Sunday, February 07, 2010

To the White Sea

I spend a lot of time on the weekends riding my bicycle. Not only for the exercise, but to get out of the city and to be where real people live. At the very beginning of my assignment I went far out into the countryside with my driver heading to a temple that he wanted to visit. We drove down dirt roads between lines of small mountains, covered in the bare trees of the season. The roads were lined with villages sleepy in early winter’s grip, preparing for the long cold and dark season ahead. I’d not seen places like this in my life and I stared out the window as we drove past in a mix of awe and sadness for the lives of these people. I don’t think I can even imagine what it must be like to be born in such a place, not knowing what lies just beyond the ridgeline. A world of lights and sounds impossible to know. I thought hours of driving had brought me to the real China, far beyond the influence of the cities where I spent my time. I figured it took all those miles to move from one reality to another, so you can imagine my surprise finding the same way of life when I began to venture just over the mountain from the place I live. You don’t have to go far in China to find the past, it’s right there five minutes and a left turn beyond the factory where I work.

Some time ago, a friend of mine told me that my cycling stories were boring. I wasn’t sure how to take that review so I told myself that he was overlooking the subtleties of my narrative. Fancy words I guess for “missing the point”, but that’s what’s going on. I’m sure some of it is my abject lack of skill in conveying the moment, and I suppose the rest of it belongs to him – a guy who sees the big things in life while walking right past the little ones. Well, I think life is a collection of tiny bits of time that adds up to a whole, a fabric if you will. And each thread in that fabric is a moment to savor, no matter how good, bad or inconsequential it might be. For me, spending time on my bike out in the country is about collecting those threads. And if he can’t see that, well I suppose it’s his problem. I share the things I see because they’re important to me. If someone else is moved, then I suppose I’ve gotten what I wanted.

It has been very cold here recently and the extremities of weather make cycling a rather hard undertaking. While my riding partner Dermot and I have not had to endure days like the one we spent in the monsoon last summer, we have had to deal with the cold and the wind, the two things that make Dalian what it is in the wintertime. But with those challenging meteorological moments comes many rewards. Seeing village life in January’s China is fascinating – women doing laundry in square holes chopped in the ice or in whatever open water there is, donkeys sporting little red tassels on their halters tied up in warm little nooks out of the wind and dozing in the sunshine, cows lying by the side of the road doing the same, people up on their roof milling the corn they put up there last fall, old men trying to find one last little bit of firewood by trimming the unimportant branches in their cherry orchards. Life here in the winter is about keeping warm, staying fed and making sure that the animals make it through to spring when their work begins.

We leave Kai Fa Qu on a main road that bisects an industrial park which has appeared only in the last 5 years. When I first came here in 2006, our factory site was a weedy field, home to a single farm house. On that day people came out and stood by the side of the road smiling and waving. In their place today stands an engineering marvel, soon to be cranking out those little slices of silicon that make our lives so much busier. I wonder where those people are today, probably at home in one of the hundreds of high rises that we pass on the way out of town. On this day, two enormous inflatable golden temple dogs stand guard in front of a convenience store, brought there no doubt to announce some sort of promotion. People from the apartment blocks stand there staring at them as if expecting them to spring to life.

Our road has a short gap of rocks and sand that forces us to grapple with trucks and cars for what little passage there is. Why it’s there is beyond me – decent pavement extends on both sides of it. Probably an artifact from some other construction project that was simply ignored when the big work was done. It’s typical of China to find these little gaps in the modern infrastructure. Perhaps someday it will be paved, perhaps not. For now it’s a just another obstacle on the road and the people who use it have simply learned to adapt.

The goal on this day was to ride across the Liaodong Peninsula to the Bo Hai Sea, north of us and the major sea lane to Tianjin and Beijing beyond. When I was riding home from Shanghai last week I happened upon an article in the English language newspaper, China Daily, concerning ice on the Bo Hai supposedly the worst in 33 years. Like most stories in Chinese newspapers this one focused on the human impact – the people who lived on the ice-bound islands who had to resort to bringing fuel and food across the floes on donkey carts. And the potential impact to the aquaculture industry, ponds frozen solid for the first time in anyone but the oldest citizen’s memory. I saw the photos and knew I had to go if only to verify that it was as dramatic as the reporter claimed.

