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Reunited

The next morning I awoke alone for the first time in a while. I was in an orange and brown hotel room, filled with oddly shaped mirrors, oblong modern end tables and with scruffs of shag carpet glued to the walls. The bed frame displayed the company logo “elephant” in orange tinted reflective plastic letters. Outside the lay a chilly city in somewhere in the early morning of northern China. The sun was just beginging to spill across the pavement as I pulled myself out of bed and crawled over to my computer to map out my upcoming ride to the airport, and the subsequent one down into Qingdao. Both were going to be sizable; about 40km to the Harbin airport, and another 35 down to central Qingdao. And all these kilometers would be fully loaded.

Just then a knock came on the door. It was the hotel staff bringing the usual plastic bag breakfast. This one consisted of some steamy rice drink, sealed into a felxible plastic bag which I was encouraged by the hotel employee to puncture with a straw that she handed me from a pocket in her apron. There were also a couple of manufactured sweet buns, each in its own plastic pouch, and a hardboiled egg which I set to work shelling. To be honest, none of it was very tasty, but I shoved it all down, knowing I would need the energy.

I bid my thanks and farewells to the hotel staff, strapped my things down amidst a growing crowd of cigarette-break-taking construction workers, climbed on the cycle, and began to head across Harbin towards the airport. I was in good spirits. It was looking to be a bright sunny day, I had plenty of time to make mistakes (which I undoubtedly would), and riding from Harbin into the countryside would be no doubt enjoyable. Traffic was pretty dense wheeling from the hotel across town, but there were plenty of other cyclists headed in the same direction, and the bike lanes were wide and plentiful in a way that only China really does it.

I rode for a while side by side with a fellow on a scooter, who hung close next to me as I rode. We shared a conversation with very few mutually intelligible words. He seemed pleased with the amount of items I had strapped to my body and bicycle, and I was pleased to have a reassuring smiling character next to me. When we finally parted ways, I asked him to confirm that my route to the airport was still on track. It was, he indicated, and we bid farewell in Chinese (one of the few things I could say) before I took a right and he headed off straight. From Google maps, it had seemed as though I needed to only go over one block in order to get on the main road which would connect to the airport road, so I did exactly that and took my next left.

This turned out to have been the wrong move. I grew increasingly certain of this as the road deteriorated into gravel and then into less of a road and more an area of packed dirt in a rather ghostly construction zone. Construction seemed to have long ago been forced to stop, though, for people had come in to begin to build a kind of makeshift village amidst the half built foundation of what may have once been intended to be a skyscraper . The residents seemed genuinely thrilled that I was wheeling by, though, and we exchanged plenty of waves, and shouts as I pulled an uber-Liechtenstein and headed back to the road. It was not until I was well onto pavement again that the crowd of children running alongside my bicycle petered out.

A few more streets up, I was blessed with a Romanized version of the street name I was looking for, and following it had me heading onto a giant 10 lane road. It was right. I could feel it.

I was pedaling fast and hard now, knowing it should be a straight shot from here to the airport. Soon the farthest lanes to my right began to be filled with parked cars. The fellows in these cars were all climbing out and attempting to hitch a ride. I found this behavior puzzling and slightly unsettling.

Eventually, the cars on the right reached a peak, spilling out into three of the five outbound lanes, and sides were crammed with passengers looking for rides in vans and cabs, presumably bound for the airport. My unsettled feeling began to increase markedly as I began to notice the people by the side of the road were pointing and laughing at me.

Shrugging off the criticism in true AsiaWheeling style, I pulled onto a giant newly built airport expressway. There was a giant sign advertizing that tractors, motorcycles, and rickshaws were not allowed. There was technically no picture of a bicycle there, so I decided it was worth a shot.

It was a wild road. Mostly empty, but the few cars that drove on it were flying at breakneck speed engines winingin a doppler effect as they blew by me. Occasionally, a car would even honk at me as they passed. A few even slowed down to yell things in Chinese, most of which genuinely appeared to be inspirational messages, punctuated perhaps with some bits of sarcasm.

