Friday, July 31, 2009

A simple Saturday spin

A few minutes ago I was sitting in my red chair enjoying a ham and cheese sandwich when a big pink bunny head balloon went rocketing past in a beeline to heaven. No doubt below some child had just burst into tears but the bunny balloon did not care, it was free from its Earthly bonds. It went up and up in a completely straight line until it hit a patch of different air where it moved side to side for a few moments before catching another express elevator and continuing upward passing behind the edge of my window and out of sight. I guess I should start to expect more floating objects, given yesterday’s blimp and this one today.

My morning was spent out riding my bike, alone, from my place up and across the base of the foothills and then back up through Big Black Mountain Park. It was much the same as last Saturday - people selling food in the morning market, women scrubbing clothes in the stream, men washing cars along the road, a few walkers heading up to the temple - today didn’t bring any exciting adventures aside from passing a couple of work pals heading up the hill on their mountain bikes. For me it was a chance to just get out and spend some time only with the thoughts in my head for a change. And it was nice.

The morning was pretty hot and the air was thick with humidity. And I suppose it was pretty unclean today judging from the metallic flavor I could not get out of my mouth, regardless of how much water I drank. Between the diesel exhaust on the streets and the brittle smell of fertilizer that pervades on the country lanes between the orchards, I can only imagine what kind of chemistry is going on at the back of my throat.

This road always presents a few things worth commenting on such as the deafening buzz of the locusts as I rode through a treed stretch. I considered stopping to make a “video of nothing” just to capture the sound but it didn’t see worth the time. Riding through the villages on the far side of the mountain I passed an ancient man sitting on a tiny stool by the side of the road smoking a cigarette and petting his tiny white goat. In each of these small hamlets women sat under umbrellas, wearing white kerchiefs and selling peaches, apples and pears. A few roadside restaurants were opening up, gaily decorated with colorful flags and red lanterns, Chinese pop music playing softly over outdoor speakers. It was still early morning so there were no patrons, just empty tables under shady awnings. I stopped along here to take some pictures of a dog breeder specializing in of all things, Great Pyrenees, Newfoundland’s and a Chinese version of the Bernese Mountain Dog. All inappropriate breeds for this climate, the studs were housed in sad little cages along the edge of the property. One of the workers and some fancy guy who had arrived in a big body BMW sat talking in the shade. I snapped a few shots surreptitiously assuming that they might not like me photographing the sad state of their establishment. Heading on I took a few pictures of the typical Chinese farm house in this region – gray brick or field stone, windows with many lights, the frames painted white. Red tile roofs with smoke coming out of the chimney no doubt from cooking fires given that we’re in the heat of summer. At the end of the road I stopped for a moment to capture a few pictures of the reservoir.


This road is a bit of a killer from a grade perspective. From the city side out to the reservoir it’s a challenge but not too steep. But the return trip is as steep a road as I have ever ridden and I’ll admit to walking about ½ mile when my heart rate monitor let me know that my pulse was about 20 beats higher than it should be for someone of my advanced age. While I hate to give in, there was no shame – the Chinese were walking their bikes too.

I stopped at one of the many false crests to take a picture of a temple gate. Music was playing behind it, complimenting the locust. But there was no other sound. I got back on the bike here and completed the hill, heading over the top and enjoying the fast coast down the far side to home.

One last picture just for fun – a typical road hazard on the local streets. When it rains hard, they come along and they take the grates out so that they don’t get clogged with garbage. Someone else then comes along and steals the grates to sell them as recycled metal. The result is a hole down to the middle of the Earth, just the right shape and with enough of an appetite for bicycle wheels to present the worst kind of problem for those not paying attention.

Blimps. Float past my window.......

I was planning on publishing a blog tomorrow, detailing some interesting little anecdotes from the past week but this was too good to pass up. We saw this guy tethered out in the swamps a couple of weeks ago and today it flew past our office. The Dalian International Beer Festival started last night and I suspect that's why it's here. I came home about 4:30 and walked out of the bedroom just in time to see it fly by my living room. A few minutes later it was on the other side of my place gliding by the dining room window. And then back around again. The pilot had a very strange way of going up and down, making me wonder if he was learning how to fly the thing.

The Chinese word for Blimp is Fēitǐng or 飞艇 which translates quite nicely as "flying ship".

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Part Two - The journey takes some twists and turns

We made the left off the downhill run, shot past a couple of busses at the corner stop and followed Chung to the curb past the busses; for some reason he wanted to stop again. After fiddling with his phone/GPS/MP3 player he took off his helmet and said “It’s hot.” Well, it was and almost certainly due to his lack of exposed skin. He and Dermott got into a discussion and I decided it was time for a “natural break” as it is known in the parlance of professional bicycle racing. I walked a couple of yards up the road and ducked between a big evergreen shrub to gain a bit of privacy and a lot less exposure. After all, this was a major intersection crawling with cars, busses, trucks and people.

Wearing bib shorts presents a bit of a challenge in this particular area, much more so for the fairer sex but still a bit for the boys. We can pull down the front or pull up the leg. I chose the former method and was trying to make it fast when some rustling in the bushes turned my attention to a woman doing the same thing one line of shrubs over. She stood up, walked by me and off to her friends at the bus stop. I was a bit shocked and even more embarrassed but for her it was just another day in the bushes. I guess when you live in a country of 1.6 billion people that are mostly jammed into dense urban areas privacy and modesty are among the first things to go. In the US, she would have either screamed or laughed, I was glad she just went on.

While I was away Chung had been poring over my bike, looking at the details, feeling the paint and picking it up. He pronounced it “kind of heavy” and the three of us tried to have a conversation about what it was made of but no one had the word for “steel.” I was a tiny bit insulted that someone riding a 50 pound mountain bike would consider my bike anything short of svelte. When we concluded that it weighed about 17 pounds, I began to wonder what constituted “heavy” in his universe.

After the other two had made use of the facilities we were once again on our way. Chung hunkered down and tore off up the road gapping us by his regular half mile. We feel into a decent pace and had a nice time talking and riding, enjoying the scenery. Every ten or fifteen minutes our relaxation would be interrupted momentarily by a car or scooter heading straight for us in the wrong direction in our lane. We’d just make a slight course correction and move to the side giving them clear passage. The basic rule of vehicles in China is this – if space is available for occupancy, someone will fill it. And bicycles do not count as being an occupying entity.

While not as rural this stretch of road still presented a pleasant ride once the traffic thinned out. Fields on both sides, small streams running down to the bay and hundreds of those bright orange dragonflies made things interesting. We rode on for 20 minutes or so until we saw Chung pulling into the tourist rest area at the edge of Jinshitan. It was time for another stop.

Dismounting and leaning our bikes against a tall curb, we wandered over to stand in the shade of a giant fake tree. There are at least two of these that I know of in the area - huge representations of the famous Monterey Cyprus that is the trademark for the central California coast. The trunk is probably made from colored concrete sprayed over some kind of wire frame and then carved to look like bark. The “leaves” are plenty green and made from God knows what. From afar they look real enough albeit this one looks pretty much out of place at a roadside rest area. The other overlooks the sea on a peninsula near Dalian and so fits in a bit better with its environment. At this place though it’s hard to say what the environment is as the buildings are constructed to look like giant log cabins and there is at least on Dutch windmill on the site. Tourists unloaded from the dozens of tour busses and milled around taking snapshots of the tree and a big beige rock embossed with some symbols that was sitting in a bed of red germaniums.

Chung opened his as yet unused camera bag and pulled out a video camera - we had stopped for a photo op. But something was amiss and after 10 minutes of trying to get a tape to load, he gave up and returned it to its nest. Instead he pulled out a 35mm camera and loaded it with a roll of film. Film and video cameras, in a bag, over his shoulder for that last 3 hours of riding. While he fiddled with this one I sat on a rock and watched a westerner of indeterminate nationality ride by on a mountain bike. I nodded, he waved.

He showed Dermott how to focus the camera and then went over to the curb and grabbing my bike, stood there for a series of photos of him holding it while grinning ear to ear. It may very well be “heavy,” but he clearly wanted to be seen with it. I guess I won't be the least bit surprised if the Chinese bicycle frame catalogs suddenly start offering the "Strong Special" as part of next year's lineup. When the bike posing session was complete he grabbed a young woman and insisted that she take a couple of shots of the three of us with our arms around each other’s shoulders. Pictures done, we once again got on the bikes and got moving.

There are two paths down to the beach from the main road one passing through a very unpleasant tunnel that loops back under the road and the other via the main highway into town and then down to the sea on one of several boulevards. I don’t like driving through the tunnel and as I’ve mentioned before I like it even less on a bike. What sealed that route for me though was a story I’d heard in which the husband of one of the Ayi’s at the American School had been run down and left to die earlier in the week. We continued on straight, opting for the sunshine.

We rode past the Chinese Martial Arts Museum and Discovery Land, the latter a very, very strange simulacrum of an American amusement park which features an enormously out of scale Midwestern- style brick Methodist church where lucky Chinese go to get married. Complementing that eyesore is a combination funhouse/rollercoaster that looks like it belongs in a Klingon penal colony.

