The Inaugural Shanghai 200km brevet
April 14, 2007
Having recently moved to Shanghai, and living there during a PBP year, Joe Keenan found himself unable to attend the brevets to qualify for PBP-2007, so the unflappable Mr. Keenan contacted Audax Club Parisian and negotiated permission to open up the nation of China to randonneuring—ROC was born!
I make it sound simple, but it must have been anything but. The ACP is famous for intricate and perplexing rules, and planning a 200km brevet route in fast-developing 21st century China—where maps are obsolete before the ink is dry—surely an insurmountable task for most men.
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Thursday, April 12, 2007
Okay, I'm in Shanghai, now what?
After just-enough-time to change planes stops in Detroit and Tokyo, I'm at the PVG airport on Shanghai's east-side ("Pudong"—"Dong" means "east"). Is the Shanghai Racquet Club shuttle-guy looking for me? I don't see him. Should I grab a cab? I did not print out the address for the SRC. Is it well known enough that I do not need an address? Unfortunately, I had failed to adequately plan this far ahead. I know the downtown YMCA, as well as the Mingtown Hiker's Hostel, have been recommended by cyclotourists, and beds in Shanghai run as little as USD $ 6.00 per night, but I've made no reservations, have no addresses or phone numbers, the rail service is down for the night and I've never been to China, or even east of India, before. This is the way to start a vacation!
The airport's business center provides e-mail service and Joe rescues me by giving me the phone number for the front desk at the racquet club. The desk-man speaks Chinese and can give my cab driver directions. Joe has the futon ready in the guest room, even though my last indication to him was that I'd show up on Friday (tomorrow). A westerner walking through the corridors of the Shanghai airport is greeted with calls of "Information?" from every hotel and rental car booth in the airport. I tell the girl at one of the rental car booths that I need to find a taxi. "Oh, we have," she replies. In China, as in India, when you rent a car, a driver is included.
A half-hour later, while climbing into the back of the car, I note the low-fuel indicator while the agent relays the directions to the driver—and then we're off into the Shanghai night. "America good," the driver exclaims. Well, sometimes. "Clinton," he recalls, and gives me a thumbs-up in the rear view mirror. "Okay, yeah, but we've got George Bush now," I reply. He looks puzzled. "Bush," I repeat, but the name doesn't ring a bell. Maybe I'm not pronouncing it right?
He gets on the cell phone, passes a semi on the right and then cuts left—right in front of the semi. I guess that's how it's done here? The semi driver gets on his horn, so maybe not. He hangs up the phone, laughs nervously and becomes excited about the address we've given him. "Oh-ho, great distance," he stretches out his arms and looks at me, then makes more phone calls while speeding down the freeway. Eventually he realizes that he doesn't have enough gas and starts to panic, tapping on the gage to emphasize to me our predicament. Well, what does he want me to do? I've already paid the agent four-hundred and fifty RMB; Do I need to buy gas on top of that? Yep. I think he says fifty. I agree. Then he says one hundred—hey what happened to fifty? "Hundred! Hundred!" Okay, a hundred. He pulls into a station, the attendant pumps one hundred RMB, I hand him a 100 RMB note making him so excited that he skips around the cab and gives me a hug! Now we can cut-off semis with a full tank of gas.
Nearing midnight, we're off the freeway and stopped at a red light on a wide avenue. A line of cars to our right is turning left in front of us—odd? The left turn lane is on the right-side of the road. You see a lot of peculiar things in Shanghai.
Around midnight, we enter "Forest Manor". A sentry stands duty at the entrance where gold lettering reflects the floodlights before a landscaped entrance-way and the palm tree have their trunks wrapped in "Christmas" lights. The Shanghai Racquet Club is a splendid complex of lush landscaping, paved walks, ornamental lighting, rhododendron, ponds, pools and fountains. Inside, the building is finished with hardwood floors and solid hardwood doors. The roomy garages hold no cars—everybody walks, bikes and uses the shuttle or hired car here. Joe shows me to the shower, the futon and I'm in for the night.
Friday, April 13, 2007
On Friday, Joe sets me up to ride his recumbent around this side of town while he finishes up some paperwork. I ride out of the SRC complex to Bei Qing Highway—a busy four-lane with bicycle paths on either side. There's white-on-blue signs, reminiscent of those in Germany, indicating the four-lane is for cars and the outside lanes are for bikes. These Chinese bicycle paths are mostly separated from the auto path by a low wall, and they're much wider than the paths in Germany—in fact they're wide enough (12 feet?) for a car, and it's not uncommon to see a car creeping down one of them. Bikes often use the "car lanes" too—most traffic control in China seems to be only suggestive.
Actually, in China, vehicles are divided into two groups: two wheelers and more-than-two wheelers. So motorcycles, scooters and electric bikes are all together with bicycles. Two wheelers are very popular, and the motorized versions have long been limited to an engine size of no more than 150cc. Now, concerned about air pollution, the government is phasing-out gasoline-fueled two-wheelers and many have switched to LPG or electric. Electric bicycles of all sorts are very common, including the conversion kits that replace the front wheel with a wheel with an electric motor built into the hub. These have no problem doing 20+ mph and are silent. In India, men and boys often ride bicycles, but I've never seen the ladies in India pedaling—they always seem to opt for scooters or the "auto" (a three-wheel motorized rickshaw—what they call a "tuk-tuk" in eastern Asia). Here in China, women bicycle, and everybody dresses formally, so you see many women pedaling in high-heels.
Back home, in North Carolina, pedicabs or rickshaws are just beginning to appear in the larger cities. I don't recall seeing any in China or India though. Bikes here are widely used for transportation and for hauling large loads of all sorts of cargo, but for the most part people traveling by bicycle pedal themselves. The "auto-rickshaw" may have killed the pedicab in India?
Even though it rained last night, some people still wear dust masks when out of doors. I think in Japan they wear them to guard against the spread air-borne viruses and bacteria, but in China I think they're worn to keep out the dust. To the north, Beijing suffers from the encroaching Gobi desert. Here, I'm not clear if the particulates in the air are desert dust or urban smog or both.
