the bike mechanic.  “It’s their religion,” argued the man behind the fierce eye brows, “they grow the beards in accordance with their faith.  Just look at Bin Laden.”  “Bin Laden is dead,” Ms. Wang tried to kill this strain of the conversation.  “He’s from the U.S.,” she continued.  “Well, I don’t know about Bin Laden,” said the man, who’s name was Yu, and he stood up from behind his desk.

Ms. Wang was the serious, thoughtful woman I’d encountered in the adjacent bike shop while shopping for a top front rack.  She had asked about our journey so far.  I explained our purpose, our route, and inquired if she or her associates ever went bike touring.  “To go bike touring you need time,” she said, “we just never have a chance.”  I concurred.

“This area is quite poor,” she continued, reflecting the sentiment many Chinese have towards any town that is not Shenzhen, Shanghai, or Beijing.  But Ms. Wang said more.  She talked about how Chinese people liked peace,  and that even if people were poor, at least they had enough to eat.  “All we want is a peaceful society,” she said.  “Peace is everything.”  She continued in this vein for some time.  I occasionally tried to clarify, but eventually the only thing to do was to curse my lack of Chinese proficiency.   Her conversation style was remarkable for it’s openness and seriousness, and for the fact that she did not repeat often touted sentiments with the same phrases I’ve come used to hearing.

Eventually she convinced me to allow one of her employees take a look at my bike.  We went to find the bike mechanics, who were repairing bikes in front of Mr. Yu’s desk.  She had one of them fix my bike while Mr. Yu, having established that I was not Bin Laden, explained the various types of pottery available for my viewing and purchase in the “World Famous Pottery City” of Jingdezhen.  “Pottery isn’t easily transportable by bike,” advised Ms. Wang, “but you could look at it.”  “Yes,” agreed Mr. Yu, and after I’d explained that I’d looked at many pottery pictures, he assured me the pictures weren’t nearly as pretty as the real thing.

“She’s the big boss,” said the well-groomed Mr. Yu, gesturing at the informally but stylish Ms. Wang.  “Because she had the money to start the business, just like it is overseas,” he informed me.  Ms. Wang stiffened and her tone sharpened.  “Not necessarily,” she snapped, “In other countries employees can sometimes work to become the boss, too”, she concluded, leaving her slightly ambiguous statement open for interpretation.  Mr. Yu retreated behind his desk.

The mechanic finished tuning up my bike, but Ms. Wang refused to accept any money.  “We enjoy having you here,” she said, “and if you go to other bike shops during your journey across China, you’ll find the situation is the same, other shops  will give you free service too.”  And indeed she’s been correct.

Ms. Wang and Jim

Another Pleasant Evening With the Cops

Monday, October 29th, 2007

We stopped by a supermarket to buy some ice cream.  They didn’t have any, so we looked for milk.  We found a stack of milk containers strapped together with large basins.  “Why are they selling milk with a wash basin?” I asked of the two recent high school grads who had accompanied us into the store.  “Ah,” began the young man with neatly trimmed hair, “to drink out of,” and demonstrated drinking milk out of a huge basin.  “What?!” exclaimed the young woman at his side while hitting him a smacking blow to the shoulder, “No it’s not!”  “Oh, right, right, right” continued the young man, “you use it to wash yourself,” here he mimed dumping a pale full of milk over his head.  “Ai ya!” said the girl, precluding further verbal remonstrance by increasing the ferocity of her previously described methods of physical dissuasion.

Later we went to their house.  It was probably the nicest house in town.  We learned they were siblings, the children of rich merchants.  Both of them worked in the police station.  They were both police officers.  We sat on the boy’s bed.  For the benefit of his guests, he turned on the TV, the computer, and the stereo.

