Saturday, August 12, 2006

We got the guns but they got the numbers

The day of my last posting turned out to be a two-cop day. After the pleasant wake-up call from the cops, we eventually had to hail them ourselves later in the afternoon. During the drunken karaoke escapades the night before, David inadvertently left his cell phone at the KTV. We figured it'd be a quick stop back there to pick it up: either they'd have it or they wouldn't. So we got all geared up on the bikes and parked right in front of the front door of the KTV. I waited outside, as it takes me entirely too long to get in and out of my helmet/glasses/jacket/shoulder bag/gloves. It was only supposed to be a minute. and a minute later, George and David emerged from the entrance with solemn looks on their faces. Apparently some attendants had taken them into the room and couldn't find it. As they walked down the stairs in front of the KTV, however, George called to a woman who was also coming down the stairs. She had a black Moto Razr in her hand, one just like David's. George asked to look at it, and the desktop picture was different and the writing was all in Chinese, so he handed it back. She giggled and said "ha ha sorry!" in an almost mocking way before hailing the first cab to pull by.
"Wait a minute... she could put in her own SIM card!" George realized, and ran over to the cab to talk with the woman again. Some discussion turned to tense conversation and then turned to loud shouting. Within seconds, a large crowd had gathered to observe the sweating white guy having it out with the Chinese lady whose shouting sounded like a pissed off Pomeranian.
I was asked by the others to manage the bikes so I saw the majority of the melee from a distance, but with each passing minute the crowd grew larger and the barking grew louder. Apparently all George wanted was for the woman to show him the battery in the phone, under the theory that if it had English writing and no Chinese on it, it was David's phone. A reasonable enough theory, but the lady was steadfast in her refusal to show the battery. So George and the lady agreed that the cops should help sort things out. This, of course, led to an even larger audience, and I peeled off my layers realizing this wouldn't resolve any time soon. In short, the cops came, and they said they'd need to send for the special tourist cops to help bridge the language barrier, and the nearest such cops were a town 45 minutes away. So we waited, the crowd, for some reason having absolutely nothing better to do than to watch us sit in the sun and wait, hung around.
George began to get concerned, though, with the new cops coming. To elaborate on our legal status with the bikes: in general, foreigners aren't supposed to own motorcycles in China. We own them, with papers, and with our hero document, but there is always the possibility that someone will stick to the letter of the law and take them away. We wouldn't be arrested or anything, but the rest of the trip would be by train.
"We're fucked." George told me. "Once the cops get here, they're going to ask why we're in this godforsaken town, and then they'll ask how we got here, and then it's all over."
When the cops finally arrived, George decided to finally acquiesce and drop the issue rather than push his argument any farther. He apologized for causing the fuss and for accusing the woman. In the end, we drove away on our bikes and she quite possibly had a brand new Moto Razr. But George's mouth... his resistance to letting things slide: I suspect these are dangerous traits on this trip. I will have to watch him.

Each of us brings our own problems and value to the table however. Barkelew has been shining through with his ability to fashion anything out of anything. He rigged up his own helmet cam to capture footage of the drives, which has created some cool movies, and of course attracted some confused looks from the locals. And then today he created a tattoo gun out of a battery powered toy car, a pen, a sewing needle and a handful of paper clips. Amazing. Between George's fast talking and Bark's ability to create anything out of anything, what trouble can't we get out of? Each day on the road brings new and unique challenges and sights. One day we wound through hundreds of kilometers of roads lined with weeping willows, the next day hundreds of kilometers lined with tall trees creating a 200-foot-high green Gothic arch above us. Bursts of wind sent down flurries of green leaves like giant snowflakes. There was Garlic Land, a garlic-growing region where slippery piles of garlic skins were a constant road hazard. And of course, ricey conditions exist. In China, it's the people's road, and the people use the road however they see fit. One of the road's uses is to dry out rice. Most roads have a wide paved shoulder for passing and for slow vehicles. When those areas are used to dry rice, it doesn't pose much of a problem, but when an entire lane of a 2-lane highway is a covered in patches of rice, well, sometimes it's our lives versus their dinners.

We've each had our close calls with various obstacles. It seems like everyone and everything in China wanders into traffic with the same astounding complete lack of concern for their surroundings and the obvious assumption that the other guy will sort things out and not hit them. The wandering goat, well I understand: he's not a smart creature, but the man on the motorcycle? He merged into my lane and then just kept merging, as if he wanted to take the spot where I was driving. Leaning on my horn and screaming every profanity at him finally caused him to relent. I was inches away from kicking the motherfucker away from me. And then there was the stray dog who I was gaining on as he moseyed into traffic. I honked and slowed as quickly as possible, and got so close to him that over the din of the motorcycle and through the insulating helmet I could hear his claws scraping asphalt when he finally decided to shake a leg. When I finally reached him, I think I was going at a speed at which I could have killed him and ridden right through, and I would have had little remorse in doing so.