At the end of the highway there is a roundabout that offers exit roads down to the beach, up a hill to the fancy golf course or up into the town where the people live. Expecting to head down to the sea I got caught out in an unavoidable right turn when I discovered at the last minute that Chung had gone all the way around the other side and was heading up into the neighborhoods. “What now?” was my first thought. Backtracking and heading back around the loop I caught up with the other two and followed them off the main drag into a blighted residential area. He had asked us earlier if we wanted to have lunch and we had declined, once again preferring to keep moving. Riding along slowly he was clearly looking for something and when he pulled over at the end of a trash strewn dirt lot between two lines of low retail buildings, I followed suit and just waited him out. There was a morning market going on here and people were food shopping and moving back and forth between the stalls and the apartments across the street. Chung got on the phone and was talking to someone while scanning the scene. A handful of thuggy guys were stretched out in the shade provided by the side the building, backs against the walls and legs in the dirt. Smoking cigarettes, they were talking and smiling and occasionally gesturing our way. I did lazy circles in the street while we waited hoping to give them something else to think about. A small group of men in army fatigues stood on the other side of the street staring.

A cute young woman in a blue nurse’s uniform suddenly appeared out of the crowd in the market and came over waving and smiling. Chung motioned us along and we headed into the lot along the back side of the food stalls. She led us to a pharmacy and Chung motioned for us to lean our bikes against the wall and to come inside. Next door a toddler rode one of those coin operated rides that used to stand outside our grocery stores. This one had a slightly menacing giant bunny with big pink cheeks that went up and down in front of the child following the rhythm of some incredibly repetitious and annoying song. The child’s mother looked at us as though we were from another planet.

The inside of the pharmacy was cool and dark and the three other “nurses” were quite amused by us dropping in. On the wall a stag’s head with full rack was mounted, a price tag hanging from its ear. In the case nearest the door a very sinister ginseng root was laid out in a velvet case. On the other side of the shop packages with fairly obscene labels featuring western women in unnatural poses were offering products with names like “Golden Vigra.” The bottom shelf offered a variety of pink plastic objects whose use was not immediately clear to me. Nearby, dishwashing liquid and sponges filled out the inventory.

The first nurse, apparently Chung’s friend left and came back with cold bottles of water. Chung and the girl stood by chatting and Dermott joined in. I was getting none of it and so stood watching the goings-on out the door through those same plastic sheets that grace the entrance of just about every store in China. These were less greasy than normal and perforated with tiny rain drop shaped holes to let the air in. Chung wanted to know if we wanted to get cleaned up and perhaps have some lunch. I told him I don’t generally eat duck parts while I’m out riding in 90 degree temperatures, sticking instead to Power Bars. As far as getting cleaned up, a nice offer but to what point given that it was now early afternoon and we still had to ride back. They talked for a bit more before I put on my helmet and moved to the doorway. Chung brought the girl outside and proceeded relay the finer details of my bike to her, including another session of lifting and discussing. When she picked it up it suddenly became “light”, such is the power of influence of women in this society. I showed her the magic paint – brown in one direction and green in the other – and she was politely impressed. I told her in Chinese that I was glad to meet her and she replied in kind, giggling in English. I think this whole visit had been about impressing his friend, coming by with a couple of exotic specimens. We bid our farewells and slowly rode out through the dirt passing a little girl pulling a small box with paper dolls across the trash landscape. A tiny sled for make believe Barbies.

We left via a different route and passed a big blonde woman stumbling down the street. That was a bit of a surprise given where we were but a couple of shop signs in Russian suggested that this might be their tourist district. It’s not uncommon for them to fly down from Vladivostok to defrost.

Taking the road out the far side of the roundabout we headed towards the beach and catching a right turn we climbed up the fairly steep grade of the “Golden Bay Bridge”. At the top, Chung stopped once again to get some photos of the sign on the top of the bridge’s center arch and of the fishing scows in the tiny harbor beneath it. I coasted down to wait off the road, preferring not to be stopped on a barely two lane road at the crest of two blind climbs. He and Dermott were up there for a while; I waited, watching bathers running like Gerbils in giant inflatable vinyl “wheels” out on the water. Fishing boats chugged in from their work, diesel engines spewing thick black smoke.

Unlike the previous week, the beach was crowded today. Young people in bathing suits wandered up and down the sidewalks plotting earnestly. We took a right turn to avoid passing through the bad tunnel and had to weave in and out of a crowd of cars, pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages. The horses looked remarkably healthy. Back out on the main highway we headed back into town, stopping once again at the rest stop for what appeared to be nothing. We rode on for another half hour before stopping again at another main bus stop. Chung explained that he was going to wait here for his brother who was going to meet him here for a date to go running. We were now 4 ½ hours into a day of riding, and he was going to go running. When we figured out that he was not riding on with us, we said “goodbye” to him and the scooter taxi guys who had been standing around us staring and saying “hello”. Back to town it was.

By now it was close to 2PM and the roads were choked with cars and trucks. I debated whether to take the longer less busy way down around Dermott’s place or to just forge ahead on the road we were on and finding a way to deal with the disappearing bike lane that I knew was up ahead. A few challenging climbs and a couple more cars heading towards us in our lane (including one driven by a woman who was talking on her cell phone) and we in town, riding in the traffic. We stopped at a red light to have a chat and when the light turned green a scooter taxi guy yelled at us to “go, go go.” I don’t know if he was interpreting the traffic signal or worried that we were going to steal his business. Didn’t matter, we laughed and took off.

I ended the day with a quiet spin down into the residential streets, intent on turning a full 50 miles on my odometer - 5 hours and 50 miles, not an effort to be proud of, but certainly an adventure worth relaying. I certainly came to understand a day out riding to the Chinese means a far different thing to them than it does to me, and I have to say I’m going to think twice before signing up for a ride like this again. But from the red bean past Twinkie to the Pale Blue Nurse, the message continued to ring through – you just never know what a day in this place is likely to bring your way.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Part One - An epic day in the saddle, Chinese Style

Sunday morning rolled around and I decided that I would make a second attempt at exploring the back route to 大黑山 having failed the day before. On Saturday night I had exchanged a couple of texts with my riding partner Dermott and he was interested and was planning to bring along one of the riders he had met on some locally organized ride to Jinshitan that he had accidentally hooked up with some time in the past month or two. I have a standing invitation to join them but trying to put together a 2 hour ride on a work night was simply something I would never be able to do. Especially since participating almost certainly meant that the finishing leg would be done in the dark. So I was looking forward to meeting this guy and having a ride to a different place.

Getting up on time but burning my spare time by puttering around, I realized I was only 30 minutes from our planned meeting time so I got serious and quickly got ready. We were planning to meet across the street from my place so while I didn’t have far to go my elevator generally demands a 5-10 minute buffer. I got downstairs and took a seat on a lamp post base to wait for their arrival.

And wait I did. After 15 minutes I had a text from Dermott that said he was still waiting on the guy to show up. At 30 past he texted me again to say that the guy had arrived but did not have his bike – he had left it somewhere between where they were meeting and where I was waiting and so they would be walking over. Five minutes later he sent me another message telling me that he had a flat tire. Now I didn’t really mind, it’s always fun to watch the pedestrians watching me, and the temperature was nice by comparison to the weather of the previous week. I sat for a bit more and finally buttoned up and rode slowly down the street in their direction. At 9AM they appeared across the street heading my way. I’ve been trying like mad to get on the bike at a time of day when I have a chance of getting home before it gets too hot but for some reason the celestial spheres that rule my life seem arrayed in a pattern that gets me out of the house late and home when the Sun is set to “broil.” Today it seemed would be no exception to that pattern.

Dermott’s friend was a tiny guy, very wiry and dressed from head to toe in mountain biking gear. Tights, long-sleeved jersey, full finger gloves - in short the stuff I wear when I ride in the winter. The capacity for the Chinese to stand the heat does not cease to amaze me, nor does the violent shivering that Jiang breaks into when he carries my supplies up to my apartment. If I was dressed like this I would be dead within the first 3 miles.

He was riding a pretty stout Giant mountain bike and carried a Canon camera bag over his left shoulder. On it he had two aluminum water bottles in addition to the two he had in the bottle cages on the frame. By my reckoning his gear weighed more than he did. The guy’s name was “Chung” and after introductions we set about discussing where we were heading. Or I should say Dermot and Chung started discussing it because he didn’t speak English and I was getting about no percent of what he was saying. We had a bit of a standoff when Dermott told him we were going to try a back route and he didn’t like this because he had a GPS on his bike and it was telling him the best way to go. I eventually patched together enough words to say that I wanted to look at another road and that coupled with my imposing stature was enough to break the logjam.

We headed down Jinma Lu and up the street where the pothole tried to kill me on Saturday. Around the block, past the park and after the jog along the place where the workers had been exercising the day before (no sign of them at this hour) we made our way up the new route. It turned out to be better than the bigger streets but not as quiet as I had hoped – it was sort of an off the track short cut forming a diagonal between two major streets. But while there were tons of trucks and cars, it was still wide enough and the volume low enough to make for a good ride.

We continued on under the light rail tracks and onto the street that leads to the road up to the mountain. At that intersection the traffic was so heavy that I had to ride on and circle back. Dermott found a gap and Chung dismounted and walked across the boulevard.

The climb began right there but it wasn’t bad, consistent by not steep. We passed some factories on the right and housing blocks on the left. After riding under one of the expressways we rode up through a tired neighborhood, this day made festive by the morning market that lined a couple of blocks. Chung asked us if we wanted breakfast and while neither of us said “yes”, he made it clear he did. So we pulled over in the shade of a Plane Tree and waited while he went looking.