Turning east on Bei Qing Highway, then south into a community known as "Zhuditown" (pronounced something like "Judy-town") the streets are crowded and lined with people doing business—cooking food, selling rice, produce (watermelon, roasted corn on the cob, carved pineapples, apples), brown eggs and all manner of goods and services. The smell of street cooking and the occasional "incense" of burning trash remind me of India.
In Zhuditown, a right turn at the tee intersection, through some barricades and eventually the road leaves the dense and bustling Zhuditown to cross some overgrown fields. I continue up the road and take another path into another small village community. The path quickly becomes to narrow for cars and there's more cooking, curb-side tailoring (I guess that's a sewing machine—it looks quite different from a "Singer"…) and a canopy covering four pool tables! I can only guess that the five-star luxury hotels in Shanghai probably have a high turnover of pool tables, and since everything gets recycled in a country like this, the discarded pool tables probably find their way into these open-air back alley establishments—just a guess. Passing a small Chinese school, the sound of children singing drifts from the open windows.
There's a man with a small air compressor / bubbler on the bridge over a canal. He's sorting through buckets of small water creatures. Everyone smiles at the 'bent and gives "thumbs up". I return under the elevated freeway, turn east on Bei Qing again and go back to the SRC.
After lunch at Rendezvous CafÃ© (I had a delicious mixed-mushroom dish, which the waitress described as "little bit spicy". I'm from Louisiana, and my wife is from southern India—both places known for peppery cuisine—and I'd say it was more than a "little bit"), Joe and I head out for a longer ride, covering the same ground—in Zhuditown there's a guy bicycling with TWO full-grown slaughtered hogs draped across his bike—farther west to inspect a section of tomorrow's brevet route. We cycle through some light industrial areas. Joe points out roads that were not there two weeks ago. On one of these new roads we see several Chinese Driving School students practicing. There's a pile of glass in one curve and a severely dented tree. Apparently somebody flunked driving school. That's the ONLY glass I saw in the road in China. Things like glass bottles are too valuable to waste by breaking them in the road.
A landscaping crew is watering plants with pumps drawing water from the canal. Two bicycles are parked against the canal bridge. I do not doubt for a minute that they have carried those pumps and big hoses to this spot on those bicycles. Watching the Chinese gives one a whole new understanding of how much weight one can transport bicycle—even without a trailer! We detour to explore a freshly paved tractor path through a rice paddy. In Germany, the tractor paths were asphalt and were heavily used by hikers and "Nordic walkers". Here they are cement and the culverts are cement-lined too. It all makes the south Louisiana rice paddies that my mother's family owns and operates look somewhat primitive. I'd like to show this to my nephew, Peter-Ray, he'd appreciate it, but he'd probably prefer to stick with the Louisiana way (more mud, less cement, bigger tractors!)
Speaking of tractors, the "Caution: Tractors" road signs look the same as those in the west, and the tractors silhouetted on those signs look like the ones that China exports in large numbers. But a tractor here looks nothing like those on the signs. Around Shanghai, tractors have an exposed motor with a large exposed flywheel and big belts way out in front of what looks like a low-cab pickup truck. These tractors rather resemble some kind of tricked-out 1940s California hot-rod dragsters. Think of an altered-fuel Nomad, chopped and welded to the back of an industrial tiller.
Around 4:30pm we meet up with several expats at the Shanghai American School (SAS) for the Friday evening pub ride. This was an amazing ride—Andy led us for a long twisty ride, all on those little cement tractor paths and narrow alleys. Uncountable turns, patches of gravel, arching pedestrian bridges, tree nurseries, canals and back-alley after back-alley. We rode pretty fast considering the conditions and the locals seemed to get a kick out of watching these funny-dressed laowais race through the village, lots of hooting and thumbs-up gestures. Eventually we came to a super crowded pedestrian intersection were vendors baked, roasted and sold peanuts, cookies, sweet cakes, meats and countless other snacks. The pub was on the second floor of a classically curved-eaves building but, as we had started late and the sky was now darkening, we didn't have time to go inside today. They pointed out the corner window overlooking the intersection and pedestrian bridge over the canal as the location of the usual Friday pub-ride table.
Having suffered severe food shortages in the recent past, plumpness is commonly considered a desirable trait in children here. But combined with changing diets and a more sedate lifestyle, this fondness for flabbiness is rapidly bringing about a new health crisis in China—Childhood obesity. I did not see a lot of that, but one shop keeper brought out a really unfortunately fat infant to proudly display. Sad.
We get pretty close to home before dark, but just after sunset there's a loud 'wishhing' sound—Andy somehow flats BOTH of his tires while descending a bridge. There's always something unexpected popping up in China.
Saturday, April 14, 2007
Early Saturday morning Joe and I ride out to the brevet start—farther down Bei Qing, then turn and head deep into the business district. Past banks and subway stations, high-fashion stores, Joe points out "Bubba's Texas-Style Bar-B-Que and Saloon" on Hongqiao Lu ("Lu" means "Rd"). Across the street is what looks like a half-size replica of the U.S. White House. Lots of bankers and business executives bicycling to work—actually, appearances may be misleading, as even the guy busting up concrete by hand is dressed more like a banker than a construction worker. But the large numbers of bikes parked at the bank, and the women cycling in heels, leads me to believe bankers bike to work too. There are also plenty of guys biking to work with hard-hats on—working construction, or is that what people wear for bike helmets here? Somebody has been selling roasted corn and I'm surprised at the cobs and husks littering the marble steps and planted areas, but each morning the city sends out hoards of sanitation workers who clean all that up in no time. Throughout the city, and throughout the day you hear the clanging cow-bell of the "bone and rag man" on his utility trike picking up all forms of recyclables and compostables.
At the brevet start, near the Zhong Shan Metro Station downtown, we were soon joined by Xianshi Cui—great, local interest! Then Damian Burke, Bernard Kearsley-Pratt and Chris Torrens join us. Joe goes over the procedures, hands out cue sheets and leads us off.