In a small town where we stopped for lunch, I broke off from the others for a few minutes, and was invited to share a few slices of watermelon from a group of locals sitting at a table along the road. I ate more than my fill and was amazed at their seemingly limitless supply of watermelon...
We had some of our most technical riding to date that day, not owing to road conditions or heat, but to a unique phenomenon: the watermelon jam. One region seemed to subsist on watermelon commerce, of which this particular day was clearly the culmination of their season. We suddenly hit stand-still traffic and being smaller and more agile than the other vehicles on the road, we snaked our way through the gridlock. Anything was in bounds: the shoulder, the muddy ditch, the oncoming lane, the driveways of residences along the road, and finally the source of the gridlock: the driveways of the watermelon farms. Some assholes had pulled over to load up their three-wheeled truck with melons, and the next assholes in line had just stopped right in the middle of the road and waited. Each successive truck took a cue from the last, left no room for other traffic to pass, and just stopped. So we wound through numerous kilometers of this traffic to finally break free. And then, just a few minutes later, encountered the same exact traffic at the next watermelon farm. We passed several such scenes where it was the same exact story. The ground was littered with discarded melon shells, and the creek along the road ran red with watermelon juice. When we finally broke free from the last entanglement, I noticed that there were no full watermelon trucks moving with us, and no empty watermelon trucks heading in. Everyone, from the truck drivers to the passengers in cross-province buses, had simply resigned themselves to the situation. Rather than trying to solve the traffic mess, and overlooking the jackasses that caused it in the first place, everyone seemed to simply say "Fuck it. Gimme another slice of melon."

We rolled into a town for lunch that day, knowing we needed oil changes. Sure enough, there was a Qingqi dealership in this random town and we created the requisite hubbub when we rolled into their driveway. Some of George's fast talking got us free oil changes and some other repairs to the bikes. So far, I've dumped my bike three times, all losing my balance at a standstill. With the bags tethered to the back of the bike, it's difficult to regain balance once the stationary bike starts to tilt, and given my lack of long-term investment in the thing, I really don't care whether it takes a few scratches. I broke my mirror off on the most recent dump. In any case, after setting us up with repairs and oil and a series of photos with the staff and manager, we were on our way again.

That night, we left indelible memories in the minds of the night-owl residents of some tiny town as we convinced a three-wheeled cab driver to drive us around their tiny town with Bark and David hanging off riding skateboards. George and I hung out the windows shooting photos while the others launched off the cab and carved big turns under an orange moon. After the show was over, the locals each took a try on the boards, with a few shins and toes the victims of the endeavor.

We weren't to escape Johnny Law for long. The next night, after settling down in an outdoor restaurant in a bustling little town full of reveling partiers, we were approached by an unassuming man and woman. The man asked a few general questions in Chinese; where we were from and what we were up to. He handed over some photoless credential that we weren't sure what it was. Then he explained. He was a cop and wanted us to go with him to register at the station.

"Not a-fucking-gain!" George cursed. He did some more fast talking, insisting that we take his number and call him in the morning, when we were awake and felt like talking with him. The next morning they woke us up early anyway. The hotelier shouting and his female companion egging him on. I was beginning to feel ill and this was just what I needed: more hassle at some ungodly hour in this ungodly heat. In the end, they drove George off to the station with our passports in hand. He just had to fill out some papers with our basic information. We finally got the pattern: this province had more stringent rules for visiting foreigners and required that they register with the police in any town, rather than simply filling out papers with the hotelier. Some provinces have just opened up travel to Chinese residents in the past few years, let alone foreigners, so we need to be expecting these incidents and hope that the question of how we're getting around isn't broached. In any case, we were getting tired of being constantly hassled, so it was time to make a run for the border.

As some of you know, there is a list of about five negative events that occur on each of my international trips. Might as well cross 'getting sick' off the list early on, no? I was fine in the morning, as we took a detour toward some mountain. We wound through some narrow dirt trenches behind and around tiny stone homes and under low railroad trestles. When we could finally see the mountain through the haze, we saw that it was a plateau with a grey road appearing to run straight up the side of the mountain, with no switchbacks.

"Probably a stairway that we'll have to pay to climb," George said, but he was wrong. As we approached, we saw that it quite literally was a road that ran straight up the mountain. From the top, next to a stunning pagoda, I could make out the city and its several, nuclear cooling towers amid the smog below.

We wound through some gorgeous mountain passes throughout the afternoon, and I finally saw, nearly 2000km into our trip, the first patches of land that weren't completely occupied by humans. They were just small clumps of trees, nothing you could call "woods" or "forest" but they stood out to me because every other square inch of land in this country is otherwise touched by humans: cities, homes, crops, or man-made forests in gird patterns.

