Last Monday, excited to seize the relatively unpolluted skies and appease my desire to escape the city, taking advantage of surprisingly temperate early August weather, I made plans to cycle out of Beijing and into the peripheral village district of Huairou, around 60 kilometers from my apartment near Yonghegong, the Lama Temple.
First the home of Emperor Yongzheng, it was converted to a monastery for the Geluk School of Tibetan Buddhism after his ascension to the throne in 1722. Under the auspices of Zhou Enlai it was spared the destruction that befell other historical reminders of pre-Maoist China during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976); opened to the public in the 1980s, it now brings thousands of tourist visitors a year to this Northeastern corner of Beijing’s Dongcheng district. Huairou offers a break from the overrun hutongs of central Beijing.
With a population density of around 146 people per km² it is in stark contrast to the central Dongcheng and Xicheng districts. For the sake of comparison, Dongcheng has a population density of 22,635 people per km². Huairou is home to many picturesque sections of the Great Wall, lakes and reservoirs and the largest Buddhist temple in Northern China: for tourist purposes, official descriptions paint Hongluosi, or Red Snail Temple, similarly with the Potala Palace or the Shaolin Temple. A bucolic foil to frenetic Beijing, Huairou is a mountainous retreat for dilettante archeologists and more avid weekenders alike. It was the thought of Yanqi Lake and the shadow of Mutianyu, a more rustic portion of the Great Wall, that beckoned me to shirk the city and peddle out for a Monday overnight.
Sunday I prepared with a cursory Google maps reconnaissance of routes, and laid out a few sundry items for the trip. I would cycle out early, arrive at the lake, splash about with the wild geese, find a guesthouse or wrap myself in the sidereal bed sheets of an open field, and return to the metropolis the following day, a smooth ride, an ample soundtrack of mp3s, sun and shade, a sojourn, an excursion.
However, what is anticipated is not always what is experienced, and when cycling perhaps more than any other mode of travel we are made aware of that Nietzschean concept of the ‘Eternal Recurrence.’ For Nietzsche, as with many Buddhists who graced the halls of Yonghegong, what is minimized is the importance of ‘ends’ and ‘purposes,’ and what is maximized are ‘states of being,’ because everything is eternally repeated and there is no end or purpose. Or, as R.J. Hollingdale explained in the introduction to his 1961 translation of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “It is as if one were on an unending sea journey. The destination is immaterial, since it is never reached; but whether one is sea-sick for much of the time is very material: it is really all that maters.” And while I never arrived at Yanqi Lake, I would like to think that I managed to develop a deeper appreciation for the ‘Eternal Recurrence.’
I was well on my way, out along Jingmi Lu: National Highway 101, a long direct stretch from Beijing to Miyun, arcing Northeasterly from Zuo Jia Zhuang, about half way between the second and third ring road, unfolding parallel to the Airport Expressway, passing art districts and subtly marked parks before defiantly shooting North at Beigao Bridge. This stretch of asphalt ferries cycles and automobiles, buses, rickshaws, and taxis from near inner Beijing to the farthest district, Miyun, to the Hebei border, and onward to Shenyang city in Liaoning province, near the border with North Korea.
From Beijing the city thins and comes back in patches of growth, expat condominiums filled with eager housewives and nouveau riche Chinese, IBM executives, imported cheese, and luxury hair salons have displaced the Northern landscape’s agricultural ventures, chasing villagers from their demolished plots into camouflage workers uniforms amid the orgiastic developments, to KTV waiting rooms and tight skirts, or silly uniforms in hot kitchens and greasy dining halls. The road passes groves, shaded ditches, fluorescent ponds, and massive interchanges moving onward to other cities.
There is an Italian farm, several wholesale art dealerships, the types with websites that advertise for bulk orders to fill the banal walls of formulaic cafes and painful restaurants. Massive carved wooden sculptures, rock work from ancient myths for modern wealth, kites, go-carts, and small train stations for commuters outside the Metro lines, more farms, open landscape, car dealerships, bridges, a canal, and myriad stands of teenagers and grandparents selling fruit on the side of the road, under multicolored parasols in the shade, and you can buy fresh watermelon or carrot juice for less than a dollar from a roadside vendor, it is a hodgepodge out there.
