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.






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