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In the Land of Confucian -- Foreigners in China

Man and the Great Wall Series by Scott Urban

Week 3 (September 12, 1997) -- Midnight, Part 1

"He who has not been to the Great Wall, is not a great man." --Chinese Proverb

Introduction: Scott Urban went to China in 1994 to work at the China Daily newspaper in Beijing, where he stayed until 1997. While in China, Scott contracted a severe form of bicycling mania, which manifested itself in his 6,000-kilometer bicycle journey to Xinjiang in 1995 with friend Brice Minnigh. Scott and his bike

In the Fall of 1996, Scott Urban and another friend William Lindesay spent every weekend possible cycling to the Great Wall of China to find lost sections of the Wall, with nothing more than curiosity, bicycles, and a map of the greater Beijing area. The trips involved comparatively big distances and tough conditions, but the payoffs were rich: in store could be anything from a swath of rubble to a grand section of Ming Dynasty ramparts with intact towers and inscribed tablets. This fall we invite you to join the ride and see the China that's not usually seen.

Scott currently resides in Denver, Colorado, USA, and is involved in a number of China-related projects. He can be reached at rrurban@ aol.com.


Will and Qi were over for dinner on Friday night. I could make everything but the fish, relying on the help of a couple downstairs to bring that one off. That night we heard the weekend forecast: rain. How could our luck be so bad?

"Let's not do it, Scott," Will said. "It's just no fun in the rain." I couldn't argue with that.

I woke up the next morning to a cold, windy, rainy day. We weren't going anywhere in weather like that.

By afternoon, the clouds broke a bit, and there were clear skies by sunset. I planned to do a little ride on Sunday. Then it dawned on me: I've really got two days -- Sunday and Monday. I don't work Mondays.

Will called on Saturday night. "I just saw the weather forecast, mate. Nothing but sun across North China." Great. I decided it was one of the last chances for an expeditionary ride this year, and I'd be a sinner to let it pass. This'd be no day trip; it'd be a Great Wall expedition.

Since the Wall traverses the mountains in this area, its character varies greatly with the geography. That means no two sections of Wall are alike, and there are many splendid surprises in store for those who venture to find them. Sometimes there is splendid Ming Dynasty wall formed into perfect battlements with towers and a surface you can walk on; sometimes there is only a long swath of rubble, hundreds of years older. A hint at once was.

A map of Beijing Municipality (about the size of Belgium) shows fragments of Great Wall scattered among the mountains to the north, northwest and northeast. The Wall was built to keep the barbarians out. The barbarians were to the north, and they defeated the Wall on a few occasions -- most recently, it was the Manchu peoples of the Northeast, who established rule over the entirety of China under a dynasty they called Qing.

The distances involved in this activity are not small, so an overnight stay is mandatory. Saturday night I got my essentials in order: sleeping bag, pad, tent, fleece, wool hat and socks, polypropylene long underwear and top, cycling jacket, camera, flashlight, army knife, extra inner tube, tire patch kit, map, Camelbak (a backpack-like 3-litre water bladder with a tube that hangs over the shoulder), and a ton of pastries.

Finally, I set the alarm for six, guessing I wouldn't be in the mood to get going at that hour despite the best of intentions.

The phone went off, and I was not happy to be torn from my warm down comforter and pleasant dream. It's fall. The chill is setting in. Who wants to be anywhere but in their comfortable apartment? It's the kind of fall morning with winter written all over it.

With enough blood circulating in the brain to carry out normal functions, I went through the motions -- though without the faintest hint of enthusiasm: make coffee and heat a pastry. I dragged my feet the whole time. If I stalled long enough, I could rationalize not going: "Hey, why go if you can't get away on time?"

But I knew my destination wasn't too far, and I'd already estimated I'd be in good shape with a departure anytime before 8 am. Ultimately, I put some invigorating music on and forced myself into the right mood, that kind of crazed, hell-bent mood. "I'm going." Ready to GO!

October 6, and it's cold enough in the morning to call for polypropylene on top and the cycling shell. That stayed on all morning, until ascending the first pass of the day -- beyond the Ming Tombs. (Picture1: Ready to GO!)

Before climbing it, I pulled over for a carbo intake session and a breather by the side of a nice creek.

Though I felt I was in the mountains and removed from the city, it wasn't long before someone came wandering down to have a chat. Friendly as he was, I didn't want to delay my excursion, and so declined his request for a spin on the bike, to look at my route, to hail a truck for me so I wouldn't have to endure the hardship of cycling up the pass on my own power, and so on.