Then I heard the sirens and I realized I was being pulled over. I stopped my bike and leaned it against the concrete barrier. One cop opened the passenger door while the other sat inside the car. He approached me with a deeply unsettling look on his face, which as he grew closer distorted into a terrifying visage which could only indicate insanity. Once he was about 6 feet from me, the snarling mask ruptured into a grinning and before I knew it the man was giggling.  I realized I was sweating through my clothes.

The cop and I spoke in bits of English, bits of Chinese, plenty of hand gesturing. So comfortable was I in the conversation, that I even tried some bits of Russian. These he received as if they were a brilliant joke, letting out a belly laugh but then looking at me inquisitively. Over the course of the conversation, much was said, but the only thing which was really communicated to me was that what I was doing was not allowed, and that he would need to escort me off  of the expressway. I asked whether there was a different road I could take to the airport. He giggled again for a while, and said yes there was and that he would lead me there.

And so it was with full police escort that I rode to the old airport road. When i got there, however, I found it to be absolutely crammed to the gills with barely moving gridlock traffic. The traffic had spilled over onto the shoulder, even, which made cycling a death defying game of weaving around exhaust belching trucks to find the next bit of pavement that might let you get again a few vehicle-lengths. I gave it a real shot, and was moving faster than the traffic to be sure, but not fast enough to reach the airport which was at least 20 km away still. To make matters worse, I realized I was slightly suffocating. So finally I turned around and headed back to the giant cluster of people looking for a way to go to the airport and joined the crowd.

The crowd was huge, disgruntled, and boisterous. To make matters worse, sightings of empty cabs were rare. I decided that trying to catch a cab heading the opposite direction (coming back from the airport), and then convincing him to turn around and head back to the airport might be better than competing with the throngs on the other side of the road. And sure enough, after my third denial, a cab that had headed off shaking his head, slowed down, and, some 20 meters in front of me, threw it into reverse, changing his mind, and pulled back.

100 Yuan, he said (about 14 bucks). That seemed like a lot to me. But he assured me that it was not, explaining in a mix of pantomime and Chinese that it included the airport fee. I want the meter, I said pointed to the device. He continued to refuse, saying that 100 was fair. He explained that he would run the meter and cancel it at the end, and I would see he was being fair. He just wanted to avoid the cab company’s cut, perhaps. Regardless, I needed to get to the airport, so I agreed.

Then we were off, flying like crazy down the expressway. I told him my story of being pulled over by the cops and he found it hilarious. The effort of communicating all this with only a handful of mispronounced Chinese words and plenty of pantomime had exhausted me, so I soon fell silent and just rode, giving the driver a chance to call all his friends and tell them the story too.

Finally, we pulled up to the airport. The meter read 76 Yuan, which plus the 20 that he’d paid for the airport toll, would have totaled 96. The four Yuan extra was just fine by me.

I gave him a 100 Yuan bill and he piled my things on the curb of the drop-off zone. There was as good a place as any,  so I folded up my bike, strapped foam over the fragile bits, took off the pedals, and stuffed it into its bag. I grabbed a luggage cart and piled all my stuff on, heading for the China Eastern Airlines check in counter.

The gentleman of course, wanted to charge some extra money for the cycle, but we were able, after much discussion, and some repeated weighing of the bike, to settle on a bargain: I would head over to pay a friend of his 20 Yuan to wrap the thing in cellophane (normally a 10 Yuan service), and he would get half of the profits. Fine by me.

Then I was off towards my gate. The Harbin airport was impressive and just packed to the gills with shops selling sausage. Sausage, it seems, is a Harbin specialty. I should have bought some, but instead I spent the last of my cash on cans of sticky sweet canned coffee from an overpriced vending machine, and headed on towards the gate.

The flight was uneventful, though the chap next to me did explain a few times that he hated flying since it kept him from smoking. I attempted to express my condolences, but they seemed of little comfort. He then spent the remainder of the flight obsessively chewing and spitting out piece after piece of Wrigley’s double-mint chewing gum, munching away while fingering individual cigarettes in his pack. It was a little jarring to be next to someone so obviously suffering. By the end, I would have been in support of him just lighting up, so good would it have felt to see the relief on his features.

