Thursday, August 17, 2006

Chineasy Rider

As I said in my last post, my assignment yesterday was to send photos to Qingqi while the others did their errands. George and Bark had to get a visa extension from the cops and David had to watch the bikes and make a phone call to the US. I got a call from George on my cell as I wrapped up sending pics to Qingqi.
"How are they coming?"
"I'm in a rhythm now, got about 30 sent, and can wrap up soon."
"Excellent, everything is working out perfectly: We're getting the extension with no hassles and we found a KFC for lunch; David finally made his call, he found a tattoo shop that will sell him some tattoo ink, and he met a motorcycle gang that wants to take care of us."
"How you say, everything's coming up Milhouse?"
And sure enough, when I got back out to the bike, there was a typical crowd, but a whole lot of other motorcycles as well. These weren't your typical Chinese bikes, but a variety of Hondas, Yamahas and other souped-up Asian bikes. As it turns out, the guys all work for/own a motorcycle shop in town, and formed a riding gang with a logo, a website and an impressively large group of riders. When they first met David, they learned that we needed some repairs and these guys were the obvious choice. We didn't yet know to what extent they would demonstrate Chinese hospitality.
The gang present spanned all the necessary archetypes: the take-charge leader, the "bitch" who was employed as an English teacher and became our translator, the heavy-set tough softie, the older what-are-you-doing-with-these-kids guy, and so on.
"No money while you are in Ankang!" the leader declared to David. We weren't allowed to spend our own money when we were under their care.
First order of business was getting a place for the night. We all started up the bikes and caravaned, probably 8 or so bikes at this point, down the street to a nice hotel. We arrived and were ushered right upstairs to our clean, air-conditioned rooms: the gang had already paid for our accommodation. After dropping the bikes off, the whole entourage cruised back the way we came and were led to the bike shop, just another greasy hole in the wall, already sporting a decent collection of bikes parked out front in various states of repair or lack thereof. The English teacher interviewed each of us to learn what we needed repair-wise. One by one, each bike was taken care of; both requested repairs and fixes that the gearheads decided we needed. George got a new headlight, and new spokes; they pounded out my bent brake handle, readjusted my bent handlebar controls and mirrors; we all got our spokes tightened and wheels trued, our chains lubed, and so on and so forth. The heavy-set kid was a whiz with that spoke tool and he and a few other kids became greasy messes fixing our bikes and replacing parts at no cost.

George's bike getting some attention at the shop

We played the getting-to-know-you game and explained the route and the plans. One biker inquired about my leather jacket, asking if it was hot. "Yeah, I don't know how to say weenie in Chinese," George said, continuing the ruse at my insistence on safety.
"What time will you leave in the morning?" the leader asked George.
"It depends on how much we drink tonight," he responded.
"Oh, we will only drink fruit beer tonight (1% alcohol content) because we do not think it is safe to ride and drink," the leader responded, via his translator.
Everything was coming up Milhouse.
Bikes fixed, it was time to feast. By now, the posse had grown to about 20 people, including riders, ladies, and one biker's infant. Just as the hotel was within a few blocks of the bike shop, the entire caravan wound just a few blocks to the restaurant. Finding seating for 20 was going to be a challenge, so the grumbling snake moved from one place to another before finding one that could accommodate us. We wound up in a fancy place, circling up as many chairs as possible around a gigantic round table, many of the bikers sharing seats to fit. We were fed more than we could handle, sweating and dodging elbows and flying chopsticks in the tight quarters. A few toasts were presented from either side, but nothing overbearing or tedious: indeed these guys were rare in their ability to be traditionally hospitable without being annoying. They kept the toasts short, offered cigarettes only to those who smoked, and generally didn't over-insist when we refused things.
Sated, one of the bikers announced our evening's next destination: swimming!
Everyone hopped on the bikes and caravaned through the teeming city night, doubled up in each lane at first and then eventually stretching out into a long, rumbling train, drawing eyes and splitting traffic wherever we rode. We were led by the heavy-set guy who unfurled the gang's flag behind his bike and who rode with a visible pride at the chain that followed his lead. The city's buildings eventually gave way to a gigantic bridge, illuminated with chasing pink and purple neon lights. Rather than crossing the bridge, we hung a right, between a hill at the peak of which was a gorgeous illuminated pagoda, and a crowd of people buying ice cream and drinks from carts. The on either side of the river was up a steep shore which had been paved over with stadium-style stairs and seats. Long stretches of pedestrians and people seated at tables reminded me of the Seine river that snakes through Paris. We parked and descended the stairs to the rocky shore below.
"This is the cleanest river in all of China!" the translator explained. "The water will be bottled for drinking in the 2008 Olympics."
Everything is relative, but suffice to say I was much more comfortable swimming in this water in the darkness than being able to determine what color it really was.
On the rocks, everyone stripped down to reveal the most hilarious array of skivvies known to man. From George's black Speedos to the striped, high-waist briefs the Chinese wear. All the bikers whooped like children as they waded into the water, as if it were a barely-tolerable temperature rather than the balmy 70 or so degrees it was in actuality. The ladies watched our stuff while some guys bathed and some guys splashed each other. We rode the current and frolicked with the guys. It was downright hilarious to me how childish the whole thing seemed, but so unabashedly fun for everyone.
After swimming, the rest of my gang was tired, so I was the only one that agreed to continue running around with the motorcycle gang. The experience was so like any other motorcycle gang, just in China. We rode along the river and the crowds, again drawing eyes, some guys revving their engines occasionally or doing a quick maneuver around a car. We picked a spot to hang out, and as best I can tell, just hang around and look cool. While we hung, the posse grew some more, cell phones glowed in the darkness and more friends were phoned.
"Adama! You ba-ba-ba!?" one biker demanded, miming a microphone. Yeah, I'll sing.
Off to a karaoke bar, grabbed some tall Chinese beers, munch on the tastiest sunflower seeds I've ever had, thew bottle caps and shells around the bar, and generally acted like we owned the place. The mic was handed to me before any of my compatriots had sung. My translator had skipped out on the bar, so with my limited Mandarin I had told them that I could only sing in "American". I hoped they got it.
It was, in fact, an English song. A Chinese hit... friends in Seattle, you have one guess what song they gave me.

