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.

No comments: