Sunday, November 29, 2009

Beijing, China

Friends: As I approached Beijing my legs were spinning so easily I almost had to reign them in. I was fully aglow with that end-of-a-trip sense of triumph, glad I hadn't let the cold and ever present threat of snow deter me, as I completed the final miles of my two-month, three-thousand mile ride about China, an adventure that was much more than I anticipated in many respects.

I know that feeling of satisfaction quite well from previous trips and was happily recalling many of them, adding to my euphoria, while knowing I'd have the memory of these final miles and all that preceded them to look forward to in the years to come. I may have been closing in on Beijing, but I was vividly reliving a host of other final stretches--approaching the Straits of Magellan in Tierra del Fuego after biking 7,000 miles down the length of South America, crossing into Alaska and reaching pavement after over 1,000 miles of dirt and gravel through British Columbia and the Yukon, arriving in Perth after riding the breadth of Australia including the Nullarbor Plain, descending into La Paz after completing a circuit of Bolivia that culminated with climbing ten thousand feet up "The World's Most Dangerous Road," finishing off the Ring Road of Iceland, arriving at Nordcap the northernmost point of Europe 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle in Norway, reaching Calcutta after bicycling nearly 2,000 miles from Bombay, and on and on.

It had been a concentrated effort the past week, since parting with Stephen, to arrive as soon as I had, pushing hard while the weather remained amenable. Beijing had already had two significant premature snowfalls in the past month, both somewhat crippling the city. None were in the immediate forecast, but with the Chinese aggressively seeding clouds to help break a drought, one never knew when the next storm might occur.

The Chinese have been putting considerable research and effort into cloud-seeding. The scientists behind the seeding took credit for the recent heavy snows, but they also suffered considerable criticism for not giving any warning about what they were doing so people could take precautions.

I could finally relax a bit as I neared the metropolis, though not for long, as I had one final ordeal of finding my way to Tienanmen Square and either a hotel that Stephen had recently stayed at or connecting with Julie-Ann, who wasn't expecting me until the next day. I had been maximizing my time on the bike with less than eleven hours of light a day, even eating lunch while I was on the Internet the past couple of days, while I checked in with Julie-Ann advising her of my progress and trying to arrange a place to meet. A hotel had worked in Xian much better than a McDonald's as Stephen and I had attempted in Wuhan, so we settled on a hotel again, though one that was on the outskirts of the city center opposite from the direction I was coming in.

I began my final day at kilometer post 142 on Highway 107. If those kilometers were all the way to the center of the city, I had a fairly manageable 89 miles, just a bit more than I had been averaging the previous six days, but if it was much more than that and had I any adversity, I might come up short. But once I reached the metropolis, biking after dark would not be too much of an ordeal, and my adrenalin would likely get me to wherever I needed to go. There would be city lights and a trickle of other cyclists, though I'd be the only one with any kind of lighting system.

Once I was swallowed up by the dense urban sprawl and thick, multi-laned traffic, my speed was slowed considerably. Road signs did not direct me to the city center or any prominent landmarks. I had to once again rely on my compass and occasionally asking for directions, wearily wondering how much further it was going to be. It was soon dark and I had no idea where Tienanmen Square might be other than it was to the northeast. Whenever I asked, I was told to keep going straight. I knew I had to turn left, to the north, at a certain point. People would put up two or three fingers and make a gesture to the left. I took the number to be either lights or kilometers, but it was always more than that.

When I finally made the turn I had to go a couple more miles and the square I came to was Xidan, a mile or so to the west of Tienanmen, though it took a while to figure that out. By now I was over ninety miles for the day. I was gobbling food to keep from bonking. I knew at a certain point the exhilaration of reaching my destination would wear off and the frustration of not reaching it as easily as I would have liked could suddenly bankrupt me of energy.

It was a Saturday night and there were swarms of people and traffic about and the downtown brightly lit up. It was as cosmopolitan a city as any with bright neon and two-story high screens broadcasting commercials. At Tienanmen Square I found the side street leading to the hotel Stephen had recommended. When I located it, they let me use their phone to contact Julie-Ann. If she weren't answering or not available, I'd stay there. But I caught Julie-Ann just as she was sitting down to dinner. She was surprised and delighted to hear from me, not expecting me until the next day. Our meeting point was several miles away, but it could take me an hour or more to find it, so we arranged to meet there at eight pm.

There were a couple places where I might have gone astray if I weren't paying attention, but I managed to arrive at the hotel twenty minutes early and with 99 miles on my odometer. I circled around the vicinity for a mile looking for some food to record the first century of this trip, a most fitting end. I found a hearty bunch of dumplings and returned to the hotel.

For the first time in my all too many dealings with above-average hotels the doorman did not freak out at the site of my bicycle, ordering me to promptly get it out of site of the entry to the hotel, removing it to some distant bike specific parking area. Instead, he kindly allowed me to leave it within his vision off to the side beside a couple of parked cars. Nor did anyone pounce on me when I entered the hotel, asking me what I was doing there. I casually took a seat in the lobby. I had delayed my arrival until shortly before eight and only had to wait a couple of minutes for Julie-Ann, bundled up in a North Face down parka. It had been the coldest day of my trip, the water bottle I left out on my bike while I camped frozen solid in the morning and not fully thawing during the day.

Her apartment was a couple miles away. She proposed I follow along behind a taxi. That worked just fine, the couple extra miles putting me safely above 100 for the day.

It was Julie-Ann's first night in her apartment. She couldn't figure out how to get the hot water to work in the shower. Her building had a maintenance man on 24-hour alert who came and explained how to do it. Her apartment was a fully furnished studio condo with plush curtains and a flat screen TV and dangling beads separating her bedroom from the rest of the apartment.

The owners were an older couple who had recently purchased it. The owner's wife volunteered to clean it for free once a week as a pretense Julie-Ann surmised of checking up on her. They wanted six months rent in advance, but settled on three. Julie-Ann's rent is slightly more than the housing stipend that comes with her job, but she doesn't mind at all, though she's not within walking distance of her office as she was in Xian. Its a twenty-minute, seven-cent bus ride.

I was utterly exhausted and depleted, especially after the final two-mile sprint to her apartment, but we had so much to talk about we were up until midnight. Julie-Ann had just finished her first week on her new job with a young company that is building movie multiplexes around the country. They have one eleven-screen complex in operation outside of Shanghai and a handful of others soon to open.

Julie-Ann will help train each theater's staff, having worked at theaters in Chicago and Manhattan, and also make sure all their material in English is up to snuff, and also help with programming. To circumvent the Chinese quota of only allowing 45 foreign films to be released a year, they hope to have special one week screenings of foreign films that they can rotate around their various theaters. They will call the program Lumiere Select. Julie-Ann is already compiling a list of potential films, keeping in mind that they have to meet approval of Chinese censors.

I'll have a day or so to see a few sites and then back home.

Later, George

No comments: