I could sleep only four hours, so took my time getting ready. Breakfast was rice gruel with vegetables, some steamed buns with sweet bean paste filling, a preserved egg wedge, black tea, and a glass of hawthorne juice. I liked everything except the egg, which reminded me of a soft feta cheese in texture and saltiness, with the sulfurous stink of rot. Mmm gruel.
Kenny and Lee picked me up in a black Buick Regal, and off we went, bearing southwest about 120 kilometers into the surrounding Hebei province. The view of the city from the ring roads and other arterials is extremely homogenous: endless high-rise apartment blocks and shiny new office buildings. On the fringes of the municipality, the towers abate somewhat to parking-lite strip malls. Beyond that, parched earth and bare trees, villages of mud-brick tumbledowns surrounded by walls topped with bottle shards and barbed wire on top of that.
The trees are planted in huge tracts to buffer the advance of the Gobi desert into Beijing, taming the spring sandstorms. But they are lined up like soldiers in rows so you can see clear through the “forest” to the other side. If my eyes have a straight shot through, doesn’t the wind? And wouldn’t evergreens do a better job? And why no shrubs or other low growth?
I saw several flocks of sheep and their shepherds. Maybe the sheep prevent any low growth.
“We have sheep in the countryside too, but we don’t see shepherds too often,” I said.
“It is for security,” Kenny said, “like in American DVD of gay shepherds.”
“Yes it is new American DVD. I buy very cheap.”
“O — Brokeback Mountain? They are cowboys I think, but sheep don’t tell the truth. Not available in America on DVD yet.”
“Yes that is it.”
Later that day I hopped on the Brompton (which was in the trunk), and took a video clip as we approached a Buddhist temple that the motor factory manager had donated generously to reconstruct after it had been razed in the Cultural Revolution. Westerners seldom venture into these parts; when we entered the temple grounds all eyes were on me. A wizened old man stood up and, straightening his Mao jacket, called out loudly “How do you do, sir!” “Very well, thank you!” I shot back, to the riotous cackling of at least a dozen of his contemporaries. This trip is the first time in my forty years that I have ever been in a place where, no matter how discreetly I carried myself, everybody immediately recognized me as an utter outsider.
Lots of bicycles and tricycles about; perhaps 10% of the bikes and 25% of the trikes are motorized in some way, while perhaps two-thirds of all vehicles on the road we traveled were more efficient (i.e., lighter and slower) than, say, a Prius. I couldn’t draw admiring parallels to the Netherlands, though, as unlike Amsterdam it seemed very clear that we in the car were thereby expressing a superior class distinction. Generally, the cars are shiny and the people driven by them are in a hurry, with something to prove, while the bicycles and especially the trikes are amazingly decrepit and driven by people of harder means with dour resignation.
It took some doing to convince Kenny that I really did prefer to bike whenever possible; it’s not a show. Whenever it dawned on Beijingers that I was apparently enjoying biking, especially over longer distances, the reaction was tentative — both approving and incredulous. It was especially baffling to the Chinese that I, as a “rich American” am possessed of a certain fervor about carrying things on bicycles — an almost shamefully common office relegated to their increasingly motorized, incredibly crappy trikes.
But the very deepest incomprehension followed the explanation that my particular bike motorization scheme compels the rider to pedal; it was as if I were mentally handicapped about the purpose of a motor. Indeed, many riders of the popular motorized bicycles in Beijing remove their feet from the stationary pedals and rest them awkwardly on the downtube as if to advertise their arrival to the new leisure class. Bit of a downer, together with the odious lasvegasification of everything going on at breakneck pace. The trend is disturbing: one in seventy Chinese families now owns a car. By the time you finish reading this, maybe it will be more like one in sixty-eight go-getter families going and getting money in a hurry to run their car. For most it will be their largest single expense by far.
In a consumer society there are inevitably two kinds of slaves: the prisoners of addiction and the prisoners of envy. –Ivan Illich