I was somewhere past the grit of barking construction crews and torn up tarmac, large sand laden trucks that spit wads of sundry debris with more ferocious accuracy than trained camels in a Moroccan souk. I was through some ferocious roundabout from hell, and had bobbed along for quite some time under high, thin lazy arboriculture. I remember passing the Shunyi Olympic Rowing-Canoeing Park and wondering what was being done with the space now that the spectators and advertisers had fled.
Somewhere out amid the stimulus I realized my rear tire was quite low. I found a gas station and borrowed a pump from an attended who was sitting, collapsed into himself on the curb outside the small service station’s inside. Not the well stocked snack Mecca, the attendants in orange were all sitting in small folding, cheap metal chairs; a few busied themselves washing a Mercedes. He smiled at my request, the unaccustomed to foreigners speaking Chinese grin one comes to expect outside major urban centers. He rushed off to fetch the small device as sweat cascaded down my face. Accompanied by a few pleasantries we filled the tire. I thanked him and ran inside the station to buy a water and bottle of sweet black currant juice. I quaffed joyously from my sweet drink, replenishing sugars and liquid levels in the shade of the massive concrete awning above the pumps and, before refreshment lingered into torpor, I was off.
With my soundtrack raging to stimulate a push for lost time at the station I doubled my rotations. The sun was beating down upon my back and the small grey hand towel I had stretched out over my neck, between my shoulder and backpack, was proving less reliable a shield than I had hoped. Still, since I had set out from Beijing without sunscreen, the little cotton rag was better than nothing between my sensitive skin and the carcinogenic rays. Ronnie James Dio blasted through my headphones and I felt a jolt of energy. A jolt that would last for about thirty minutes before the tires ran low again.
Somewhere just inside the Huairou border I slowed down by the side of the road, near some thorny street side inhabitants with small green leaves. The tire was indeed riding dangerously low. If I kept on it would pop. But considering I had just refilled there was obviously a hole. I slowly peddled to the crossroads ahead. At this point the stretch of highway had shrunk into only a few lanes, a far cry from its origins in the city, more a country road than a cross-country highway and ahead a Robert Johnson kind of crossroads.
There was an abandoned police checkpoint, blue and white painted walls and a high roof. It momentarily deterred me before reality checked my inherent fear of authority, a fleeting memory of some line in Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night) where Louis-Ferdinand Céline had quipped justly about avoiding the notice of the authorities. However, neither did I have anything to fear nor were there authorities present to be fearful of. There was an emaciated octogenarian slouching near a tricycle, burdened with recyclables, dressed in the communitarian Mao suit and a large straw sun hat, the lines of age and exposure, no doubt memories, face stained with a kind of gentle confusion from not being able to keep up with the GPD, positioned this poor man, alone in front of a desolate backdrop, not an odd sight really. He found me out of the ordinary.
I slowly passed the octogenarian on my uneven tires. The village was asleep in itself. Later, Google maps and satellite images proved there was a larger inhabitation and quarry of buildings hiding commerce and production than met the less than keen eye of cursory street level observations revealed. I peddled into the Sergio Leone gas station, three attendants in red jumpers, two women and a man, asleep just inside a small fishbowl. They didn’t have a bicycle pump, and went back to sleep.
Next stop, a small store, a few teenagers, a boy and a girl, the type who travel into Beijing’s Xidan to buy clothes once a month and each have one foreign friend online somewhere, an old English teacher perhaps. They smiled. I asked about the pump. A worker in blue overalls, with yellow stripes down the center, shuffled to the back of the shop. Across the isle from malted milk balls, knock off brands of Western sweets, they keep some chemical cleaning fluids, light bulbs, and permanent markers. He grabbed the pump and we stood in the sidewalk attempting to refill the rear tire. No luck. I asked about a bicycle repair.