“Do you eat fruit?” asked the girl in her inexplicably raspy voice.  I thought she had some in the next room.  Sure, I said.  In the meantime the boy had started chatting online with one of the officers at the police station.  As I looked into the web cam on the boy’s computer and in turn examined the grainy, almost real-time image of what I would expect a middle-age Chinese cop to look like, I wondered what he would think about the foreigners in his town.  As previously noted, when it comes to staying in small towns for the night, the local cops have been less than helpful.  This was a new situation.  Our hosts practically embodied hospitality, but would their boss be as welcoming and blase about our presence?

Soon the chat ended and our friend went on to another chat.  We eventually managed to turn off the TV, then the stereo.  We played some music, the purpose for which we had ostensibly been invited in the first place.  Our host demonstrated his well-practiced dance technique and Kung-Fu.  The girl came back loaded down with bags of recently purchased apples, persimmons, and bananas.

We talked about their jobs.  They both worked in the police office.  The girl was a receptionist, the guy had some sort of other desk job, though he was apparently in training to become a real police officer.  We tried to get the girl to sing a song.  “I can’t,” she explained, pointing to her throat.  “Every day she talks with old people,” said her brother.  “They can’t hear well,” said the girl, in her shouted out voice, “and I have to shout at them.”  “Are all the old people here criminals?” I asked, thinking I’d made a great joke.  “No, no, no, they always lose their identity cards,” said the girl, taking her card out to demonstrate, “I’m in charge of getting people new cards, and the old people are always losing them.”

They told us how important the cards were for Chinese people.  The cards are a national phenomenon, but specific to a certain town or district.  To look for a job, to live anywhere, the card is very important, they told me.  I’ve read in the news that not having a card makes migrant workers easier to exploit, or any sort of migration or movement by normal people difficult.  It’s an important mode of control for the government, and one reason that Chinese cities, unlike cities in other developing countries are not surrounded by slums.

Do you agree with the cards?  I asked, trying to draw some opinions out of our hosts.  Are their any problems because of the cards.  The boy answered.  It’s what the government does, he said.  It’s a way to keep track of the people.  A perfectly reasonable and useless answer.  It was late.  I opted for not pursuing a more vigorous line of questioning for advising him not to fall out of the window, out of which he had been precariously leaning for some time. “It’s OK,” he said, “there’s a thing here.”  We looked.  Sure enough, there was a deck.

Later we walked back to our motel with a big bag of persimmons, which was sadly to rank low on our fruit travelability ranking.  The people who gave it to us, on the other hand, will always hold a uniquely positive place among the Chinese police I will remember.

Mrs. Zhang

Monday, October 29th, 2007

Its about noon, or sometime later.  It doesn’t really matter, time has become more approximate for me now that I don’t have to start classes at 10:10am, or 2:00pm sharp in Beijing.  I’m hungry and ready for a break after our morning’s 50 some km.  As we ride in from the countryside fields, today’s small market town in Anhui province, China looks similar to all the others: two story concrete washing off white-washed buildings along the provincial road we’re on, shops on the ground floor, living quaters above; perhaps an intersection with another provincial or national highway if its a bigger town.  This is a one road town.

I start scanning the shop signs for fanguan, caiguan, fandian, xiaochibu - the various labels for restruants.  Oop, there’s one, and another, and likely more ahead.  Hmmm, decision time.  We choose one on a whim, no good reason.  The laoban (boss) comes out to greet us.  “We’re 5 people, Can we eat here for lunch?”  Her restaurant of two tables is empty besides one young woman working for her.  With a smile, Mrs. Zhang warmly welcomes us, “Of course!  Come on in!”  Immediately I have a very good feeling about Mrs. Zhang.  She is especially warm and friendly, asking us to sit down at one of her two tables.  A couple of us go with her back to her kitchen to order, a common practice in the Chinese countryside - no menu, just look at what vegatables and meat they have, ask them how they normally cook it, or order commonly known dishes using those ingredients.  We have our favorites - eggplant, potatoes, fragrant pork, pumpkin, always pumpkin for Nakia, and fried peanuts…always the peanuts for Jim, and now for all of us as we’ve adapted to eachother’s favorites.

