[10/30/09. Posted by JP for GC. China blocks blogs.]
Friends: I'm closing in on Xian and Julie-Ann, about 150 miles to the north. We are now in the same province, Shaanxi, the fourth of China's 22 I have traveled through, along with Guangdong, Hunan and Hubei. The province of Inner Mongolia lies to the north and beyond that Mongolia. They'll have to wait for another trip as from Xian I'll be heading east for the first time towards highway 107 to meet up with Stephen and then on to Beijing.
Julie-Ann has to fly to Hong Kong this weekend for business, so I will time my arrival for Sunday afternoon. It is a three-hour flight from Xian to Hong Kong, or a three-week 1,600 mile bike ride. Julie-Ann returns around seven p.m. We will meet at a hotel five minutes from her apartment. I can't wait.
I have visited many friends over the years in distant lands--Thailand, Australia, Bolivia, South Africa, Ecuador, France, Italy, Israel--but never have I so looked forward to meeting up with an old friend in their home, or adopted, country, not that any of the others were lesser friends, just that it will be particularly exhilarating to have a safe haven with a long-time friend after having faced so many challenges these past weeks.
Its been five years since we last saw each other. I visited her in Manhattan just before she left the U.S. to return to her home in Malaysia to work for a travel agency. She had been working for Empire Pictures in New York, a film distributor, when her U.S. work visa expired. We met in Chicago five years before that when we were both volunteering for Chicago's International Film Festival. Julie-Ann was a film major at Columbia college. A couple years later after she served an internship in LA, when she returned to Chicago she didn't have a place to stay. I had a spare bedroom in my apartment so we were roommates her final fall quarter in Chicago.
Since she left the U.S. she has worked in Bangkok for a year and the past three years in China in three different cities. Although we talk and email, we have much to catch up on, and she has much to explain to me about what I have experienced here in China.
Initially I thought I'd be approaching Xian from the east on highway 312, but I missed a turn leaving Fan Xian two days ago. Rather than proceeding on the more significant highway 209, I ended up on a lesser highway, 301. It still led to Xian, but via a more complicated route into a more isolated region that could possibly take me into another Forbidden Zone. When I see a police car or officer now, I suffer a slight heart palpitation, though nothing like the near paralysis I felt in South Africa when I'd see sinister characters ahead on the road in the days after my assault there.
I thought I was in trouble yesterday when a police car pulled over after it passed me and four officers hopped out of the car. But they all held cameras, including one with a video camera, and they just wanted to take my picture as I passed. Cell phones with cameras are a common accessory here. I felt like a Tour de France stage winner when eight or nine truck drivers, who were having their trucks filled with gravel, surrounded me at small restaurant and snapped away. One even grabbed me by the arm, urging me to stand up, so he could include a sign in the background with the photo.
I continue to be accorded exceptional gestures of generosity and hospitality to a degree beyond anything I've experienced. Not a day passes that I'm not given a gift of some sort. Usually its food, but a couple of days ago a police officer gave me a pen when he noticed the Bic I pulled out of my pocket to jot a note was a bit battered.
With every patch of land seemingly occupied by a residence or a business or under cultivation, it hasn't been easy to find a place to stop and take a mid-morning or mid-afternoon break along the road or in a town between meals. Urban parks or open spaces are almost non-existent. I most often simply plop down at a gas station after using their toilet and wash basin. I don't dare linger anywhere near their toilets though as their stench can be staggering. As Lonely Planet says, few public toilets in China have been cleaned since the Tang Dynasty. The toilets are all of the squat variety, with an occasional urinal.
Yesterday morning I welcomed a gated facility in a quiet rural area that appeared to be deserted. It seemed a pleasant spot to take a break where I didn't have to worry about being interrupted. I sat back against its roadside wall and nibbled on some food and read my book. About ten minutes after I plopped down two motorcycles bearing four women pulled up to the gate interrupting my peace. One of the women buoyantly bounded over to me, pointed at my water bottle and gestured for me to follow her inside so she could fill it.
She had that typical, unabashed Chinese curious nature and peered closer to look at what I was eating. It was spongy flour balls, bigger than a golf ball, but smaller than a baseball, cheap market food I had bought that morning after my breakfast of noodles. She gave my food a look of disapproval and then made a scooping gesture towards her mouth, implying if I followed her she could offer me better food than that. All day I'm playing charades with the locals.
The women were all wearing neon-orange safety vests. They were members of a road crew and this was their base. They were returning for lunch. My lead benefactor went into the building and returned with a pot, which she filled at an outdoor faucet. Five minutes later she filled my water bottles with boiling water, a favor I'm often granted at cafes.
Two more motorcycles pulled into the grounds, one with two more women and the other with a guy. The other women were outside washing and cutting an array of vegetables. They were preparing lunch from scratch. When I realized it would be a while, I took the opportunity to work on my bike. My double-pronged kickstand had loosened up a couple days ago. I had been unable to tighten it, as the threads had become clogged with muck. It was more than a simple operation, so I had delayed tending to it, simply tying the kickstand in place so it wouldn't swing into my rear wheel. I was able to thoroughly clean it and the rest of my bike. I discovered a woefully loose spoke on my rear wheel, though it hadn't effected its trueness. While I worked, the guy watched attentively and kept a cup of hot water filled for me.
When I finished my chores he drew a picture of a Chinese flag, indicating he wanted me to draw mine. I drew the stars and stripes and then pulled out my Chinese atlas that included a world map so I could point out the US. That brought all the women for a look. I still had a brochure from Mao's birthplace that I shared as well. One of the woman wrote the numbers 30 and 40 and 50 on a piece of paper and then pointed at me. I guessed she wanted to know my age. I wrote down 58 and then pointed at her. She wrote 38. I showed them The Reader story and pointed at the number 55 in it, my age when that story was published.
The only English any of them spoke the whole time was mid-way through lunch when one of the women rattled off a quick "a-b-c-d-e-f-g" to the amusement of all, including me. Eight of us sat on stools at a round table just big enough to accommodate us all. In front of each of us was a small heaping bowl of rice. In the middle of the table were four large bowls of freshly prepared vegetables. One had strips of chicken. The two women beside me took turns topping my bowl of rice with items from the bowls, almost faster than I could keep up.
Everyone held their bowl of rice in one hand and chopsticks in the other, diving into those four bowls in the middle. It was an eating frenzy that left me way behind. Everyone else retreated to the kitchen for a second bowl of rice, while I barely finished my own in the fifteen or twenty minutes of our feast. Needless to say, it was my best meal of the trip. I knew I couldn't possibly have a more authentic Chinese eating experience than this.
When I asked to take a group photo afterward, they all proudly put their orange vests and orange hats on for the photo.