I am sitting on a train in Xi’an, departing for Guangzhou any moment now. I was a bit late getting to the station, as is my wont, but in spite of this, managed to get myself onboard with minimal stress. This is the first time I have taken public transport in six months, the third time since end of February that I have travelled any meaningful distance in anything motorized: a pair of flights from Seattle to Portugal, a ferry across the Caspian Sea, and now a long train to Hong Kong. If I had any choice in the matter, I would be en route to Chengdu via bicycle now, but I must leave the country in order to renew my visa. A day or two in Hong Kong, then back to Xi’an and I can resume my trip.
On the other hand, I am glad to see more of China, if only fleetingly. I will not be riding through this part of the country and the opportunity to see what the Southeast part of the country looks like will be nice. Most of all, I need some idle time in order to get some writing done, which I have been neglecting. It may be of interest that this neglect is largely instinctual: I have been occupied with the protracted gathering and processing of profound, varied, and numerous experiences. The duration and scope of my journey thus far, the emptiness and cold of Western China and the overarching effects of all combined have sent me spiraling inwardly into myself and I have finally been spit out- at least, someone has- confused and disoriented. I am still not sure of how this will effect my tale, but I will write nonetheless. Here goes:
I finally finished “Snow Days,” which I will have posted by the time you read this. I am a bit nervous about it because it is such a candid account of what I went through and what I’ve been going through. No one likes to talk about the unpleasant side of… anything, really, which means a lot of us are not honest even with ourselves, and almost never with each other. Most of us live in a battlefield of egotism, naturally inclined to protect our ideas of ourselves, as if being obsessed with an artificial pseudo-image of identity is normal, which it is. I, for my part, had to share it, because it affected me intensely. I ought not be nervous, but I have, after all, jabbed two egos (my own and Cody’s) and sharing this with others is alike to a wounded rabbit dragging itself into the midst of a pack of wolves: sharing our weaknesses can seem dangerous, because the sick exploit weakness, and most people are sick. Unless, of course, you don’t give a damn, which I try not to do. What harms the ego does not harm me, for I am not my ego (and I really do not consider my audience to be all that lupine)!
I digress. In spite of a candidness reminiscent of the long-extinct concept of “journalistic integrity” I try to uphold, it is amazing to consider how little I share of how I am really feeling and what I am going through. Two reasons I do not do this are that it would take too much space and no one really cares enough to wade through it, if I myself am any judge. It’s got to be good, and to be good, it has to be relevant to you, or at least poetically and skillfully expressed. Another reason I do not share very much is that by societal standards, my sanity is questionable- although I am not insane, only prone to overthinking on an impressive scale; it is my natural wont to delve deeper, in a matter of seconds, than anyone usually cares to go into the nuances of a situation,and this only as it applies to the relatively objective nature of any impression, scene, or phenomenon. After this initial plunge I am perfectly capable of delving even further into the explicitly dull and harmful realms of my own personal, subjective observations, which are of little value to anyone, least of all myself. Only in this propensity do I lean towards the insane, chiefly for the folly of even considering that anyone may be interested by such circumambulatory drivel. I may be doing it right now: sometimes it takes extreme effort to avoid exercising this inclination toward excess, this effortless dive (and also an indiscreet abundance of semicolons).
I am still digressing, and also oversharing. Merry Christmas.
On with it:
Xian is the old capital of China, and the end of the Silk Road. When approaching from the West, one first encounters Xianyang, which is the edge of the new city. After 30 more kilometers, you reach the old city, which is surrounded by an impressive wall as well as a moat! The wall is heavily restored, of course, but it is lovely. Within these walls you have before you a tourist’s delight: western restaurants, western bars, western beer, western clothing, coffee shops, shopping malls, McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut, Dairy Queen, Subway! You can do, buy and eat everything you ate back home, as if you never left. It also has some edgy Chinese party scenes, temples, museums, drum towers, and a whole avenue of chinese street food, so it ain’t all bad. It is the first real Chinese town we hit, however, and the tourism is a bit disappointing.
The city is beautiful, but you also find the perils of theft, swindling, inflated prices, beggars of professional patheticality. I spoke to Cody of all this, the observation that centers of excessive wealth are inseparable from all the ugliest aspects of humanity. I prefer the villages. Almost all of our social problems come from the desire for power and its symbols of status. The ones that do not are themselves less problematic in stable, reasonably sized communities, where people are still people. There I go again, tangentially teetering.
