Saturday, August 12, 2006

If you've got a warrant, I guess you're gonna come in

Any final lingering nuggets of doubt as to whether this trip was the right decision were banished immediately after hitting the road. We decided to head south east towards Qufu and wound up taking a route that George had never tried before. We had to worm our way through some nasty traffic and lung-clogging construction zones, but once we broke free we were treated to the most incredibly beautiful mountain road. It was a long series of switchbacks snaking up the mountain with, of course, blind corners, sheer cliffs, and no guard rails. But we took it at a leisurely pace and I am very generous with the use of my horn, so there weren't any close calls.
We stopped for a quick rest in the midst of the turns and David looked down to notice that all of the weeds growling along the side of the road were of the cannabis variety. Apparently it isn't harvest season, but in a few months, it's likely to be a rather illicit mountain pass.
I immediately realized, as we wound through the mountain, that it is going to be nearly impossible to convey the details of the beauty that we've seen on the road. It passes so quickly- each tiny moment of a smiling old man's wrinkled face, a family bathing in a reservoir, a waterfall cascading down a brick wall, the stunning greenery of the mountains- there is no way to photograph them, and there are so many of these flashes of beauty that I will never be able to remember them all either. And I feel very pretentious documenting endless lists of adjectives to convey in type the things I've seen, so it will be frustrating, my inability to share all of it.
It's astounding to me that the bikes attract as much attention as they do. China has tons of motorcycles, plenty of them laden with luggage on the back. Ours aren't nearly as loud as the local bikes, and with the exception of me, we don't even honk as much as the locals. Yet everywhere we go, we are noticed. Groups of men sitting on little wooden stools along the road, wearing only shorts and fanning themselves in the sticky heat smile large toothless grins as we rumble past. We get double- and triple-takes as we weave through traffic in town. Maybe it's the fighter pilot helmets the other guys are wearing, maybe it's the fact that there are four of us on matching bikes, whatever it is, we are noticed. Crowds gather when we stop, and people are giddy with excitement at the opportunity to help us with directions or sell us food. It's a funny thing in China, the technology: I'm accustomed to traveling in third world countries where locals are baffled at the LCD display on my digital camera. In India, everyone asked me to mail them photos I'd taken of them. Not email, snail-mail. But here in China, even in the tiniest food-stop town, once word gets out, the locals whip out their cell phones and start snapping photos of us.
All of the attention is perfect by me. Everything being relative, and with the oppressive amount of attention I received in Ethiopia at one end of the spectrum, I find the amount of attention pleasant here. Of course it strokes the ego, but hey, it's fun. Yesterday we took our hoteliers' daughters out for a spin through the city after they carried on for so long telling me that I am beautiful and interesting. After doling out compliments like that, it was the least I could do! These same girls had been a source of comedy our entire stay in Qufu: at one point I went down the hall and could overhear them in the lobby practicing saying "good-ah morning" so they could say it to us in the morning. And after we'd settled into our rooms for a few minutes, they showed up at the door with bug spray in hand, sprayed a few already-bugless places on the wall, giggling all the while, hardly covering that they really just wanted another chance to see and interact with us.
Each day on the road has a different set of hazards. On the whole, again with everything relative, the road conditions and traffic dangers are far less than I had feared. I last traveled in India, I've driven a motorcycle in Saigon; while China is insane and always dangerous, I have definitely seen worse. Nonetheless we are always on. One moment it is the truck barreling the wrong way down my lane, and the next it's the old man in the motorized tricycle deciding to suddenly stop in the middle of the lane. I had a conversation with my dad about the perils of patches of gravel on concrete after his friend dumped his Harley recently. But we didn't talk about the perils of entire multi-mile stretches of freeway dusted with a sprinkling of gravel. We're always on. Pick and move, pick and move.