Judging from the attention we get from parents here, you’d think we were able to cure the lame and heal the infirm. Wherever we go mothers and fathers bring their tots over and make them wave at us and say “hello”. This neighborhood was no exception and we quickly drew a substantial crowd. I spoke a little with a few men, telling them that I was an American and that I lived down the hill on Jinma Lu. Dermott relayed that we were Intel workers. One dad brought his son over to show off the tiny green plastic bike he was riding; I told him it was very beautiful. Chung finally showed up eating the Liaoning equivalent of a breakfast burrito – a giant tortilla wrapped around fried eggs. I guess food is one thing that we can always count on to transcend cultural boundaries.

While Chung was tearing into his food Dermott and I were having a look at a giant green blob that one of the vendors was selling. It looked like a lime green Jell-O mold with a layer of walnuts that had been formed in a mop bucket. We tried to get Chung to explain what it was but failed to understand. He went over to talk to the guy and came back with something for each of us - a Twinkie-like cake tube filled with something brown and semi-solid. (Those of you who work in tech have no doubt heard the slang for a gift from management that comes at an odious price. It has to do with Twinkies and their filling, and I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. This my friends was that mythical item incarnate.) Now I am scared to death of street food and this appealed to me about as much as a glass of hemlock, something that would no doubt have the same effect. But what do you do when someone hands you something wrapped in a baggie and tells you it’s great. I guess you do what I did; you take a bite, rave about it, wrap up the rest and stick it in your jersey pocket figuring you can dispose of it more discreetly at a later time.

Finally moving again I was beginning to wonder if we were on a ride or a tour. The answer to that question would become painfully obvious as the day wore on, but for now I was happy to be moving again.

Crossing a bridge over a trash-strewn storm arroyo we took a right and began our climb up into the park. On the right, a small reservoir was lined with people doing their morning laundry washing their clothes and beating them on the rocks along the shore. I’m not talking about a few, I am talking about hundreds of men, women and children crouching in that unique eastern style working the clothes and linens in the water. Done with their washing, people were hanging the wet items on lines were strung between bushes and trees while some were hauling their wet clothes in baskets back down the hill. I guess that this is how all the people living in the blocks below get their washing done, neither owning machines themselves nor paying for a laundry service. It has never occurred to me that here in a city of 6 million washing was still done on the banks of a city reservoir. If I was in some remote hamlet I would not be surprised. Here on the edge of modernity it took be back a bit. But it did provide a reasonable explanation for why the Dalian water supply is not potable.

There was no break in the crowds as we continued to climb. When the reservoir ended the cleaning continued along the feeder stream on the other side of the road. Along this section, men were dragging buckets up from the creek to wash their cars.

Finally past the washers we crested the hill at the parking lot where the foot path to the top of the mountain starts. We headed on towards the back of the mountain.

A mile or so down the road we entered a little village and passed a temple on the left. Elderly people dotted the shoulder along here, selling peaches and pears from their little gardens. One woman gave me a big smile and the “thumbs up” gesture as I went by.

Dermott and Chung had it in mind to ride up the paved road on the back side of the mountain but having walked down that hill back in May, I knew there was no way I was going to do it. But they wanted to look so we took the short spur up to the guard shack where the attendant stepped out in front of us, demanding some money. After a short debate in which I made it clear that they were free to go up with no hard feelings on my behalf, we decided collectively to pass on this grand opportunity and to instead head back down to the intersection and out of the back side of the park.

We had a couple of strenuous climbs before leveling off on a saddle along the side of the mountain. Here there were a number of cars and quite a few people, many carrying 50 liter plastic cans which they had brought along to fill at a famous spring that comes out of the rocks. The road was covered with water flowing out of these springs and down the hill. Chung stopped and asked if we wanted to take some time to freshen up by bathing in the spring water. Freshen up from what I do not know since it seemed to me that we had been stopping far more than riding. We said no and on we went.

The road changed from a decent asphalt surface to a cracked and holey concrete which was not helped by the fact that it was about a 15% grade. I was hitting 40-50 MPH with the breaks fully engaged, hoping that there would not be a car on my side around the next blind switchback and that I would not encounter a pothole big enough to send me flying. I was glad when we finally leveled off and rode on along a decent section punctuated by flooded sections and patches of mud. We passed through four or five small villages made up of short blocks of single storey gray brick farms houses with the beginning of this winter’s forage and fuel piling up along their walls. Bright pink Morning Glories choked the fences, reminding me of home.

The country lane ended at a bigger highway that ran along the side of a reservoir far bigger than the one back the way we had come. This one was set in the midst of a long, broad green valley and was lined with what appeared to be fresh wetlands. It occurred to me that this might have been the first such place I’d been to in China, relatively unspoiled, rural and actually quite beautiful. No trash, no people and little manmade destruction. The road cuts on our side were made though small hills of shale, making me wonder if there was an opportunity for some fossils in these layers. I filed that thought away and rode on.

Eventually humanity returned to the road side in the form of sections of buildings - repair shops, markets and restaurants serving the local populace. Two shiny and healthy bay mules stood tied in the shade of a broken billboard, munching on the long grass. We passed more people selling fruit and men sitting on buckets playing dominoes and smoking.

The traffic got busier but not so much so that we felt any danger; the shoulder was wide and the passing drivers gave us wide enough berth. We continued on until we found the route that would lead back down to Kai Fa Qu.

The quality of the ride changed with our next turn – this way was narrower and far busier with cars passing constantly. As Dermott was telling me a story about him nearly being run off the road by a truck passing in the opposite direction one came right at us as if on cue. Thankfully there was enough room for all of us but this little moment would be repeated many more times as the day progressed.

Along here pumpkins and giant sunflowers were growing wild in the ditches along our path. Three cows, the first I think I had seen in China, were spending their morning in the shade of a tree in front of their farm home. A donkey was tied across the street following the example of the mules back down the way. For some unexplained reason Chung pulled over here and began playing with his GPS. Or perhaps he was talking on the phone or texting some friends, who knows. Dermott and I pulled into the driveway at a brick factory and waited where I took the opportunity to sureptituously dispose of the Twinkie, still hiding in my pocket.

Heading onward we were passed by a giant semi just as the road began to climb. Chung did what he had been doing between the stops – he sped away from us and rode about ½ mile up ahead, hunkered down over his bars and beating the pedals in time to whatever music he was listening too. He went past the truck and we settled in behind it, bathed in the heat and the exhaust. It was moving up the hill at about 15 MPH, not a bad speed for us given the grade, but the quality of the air behind it was forcing us to choose between trying to out-climb it and dealing with being passed on the downhill, or just dealing with it until we topped the hill. We found ourselves in a scrum of cars piling up behind, some of them trying to inch in between us.

Chung had apparently decided to rejoin us because he suddenly appeared at the shoulder. Maybe he needed another stop. He stayed with me for a couple of hundred yards before squirting between the truck and the rock walls on the inside shoulder, a move that I would never have tried in a million miles on the bike. Dermott and I continued on, sucking exhaust and bathing in the heat from the truck’s overwrought brakes.

After a couple of false crests we eventually made it to the top and went up and over, screaming down the far side no longer able to keep pace with the truck and grateful for the cool air. We were in a dense forest along here and the rode was pleasant and shady. The road widened and passed the main campus of Dalian University and further on, the smaller Software University campus that used to house our temporary offices.

Finally out of the traffic, heat and exhaust we continued to roll down, passing teenagers waiting at bus stops, heading into town for the day. At one twin girls, late teens and dressed in identical purple polo shirts did a gape-mouthed stare as Dermott and I flew past.

Having only taken 2 hours to do an hour’s worth of riding, we had a chat and decided that we’d not yet had enough, so a plan was made on the spot to continue on to Jinshitan and so at the next intersection we made a left and fought our way through the line of busses picking up passengers heading out to the beach.

So ends part one, to be continued tomorrow.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Making sense of it all

I woke up early on Saturday morning planning to take a bike ride up to 大黒山, Big Black Mountain. One look out the window at 6AM though told me that the weather was not in a cooperating frame of mind – the residential streets that run from my place down to the sea were wet with rain. So I went back to bed figuring I’d spend my day another way.

At 7 I checked again, still wet but looking out the front it was clear that I had miscalculated – Jinma Lu, the main drag, was pretty dry. It must have rained in the night and the side streets were not drying simply because of their lack of use while the boulevards had been dried by the cars. Coming from the desert where the streets dry moments after a rainstorm one forgets that they don’t do so in this climate. I dropped into hyper-speed and made plans to go out for a ride.

I’d been browsing Google Maps throughout the week to see if I could find a way up to the mountain that didn’t involve one of the very busy boulevards. It appeared that there was a back way that not only seemed less busy but additionally shot off at an angle, reducing the total distance. So once dressed, down the elevator and after a chat with the security guard about my destination, I was across Jinma Lu and on my way.