We cycle back up Hongqiao Lu, through Zhuditown, past a guy biking down the road carrying a ten-foot step ladder, (upright!), under the freeway and to the first (unstaffed) control. Joe has a "Shell" gas station indicated on the cue sheet. "Don't stop there for food or water, though. In China, gasoline stations don't sell those." I guess it doesn't make sense to them—why would you buy food at a gas station? Yuck! Most gas stations are "Sinopec". China only began allowing the foreign multinational companies to build stations in 2004, and Shell jumped in with plans to build thousands. Another trend Tibet would like to avoid?
In Zhuditown, and elsewhere in Shanghai, street-side vendors sell fresh-cooked meals and roasted sweet potatoes to passers by. They're making "youtiao" by rolling dough into a foot-long, half-inch-thick stick and dropping the sticks into frying oil. The dough puffs-up a bit like a donut (and may have a touch of honey in it). They scoop these out of the oil and stand them up in a galvanized pail. I see some people buying these to go with their soup. At the same stall, they're cooking "Shaobing"—circles of dough with sesame seeds that are roasted inside a roadside oven. The chef lifts a lid from a hole on top of the oven, takes the dough into an upturned hand and sticks it to the sloping inside wall of the oven to cook. One option offered is to make a sandwich with two shaobings and a youtiao in the middle. I go for the third deal: "jian bing"—they cook a sort of thin savory pancake or crÃªpe spreading the batter in a big circle on the round griddle using a special tee-shaped jianbing spatula, crack a brown egg to cook on top, add cilantro, onions and chow-chow sauce, then break a youtiao in half on top, roll all that up like a burrito or dosa, fold it, cut in half and drop into a clear bag. [ Slideshow ] I'm not sure how much I'm supposed to pay, but one yuan (about twelve cents, U.S.) seems to cover it.
Joe instructed us to disregard the cue sheet after the first control, due to some last-minute road closing, and simply double-back the way we came to Zhuditown and then make our way to Rendezvous CafÃ©, "Adrian knows the way." (Gulp) Uhr, I guess I did it once…I can find my way back to Zhuditown and then Bei Qing Highway, but miss the turn to Rendezvous CafÃ©.
By now we're separated, and I decide I've gone WAY too far up Bei Qing highway so I turn around and head east again on the wide ped/bike/scooter path—though they have paths on both sides of the highway, two-wheeler traffic flows in both directions on both paths. You have to be aware that many bicycles have been retrofit with electric motors built into the front hub, so they whiz by at up to about 20mph silently—much quieter than hybrid cars—but they counter the quiet by blowing the horn, constantly.
Motorcycles have long been limited by law to 150cc (some skirt the law by adding a side-car, to make it a three-wheeler and no longer subject to the 150cc limitation). Now China is replacing all the gasoline-fueled scooters with electric and LPG/propane fueled models. The LPGs are less costly to operate than gasoline and seem to produce a much less foul exhaust—nice when you're sitting behind a couple at a red light.
While riding the brevet, we felt a lot of headwind sweeping across that flat plain. I didn't see any wind turbines while in China, maybe because visibility was so low. Shanghai has plans to install thirty-thousand megawatts of wind turbines by 2020. Analysts say that China's geography is well suited to wind power and could provide over three million megawatts.
The big blue trucks apparently need to let the air horn wail almost continuously, lest the built-up air pressure make the whole thing explode? In Asia, horn honking doesn't imply anger or threat, just "I'm here". As in India, it all seems chaotic except the one rule taken seriously is: "don't hit anybody, no matter what they do." A large vehicle blasting his horn and bearing down upon a cyclist is cause for alarm in the west, but not here, as the driver is operating on the principle that if you're moving in front of his path NOW, you'll be somewhere else by the time he arrives at that spot. This, of course, is true assuming that the cyclist does not stop. But the driver is prepared to stop, should the cyclist fail to move—a preparedness that Andy has tested repeatedly, while his cycling buddies close their eyes and cringe.
In India, the heavy trucks are made by "Tata"—the huge family-owned conglomerate that now dominates communications and technology in India and recently made news by taking over a huge British steel firms, one of the largest in the world. Tata paints all those trucks school-bus yellow. In China, big trucks are all painted blue, though the appear to be manufactured by a wider variety of suppliers, including "Porland".
People are very friendly and they are amazed by the recumbent bicycle—they pull up alongside and drive real slow, etc. Sometimes they look expressionless, especially the older folks (I'm told many of the older folks were raised to be wary of foreigners), but I say "Ni Hao" and they get a kick out of that. Some speak English, most do not, but when they recognize an English speaker they call out "Hello!" or "Hello! How are you?" They giggle at any response because "Hello! How are you?" is just about the extent of their English—just as "Ni hao ma?" is about all the Mandarin I know.
The two-wheeler paths are very much shared and multi-use. Today I'm faced with a giant yellow steam-roller coming down the path, head-on, but there's room to squeeze by on his left. There's always something unexpected popping up in China. Now that I think about it, a steam-roller is technically a two-wheeler, isn't it? I think his engine displacement is over the 150cc limit though. Encountering the rest of the brevet group barreling westward, I do a 180° again to chase them. By the time I catch up to Xianshi, the others are barely visible and a twelve year-old school-boy, in uniform with book-sack, is riding right along with us on his mountain bike showing no sign of difficulty with matching our pace.
Bang-bang-bang! Gunshots? No, firearms are banned in China. Aha, fireworks—is it a holiday? Joe shrugs, "Somebody is always setting off fireworks in China."
China is where Critical Mass got its name. Ted White's 1992 documentary, "Return of the Scorcher" looks at bike culture in China, The Netherlands, Denmark, and the U.S.. In the film, New York bicycle designer George Bliss, describing the flow of bicycle and car traffic in China, used the term "Critical Mass" to describe the way informal turns-to-cross at intersections were naturally negotiated and shared where traffic signals were relatively uncommon. San Francisco commuters picked up on this term as a better moniker for their "commute clot" movement.
