Today we have a guest post from Joshua Ogden-Davis. Enjoy!( Read more...Collapse )
If you’re a foreigner, then chances are you’ll probably never be able to rent a public bike in Haikou again – and while I do feel really bad about that, I did, however, just have a pretty awesome Monday.
It started out innocently enough. I was tooling around on Google Maps and became fascinated with the northern edge of Xinbu Island, which seemed like some sort of beach/prairie/marshland something. On some maps it was even listed as ocean. Marian suggested that I go check it out on one of the new public bikes, rentable at automated stations scattered all over Haikou. “You’d be the first foreigner I know to try one,” she said. From what I know about exchange students (largely unwilling to do anything in Chinese that isn’t strictly necessary) and real expats (who, if they want to ride a bike, just buy one of their own), I figured I might actually be the first one of all. Sign me up!
After breakfast this morning I headed down to the nearest bike station, on a little road right behind my house. The rack was full of bikes, and while there was a sign on the booth saying that an attendant would be around from 9:30-11:30am (I forgot the afternoon hours) M-F to sell snacks and help people get their bike card, but even though it was 10am on a Monday, the booth was closed and locked. Later on I would discover that this is pretty normal right now around Haikou, but at the time I just furrowed my brow, muttered a bit, and started walking towards the next-closest station.
I made a wrong turn along the way, cutting left a block too early, and was about to turn around and retrace my steps when I realized I was standing right in front of a booth I’d never noticed before. It was open and everything. I checked my mental map of Haikou and was pleased to find that, with this station, there were public bikes available on three consecutive blocks around my house. Now that’s coverage! When they’re open, anyway.
I waited patiently behind a man who was buying what appeared to be some sort of pickled chicken feet out of a Tupperware box. As he was completing his purchase, I asked, “Is this where you get a bike card?”
“Yes,” replied the attendant, who was a very small woman in her late twenties, inexplicably clad in a black sweater for her day of sitting in a metal box on a tropical island in the spring. “Do you want to get one now?”
“Where’s your ID card from?”
The attendant froze and stared at me. The man with the pickled chicken foot (now dangling from his right hand in a clear plastic bag) stopped walking away to stare at me over his shoulder. Finally, the woman regained her composure, gave an embarrassed smile, and stammered, “Ah, well, then, your Chinese is very good.”
“Thanks,” I said. This is only the second time that a Chinese person has apparently mistaken me for some kind of Chinese, and just like the first time, I was both very proud and very suspicious of the woman who assumes the 6’4”, white-skinned, long (brown) haired, bearded, obnoxious-Tang-style-shirt-wearing guy must be Chinese just because he can do basic communication in the language.
I took out my passport and tried to hand it to her, but she just gave it an uncertain look and froze again.
“I’ve never given a card to a foreigner before. I don’t know how to do it. Let me call and ask.”
I just smiled and nodded, already used to the kind of thinking that leads to a public bike system being installed in the capital city of the “International Tourism Island” without any preparation being made for international use. After a few seconds, someone picked up her call.
“Yeah. There’s a foreigner here who wants a bike card. No, a Foreigner. A for-eign-er. Yeah, from the USA. I don’t think it’ll be a problem. He must have been here for a few years, his Chinese is pretty good. Ok, then. How should I do it? Ok. Ok. Do you want me to charge extra or something? Ok, got it. So, just do it like a normal person, then, right? No problem. Thanks!”
The part about charging extra almost made me laugh, but I held it in. The fact that she said it right in front of me lets me know that any extra fees would have been an administrative concern instead of another exciting round of Gouge Whitey. How I love me some Gouge Whitey.
She handed me a form that asked for my basic info. While I was filling it out, she took time to marvel over my passport. Suddenly, when I was almost done with the form, she froze for the third time.
“You were born in ‘85?”
“Yeah,” I replied, a little off balance for the first time.
She looked back and forth between me and the passport.
“You don’t believe it?” I prompted.
She checked one more time. “It’s just… no, I believe it.”
She handed my passport back, and that was it.
I handed over 300 yuan, 200 as a deposit and 100 to be put on the card. 200 seemed like a pretty steep deposit, but fortunately Nicki had already filled me in, so I wasn’t suspicious. The card is used to open the bike lock at any bike station around town, and the fees are deducted from the amount on the card at an hourly rate that I probably should have checked, but was strangely unconcerned about. If I had known how long it would be before I would turn that bike back in, I probably would have taken note. As it is, the fee is probably only a couple kuai an hour, and my card still works, anyway.