When riding I use a fancy Polar wristwatch to track my heart rate, speed and distance. For some reason, the sensor on this particular bike is intermittent and it does not consistently record the speed. I was cruising along a back street fiddling with the watch when I was suddenly and unexpectedly reminded that I was violating Rule #2 of Bicycling in China – keep your eyes on the road. There are two basic rules, #1 being watch the cars/trucks/busses/pedestrians/horses like a hawk. Rule #2 may sound like #1 except it is far more literal- “Keep your eyes on the road” means just that. Not what’s going on ahead of you but what’s going on with the pavement. Now if it sounds like you needs 6 sets of eyes that’s because you really do – a pair straight ahead watching the vehicles, a pair in the back of your head doing the same and a pair scanning the ground to see if someone has stolen the sewer grates.

I wasn’t going all that fast when I hit the pothole. If one of the wedding video photographers I see all the time had been taping me through the sun roof in his car he would have captured the look on my face which undoubtedly was a gape-mouthed “Oh sh_t!” And it was probably a good thing that I wasn’t paying attention because if I had tried to recover I certainly would have been face down on the ground. Instead my natural self-preservation instincts took over and I came through it remaining upright. When I went by again on the trip home and took a look at the hole analytically, I was surprised I made it. It was about the width of an automobile tire, about as deep as a wheel up to its hub and 4 feet long with a sharp drop off on the leading edge. Not bicycle friendly in any way.

Having been reminded of my mortality I made a right turn at the end of the street and continued on to the intersection where I expected to find the new path to my destination. Stopping to have a look what I found was a road entering a chemical plant complex blocked by a big steel accordion gate. This is not unusual, the maps of this place might be accurate in terms of street placement but they often leave out the more subtle details like the fact that they run through industrial or residential complexes and so are not open to use. Disappointed, I decided to head the other way and see if there was some other way through. I picked the next road in the same direction and turned onto it.

Although this district is comprised of factories and warehouses the streets were beautiful – continuously tree-lined, wide, empty and sporting a great bike lane. Riding along and enjoying myself I was surprised to see a giant Buddha rising up above the trees on the other side of the street. What I found was a statue factory guarded by a big white Billy goat munching on the grass growing the entrance drive. I went past and stopped by the second gate, blocked by a minivan and had a closer look. The Buddha I had seen above the trees had a friend off to the left of equal stature. Lining the path from the gate were the busts of all the heroes of Communism – Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Lushun, Chao En Lai and others that I did not recognize. Behind them were slightly larger than life soldiers brandishing grenades and machine pistols, leading the troops into battle or foot or on horseback. My favorite though and completely out of place among the political and military statues was a depiction of two little boys sitting astride a giant sturgeon.

I continued up the road until I reached Huaihe Lu, an option in getting to where I was headed but far too busy for me to brave riding on. About this time I realized I had forgotten my frame pump which meant if I happened to have a flat tire I would be walking home. Another one of these little adaptations that I keep discovering, at home I use a CO2 cartridge inflator but here such a thing is impossible Two choices - take a chance and go on or keep my travels within a reasonable walking distance should catastrophe strike. I opted for the latter and after riding a bit up the broad brick sidewalk, I turned around.

Given the restriction of my boundaries I figured I’d just ride up and down some of the deserted streets starting with the first left turn I came to. Choosing the sidewalk for no better reason than I was already on it, I headed down the street towards a portable building that had been plopped down in the middle of the walk. I squeezed my way through the narrow path between it and a fence and ended up riding through a stretch of wild rose bushes which thankfully did not scratch the crap out of my exposed arms and legs. Continuing on I had a small brainstorm and decided to head back up to Huaihe and head down the other way thinking perhaps that there was still a small chance that I could locate my mystery road. The sidewalk offered an easy path so I stayed on it, discovering that riding down the marble strip in the center was much smoother than riding on the bricks. At least until I caught my rear wheel on an edge and had my second almost tumble of the day. It seems the roads will provide just as much challenge as the drivers.

One block beyond where I originally joined this road, I found the mystery street evident by the arc it made as it crossed the main road. Looking to the left it appeared to go on for some distance, contrary to what I had seen originally at the other end where I thought I saw it entering the chemical plant. Figuring “Why not?” I took a left and rode on.

This street was a bit different than its parallel cousins where I had spent the last hour. While not busy, it was shabby and gritty with lots of small shops, older factories and piles of junk in the street. I heard music up ahead and riding on I came upon dozens of workers out in front of their workplace doing morning exercises to a very strange Chinese Rap anthem. Divided into thirds, each group wearing a different blue, yellow or black shirt these young people were the retail workers in the mall there on the corner. These exercise programs are not an uncommon sight here but the music in this episode was very strange – loud and a little bit angry. They went through the motions, waving their arms from side to side and over their heads, under the gaze of their leader. I stopped to take a video before heading across the street to the realization that I had missed this street by only a half a block. The gated road into the factory was a different road entirely. I crossed and went into the little park by my apartment to do some hill work climbs.

Saturday afternoon was slotted for a trip to Metro to pick up some supplies. I had also planned to make a pass through one of the three Dalian Carrefour supermarkets. Jiang picked me up and on the way we had one of our famous Chinese lessons.

He asked me what I was planning for dinner and instead of trying to explain “Gnocchi” I told him I would be having pasta, or Yìdàlìmiàn which translates directly as “Italy noodles.” Divulging that led to a general discussion about Chinese noodles or miàntiáo which translates as “pulled noodles.” Seeing an opportunity for cultural enrichment I ventured forth in Chinese, explaining how Marco Polo, an Italian, had traveled to China and fallen in love with noodles which he then brought back to Italy where they created such a sensation that the Italians had claimed ownership for themselves. Whether or not that story is apocryphal is immaterial, it only matters that I have somehow gained enough Chinese to actually tell such a story even if it sounds to a native speaker as though I am brain-damaged.

Metro was out of many of the things I wanted and Carrefour was such a zoo that my shopping trip was only partially successful. The highlight was seeing a Chinese grandma being pushed around in a shopping a cart. Not the child seat, but the cart itself. She was folded up in the basket as her family deposited the daily shopping on her. Imagine seeing that in Palm Beach or Green Valley.

On the way back we got stuck in a big traffic jam that was compounded by the construction associated with a new road that is being built from Kāi Fā Qū to downtown Dalian. The street under the overhead highway was nothing more than a dirt track between giant mud holes that forced us to weave in and out of columns of scaffolding.

As we were discussing the nuances of what constituted a “bridge” we drove past a giant Walmart which then took our conversation in the direction of the names Chinese have for western things, brands and people in particular. Some of them are direct phonetic translations; others are translations of the function. Some are a mix of both and some have nothing to do with anything.

Walmart is “Wo er ma” which sort of sounds like what it sounds like in English. Metro is “Mai de long” and so follows the same route albeit with an extra syllable. IKEA is a funny one because its Chinese name is “Yi jia jia ju” which not only doesn’t sound much like how it should, but throws in a bit of confusion as the “jia” component mean “home” in Chinese which is what they sell at the place. Why IKEA gets relegated I do not know because the component sounds are common in their language. “Yi Ki Ya” would be a simple phonetic choice yet they chose a different path which is odd considering that “IKEA” as a word has nothing to do with home furnishings in our language. Of course if you want to go there you simply say “Yi jia.”

My favorite story in this vein though happened last week. I was trying to tell Jiang that I had been watching Le Tour de France in the evenings. The best I could come up with was Pǎo de Fǎguó which translates literally as “The Race of France.” He listened and asked me how “Mitterand” was doing in the race. I’ll admit I was a bit stymied by that question figuring that perhaps “Mitterand” was the only Frenchman he had heard of. I responded that Mitterand was not doing too well, given his age, that he was the President of France, not a bike rider and in fact dead. I told Jiang that 1st place was held by a Spaniard, 2nd by a German, figuring that Luxembourger was way too hard to explain and that 3rd was held by an American, Lance Armstrong. He nodded and went on driving.

Friday night when Jiang was bringing me back from a birthday party at “Bu lu ke lin” bar he told me that he had been watching Le Tour on CCTV5 and that “Mitterand” was in 3rd place. I was sitting back thinking about it when it struck me – I asked Jiang to repeat it a couple of times and “Mitterand” turned into “Mi Te Lan”. And then I asked him if Mi te Lan was Lance. “Yea, yea, yea” came the answer, Mi Te Lan is the Chinese name for Mr. Armstrong and I had completely misunderstood what he had been talking about. Another cultural barrier brought down.

Once my stuff was dragged upstairs and Jiang was sent on his way, I decided I had not had enough shopping abuse for the day and so I headed back out for a quick trip to Trust Mart. I wanted to pick up some meat for stir-frying but more importantly I wanted to find a head of lettuce for that rarity of rarities in China, a salad. I had failed to find any at Carrefour and when I got kicked out of the “credit card only” lane and subsequently had my cherry tomatoes fail to scan I was in no mood to keep looking. But all that time spent sitting in traffic had mellowed me to the point where I figured it was worth a stab. Well, the mellowing plus the fact that I had seen some there last week.

The other thing I wanted to find was The Queen of Fruit, the Mangosteen that wonderful tropical fruit common to this part of the world. For those of you unfamiliar (I’ve written about it before) you take a tangerine, make it the consistency of a peach, color it white like garlic and wrap it in a hard wooden rind. The taste is very mild and truly sublime and it is often served with what is known as the King of Fruit, the Durian (which is also in the stores at the moment.) The Durian though is known more for its stink and I say stink because it has enough of a well-deserved reputation to be banned in many places including hotels, restaurants and even the Singapore Subway. Variously the Durian is compared to animal feces, turpentine, and rotting onions. Mangosteen has no such bad traits, it is an "ultra-tropical" evergreen that grows only within a band around the equator here in Asia - from Malaysia to India and Thailand, north into China and down into Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. It cannot tolerate temperatures below 40F and will not grow above 1500 feet. It's a true rarity, extremely hard to find in the US and it's scarcity is probably one of the reasons its juice now sells for high prices in health food stores for it's purported effect in fighting a number of diseases including cancer.

