by Neil Peart
"Your bags have been checked right through to Shanghai", said the agent at the check-in desk. "Shanghai!" The word rang in my head - this was the first time I think that the reality of where I was going really sank in. During the months of planning this trip I had been immersed in the writing and recording of an album, frantically finding time to fill out the forms and applications, make the arrangements, and collect the necessary equipment. I really hadn't had much time to dream about the reality.
Shanghai. The name alone is magic, one of those places you look at on a map and it conjures up an image, an atmosphere. "The Lady Came From Shanghai" - romantic, mysterious, and somehow dangerous, the exotic lure of the Orient.
And here I was about to fly there, to start an eighteen day trip by bicycle (and boat, train, and bus) through the northeastern part of China and the capital city of Beijing. (For any who might wonder, as I did, why it's Beijing these days, and no longer Peking, it seems that since 1958 the Chinese government has authorized a method of Romanizing the Chinese language called "Pinyin", which means "phonetic pronunciation". Thus Peking is now Beijing, Mao Tse-Tung is now Mao Zedong, and - more confusingly - the southern city of Canton is Guangzhou. Simple huh? Since it was authorized almost thirty years ago, you can see that it's been slow making its influence felt in the west!)
The first leg of my flight was from Toronto to Tokyo, with a stop in Vancouver. While I was waiting in Tokyo for the final flight to Shanghai, I met up with some of the other members of the tour group, which would number fourteen altogether. Our tour leader, John Christie, and his girlfriend Wendy were coming in from Vancouver, and there was one other Canadian besides myself to make four, plus nine Americans and one girl from Australia. About half of us had brought their own bikes, while the other half would be renting the local machinery. Since I would be traveling on to Hong Kong to meet my wife and daughter after the tour I had decided that it would be easier to rent than to haul my own bike around. More about that later.
After the seventeen-hour journey, and crossing the dateline to make even a longer long day, we finally arrived in Shanghai on the evening of the 19th. We gathered at the baggage conveyor to collect our bags, bicycle panniers, backpacks, and boxes full of bicycles. Amazingly enough, all of them came rolling off of the plane ... with the exception of one tiny little bag. Can you guess whose that might have been? Everyone else was outside and the conveyor was going around empty, but one of my two bags had not shown up. Great. It was just the one with all my cycling gear in it: shoes, helmet, gloves, shorts, rain-gear, my own saddle ... plus some more prosaic items like deodorant, mouthwash, and my Walkman.
Not only that, but one of our people also failed to turn up at the airport, Rita the Australian girl. Nor was she in evidence at the hotel. Would we be thirteen at dinner? What happens to a person who disappears in Shanghai?
Fogged by fatigue and severe jetlag, plus concern about what happens to a suitcase that disappears in Shanghai (I mean who knows where it might end up!) I climbed aboard the bus for the hour ride to our hotel in the northeast suburbs of the city.
The hotel is called the "Lan Tian", or Blue Sky Hotel, and is surprisingly quite modern, though cheaply constructed. The rooms even have little Sony colour TV's, which I certainly hadn't expected, and a shower, though the water which emanates from the latter is a little brownish. Boiled drinking water is provided in huge colourful Thermos bottles, which we would become very used to throughout our trip; Metal ones, plastic ones, plain red ones, flowered ones, all kinds of Thermoses ... I mean the Chinese have got Thermos bottles down!
I learned that I would be sharing a room for the trip with a young guy named Patrick Mastrangelo, a Bronx New Yorker of about my own age who lives in London now, working for NBC Sports. Having myself just spent the whole summer in London working on the album, plus having spent a lot of time there in the past, we had a bit in common already. North Americans in London share many frustrations.
He and I went down to the bar for a drink, joined by one or two other members of our new company. Having traveled so much in the last ten years in a tight circle of friends, it is strange for me to be sharing a room with a stranger, not to mention spending the next two and a half weeks with a whole group of strangers! This should be interesting. Patrick definitely seems like a good enough guy, anyway. We were all to learn that behind his reserve lay a sharp and incisive sense of humour, and on the last night he delivered an improvised speech awarding "Golden Buddha Awards" to each of us. I think maybe some of these awards illustrate the different characters better than I could, and make good introductions. I'll be using them.
I was served a tiny glass of Scotch as if it were Holy Water, and I was soon to discover why. We were to learn that even bars were a rarity in China, let alone Chivas Regal! Liquor was occasionally available by the bottle, but very seldom by the shot. So-called bars were usually just a counter where you could buy beer or soda pop. Even this one was a funny sort of place, very brightly lit, not overly comfortable, only five or six different liquors on the shelves, and even at nine o'clock they looked as if they wanted to close. I soon decided to try and get some sleep, hoping to get on a normal sort of schedule as soon as my body might permit it. I went to sleep hoping that my missing bag would turn up in the morning.
