Friday, September 02, 2005

Never Judge A Man By The Color of His Bicycle

Someone who had visited China once said to me ‘There really aren’t as many bicycles as I thought there would be’. This person should be slapped. This country has so more bikes than I can say anything funny to compare the number to, that’s it, just a shitload of bikes. It takes about seven seconds after getting here to notice all the bikes, you can practically see them from the plane, like an ocean of grey, slowly flowing up and down the streets, but since arrival, I’ve now noticed several very interesting varieties (which I shall describe in mind numbing detail).

Firstly, the normal bike. Probably 75% of the bicycles here fall into this category. These are mostly rusted out conglomerates of several older bikes. They are held together by a delicate balance of rust, wire and rope. They are all the same color of rust-brown, with grayed out tires with various bends in the frames from merciless taxi drivers. They all have one gear, which makes everyone look like they’re pedaling in unison, to some creepy Hitchcock theme song; slow, steady uphill, downhill, same speed, watching, watching. Along with the single gear, all bikes come equipped with a Toto basket on the front, which makes me want to exchange the Hitchcock statement for the Wicked-Witch-in-the-tornado music, still creepy of course, but better sound effects. Nearly all of these have some sort of rack on the back, something that good American school kids would bungee their books to on the way to school in Any-Town, USA (if kids in America would use bikes, books or go to school for that matter). In China, they’re called ‘passenger seats.’ I have seen people, young and old, male and female, all shapes and sizes riding down the street on the back of a bike, their tiny asses clenched to the thin bars of the bike rack, holding their feet mere inches off the ground as the driver weaves in and out of traffic, dodging other bikes, pedestrians, cars, trucks and the various other vehicles on the road. Children are given the precaution of a sort of rope-style seat belt, which they usually hold on to or have in their mouths; it’s all about the safety. One thing can be said about the people of this country, they all have amazing senses of balance, what between the amazing toilets, the tai-chi, and the fact that four people can ride a bike at the same time like a pack of carnival clowns. It’s quite impressive, I’ve been known to fall down by tripping on the edge of a rug, or not be able to sit in a three-legged chair.

The second type of bike is the full-size mini-bike. These appear to be fold-up bikes, but they’re not. It’s the China equivalent of those annoying Razor scooters that were all the rage a couple years ago (the little scooter with the skateboard wheels). These bikes are come in all the bright colors - black, brown, tan, janitor-uniform-blue. The tires on the bikes are roughly the size of a hubcap. These are the bikes that ‘those damned kids’ like to ride around on.

Next is my favorite type of bike, the electric-manual scooter-bike. I got to get me one of these. They’re basically normal size bikes that you can plug in and charge up. Once charged up, these puppies scream down the street at speeds topping three or four miles an hour. But the bike doesn't stop there, kick in on the pedals and you can gain an extra half-mile per hour (maybe). Mostly old ladies have these types of bikes. There is a little speed gauge and a power meter that lets you know that you have exactly six minutes to get to a plug in. The part of the frame with all the complicated charging equipment provides a nice little footrest (if you wear the national average shoe size, which is equal to the size of the fat end of a pool stick).

A third type of bike is the three-wheel bike. These are very popular with the farmers, low-end construction companies, and the local crazy-cardboard-collector guy. They usually sport a small truck bed (from a real truck often) that is used to carry produce, wood, tin cans, or, more often than not, about ten people. I think the Chinese are also blessed with very strong thigh and calf muscles. There are the non-motorized versions (tin can collector guy) and the semi-motorized versions (produce guy), but both always have some sort of a rigged braking system that is the equivalent of sticking a stick through the spokes, but it runs all the way up to a fine point on the handlebars to a place where if a stick was really thrown into the spokes, the driver would be impaled (poor poor Chen). These are also in a wide variety of colors - black, rust, wood, wire (usually all displayed on the same bike).

Finally, the rich pricks here have the fully motorized scooters, which are basically Vespas. Except that they go about four miles an hour and are all dented to hell and have that familiar rust-dirt color to them. There is a law here that says you do not need a license to drive anything that’s electric, so there are no gas-powered mini-bikes (so they really sneak up on you when you’re walking home drunk).