Mrs. Zhang

Her kitchen in the back is half open air with a beautiful view of hills and vegetation, including our first Banana tree spotted on this trip as we move south.  Mrs. Zhang is asking us questions.  As we take turns answering and explaining bits of our trip to her, her interest grows, constantly smiling, attentive with interest.  I ask if I can take a few photos of her kitchen, and we wind up getting shots with all of us together, Mrs. Zhang thoroughly enjoying the process of setting up the self-timer shots. 

Soon, Mrs. Zhang brings the dishes out to our table.  The first one looks impressive, but within a couple minutes, our table is full of colorful dishes that look amazing, especially the pumpkin dish.  The taste is even better, rich and so fresh.  “This is the best lunch we’ve had so far on our trip!” I exclaim, met with agreement.  Every bite is amazing (not something I’m used to in our usual whole-in-the-walls), and I finially break out the camera to get a shot of our spread.

After eating, we ask for the bill. “Its embarracing to take money from you.  Its not normal for friends to exchange money,” she says.  “No no, really, no problem.  How much?” we insist.  We pay, through her embarracement.  Around 50 yuan, US$6 for all of us.  We chat further, and we tell her that we’re actually planning on staying in her town for the night, asking if she knew of any inexpensive luguans.  “Oh yes, I know a good one.  I’ll call to be sure, and then I’ll take you there.”

After a phone call, she’s excited and tells us that her friend has a very nice place, recently refinished, and she’s agreed to host us all for our usual rate, also 50 yuan ($6.00) total.  We walk our bikes, following Mrs. Zhang across the street and down several shops to a luguan.  I go up to check out the rooms.  They’re beautiful, and cleaner than most, indeed recently redone.  We have three rooms with a total of 6 beds, including one single with its own bathroom in it - a luxury we almost always don’t have.  Usually a place of this quality would go for more, but Mrs. Zhang had arranged things for us with her friend, and we were warmly welcomed, despite all of our stuff and the usual chaos of onlookers from the street 5 foreiners on loaded bikes create in small Chinese towns.

“This evening, I’d love to have you for dinner again,” Mrs. Zhang tells me, “but you should eat here at my friend’s luguan since she agreed to such a reasonable price.  When you’re done eating, be sure to come over to my place to chat and drink tea!  I’ll be waiting for you!”

After dinner, Adam and I wander over to Mrs. Zhang’s place.  She is sitting alone in her front dinning room watching TV.  As soon as she sees us coming up, she immdiately jumps up to open her door and welcomes us in to sit down.  She serves us tea, and we begin chatting.  She doesn’t speak English beyond “hello” and other simple phrases, like nearly everyone we meet in China.

We learn that she’s 41 years old and used to live in a village near this town, but bought this restaurant/ upstairs apartment 3 years ago.  Her son is 18 years old and lives with her husband in a small apartment near his school only 15km away.  Her son comes home once a month to visit, and her husband comes home most days around lunch, though I didn’t remember seeing him.  This is her son’s last year of highschool, so his entire life is consumed by studying for the Gaokao, the dreaded Chinese college entrance exam.  She comes from a family of 3 children, but even if she could choose for herself how many children she could have, she’d still only have 1 child due to expenses. 

She gets up from the table and begins preparing jiaozi (dumplings) at the other table.  “I’m making you dumplings.  No need to worry about cost, its free!” she says.  “Oh no no,” Adam and I exclaim in unison.  “We just ate, we’re still full from dinner!”  “No matter, I’m making you jiaozi!  15 each should be enough, right?” ”Aiya! Not that many!”  It’s obvious we’re going to get 2nd dinner dispite our protests.  When Jim comes in later, she ups the quantity. 

While she’s hand making each and every dumpling, we continue chatting.  Suddenly, she makes a comment about how she only graduated from highschool, but Adam and I graduated from college so somehow we are better than her.  After Adam and I quickly exchange some English to figure out her meaning, we tell her that’s definately not true.  Her rich life experience trumps our book learning, she’s had so many big life expereinces like marrying and raising a child that we haven’t had yet.  In fact, I go on, “Both Adam and I feel we are the ones who are subordinate.  We’re just struggling with Chinese to communicate with you, there’s still many aspects of Chinese culture we don’t understand, and we are newly-arrived guests in your restaurant and town that you understand far better than us, etc.”  Finally, she accepts this and moves on.