I woke up at about 2 am. to discover that I was now the proud owner of the cold which had been traveling through my family and friends for the last two weeks. I guess the journey, the jetlag, and the lack of sleep had been enough to lower my resistance to those nasty germs. For the rest of the night I tossed and turned, feeling lousy, feverish, sore in the throat, itchy eyes and nose, stuffed up head ... all those wonderful feelings.
Breakfast was a fair attempt at a western breakfast, with pineapple juice, toast and jam, mysteriously-coloured fried eggs, and even coffee. Some people were adventurous (?) and insisted on having "what the Chinese people have." They were served (no doubt with an inscrutable smile) cold rice porridge, cold fish and meats, hot greasy milk soup, and some doughy cakes. I never heard them demand a Chinese breakfast again.
After breakfast we were taken on a bus tour around the city (no cycling until tomorrow). With about eleven million people, Shanghai is one of the largest cities in the world, and has been a major sea port for many centuries. During the 1800's trading concessions were forcibly opened up by the English, French, and Japanese, and its history has been one of commerce and intrigue, high finance and child labour, with a society ranging from fabulous wealth to grinding poverty, romance to squalor. It was here in the 20's that the Communist Party began its activities, and it was here in the 6o's that the "Gang of Four" centered their reign of terror in the ironically-named "Cultural Revolution".
Most of the traffic we pass through consists of bicycles and buses, with some trucks, and very few cars, most of them taxis and government cars with the curtains on the back windows. The number of bicycles is truly incredible, there are something like 300 million of them in China, and the streets are thronged with all sorts of two, three, and four wheeled contraptions, carrying any amount of passengers and impossible amounts of cargo. Some of the three-wheelers were equipped with hand cranks, presumably for handicapped people. A chorus made up of hundreds of bicycle bells jangling at an intersection can be an unbelievably loud noise, but it was easily eclipsed by the constant blaring of truck and bus horns. The actual meaning of them is often unclear, but it was to become a familiar sound to us in the course of our travels.
There were little glassed-in booths at the busier intersections for the traffic police, and loudspeakers carried their instructions to the chaotic traffic. It was hard to know if anyone was listening to them or not! Sometimes the less fortunate cops were perched on a little concrete pedestal right in the middle of the intersection, exposed to the mercy of the elements and the dangers of the road. How those guys must look forward to the day when they too will get to sit in a closed-in booth and give orders through a microphone.
Most of the streets were quite narrow, lined with old brick three or four story buildings. The walls were everywhere festooned with lines of drying laundry, strung on bamboo poles and hung between the windows.
There were quite a few high-rise buildings, particularly outside the city centre, and a fair number of them under construction, surrounded by quaint but rather fragile-looking bamboo scaffolding. Another thing that would become a familiar sight. There happened to be some construction going on around our hotel, and we were interested to observe the work habits. Although the workers certainly put in long hours, they were not over-strenuous about it, and took it in turns to "supervise", leaning on a shovel smoking cigarettes. Nothing wrong with that, I don't think!
It is said that China's greatest resource (and greatest liability) is the sheer number of people ... the potential work-force. Its labour-intensive nature is illustrated in many ways, seeing guys sitting around meticulously cleaning old bricks with hammer and chisel, or, as I saw on another trip in the south of China, quarrying stone with hammer and chisel! Or nine people down on their hands and knees in the middle of the road painting the white lines! One old woman with a thin brush painted the outline, while the others with medium and wide brushes filled them in. Let's hear it for the "Four Modernizations"!
We stopped for an hour at the Shanghai Arts Museum, a rather dingy and unprepossessing building to look at, but which apparently contains the largest collection of ancient Chinese art in the country. There were three floors of pottery, bronzes, carvings, sculpture, calligraphy, and paintings, and it was interesting to stroll among them. Coming from a society which is barely a couple of hundred years old, it is very thought-provoking to stand in front of a piece of pottery that was made seven thousand years ago!
We took a walk through the "old town" area, where the streets are about ten or fifteen feet wide, and packed with masses of people. The center piece is an old temple - "Temple of the Town Gods", and the surrounding gardens which were first established by the Ming Dynasty of the 16th century, then destroyed and rebuilt with the many passing wars. it's quite a tourist attraction to the Chinese as well it seems, you're always in the middle of a crowd. In the narrow streets which fan out from it, there are many tiny shops selling all kinds of strange stuff. Groups of old men squat in the street, dressed in the traditional blue cotton "Chairman Mao" uniform of the proletariat, while a crowd gathers around them to watch a game of cards or checkers.
