Sunday, May 31, 2009

Throwing caution to the wind, I ride my bike.

I guess I'm a regular at Starbucks now, the night guy just told me my order before I even opened my mouth. I threw him a curve ball though and ordered a Vente instead of a Grande. It might be time to change the music though because "Autumn in New York" now seems to always be playing when I walk in the door. The tape has moved on to a classic rendition of "Black Coffee", an appropriate tune considering the locale.

My weekend was pretty full, to say the least. I spent the early part of yesterday out on foot scoping out the big park on the far side of the light rail tracks as a potential spot for bike riding. From my place it's hard to see what's in there, although there seemed to be sort of a dirt boundary road that might bear some use given that one of the bikes I brought was rigged for off road riding. I met a friend for coffee and then headed off in the direction of the park entrance. I cut across 5 Colour City and spent some time marveling at how boring and drab it looks in the daytime without the noisy bars, the drunks, the massage girls beckoning me inside and all the neon. I guess red-light districts everywhere take on a different hue in the light of day. I crossed the main road and walked up one of the scooter/bike lanes that run parallel to some of the busier streets. These are common in the bigger cities – Shanghai has an extensive network – and they provide a generally safer means for bike travel. Cars more or less stay out of them because they are slow. Unfortunately, Dalian does not have many, and this one didn't travel very far.

The park entrance looked very shabby and not at all bike worthy since it consisted of a bunch of tall stone stairs leading up into the woods. Three workers carrying rakes dissuaded me from heading up into the forest ahead of them, I could catch a little of what they were saying and I knew it was about me. So rather than continue with that little game I continued on down the road looking for a more official entrance.

Taking a left I found myself at the First Affiliated Hospital of the Dalian Medical University one of the places I visited back in February. It looked about the same today as it did back then, cars all over the sidewalk, people heading in and out. The only difference now was the occasional patient out for a stroll in their blue and white hospital pajamas. One guy, his hand and arm completely bandaged was walking along visiting with his wife.

The park remained off to my left with no clear entrance. At the next intersection I took a left and continued to search. Some large Japanese automotive parts manufacturer of a name new to me was housed in big white and blue buildings on both sides of the street. Mixed in were shabby apartment blocks, apparently housing the workers and their families. The company buildings were finally replaced with more apartment blocks most of which had beauty salons in the ground floor shops. I'd apparently stumbled into the self-improvement district

A half mile or so down the road I finally found a way in – a grand entrance lined with big privet bushes and a couple of giant stone blocks with the name of the place carved on them. There didn't appear to be an entrance fee so I headed in and climbed up the first broad paved road into the trees.

This side was pretty nice, broad lawns and big trees, a little red pagoda up amid the pines. Strollers were taking in the late morning, women walking as always with an umbrella in a quest to remain as pale as possible. Young couples sat among the trees planning the fireworks and giant red arches for their weddings. Old folks looked at me as though I was from Mars. I did a lot of mental note taking as I walked along finally deciding that despite its small size, it had some good, short but steep climbs and a general lack of cars and people. While I doubted I could spend two hours in there, I could certainly do a handful of loops and get a good workout.

Rather than go back the way I came, I headed in the direction of the entrance closest to my apartment and the vibe was just about as bad as it was with the workers I'd left behind earlier. There is something about young men sitting on benches in the woods with that "I'm not doing anything wrong" look on their face that plainly conveys the opposite. I don't know what it is about urban parks, but for some reason they have a way of making people look guilty. Maybe they are, I don't know; I just hurried along the path and took the stairs down to the street level, passing another loud young couple and a lot of trash.

My afternoon was dedicated to unpacking and re-assembling my two bicycles in preparation for the off chance that I would develop the nerve to actually ride one out on the street today. Consistent with my base level of luck, upon pumping up the tires I discovered that I had two flat tires – one per bicycle. Murphy is out to get me it seems between flat tires and lost grocery lists.

Last night I went to dinner at a colleague's house, sort of a get together for the few of us that had remained in town on this long weekend. I'm still glad I made the choice I did about sticking around as I managed to get just about everything squared away, at least those things that make my life easier to live.

My dinner date was at my colleague's apartment, in downtown Dalian by Xinhai Square, the chief tourist spot in Dalian. He and his wife who is from Sichuan Province had taken me out for some authentic food one time back in Shanghai, and I was looking forward to a full meal prepared in her style. Mr. Jiang picked me up for the drive in and we had a nice chat in Chinese about how fat Americans like big cars.

After a misstep at his complex entrance, I found my way in and up to his place. It was very nice; about the size of mine and done in Japanese style furnishings, sort of simple, Asian, modern. Being only on the 4th floor his sea view was sadly restricted and it appeared it was about to be even more doomed judging from the crane that was smack dab in the middle of it. The guests started to arrive and I realized I had not brought a gift which made me feel like a complete clod given that I was raised better than that. The fact that most of them had brought expensive liquors and wines didn't make me feel any better. Point taken, a mistake not to make a second time.

This was the first such gathering where I was in the distinct minority and I have to say it was an interesting feeling being completely unable to follow any of the conversations. We did go back and forth between Chinese and English though and I even managed to educate the crowd on the origin of the name "Sichuan". It translates as "four rivers" and was given because of the four rivers that drain the region, also forming the northern basin of the Yangtze. Everyone got a good laugh at the American giving them a lesson in Chinese geography place names.

