Thor's China Diary

City Traveler

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 It's late autumn. On the eve of Halloween it suddenly became chilly for the first time, as if the gods had been waiting for the bonfires of Druids to warm the souls of the dead. The edge had gone off summer, but winter had not yet found the spirit to put icy fingers on our hearts. We settled for cool evenings, some days of light rain, or often the haze that settles over Chinese cities like a pall of half-life. Then a week or so ago, sudden gusts of wind swept showers of leaves from the trees. East Lake and South Lake spat choppy waves off their dull faces, and shoals of bicycle riders wobbled and braced a little against the unusual assault. For wind is not a common experience in Wuhan.

It was another divine signal for the turning of seasons. A reminder that even big cities with all their millions of tons of stained concrete and rusty pipes, their filthy arteries of carbon monoxide and throbbing electric brains, are mere pimples on the skin of old mother earth, as she moves to the rhythm of timeless forces. Prodded by Nature, a harried man came to check the steam heating pipes (though we've yet to feel the warmth of any steam), and a maid came bearing a heavy brown woolen blanket to drape over the bed.

Winter must be busy in other parts though. Today, this Saturday, as I ran at daybreak, the sky lightened to eggshell blue with the faintest wisp of white cloud, and the air, for this part of the world, smelled almost fresh. I resisted it until after lunch, glued to the electrical illusions of the computer screen. Fool, why have you been living like an electronic hermit in the heart of an exotic world? I brushed the dust off my bike with an old sock, and coasted down the steep hill to the East Gate of Hua Shi. Where to now?

Last week I turned into the sun and rode past South Lake to Huazhong Agricultural University. On that way, after a couple of kilometers, the unbroken concrete gutter of ugly buildings suddenly yielded to a kind of tree lined causeway. Along one side a swamp wallowed, thick with lotus stalks leaning every which way, and on my left shone the wide, shallow waters of south lake, a far shore barely visible. A few lonely figures, ever hopeful, sat motionless with long fishing rods poised above the water. At one spot I paused and choked back nausea. The body of a fine dog, freshly murdered, was strung up against a tree. A small group of men stood about, all garbed in those ubiquitous shabby business suits that mock their peasant owners here, all sucking cigarettes. One had peeled the pelt from the dog's head, and was now carefully making an incision to the throat and belly, to skin it whole. I should be playing tourist to these scenes, whipping out my camera, but I haven't got the heart.

Today I turned east to follow the busy artery of Luoyu Lu. At the front gate of Hua Shi University this is a multi-laned highway, with bike-ways on either side protected by an median strip of concrete and stubbly bushes. Such niceties are never enough to discourage the odd bus driver, out for a bicycle mashing thrill. You grow eyes in the back of your head. Just west of Hong Shan the strip is rather optimistically called Wuhan's Silicon Valley. The swaggering multistory glass shopfronts are a marketing face on warrens of tiny computer shops, here today and gone tonight, everything legal and illegal to clock onto the information super-highway. But today I was turning east, where the human traffic thins and feverish trading gives way to shadowy branch offices, where chaps sip tea from glass jars and wait for Godot.

Presently the shop windows became devoted 100% to basket balls and track suits. It's that pattern of retailing so familiar in the Old World: the competition crowding together for warmth. (I remember a street in Istanbul devoted exclusively to cigarette lighters). Wuhan, or rather Wuchang, is a city of educational institutes, all with imposing front gates and glorious statues, but usually with names that I can't read. So the parasitic encrustations of specialist shops along their margins are a dead giveaway much valued by illiterates like me. The mothering institute in this case was the Sports University, a place I'd been one night to visit a muscle-bound lady whom my sometime friend, GP, favoured as a dancing pal. At this point on the road, East Lake is quite close - it laps the margins of the university, while to the west of the road Luojia Hill forms a ridge with a string of buildings crowding along its hem. There is a sense out here that much of the building is no more than a decade old, but if city architecture is unlovely everywhere, much of the human settlement I've seen in China is almost pathologically ugly. Perhaps, as with so many other things, my aesthetic sensibility is radically out of sync' with the local eye for beauty. A little further on a finger of the lake comes in to Luoyu Lu itself, and a ragged park clings to the shoreline.