Everything draws a crowd in China. In the countryside I saw ten people gather just to look at a broken-down tractor at the side of the road. It is said that they'll stare at the scene of an accident for hours on end. When we began to gather after lunch, waiting for everyone to re-group, a crowd began to form around us. First one person would stop, then a few, and then more and more until they stood around us three and four deep. Not speaking, not pointing, but just standing there silently and staring! If any of us would speak, they would lean forward to hear this strange language, and if I wrote in my notebook they would strain to look at what I was writing - seemingly just to see what it looks like. You'd have to think that in a city like this they would have seen plenty of westerners by now, maybe these people are tourists too, from some small city where not many "foreign devils" have visited. The excellent "Lonely Planet" guidebook to China listed the "Staring Squads" first in their list of the irritations in coping with China - even before Noise and Spitting. This was again just a hint of what was to come as we traveled further into the country.
And talk about spitting! I mean these people can spit! Old and young, man and woman they are all getting rid of those evil spirits, and they must have a lot of them! One of the sounds of China is definitely the "hawk". As my room-mate Patrick put it: "it's the wind-up... it's the pitch!" You pause to admire a sweet little girl, just as she hawks one up and lets it fly. It can be a little off-putting.
Because of my cold I am running that kind of mild fever which acts like a drug, making the senses a little amplified, the colours seem unnaturally bright and sounds are kind of muffled and strange.
We stopped at a restaurant for a lunch that was pre-arranged, as all our meals would prove to be. The combination of my cold and a recurring case of the hiccups left me with no appetite, but the others said the food was good. Someone asks if maybe I don't like Chinese food, wouldn't I be in trouble for the next thirty-odd meals if that were the case!
After lunch we separated for a while to walk around the area, and it was great to walk alone through the narrow crowded streets, so full of life. Little private shops and businesses have sprung up all over the place in the last few years, since Deng Xiaoping has relaxed the former ban on private enterprise. All kinds of tiny shops, food stalls, and street pedlars have set up business beneath the drooping flags of laundry on the bamboo poles.
I get the feeling that I would like to walk around these streets all day ... except for the knowledge that I would be hopelessly lost in five minutes. My command of the Chinese language is limited to one word - (ne-hao = hello) - plus I've read that it's impossible just to flag down a cab here, you can only get them at a hotel.
When our tour leader John went to the Australian embassy this morning to fetch our missing member (she'd been given the wrong hotel name by her travel agent!), he asked for a taxi and they just said "no". No explanation, no alternative, just "no", He had to wait until they were good and ready.
That evening we were treated, as probably every visitor is, to the Shanghai Acrobatic Theatre. The crowd was at least a third foreigners, but the show was definitely something to see, and the traditional Chinese circus music was something to hear as well. It was about a two hour performance of acrobatics, balancing acts, jugglers, glittery costumes, a trained panda, and a lion tamer to climax the show. Some of the stunts were truly amazing to see, but there were also some rather pointless ones like the strange-looking fellow whose calling in life consisted of stuffing himself through a cylinder while doubled over. And I thought mine was a strange way to make a living. On the whole it was like a lot of things I grew up watching on the Ed Sullivan Show. I was professionally amused and sympathetic when the band were trying to play along with the organist's rhythm box, and the drummer and everybody got horribly out of time with it. Now that's traditional Chinese music!
Well today this bicycle trip finally got on to bicycles! We were taken downtown to the Sports Federation building to pick up our rental bikes, and those with their own had them ready to ride. The Sports Federation is sort of like the government's Ministry of Sports, and it was they who organized our tour, our interpreters and guides, our logistics, and our rental bikes. It was typically bureaucratic as every city and province was under the control of its own local Sports Federation, thus every time we changed locale, we changed interpreters, transportation, and bicycles. Thus I ended up using about five different bikes during the course of the tour.
It was very exciting to join the hordes of cyclists pedaling through the streets of Shanghai, and the natives were definitely amused to watch our progress, with our strange looking machines, helmets, mirrors, and bright-coloured clothing. Anytime we came to a halt anywhere we were instantly mobbed by crowds of silent Chinese, quickly multiplying the longer we stayed. I stopped for a moment on a bridge to adjust my handlebar bag, and caused a jam that brought traffic to a standstill.
We stopped after a bit to visit the "Number 2 Silk Factory" (I guess only real VIP's get to see the Number 1 Silk Factory!), where it was interesting to observe the hand-painted prints, and the screening process.