Yep, "Take it to your heart," the song that George so famously performed on TV a few months back. Well, at least I knew the first verse and chorus, right? I was waiting for the gay-looking host in the pink t-shirt to tackle the second verse in Mandarin, but it didn't happen: this version was all in English! I had to make my best guess, and I figured out a bit too late that the damn song modulates at some point, but whatever. I rapped during the instrumental break and got a huge round of applause from the whole bar when the song was over.
This morning, the gang took us out for breakfast before reconvening at the bike shop. Nearly 20 bikes were in attendance as the gang had decided to take a ride with us: get us going and then split off in the afternoon before making a loop back to their home city.

With most of the gang in the morning before our group ride

Four bikes get noticed in China. You can imagine the scene when a large Chinese man on a dual-sport with a gigantic flag leads 20 roaring, mismatched bikes through small Chinese towns. Old ladies and children counted the bikes as we rumbled by, drawing smiles and double- and triple-takes.
We gained significant altitude, finally escaping the suffocating heat for the first time this trip, and winding though mountains and along rivers, passing cave homes and other earthen homes. The turns were wound so tight that there were times I was sure a curve would wrap right back around 360 degrees to make a corkscrew, but would whip back the other direction at the last moment.
It's a trick, riding those turns. Imagine a hairpin right turn with a cliff rising up on your right. The right thing to do is to move to the left, toward the center of the road, to get a view around the turn and to make the straightest cut through the turn. But doing so is certain to make you at risk of the inevitable rock-hauling horn-screeching truck who is crossing the lane to trim down their turn. It's a balance, and it works, thankfully because we move at a reasonable speed. Today, as we rounded those turns amid dense mountain jungle, above terraced cliff-side rice paddies, rivers in the distant valley floors, the front or end of the caravan could be seen snaking through the trees and around past or coming corners. It was an exhilarating experience, start to finish.
Now, we're in a town for a night to do our internet stuff before we leave for slightly more rugged terrain and less technologically advanced towns as we cross into Szechuan province.

Part of the gang on our big ride, from their camera

And a couple more photos, while I am at it:

Daughters of a family that invited me in for dinner the other night

View from across the river of a town we stayed in for a few days

OK, I just got a call from George that they hear noise coming from upstairs at the hotel. Time to check it out.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Matt asks:
What was the noise upstairs??? Enquiring minds want to know.

8/17/2006 11:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, when you get to Sichuan, would you take some photos of the mountains and rivers....I haven't seen it in ages. I feel homesick.

Pictures of the open markets would also be appreciated. I miss the food...if I can't have it, at least I get to look at it. :-)

8/17/2006 3:14 PM  

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