We looked at the main temple and the drum tower, then checked out the street food. It was almost all meat, so all we ate was some jackfruit, which was delicious- the fruits themselves are twice the size of my head!
I was feeling a bit sick again on the ride in, but rallied enough to check out the popular Terracotta warrior themed bar in the basement of our hostel, one of the reasons we chose it. Here are some pics of the hostel:
We were serenaded by some live music: a woman wearing a “Jaws” sweatshirt accompanied by a keyboardist sang corny songs in English and a few stale Chinese hits. A pair of attractive young local women sat down next to us, and although our senses were stirred, they seemed engaged in their conversation. Cody and I goofed around, quite stimulated by the general atmosphere. Exquisite birthday drinks were being poured at intervals and we looked on in wonder. At one point fire was involved, and some burning alcohol spilled on a seat. I and the girl next to me frantically put it out and made some eye contact- thanks fire. We weren’t sure whether they spoke English, so I held my tongue, but when one of them got up to grab drinks, Cody smoothly engaged the other, and we discovered she was an English teacher. When her friend returned, we found she was also fluent, and we spent the next few hours chatting, playing dice, and cards. It was excellent. We even got some phone numbers when the ladies took their leave (to our regret- they had to go home, work in the morning).
We asked the one called Jesse what she did for a living. She was a traditional Chinese dancer! Further investigation revealed that the English teacher was also a dancer, a ballerina! Woah! We extracted promises of a rendezvous and looked around to see what else the night would bring. We danced with a group of expat birthday gals, all of us trying our best to groove to the outdated pop songs from the States- stuff that was playing 40 years ago- and casually chatted. A slim Chinese man in a white turtleneck motioned me over to have a drink, and I obliged. He was sitting with a fat, drunk man who was apparently “the boss” and kept the beer flowing. Another band had played that night, a funky group with a lead singer I suspected to be American, who turned out to be from Cameroon, although Cody suspected he was not born there. He was a the fat man’s table and I was interested to speak with him. He was a good guy and he played good tunes. The purpose of luring me over, however, was to try to attract the Italian girl we had been casually talking to on the dance floor over to the table. I laughed at this, but went back out to fulfill the task I had been bribed to do. Of course I was not going to lure her, I actually got wrapped up in conversation with her again, and when the white turtleneck returned, I informed her frankly that if she wanted a free drink she could get one from the fat man. I’m sure she was used to this sort of thing.
The Italian girl was with a local gal who looked Southeastern, and the first thing this charming little lady said to us was, “I saw you picking up some girls earlier.” I was surprised at the accusation in her voice, and also flattered, as it was the first time I was fortunate enough to be suspected of such a thing. Her accusation was untrue, alas: the signs we got from the girls earlier were mixed at best, nor were we guilty of the implied crime of trying to pick up other girls (thereby “cheating” on our previous company?), we were just having fun. She probably saw me earlier, as the dancers bade us adieu, convulsing indiscreetly to get a laugh out of Cody. Hehe, whoops.
We all ended up at the fat man’s table, and I drank too many beers, because they kept being pushed into my hands and they were free. I also talked to a pair of guys from Saudi Arabia, also teaching English. One of them had lived in Milwaukee for a long time, which was evident. As the bar closed, he waxed verbosely about the romantic life he was living as an English teacher and how much money I could make teaching here. He even got my contact info and told me he’d set me up with a job if I wanted, but of course I never heard from him- he just liked the sound of his own voice. We returned to the hostel and slept the adventure off.
I woke up with a bit of a hangover, less from the beer than the lack of water, which I had not located yet (you can’t drink from just any tap in China, surprise). Some water and a coffee from the cafe up front cured me up, and then it was time to get some business done. I rode my bike down to the Bureau of Public Security to see about extending my visa. It was a lovely ride and I found the building without issue, but when I tried to enter the building, I was blocked by a security guard, who I thought was trying to point me towards the subway. I figured out that it was lunch time and I had to wait. I did, patiently, for a half an hour. Then I was informed that I was at the wrong entrance to the building, which is perhaps what the guard was indicating. I find that in addition to the language barrier, people also just don’t exude confidence concerning what’s going on, and I was supplied with further evidence of this later.