China does have traffic lights now—many very modern styles with separate signals for bicycles. In the dense downtown areas there are some streets where bicycle traffic is prohibited and many intersections where traffic is controlled by a uniformed police officer rather than a signal light. I did see one officer writing tickets to cyclists—probably for running a red light.
Workers in one of countless small tree nurseries. New roads are going in all over the place, and every one of them gets landscaping, shrubs and ornamental trees.
Outside of the city, the land is all flat, dusty and devoid of interesting geographic details. The highway stretches out full of cars and blue trucks with guard rails separating it from the two-wheeler lanes on either side. I had hoped the air would get better, but it never really did and made my decision to wear contact lenses a poor one. There are interesting things to see though—e.g., a Dutch windmill standing inexplicably at one farm-road intersection, with no sign to explain its reason for being there. There's always something unexpected popping up in China.
There are frequent tree nurseries. Shanghai is building new roads at a stunning pace, and each road is lined with ornamental trees, landscaping and hedges. In the recent past the countryside was stripped of trees for firewood, the booming Chinese furniture exports, etc.. Since 1990 logging restrictions have been in place, trees are being replaced in China, but a heavy appetite for forest materials is now being satisfied by striping forests in Russia and other countries in the region.
One of the blokes in the fast group has suffered a crash. They've finished cleaning up the wounds and the bright red spots where he's lost skin and flesh from his arm, leg and cheek glisten in the dim Chinese sunlight. He's ready to go, and they quickly disappear ahead of us again.
Lots of cars are slowing down to look at the recumbent. Lots of "thumbs up" gestures. Occasionally we have to leave the two-wheeler lane due to bad surface, or a guy drying cut vegetation in the path. When that happens, we just move on out into the highway lanes, and nobody seems to mind. Looking for an indicated turn, we meet up with a bunch of young recreational cyclists finishing up a break. They're also headed to Suzhou. It turns out they're students from Fudan University in Shanghai and there's at least fifty of them. A couple of them even have racing bikes and "Fudan U" cycling jerseys. They gather round, I take pictures of them and they take pictures of me, the recumbent and the egg-beater pedals.
On the way to Suzhou, a few more types of vehicles join in the mix, including an enclosed three-wheeler that's bigger than an Indian auto-rickshaw and some cargo haulers made from a large motorcycle front-end welded to a cart or small truck rear-end. I guess that's what they did with their old motorcycles when the law restricted two-wheelers to 150cc. There's always something unexpected popping up in China. After cycling around some kind of official check-point (toll-booth? Internal passport control? I dunno, I bypassed it.), I'm surprised to see sky scrapers on the horizon. That must be Suzhou?
Just before the Suzhou control, Xianshi and I meet up with the other guys having lunch. They've been to the control and are about to head back to Shanghai—into the stiff headwind. In a market store I pick up a bottle of water, bottle of green tea, bananas, apples and a jar of lemon wedges that have been preserved in salt. These salt-preserved fruits are common in this part of the world and the store has row-upon-row of endless varieties. The crystallized ginger ones are good, but I can't read the labels and just grab the lemon wedges. You're probably only supposed to eat one or two at a sitting, but I gobble a bunch—I guess I'm getting a good dose of sodium and vitamin C. One trip to the men's room—there's lots of toilet facilities here, but they're not free. Inside, an attendant takes your coin and hands you some paper.
An old woman with bad teeth is hanging around watching as Xianshi and I eat. She motions and says something in Mandarin toward the plastic bag of purchases I've set onto the ground and my feet while I fumble with my pannier zippers. Is she telling me not to litter? No, Xianshi translates—she's interested in my plastic water bottle. Apparently she can collect some deposit for returning the empties, so I finish off my water and tea and give her the empty bottles.
I swear I saw a Chinese Rastafarian trudging up the path, but didn't get a photograph. There's always something unexpected popping up in China. In these headwinds, the aero position of the recumbent gives me a significant advantage over Xianshi and I quickly open up a gap, stop and get a photograph of his approach. I hate going home with nothing but pictures of people's back-sides. When I stopped to change film and batteries, Xianshi got a big gap ahead of me, so when I came to the "turn right on road to the police kiosk" point on the cue sheet I was on my own deciding if this was the correct road to turn. There's a police kiosk here, and a bunched of caged dogs (for sale?) but the cue sheet says "to the kiosk", not "at the kiosk". How would I know if the road went TO a kiosk? In randonneuring, one is expected to keep careful track of odometer readings and cue sheet distances, but I lost track. At home, it's easy because the territory is so familiar. Overseas, it's more of a challenge. I take the right, and the next left, which should take me back to the highway, but it doesn't look right. I try turning left at the next intersection, but after a few miles, and a large arch across the roadway sign announcing in Chinese and English: "Obeying traffic regulations is a matter of life and death", the four-lane divided highway ends where people are pushing bikes and motorcycles down a narrow path to a pedestrian bridge. They point towards the bridge when I ask "Shanghai zai nar?", but I don't think that's the brevet route, so I go back to the intersection and try going straight ahead instead of turning. You'd think a major city with skyscrapers would stand out like a sore thumb on this desolate plain with so few trees, but I can't see a city skyline anywhere. At least once I think I see tall towers, but they turn out to be grain silos.
After crossing this plaza, theres an intersection of farm roads where I continue on the forward one. That road soon shrinks to one of those small, newly paved concrete tractor paths. We're close to Shanghai—Maybe Joe incorporated a bit of the Friday pub ride into the brevet? Next, the tractor path ends beside a complex of dwellings. There's some single-track that could be part of the pub route, but Joe wouldn't put that on a brevet route. The little boy by the path and the young man in the field are ignoring my presence even while the Akita by the road barks himself into a frenzy while I ponder the cue sheet. Turning back, I meet a family walking the path atop the canal bridge. The daughter speaks some English and helps me find the right directions. Happy to be back on track, I roll down the pedestrian bridge sitting upright, then ease back into the seat, lift my feet up to the pedals, click-in with a snap and shove some speed into the wheels. A little boy walking up the path with his grandparents squeals with delight at this sight. I guess I am something unexpected this time. It's fun riding a racing recumbent in China.