But things got nasty in the late afternoon. First, let me explain my gear. I opted for safety over comfort and convenience when gearing up for this trip. I have mesh pants with internal armor; a perforated, black leather jacket with armor; a full-face helmet with a few vents; perforated leather gloves; and low-rise hiking boots. Of course, I have to manage to squeeze my sunglasses or regular glasses under the helmet at all times. Not only is the array of gear an incredible burden, from weight and process of getting it all on or off, but it's obviously very hot. I learned very quickly that it made no sense to wear anything under the jacket and pants aside from boxers. That way, I only sweat through one pair per ride and sweat through another that night after riding. We'll have to see how the jacket and pants hold up to this abuse. Maya is invited to play the Smell Adam's Pants Game when I return.
So imagine the daily hell of wearing all this gear. Then add to that a creeping fever. Then, the sudden shock of a sharp pain on the inside of my left wrist: a bee had gotten caught up my sleeve and stung the hell out of me right where my main vein runs up my wrist. By mid-afternoon, as my body began to ache at every joint along with the spreading sting from the bee, we came upon our last stretch of road before we'd hit a town we could sleep in. 60km that seemed to take days. We were heading due west, with the sun burning down directly upon us. There were no trees shading us on this road. And just when things were getting really uncomfortable, we hit construction. In China, construction means kilometers of pure loose dirt roads, gigantic trucks belching out carbon monoxide, and slow moving due to traffic. By the time we reached our city, I was in meltdown mode. A suffering only matched by being stuck in Jack's car in the Arizona desert with the heat on full blast. As we went through the painful process of George talking with numerous locals to find an affordable hotel with secure parking, I lost it and just couldn't push on any farther. We finally arrived at a hotel, Bark had to carry my stuff up to the room, and after a quick rinse and rehydration, I passed out for the next 16 hours. I'm much better now, having taken a few naps after that marathon session, and we won't hit the road again until tomorrow.

Oh man, the girl running this internet room just doesn't even know what to do with me. All I need to do is look her general direction and she covers her face and starts giggling uncontrollably. She just came over to hand me my bag that I'd set next to my chair. and then skipped off to go tell her girlfriend what she'd done. I am constantly amazed at how novel we Caucasians are in this country. Granted, we're spending most of our time in tiny villages, but tonight I am in Shi Yan, a relatively developed city. I mean, it's got two McDonald's!

I'm still trying to make sense of this country. That we're poised to be entering the China millennium seems a huge stretch to me as we see far more primitive hamlets than modern cities. Any country that has any combination of the following, I have trouble seeing as anything other than being in mid-development: three-wheeled vehicles, squat toilets, way too many horns honking, complete and utter disregard for notions of sanitation, food in the roads, and stone homes (100 million of China's 1.3 billion live in caves. Caves!). But there are those pleasant aspects of life abandoned in the process of development and modernization, from the ample cheap street food right down to the people who are able to manage sitting around in their underwear watching the world pass by all day. I do know that China is separated into manufacturing provinces where the true development is taking place, and we're generally avoiding big cities, so maybe I am getting a skewed view. It is worth noting that I see very little poverty here. There are those that subsist on a few yuan a day fixing shoes and living in tiny hovels, but I have seen literally no beggars. They're doing something right. In any case, my impression so far has been that China consistently surprises me in how non-developed it seems. No matter how you slice it, the power of their numbers is obvious: from the thousands of trees planted along the roads to the buildings that appeared along the Beijing in the few months since my previous visit. As China relaxes it's grip on the people, and assuming that they can begin to think for themselves, a topic I should write about later, they definitely have the potential to accomplish a lot. We got the guns but they got the numbers. A millennium is a long time, and who's counting if China is a few years late in really staking their claim to this one?

As we headed to dinner tonight, we were stopped by yet another cop, this one asking to see our driver's licenses. Our hero letters got us off the hook right away. We've decided it is time to get out of this more populated city and head for the hills of Szechuan. "Gonna go fishin' for catfish, gonna fry 'em up over a fire, gonna camp under the stars" Barkelew was mumbling to himself in anticipation this evening. Time to rest up and then get on the road again.

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6 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is Amanda
bees + bike on road = pain...
Sorry to hear that you got the sting, sounds like you're having a blast!!!

8/13/2006 12:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8/13/2006 7:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jack says:
So I'm thinking, "DAMN, the LAST time Adam got sick in the heat it was as we were crossing Death Valley in the beemer!"
One of these day, as you're riding, when you least expect it, from your left ear you're going to hear...

"CAAAAAAAAWWWWWW!!!!!"

Keep on rockin in the free world, dood.

8/13/2006 7:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Matt says:
I remember looking out the window on the train from Guangzhou to Beijing and being amazed at the site of "cave condos". But while you civilized da-bizi are mopping sweat from your brows, the cave dwellers are cool and comfy...and watching cable.

Here's a good article on the subject: http://www.thingsasian.com/goto_article/article.3441.html

8/14/2006 1:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Adam,
Just caught on that you're sharing your account online.... great! Thoroughly enjoying the running account - please keep it up,

and may you have many great adventures along the way - and pause enough here and there to enjoy massages to keep you going!

G's Mom

8/15/2006 2:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stina says:
I love the image of the red watermelon creek. You are a very talented writer.

When you return, please oh please, can I play the Smell Adam's Pants game, too? Not.

We miss you!

8/15/2006 4:17 PM  

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