Notes from a bicycle tour across China’s Gansu Province
October 15, 2004
There is a spot in China’s Gansu Province, past the shimmering waters of the Yellow River, into the hillsides, where, if the morning light shines just right, the rest of the world just falls away.
It was the second day of a bicycle tour and, free-wheeling through a series of oasis towns dotted along the former Silk Road, I was ascending out of the provincial town of Yongjing, when I came upon just this spot.
To this day, I’m not quite sure what had captured me.
The smile of a farmer.
Their long shadows drifting silently across neatly cropped rows of wheat and corn.
The intermittent laughter of children or the wake of their long curious stares.
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All of it pulled me deeper.
So deep in fact that I lost track of everything else – including which way to go.
Pedaling past my turnoff in a state of photographic bliss, I reached for more film, rolling in a series of fits and starts; pedal, stop, click. Pedal, stop, click!
It was hard to believe I’d covered 15 miles.
But when I arrived on the streets of an unfamiliar village intuition must have kicked in.
I pulled out a map, and it was confirmed.
I had pedaled a 15-mile detour in the wrong direction, over the wrong mountain pass. With the return trip, I had just stacked 30 miles atop an ambitious 60-mile day.
What came next was a kind of self-critical theatrics or multi-personality street play if you will, that landed me the starring role as the new village idiot.
“F@*#!, F@*#!, F@*#!” I shouted at the top of my lungs, dancing around my bicycle in a pair of Spandex shorts. A crowd of villagers moved in for a closer look.
I stabbed my finger at the map and cursed again – “F@*#!, F@*#!, F@*#!”
Though I didn’t know it at the time, the expletive I was shouting sounded suspiciously close to the Chinese word ‘fok’ referring to the common bat. The villagers checked the surrounding skies. Strangely enough, I found out later, is that the phrase was more often used to signify blessings of prosperity. I thought again, and my mind raced quickly toward another phrase; this one not as easily confused with Chinese. I bull-horned it into the crowd:
“Why are you sooooooo STUPID!” I yelled at myself sending the crowd into giggles or long slack-jawed stares.
I hung my head and pedaled the 15 miles back from where I’d came.
After finding the turnoff, I was greeted with the sign to highway 213, and a flat tire.
I promptly repaired it and descended to the edge of the blue-green waters of Liujiaxia reservoir, also known as Bingling Si.
It drew crowds from around the world who peered upon its 90-foot likeness of the Maitreya Buddha carved into steep gorge walls around 420 AD along with 187 other caves. All of which had been miraculously spared by the ravages of the cultural revolution.
Looking for a bridge, I spotted a smile instead.
It came from a diminutive man in a small boat. I handed him some change, loaded my pregnant bike on board, and enjoyed one of the day’s only still moments as the large oars spun small whirlpools toward the other side.
Then came the real climb.
A 17-mile, 5,000-foot ascent, up a vast arid mountainscape on the southern-most edge of the Gobi desert.
For three hours I struggled upward, on a lonely strip of rock and dirt through a landscape that rose perpendicular and folded upon itself like so-much earthen brain matter. As temperatures soared well past 90, I drained the last of my water and continued up again-toward a rim of a merciless mountaintop.
Dehydration came quickly.
I pulled to the side and sought shelter beneath the shade of a three-foot sapling, while my kidneys sputtered like a pair of sickly Volkswagens.
My mind moved toward catchy phrases that would adorn my tombstone like, “Got water?” or “I went to China and all I got was this lousy headstone.” Still another read, “My sole purpose in this life may simply serve as a warning to others.”
I scanned my surroundings.
I was miles from nowhere. No signs of life, no water, nothing in fact to indicate that I was even in China. Nothing that was except the caves.
Thousands of them – the Thousand Buddha Caves – covering every turn, every corner of porous landscape; adding a new dimensionality to my hallucinatory dehydration.
Then I saw something move.
For a moment I thought I’d lost it.
Then it appeared again. A cloaked figure. It appeared, then disappeared behind a previously unnoticed earthen wall. I was on the edge of a mountain top village. I stumbled to my feet and followed the ghostly image to a large clay structure framing a door.
It looked as old as time itself.
I raised my hand and knocked.
A long moment passed, then the door opened slightly.
A young boy stared through the crack.
‘Shui?’ (Water?) I asked holding out an empty water bottle.
He stared back for another long moment. The stare was not that of fear, but as one looks upon an exotic zoo animal, or some anomaly of nature.
The door slammed shut.
This was not a tourist destination, and to the best of my knowledge, I was one of the few six-foot, six-inch Westerners suffering from dehydration in the area.
Echoes of an unfamiliar language bounced off the walls.
Then silence …
The door opened again.
This time the face was older, a man with thick glasses, a full length robe, and long white beard. ‘Shui?’ I asked again.
The man signaled me inside.
I pushed my bike into an open courtyard where a group of young boys in pill box hats gathered around me.
A group of young girls covered their faces with books in the corner.
I gazed up in a state of hyperthermal-detachment and recognized a banner in Arabic proclaimed, “God is great.”
Moving my eyes skyward, I spied a sparkling chrome emblem of a crescent and moon.
I was in a Mosque. The people before me were a group of Altaic speaking Hui Muslims of Dongxiang ethnicity – forcibly moved to China during Kublai Khan’s conquest of the Middle East.
“What country?” the cleric asked in broken Mandarin.
“Mei Guo Ren” I replied followed by long silence. (American). The room silenced.
His eyes deepened. “Mei Guo Ren?” he repeated clutching his beard. I nodded.
He quickly clapped his hands toward one of the children without taking his eyes off me.
The others giggled.
The child ran off and returned with two large pitchers of water.
With a series of hand gestures he enquired if I was hungry, or needed a place to rest – a custom of hospitality toward travelers mandated by the Koran.
“Bu Yao, xie, xie” (No thank you) I stated, adding, “I still have a long way to go.”
I sat for some time, like a stunned animal, until I gained enough strength to get to my feet.
He reached out his hand, and stared back with gentle eyes. I placed my hand in his. “Zai Jian” (Goodbye) he said curiously, not quite ready to let the moment end.
“Xie, xie, Zai Jian” I returned, (Thank you, goodbye) … and closed the door behind me.
I mounted my bike and finished the last of 90 miles, in a 20-mile descent in varying layers of diesel and dust.
Rolling up to my hotel after 10 hours of riding, I nearly collapsed.
“Xie, xie,” I said to the clerk as he handed me my key … “Xie, xie … Xie xie and good night.”