The transliteration of Chinese characters in to Latin letters isn't precise. Even on consecutive road signs, transliteration varies. For example, though the prior and next signs say "Bei Qing Lu", this one says "Bei Ching Lu". I'm desperate for familiar landmarks and I think I've found one—the "KTV" building—it looks different at night, with so many multicolored flashing lights. I think it's some kind of broadcast studio, but later learn KTV is a chain of Karaoke bars, or Karaoke bar fronts for illicit activities and a good place to get beat-up and/or robbed, I'm told. In any case, not a landmark as they are numerous. A light rain begins to fall, and thankfully I start to see banners hanging from the street lamps reading "Forest Manor". I'm looking for the Christmas light wrapped palm trees and Rendezvous cafÃ© when a voice across the street calls out my name—it's Joe! He's at Papa John's Pizza and happened to catch sight of me as I passed the cafÃ©. We start to discuss the ride and I tell him that I rode with Xianshi most of the way—Is he in yet? "No, but…here he comes now!"
Joe is surprised that we took so long to finish. It's a good thing I didn't detour to explore the road-side attractions. I guess I should have warned Joe that back home our RBA tells me "You're early" on the rare occasion that I finish a brevet with more than an hour to spare.
Great ride, great adventure, plenty hours, nice weather, got lost, found my way back, and saw a lot of unexpected things—the perfect brevet. Wiped out, we go back to Joe's for soup, Joe gives me maps, helps me find the street for the hostel and I turn in early.
Sunday, April 15, 2007
After a brief morning walk, I meet back up with Joe and Susan who treat me to breakfast at the Rendezvous cafÃ© and then take me to catch the SRC shuttle bus into town. Today's mission: find and check into the hostel, buy a clean shirt, do laundry, e-mail, and food. I've just stepped out of the Portman Ritz-Carlton when two young ladies approach hesitantly. "We're students and would like to practice English." We exchange pleasantries "bye-bye" and they point me in the direction of the subway.
Next, I'm stopped by someone wanting to sell me a fake Rolex watch, then another, then…okay, I'll buy a watch so that I'll have a watch on my wrist and can tell them, "No thanks, I've already got one." Finding a bike shop, I browse the many commuters, folders, hybrids, etc… at great prices and expect to be descended upon by an eager floor salesman at any moment, but it doesn't happen. The aggressiveness of the street hawkers is not reflected in the shop clerks. The next street hawker snickers at my watch, "Ha! How much did you pay for THAT? Never mind. Want to by a Mont Blanc pen? Cheapa-Cheapa!"
I don't understand this. These hawkers have learned a foreign language (English)—that's not easy—clearly they must be intelligent and educated. How is it that they're stuck hawking junk to tourists?
Asking around, I eventually find the metro station and manage to purchase a (USD $ 0.60) ticket for "Line 2" to Nanjing Lu. I had read about crowded subways and automatic glass doors installed to prevent pushy crowds from toppling people off the platforms, but I saw no evidence of any of that. There seemed to be plenty of room, no automatic glass doors and no pushy crowds when I rode metro Sunday afternoon, nor Monday morning.
Emerging from the subway, I find myself in "tourist central". Tons of Asian tourists wearing red Nike caps are being corralled by their walking-tour leader, identified by flag and bullhorn.
And there's one guy who wants to know if I want to buy a shirt.
As a matter of fact, buying a clean shirt IS near the top of my to-do list. I'd read that these guys will show up and lead you down tiny dark twisting alleys and up rickety flights of stairs to a hot little room where tourists are rifling through piles of fake designer clothes heaped on tables. I think with the modern Chinese economic boom there are not too many tiny dark alleys left, but he did lead me around a corner and into a second floor shop where a Norwegian couple was pensively looking at clothes and an aggressive saleswoman sold me two T-shirts and a silk robe for my wife. A couple other saleswomen tried to convince me that I needed belts, bags, etc… but I declined. I did buy an MP4 player, as I'd lost mine just before the trip. "Thank you for shopping with us. We should buy you a beer." That sounds like a great idea, buy me a beer. So they lead me back down Nanjing Lu to a hotel lobby where the shirt guy is sent for beer which, it turns out, that I am buying, at a reasonable price…for the U.S.. Okay folks, enough of this. "You want massage?" Sure, who doesn't? But what I need is a shave and haircut, who's got a straight-razor?
So they lead me back up Nanjing Lu and down another alley where welders are throwing sparks and dropping heavy things that go "clang!" and into a barber shop where they negotiate in Chinese with the barber. "Charge him triple and give us half," is probably what they said, but it was still a deal compared to costs at home. He starts combing through my hair and trimming it. "No, no, how can I explain—what's Mandarin for 'bald'?" I rub my hands across my head making razor sounds, point to the bare skin on my hand and he understands. By now, these traveling salesgirls are making me nervous, so I keep my duffel bag at my feet while the hot towel, shaving cream and razor are applied.
Okay, shirt, shave, haircut…now what? "Buy me a Gucci bag" is suggested. Um, No thanks. I take duffel my bag and set out in search of Mingtown Hiker's Hostel, eager to put some distance between me and Nanjing Lu. One great thing about hostels is that, while they generally are located with convenient acces to transportation and the local action, they seem to also be off-the-strip enough to avoid the tourist-hells like Nanjing Lu.
Room 310 bed 6, I'm assigned, but I find bed six is full of clothes. Bed two is clean though, so I unload my stuff there and find I've lost the bag with the shirts and robe, but still have the MP4 player. I head out for a walk—AWAY from Nanjing Lu—to explore and procure a meal. The hostel is just two or three blocks west of the Waibaidu Bridge over Suzhou Creek at north end of The Bund (the multistory stone 19th century buildings put up by the Japanese, European and American banks on the waterfront along the Huang Pu River).
Across the river is Pudong, and many modern and post-modern towers, exemplified by the famous "Pearl Tower". A "Tourist Tunnel" connects the two—some kind of cable-car pulls pedestrians through a Disney-esque underground light show, but I didn't check that out, preferring to walk the waterfront and the neighborhood north of the Bund instead.