The bikes themselves are bright orange fixed-gears with a sizable basket in front, a bike lock with key installed in the frame for easy parking, and a mercifully adjustable seat. Put all the way up, my legs could extend about 70% of the way, much more than I was expecting. After getting it set up, I just flashed the card on the bike rack, slid the bike out, and was on my way. Easy peasy.
The first couple of blocks were a bit rough – I’d never ridden a fixie, and the pedals aren’t very long, meaning that I felt like I was furiously treading water the whole time. I got the hang of it after a few minutes, but I was always one of the slowest things in the motorcycle lane/sidewalk/highway (depending on what was available on each leg of the journey). Up Longkun Road, right on Binhai Avenue, across the Renmin Bridge, up to Wuzhong Road, and I was on my way to Xinbu Island for the first time.
As soon as I came off the bridge onto the island, I felt like I’d left the city altogether. While the Haidian side of the bridge was apartment high rises, the first thing I passed through on Xinbu was large plots of undeveloped land. I peddled along happily through the coconut trees for a while before the road abruptly dead-ended into a construction site, a few blocks earlier than it looked like it should from the map. I decided to give it a try anyway and turned north onto a “paved” road that looked more like a mole farm. It seemed that some concrete had been poured on the ground just to give context to the hundreds upon hundreds of baseball-sized potholes that were spaced with puzzling regularity. They were so dense that it was impossible to avoid them, and each time the bike’s basket rattled with an impact, I thought, “Sorry!” Ha. If only I knew what was still in store for that bike.
After a bit the holes stopped and the puddles began. Big, long, muddy ones that cover the whole road and make you wonder at exactly which moment you will plunge off of the concrete, into an unseen obstacle, or down into a bottomless, underwater mud pit. Fortunately, none of those happened, but the bike’s brakes did begin to make both squeaking and scraping sounds. Sorry!
The road turned right after passing by what appeared to be a bunch of shrimp farms, and then, through the trees, I began to see lots of large burial mounds. Each one was a steep dome at least four feet high, with a marble gravestone placed in front. No grass grew on them, but at the top of each, a little extra dirt had been added to support a piece of sod, with live green grass in it. Some of these top-pieces had vines growing out of them, which began to reach down the side of the mound towards the ground. Some were surrounded 7/8 of the way by a low stone wall, often with characters written on them.
To explore further, I took a left onto a deeply rutted dirt/mud road, frequented by dump trucks that were heading to and from a construction site. The bike began to skid and slide and almost stick in the deep mud, and I finally decided to hop off and push the bike for a
while. As soon as I did, I realized that I was standing right in front of a small, one-room concrete temple with a sloped tile roof built on the edge of the graveyard. I couldn’t read the traditional characters above the door, (probably wouldn’t have recognized the simplified characters either) though I imagine it must have had something to do with the function of the graveyard itself.
I propped the bike on its kickstand and walked around taking pictures for a while. Pictures of the temple from lots of different angles (the back was pleasantly overgrown with vines and leafy plants), the architecture of the graves, the nearby construction site, and a small pond. It took me a few moments to realize that a large stone halfway submerged in the pond was actually a toppled gravestone, face down and partially overgrown. Thought provoking, creepy yet tranquil, good for photographing. Pictures taken, I hopped back on the bike and within a few seconds was on the other side of the trees, finally looking out over that vast beach/prairie/marshland something that I had originally come to explore. Now that I was on-site, I could confirm with my own eyes that it was indeed a beach/prairie/marshland something. Some parts were covered in grass (enough to feed at least one large herd of cattle, minding its own business in the distance), some parts were puddle and too muddy to bike through, and some parts consisted of slightly soggy sand. I mostly stuck to the parts solid enough to ride over, though unexpected muddy patches threatened to throw me off the bike from time to time.
Further down the tree line I noticed a pond with a small wooden sign in front. The ground around it was too muddy for the bike, so I put it on the kickstand and went to go examine the sign. After a few steps I heard the bike clatter to the ground, its kickstand having sunk into the only partially solid sand. “Sorry,” I thought. A few moments later I was close enough to the sign to see that it actually said nothing at all, its former message completely worn off by the constant breeze and wind off the sea, at the other end of the beach/prairie/marsh. In fact, as I examined the vigorous rippling on the surface of the pond, I realized that the breeze was a bit more intense than perhaps it should be. The weather report had said that it would be merely “cloudy” that day, but I was now pretty far away from any shelter, and decided that caution was necessary.
