Yes, yes. I'm sitting here surrounded by CD's and gaming peripherals (i.e. cables and joysticks), reinstalling Ubuntu Linux and waiting for the damn earthquake-damaged undersea-internet-cables to deliver my sorely needed updates...
*pause, out of breath*
and so I thought I'd tell you about my bicycle trip, as I promised. I'm sure you were all just dying to know what it was like. From among my mountains of stuff I managed to pull a little notebook I despoiled upon that fateful trip, in October 2006. So, without further ado, and unless interupted by the need to reboot so nautilus-data2.12.10Ubuntu1.2 can properly load, here it is:
I left early. It was raining. I went back home and got a raincoat. It was one I bought for about 50 cents (ZA) and it was big enough to cover my whole bicycle. Then I went back again because I forgot the pump. Then the pump didn't fit in the small bag so I transferred everything to my big bag -- the massive hiking kind -- and I left again. I made K-Coffee about 30 minutes later, completely out of breath and sweating like a dog.
K-Coffee does a mean cheesecake, considering you can't get cheese in China. It's in a new tourist lane built around a 1000 year old pagoda, awkwardly called the Big Wild Goose Pagoda in English -- while it's only three syllables in Chinese. I had two coffees while watching the morning commute get under way. Hundreds of pensioners filed past, walking backwards and slapping their breasts. This is considered a vital morning exercise and, judging from their expressions, a painful one.
Before leaving K-Coffee I checked my equipment again: emergency food, clothes, spare inner tubes, a patch kit, dried meat sticks, digestive biscuits, multi-vitamins, cellphone, camera, cigarettes, kitchen sink and lawnmower. (That last bit was lame, but it's in the notebook, so now it's here.) All of this worked out to a very comfortable 40 kilograms or so, and with barely a grunt I set out, direction due West.
A minute later I realised my mistake and headed direction due East. The streets were unbelievably busy. That's one of the reasons it took me so long to write this up here. That unbelievably. It's a killer. It's the kind of thing you write in bold. You really wouldn't believe. And I doubt very much my explanations could convince you. China is ... un ... just ... with the ... You have to see it. Full stop.
I basically played Pac-Man the first six hours, just getting out of the city. With Pac-Man I mean I dodged, scrammed, avoided, bounced, jumped, fled, hopped, screamed and generally aerobiced my way through about a million cars, trucks, tractors, mini-busses, bicycles, motorcycles, rickshaws, katamarans, livestock and the occasional person. All this sheer maneuvering left me about 20 kilometers out of the city, climbing a hill towards the Siyuan Teacher's College (where I once imparted wisdom) and overlooking the vast sea of pollution that is Xi'an. Before me lay a channel that cuts through the outer suburbs of Xi'an and eventually reached my first destination: the mighty Wei River. Don't know what it means. One of the multitude of wei's means "stomach" and I figure that's descriptive enough. I made a left at the toll-gate, seeing as they don't allow bikes on the express-way, and followed the line of greenery. I was hoping to see the city recede and give way to open grassland, but as I was to discover in the next few days: THAT NEVER HAPPENS.
It's (what we would call) suburbs all the way to Beijing. The buildings never end. The road does: abruptly... into a pool of mud and a passing motorist thought it was the funniest thing in the world to see a wet, dirty foreigner stand ankle deep in a pool of slush. I will never forgive him. He set the tone. He was my first gawker. There were more to come.
I was making for a place called Lintong, slightly East of Xi'an and pretty close to the Terracotta Warriors. The road, like I said, was a moving river of mud and beer-bottles. I kept to the edges as much as I could to stay of the firmer bits of grass. The first day was really agony. I have nothing good to say about it. Except maybe the friendly man who gave me a clothes pin for free when I indicated to him I needed something to keep my trousers from getting tangled in the bicycle chain. He gave me two.
I got terribly lost. If you ever take the road out of Xi'an on a bike, stick to the bits where you can see busses. If you haven't seen a bus for ten minutes, well then baby, you're lost. Around midday I hadn't seen a bus for an hour. That figured, because it had all been downhill and relatively comfortable. Eventually I ran into a wall. Right across my way, from horizon to horizon, ran a railwayline. It was built onto a man-made ridge, and there was, as far as the eye could see, no way through, nor no way over. Next to the road was a workers camp and some well-dressed men in hard-hats walked past me. I asked them if I could get around this thing. Turned out they were engineers, probably contemplating the same problem. No, they said. Back up the lovely, long slope. They snickered. I pretended it was exactly what I wanted to do anyway.
On my way back up the incline I had a wonderful experience. An old lady was working in her garden, and as much as I detest the use of the word "lady" I can not think of another description. She was doing something nurturing to a ranking plant and when she heard me huffing up the hill, she stood up, looked me full and the face and smiled.
I almost came off the bike. It was a real smile, and then she said: "Ni hao." This means "Hello"... BUT it is also the first words in the dialogue you read on page one of any Teach-Yourself-Chinese book. So I was prepared. And I said: "Ni hao ma?" And she said. "Hen hao, nine?" And I said: "Wo ye hen hao."
It was like a fairy tale. She said all the right words in exactly the right places. She wore a flower-print dress and a hat. She happens to be the first old woman in China who were friendly to me. She made up for much.
I didn't even notice the hill the rest of the way.
To be continued.... maybe.