Its difficult to pull away to retire for the evening, but after a long goodbye and mutual well-wishing, we part company.  Another amazing person we’ve been blessed to meet along the way.

The Elusive 26th Birthday

Sunday, October 28th, 2007

Last year, I told my Japanese students it would be the last year to celebrate my birthday. Next year would be 24 instead of 26. I would start to go in reverse. 25 was the oldest I wanted to be.

I’ve never felt so old in my life as right now. I feel my muscles as they move me through the mountains of central China. I am slow. And my teammates must wait on me, and ride back if I have a flat.

Yesterday or tomorrow, I am exhausted when we stop and do not have the energy to smile or talk to the gathering locals. I just feel. The pulsating muscles beat against my veins like a bell tolling on the hour.

Today the sky leaked its white blood again. It seeped down the mountains like a wound, sluggishly hugging the primary colored store signs and the putrid florescent trash that lay on moist asphalt like corpses not yet cleared away. It crept in, fingering my bones like the moonlight falling on faces when there is no other light. It wrapped the world in white gauze, healing it. I stood on the balcony of our inn, perception clogged by white, and waited. 

It is Monday as well as Sunday or October 23rd or 25th.I have been losing track of the days. I write “Day ?” in my diary and it makes me feel swept away like the fog that withdraws midday. A day reversing its steps. Like a stream of consciousness.

 I think it was 4 nights ago when it rained in the middle of the night, when everyone woke up clacking their heels on the wooden porch that was our shelter, covering things with plastic, shimmying shoes beneath bags, zipping rain covers over tents to stymie the bursting sky.  I don’t know. It was night and I was daydreaming. I hid inside the tent hoping to go back to sleep and dream the rain away. I’d zip the sun open like a winter coat after a long day. I’d let the sun come in and hold me naked with its rays. But my dreams always bring about the opposite.Today is October 24rd in my dream. And the boys believe it. I wake up to white fog covering the grimy city like a wedding veil. I’m careful with my routine: 1. Make coffee (I cheat and carry around a small bottle of instant Nescafe), 2. Put on biking shorts and T-shirt, 3. Pack, 4. Read a few pages from book on religions, 5. Check on boys. They sleep. They have made plans to let me sleep in and surprise me with Birthday cake. Only they didn’t let me know. And I have no idea what day it is.

Four nights ago, I danced as the boys played guitar and erhu beneath the moon on top of the hill where we slept. Drew called it a rain dance. The rain was my fault. A Chinese friend of mine said that the rain is female and the sun is male, so I replied to Drew, “Well, I am the yang.” My knees hurt when it rains. I must be getting older soon.

Today, the sun is dripping again. As if still wet from the rain dance 4 nights ago. As if doused with holy water. My grandmother used to call me the devil in hell. She must be looking down now and pouring slowly.

We had birthday cake and chocolate milk and Chinese mooncakes and dumplings and dumpling soup and fruit for breakfast. I blew out 5 candles trying not to spit on my name and the Chinese message written in red icing. I felt so honored. I felt young. I felt like riding.

So we rode 40 km to a mountain town with smiling humble mountain folk and  feasted on the best Chinese meal we’ve had since we started. At least that’s what everyone agreed on. We’re always up for food comparisons. Peter even notices the different tastes of the rice. Though sometimes, if he’s feeling ravenous, he mixes all the dishes together and eats with a spoon instead of chopsticks.The laban (boss) of the restaurant lapped us up a heaping bowl of ripe orange winter squash steamed. It is our favorite kind, in its natural state. We’ve made no mistake this time. This is not orange pumpkin sliced and boiled in a tasteless soup, nor is it pureed and sugared and corn starched. It is just a pile of steaming winter squash. We eat in confidence over our decisionless decisions.  This is fate.  Great restaurant, great people, great food, great mood, great weather (the sun came out), great Birthday. Everything has gone smoothly and we want to seal it with a date.