I found some fresh but muddy heads of leaf lettuce and picked the one that appeared to have the least amount of questionable dirt on it. I had it weighed by the clerk and kept looking, finding my prized goal, 6 to a package. I put them in my basket and moved on, finding lemons and tangerines also pre-wrapped. Now you might think that pre-wrapped would mean pre-priced and sometimes it does. But sometimes it doesn’t and the only way to figure it out is to examine the stickers on the fruit to see if any of them are coded. These didn’t seem to be so I grabbed two packages of each and went back to the clerk. If you were handed two identical packages of pre-wrapped lemons and two identical packages of tangerines would you combine them in a bag in pairs and measure them as one? Well, I would but the clerks at Trust Mart have not yet figured out that time saving process; I stood there as she individually weighed and labeled all four of them handing them back one at a time.

Off to the checkout where everything was progressing nicely – lettuce, tangerines, lemons, tomatoes – until we hit the one thing I really wanted - the Mangosteens were not labeled and thus had no price. Rather than bring Trust Mart to a standstill and cause more grumbling about dimwitted foreigners I waved them off, paid and left.

If there is one behavior I have truly embraced here it is to be persistent in the face of these little daily failures. I was in no hurry to get home and my groceries were not so heavy as to extend the length of my arm so I decided to take the tunnel under the street in order to walk past the fruit vendors on the sidewalk. I figured two things might happen, first I might find what I wanted and second I might actually take that next step in acculturation – buying food from a street vendor. Instead of taking the tunnel under the intersection, I opted for the path through the underground shopping city where I could peruse all the junk for sale on the off chance that I might find some Hello Kitty exercise socks. (A joke, folks.)

Back out on the street I made a last section correction to my plan – I thought it might be fun to walk down the shopping street that runs parallel to Jinma Lu in between the wet market and the Friendship Mall. I’d been down this street once or twice in the winter when I was out for some air in the evenings, always marveling at the big slabs of pork and beef being sold, open air from big sheets of plywood supported by sawhorses. Today day though it was mostly cheap clothing and miscellaneous junk being offered to the throngs. It was body to body crowded and winding my way through the garbage filled puddles, shop girls standing in front of their stores clapping their hands to ear-splitting Rap while trying to avoid tripping over the guy wires keeping then tents in place, turned out to be pretty challenging. Approaching the first intersection I saw what I was looking for – two well stocked fruit vendors displaying an abundance of Mangosteens.

My options were the one on this side of the street or the one on the other. The guy running the closest stand was in the middle of a cigarette and I decided he did not merit my business. The stand on the facing corner didn’t appear to have anyone running it so I figured that was the one for me.

There was a young woman fiddling with the grapes in true Chinese fashion. People are serious food shoppers here and I’ve heard tale of women inspecting individual pistachio nuts when they are offered up in bulk. The other day at Metro I saw someone fishing through hundreds of packages of bacon looking for that special balance of meat and fat. I thought nothing of her handling each grape until she looked up and asked me what I wanted. I said “4” and she went behind the stand and picked out some for me. She told me the price and I fell into that tiny rut I often get trapped in, not quite hearing what’s being said. I thought I caught “14” but the rest was a blur. So I took out a 50 and a handful of change and offered them up. Showing your change supply is a good way of working with the seller, they will generally fish through the coins and pick out what they want and she did so quickly. The total turned out to be 14.40.

I took the quiet way home past the cobblers and under the lantern trees, now in bloom and heavy with their distinctive seed pods. Stopping to take a picture, I remembered a moment so long ago when the kids and I found a sapling of this tree and collected the pods to bring home as a gift for My Lovely Wife. So long ago and so far away, I took a moment to enjoy the memory before moving on.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Dragon devours the Sun

Having seen all those Earth Science teachers on my Beijing flight last week I did a little research and was surprised to discover that this year’s big solar eclipse was taking place along a path right through the center of China. With a better bit of planning I might have made my way to Shanghai or out to our plant in Chengdu but since Dalian is just 200 miles north of the path of totality staying put promised a decent show. The special thing about this one is the duration – more than 6 minutes and not to be repeated until 2132. Figuring I’d miss the next one I made plans to spend as much time as possible viewing it.

Were I at home I would have dragged out my telescope and sun filter and enjoyed a nice view but here I was going to have to improvise. I figured that at a minimum I could make a pinhole camera and do a projection, far better than nothing but some exposed film would have been wonderful. Who knows where to get a roll of film in 2009, I certainly don’t. Before heading out to work on Wednesday I watched the eclipse special on CNN and saw all those merry observers from the stock footage vault using their special eclipse glasses. Finding those here would be about as likely as stumbling upon a pile of fresh tortillas at Trust Mart. So I grabbed the only nail I could find in my house and tossing it in my messenger bag I went down to catch my ride.

Given that all the eclipse information was quoting Universal Time (UT) there was some debate about the time it was supposed to start here and it took a bit of research to understand that even though the UK, home to the Prime Meridian and the time center of the world observes Daylight Saving Time, UT does not change. Period. This was a key understanding because I was tuned into the fact that Ireland is currently 7 hours off of China time and I knew that Ireland was UT. But in this tricky case of deductive reasoning, 2 + 2 didn’t equal 4, it equaled 4+1 and the actual time in Ireland and the UK mattered naught – UT was UT and it did not move despite the fact that the blocks around the Prime Meridian add an hour for the summertime.

The event began about 75 minutes before the 9:36 totality, a tiny bite being taken out of the NE corner of the solar disk. The great thing about eclipses is that they last for at least an hour and even the smallest missing bit makes for an interesting sight. You can wander in and out and enjoy it as it progresses. I constructed my pinhole camera out of an old folder and a piece of white paper and it worked well enough through the office windows.

As the darkness progressed everyone in the office started to gather by the windows and in an empty hallway near the 3rd floor patio doors. One of the engineers had constructed an interesting device out of a folding mirror and a bunch of Post-its, the sun was aligned in a small uncovered space on the mirror and reflecting on the office wall resulting in a nice crisp image. Looking around I saw a lot of people observing through a piece of plain paper and I asked one of them what they were doing. They told me it was a pinhole camera but instead of using the pinhole to safely focus the image on a second piece of paper, they were looking directly at the Sun through the hole and focusing the Sun’s rays into a nice little laser beam straight into their eye. When I pointed out that this was really a poor idea I got that look that said, “I’m sure you don’t know what you’re talking about.” I began to wonder whether basic Sun safety was something they missed back in, let’s say, 1st Grade?

One of my co-workers showed up with her corporate health check x-ray chopped up into little pieces, just the right size for viewing. Serendipity, borrowing one I went outside to take some pictures. As the Sun disappeared the temperature dropped noticeably and while it was still late morning, the brightness of the day took on a shady, filtered look as though you were viewing it through a smoke colored screen. Despite being 75% obscured, the Sun was still impossible and unsafe to look at. We sat out on the patio for an hour visiting and watching. A couple of the boys performed a mock Aztec sacrifice in order to stop the serpent from devouring the sun. Other people came and went repeating the same goofy Sun behavior, squinting or looking through two or three pairs of sunglasses. As it wound down I took pictures at 10 minute intervals to show the maximum to minimum effect. While it wasn’t as incredible as it might have been, it was a wondrous thing and fun to see all my co-workers having a good time despite UV damaging their retinas. In some ways it was one of the best parties I’ve ever attended.

That evening my co-worker Mike asked if I would like to join him and his wife Lisa for dinner, nothing formal just something of a catch meal here in Kai Fa Qu. I had a few errands to run, all of which centered around Jinma Lu so I was glad when he texted me and told me to meet them at Chuān Rén Bǎi Wèi, my most favorite Sichuan restaurant. 川人百味translates as “Sichuan People, 100 flavors”, referring to the province and the spicy food for which they are known. Sichuan Province, 四川, means “Four Rivers” and refers to the four major watercourses, the Chang Jiang and three of its tributaries that rise in the Tibetan Plateau and merge in the plain eventually forming a part of the greater Yangtze Basin. Note that the character for river, chuan, is one of the few that retain their original intent – a pictograph of what it stands for, a flowing river.

I’ve talked about this restaurant before; it was one of our early finds back in the days when we were visiting Dalian at the start of the project. But since that time our regular hangout downtown was closed and replaced with an Apple Store which made me very sad, recovering when I discovered that there was a second one two blocks down the street from my house. So after collecting a few thousand Yuan from the ATM and giving 300 of it to China Mobile in (yet another) successful attempt to pay my cell phone bill, I made my way up to the 5th floor to meet them.

You sit in tiny kindergarten chairs at low tables and the menu is under sheets of glass on top. It’s a restaurant that offers so many options that it’s always hard to pick. One dish is always chosen – dry fried green beans with garlic. To that we added a traditional chicken and chiles dish, sweet and sour chicken and egg batter pumpkin. As always the food was fantastic, and worth extra mention are the sweet and sour chicken and the pumpkin.