I found the right office and waited for the next available teller. She spoke English and I asked her about an extension. She asked to see my visa, glanced at it, and said,
“I think 60 days is enough.”
Oh, a friendly one! I explained that I was riding a bicycle across China and she asked me how long I thought it would take. I reckoned another 4-6 weeks, and her response was, “No. You can have one month.” She gave me forms to fill out, informing me that I needed paperwork from my hostel, a passport photo, and photocopies of my passport. I asked her how much it would cost.
Ooh. Paperwork and 140 dollars. I also read that when you get an extension, it replaces your current visa, so I would have to do the paperwork, fork over the dough, wait for the visa, and exchange my 60 day ten year for another 30 days. It became clear to me that I was going to make a little side trip to Hong Kong. I returned to the hostel content, now well informed, with a clear plan of action. I returned to where Cody had been hitting the wifi hard, his last look at the internet until he gets to Korea, unless he makes some new friends. We set out to have our bikes serviced, and by serviced I mean largely replaced.
Cody had his whole setup swapped in Konya, Turkey. I had my chain and cassette swapped in Tbilisi, Georgia. Since then I had killed one chain and put over 4,000 kilometers on my other one, which was almost dead when I left Bishkek. The jockey wheels on my derailleur were filed down to sharp little teeth and my front rings were original, boasting over 20,000k since I got the bike second-hand. The middle and lower rings were badly worn and possibly bent a bit, though the last part may have been in my head. It was time.
Cody had located a good shop, which turned out to be a boulevard of shops. We hunted in every one, searching for shimano parts for 9-speed and 10-speed setups, which proved to be a challenge. At the Giant shop, the last one in line, we had the fellow running around, in the storefront and the backstock, opening packages that had just arrived, double checking and sorting out the 9 speed components from the 10. They had everything.
He and another mechanic there undertook the complete overhaul of our bikes heartily, switching back and forth, cleaning the rust out of my bottom bracket and fitting it for my new crankset, replacing my jockey wheels by burgling a brand new derailleur, and trying over the course of hours and in a myriad of ingenious schemes to unscrew one of Cody’s pedals, unsuccessfully. They ended up putting the old arm back on with its now permanent pedal. They pointed out to me that one of my own pedals was trashed, likely bent from the time I dropped it off the side of a coal truck in Tajikistan. They were worn, small pedals anyways and one of the boys at the shop in Salem, Oregon had suggested I swap them before I left, which I didn’t, but he was right, they were not ideal. I figured it made no sense to skimp on such a comprehensive overhaul and purchased the best pedals, which unfortunately happen to be white. The drive train looks like a bionic arm on an old man. My bike had a classic chrome- and-leather look that has been swapped for tacky white pedals on a matt grey modern crank. Ah well, so it goes!
I also bought a new tube and tire levers for the inevitable flat I’ll get. I need a new back tire, and Cody needs a new front, but we were unable to find anything good. So, despite my dream last night that my whole bike fell apart and I had to drag its corpse into the back of a truck as pieces fell off of it, it is almost brand new, although since Kyrgyzstan all the abuse heaped on her from the last ten months seems to have shown up all at once. On the way back we stopped at a gear shop and Cody replaced his headlamp while I drooled over some awesome climbing pants I don’t need. Satisfied with our day, we grabbed some food and hurried to meet the girls at the bar, a few minutes late.
The place was packed. Our correspondence with the girls hadn’t been promising either- one of them, whose name I can’t remember, was at the bar as part of a going-away party, so we were sort of hangers-on, and the other girl, Jesse, was meeting us later because SHE WAS ON A DATE! Yeah, not much of a “pick up” on our part.
The same opening band in the same clothes playing the same songs, which drew my attention to the fact that we were in the same clothes as the night before as well, and I wondered if this would be noticed (despite our excellent excuse). Quite the contrary: everyone there from the night before- our fat man and his turtlenecked minion were back- were also wearing the same outfits.