All major roads are about six lanes wide, with the outer lanes on each side only for pedestrians and bikes. It’s a great way to promote alternate transportation and sure beats pedaling down the interstate with this years peach crop teetering behind you on the truck bed with a sharpened stick for a break staring you in the eye the whole way.

Despite the lack of bicycle shops, there are these cool little portable bicycle repairmen who set up at the street corners. They set up shop on a corner and people bring their bikes up to get various ailments fixed (shop is usually a bag with a variety of patched tubes, bailing wire, a hammer & used duck-tape). These guys will retrofit anything, you want dubs? No problem. They’re not very good with bodywork, they’re mainly concerned with getting you on your way, but it’s a nice little way to do business.

Once you get away from the bikes, the vehicles get even stranger, but harder to imagine. There are the three-wheeled semi-trucks that are the size of a minivan that are often loaded down so heavy that the rims are actually touching the ground. There are the minivans that are the size of a Civic, the taxis where the driver is surrounded by bullet proof glass that makes it look like he’s sitting in a helicopter ejection seat, the truck-van combination that are huge & would make the perfect band travel vehicle, I could go on and on.

These thoughts were organized at about 3:30 am while being sick from dinner on Wednesday. What happened? I thought you had an iron-gullet? What made the giant fall? The answer is Brazil.

The greatest restaurant in the world is in Houston. It’s called Fogo de Caco. It’s a Brazilian steak house. The give you a card that’s green on one side & red on the other, when the red side is up, they leave you alone, but when the green side is up, you get a barrage of waiters surrounding your table with skewers of the best cooked meat in the entire world. Steak, chicken, fillet, bacon wrapped steak, bacon wrapped chicken, bacon wrapped bacon, sausages, deer, lamb, like 25 different kinds of meat, all cooked to perfection. A two-person dinner there will cost around $150, but it’s totally worth it, at least with the company card.

Wednesday night, Xinlei and I went to a similar restaurant here in Langfang. He said ‘Brazilian Steak House’ and my knees began to tremble. The restaurant kept the Chinese tradition of being hotter than an oven, but it doesn't matter, I was happy to be at a meat buffet. This place had the same as Fogo; turn the piece of wood to the green side for food, the red side for mercy. However, the food was slightly different. Freshly skewered beef tongue was a little rubbery, however the chicken hearts were pretty tasty, much better than the lamb penis, which is what they kept trying to put on my plate. If I had a nickel for every lamb penis I’ve had in my mouth.

Plus, the waiters only came around every 5-10 minutes. Now, when you’re at a meat buffet, you got to keep the food rolling, no matter what body part or animal it comes from. I spent most of the meal waiting for more food. But somewhere between the eel soup and the yak tail, I must have gotten a hold of something a bit, um, undercooked. It first hit around 12:00, when I was trying to sleep. It hit like a semi ramming into a granite embankment and had me doubled over in pain. It was one of those pains that drain you of the ability to do anything, walk, open eyes, just hold your breath and hope the searing pain stops. This is the closest feeling a man ever gets to childbirth, my colon was contracted to about 150 centimeters and I literally had to crawl to the bathroom. It was one of those truth-pains, where you see everything clearer for a while, the sky seems bluer, the water tastes better, the air cleaner, everything in life is deserving of appreciation, except for that damn restaurant.

I took a few shots of Pepto, drank some water and fell back into a nervous sleep where my dreams were filled with greasy food on long car drives through the desert and plum juice and Mexican food. Suprisingly, when I woke up at 6:30, I was back to normal, in fact, I felt pretty good. It’s a good thing, because I had to go to the office in a couple hours, the office of the lovely toilets. I thought that Thursday may be the day that I was broken on the toilets, but I was able to fend the lurking monster off for a short time.