As westerners, sweet and sour dishes are among the first things we eat on our maiden trips to Chinese restaurants. Even the best sweet and sour at home is a syrupy dish with some crisp vegetables and some batter dipped meat pieces, flavorful but not terribly interesting. At this place sweet and sour takes on a whole new meaning - the chicken pieces are been beaten wafer thin and dipped in rice flour and brown sugar before being deep fried. They are then served on a pool of brown apple vinegar and chopped scallions. The effect was instantaneous – sweet and sour the way it was conceived and amazingly delicious.

The pumpkin was cut into pieces about the size of steak fries and dipped into an egg batter and then deep fried. While the consistency was that of a limp French fry, the result was delightfully soft and sweet and succulently delicious.

Dinner over, we took the escalators down to the ground floor of the mall and stopped by Starbucks for a coffee. I had my first iced Americano of the week and picked up a bag of beans for my upcoming cold fusion experiment. We visited for a while before heading out into the evening, stopping for a bit to enjoy the ballroom dancers gliding around the open square.

You get in that kitchen and make some noise with those pots and pans.

Monday called for a trip to IKEA and so I arranged with Jiang to pick me up at 4 for the trip into town. IKEA is located right next door to Metro on the very edge of Dalian proper. Today though the weather was not threatening as it was on Friday when the sky opened up and we spent 2 hours making the 20 minute trip back to Kai Fa Qu. I really had no interest in repeating that experience as interesting as it was, watching the cars float down the rivers flowing down the streets.

I was curious how Jiang had made out on his trip back to the city after dropping me off in the storm. By the time we had arrived at my place the rain had significantly dissipated but there was still an awful lot of water on the streets. One of the unfortunate things about the whole driver program is that 95% of them live 25 miles away in town. And that fact was the #1 reason why I chose to live where I do seeing no romance in waiting for an hour or more for my chauffeur to drive an hour to collect me to go and buy a quart of Blutorange Juice. My life here rotates around walking for my hunting and gathering and that is exactly the way I wanted it. But while we tend to think of our convenience picking us up and ferrying us around typically means a hundred miles of driving just in the picking up, dropping off and returning to their homes.

Jiang beat me to the punch, asking me to take a guess. I figured it was probably twice more than normal so I said “2 hours.” “More” he said. After two more guesses I hit the magic number - it had taken him 5 hours to get home after leaving me at 6:30. That made me feel really bad and I said so and he replied “mei wenti” and said it was his job. I apologized again and asked what the delay was; apparently the whole road across the bay – six lanes and three miles at the level of top of the marsh grass - was underwater. So they just stopped the traffic and Jiang said he went to sleep until they opened the road back up. I wondered if his wife was angry and he said “no.” While I know that they understand the inconvenience to their lives, and that they signed up for it, I simply can’t bring myself to arbitrarily ask them to come and get me when I can solve the problem another way. I just don’t have it in me.

IKEA is now about 2 months old and the last time I was there it was sparkling clean and loaded to the gills with everything you can imagine. My goal for today was simple – a French Press for coffee, some rugs for my kitchen, a pillow for the couch in my study and some miscellaneous kitchen stuff. The first thing that struck me was that the place had lost a bit of its gleam. While everything Scandinavian tends to be pin neat and shiny, the Dalian store looked as though it had been used pretty hard. A lot less organization and many missing items led me to think that perhaps the bloom was off the rose. Odd though because 99% of the stuff on sale had been manufactured right here in the Middle Kingdom, so how was it that inventory could be low?

The coffee press was easy though – they had pallets of them and at the equivalent of $6 per I made the bold move of buying two. I grabbed a cheese grater and a nice stainless steel garlic press and stopped for a moment to take in the scene in the kitchen wares department. In addition to the items on the shelves, they had set up big cardboard bins of junky little items like peelers and melon-ballers. And each bin was 3 deep with people picking up the little items and holding them close to their eyes for examination. They’d pick them up and do this close scan turning the item over and over to observe every square inch of surface before throwing it down into the pile and fishing out another one. Not a single person left, they just kept picking and scanning and picking and scanning. For some reason all I could think of was a horde of Meercats sitting in the Kalahari on their haunches in a patch of shade outside their burrow in the midst of a Locust plague assessing every single dried bug before deciding to eat it or throw it at their friends. I didn’t see much buying going on but I did see plenty of shopping.

The IKEA Shopping Engineers have done a great job of designing the place to force one to look at all the merchandise. The store is essentially a one-solution maze and you walk around in giant zigzags from the entrance to the exit. If you’re not careful you’ll go in looking for pot holders and come out with an armoire, lanterns and a new carry-on bag. But if you look carefully you will find little wormholes that go from one dimension to another. They are typically embedded in the middle of a wall rack, surrounded with goods and covered with white curtains but they are there. With a little work you can go straight from furniture to glassware and avoid about 15 departments in between. In the past I have done the serpentine, today I took the time to find a way across time and space and in doing so saved an awful lot of walking.

The checkout guy inquired about my Chinese and told me what little I knew sounded pretty good. I’m getting his comment so regularly that I’m not sure if this is a country of really polite people or if there is actually some truth in it. I picked up a couple of IKEA shopping bags, loaded my stuff and was out of there.

On the drive home we had a talk about the quality of the air. It was pretty smoggy and the visibility was not all that great. Jiang called the haze something or other and we fell into our regular discussion about words; Chinese just has so many ways of saying the same thing. I didn’t precisely grab what he had said so I took out my iPhone and did some searching. It finally occurred to me that he was saying “mist” or “fog” and naturally there were a couple of ways of articulating it. There is “wù” which means “fog” or “mist” and there is “wùqì” which also means “fog” or “mist” with the additional bonus meaning of “vapor.” In a pinch though you can get away simply with “qì” which means “gas, air, smell, weather, vital breath, to anger, to get angry or to be enraged” leaving an awful of room for contextual interpretation.

The characters don’t exactly help either, wù is 雾and wùqì is雾气 so of course qì is 气 regardless of what it is supposed to mean. The simplest explanation is that qì isn’t enough so you need wù to give it enough contextual oomph to get the meaning of “fog” across.

If that’s not enough for you there is “yānwù” which like qì also means “smoke, mist, vapor, smog or fumes” adding that tiny little nuance that suggests that it might not be natural in its cause. Its characters are 烟雾 which as you can see uses the same character as wù, making it very simple to understand, right? Except that now the wù is the second term instead of the first. In this case the compound more or less means “smoke fog” which brings us back to “smog.” Heading back to wùqì while we’re still beating this dead horse, with wù in the first term and qì in the second the simple definition shakes out as “fog air.”

Clear as ní, yě, nínìng, and níbā all of which mean “mud.”

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

We went in search of art, and came away naught to the better.

I was feeling pretty wrecked after my bike excursion so I figured I’d take it easy for the rest of the day with a trip to town to try and find a certain artist for the Walters and then some quality time tuning up their family bicycles. Around here we expats have developed sort of friendly barter economy – I trade my wrenching skills for dinner every Tuesday night. So after a shower and some clean clothes I went out and down the street to meet them at Starbucks.

When you live in the tropics you develop little second nature behaviors that make being outside as pleasant as possible and walking along I realized that I had forgotten one of the critical ones that I learned in Shanghai – hugging the shade patches. In the cities of China most of the big boulevards have sidewalks commensurate with their stature. A four lane “road” will often have a parallel bike/scooter lane on both sides and a marble sidewalk that is about 2 lanes wide. They look very grand and they do provide a nice alternative for the cars and taxis that don’t want to get stuck in a traffic jam. The problem is, when the sun is overhead at the peak of July they are like strolling around Khartoum. Even worse when you consider that Khartoum is desert-dry and this place is like a steam bath. In the older parts of Shanghai, such as the French Concession, the walks are narrow and the streets are lined with dense-packed Plane Trees. But in the quest to modernize and to promote the triumph of the People’s Spirit, the city architects went the other way with the vast open spaces that serve only to use your head as a Tajine to bake your brain like so many sweetbreads.

The answer though is simple – you walk fast from shade pool to shade pool and only venture out into the sun when challenged by a minibus that wants to use your path. I was lucky on the early part of the walk as there are a couple of tall buildings that cast giant squares of cool, gray dusk across the whole of my side of the street. And walking between them only involved being seared for a couple of yards. Getting across Liaohe Xi Lu was another story as the asphalt offered a nice black body radiant heat source from the feet upwards. I made it though, but the path ahead was bleak – no darkness for at least two blocks. And did I mention that Chinese blocks are really long?

Passing the impotent (in shade production terms) Back of China tower, consternation changed to elucidation – there might not be any trees but there was something better – a half-block long, 15 foot high plywood wall protecting a construction site. I remember from long ago my death trek back from the Shanghai Zoo on which long run of these walls had actually saved my life and I shot across to the uninterrupted 4 foot wide patch of coolness that it was thankfully affording. Along with quite a few Chinese who were doing the same thing. While the Chinese might be aggressive when it comes to queuing and driving, they are quite gracious when it comes to sharing the shade, even stepping out in the sun for an instant when passing if both walkers won’t both fit.

At the end of the site I had to scramble across the expanse to a pool beneath a sad cousin to the Shanghai Plane Trees where I traded spaces with a young woman eating an ice cream bar who was doing the same thing. Eventually though my luck ran out and I had to cross the street to the other side where there was no break whatsoever.

