Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Ride in the Country, Part 1

The roll of thunder rattled down the slopes of Big Black Mountain informing me that we were almost certainly going to get caught out in the rain for a second day. We were a thousand feet up a mountain road on our way to a temple nestled in a misty forest; ahead pigs were blocking the road.

Between travel to Ireland and poking around this place on the weekends I hadn’t done much bike riding lately. I always feel bad when a weekend rolls up and I don’t get out on both days but living alone in the city makes it almost impossible to get out on a bike in the evenings between cooking and shopping and drinking coffee. So the weekends become even more important. Despite spending the dough and taking the time to ship a nice set of rollers over here, my indoor riding has amounted to nothing – the pieces and parts are still in the box. From both a mental and physical standpoint my exercise suffers if I don’t devote Saturday and Sunday mornings to riding.

I made a plan with my riding buddy Dermot to get out early on Saturday but that turned out to be a bit more challenging than I’d planned as my Friday night extended to around 1:30 AM Saturday and when the alarm went off at 6:00, I knew there was no way I was getting up and going. We exchanged text messages and I rolled over for another hour’s worth of sleep knowing that the early autumn temperatures did not demand a 7 AM departure time.

The weather was not promising but it was hard to tell whether it was fog, mist or smoke. The day before I’d watched a big black plume tailing off from a 30 foot flame that was shooting out of a smokestack somewhere between my office and my house. That evening the plume had wrapped itself around Big Black Mountain giving it an oily opaque halo of sorts and driving home from my late night out on the town the air had smelled like fire. So what I was presented with as I left my apartment was more than likely something that I shouldn’t be breathing deeply. But undeterred I headed down to Dermot’s to collect him and to make a plan.

Before heading out from his place we had a discussion with his wife and driver about where we were headed. Miao the driver suggested a brand new road the led away from the resort area at Jinshitan up the coast on a northeastern slant towards North Korea. Hui, his wife wanted to exercise the dogs so we made a loose plan to follow a similar track with the intention of meeting up just before the beginning of the new road. Our goal was to try to get in a reasonably long ride, either 100 kilometers or 100 miles depending on our legs. They headed off in the van and we pedaled away following them towards a different new road that circled a peninsula which juts out into the bay.

It’s always an amazing thing to find a place that is right under your nose yet completely unfamiliar to you. This loop left the main drag between the hotels and the restaurants along the waterfront and angled away from the mainland roughly towards the southeast. We passed one large seaside villa construction project after another until we cleared the new building zone and dropped down into a cleft in the mountain coming to a stop at a span across a ravine that was comprised of a giant white steel tubular arch with supporting cables hanging down to hold the bridge structure in place. We stopped because the road was breached to allow some workers to lay some sort of big cable under it. Miao was there and told us to go ahead; we stepped over the gap and the rebar and continued on our way past Hui who was running the dogs down on the stony beach.

The road climbed and fell according to the whims of the mountain that it was wrapped around. Decrepit villages hugged the hillsides in each valley that dropped down to the sea. Many house stood roofless, abandoned we were guessing due to some impending coastal development and the relocation of the inhabitants. In California this would be Big Sur and each one of these little glens would be a multi-million dollar proposition. Riding on the villages disappeared and we were left alone with the trees, the sea breeze and steep climbs in the road that didn’t seem to belong here. We passed a reservoir and not much else until rounding a corner we were faced with an enormous chemical plant, replete with a docking system designed to accommodate tankers. There is legend in these parts of a plant being built out here in secret, its plan and its managers having been run out of town in two provinces in the south of China due to the toxic nature of its chief products. This might have been it but perhaps it wasn’t. Around here it’s often hard to know anything.

The land changed now, we were nearing the second largest port of Dalian and now we were hemmed in on one side by an endless stretch of factories and plants. It was quite a contrast to the forest we’d just ridden through and our path out of town from here meant riding shoulder to shoulder with trucks leaving the port. We made a left turn onto the main port boulevard and hunkered down for the least enjoyable part of the trip.

The road out to the Jinshitan resort area is pretty much a cyclist’s dream. It’s new and wide and it sports an excellent shoulder that is all ours aside from the occasional bus that uses it to pass slower traffic on the right. That and the taxis that have a tendency to drive down it in the wrong direction. By and large though it’s safe enough to allow some sightseeing and conversation. There’s a light rail train track on the right side and once past the tech factories there are open fields leading back to the blue mountains that run up the center of the peninsula. It’s a peaceful respite, much welcomed after the tense ride out of the city.

