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Cycling Incognito Through China

Xian is a big open city surrounding an old, walled former capital of China. Paradoxically, the ancient walls are thick and resilient while the newer city round about is in many places crumbly and drab.

That, anyway, is how Xian struck me in the fall of 1987 when I visited China with a college friend and his mother. They had graciously asked me along to share their three-week tour.

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Xian is the site of a great archaeological discovery: Hundreds of life-size ceramic statuary were found in the tomb of an emperor. Oven-baked footmen, cavalry, and courtiers had been unearthed intact.

A visit to the diggings would be a highlight of my China tour, I determined. It would be a visit, however, on my terms - meaning by bicycle. To that end I took advantage of having our second day in Xian all to myself to hire a bike at the derelict downtown building that served as a rental depot.

For something like $5 I rented a three-speed Flying Pigeon, the equivalent of a Model A. It was rugged, reliable, and black. (But then, almost all China's half billion bikes are black.) I opted for a three-speed because the trip from downtown to the diggings and back was approximately 44 miles.

I rode in disguise. In Wuhan, our stop before Xian, I had met a young Chinese man who befriended me and who, after a full day of practicing his English while leading me through the back streets and the notable tourist sites, smiled enormously when I asked him to help me purchase a Mao suit and cap.

As we left the store, he marvelled that from the side and back it was almost impossible to spot me as a Westerner. My guide had grown up during the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward, programs mandated by Communist leader Mao Zedong. The goal of these programs was to eradicate the past and anything that would hinder China's advance into the future. School children were encouraged to deface, even destroy, temples and statues harking back to the pre-Communist past. Classical literature was to be forgotten, or better yet, never read.

And now, my guide told me, Communist China raised hard cash with which to buy the future by charging foreigners to see the hammer-whacked Buddhas he had been goaded to ping!

On my Pigeon, whirring along, dressed like a policeman all in blue, I soon came to a critical "T" intersection and, without language to help, opted right. The road was broad, and many other motorists turned upon it, but miles later it became dirt, and I realized I hadn't seen an encouraging picture-sign in an hour.

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The scenery, with it dark caves and dusty road, had kept me going. But the dreamy pleasure of this course was punctured the instant my front tire went pop and hissed till the rim rose on the flat rubber.

Daring the ruination of the tire, I rode to the next hamlet consisting of some barns and a general store. I bought China's universal soft drink, orange soda, pointed out the flat, and was led across the street to a mechanic's tractor stable.

Somehow, I conveyed that I wished to visit the famous Xian tombs, and, after patching the tube, the mechanic drew me a map. I hurried back once more to the "T" and went through it, for the afternoon was already waning. This road, too, grew worn and quite narrow, but the occasional tour bus lugging by kept my spirits up.

The potholed, worn-out road continued for miles. An army transport truck listed hard to starboard in one such pothole, and the platoon heave-hoed to free it. Cars were backed up behind the accident, but the bicycles never ceased streaming by like ants around a stricken beetle.

At last my destination was in sight. Buses sat parked and double-parked like moored vessels in a crowded harbor. A quick glance at my watch told me it was past 4 p.m., and I hurried to the huge panoply covering the dig.

Alas, admission had ceased just minutes before, and I was left to gaze longingly at the shadowed trenches. There was something else to see, however: the former hot springs of the emperor. I paid the fee and strolled into the grounds.

An English-language sign informed me that the water was no longer hot out of the ground and so the baths had been abandoned. Instead, dank, putrid water sat in the large, open-air pools. My Wuhan friend's words came back to me as I surveyed the decrepit cisterns.

The irony of a nation hawking crumbling past glories in order to pay for its future tickled my intellect, and I called the day a sputtering success. Of course, it wasn't over: There were yet 25 miles to spin before dusk and a sit-down meal and rest.

Back along the stony, dusty, broken road, I flew in formal upright posture, a mannequin of Mao in blue astride a silent, enchained bird.

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