I finally made it to the indoor shade and air conditioning choosing to cut through the cosmetics department at the Anshan Department Store instead of walking around to the front door. I ordered a Pellegrino (which required the young woman behind the counter to walk out in front of the counter to see what I was talking about and an apple scone, figuring the water and the carbs might speed my recovery from that nasty bike ride.

I was sitting and talking when I realized that my phone was ringing. Answering it I was surprised to discover that it was my driver Jiang calling. His English and my Chinese do not warrant an attempt at a phone call so I was surprised. He asked me where I was and I told him “home” which was of course not true - I wasn’t trying to avoid telling the truth, it was just that our conversation was so fractured that seemed like the easiest option. But then he told me that he was at my house and so I was accidentally caught out in an unintentional lie. We went back and forth like this completely missing each other’s point until he told me to text him. Good idea, wish I had thought of it.

Texting with your driver can be a hit or miss proposition. I don’t do characters on my phone and most Chinese do not read Pinyin, a device invented to help westerners properly pronounce Chinese words. In English, the ability of most drivers is limited to “What time pick you up?” and when Jiang told me the other day that he could read Pinyin a little light bulb went off in my brain. While writing it without the tones can be imperfect, if it’s simple enough and if the context is clear, communicating that way could be a genuinely valuable tool.

Switching over to typing I told him I was at Starbucks with friends and asked him what he wanted. His reply was surprising, “I brought you lunch at your house.” I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that information but while pondering my response he went on to ask if I needed the car that afternoon. Now we were getting into tricky waters. The drivers live very close to the bone getting paid little while being responsible for all kinds of work expenses. And they live for overtime which is something I rarely use, having decided long ago that I was not going to live in my car like everyone else does. So in that sense while I might be a really loveable boss I don’t generate much extra income for Jiang. The little wheels were turning now – was he out here and so decided to bring me some food or was this a blatant attempt to get me to use the car so he’d make some money on Sunday afternoon? It didn’t matter because in either case a line had been crossed. I ended the speculation by telling him that I did not need him that day and that I was walking to a friend’s house for dinner. He said “Okay” and told me he’d see me in the morning. Your relationship with your driver always a delicate thing requiring lots of attention as it can go from good to too good to very, very bad with one slight misstep. The easiest but harshest solution is to sit in the back and treat him like an employee while the grandest mistake is to make him part of your family. And there are a hundred shades in between. I like to sit in the front and talk because I get some education out of it. But you cannot allow an overture like this to be unintentionally rewarded. Of course, I could have dreamed up something to do that would have involved my car for the rest of the day. Do it once though and there is no going back.

Before heading into the city I asked for a couple of minutes to run into my building to see what the story was with the lunch. Was it with the guard? The building does have security and so I wasn’t quite sure what “at my house” meant. So while my friends waited I went up to my floor where I found two containers in a plastic bag hanging on my door knob.

Last time before leaving for home I had left some paintings I had purchased with Kris to be framed at an inexpensive but competent framer she had found. The work was good and the price unbelievable - $12 for a 3’x3’ painting with frame and glass. One of my pieces had caught her eye and so I promised that when I returned I would take her to the woman who had sold them to me. Her place was located in a multistory art commune across the street from the Shangri La hotel in downtown Dalian. Before going though we decided to have lunch and after much debate we decided on the one and only Tapas restaurant in the city.

There was some question as to whether the place was open and an even bigger question about whether it was a good option as the last time anyone had been there a lot of jack hammering was going on in the building which seemed to be under renovation. We called and the ensuing conversation taxed the language capabilities of both parties to the point handing the phone to the driver and asking him to figure it out. “Open” is easy enough, but asking a Chinese restaurateur of the noise in his place is just a tad beyond our capabilities. The answer of course was “Open and quiet” so off we went.

I’d been to this place a couple of times before and the food was a bit dodgy, as in croquettes with frozen centers. But in general they do a good job and the atmosphere is pleasant. I mean where else in China can you have lunch in Barcelona on a Sunday afternoon?

We turned out to be the only patrons for quite a while and it was quiet as promised. The dining room is on the second floor and it’s dark and cool and very, very peaceful. Spanish music played quietly, completing the illusion. The tables are set up high and you sit in these woven iron chairs that weigh so much that your first attempt to pull it out from the table always results in you being pulled forward into the back of the chair. The backs are so straight that you are forced to slouch but at least they have seat cushions which save you from having the woven metal pattern embossed in the backs of your thighs. We ordered the food and after a slight problem the waitress had deciding who was going to get the two cold Cokes and the two warm ones, it started to arrive. Garlic shrimp, beef tenderloin, potato brava, garlic mushrooms, spicy potatoes, Parma ham – all served with crusty pieces of baguette. A tapas meal is such an enjoyable way to eat encouraging a leisurely pace, good conversation and true enjoyment of the food.

After our meal we headed off to the art building and upon arrival we were shocked to find that it was gutted, part of the pre-work for a giant building project that is tearing down whole city blocks in this district to make room for a fancy residential/retail complex. Interestingly, the most famous “shady” bar across the street stands intact, rumor being that there is enough incriminating evidence on the government decision makers to buy a delay while a better deal can be worked out.

Two guys were sitting out front and our driver asked where the artists had gone. One of them came over to the car and handed us some business cards with a map on the back. We thought that we had hit pay dirt until we figured out he was giving us directions to the new location of the golf supply shop that had also shared this building. The business card guy suggested that some of the artists might have moved to the other art commune a couple of blocks away on Gangwan Square. So off we went again.

It turned out to be a fruitless exercise. I stopped by a guy who had sold me several paintings in the past; he remembered me but did not know the woman we were seeking. Wandering around a woman outside a stall made a big noise about remembering me and I thought again we had solved the problem. But while her art was similar (and she was similar too) she was not the one. And so our quest came to an end knowing full well that those people are out there somewhere, just slightly beyond our ability to find them.

On our way back to Kai Fa Qu we stopped at Decathalon, the local French sporting goods superstore where I was able to find some decent tire levers to replace that set of Park levers that had disappointed me so thoroughly. Along the way we were a bit surprised to see a Met Life blimp docked out in the swamps by the shipyards. Why, I do not know but I am sure there is a perfectly reasonable explanation, just like there is for everything else around here.

After fulfilling my bike mechanics promises (which included completely field stripping and WD40 drowning a Shimano thumb shifter) I headed on home with my nicely framed artwork. When dinner time rolled around I decided to have a look at what Jiang had left for me, two containers of the best stir fried Chicken and hot peppers I have ever had, the perfect meal for stretching out in my Poang chair in my big bay window and watching the setting sun cook the chemicals in the air.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

I finally get that ride in and I wonder how people do it.

After an expat style dinner of Italian sausage panini and a couple of decent pale ales, I headed home to watch Le Tour on my computer until my eyes simply refused to stay open. The results are funny when you move your body clock 12+ hours. The whole of my waking hours has shifted from a US schedule of 7AM until around midnight to wide awake around 5AM and completely unable to do anything after about 10PM. And when I say do anything, I mean getting settled into bed with a NY Times crossword puzzle and then waking up an hour or so later with the pencil in my hand and the paper propped up against my knees. If I’m out with friends or actively engaged in something at home, I can keep rolling. But the minute I put myself in a place of relaxation, I’m gone.

I had a good night’s sleep and got out of bed at 6, forcing myself to stay in bed for about an extra hour. It felt good even though it was very bright outside my drapes as it is every morning here where the sun seems to come up at 4. China’s single time zone policy is the culprit, this place really should be an hour ahead like Japan or Korea, but that would undermine the control. I do wonder what it’s like 3000 miles away on the steppes where it should be 4 time zones earlier.

I decided today to ride my steel bike which meant I had to change a flat tire that appeared when I unpacked it from my shipping container. In fact, both bikes had front flats, victims of Goathead thorns which had hitch-hiked a trans-Pacific ride by embedded in my tire treads. The irony was sweet, they are the bane of my existence back home and how funny to have them puncture me here too. The tires I have on this bike are made by Continental, the same German giant that produces car and truck tires. They are a very good product but they are well known for their intransigence in being mounted and removed. In other words putting a couple of Conti tires on your bike almost always means blood blisters on both thumbs. People have tried everything from mechanic’s gloves to baking them in the oven to soften them up but still they go on torturing consumers.

My bike tools are being stored in a drawer in my study so I went and collected the shiny blue Park Tool tire levers I had purchased just for this trip. Sitting down and preparing for the battle, I inserted the curved end of the lever and with an authoritative “snap,” it popped right out. This is not unusual – it happens just about every time I change a flat with these tires. But eventually you get purchase on the bead of the tire and you lift it out. I tried again – snap. And again – snap. And again. Now I’m sitting there wondering what I’m going to do. Should I ride the other bike? Should I swap the wheels out? Should I wait and see if I can find some levers at a local bike store? I mean, I was in a jam. When I ride, I always carry a set in my bag in case of a flat on the road and I wondered and it occurred to me about this time that I might have left a pair in the kit I carry with me. Retrieving it, the news was good – there was a pair and they were the skinnier kind that generally stands up to the bully-tires. My next pass was about as difficult as it usually is and I managed to get the job done.