As we cruised once again into the stream of cycle traffic, I was struck more vividly by the rarity of cars. There were quite a few of a very dated Chinese model, looking as if it had been designed with Russian help - long before the Sino-Soviet rift of around 1960. Other than those, during the course of the day I saw two older Mercedes, one Audi, a couple of Citroëns, and a fair number of VW "Santanas", which I later learned are built here in Shanghai in a joint venture with the German company. Inevitably there was a fair sprinkling of Japanese makes, Nissans and Toyotas, and some Hino buses. The growing proliferation of Japanese goods in China is a rather volatile issue there, as in some circles memories are long of Japanese imperialism and brutality during the 30's and 40's, plus of course there is a trade imbalance between the two countries. (A common international complaint!)
It becomes apparent that three of our group are very experienced cycle tourists, Bob and his wife Rose and their next-door neighbour Gay. They are from New Jersey, and are all members of a bike dub called the "Western Jersey Wheelmen". (Shouldn't that be "Western Jersey Wheelpersons", Rose and Gay?) They have toured together through England, France, and Italy, and Bob and Rose recently did the San Francisco to Los Angeles coastal ride. Bob has also done the Portland to San Francisco route, and has accomplished a goal of my own; a two hundred mile ride - a double century. And in only 12 and a half hours. He is truly one of those cycling fanatics, commuting something like 35 miles a day to work in all weather, and is eager to ride everywhere - like right now! Naturally he would often be the one to set the pace, as he has that slow, effortless-looking cadence, but with so much power in every turn of the cranks. Bob was presented with the "Ironman" Golden Buddha award. as he was the only person Patrick knew who would want to ride up Mount Everest, but would not want to ride down - it would be too easy! Rose would receive the "Iron Woman" award, for putting up with such a man.
Later in the day poor Bob rode too close to one of those over-burdened tricycle affairs, and a rope dangling from it caught around his handlebars, pulling his bike out from under him. Fortunately he only suffered a scraped knee and embarrassment, but the crowd which gathered for that event was mammoth - traffic must have been backed up for miles! The other rider was most concerned about him though, and came running back to help him up. I wonder what happens to them if they maim a foreigner - before he's even had a chance to spend any foreign exchange notes!
We were directed through the city by our guide and interpreter, the coolly efficient Chen, with a non-English speaking cyclist leading the pack. Chen sat up behind the driver of a motorcycle-sidecar, looking just a little nervous about trying to keep this group of 14 cyclists together through the streets of one of the world's biggest, busiest cities.
He led us up to the Temple of the Jade Buddha, which was a beautiful and impressive place, but we were a little over-whelmed and out-numbered by a large group of tourists from a Viking cruise ship, divided into groups and led by guides holding aloft flags with "Group Number y" or "Group Number 9". They were almost all elderly, white-haired Americans, with the large percentage blue-rinse women - insurance policy clichés I suppose. What a way to go everywhere and not see-anything! It made us appreciate being a small group, and on bicycles - the sense of superiority brought us closer together!
Ironically just such a couple was part of our group. Both from Long Island New York, John (John Sr. we called him, with two Johns around) would celebrate his 60th birthday in just a few days, while Julia freely admitted to having already passed that milestone. And, as will be seen, they did just as well as anybody on this tour. In fact, Patrick gave them the "Best Riders" award, as they "are twice as old as I am, and they rode twice as far, twice as fast".
Next we moved on to an arts and crafts exhibition, held in a huge and obviously Russian designed Exhibition Hall. It was a very large and beautiful display of carvings, silks, tapestries, rugs, furniture, and jewelry, all for sale, and I don't think anyone left there empty-handed. "Oh they want that foreign exchange, yeah they love that foreign exchange". (Just a little tune I've been working on.)
We gathered in front of a big stone fountain outside, for our first group portrait - bicycles and all. A very obliging and patient Chinese fellow was recruited to do all the button-pushing, and he smilingly complied with about ten different cameras. He seemed to know what he was doing, and was rewarded with a round of applause when he was finally finished. I think he was a little embarrassed, but pleased, and of course a huge crowd had gathered to watch all this foreign madness.
For myself I had made a conscious decision not to bring a camera on this trip. I have felt in the past that photography tends to get in the way of the experience sometimes; you look at everything you see as a potential picture instead of just trying to absorb and understand what you're in the middle of. I adopted the method of trying to record things mentally, keeping a journal of every day's events and impressions, and occasionally just jotting down a few notes where I was. Mostly I just wanted to look, listen, and smell. Hopefully with all the photographs taken by the rest of the group, we can exchange my verbal impressions for their pictorial ones.
I had an interesting experience when I had to stop once again to adjust my handlebar bag (the proper mount was still in that missing bag. Maybe it will show up today!). Everybody else kept on riding, and the ever more frantic-looking Chen just pulled up on the motorcycle to tell me to turn left here. Fine, no problem, I thought, until I looked up and saw that it...[...end page 7]
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