But curiosity must kill this cat, because the laban, our beloved laban, tells us that it is October 23rd. My Birthday is October 24th.

I am still 25. Cheers. This is still as old as I wanted to be a year ago. Maybe if we stay in this town long enough, the days will begin to peel back like old skin, our memories purified by the cloudy mountain sanctuary and the peaceful mountain folk and we will be back to our original selves, naked and raw. 

25 still am I. The world in reverse. Like a stream of consciousness. How did I end up here riding a bike in a mountain when last year, I was dancing like a cat on a friend’s bar table in Japan, wooing a man to “Satisfaction” by Otis Redding? 

Tomorrow, I am running through corn fields with a white dress on. I am 20 and virginal. I write poetry on a swing next to a lake as a beautiful boy with sunshine in his eyes watches from afar. It is sunny, which is good, because I like men.

This is a dream. Tomorrow it is my birthday. Tomorrow, I think, maybe, it could be, I don’t know, according to the laban, whom we respect because she knows how to cook a pumpkin, it is October 24th 

And I am actually 26. Older than I wanted to be. Tomorrow we camp outside on a rice paddy to celebrate because I want to be rebirthed in the Earth on my birthday.  The red sun transitions impalbably into the red moon, and i am confused whether it the sun itself or if it is its reflection that brightens the faces around me. I need my sunglasses to decipher the colors.


This is Eden and the sky is leaking its white blood on my brown skin again, wrapping everything in a wedding veil.Everything is about to be consummated.  Everything is about to become real. Everything is moist. Suddenly, I am very aware that I am grown. Happy Birthday to me. .

A Shanghai Bike Mechanic

Friday, October 26th, 2007

When I first walked into the Giant bike shop in Shanghai’s Min Hang district a Specialized custom frame mountain bike outside the door caught my attention.  This bike belonged to the clean-cut, well-built shop mechanic, a man by the name of Zhang Xing. He wore the clean but plain clothes of a man who worked for his living.

Due to a paucity of bike terms in my Chinese dictionary, I came into his shop not knowing how to say the names for the parts for which I was searching.  “Do you have a thing…I mean a thing, I don’t know how to say, if you want to put something on your bike, one of those things,” I said, leaving room for interpretation.  Mr. Zhang patiently narrowed down my description to what I wanted, a front rack, and later helped me find a few other hard to describe parts.

The shop wasn’t busy.  As he showed me various parts and described the wheels he was and was not able to build, I told him about the trip and found out a bit about him as well.

“I’m glad you speak Chinese,” he told me, “my education level isn’t beyond junior middle school, so my English isn’t so good.”  Despite the “egalitarian” reputation of communism, many folks here express a hesitancy or lack of confidence when associating people who are more “educated” than themselves. I tried to reassure Mr. Zhang that my college degree was well worth the effort, but not much more than that.

He told me that he, just like almost everyone else I talked to in Shanghai, was not from Shanghai, but was actually from one of the surrounding areas; in his case Anhui. The poverty and lack of jobs in his hometown first sent Mr. Zhang into the military after he no longer attended school, and he spent several years in Xinjiang, a time which he found interesting but cold.

Giant is a quality bike brand, ranking right up there with Trek, Specialized, and Cannondale. However, most Chinese people who ride bikes use non-name brand bikes.  The classic bikes work well, but the newer style non-name brand bikes are infamous for their low quality components and tendency to break down.

Giant is actually a Taiwanese company.  Not knowing this, I told Zhang that I thought it unfortunate that there wasn’t a quality Chinese bike company.  Taking my ignorance or possible hint at Taiwan’s independence in stride, Mr. Zhang explained that Giant was a good company, and that Taiwan “is part of China, right”.  I agreed with his first point and let the latter pass by.

