Monday, May 21, 2007

a circle of country

Re-entering Luzhou after 2 days cycling country roads is a shock. The city no longer hovers a beautiful ghost above the river – no longer appears of one solid piece. The city has broken up in two short days, leaving a fretful jigsaw effort at looking modern; a jumble of old buildings fronted with plastic signs, decade-old buildings that look 30, and 5 year old buildings whose plaster is already cracking, and which will be gone in another five years. Most of all, one sees masses of people whose overriding desire is to escape the countryside that you have just left, and who, in their remarkable willingness to accept a standardized version of modernization, end up living in a hellish density of cars, bad air, and concrete. “Greening,” a popular word in the media of late, refers to using cement planters with decorative shrubs to adorn the tiled, cement space between two tall buildings. A modern social life awaits city youth --- playing cards on a computer screen with three strangers in other places.

The country was profoundly silent. Our gears clicking, our tires fumbling over rocks, our breathing heavy near hilltops, all resounded in the still air. One long stretch the second morning I felt like I was riding through a land cut adrift in time: a curve of road under the curling limbs of a black and white tree, a sheaf of wheat leaning against a mud-brick wall, an old woman shucking beans in a doorway, cat lounging at her feet. The labels “Sichuan” and “China” came partly unglued under the force of the stillness. I could be in Spain, 50 years ago; in Kenya, in Mindanao. I felt absolutely overlooked, accidental, free, the way one only can in fantasies of time travel. News, that reminder of an oppressive present, no longer exists. Farmers barely glance at you. You are lost, lost so sweetly.

Hills lay sculpted in a dozen layers and patches, the lower half skirted with form-fitting terraces, the top bristling with the long coarse hairs of wheat patches, like a dozing animal. All the first day we rode from town to town, through air fragrant with plants. Cabbages bloomed like vast Martian flowers. In places the road tunneled through heavy masses of bamboo, and the air cooled and time slowed down. We saw the eras of housing – the new tiled boxes, the grey brick houses with tile roofs, even the adobe ones with thatch roofs. And excruciating labor never produced as graceful a curve as the lines of the terraces following the slopes like lines on a topographical map. In the afternoon we swooped down on Mituo town, and the Yangtze lay below us, and its inlets and islets, and the tile roofs of the town came rushing upward, swallowing us. On the sandy bank we saw chocolate water rolling in liquid tresses, and the ferry carried us and our bikes across.

The road on the other side was worse than we had imagined, with two-foot-deep mud ruts and clustered rocks. And it was the most beautiful and friendly stretch of our trip. The green fields floated magic in the lowering sunlight, and it was hard to say if the sun had made the fields or the fields had born the sun. And there were birds, and the sound of a ship on the river. A traveling barber joked with us, while his customer doused his face in water scooped from a rice paddy and squatted down impatiently next to the road for his shave. My strength was near an end, even as the sun released us from its grip. But this touch of heat exhaustion, a gurgling of my stomach and a stone in my head, dissipated in the hospitality of the people of Jiaotan town. We got there just in time for my wobbly head. Two young officials met us.

The police chief fretted to the secretary as we ate, “It’s a hassle, I’m telling you! All kinds of forms. Foreigners are even supposed to have registration for their bikes!” But his face was too kind to worry me. The secretary tried apologizing for the odd comments of the town crank, but I assured her even his antics were a pleasure to weary riders. We were escorted up the old main street, its wooden shutters tight and empty but for a bare bulb or two. Old men sat in the amber light of teahouses. The stones were worn with centuries of feet, and rain. And then we were standing on the edge of dark fields, and I could not help walking in ten yards, like a swimmer wading in, feeling the sounds of frogs and crickets and the scents of plants engulf me like cool water. In the night lightning flickered. And a huge beetle found its way onto my ankle as I slept.

The next morning Geoff and I sat in a teahouse on the old main street. It was raining. Farmers came in and hung three foot wide bamboo hats on pegs in the plaster wall and lay down purple 5-jiao notes on the table as the owner came over and splashed water into a bowl of tea leaves. They sat on a narrow wooden bench across from friends and placed the lid back inside the flared lip of the cup, to keep the heat in, and noisily inhaled a sip.

At first we sat alone. Then a man approached doubtfully and sat down, murmuring to the woman, “Its my old spot.” Slowly, more sat around the table. Outside the open front people moved past with umbrellas, and sturdy baskets on their backs, ducking under tarps strung out from shop fronts, gazing down at the mosquito coils and extension cords laid out for sale on tables. They asked where we were from; we asked if they had ever gone to Chengdu. The owlish-faced little man with the beak nose leaned close and shouted, “What’s the price of a cup of tea over there??” And later, he asked, “”Over there can you just talk to anyone you want?” meaning to women, and I asked him if he could dance. He answered No. I said it was easy, and moved my arms in a Peewee Herman kind of way, and took his slender hard wrists and moved them about. Everyone roared. “If Deng had not opened the country, we would never have been able to talk to each other,” said the gentle-faced farmer who had first sat down. We all felt good at this remark. Really, these lean, leathery faces were all gentle, having used up all their aggression making love to mother earth with seeds and hoes, which turned them gradually into her patient servants. There was no hardness, not a resistant bone left. Geoff tried goading one little granddaughter into a smile; she munched her rice cake and looked at him without fear. That’s how the morning was.

After those hours jolting over muddy roads in the black and white past, we found ourselves in pavement again, in White Cloud, far from where we had aimed. The rain was done. From there we labored another couple of hours flying down long slopes and crawling up longer ones, with buses roaring past honking. We turned our faces from the smoke. Close to Luzhou we passed through remnants of a 50’s version of the modern world. Back then Liberation was still fresh, and large factories of brick had been set up on the outskirts of the city. Now these brick walls were old, and the red cement star above the gates were faded. The people whose parents had worked proudly in those factories of the past sat on stools in the shade in T-shirts and played cards and looked at the cars and buses going by. A sweet sleepiness of neglect lay on the scene. Then we were on streets that I recognized, and the city rose up before me.

But it was not at all like before, autonomous, forcefully modern. It had disintegrated. It too was no more than a massive effort to erase time, this time not with steel plants but with boutiques selling wispy pastel summer dresses for slender women. I could see its age, its layers of time, its grey buildings; most of all I could see how it could never escape the encircling closeness of country. No matter how hard it spurned those open fields and those creased, gentle farmer’s faces, its dream of rising above would always be a dream. A powerful dream, to be sure, like this beautiful ghost of a city. But the city could never really leave it all behind, except maybe in intoxicated moments of joy, when one sings with all one’s might into a microphone down in one of those smoky joints, floor crunchy with sunflower-seed sh

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