After hauling the bike out of the moist ground (some mud had gotten into the brake handle – “Sorry!”), I started to walk away from the tree line to get a better look at the sky. To my chagrin, it was already raining visibly a few miles to the east, and the western skies were dark and forbidding. I couldn’t flee south because of the trees, and I couldn’t flee north because of, you know, the ocean, so I decided the best course of action was to walk to the seashore, where Google Maps had told me I would find a road that skirts the coast, then ride as fast as possible back to the village on the island and find a place to weather the storm.
Time was of the essence, but unfortunately, that beach/prairie/marsh was just too cool to rush across. All kinds of seashells and other ocean artifacts were strewn about everywhere, most of them larger, more vibrant, and more intact than you find on the average beach.
Purples and oranges and mother-of-pearl were in abundance, and I stopped every ten or twenty seconds to examine something I’d never seen before. My favorite find was a shard of orange-ish clam shell a few centimeters thick. The complete shell may have been bigger than my hand, and I have big hands. The bike may or may not have fallen into the mud a few more times during my foraging sessions (Sorry!), and I’m not gonna lie, I did pocket a silver-dollar sized slab of something like translucent nacre (maybe from a scallop shell?) and a two-inch lavender sea snail shell, preserved so well that the end still came to a fine point.
When I finally arrived at the water, I discovered two things. First, the rain to the east was moving closer, almost falling on the beach/prairie/marsh, while the sky to the west was darker than ever, now with scattered lightning. Second, the “road” was not a road at all, but actually wall of concrete blocks more than four feet high (at that point) and about four feet wide. It was flat enough to ride on, but the winds were picking up. If I blew off on the land side, I’d fall between four and six feet onto wet sand. If I blew of on the sea side, I’d fall even farther onto large, uneven concrete blocks used to prevent erosion. Nevertheless, the idea of getting stranded in the open during a thunderstorm didn’t sound too good either, so I hoisted the bike onto the wall with a loud clank (Sorry!) and set off to the west, where it would be easier to find shelter.
The ride was good and the winds were navigable, so I kept on until little raindrops began to pelt my face and it became clear that I wasn’t going to make it to the village in time. I noticed a raised earthen road that went from the wall straight into the forest on the other side of the opening, and while a four-meter gap had been cut out of it to prevent its use by large vehicles, I decided to follow the motorcycle tracks around the deconstructed part of the road and head as quickly as possible to the cover of the trees, bumping hastily over large rocks and pieces of brick, plunging through murky puddles, and sliding around in the mud (Sorry!). It was at this point that I began to suspect the front wheel might have become slightly bent, but there was nothing that could be done about that at the moment.
I pulled up about twenty yards from the trees, my path blocked by a shallow creek, not three inches deep but running very quickly over soft sand. I noted that the worst of the storm had apparently passed by to the south, and that I was going to get little more than a light sprinkle. Nevertheless, at this point the only option other than going back across that hellhole of a broken-brick road to the shore was to try to find a way through the forest, back to the shrimp farms and somewhat-usable roads. And this would require fording the shallow creek.
I took a moment to admire the abandoned and crumbled, decidedly fort-like concrete structure on the edge of a nearby pond before cautiously approaching the stream. By now my hiking boots were already soaked through, so I decided to proceed slowly through the creek, pulling the bike along with me and testing each step very carefully before applying weight. That worked well for the first step, and the second step, but the third step, right in the middle of the creek, sent my left leg up to the knee in mud (Shlooooorp! Sorry!), and by the time I scrambled up the opposite bank, everything from the knees down was completely covered in sticky grey goop. As I pushed the bike along towards the forest, the turning wheels were so caked that the sound was the same as if I was just dragging the bike through the mud behind me.
Under the cover of the trees, with the bike on the kickstand and my backpack on in the basket, I slumped to the ground and sipped some Gatorade while letting the adrenaline dissipate. An examination of the bike revealed that the front wheel wasn’t bent but had wiggled a little lose (Sorry!), the back axel was completely wrapped in vines (Sorry!), the bell was filled with sand and made a crunching sound instead of a ring (Sorry!), the chain was covered in sand and dirt (Sorry!), and every crevice on the frame was filled with mud (Still sorry!).
