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A Typical Town

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We rode our bikes down a road yesterday into a town, a pile of red dirt blocked our way so that we had to ride on the shoulder to get in.   Its name was Huang Feng, or Huang something Shan, I don’t quite remember, nor would anyone else.  If I had my map right now I could figure it out by either reading the characters, or asking a Chinese person how to pronounce them if I din’t recognize them, which would most likely be the case.  My mind is beginning to blend memories together, characters, unknown pen-strokes, words, names.  In fact I can’t remember the names of many of the places I have been over the last 51 days.  They just exist in a chain with no clearly defined links.  There are things that happened a long time ago, and things that happened a short time ago.   Certain things stand out, days when we rested, beautiful biking days, gifts we were given, run-ins with authority, meeting interesting people.  But the rest just blends.  

Last night in particular was one of those nights, just like most of the rest.  The middle of no-where China, a place where no other foreigner would ever dream of going, where I never knew existed, nor will particularly remember.  I love it, and I live for it on a trip like this.  It is why I am here.  A look into the everyday life of the putongde ren, the common person, real China.  You can taste it in the air, dusty, dirty, smokey.  You can see it in the people, wide eyed, curious, unsure.  You can see it in the city, regulated, communist with white tiled buildings, cement floors, low door frames, wacky advertisements, and homemade food stalls.  You can hear it, stupendously loud truck horns, cement mixers, jack hammers, undecipherable syllables being amplified through megaphones attached to bicycles.  You can feel it, people brushing against you, a man feeling the hair on your arm, the firmness of the plywood you are sleeping on.  You can taste it, the oil used in frying up the common man’s dishes, vegetables, meat, dumplings, and steamed buns.  This is China.

We biked down the one road going in and out of our town last night, turned at the intersection, and took a left.  We stopped in front of a sign for a luguan, or travelers hotel.  Pete went in with the laoban.  The three of us stood outside waiting, not for Pete to emerge, but for the inevitable masses to surround.  People had watched us enter the town, and were aware of our presence, now it was time to feel us out. 

Slowly and surly they approached, like a rat to a trap, timid, curious, and present.  One man stepped forward, “Where are you from” he asked.  “They don’t understand” said a woman in back.  “America” said drew.  Exclamation arose in the crowd that had now grown to about 15.  They can speak Chinese!  Confidence was rising, a flood of questions quickly followed. 

To steer the conversation to a level I am able to handle I usually run through all the meaningful things that I know people will ask me.  What we are doing and why, where we are from, where my bike is from, where we are going, how many people are in the group, where Nakia is from, where the Bahamas are, that the Bahamas is a real place, I then tell them I am not cold, tired, and will eat soon.  From there I try my hardest to pick up words, phrases, and ideas I can’t quite understand.

Last night was like most other nights in China.  People told us that we must be lost and asked why we were in their town.  Sometimes I tell people I am there because I have heard about it being a beautiful place so I came to look, other times I tell them the truth, I don’t know why I am there, I just ended up there.

Our luguan was two buildings next to each-other patched together like a maze, we had two rooms on the second floor.  We had to walk through an old photo studio with fake landscapes hanging on the wall to get in.  We had four beds, wooden slates with a wool quilt thrown on top, a door that kind of locked, a window that opened, a single light-bulb hanging from the center of the room, it was 6 kuai a person, less than one U.S. dollar.  It had a toilet that actually flushed, and cold water to wash with.  The chickens and ducks lived under the stairs.  Children followed us everywhere, screaming “hello”, and “how are you.” The perfect place.

We ate dinner at the same place we eat every night.  We got similar dishes to those we get every night.  We drank boiled water from the same thermoses that we do every-night.  

Pete Jim and myself went for a walk after dinner.  There were no street lights in this particular town, it saves electricity and is cheaper.  Everyone sleeps at night.  We walked down a road, a few hair salons remained open, a few families doors were open and you could see people playing mahjong, drinking beer, and playing with children. 

We stopped in front of an extremely small train station and were chatting lightly.  A man with a flashlight was walking towards the station with a flash light, he froze when he noticed us and heard our language then shone his light on us.  Jim said hello in a friendly voice, the man returned the greeting and asked if we from Xinjiang, a region in the far north west of China where the minority group of Uighur comes from.  No we said, we are American.  “That’s not possible” the man exclaimed.  After we had convinced him he quickly warmed to our presence.  He worked at the station and was on his way to work.  We chatted a while then parted ways.  

We return down the road we had come, and a family was standing outside their doorstep  and initiated conversation.  ” You are the foreigners who have ridden their Bicycles here from Beijing” they said.  “Yes” we replied, “you have heard of us.”  One man pointed at Pete, “you are 1.98 meters” he said.  Peter confirmed the statement.  Like a small town anywhere in the world word travels fast.  We talked a while and they invited us into their home to sit and talk.  We ended up returning to our luguan to rest however and to help Drew re-grease the bearings in his rear hub. 

We rode out of town this morning the same way we do every morning.  With long goodbyes, scribbling of addresses and names, and the snapping of pictures of quick friends. 

Slowly the landscape has changed, soon the language will also start to fade into incomprehensable syllables.  Hopefully by means of writing, video, and photography and I can pick out meaningful links in the chain of experiences to remember and share with others.  I have not yet grown weary of our trip.   Tomorrow may be similar to today, or it may be extraordinary, but either way I can’t wait to see how it develops.

One Response to “A Typical Town”

  1. Chris W Says:

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    Adam, After reading your view of the world around you and then reading Nakia’s, I think your world is a better place to be in right now. I hope she can rejoin you guys in a short period of time. Stay safe. MOM

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