A flash of lightning, a clap of thunder and the hawkers that were pushing postcards are suddenly possessed of umbrellas for sale—wow, how did they do that! At least it's something useful, but the rain is so light that I don't bother. I've developed a new strategy for dealing with hawkers: they know I'm not Chinese, but that doesn't mean I speak English, right? From now on, I'm Turkish. I just raise my hand and say "Hayir." Soft at first, and then forcefully if they persist. Then "alahaismarladik" (good-bye). "Hayir" is "No," I think…or is it "yes?" No matter, either way, I do not speak English. "Hayir. Hayir. Hayir!" I don't know if they believe me, it's hard to not let your facial expression give away that you just understood what they asked, but if they just get the message that they're wasting their time that's good enough.
I'm curiously eying a just below street level "foot massage" shop (there's thousands of these in Shanghai; they say the best ones are run by blind people) when they invite me in. Fifty minutes for a few bucks. Lying down on the massage bed next to three other patrons in various stages of the fifty-minute foot massage, they set beside me a glass of some kind of tea, I think, but I'm not sure—it might not even be a drink at all, so I don't touch it. There's a big TV mounted high on the wall in the center of the room for the patrons to watch, and for the masseuse to twist her neck to see. I kick off my shoes and the lady takes away the stool suspending my legs to soak my feet in hot soapy (herb infused?) water, then wrap my feet tightly in warm towels.
Propping my feet back up on the stool, she applies medicated soap and begins a thorough scrubbing and a series of rubbing, kneading and beating that goes right up to the knee, including a grab-and-pull on each toe individually making a loud popping snap when the toe clears the hand. I've had some weird motor-nerve problem that has caused muscle loss, mostly in my left arm, but my feet feel like there's not much flesh there anymore either. I wonder if this is supposed to hurt, or if it's the lack of normal padding on my feet that makes it uncomfortable? Foot massage practitioners say that tender spots in the feet reflect problems elsewhere in the body, which can be treated by working those spots. I think I've got a lot of spots that need working. Foot massage is said to improve ones mental health, reduce stress, boost circulation, and relieve blood stagnation.
Now for supper: The dumpling shop up the road offers a variety of dumpling dishes and noodle dishes. I get dumplings filled with cabbage, red pepper and sesame oil. No forks here—chopsticks! Concerned about deforestation, the Chinese government is phasing out disposable wooden chopsticks by levying a five percent tax on them. Returning to the room at the hostel, I find a Korean guy has checked in and been assigned bed two. There's still clothes on bed six—girl's clothes. I better not move them and lie down, she might freak out if she comes back late at night and finds some grungy old man snoring in her bunk. We check with the desk, move me to bunk three. That settled, he's anxious to get out for a good Chinese foot massage. "Have you had one before," I ask? "All the time." He says it's not supposed to hurt, so maybe I'm just tender, or maybe he's had so many treatments that his feet are tough. I turn in early again tonight.
Monday, April 16, 2007
I'm up early, so I head out to see what the city is like at 4am. In the lobby, there's no one at the desk, but there's somebody snoring on the couch. The door is open, so I head out into the pre-dawn. The street vendors are just bringing the oil up to a boil for today's jian bings and stoking the ovens for Monday morning Shaobings. The streets are beginning to fill with bike and motor-scooter traffic.
I walk through the north neighborhood and to the waterfront by the Bund and join a pair of old men doing their morning backwards walking. Calisthenics are very popular here, especially with older people—you see lots of what looks like brightly-colored adult-sized playground equipment installed in public places and everywhere people are propping a leg up on a rail to stretch their hamstrings. One of the old gentlemen bids us adieu and the one remaining leads me through a long series of repeated stretches moves. For a couple of the more advanced stretches he motions for me to sit out. Other people are jogging or flying kites, and one guy rides up on a bicycle with a unicycle strapped on the back. He parks the bike and proceeds to ride the unicycle around the waterfront.
At the north end of the waterfront, bikes are showing up ridden by people in brightly colored "pajamas". One bikes up with a boom-box, puts in a cassette and the dance club begins their warm-up exercises.
After the sun came up the day turned from cool to cold. I head back to the hostel for my jacket, passing through the neighborhoods north of the Bund again. In a small park lots of groups of older folks are gathered for various exercises. A group of men were twirling Baoding Balls—chrome plated metal balls, you hold a couple in one hand and manipulate your fingers to make them twirl around one another. One guy handed his to me to try and my hand immediately sank as they were much heavier than I expected, which gave them a laugh. Several groups practiced calisthenics, or dance accompanied by classical Chinese music on cassette. One small group of women were practicing swordplay.
Near the hostel, I stop for a curb-side breakfast of jian bing. There are lots of food vendors on this block. The next block west is all small industrial supply shops, one nothing but gages, some old, some new, some analog, some digital. Lot's of bikes and scooters in the street—its crowded here, but not as crowded as India. A portly and jovial chef strutting his way down the street, dressed in white uniform and white chef's hat, buys a zucchini from a street vendor then saunters over to the next vendor to jibe and cajole him while munching that raw zucchini like it was a fat cigar.
Checking my e-mail, I find my wife has sent me just what I want—a mission: "Find me a Kwan Yin statue (Avalokiteshwara) or pendant." A what? I google it, The Great Firewall of China blocks Wikipedia, but I found out that in China, she's known as Quan (or Guan) Yin (or Lin). The girl at the desk finally understands what I'm asking about, draws the Chinese characters and tells me that I can find these at the Jade Buddha temple or the Longhua Temple. She circles the temples on my map, offers that the two French girls in the lobby are heading to the Jade temple also and we can travel together, but when I'm ready to go they're not around and I'm not about to go stalking them, so I set out on my own, though it means crossing the dreaded Nanjing Lu.
(Other mission:) There's a particular kind of bicycle lock I hope to acquire while here—the circular sort that permanently attaches to the seat stays and immobilizes the rear wheel when locked. Though they're standard equipment in Europe and Asia, they're very hard to find in the U.S..