We have a route that cuts straight across to the other side. In some places it’s beautiful – shady stretches lined with Plane Trees, their trunks painted white halfway up creating the illusion that you’re somewhere in the middle of rural France. In others the typical grimy side street so common here. Once past the economic corridor that runs down the center though, it’s all about peach orchards, dusty villages and eventually, fishing. Up and over the first climb, we passed a group of men watching their donkey gets shoed. We rode past but I stopped and decided that this was an opportunity not to be missed. We turned around, went back and made our introductions. I asked politely if I could take some photographs explaining that my wife back in America had many horses and would find pictures very enjoyable. Of course there was no problem – Chinese people are always willing to visit with a couple of guys dressed as though they’d just stepped off of a spaceship. The farrier smiled and posed as he went about his work. The donkey, chained up and hanging in the air from a wooden beam didn’t seem to be as willing to participate in our visit. Every minute or so he’d try to kick with his bound hind leg and this got a reaction from the men who admired his spirit but laughed at the futility. Whenever we stop to talk to people our bicycles are the center of attraction. The men pick them up and comment on their lightness. They squeeze the tires and insist that all of their friends do the same. They smile and look at each other with childish grins, genuinely amazed at what we call a bike, ours being so much different than what they’re used to. One man here was impressed with the water bottle, another with the saddle. They passed my bike around, lifting it up to their shoulders before handing it to the next guy down the line. Conversations are difficult here though as the rural dialect is tough to understand. They get us, but we don’t get them. Jiang, my driver, told me that they speak “Jinzhou farmer Chinese” and even though we’re no more than 10 miles out of Dalian, it’s impossible to understand them. It doesn’t matter though because the gist of what’s going on is good enough for everyone present. Every time I make one of these stops, I go away glad that I did.

Much of our navigation is done by dead reckoning – keeping the sun at our backs as we head north for example. The finer details can be drawn out of our GPS, but the map in those devices is often nothing more than the dream of some cartographer, not content to leave empty spaces on his maps and so filling them with roads that don’t exist. Adding to the confusion is the built-in offset that the Chinese government insists on, lest we try to call in some Special Forces helicopters for an extraction. It shows our position a few hundred yards west of where we actually are. The result of all these confusing inputs is that we often stop at crossroads, take a bearing on the sun, look at the GPS and then ask some unlucky person strolling by if our assessment is correct. This time we stopped on a bridge at a crossroads that we knew, trying to verify if the road ahead would be just as good as the right turn we normally took. A group of 5 young men stood kitty-corner to us watching, talking and smoking. I was pretty rapt with the map when I looked up and saw one of them standing right next to me looking over my shoulder. Dermot said hello and asked him if the road ahead led to the sea. The young man confirmed that it did, adding that it was a shortcut to the next town over. On the chance that he was right we mounted up and headed out of town; he crossed back over to his friends. It turned out to be a shortcut all right, a more direct route at the expense of one of the toughest hills I’d climbed in China. We’ll never know if he failed to mention this because he thought it was unimportant or because he thought it might be fun to stand there with his friends watching us struggle up into the distance.

At the top of that climb and down the road a bit we came to another village where we stopped to talk to a man walking down the road. We asked if the sea was up ahead and he laughed and replied that we were going to wrong way – the sea was behind us. Well yes, we knew that but we were asking about the other sea. His Chinese was even more difficult to understand than most that I’d heard; he was speaking in a strange cadence and quite a bit louder than was called for considering that we were in the middle of a deserted town. A very old woman stood off to our left, watching what was going on. This guy fell into the routine of checking out the bikes, for some reason being fascinated by the air valves on the tires. Now I suppose these are interesting, but certainly not to the level that he was squeezing and poking them. The old woman crossed the street and walked behind us, saying something in a wise but quiet tone. I suspect she was telling us that we were asking directions from the village idiot, a suspicion that might have been confirmed by the string of spittle that was now hanging from his lower lip. We thanked him and left.