I asked the guys who were raised here about the legend behind the boy on the bull statue out in Kai Fa Qu and no one had an idea. The hill is named after it - "Tong Niu" - and I assume it has some legendary explanation. But no one had any idea and I was a bit surprised that no one had ever had the interest to find out

Dinner was served and I was seated at the place of honor in front of a big bowl of Sichuan Chicken, my favorite dish. The chicken is fried and braised to about the consistency of jerky and then served in a big pile of those nasty little red cellophane peppers. To say that it's hot is to diminish it – blistering would be a better description. We had quite a banquet set before us and I made my way through just about every dish. Sichuan green beans served cold, shrimp in some kind of tomato puree, dried cold beef slices, beef in a hot broth steaming with mouth numbing peppercorns, a bowl of goose parts, a Hunan-style duck with its sad little head staring out of the bowl, a big pot of American potato salad which served to return your palate to normalcy between the spicy dishes, saucy Ribbon Fish, some steamed greens, beef boiled in hot pepper oil, Thai glass noodles and the most interesting dish of all, a plate of duck tongues. My friend had been warned by his wife not to seat me by the tongues, but I dug right in and they were quite interesting. About 2 inches long including the muscles that formerly allowed the duck to move it, each tongue held a tiny bone. They looked just like a pale tan version of the Catclaw seed you sometimes find in the desert in Arizona. They were quite tasty in the same way that beef tongue is.

I was sent home with the remnants of my favorite dishes and the promise of a return invitation. I told my hostess that her dishes were my "zui ai", my very favorite, and went on my way. Mr. Jiang picked me up and we had a nice chat on the way home in Chinese about our wives and how they are the bosses and how we earn our money and hand it all over to them.

This morning I dilly-dallied before finally getting up the nerve to take my bike downstairs and ride it. Fitting it in the elevator was the first challenge and avoiding getting hit by a bright red Camaro in my parking lot didn't bode well. But I got across the street and headed down the sidewalk to where I supposed the entrance to the park would be.

The sidewalks here are very broad and are used by cars, scooters, cyclists, trucks and pedestrians interchangeably. No matter how long I stay here, I don't think I will ever get used to cars inching down the walk blowing their horns for the walkers to get out of their way. This morning though I pretty much had the place all to myself. Rounding the corner on Haerbin Road I saw a little street that seemed to run parallel to the way I had just traveled and sure enough, I found a quiet empty path from my building that would allow me to skip the sidewalk ride altogether. At the far end of it, a woman sat on a crate tending to bee hives. It took a moment to settle in, but the whole block was lined with brown bee boxes and two little tents that seemed to be the living quarters for the beekeepers. Very interesting, right here one block off the main drag, behind hotel row. I stopped to take a couple of pictures and watched as sparrows darted in and out of the trees, stealing a bee or two for a morning meal.

Continuing on I found that the park entrance was a bit further down the road than I had anticipated. I had to go out in the street a couple of times to avoid workers who were replacing the bricks that make up the walk. I finally reached the entrance and turned right, heading in. A man in a police uniform sitting at a small wooden desk under an umbrella through me for a moment and I had to make a split second decision about whether to stop or not. In doing so I stopped paying attention to where I was heading and almost skewered myself on one of four yellow pipes sticking out of the road, forming a car barrier. I barely dodged one with my rear wheel but managed to stay upright. The official stared at me like I was nuts but didn't say a word.

The decision to ride in here turned out to be a good one. I looped around and around, taking the little climbs hard and getting my heart rate up there. My pulse was further quickened when I was chased by a scruffy little rat dog that belonged to one of the gardeners. It got me thinking about my stand on not having a rabies vaccination, but only for a moment. I kept the bike between me and it and I had to respect it for its tenacity – it wouldn't shut up until I was a long way down the path.

On one of my loops I made it a point to say "hello" to the official and he returned my greeting in kind.

I managed to kill a solid forty minutes in there before heading out. I retraced my path from yesterday, riding by the hospital where ironically I didn't feel terribly safe in the traffic. Too many visitors looking for parking spots and too many taxis picking people up. After exploring the parallel bike lane to its end I headed back to my building, an hour under my belt. Which didn't seem like long enough so I headed off in the other direction towards the sea. I rode by the neighborhood where quite a few of my work pals live and made a couple of loops around a new park that is down by their place. Two groups of elementary school students were being shuffled around by their minders. The boys were dressed in blue polo shirts and white shorts, the girls in pink shifts with matching hats. Circling the park I found my way out to a big pond that held a couple of sea gulls. I wondered if there would be ducks in the winter, but the water was so brown and smelled so bad that I doubt it. A Peregrine Falcon though was lazily turning circles in front of a high rise suggesting that it might be nesting up on top. I left the park and followed the road past the Karaoke restaurant with the giant goddess and cherubs on the front, stopping to take a couple of pictures.

I followed the same road for a while passing a school yard filled with middle school kids dressed in red and white uniforms. They were so noisy that they reminded me of the sound of the flocks of geese at Bosque del Apache in the winter. Some were running on the track and dozens were jumping rope

I was closing in on two hours and felt I had had a darn enjoyable outing. I took a quiet side street back and arrived unscathed. The chief learning here is that you simply have to pay attention all the time. The cars are not terribly respectful of you and you have to watch out not only for what they are about to do but also how they are going to react to what other cars are doing. Chinese drivers are always looking for an advantage, so you have to be on guard that their attempt to advance their position in not at your expense.



















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