With a little help from my friends
November 11, 2004
The next day of riding I had learned my lesson. I carried more water than a dromedary camel with a full bladder.
Unfortunately so did my surroundings.
Ditching the loose dirt and dust of the Gobi, I pedaled out of Linxia on a dark gray ribbon of silky smooth asphalt. A light rain fed the terraced hillsides, where cascading waterfalls spilled into emerald fields. I guided my wheels deeper into a lush river valley where the Dongxian Muslim farmers and glittering mosques of the desert slowly transformed into the occasional wandering monk, and shimmering vestiges of Buddhist temples and monasteries.
Bicyclists of all shapes, donning communist blue and hearty smiles, mixed with children who ran out of small shacks and called endlessly “Hello!, Hello!” with unbridled excitement. There was nothing that could break the pleasantness I was experiencing.
Except a flat tire caused from the excess weight of the water.
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This time too much.
What was worse was the location – the intersection of a bustling market.
Fortunately, there was a bicycle repairman standing nearby.
I pushed my fully loaded touring rig up to him, pointed to my flat and he eyed my white skin.
The bargaining process began.
“Dwo Shao Chien (How much?),” I asked.
“5 yuen,” he replied, poker-faced.
It was double what a right-minded local would pay and nearly triple what they had charged in the pricier eastern city of Hangzhou.
“Two,” I shot back, holding up two fingers.
“Five,” he returned.
A crowd began to stop and observe.
“Five,” he said and walked away.
He wouldn’t budge.
Bargaining was the key to this society – a game that had to be played.
Without the act of bargaining, however small, I thought, I would surely be tearing at the essential fabric of Chinese society. Besides that, I was cheap.
Bicycle repair boy wasn’t playing.
I began unloading my stuff from the bike. I’d fix it myself, thank you very much. Instantly the crowd doubled.
Twenty, 30, then nearly 50 townsfolk gathered around my bike, ooohing and ahhhing at every stupid item I pulled from my bags. Bike tools, underwear and bike pumps, all subjects of serious curiosity, comment and mockery.
As if that weren’t enough, the shorts I was wearing were too big, and each time I stood up they nearly fell off. This, along with the freakish nature of my 6-foot, 6-inch frame and white skin bettered the best Seinfeld episode, causing uproarious laughter. All of this attracted even more onlookers, all of whom fought to get a better look.
My mini-pump and tire was passed along to all the children of the crowd for laborious pumping, like some third-world scene from Popular Mechanics.
I repacked my gear on my bike, held up my repaired tire, then eyed the despondent repairman.
“5 yuen,” I said sarcastically, then signaled the crowd to stand back while I swung one of my long legs over my frame kung-fu style.
Another wave of laughter washed through the crowd. I gave a small bow and said goodbye.
I like to think that besides saving 30 cents that morning, I had gained some friends along the way.