We motored along for a while until we saw Miao on the far side of the road beckoning us to make a left and come over – he and Hui had parked the car on a side street and were waiting for us. Unbeknownst to me, today was going to be a supported ride – Hui and Miao planned to ride ahead of us allowing us to meet them along the way for refueling, sort of a moveable picnic. We stopped for a few minutes and made a plan – they would ride on to town, pick up some supplies and meet us there. Mounting up we headed off and they passed us on their way to the next stop. We rode slowly to have a look at some raptors circling overhead, Kestrels I think, and an unusual sight for this place. Birds are few and far between here and seeing more than one raptor is a mild shock. I had an Osprey sighting earlier in the week and that about made my day. It being September, I wondered if we’d stumbled into a tiny piece of fall migration. In other parts of the world the geography of a place like this would be a natural staging point for birds heading out across the ocean to the next big land mass. I know nothing about how this works in Asia, and these birds might have been only a lucky catch but it was so nice to see them circling overhead.

Coming into Jinshitan we found Hui and Miao at the morning market picking up fruit to feed us, the weary cyclists. Hanging around in spandex among the shoppers in these street affairs often brings on a lot of attention. People want to talk about where we’re from, or look at our bikes – so very different than the black steel monsters most people here ride. Today though it was mostly furtive glances and outright stares including an old man wearing a Nike cap that simply stood there and looked me in the eye without saying anything. We moved off to the side by a bus stop to eat a banana or two before heading on. A woman came by with a basket, covered by a colorful dish towel. She set it on the ground before sitting down on the curb. A big russet rooster stuck its head out from under the towel to check me out.

We left town and headed out on the new road, passing by a cherry orchard which Dermot told me was now off limits to him and everyone he knows. It seems he and a few friends went fruit picking at the height of the season, agreeing to a bulk price before entering. When they came out the price had changed significantly and so they got into a bit of an argument with the proprietor. After a phone call to the owner and many insults exchanged between the drivers and the minder of the store it was agreed that either the original price would be honored or the cherries would be dumped on the ground and left where they were. They got their fruit, but as they drove away they were told never to come back.

We passed a short line of those concrete stanchions that seem to plague the central part of the province. I’ve been told that they are part of an ongoing construction project, building a high speed train line to Haerbin. But I’ve seen them all over the place in short runs, never more than a dozen pillars with a road bed connecting them and it seems an odd, sporadic way to build a train line. This bunch ran into a big building and stopped. It looked too temporary to be a future station, and yet it didn’t seem to have anything to do with the construction. I’m sure its use will become apparent someday.

The road hugged the coast and we passed through village after village dedicated to working the sea. We stopped in one for a snack and to watch a group of women in bright kerchiefs separating some sort of sea creatures. One of them was yelling something at me, I think suggesting that I take pictures of the crane and hoist system that was bringing big wet bales of fish from the boats off shore to trucks waiting on land. Hui told me that the woman liked me, I took a couple of photos and we road off as some sort of supervisor appeared in the doorway of the building no doubt curious what all the yelling was about.

Each of these villages looked the same – rows of peach colored concrete buildings surrounded by piles of fishing floats, crab pots and drying nets. The shore was rocky and covered with empty shells and trash. The little bays were almost covered from side to side with those small, distinctive Chinese fishing boats – blue with square ends that turn up from the center of the boat. The smell was pretty bad, a mixture of rotting seafood and sewage that poured from pipes straight into the water. It was tough to stop even for a moment, the stench being that strong. I took a few pictures and moving on I was glad that the road took a turn inland for a while.

Along this stretch we rode by piles and piles of shells in fields, mussels, scallops and oysters, often congregated around a pint-sized crushing mill run by a small diesel engine. These were small private affairs dedicated to turning out powdered calcium, for fertilizer I imagine. In one lot a group of horses stood grazing, this year’s baby among them. We pulled off here to go have a look at the bay beyond a group of buildings and as I made my turn two teenagers on a scooter tried to cut on the inside of my arc. By taking this route they more or less forced me to run them off the road. It was typical local driving – take the shortest path even if it doesn’t work for you; if he’d gone to my outside there would not have been a problem. The driver got the bike under control and gave me a surly look. I laughed at him and Dermot said that we had managed to turn the tables for once.

Up the road a bit Hui and Miao stopped us to have a look at a temple that was off the road along the side of a hill. They were talking with a woman who was tending to a pack of puppies in front of her house. They appeared to be the standard Chinese mutt, some kind of Pekinese or Pomeranian although one of them was a striking black and white and they couldn’t have been very old as they were very shaky on their feet. I told her the piebald boy was quite beautiful and she beamed with pride. We decided to go up the hill to have a look at the temple and the woman offered to watch our bicycles. I thought it might be better to keep an eye on mine so we took off riding first through along a muddy lane between a row of houses and then up a rutted dirt track through a field of corn stubble, big sheaves randomly piled here and there. It was a tough climb between the rocks and the sand and at top we turned onto a road that was covered with drying fishing nets. I wasn’t sure whether the owners were going to be very happy about us riding across them but we did so anyway, stopping in front of the main gate. A large dog stood there barking at us and woman appeared, tending the nets. She yelled at someone in the house to put the dog up and told Miao that the temple had been there only since 2006. There had been an older site up in the hills but the army came along and took it over so the villagers build a new one on this spot. We didn’t take the time to go in, it was enough to just have a look and ride back down the hill. Out on the highway, we were once again on our way.













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