I’ve only been here for three weeks, I was hoping that by now the days would start flying by a bit faster, that I’d be able to get into some sort of a routine, but it’s not going to happen. I’ve been working from the hotel room for a couple days, which will help my mood greatly. It’s been extremely frustrating working with the client. They’re all very nice, but the communication barrier, compounded with the uncomfortable work environment (and that toilet looming in the background every day) makes it difficult. The work environment works about like this: I’m in a room with anywhere from seven to thirteen people, all watching, listening, but only one or two of them actually speak. Everything confuses them, and because I cannot talk to and understand them, everyone gets frustrated. The room is steaming with heat, I’m sweating like a janitor in the boiler room, I am constantly served hot water from a kettle for refreshment and Xinlei’s phone rings off the hook all day because nothing can get done in GE China without him (which is excellent for him, but annoying as hell).

My hotel room is pretty nice. The bed is hard as a rock, and the pillows are about the size of a grilled cheese sandwich. When I’m working from the room, the maid cleans right around me, which is kind of unnerving, but probably something I should get used to if I plan on bringing one of them back to the US with me to be the future Mrs. Duo Li Hutmacher. They clean the balcony with a rag on their hands and knees. I haven’t turned the TV on for two weeks, what’s the point? It’s all in Chinese and the acting is porn quality without the good stuff.

This visa/passport/residence permit bullshit is absolutely killing me. I’ve jumped through so many hoops since I’ve been here, my head hurts. Every time I turn around, there is another form to fill out, another piece of paperwork to sign, another person taking my passport to fill out paperwork, another trip to a stupid ass city. It’s absolutely asinine. I haven’t had my passport for the last two weeks (since I got back from Hong Kong and there was someone waiting at the hotel to take it to it’s next stop), so I get a call today that said they were going to drop it off at the hotel for me (in Beijing of course, not the one I’m actually staying in) so that I could request a form from the hotel, then they’re taking it again on Monday. I’ve been here three weeks, I worked on this for three weeks straight before coming & they tell me it’ll be at least two more weeks. It’d be different if I was coming into a country where all women walked around naked and they shot all ugly kids at birth, but no, this snaggle-tooth, hairy women havin’, stank wine drinkin’, shit in a hole in the floor country is where my karma sends me. In a past life, I must have been some sort of IRS worker and this is my repayment.

The weather here is pretty nasty. Every day is mid-90’s with a humidity of 100% for all but about two hours. In three weeks I have yet to see the sun. Walking outside is like getting a blast in the face from a diesel exhaust pipe, my skin is gritty and slimy from the time I get out of the shower until I get back into the shower. You can feel the film of pollution gather on your body throughout the day. Sweat stains are no longer that lovely light-yellow hue, but form a darkened bruise on your shirt around your neck and arms. The other day I woke up and could not see the ground from my window. It shouldn't be surprising why there is so much rust around. All the buildings are chipping away, exposing the underlying metal (probably due to the highly unregulated cement to sand mixture that makes most buildings a time bomb).

Shirts are completely optional in this city. It is common to see a table of people sit down to dinner and one or two of the men take their shirts off before eating. If I did that, they’d probably start calling me Moby Dick and start picking me apart with chopsticks and dipping my flesh in peanut sauce.

Friday I left to head back to Beijing (again). This weekend, Jayson is still in town & we’re going to do the much-anticipated trip to the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs and all that crap. If I wasn't so sick of doing the hotel room shuffle, I’d probably be more excited. As it is, I’m about a heartbeat from canceling on the whole weekend so I can stay here and sleep, read and write. It’s been extremely difficult getting reading time in, I have to force myself to step back from work for an hour a day so I can get some reading done. I’ve still managed to get about six books done since I’ve gotten here, most of them have been pretty lame unfortunately.

This is also my chance to meet the much talked about Jenny. Her job is to help us out with ‘logistics’ (buzzword that gets passed around the business world way too much). She’s organizing our trip & coming along, so I’m kind of excited to meet at least one non-hotel staff girl.

On top of that, the Great Wall is not in the city & I really need to see something other than the concrete jungle of this country. Who knows, maybe this will be my only chance to see the sun. My body and mind are definitely wearing thin and I think the lack of nature and stress of the city is largely to blame for it. I’m sad and lonely a lot right now, this is the kind of sadness that I’ve seen in other people, the kind of sadness that comes before quitting or betrayal. I need the sun and the sky and the nighttime moon and stars to pull me out of it, but have been abandoned here in these cities of greed and destruction.

1 comment:

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