The first serious branching of the road nestles just past the extremities of Dong Hu (East Lake). It's a generous traffic circle fencing some stubble of grass and the rusty ribs of a large globe on a pedestal. I could follow the lake, vaguely north, or turn south east. The second would definitely be less photogenic, but I wanted to probe the edge of the city. That universal Chinese cityscape of endless open-fronted garage sized shops, gaping gloomily under an overhead burden of two to eight stories of shabby apartments was unlikely to vary much. But we live in hope.

At frequent intervals all over Wuhan you can see these joyless buildings in the making. Armies of wiry men and women push tip-carts of wet cement, large blue dump trucks arrive and lob helter-skelter piles of bricks. A hombre in a felt jacket and dark glasses will come chugging up the road on a motor bike-side-car combination with a six metre bundle of steel reinforcing rods draped over the side-car and whipping in a cloud of dust on the tarmac behind him. A woman with a small grubby child pulling at her trouser leg will be lashing together rickety bamboo scaffolds with old fencing wire. Serious middle aged men draped in various elaborations of the Western business suit, and sporting white safety helmets of rank, practice telling anyone within earshot what they should do, until it is time for another glass or tea and another game of cards. The buildings themselves grow like deformed trees, into lattices of concrete beams and pillars. All the space between the pillars is then crammed with a single layer of bricks, and finally the bricks are cement rendered over to give the illusion of a solid concrete structure. If ever there is an earthquake around here, there is going to be one almighty cascade of bricks out of these structures onto whoever happens to be passing underneath.

As expected, the panorama south-east held few surprises. The multistories became a bit less multi, and at regular intervals high brick walls marked off the micro-societies of yet another institute or university, with all their appended apartments, classrooms, clinics, shops and hangers-on. One opulent entrance proclaimed proudly in English "The People's Liberation Army Factory Number 13xxxxx". Funny, I thought the Beijing czars had ordered the PLA to give up on making baby's nappies and plastic trinkets..

Down a hill, another major intersection. Not too long ago, you could sense, this had marked Land's end, the limits of the city, but the rubble of new settlement was pushing out beyond it. The crossing from east to west here was heavily trafficked, the businesses running up the hill to the left well-established. I almost turned left, but held off until the return journey. Later, up there, I would find a lumber yard of huge bamboo poles, and a cluster of grimy premises stacked to the ceilings with racks of mild steel extrusion: rods straight and twisted, flat ribbons, squared, bracketed, name your shape. Also, further up on the right I would find the rather ominously named "Wuhan Institute of Nuclear Power Research". But for now, I pushed out into the new territories.

Shortly I became aware of company. At every cluster of shops, buses would shave within centimeters of my front wheel as they cut in to the pavement touting for passengers, and riders on every known mutation of bicycle would crowd about. But this was company of a different calibre. Another long distance traveler. She huffed past me, a black tail-coat flying in the wind, her pert bottom in light blue jeans bobbing in my face. She had a water bottle strapped to the back luggage rack, and on her handle-bars four gaudy plastic propellers spun furiously. The girl was in a bigger hurry than me, but I watched her diminishing figure with the casual regret of a passing fantasy. Then the road hit another rise, and the fancy gears of my machine once again began to overtake her muscle power. We see-sawed back and forth for kilometers, overtaking and falling behind. Not once did she give a flash of recognition, a smile, a glance. Then at last there was another strip of shops, dressmakers, fabrics hanging in brocades, a market, a telephone booth. By the telephone booth lounged a guy in a leather jacket and tight jeans, dark glasses, slicked hair. Your shoot-em-out archetype villain. Ah, my propeller girl with the pert bottom rode straight up to him, like she'd just come around the corner, and he brushed the hair from her eyes..

"City Traveler" copyrighted to Thor May 1999; all rights reserved
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