The influence of 1403, the name given to the three guys I'm traveling with, originating from the address they lived in a few years ago, is apparent and definitely something to watch for. While my standards of hotel cleanliness have increased over the years, and I don't mind spending a whopping $6 per night for a decently-clean AC room, these guys came from 1403: a home that I swear was eerily replicated in Fight Club. They are accustomed to filth, and need to be careful with money, so squalor it is. I'm becoming accustomed to touching nothing as I go about my tasks in these rooms and bathrooms. But it all works together: I get off the bike drenched in sweat and covered in road dirt. Washing it off only lasts a minute as the humidity and filthy air reapply it instantly. So what's the big stretch from just letting facial hair grow due to a lack of hot water? Or of having to close the eyes and breathe through the mouth when in the toilet? Rather than fight the filth, I will have to embrace it. And for some reason, the local girls get all giddy when we make eye contact, despite the grime. We had the motorcycle company create documents that say something to the effect of "These men, (our names) are American Heroes who are here to ride these motorcycles across our lovely country. Don't arrest them; help them." So maybe that's how we roll: we come in thinking we're heroes and the locals pick up on that and want to treat us like them.
I've always drawn a tight connection between the thoughts and behaviors of 1403 and Fight Club. It was in the back of my mind when I decided to take this trip, and only reinforced as I re-watched it on the flight here. I knew it was just a matter of time, but sure enough, with a few bottles of baijo, beer, and Stoli in us, I found myself exchanging punches with David in an alley last night. It isn't me, at least the me at home, but I knew it would happen and I rolled with the punches, if you will. It was fun. So on top of the sore back and neck from the riding, I have a few bruises on my shoulders to add to the collection. All of the pain blends together though: already, I long for a portion of my ass that doesn't hurt from the hours in the saddle, I have to stretch my neck and shoulders all the time due to cramping, and a soft bed is still a few months off, so what's the harm in a couple more bruises?
After all of the fighting and carousing last night, I awoke this morning to the hotelier opening our door and walking in. All I could do was give him an expectant look. He was followed by two cops. We were all pretty hazy on how we got home last night... there was the KTV karaoke joint that we rocked and probably blew a few speakers in, there was the carrying-on with the group of drunk local twenty-somethings on the food stall street, there was the drunken ride in the three-wheeled taxi where we hung out the windows, soaking in the humid night air, and of course there was the fighting in the alley... what did these cops want? They started talking to me.
"Ting bu duong" I repeated over and over, one of my most practiced expressions: "I don't understand". The cops were talking, the hotelier was talking. Bark, in the other bed, just kept blinking.
"Wo de pong yo" I said, pointing towards George's room. "My friend." Eventually they got it that I didn't understand but my friend did. So I listened around the corner while George was rousted from his state of lip-smacking, muttering and snoring, and was brought back to consciousness. After some back-and-forth, he learned that they wanted our passports. I came in with Mike's and mine, and they filled out a large pile of paperwork on us. George explained that he was pretty sure they weren't allowed to have foreigners in this hotel and they just needed to get our information, possibly fining the owner, but he, like the cops, seemed very calm and civil. It was quite a sight, though; George in his bikini briefs with a cop standing next to his bed and another sitting on the bed next to him. As the cops left, one patted one of the motorcycles on the seat and smiled a humble grin at the bike. George marveled at the situation: apparently it's a grey zone as to the legality of foreigners owning motorcycles in China and tearing around their very cagey country at will, but perhaps they figured that if we were able to get them, we must have worked out all the details. So they came in to make a big deal of how legal it was for us to stay in the hotel, but glossed right over the bikes. Par for the course in China, I'm learning.
So I have no idea what city I'm in at the moment, and it took some debate between Mike and I to determine that it is Tuesday. What matters is I am alive, and loving it.

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Blogger Fry said...

"...breathe through the mouth when in the toilet?"

Huh, I always opted for the shirt-over-those-nose technique. But if you would rather have those feces particles directly in your mouth, then go right ahead!

8/12/2006 11:36 AM  
Blogger Eric Berman said...

Are you serious - Adam Cohn in a fistfight? No, I've never met *that* Adam!

8/12/2006 11:47 AM  

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