After the military he came to Shanghai looking for work, and found a job at the Giant store. He enjoys life in Shanghai, or at least finds it preferable to the countryside.  From the apartment he describes as tiny and poor quality, Mr. Zhang commutes fifteen minutes to work every day by bike.

I told Mr. Zhang how by doing our trip, we were hoping to convince more people in the U.S. and China to bike instead of drive, yet I wasn’t sure how best to communicate this message, or indeed how the current situation would be best changed.  “More and more Chinese people are driving cars,” he said.  Then he paused thoughtfully.  “I don’t think this is a problem that can be solved immediately, nor one that can be solved by one person,” he told me.  Then a person came in with a poorly adjusted derailleur, and it was back to work.  Mr. Zhang back to his tool kit and grease smeared gloves, keeping people biking by fixing their bikes.  Me back to my trip preparations, hoping to inspire biking by relatively extreme example.

Cars Taking Over

Friday, October 26th, 2007

Biking around in Shanghai, one thing became apparent: biking in Shanghai is not as easy as it used to be. Any route remotely straight or large or convenient inevitably eventually forbade bike traffic. The best roads and all the new construction centered around cars.

Adam and I rode twenty kilometers across the city to the one bike shop in town that had a trailer. We tried taking one road after another, but always ran into the universal biking forbidden sign. The side streets were often slow and clogged.

Eventually we wound our way through back roads and reached the river, only to find that there was no bridge. Shanghai has chosen to construct tunnels instead of bridges, but none of these tunnels are passable by bike; cars or trucks only. The only way a biker can get across the river is to use one of several ferry crossings, which means waiting in line to buy a ticket, walking the bike onto the ferry, and waiting for it to fill in order to cross. Only some run all night and then only with large gaps in between service, so if you bike, you’d better be sure to stay on your own side of the river in the evening, or be prepared to bike out of your way and wait.

While Shanghai has good public transit, Shanghai’s rush to modernize by making it more convenient for cars has negatively impacted the mobility of bicyclists. This pattern reoccurs all over China. Public transit aside, cars thrust bikes into the sidelines, and city planning unquestioningly builds infrastructure for more drivers.

It is unfortunate that the new-found wealth of China contributes to its congestion. Public transit does one little good when the buses commuters use are bogged down in traffic caused by excessive car use. If China chose to control it’s car population as strictly as its human population, surely the streets would be more pleasant for all users.

Drew: Oct. 25 “A brief alliterative landscaptual history (so far)”

Thursday, October 25th, 2007

One of the things I like most about traveling by bike is noticing my surroundings.  You can’t help it.  On a bicycle a person feels the heat or the cold of the air, the stillness or the breeze, the sunshine or the mist.  When the road rises into a hill, the muscles swell with the strain of meeting the incline.  You notice, and are grateful for, the shade trees lining the pavement or the natural coolness of passing by a field of clover.  And people have time to notice you, and stare, and smile or make a comment.  

One of the biggest differences from traveling in a high-speed machine (car, train, plane) is that in the course of a few days a cyclist can see the gradual changes in the landscape.  Early on in our trip we began to speculate on where we would be when saw our first palm tree or water buffalo.  These would be to us measurements of our progress southward.  From Beijing until now, here is a brief history as we see it:

Out of Beijing the road is flat with farmland, fields, and factories. 

Soon we see orchards of pinggua (apples), peaches, and pears,  with piles peddled peripherally for a few pence.

 Yellow corn covers concrete, drying, we dodge it. 

Soon we hit hills and huff.

Pomegranites and persimmons hang on hillsides as we wind windily up and whirring, wizz down.

We come to rice and rivers, boats and buffalo, palms.  Check point.

 Shanghai shakes our senses, sending us spiraling back into city luxuries and lifestyle.

Now we move toward mountains in the mist, beginning to see bamboo and banana trees.