I landed in Qingdao right on time, and headed over to pick up my Speed TR and backpack  from the conveyor. They were already there when I arrived, reminding me what a cracker jack job the Chinese air handlers do. Furthermore, the bike was no worse for the wear. 1 point China Eastern Airlines 0 points to Go Air.

I unfolded and re-assembled the thing outside, attracting the usual crowd of people, interested in the retail price and country of origin of the Speed TR. Most of their questions, however, I was just unable to understand, lacking Scott’s Chinese skills. In the end, I just apologized for my lack of their language, and headed off.

I headed out onto the highway, and stopped near an under construction on-ramp to ask some of the construction workers for directions into Qingdao. Just then a cab pulled up alongside me, and began asking me questions in Chinese. I had no idea what they wanted to know, and apologized, but I was able to ask how to get to Qingdao.

Armed with that knowledge, I pulled onto yet another freeway, and experienced the same honking and shouts of sarcasm laced moral support as I rode. I was feeling great. I’d made it to Qingdao and my fellow traffic seemed thrilled to have me on their road. It was a straight shot to Qingdao and all I had to do was pedal these last 30 km! …and then there were sirens behind me again. Twice in one day! And in two different cities in China, 1400km apart!? Was wheeling illegal in China all of a sudden?

The cop was explaining, as the other had earlier, that I could not ride on the freeway. However, this time there was no police escort, or helpful directions as to how to get back to civilization legally, just a stern directive to head off the road. “Where,” I asked?

The cop just pointed off to the right, into what looked like a giant industrial wasteland connected by muddy gravel roads.

Fair enough. I walked by bike off the road, and began to hoist it over rivers of muck and piles of garbage to get over to the closest road.

Then I was wheeling again, this time through some very intense industrial landscapes.

I was soon joined by an auto rickshaw. The driver seems absolutely tickled pink to see me here, and though he said nothing to me, he hung out next to me and we shared the road for a while, pulling over from time to time to let a giant cement truck or semi by.

Eventually we entered a township and he pulled ahead of me, exposing the back of his rickshaw. The back door was open, and swung back and forth as he drove, exposing an interior of bright pink and red, like a kind of twisted Barbi motif.

I headed on, stopping from time to time to ask which direction was south, fording giant puddles of sewage, and traversing a stretch of land between two power plants.

Here the earth positively boiled, as both power plants were releasing boiling water into the dirt, leaving giant steaming puddles along the roadside. As I went, I noticed that there were men fishing things out of these boiling pools, and collecting them to large brown cloth bags. What they were harvesting I may never know, but if any of you dare speculate in the comments, I would invite it.

I was part relieved and part upset when my surroundings began to become more familiar and urban. This had been a fascinating wheel thusfar.

The urban nature of the landscape grew and grew, and with it things got cleaner and cleaner. Soon, I was riding through a kind of night club district.

What a wheel it had been. I glanced down at my watch realizing Scott’s train should have gotten in. I pulled over and purchased a kind of Chinese knock-off Coca Cola-type product, and gave him a call which rang out. He called back in about a second.

We decided I should meet him at the train station, which was about 10 more kilometers away. So while Scott headed off to find a hotel, I began to process of riding, then stopping and asking in terrible unintelligible Chinese where the station was, then riding some more and asking again. I kept meeting very friendly Chinese people, who were infinitely patient and helpful with me. I would speak some 8 words of broken Chinese with them, and they would leave with warm goodbyes and compliments on my mandarin skills. Crazy.

The closer I got to the city center, the more European things began to look, with narrower streets, and more imperial architecture. The European vibe was most likely attributable to the historical German colonial interest in the city, though it had long since fizzled.

When I finally arrived at the train station, which also looked just a bit like the one in Munich, I wheeled into the central pedestrian section. I was then stopped, for the third time that day, by the police. The officer explained to me that this too was not a valid area to cycle in.

So it was on foot, walking my cycle, that I finally was reunited with Scott.

Wu Tang reunited?” I said and stuck out my hand.

“Reunited.” He replied, taking it. We walked our bikes out of the pedestrian zone, and wheeled off into the city.


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