Six months ago a friend of mine sent me his “Picture of the Day.” It was of a man loping a camel down the road in front of my office. Little surprises me about China, but this one was pretty good and I have to admit that when it comes to Pictures of the Day, I was more than a little bit jealous. I resolved to find this Camel-Man and get a photo myself but in the intervening months I had failed to find him until the day of the rainy bike ride when we saw him standing under a tree outside Dermot’s apartment complex. I was too wet and too cold to stop then and so I decided to be satisfied with a sighting.
Having been soaked to the bone the day before we resolved to have a better ride on Sunday. The sky though suggested that we were in for it a second time but we went out anyway, figuring we’d stay closer to home in case it started to rain. We had no planned destination though and so we decided that we’d ride up in the direction of Dalian University to see if the road over the mountains was open. Dermot had been there a couple of weeks prior and reported the road was gone, in the early stages of a complete rebuild. Not great news because it’s the one decent way up and over to the other side of the peninsula.
The ride up to the University is a long, gradual ascent on a decent road. Near the school the road turns into a series of rollers, inordinately steep on both the descents and the climbs. When we reached the top, the message was clear – we were not going any further. We stopped and watched the construction for a while, giving some truck drivers the opportunity to discuss us and out kit. A road went off to the left up into the hills and lacking anything better to do, we decided to take it.
It was a bad one, alternately mud holes and broken pavement but an enjoyable climb into parts unknown. We found ourselves riding along a long white wall – a mile at least – that I thought might enclose the back side of the school. Willow trees reached down from the other side, cloaking the top with their fronds. A disturbance up ahead caught my eye and for a moment I refused to believe what I was seeing – the camel was making breakfast of the willow fronds.
I pulled up and stopped to have a look. The Camel-Man was a wiry little fellow wearing a baseball cap and an orange safety vest. I tried to ask in Chinese if I could take picture, using the words I knew and throwing in a bit of pantomime; Dermot supplemented my gaps in communication. The guy didn’t seem interested in saying “yes” until I told him “shi kuai” – 10 kuai or about $2. He smiled and gladly accepted my bill.
After I took my picture he insisted that I put down my bike and allow him to take one too, of me holding his animal. I remarked that the camel’s halter was just the same as what we use on our horses back home, but I doubt he understood what I was saying. The animal’s clothing was a beautiful combination or red and gold brocade with leather straps. Our stop turned into a picture fest – me with the camel, Dermot with the camel, both of us with the camel, the owner with the camel - each taken with his camera and mine. Dermot asked him where he was from and if he remained with the beast in Dalian over the winter. It turned out that he was from Jilin, the next province up the road and on the border with Russia and North Korea. And yes, he did spend the winter down here. I wondered where he spent the night every day.
We said “goodbye” and continued up the road, not knowing or caring where it was heading. I was more focused now on a couple of hawks gliding along a ridgeline and the now regular rumbles of thunder rolling down the hills. The mountain was obscured by a mist so thick that could only mean one thing – more rain. We passed through a small village where the road turned into a stream bed for a moment or two. Yet another dog in the road sized us up and decided that we were not worthy of a go. A woman sat in a shed selling incense, indicating that there would be a temple up ahead. We rode on through the woods, silent except for the occasional echo of the thunder overhead. Rounding the corner we were faced with a pack of pigs rummaging along the roadside. As we rode by I saw an even bigger pack of piglets off the road among the trees.
The road ended at a cul de sac and what might have been a school or some sort of government outpost. A small sign pointed the way to the temple, up some stairs into the woods. We passed on that opportunity, instead stopping to look at the twin Mongolian yurts that had been built on the premises. This place was a bit strange. We turned around and went back down the hill, this time having to stop because the pigs were now blocking the road. Being a city boy I don’t know much about them or their behavior, but I figured getting between them and the piglets was not a great idea. They went off the side and we went on, but the biggest sow stood her ground keeping a wary eye on us. I stopped to take a couple of photos and she kept on grazing with her left eye on us all the time. We said “goodbye” and rode on.
The Camel-Man was gone when we went by his spot. We tried a side road that led through a long series of junky buildings with what seemed to be recycled building materials piled out front. A friendly guy on a motor scooter told us the road was a dead end and that Big Black Mountain was in the opposite direction; something we knew well enough and something he thought we needed to know. We turned around and headed back down the hill. At the bottom we got in the way of a couple of workers hauling a big sump pump down the middle of the muddy lane. We stopped to allow them to pass and as they did, one them pointed out that we were looking pretty muddy ourselves. We laughed, and so did he.
Back on the road and once again the telltale black spots on the pavement – we were out in the rain for a second day. This storm though was graciously slight and while we did get plenty wet, it was not nearly as bad or as dangerous as the day before. As we went on down towards town, we passed the Camel-Man, riding a bicycle and loping his pal up the hill, no doubt heading back to the spot where we had found him, hours earlier. I would have loved to have that picture, but the rain and the wind made it clear it was time to head home.