The surrounding peaks are lush and green as the road channels smoothly through, now up, now back down.  And sometimes you can’t even tell with your eyes, but your legs let you know.  We are approaching Yellow Mountain.  We continue westward…

It is very near the end of October, but we seem to be on pace with the weather pretty well; as the warmth moves southward, so do we.  The days have been sixties and seventies, mild but crisp in the morning.  Barring a few rainy ones, each day seems to be a good day for biking.  And so it is.

Shanghai not Shainghai

Thursday, October 18th, 2007

Less honking.  Cleaner streets.  Tall glass office buildings…lots of them.  Narrow streets lined with peeling-bark trees I’ve seen only in southern France.  Street intersections with 3 or more streets merging at peculiar angles.  A white female doctor from Pennsylvania consulting me on my last Japanese Ensephilitus shot.  Luxury apartments.  Single family house neighborhoods.  Coldsto, WAIT, WHAT?  Coldstone.  Whoa.  Shock.  SHANGHAI.

Lucky for Jim, our resident icecream obsessor, there is a Coldstone down the street.  However American prices (27 yuan for a small cup - US$3.60) turn him right back to his standard cool treat - the Magnum icecream bar (4 yuan).

We’ve had the great blessing of staying in one of the nicest Chinese apartments I’ve ever seen for the last 4 days, a blessing thanks to Noriko, a Japanese friend of Nakia’s now living in China’s New York, or the Paris of the east as Shanghai used to be called in the 1920s.  THANKYOU!!!  Without a friend here, we would’ve let the high living cost keep us away from such a metropolis.  As it is though, the last few days have allowed us to run errands, reorganize, and relax after the first month of riding. 

30 days, approx 1,600km Beijing to Shanghai including rest days.

As it turns out, our timing couldn’t have been better.  The day after arriving, I was biking through Shanghai with a couple of the others looking for a bike shop to purchase a hard-to-find trailer for our instruments (poor Drew has been single-handedly hauling both guitars and the erhu on the back of his bike with an industrial strength but finiky-bearing wheel), when my bottom bracket (crank bearings and cup) completely busted on the sprocket side, immidiately spilling the ball bearings and bits of crushed metal onto the moving street below.

After asking at several bike shops and street-side bicycle repair stalls, and being towed around town by Drew and Jim over several days on my pedalless bike by holding onto their shoulders to do so, I now do have a new bottom bracket, sealed bearings, for a very reasonable 70 yuan - US$9.00.  Beautiful.  I have a new appreciation for a place to put your feet while sitting on a bicycle seat…

And our newest addition to the FBR (Fueledbyrice) team: a kiddie trailer, or The Bandwagon (thanks to Adam’s quick wit naming), as it will be hauling not only the 2 guitars and er hu, but also my S. African bongo drum.  This trailer will enable us to trade off carrying the extra load our music requires.  I will be, however, a bit nolstalgic of riding behind Drew’s Beverly Hill Billy-style load, but I’m sure he’ll get over it faster than I.

One of the joys we’ve had while living with Noriko (besides a super nice shower) is having access to a kitchen, and an amazingly big and nice kitchen at that.  For these few days, oatmeal, dark and wheaty breads, and left-overs from home-cooked dinners the nights before have replaced our typical baozi (stuffed steamed buns) and zhou (rice porrage) breakfasts.  Two nights ago, Nakia and Jim headed an Italian mass cooking for Noriko as one small token of our thanks: Eggplant tomato, pesto pasta, homemade garlic-buttered bread - maybe nothing special in the West, but rare treasure in the Orient outside of the biggest metropoli.  Noriko has been incredibly patient with us and the dirt and disorder we’ve brought to her home.  Thanks again to such a wonderful hostess!

Although her apartment doesn’t quite fit under “Luguan,” I’ll put a couple photos in that album. 

We’re gearing up for setting off for the 2nd big leg of our journey tomorrow: a couple weeks to Changsha, Hunan province to visit Adam and Jim’s old Chinese friends from their days teaching there, and then on to Guangzhou & Hongkong for our friend’s wedding at the end of November.  But as usual, its not the destination that counts, especially on a trip like ours.

