Monday, May 21, 2007

in praise of bad roads

I have this idea that in China, the better the roads are, the uglier the scenery. This idea turned to conviction after a bike trip with a friend last week to the Sichuan – Guizhou border region. We passed through many small towns whose narrow old street is paralleled by a new main street as wide as a parking lot. The space is so wide as to be incongruous: instead of adding a modern vitality to the town, it spreads the original sleepiness only wider. These avenues without cars or crowds become storage space for bricks, or potatoes, or a place for dogs to lounge, and kids to play. But one will turn down an alley and end up on a long, winding lane of stone slabs worn by time, fronted by old wooden and plaster houses.

While most towns have the two streets (and two worlds) parallel, in Guihua it was different. We rode into an expanse of cement fronted by blank, pastel-tiled buildings. We rode on and suddenly the square birthday-cake buildings stopped and the street shriveled into a lane, old buildings tilting and leaning like friends after a bout of baijiu drinking; three pigs were herded along by a farmer. We caught a glimpse of a stone bridge at a turn and got off our bikes for a look. It was a high arch soaring double the height of the road itself, almost forming a huge “O” with the stream running through the bottom. It was as if Dr. Suess had given bridge-building a try. One had to mount many steps to climb up it and go down the other side. “It is 70 years old,” said a man who approached me as Geoff climbed up it. “And inside are the bodies of men who died building it.” Two local teachers offered us cigarettes. Rather than dating back hundreds of years as I had imagined, it was built only as the awful history of modern warfare was turning its Asian page, with Japanese planes bombing cities (“Save Chongqing, the Madrid of the Orient,” read banners of Chinese protesters), colonists seizing land in the Northeast, and germ warfare units being formed. And yet even in that age, deep-seated architectural habits and ideas produced this fantastically high bridge, as if an old-fashioned “Oh!” of shock and awe at the iniquities of those new times.

When we got to Guihua we had just escaped two days on a road under construction. Instead of being built in phases, authorities felt it better to tear the entire road up at the same time. Perhaps this was done to spread revenue equally among the road crews of all villages. It was a road that almost killed our trip. We had approached from the Guizhou side, riding placidly a smooth dirt road up and up the small river valley. Waterfalls broke the green spread of trees. We stopped to watch the workings of a crew of bamboo haulers. 2 cables ran all the way up to the top of the ridge across the river. A bundle of 5 or 6 logs would come sailing down, slowing as it neared the wooden beams at the bottom. One man caught it, swung it about, unhooked it, and sent it clattering across the beams and onto a pile, where another man untied it. As soon as the bundle was unhooked, the gravity of another load on the other side of the cable began pulling the empty hook back up.

We came on a lake of mud and tire ruts and realized we had crossed the border. A bus driver had told us the road was under construction from there. We were on and off our bikes for almost two days. By the second day Geoff stopped worrying about keeping his shoes clean, and we both bought the green army sneakers worn by many farmers. Anywhere men were breaking rocks or hauling earth in baskets for a culvert (to divert streams under the road instead of over), we knew it was time to get off and walk, as rocks were piled up to cover the sea of mud. By the second day our appreciation of mud had grown more refined, and we recognized that the soupy mud was practically a pleasure, no matter how deep. One just rode right through, and the Red Sea parted. It was the sticky mud that became a problem. It gummed up brakes and fenders to the point the bikes were hard even to push.

But alpine peaks wreathed the sky and mist wreathed the peaks, and as we descended from a pass, fields and farmhouses appeared far below. “I’ve gotta put on my jacket,” said Geoff, and we both stopped. The chill wind had cut away the heat of our long climb in minutes, and the sweat on my back was cold. I tied a t-shirt over my head and put on my muddy gloves. Geoff munched peanuts and raisins (or “Sultanas”), and I bit into tofu jerky and pissed into the magnificent misty void.

We had passed dozens of work crews, and all the men stared silently as we approached, as if our eyes spread a magic paralysis over them. They leaned on their shovels with a cigarette in one hand, or struggled under the weight of a boulder suspended between two men’s shoulders on a pole, following us with their eyes. Or they swung sledgehammers at large rocks or hammered at chisels, but watching us, still watching. They had no time to be surprised. Their clothes were motley, from old sport jackets and army shoes to blue Mao jackets and a white cloth wound around the forehead, or home-made sweaters in gold and blue, and rubber boots. But they all wore long pants chubby over long underwear, and many uttered the words, “Aint ya cold?” on seeing us in our shorts. They said the words spontaneously, to themselves as much as to us. “If we stop, we’ll be cold,” I said. The hair of our calves was bearded with driblets of mud thrown up by the tires.

I am sure that there are two halves to the allure of travel. The visible half is the dream of exotic new settings for the unwinding movie of our life – temples and ancient towns, beaches and mosques. The invisible and less considered half is the charge of being stared at. It is in being stared at that we are reminded that our life is a movie, that we are a lead actor. Other people staring at us is a peculiar sensation. We see ourselves as they see us – as strange beings. Through their reaction we are separated from ourselves, and we are able, fantastically, to be a spectator in our own life. There was both an annoyance and a secret pleasure at these men’s stares. The anonymity that modern city people crave was broken; the polite skin people wear in urban society that the stranger in front of you is a mere object to be disregarded, was stripped away. “What, never seen a foreigner?” went my thoughts in such moments.