At another curbside "bike repair stand" (they just pick a corner with a place to sit, set out pump and supplies, and voilÃ —instant small business), through a series of pointing and gestures I'm able to communicate to the proprietor my intentions to purchase a lock. He motions for me to sit down, then to my surprise he hops on to a motor scooter and takes off. Wow, right in the middle of this big city he can leave his repair equipment and not worry about thieves. After about ten minutes he's back with locks and other supplies. I buy one lock, and then try to indicate that I'd like to buy the other one too. He immediately shakes his head "no" while waving me away, leaving me thinking: "How odd? I'm not allowed two, I guess," then I realize that he thinks I'm asking for two-for-one. I pull out the cash, and he gladly sells me a second.
The feared Nanjing Lu is crossed this time without incident, being careful to walk briskly and avoid eye contact. A couple of blocks south I met an older Chinese gentleman named George. He was wearing a "Bear's" cap and told me that he is a "technology consultant" and used to live in New York. When I told him I was looking for breakfast and a shirt he showed me the best dumpling stand—said that these were much healthier than the others and then helped me buy a T-shirt with Chinese calligraphy. Sean had bought one with Chinese characters meaning "I have no money" when he was teaching English here—probably a good thing in the vicinity of Nanjing Lu, but I had to settle for "LÃ³ng", the Chinese symbol for dragon.
The accent over the "Ã³" means that your voice should rise as you pronounce the vowel—very important, or else you end up with an entirely different word and meaning. I.e. it's not an "accent" but a graphical representation of the shift in tone. The other three possibilities are voice dropping, voice dipping down then up, or voice steady, each similarly depicted with the appropriate "accent" mark above the vowel.
Then George told me that he had an English student, "Ms. Gu", who is divorced, would like to find a husband and move to America. "Um, I'm already married, George." "That's okay, I'll bring her by after work—maybe you know somebody, or can ask around when you get home."
I said "bye-bye" to George, pulled out my map and turn east toward the river then south again. On an elevated walk over the expressway I strike up a conversation with an older Chinese gentleman. He warns me that the merchants at the temple will ruthlessly overcharge me and I must offer them one tenth of what they ask. He tells me, "You must accept!"
"Accept," I ask?
"Maybe that's not the best word. What does it mean, 'Accept'?"
"Um…Agree," I say.
He laughs, "Oh no! Opposite! What's the best word?"
"Yes, yes, you must Persist!"
That settled, I asked about the recent history of Shanghai and China: how have things changed in recent years?
"It's much more open now. You can criticize the government."
I asked if protesting is allowed, but he seemed to not understand the word, so I explained: crowds with signs and maybe speeches. "Oh no, not that, but you can criticize.".
"Oh, so letters to the editor at the newspaper then?"
"Sure," he said, and I nodded. Then he added, "of course, they won't print them."
I find my way to Fuyou street and find myself in a crowd of tourists (including Americans and Europeans) and more walking tours, but thankfully here it's too crowded for the street hawkers. Unfortunately, KFC is pretty big here. I swear I saw one labeled "AFC" in India. Asian Fried Chicken? American Fried Chicken? I guess they don't want to have to explain what "Kentucky" means, in India? In China, since few speak English (unlike India) nobody would ask.
The temple is approached through a mall-like tunnel of shops. I tell the first saleswoman who approaches that I'm looking for Quan Yin statues and she tells me they don't have them. I think the shop owner hears this exchanged and probably wants to fire her.
The guy at the next shop shows me a really expensive jade statue, but I tell him I don't want jade. He takes me across to another shop and pulls out some beautiful statues and quotes a price. "Oh no, too much." Just as the guy on the walkway says, the salesman punches the number into a calculator and hands it to me. I punch clear, enter a number a LOT lower and the game is on. This isn't so terrible once you've got the hang of it, and you get the hang of it pretty quickly walking around Shanghai streets where people try to sell you stuff you really don't want and then start calling out drastically lower numbers as you walk away.
I end up buying a couple statues from him and, after touring the crowded temple grounds, a suitcase from another shop, as I arrived in Shanghai toting only a small duffel and now need to pack a few things, plus someplace to put the stuff you can't carry on a plane any more (e.g. a tube of Chinese Crest toothpaste).
Okay, now I'm wearing a T-shirt—nobody in China wears T-shirts. Even when doing manual labor, they dress formally. I'm also wearing Crocs (those odd plastic shoes) and a yellow cycling windbreaker, and I'm pulling a tourist suitcase. No way am I going across Nanjing Lu like this, so I go northeast to the river and walk up the waterfront. The sky is much clearer today, but looking across the river the towers of Pudong are still seen through Shanghai haze. Some cool ferry boats are taking on tourists—mostly Asian tourists. I'm almost to Waibaidu Bridge when two young ladies, arm-in-arm approach and ask a few questions, practicing their English. Okay, their in a pair like this for mutual protection, right? That's a good sign, they're awfully friendly and tell me that they're students, one acupuncture and the other Chinese history. I show the acupuncture student my bad arm and ask if acupuncture can help. She says she can't but maybe her teacher could. Okay, good, that was an opportunity to set me up, but she didn't take it. I'm a bit wary, after the Nanjing Lu experience, but we chat about Shanghai, Chinese dynasties, etc., and everything seems cool. They tell me there's a Chinese Tea Festival today and invite me to go. I missed yesterday's temple festival in the park…a festival would be great, so we set off into town.
Buy a pet turtle? They actually did NOT try to sell me these—pet turtle salesmen are after the domestic market.
