Chance visit brings lifetime of memories
November 11, 2004
By dusk I was getting nervous.
I had pedaled all day and into the fading light of China’s Gansu Province – rolling peacefully through the deep-green fields and tiny farming villages sprinkled along Highway 213.
It was time. Time to find a spot, lay out my sleeping bag and try and put away those fears of camping solo in a foreign land.
Then came a gift from the universe.
“Ahh ahh!” called a man squatting in an empty lot on the side of the road signaling me to come near.
I pulled over.
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“Ni Hao (Hello)!” he said robustly, running his yellow-brown eyes over me, then my bike, then back over me.
“Hello,” I returned with an awkward smile.
To the best of my knowledge he was a middle-class peasant stuck somewhere between the economic stagnancy of China’s rural countryside, and the red-hot engines of capitalism burning in Beijing and Shanghai. He probably lived on less than a dollar a day.
I pulled out a map and explained the best I could that I had pedaled for three days, starting in the city of Lanzhou and headed toward my final destination at Labrang Monastery in the Tibetan Buddhist village of Xiahe.
“Binguan (Hotel)?” I asked, pointing to his village on the map.
He ran his eyes in a loop, then scratched his head. “Bu Yao (no),” he replied.
“Lujuan (Room)?” I asked, slaughtering the tonal emphasis which made the statement a question.
“Bu Yao!” he said immediately, clucking out a barrage of Chinese that landed between my ears like a linguistic lead ball.
I stared back silent, mouth agape.
“Ting bu dong (I hear you but I don’t understand),” I replied, and readied to move on. Then I had an idea.
I slipped my thumb and index finger together in the universal sign for money, then pointed toward his small village home. “Lujuan?” I repeated, indicating my willingness to pay.
He motioned for me to follow him.
I lumped my rig along an earthen fence toward a small compound on a slice fertile land wedged between steep canyon walls.
We passed through a set of sizable metal doors into a small courtyard, past a handful of sheep and drying corn into the dim light of his modest village home.
The colossal smile of Chairman Mao Tse-Tung beamed upon us from a poster of Kong-like proportions next to a wall-sized photograph depicting an upscale living room. In it matching leather couches, stylish lamps and a host of pricey electronics contrasted sharply with the reality of the single room dwelling, devoid of plumbing, refrigeration and lit by a single hanging bulb. “Five yuen!” he barked, then pointed to a raised sleeping grotto in the corner – commonly referred to as a kang. He turned his index finger toward a small charcoal stove and brought his hand to his mouth and repeated, “5 yuen!”
His offer: Room and board for 10 Yuen – $1.25.
Within an hour, he was buzzing through a haze of thin blue smoke, rifling through cabinet drawers, chopping vegetables, unwrapping noodles and grabbing abundant handfuls from a drawer full of raw meat. I cringed. The concoction was full-boil atop a primitive charcoal stove when his wife and son walked through the door.
A thousand questions followed – each indicated by a silent finger pressed against my Chinese-English phrase book.
“Married?” the wife pointed to first. “Girlfriend,” I pointed back in Chinese.
“Business?” my host pointed. “Photographer,” I pointed back.
“What country?” came another point. “Mei Guo Ren,” I vocalized nearly straining a tongue tendon. Laughter spread around the room.
“What do you like?” the boy pointed to next to a jumble of Chinese characters. I flipped the pages until I found, “Everything.”
The boy turned his attention to my mountain bike, his wire-thin build covered by a silvery white shirt, just this side of disco. He eyed the bike, running his hands along the frame whispering to himself.
“Go ahead,” I motioned outside, and within moments he was out for a gleeful ride around the block. When he returned, dinner was served and I was given the first bowl and encouraged to eat.
Under watchful eyes, I arranged my napkin and began consuming with quiet etiquette.
As soon as the food hit my lips my host family began ripping at their noodles like hyenas within a carcass. Finally – people who ate like I did.
My host reached beneath the table to reveal a bottle and filled my glass with a suspicious clear liquid. I raised my glass and drank. It was as if someone had filled my insides with dragster fuel, then casually tossed in a match.
“Whooooaahhooaaa,” I gasped, feeling the hairs melt in my nostrils. It was a form of grain alcohol, called Baijo, Bujo, or Flojo or something. From then on I affectionately renamed it “Cujo.”
“Another!” my host insisted in Chinese as I hoisted a second, then a tall third glass. I felt as If I’d just been clocked with a crowbar. The Chinese became much more Chinese. I set my glass under the table to uproarious laughter. “Good night,” I said, wobbling to my kang nearly asleep when I felt a nudge that brought me back around. It was the boy. He leaned over, and silently opened his wallet to reveal a 5 yuen note.
“For the bicycle,” he said, offering a full 75 cents, a sum it had probably taken him months to put together. I apologized and said I needed it to get to where I was going, and again wished him good night.
“Zai jian (goodbye),” he said and the night swooped like a black crow.
The next morning I snuck out the door, cursed the sun and pedaled the last of my bike tour that evening 25 miles later in the town of Xiahe.
Several nights later I hired a taxi, returned to my host’s village, pulled down the driveway, then knocked on the door.
Mother answered. She told me that the others were out working and invited me to come in. I told her I couldn’t stay. I rolled my bike toward her, (minus the pair of specialty clipless pedals which served useless without special shoes), then butchered the word for “gift.” An awkward moment passed – she widened her smile on the verge of tears. I hopped back in the taxi and I watched her waving figure shrink into the surrounding hills, feeling a tear welling myself.
On days since that moment in China, when all that is wrong with the world comes creeping into my head, I like to imagine the boy, smiling and pedaling around his neighborhood on his new-found joy with a pair of homemade wooden pedals.