But mostly the secret pleasure flooded my belly. I cannot speak for Geoff. We aroused surprise. I was an alien, an object, I was different. I was a star, without even having to risk my respectability by having to kiss up to directors or talk big at parties. I was strange, I was new, I was doused in a sheen of newness, a strangeness that glowed. It was the puzzled look in these men’s eyes that turned this laughable road into the scene of a private epic. As with any epic, the topic was the ordeal and heroism of once-ordinary men. We were oddities, we were superior. Didn’t the English troops playing cricket in the Indian countryside revel the same way, their game turned absurd in the eyes of silent “locals”? Weren’t their eyes a narcissistic mirror consoling soldiers in a strange land?

As the second afternoon wore on we grew despondent about reaching the main road. Whole sections were unrideable. Worse yet, the mud grew stickier, and Geoff’s front fender grew monstrous balls of mud. We stopped to scrape it off. We talked about ditching the bikes with some poor farmer and catching a motorbike taxi the rest of the way. In the last while his “bloody hells” had increased. We plodded on, feet thoroughly cold and wet, and he tried removing the fender. We passed a house and I caught a glimpse of jars on a counter. I had been craving sweets, so I called Geoff to stop. “Do you have anything sweet?” I asked the man inside.

“No. Just this hard candy,” he said.

“Hmm. What about this thing here?” I asked.

“Yeah, that’s sweet.”

“And how about that cookie?”

“That’s sweet too.” We bought, and sat on a low bench in the doorway. “The road is even worse up ahead,” he said, and I did not translate this for Geoff. We popped the crème sandwich cookies into our mouths, one after another. As we talked the man said, “Why not go through Guihua? There is a paved road to there.”

“How far is the road?” I asked.

“A league,” he said.

“A league?!” I exclaimed, “Are you sure?” I hardly dared believe such good news, but I told Geoff anyway.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said. But we mounted our bikes in better spirits. The turnoff was not paved. “Could’ve been playing with us,” he said. But around the bend I saw him up ahead turn around and raise his arm, and the road under him went white and smooth. At a small stream we pulled off and shoved the bikes under the cold water, washing away the mud in the chains, in the gears and brakes. As we washed we wondered why of all the many people we had talked to about our route, not one had thought to mention the road to Guihua. It was longer, but far faster than the 2 kilometers an hour we had been making. Surely the engineers we had talked to had come up there from this road – I saw one of their four by fours go by. Surely the locals knew of this road. “Maybe the people don’t have any lateral thinking,” said Geoff. “We said we were headed to Gulin, so they only considered the most direct way on the map.”

“I don’t know,” I said, “maybe they just enjoyed seeing the looks on our faces every time they said, ‘its even worse up ahead.’” There is little that gives residents of a place as much pleasure as deflating the unrealistic hopes of outsiders. I know how residents of my Connecticut hometown look at New Yorkers in town for a vacation, looking for a Starbucks. We marveled at our luck that had scooped us up from hopelessness to high spirits. “What if I hadn’t wanted something sweet just then?” I said.

“What if we had just bought them and ridden on without talking to that guy?” said Geoff. The road went down and down, and the mountains were no longer forested, breathing mist from piney nostrils. They rose scruffily tufted with bamboo and new trees. Houses lay all along the road, and though many were built in the old style of white-washed adobe and wood beams, none were so trim and tightly built as the ones we had left behind in the mist: next to the boxes of cement fronted with yellow tile that was the new style, these houses were slowly slipping into “relic” status. Dust collected on the white panels and bits of plaster fell off, revealing the skeleton of bamboo slats underneath. It was as if the houses themselves felt this shift, and drooped subtly.

The next day we made it to the main road, after a morning as celebrity foreigners at a middle school. As we rolled closer to Xuyong town, more and more tunnel mouths spilled out piles of coal. Entire towns were nothing but spaces for piling, loading, and sorting chunks of coal, with facilities for humans to live in squeezed haphazardly about. The coal spilled down riverbanks and tracked onto the road.

Closer to Xuyong the “towns” were merely strips of lousy buildings hugging the road, with every imaginable petty industry and trade related to trucks. Men welded next to the road, and fixed tires next to the road, and painted trucks next to the road, and repaired engines next to the road, and pounded out red hot machine parts next to the road, and rented girls in rooms next to the road. The air was sooty, and roared and honked with the sounds of buses and trucks. None of the workmen I saw wore any kind of mask, glove, or safety glasses. We passed a dusty sign reading “protect our earth and water for a more beautiful Xuyong.” I do not know if such pronouncements were more laughable or pitiable. There was no government regulation or presence visible except for such sad wishes on neglected signs.

The wide flat road spawned a hell on earth of mining and petty industry. But it would not go on unless most of the people were making money from it. And the abandoned fields covering the hillsides told that story quite clearly. Entire mountainsides had been carved long ago into tiny shelves, a few yards long and one wide, enough space for a few rows of cabbage or corn. Now the sharp cuts were softened with grass; it was as if a big chest of drawers had been left with the drawers partly pulled out, then draped in a green blanket.

We rode into Xuyong. The road was as wide as a plaza, and it split the town in two, lay it open to the blaring horns of the trucks. The road that had run through the mountains 50 miles away, a squiggle helpless under their feet, had turned into a raging current of commerce so strong that it pulled businesses and people toward it. But its strength and breadth also made it desolate; people were turned to ants on its smoky, roaring surface. The racket of trucks ricocheted off the big buildings on both sides. A hotel manager quoted different prices for the front and rear-facing rooms. The road was a no-person’s land, an ordeal that the city would die without.

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