Cody has pointed out to my unillumined person the significance of brand names and the approximate cost of certain items of clothing we see on the streets. The wages in China are not great, but fashion is at the top of its game here, and distinctly Chinese, a wonder to behold. As a foreign observer it all seems a bit far-fetched, as if the attention to dress were more important than the statement it makes, with less pressure to walk the walk and more merit given to talking the talk. Upon reflection though, it is the same as anywhere, gaudy decoration designed to attract and enhance. Fashion back home will probably seem silly when I get back, with one exception: whereas Chinese fashion is tidy, clean and themed, I prefer the disheveled hair, worn clothes, and genuine stains of the grungy Northwest, which is highly sophisticated in its own right. Here it is unfashionable to wear shoes that are worn or dirty! The fashion of the young is more interesting here, as it is everywhere, because it is more daring. Older people lean more towards a black background paired with an accent color, but again, I wander and tarry!
To get back to my point, fashion here is unlike the hipster, hippie, punk or grunge wardrobe, which can be voluminous because none of the items have to be expensive, new, or even clean. Most people here are wearing a carefully curated, stylish, color-coded, name branded outfit, and it is the only one they have. This makes it closer to “hood” fashion. When one only has one outfit, it is important to choose carefully, and most people here do it well.
Back to the bar: White people were everywhere. I daresay they outnumbered the locals! Some thuggy looking white guys straight out of a frat-house party were playing beer pong, which was set up right in front of the bar. Ballerina girl was hanging out with a slightly drunk Chinese man in his late thirties dressed like a cowboy and a sleazy looking middle-aged white guy with a suspicious smile who turned out to be her ballet instructor. We made some conversation with her, ordered some drinks and, bored with her divided attention, decided to play a game of pool. We were enjoying ourselves, and I was winning, for once. A nice looking kid from Washington state struck up a conversation with us in which he showed off his knowledge of Chinese and chatted about China’s inevitable economic rise to the top in the next fifty years and whatnot. We mentioned the Tiananmen Square incident, which we had ironically brushed up on in a Chinese hotel room (almost 3,000 killed, 7,000 wounded, though China reports closer to… 200 killed or injured, in a protest that got too ambitious in June of 1989, look it up) and he warned us not to mention that stuff out loud, raving about how severe the police state was. We dubiously listened to his hyperbole and he wandered off although perhaps we should be more cautious… after watching that documentary I simply cannot look at China the same way. (I’d best get this posted and deleted off the ol’ tablet…)
We were then joined by an interesting lady who told us to call her “Bamboo.” Her demeanor was stoic and entertaining, not a smile from her. She spoke perfect English and informed me that she was studying German in school, which seemed fitting. She was with a very adolescent-looking fellow and they asked to join our game. Why not? Cody and I gave up on competitiveness and allowed a kindly drunk fellow to join in, which pleased him greatly. The farcical game finished, we returned to the bar and grabbed a couple of seats. We watched the crowd. It was lame. It was only Westerners being Westerners somewhere else, totally unadapted to their environment, a carry-over of the subconscious imperialist mindset manifesting itself. I do hope at least some of them are learning Chinese.
All their stories were the same, whenever one would latch onto us: “Teaching English, teaching English, teaching English, oh, studying abroad is it?” Wow. All here partying like they were back home in California or New York. There was something cheap about the whole experience, something trashy. I had too many discussions about money, and one thing I learned about China is that they worship Mammon far more than we do in the United States, which in my naivety I thought was the highest seat. Not by a longshot, but I will expound on this later.
For now, let us continue: Jesse showed up and joined the fray. A gangster looking South African with Arabic on his sweater was chatting affectionately to her, though she interspersed his solicitations with visits to us. I could see what was going on here. Cody had suggested to the girls that we go somewhere else, but Jesse informed us that her father required her to be home by midnight. Oh boy. Cody was all for abandoning the girls and bar altogether and with haste, and maybe we should have done, but for two reasons I resisted: the first is that I did not want to go to another club, which is more Cody’s scene. Having been twice, my enthusiasm is atrophied. The second was that my bed was about forty feet away. I didn’t have another long night in me, but it was too early to turn in. So, jaded as we were by the entire scene- the people, the girls, the activities- we wallowed in the mire. Ballerina remarked that we were quiet tonight, like cops, just sitting there. I told her that we were despondent because this is no different from back home. I wanted to ask if she enjoyed all the expats, but she probably did, and I did not want to be suggestively negative. Jesse meanwhile, found time to flirt with both Cody and I, leaning on us and talking into our ears, but we saw these girls fro what they were: teases. No point in wasting our time, no deep connections here. We chatted to a few drunken expats and then with extricated ourselves from the filth and went to bed- we had business to attend to in the morning.
To be continued…