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.












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