By now though it was on the down side of 7 and I was missing my goal of getting out while it was still on the cool side. So I rushed through the preparations and making my way downstairs I was pretty shocked to feel just how tropical it was. I was sorry I hadn’t left earlier but not so much as to cancel so I shot a quick text message off to a Dermott, one of the guys I work with who said he might be interested and headed out of the parking lot towards the side street across from my place.

The first thought I had about riding here was that it is not adequate to simply look both ways when pulling out into the street. No, if you’re crossing a sidewalk you need to look both ways too. Not for pedestrians who will generally get out of your way, but rather for cars and trucks that are often using it for an uncrowded lane. And sure enough a green taxi that would have broadsided me came along as if on cue.

I got across Jinma Lu with no further near misses and shot up the shady side street past the busses idling while waiting for the factory workers that live in the dormitories off the main drag. It is very common here for companies to buy what is essentially a blocky hotel building and fill it with workers, 3 and 4 to a room. These young people come in from the countryside, get a job which includes small room lined with bunk beds where they spend their off time. Riding up the street, small groups of young women and men stood around wasting what little time they had chatting before boarding the tour bus to work. The street was wet and very muddy, remnants from the storm on Friday. In every tree locusts were singing loudly. Not the monotone whine we hear in our summer months but a loud, electric “beep beep beep” that trailed off into a similar whine. Cresting the top of the small climb and making a left I was surprised to see that the beekeepers were gone from where I left them a couple of months ago. Along this street the locusts were joined by hundreds of those same orange Dragonflies I had seen yesterday outside the big market yesterday.

My plan was to shoot down the road and head around to the park where I would do some loops while waiting to hear from him but he answered right away and so I took off back in his direction, somehow realizing that I had forgotten my frame pump. Since my place was between where I was and where he lives, I figured I waste 10 minutes and go get it. Taking an easy pace down the middle of the broad sidewalk – no point in dealing with the street – I made my way back in about 5 minutes and crossed the street. Heading into the building the first thing I realized was that I was soaking in sweat, far more than I should have been given the very light exertion I’d just completed. The humidity and heat were just that strong at this early hour.

I debated taking back streets in order to avoid the traffic but decided that it was time to do a little serious riding so I stayed on the major road a picked up a good head of speed. The cars and trucks were generally respectful of me along here, which really meant nothing more than I was not in their way. I climbed another small hill and took the big arc that brings the road parallel to the ocean. Fishing boats were bobbing just offshore and regional cargo ships stood anchored off in the distance. It was much cooler along here which was a nice treat. Just about here I got into a bad harmonic with a couple of busses. They would cut me off to make their stop, I would shoot by them. They would leave the stop and pass me, only to force the same situation down the street. It wasn’t much of a problem as the traffic was light and I was able to speed around them until I found myself in an almost bus sandwich. The red one in front cut me off hard, and when I went to swerve around it the green one kept coming fast closing the window of escape. It took a much bigger burst of speed to avoid being funneled into the diminishing gap between the bus and the curb and ending up riding straight into the people waiting to board. After that close call the pattern was broken and I went on my way down to Dermott’s apartment.

He was waiting for me when I arrived and I took a moment to check a problem with my chain that turned out to be precisely what I thought it was - my second rookie mistake of the week. When I reassembled this bike after receiving my shipment I managed to run the chain over one of the two guide “teeth” that keep in rolling on the derailleur pulleys. The effect is a consistently noisy and annoying buzz that immediately informs you of your incompetence. Lucky for me I had installed quick links on these chains before leaving and the upside was a quick repair. The downside was very greasy hands. I figured though that the mess would never stand up to the sweat and I ended up being correct.

The place where he lives is called Costa del Sol and it was built by a Spanish construction consortium. It’s absolutely enormous, starting at the street with rows and rows of townhomes that change into very tall apartment buildings as the complex creeps up a hillside. Inside there are trees and fountains and pleasant landscaping along with these weird Salvatore Dali inspired statues, no doubt the whim of one of the architects. I remembered a giant elephant with golden pyramids on his back, he being supported by long, long skinny legs with three knee joints. I had looked at this place when I was house hunting last year and had decided against it because it fell outside the maximum distance I felt allowed a reasonably short walk to Starbucks.

He wanted to stop at a little convenience store so I followed him up a steep, cobblestone drive that made me think of the hills in the Belgium spring cycling classics. Here I was on my very own Koppenberg on the other side of the world in 90 degree heat and 80% humidity, a far cry from March in northern Europe.

We took a short jog on a main road and then caught a lateral street through an industrial area. Along this road, there was no traffic and the respite was nice. Eventually we made a left onto one of the main boulevards that serves the port traffic and while the car volume stayed low, we were starting to be chased by a lot of big trucks. There was a lot of evidence of the rainstorm here with thick patches of dried mud lining the bike lane. In addition to traffic and people driving on sidewalks, road surface hazards require a high level of diligence. Along this route the grates over the storm sewers had been removed for some reason and the resulting hole would destroy a bike wheel if one was unfortunate enough to ride into one.

Our loose goal was to ride out towards the Jinshitan beach resort which is on the main road out beyond where we work. He had another riding engagement scheduled for the afternoon and so we had left our distance open. As it always is, when you ride with someone else of like ability the speed goes up and it wasn’t long before I looked at my watch and realize we were riding along at 22MPH. Once we made the turn onto the Jinshitan road, we found ourselves riding with a bunch of busses ranging in size from full scale touring to airport rental car shuttles. Again the old pattern emerged, getting cut off, speeding around, getting cut off again. Every once in a while we’d get a nice face full of black diesel smoke as the bus accelerated.

It’s interesting to cycle roads that you usually see from a car. Lots of interesting little details emerge – streams, fields, little house tucked in corners down below the road grade. Once past the bus traffic I allowed myself to do a bit of sightseeing as the road quality was pretty good. I did go past another storm sewer missing its grates, the hazard this time marked by two red bricks standing on end. Someone’s idea of helping I guess.

As we motored on, the temperature dropped a bit and a small sea breeze picked up, making the ride very pleasant. We were riding between green hills, shimmering in the haze. Passing the tourist office we were amazed at the sheer number of busses, parked and waiting to transport the crowds down to the beach.

Getting down to the shore required crossing the road and making a left on a exit that leads to a tunnel that loops back around under the highway. I hate this tunnel; in the winter it’s choked with ice that suggests that water is seeping down around the joints of the concrete walls. I really don’t want to be in there the day it collapses and I didn’t like the idea of riding my bike through the short, dark passage. While trying to figure out where to turn I blew past the exit and had to go a ½ mile up the road before a break in the median allowed me to turn around. When I reached the turn, I turned right past a busload of women who were taking pictures of us.

The tunnel was surprisingly easy and things were great until another run-in with a bus that was either going straight or turning right at an intersection we were approaching. I assumed “right” and was glad I did – he sped up and cut me off sharply just as I committed to the turn. A quick u-turn and we were headed back in the proper direction.

A bit further down the road we made a left and rode parallel to the sea. Here we could take a break from having to watch each and every car because the road was small and slow. Like every shore town, we had open air restaurants, stalls selling cheap souvenirs and sun-hats, bicycles for rent and big tents down on the beach. The number of people on the shore slowly increased in proportion to the services. It was a nice break between the breeze, the temperature and the smell of the sea.

At the end of the strand we climbed up and over the Golden Bay Bridge and turned back towards the town to make our way to the main highway. We were riding back towards home and into the wind and even that struggle was worth the slight improvement it made in the temperature that had once again risen now that we were away from the shore. A bus about to make a left turn took a look at us and went right on, forcing us to stop. Fifteen or twenty people were on their knees in a little section of grass, pulling individual weeds. Cars were speeding by us blowing their horns in case we did not know that they were there.

You reach a point in every ride when you think you might have just overdone it a bit. It came for me it came at 29 miles, the heat and the cars and the humidity were winning the battle. I had only the roughest idea how much farther we had to go and it’s too bad when a fun excursion turns into a slog. When it does, your resolve just melts away. By now we’d left the area along the water and it was much hotter than it had been on the ride out and that didn’t help with the psychological piece one bit.

But the scenery passes and you find yourself happy that you’re not going to have to climb that impending hill because your turn is just ahead. The road back down to Dermott’s place was now very busy with port traffic - all manner of construction traffic and big container trucks passed us on their way to some job or to pick up and drop off some kind of cargo.

I had about 4 more miles to go having said “goodbye” and the road was much busier than it had been back at 8:00. When I reached a critical crossroad I grabbed a quick left which allowed me to cut back to my building on easy, residential streets. One last little moment happened when I had to do some creative maneuvering to get across the last main street. I made a right, rolled a bit and took a quick u-turn right in the direction of a Chinese man on a bike riding along the other side of the road. He gave me a terrified look and shouted something I did not understand as I cut across his path and made a hard right turn. I found it pretty funny that I had managed to intimidate one of these guys in their element.

Back at my place the elevator was just closing but the young woman inside caught the door just as I got there. I must have been a sight – dripping wet, plastered hair, in bike clothes trying to squeeze my bike in the lift. She requested my floor in English and asked where I was from. We had a nice chat in our native tongues as I stood their forming a puddle on the floor.

42 miles was the final total, done on a bowl of corn flakes and a small yogurt. I had to admit I had not done a good job of preparing myself for such an epic, but that’s often the case when you head out the door with one thing in mind and ended up doing another, all in all though a good day out with plenty of time and miles behind me and some great conversation.