Today, why not bike instead of drive?

A poem: 451 Degrees Fahrenheit

Friday, October 12th, 2007

This lab is hot, my mind

is on fire in the front of the rays.

I know i wont be able to sleep

 after im done.

The smoke wafts  

like incense in a temple and i want to wave it onto myself, I wantto quaff the holy water

in the ersatz well at the bottom of the church.

Keep these hands busy in front of me;

they’ll be strapped to the handle bars

of a moving bike

soon. There won’t be a place

to take a hot shower or a pen

to stick the contents of my mind to a page.

There wont be me,

just the tumbling wind

and the petrified plastic bags,

and the billowing clothes hanging to dry,

 and the hot hot muscles moving

 like a marionette, masterminded

by mercurial adrenaline

that might quit the minute a car cuts

my impetus. Got to stick with the torque,

the gyrating wheels,

man’s greatest creation, next to high heels,

which I left on the floor next to a silent pile of refuse

waiting patiently to be swept outside.

Ive forgotten myself in this inimical heat,

that makes my head go light and flaccid,

spinning like the asphalt rolling rolling by

beneath my wheels,

becoming one with wheels, slicing

the space between pebbles and particles,

and frames of references in paintings:

mountains and skies and flapping hawks

and greens with reds, and spots and stripes,

and shadows with shapes, and endless

contiguous courtyards with faces

that match and mismatch and melt.

The faster i ride the hotter i get.

My mind steams out of control. 

Itchy hands

Tuesday, October 9th, 2007

I have sticky fingers. I went to the bathroom this morning, but there was no running water. I left without washing my hands. The morning hastes and I need my walk. So now, beneath the dessicating sun full of blaze and glory, full of itself, I feel itchy. At least my hands do. But these are the same hands i use to write. And writing itself makes me antsy.

I wish i had a camera to take a picture of the woman in the mansuit swirling her clothes in the murky river. I wish i could get a shot of the deaf woman who pulled up the leg warmer on my right leg and motioned in the direction of the wind, huddling her shoulders: cold. But i only have a pen, and my hands are itchy, so i write.

I perch like Buddha, pernisciously, on this narrow concrete ledge shuddering beneath the weight of scooters. The weight of my notebook balances on my knee and my concentrated gaze cuts the heads off of shocked passerbys. From my vantage point, there are only shoes, leather or green cloth, curled around mine, paused in reflection as a disclocated head appears in shadow on my pages. I look up and smile a few times to be sure im not being rude, then lean down again, putting the heads and torsos back in their respective places. Back to shoes and wheels and corners of notebooks.

Back to rivers. The one this bridge arches over steals kisses from the conceited sun, its rays sucked onto the waves like words rolled onto paper.

Words. There are so many i do not know. So i pull the other legwarmer up to my left knee to show the deaf woman i am grateful for her concern. She laughs and leaves, then comes back with two more women, the crowd pulling out and drawing in with her like breath, like waves with rippling sun on their backs. I tell them where i am from, what i am doing in thier river town, and where i am going today. They invite me to come to thier house and talk, though by now they are aware of the limits of my Chinese. Words. They do not matter so much. But what am i building a case for? What is my spin if all that one can say has already been said?

The morning is fast like an opportunity. I am morning amusement for the busy bridge passengers, hauling their loads in carts and tricycles. The sun makes the green moss in the river browner like the skin it lashes daily in cotton fields, reaching up beneath yellow headscarfs and straw hats to lick the sweat from a farmer’s brow, feeding its pet clouds with moisture.

We’ve had some great days for riding, but i worry that where there is sun, rain awaits on the dark sides of the clouds. Words written for worry.

Back to my shoes. Or shapes. Triangular black things connected to verticle stems shivering. Shape becomes symbol becomes meaning. They ask me to come with them. And i want to get lost with them in this village. i want to explore. i want to get intimate with the rural countryside. My hands itch as i check the time. I’m late. Its time to ride. Notebook in. Legs stand firm. I begin to run, high on imagery.