They ask me about my wife, my family, do I have e-mail… A few blocks later, as I'm carrying the suitcase, one remarks, "You are so strong." Uh-oh, let's see, going back over the exchanges since we met I've gotten "You're so clever", "You're so handsome" and now "You're so strong"—this is suspicious, but I've read that Chinese etiquette calls for rather gushing compliments, so maybe it's all innocent, but we'll see… We cross a street and walk into an open food-court type area within a large building. Uh-oh, I was thinking of an outdoor festival in a crowded park, but then there's a sign for the Tea Festival reassuring me that it's all on the up-and-up. The sign points to an elevator which we take to the mezzanine level, walk down a few doors, into a store where a traditionally attired lady shows us to a room. A small room (Uh-oh) and she brings us a tray with hot water, tea cups, jars of tea, and a photo album. We sit while she goes through the album with us—tea history, tea varieties, tea formalities, the emperor's tea etc.. I ask about the price—50 RMB per variety. She pours us cups and says we are to drink in three swallows. Um, okay, but I'm going to savor mine. "Don't you like it?" "It's wonderful, but I'm going to sip it." Gosh it's hot in here. "Hey, do you feel something…something right here," she asks pointing to the bottom of her chin? No, should I? They say you can buy anything without a prescription in China…
Okay, that's it, this is freaking me out. I put 50 RMB cash on the table and make a break for it. Half expecting a couple of Chinese gangsters to block the door, I hit the mezzanine, elevator down, across the food court and back to the street without looking back. Okay, what happened? Maybe nothing, maybe it was all innocent. Or maybe that's just how it goes around here—when you live in a place where you can only earn in an artificially weak currency, and everything is priced sky-high for tourists, maybe what you do on weekends is find a tourist who'll treat you to tea. In any case, I think I'll stick to talking to old men, even if they don't speak English.
I pack my stuff away at the hostel, get the skinny on how to get back to the airport tomorrow morning, and go for a walk. I need to ask somebody about what just happened. The young man working the floor at the "5 Modern Mart" speaks great English, and is pretty relaxed. He just kind of shrugs and says something like some people are friendly and want to talk, others… Okay, I'm relaxing. He's finishing off a quart of beer. "You can do that? at work?" "No problem—I paid for it." "Heh, yeah, but even if you paid for it, you can't do that in America." There are two ladies and him working the shop. One's working the register, they don't speak English, and they want him to keep an eye out for shoplifters. They're clowning around a lot—he says the manager went to a meeting, so they're a bit more relaxed. The eggs have no serial number here, and they must be fresh—they still have bits of hay and stuff stuck to them. He asks me about my wife, my family, do I have e-mail…the same questions that raised my suspicions with the girls earlier—I guess it is innocent, that part anyway. He has one daughter—that's the "one-child policy". They say families are very important in China. I guess that makes the questions about kids, especially foreigner's (multiple!) kids, more interesting.
He says he learned English by talking to tourists, and has a night job dealing antiques with his father. Day care is too expensive. I tell him young parents in America struggle with day care expenses too. He says cars are expensive, "I mean it costs SO much to buy a Ferrari or a Beamer." Uh, yeah, I feel your pain on that one. He's got plans to open a tea house on a college campus—a quiet place where students can go to study, hang out, drink tea and smoke. He takes a meal break and we go over to the dumpling shop. No sooner have they brought us our food when I hear somebody yell from the stairwell. Even though I don't understand a word of it, I don't have to turn around to know it's the older of his two co-workers fussing that they need him back at the store. When we go back to the store, I clown around with them: pretend that I'm shop-lifting, jump behind the counter and say to the customers (in English) "Welcome to 5 Modern Mart. How can I help you?", and stand by the front door imitating the hawkers by holding up an apple and calling out "looka-looka! cheapa-cheapa!" Once again, I grow sleepy early and retire to the hostel.
As I walk into the hostel, there's somebody I recognize at the table by the door…it's George! I tell him I've already eaten, so Ms Gu comes by and we just sit there and talk. George says she's got a career as a trade broker, so she doesn't need money, just a husband in America—American or Chinese, doesn't matter, he can be crippled, have only one-leg, she'll take care of him. And if I can find somebody, she'll give me "Senx". What?!? "Oh, I don't know the English word…uh…money for arranging the matrimony." Okay, well, I don't want any money, if somebody comes to mind, I'll let you know. I explain that I have a plane to catch in the morning, they excuse themselves and I hit the sack early again.
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
Up around 4a.m. again, but this time I've got a place to go. Pack my stuff, I think one of my roommates has just turned in for the night. I walk to the metro stop, even though it's not open yet I want to make sure I know where it is located. One more walk to the river, one more stop at a jian bing stand, one more Shanghai subway ride.
The subway lets me out at the MagLev train station—the only commercial high-speed magnetic levitation line in operation anywhere in the world. Coach fare is US $ 7, first-class is US $ 14. I spring for 1st-class, might as well spend a few of the RMB still in my pocket. There is NOBODY else in 1st-class, and 1st-class is pretty much the same as coach, just two seats per row instead of three. The maglev leaves the station on its elevated railway. A digital display clicks off the steadily building speed. When it hits 300km/h we're passing cars on the freeway below like they're standing still—seven minutes to cover the 30km to the airport. Silent, except for the "bang" as our train crosses paths with its twin headed the other way.
Some last-minute gift shopping at the Shanghai airport revealed that back-and-forth bargaining goes on even here. I asked the Japanese guy sitting next to me on the flight from Tokyo about KAL flight 007 back in the 1980s—"Oh yeah, it was shot down right about where we are now." Back in Detroit, the homeland security agent wants to know why I went to China, then what do I do for a living? "Software," I told him. "Macintosh," he asks? "No, Linux." He points my passport at me and says, "Macs run Linux."
On my first group ride back home, I noticed I had to readjust to traffic in the states when the other riders called out "Car back". In China, you don't do that. For one thing, there's ALWAYS a car behind you. For another, it will blow the horn. And thirdly, it is of no relevance—when you're in front, your only concern is what is in front of you. For people behind you, getting around you is THEIR problem, not yours, no matter what they're driving. And it's everybody's responsibility to not hit anybody else. It all seems to work out, though the WHO's "World Report on Road Traffic Injury Prevention" ranks China the top country in the world for both road deaths (600/day) and road injuries. But then I think the U.S. isn't all that far behind (118/day) when you adjust per capita (0.3 billion vs 1.3 billion).