From the other direction came another guy, a younger guy, to join the conversation. But with my irrational sense of urgency this weekend, I can't concentrate on anything but the road ahead, and can't be deterred. I finished my pit stop and bid them adieu.

The pass, it turned out, was a lot longer than I remembered it from the previous year. It took the better part of an hour to climb, but was followed, of course, by a helping of pudding -- Will's term for the downhill sections. This weekend, Will's back in the city.

My route goes past some Great Wall that we've checked out before, including the bit my friend Brice and I arrived at in the summer of 1995 in the waning days of an incredible summer of training rides in preparation for "the big ride" -- the journey to Kashgar.

After passing those memories, the route is all new to me. To my chagrin, it went steeply downhill and lost a lot of altitude, diving toward a town called Dazhuangke, three kilometres short of which I was flagged down by a guy saying something about setting off fireworks. "What the hell is he talking to me about fireworks for?" I wondered. Another guy cycled by in the opposite direction and yelled, "You're crazy!" I got it: explosives.

"How long's this gonna take?" I asked the flagman.

"Just one 'bang!' and it's over," he replied.

I waited a second, and soon came the Bang! "Okay to go, yeah?" I beckoned to him as I headed the line of cars waiting.

"Zou!" ("Go!") he yelled as if starting a 10,000-kilometre rally, swinging his flag.

His charge set me off like the lead car in just such a rally, and Dazhuangke was quickly in my sights. There I found a little surprise awaiting.

"Dai yihuir!" ("Have a seat!") three young guys yelled to me from a stoop. It's one of the most common things you hear when passing people sitting along a road. "Have a rest! Come sit a minute! Drink water!" This time, I did as they suggested.

"He's going to come over!" one of them said.

We exchanged greetings. "Is there a restaurant around here?" I wondered. One guy pointed to the joint next door, and there I went. As I steadied the bike against the building, a man came out to say hello. He turned out to be the driver of a truck that "Bella's Beijing Bicyclists" use to cart them to the more beautiful parts of Beijing every weekend.

What a coincidence that I'd chosen the same route as them this week. I got out the map to show the driver my route. Except for the final 5-kilometre stretch into a little village called Ma-something, it was identical to theirs. I showed him my destination, and he acted surprised that I was going to such a place with provisions to spend the night.

"Is this bit dirt road or paved?" I asked while pointing at the map.

The driver had to be on his way. With a laugh and a swat on the behind with his rolled up newspaper, he told me, "Dirt, pavement -- it's got everything!"

I had listened very carefully when he paid the cheque, hoping to avoid another of the merciless extortions that sometimes accompany a meal when the price isn't established at the outset. He paid eleven yuan for more food than I had ordered.

I finished my lunch and asked for the cheque. "Thirty yuan," the waitress said with a moment's hesitation.

"Come on!" I said. "I just saw that guy pay eleven yuan for more stuff than I had!" Stupidly, I didn't throttle my desire to seek immediate justice. It's not the way one accomplishes a goal in such circumstances in this country. My challenge made the issue a matter of face for the woman, who for her part had shown poor judgment in cheating me despite hearing me speak Chinese with everyone in the joint and listening to the other guy get his cheque.

The predicament is so routine that I didn't have the spirit to play it out to its conclusion, which I knew would necessarily involve some kind of face-saving compromise between the local price and her unreasonable figure. I put 30 yuan down and made my displeasure known. "I know I'm a foreigner," I told them. "But you don't have to cheat me. Do you think I'm stupid? Do I have a pig's brain?"

No matter, I got what I came for: calories. And I also got to top off my Camelbak and water bottle. Next step was to ascend the last pass of the day -- a match for the first pass in terms of length and incline.

Not having traveled this route before, I had to do the usual guesswork about junctions, forks in the road, turnoffs. All I had was a theoretical destination picked almost at random from a map. Getting there was up to me.

It was the time of the day when you have to spot the right turnoff from the main road. I made a series of correct guesses as to which turnoffs were not the right way, and then came to what looked like a good prospect for the correct turnoff. This suspicion was confirmed when I saw a bright orange "BBB --> " painted on the asphalt. Just as the driver had told me, this was the Bellas gang's route, too.

I followed this section watching dark rain clouds spread out overhead like some kind of curse. "I've got the tent," I said to myself. "Hell with the rain." Carving off more pieces of determination from an exhaustible supply.

Next I had to guess as to the road to Ma-something, ostensibly the last village on my route. At about the correct distance down the road I had in common with the Bellas cyclists was a turnoff for a small lane east. I took it.

Previous article: Eagle's Nest, Part 2

Next week: Midnight, Part 2


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