I took a moment to think about the woman in the back cardigan sitting in the bike booth a block away from my house. She was hesitant to rent a bike to a foreigner, though even she probably didn’t know exactly why. I tried to remember if she had said anything about staying on roads, or about fines for damaging the bikes, but I couldn’t. As I took out my keys to start prying the vines off of the axel, I felt a moment of sympathy for the woman in the black cardigan, sighing at my destructive, foreign self and thinking, “It’s enough to make you racist.”
After the vines were all out, I rolled the bike back down to the stream and splashed water over the handles and wheels until most of the mud was gone, though it became clear that I wouldn't be able to remove all the signs of my unexpected utilization of public property.
With the bike as clean as it would get, I turned back and bumped along a relatively solid track through the woods, looking for the main road. After passing what looked like a few abandoned tea parties (rotted chairs and sofas arranged around broken tables in the middle of the forest), I rounded a corner and suddenly found myself on a concrete track heading straight for the main road in the middle of the shrimp farms. I laughed to myself as I rode back through the puddles, amused by how worried I had been about the bike back at the beginning of the trip. I pulled into the village and stopped at a corner store for food and drink – it was now almost five in the afternoon. I’d been out for over six hours with nothing but Gatorade to drink.
As I loaded up my backpack with water and snacks, the shopkeeper noticed my completely gray legs. “How did you get so dirty?” she asked.
“I… uh…” I’ve tried to explain adventurousness to Chinese friends before, and whenever I talk about getting dirtier than I have to just for the chance to see or do something new, they just stare at me with blank incomprehension. So I simplified the story: “I fell.”
She laughed. “Such a big guy! How could you fall?”
This “big guy” thing has been puzzling me for years. Back in my first year in China, when I got sick for the first time, my boss laughed and said, “Such a big guy! How could you get sick like that?” I was still naive at that time, naive enough to try and explain that pathogens are so small that the relative sizes between humans couldn’t have an effect on their ability to infect you. But she would have nothing of it. “You’re so big and strong. I don’t know how you got sick. You should drink more tea.”
In response to the shopkeeper, I pointed at the bike and said, “The bike is small. I’m big. That makes it very easy to fall.”
She leaned out to look at the bike. “Oh, is that one of the bikes you can rent on the side of the street in town?”
I was surprised. I live downtown, and apparently this rural shopkeeper had known about this progressive social and urban planning project well before I had. “Yes, it is.”
“Is it expensive?”
“I’m not sure. You have to pay 200 kuai to get the card, and then you have to put at least 100 kuai on the card, but I think it’s pretty cheap to use.”
She nodded. “Expensive.”
With a belly full of stuffed buns, I headed back into town on my muddy, wobbly borrowed bike. I flicked the bell compulsively, and by the time I was back on Haidian, the crunching had gradually changed back into a muffled ring. Whenever I stopped at a crossing, pedestrians would stare at my mud-caked shins for a while before looking up at me with unreadable expressions. “Good afternoon,” I would say. Few people responded. A tall, hairy foreigner in a completely soiled Tang-style shirt and red gym shorts precariously riding a creaky, squeaky, and once-orange public bike through the city streets must have been quite a sight to see.
As I got closer to home, I was seriously worrying about the terrible first impression I would make on the bike program on behalf of all foreigners in Haikou by renting a bike for seven hours and returning it covered in mud and in serious need of repair. If they figured out that the messed up bike was the first bike ever rented to a foreigner, would they ever rent to foreigners again? Would they charge more because of “our” “destructive” nature? For an added layer of protection, I stopped at an unmanned bike station by the east gate of Hainan University and used the card to switch out the half-destroyed bike for a shiny new one. I’m sure they could still track me through the card, but oh, well.
While crossing the Renmin Bridge, I relived the seven-hour adventure in my mind. Not only was it incredibly fun, it proved that the admirable idea of a public bike program was actually carried out pretty well. After you get a card, all you have to do is flash it once when renting or returning a bike. Stations are almost everywhere, and you can return a bike anywhere you like. The bikes themselves, while a bit small for my taste, can take a lot of punishment – I should know. All in all, I was feeling really positive about the whole scenario, bathed in the soft orange light of the springtime sunset and looking out over the river as I cruised across the bridge.
Then the ride suddenly became incredibly bumpy, and I realized that the back tire on my shiny new bike was completely flat. Karma, I suppose.