I would have to pass the octogenarian and cross the dusty highway. Across the way, I was told; there is a man who fixes bikes. Pushing away I began to loose my confidence about celestial bed partners and reservoirs.
This side seemed more rural. Dirt lanes that stretched downward into nothingness, crudely scrawled signs for dragon fruit on one side stared across at signs for red lumber. There were high piles. I walked in a ways, unsure. I had been told I would see a sign. I was looking for the usual Xiuche characters denoting bicycle repair. Tall grass, and the sound of livestock, a few shops down the lane, I headed back toward the crossroads. There was a man standing near a car, with no obvious purpose but to wave me over and inquire about my needs. He called the bicycle repairman, who apparently had gone home for lunch. Smiling, he pointed me down the lane and told me to wait once I arrived at a cluster of green trash bins. Look for a sanlunche, three-wheeled cart, he informed me.
As I walked my bike toward the trashcans and sanlunche, I glanced around at the various small constructions, and listened to the orchestra of chickens, roosters, and dogs. Almost choreographed to coincide with a dead goose I noticed that had been tossed out with the trash, a small pile of vegetable waste and the dead bird on the side of the street, a sudden load pop, a crack, comic book hiss-kepow, that momentarily overpowered the cockadoodledoo of roosters and my front tire went completely flat. By the time I reached the green trash bins I had a frame with two flaccid circles of rubber.
I walked up to the bicycle repairman. He smelled of baijiu, the national moonshine of China, literally meaning white wine but something more akin to turpentine; he had dark, stained and gapped teeth but enjoyed smiling. I explained my problem and folded into a stool under the meager shade of a little tree. His wife came and went several times, with each arrival being greeted with a bark from her husband, something about the wrong bit of this or the wrong size of rubber strip or brand of adhesive. She rode a heavy-duty mountain bike with celerity up and down the narrow divots of farmland jutting off from the paved road. The make shift repair station was nothing more than a small flat-bed tricycle next to half a dozen green trash cans and a large pile of wood, just off the street, and the proprietor was drunk on midday booze, but he worked skillfully.
As I sat there watching his adept movements, pry, pinch, pat, removing the inner tube and dipping it into a small, pink, plastic basin filled with dirty water to descry the source of air escape, speaking with a thick accent and slightly garbled words, explaining his actions between asking me questions, ‘do you like China,’ ‘Chinese people love to help,’ ‘where are you from,’ ‘what’s America’s biggest problem,’ ‘where did you cycle from,’ ‘where are you going?’ He finished his inspection of the rear tire and moved on to the front tire.
It turned out I had blown a hole clear through the inner tube on the front tire. He sent his wife home again to grab a much larger inner tube, which he would shortly shred for a Macgyver rubber band to wrap around the wheel, between the inner tube and wheel. The process moved swiftly. With villagers stopping to say hello or inquiringly engage the foreigner for a moment. I sat there for some time, 30 minutes or so. He joked a little but I was getting tired, adrenaline levels subsiding. It cost 50 kuai, less than 10 dollars to repair both tires. I paid him and shook his hand. The cordiality seemed to surprise him. He invited to me stop for lunch the next time I passed through.
He advised me to return to Beijing. The patch was probably solid enough but he suggested I not risk another blow out all the much farther from home. There would be no shadows of Mutianyu Great Wall, Huairou reservoir, or Hongluo Temple. I mopped the sweat from my brow, smiled goodbye, saddled my bike and started to peddle back to Beijing.
Although my original plan was probably too easily thwarted, the ride itself took on the overshadowing potency of a journey; a metric century in the end, the 100 kilometers I rode that day, the little patches of natural reality outside the city and the short exchanges just inside the Huairou border seemed more important than had I reached what I thought I set out to reach. And before the blisters from the sun revealed themselves across my back and shoulders I told myself that I had had a good day.
As I rode back toward Beijing I repeated that thought to myself, “The destination is immaterial, since it is never reached.”