Last August was our first time on this route and the temperature that day was a killer. By the time we made it home we were all about to die from the heat. Today the temperature was probably 60 degrees colder and the wind was taking its toll, at least from me. We passed a long line of those greenhouses typical of rural China, quarter circles facing the sun, covered in plastic and topped with straw mats that are rolled down at night to retain the heat. What made these special though were the little concrete-block houses at the end of each line – white-washed squares topped with a red and blue striped dome, like so many tiny mosques out here in the middle of nowhere. Line upon line of them hugged the road as we hunkered down into the wind. At the next village I stopped to put on a wind shell, remarking that it was very unusual to be adding clothing mid-afternoon. Normally it’s the other way around.

Riding across a causeway that passed through the salt marshes, we figured out why the temperature had plummeted so. We were now within a couple of straight line miles of the Bo Hai and the wind here was blowing across an expanse of dry reeds and frozen ponds. This little traverse was pretty bleak and we agreed to stop in the next village to get a Coke and perhaps a candy bar. We crossed to the far side and rode back up onto the land. Rounding a corner we found ourselves in Qiaomaishan, the same little village that we’d fueled up in last time out whose name means “Buckwheat Mountain.” We stopped at our favorite store and parked, out of the wind and in the sun. It was nice to warm up for a moment.

I sent Dermott in to do the shopping and while I waited a young man in army fatigues came by leading a dog and a puppy on a long piece of green plastic rope. Another man had been walking by with one of those typical Chinese rat dogs, bred to look like miniature Temple Dogs. To us, they’re more or less Tibetan Spaniels. This guy’s dogs did not like the others and he had a time restraining them until the Spaniel got the picture that it was facing imminent death and so wandered off. The battle past, he said hello to me and tied the dogs to the lamppost in front of the store. The bigger of the two was what I call a Chinese German Shepherd. Their conformation is similar to the western version, but they’re a bit smaller and while two-toned, the light patches are distinctly red. They must be a common breed in the rural areas because I see them all the time. The man went into the store to smoke a cigarette with the store owner. The puppy was wandering back and forth and in doing so managed to untie the slip knot that the guy had made. As the dogs were about to go free, I rapped on the window and told him that his dogs were about to leave. He was very surprised and hugely grateful. He came out and re-tied them, thanking me in English.

Every time we stop in these places, people come out to idly walk by and check us out. The village elders are usually first, followed by those of parenting age. Girls love to walk by and giggle and the teenage boys slink past sullenly playing with their cell phones. You can tell they’re interested buy they’ll never let on. We stand and drink our Cokes and nod, always taking the opportunity to say “hello” when the children are brave enough to do the same.

From Qiaomaishan to the sea was no more than a mile and rounding the corner we were faced with an endless expanse of frozen sea – glassy smooth in the bays and choppy and white out where the waves have a stronger effect. Down by the shore, Chinese palapas stood abandoned on the rocky shore, side by side with the wooden fishing boats pulled up for the season. We rode up the coast on a brand new and completely abandoned road stopping here and there to take photos. Far off in the distance, a small island stood completely ringed in white. At the end of a dirt track we found the most perfect view – frozen aquaculture impoundments up front, a small patch of green-blue open water in a cove and ice all the way to the horizon. Two big dogs stood in a cage at a corner of a jetty guarding who knows what. The scene was precisely what had been in the newspaper – the sea was no longer the sea.

The ride back was improved by having all that cold wind at our backs. The sun was now heading towards the western horizon and so offering no heat. We rode on talking about food, and how good that pizza was going to taste at the end of the hour it was going to take us to get home. Talking about food at the end of a ride is never a good idea, but today with the sun slowly disappearing, a strong tailwind and a day full of moments behind us, it seemed reasonable to bend that rule just for once.
















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