By now, it’s probably obvious to readers of this blog that I have a love-hate relationship with China. So far, I’ve written more about the hate side. But there is love, and I’ll get into it later. On most days, I rarely feel an even balance of the two emotions. That’s especially true when I’m riding. This morning, the imbalance was on the hate side. It was so bad that I decided to shorten the ride, which should have been two hours but ended up being one. The roads seemed more dodgier than usual, and I felt like I was using up too many lucky charms.
The ride got off to a bad start. Although it was sunny and warm, my shoes, socks and shorts were already soaked five minutes into the ride. That’s because a road-cleaning truck (the one that doesn’t have a sweeper so it just creates a thin layer of slippery mud on the pavement) had sprayed the roads before a 100-meter-long tunnel that I ride through. Guangzhou has developed a tunnel fetish since I moved here two years ago. Two tunnels have been built along one of the routes I frequently ride along the Pearl River.
Bikes aren’t allowed in the tunnels. Although they were completed months ago, the city still hasn’t constructed a proper bike path or lane above the ground. During rush hour, a little grouchy policeman (the tunnel troll) guards the mouth of the tunnel and blocks cyclists from entering. But he’s not there at 6 a.m. when I shoot through it at 50 kph.
I think if you build and operate a tunnel, the project demands that you accept a certain amount of responsibility and expense. For safety’s sake, the tunnel must be properly illuminated. Few things are scarier for a cyclist than bombing through a dark tunnel with trucks and cars roaring up to you from behind. This often happens to me because the tunnel’s lights are often switched off, or they’re left off on the right lane. Saving money at the expense of safety.
This morning, I cleared the tunnel and just as I got out of it, a gray micro van zipped in front of me from a side road on the right and turned into the one-way tunnel. I was able to swerve out of the way, but if I arrived at the spot a split second earlier, wham! It was luck that saved me from pure idiocy. Such things are way too common on Chinese roads. This really makes me angry. I’ve been noticing in recent weeks that gray micro vans (about one-third smaller than a mini van) are driven by certified boneheads. Just being aware of a source of danger is extremely helpful and gives you a huge advantage. Now, when I see a gray van, I go on high alert.
About 20 minutes after the near miss, I turned onto another one-way road and was almost hit by a taxi driving against traffic. I pedaled down the road to another tunnel and was halfway into it when I heard a bus bearing down on me from behind. As he got close, he began leaning on his horn, creating a deafening noise that echoed through the tunnel. I was riding close to the tunnel wall, but his honking really pissed me off, so I shoulder checked, then moved to the center of my lane and slowed down in front of him. He continued to blast his horn and pulled up to my back wheel before moving a bit into the left lane and overtaking me, missing my shoulder by about one meter. I looked through the passenger door and saw him smiling.
The tunnel had two lanes and he could have easily moved into the left lane and passed safely without beeping. This is the third time this has happened in that tunnel. I used to think that the Chinese honk like this because they foolishly think it’s a safe thing to do. But I can’t accept that anymore. For me, it’s obvious that I’m a cyclist who’s aware of traffic coming from behind because I wear a red blinky light clipped to my back jersey pocket. I got to thinking today that the bus driver was just being a bully. I think the bully gene is very common in the general Chinese genetic makeup. Mao was a classic bully and destroyed most of his comrades who helped him found the People’s Republic of China. Think of how mobs of Red Guards terrorized people during the Cultural Revolution. Almost daily, you can see how people lord their power over people whenever they can. You see it in restaurants when diners treat waitstaff like they’re slaves. You see it on the roads when someone in a big metal vehicle feels like he can harass someone riding on two skinny wheels.
Since I finished the ride early and had some extra time, I decided to finish a project that has been dragging on for weeks: the building up of my custom Colossi frame. I cracked it in riding into a pot hole and had to get the top tube and bottom tube replaced. After I ate breakfast and showered, I collected all my bike parts: frameset, fork, Dura Ace gruppo, wheels, handlebars, etc. I walked out of the apartment with my hands full and flagged a taxi. When we got to the bike shop, the driver – as usual – didn’t bother to help me gather together all the pieces. I was able to manage on my own, though, and I walked into the store with all the stuff.
There were three guys gathered around the front counter eating breakfast: various types of greasy dumplings and stuffed steamed bread – spongy, starchy stuff with no nutritional value. I smiled and said in a cheerful voice: “Good morning! How you doing?” Did any of them jump up and offer to take a wheel or something else off my hands? Nah. One guy who was blocking my way in the narrow walkway to the back of the shop was considerate enough to step out of my way after I paused a second to give him time to move. The back of the shop was as chaotic and messy as usual, with boxes and half-repaired bikes all over the place. I put my things down on a box and waited for help. I waited. And I waited. And I waited some more. After a few minutes, I walked toward the counter and asked the guys who were still munching away, “Excuse me, I really hate to bother you, but can I get a little service here?”
Finally, one of them walked over, and I told him I wanted someone to build up the bike and he said that wouldn’t be a problem. I told him all the parts were there, and he didn’t bother to do any kind of inventory. I asked him where we should put the stuff, and he said to leave it just where it was. I saw an empty space on a workbench and moved the pile there. I knew I wasn’t dealing with the shop’s best and brightest, and I was hoping the A team would come in later and sort out my rig. I know the shop’s manager well, and sent him an e-mail when I got home. He promptly replied, saying my bike would be in good hands.
Service is a big problem in China. I once had a long chat with the regional head of Starbucks in China, and he complained about how hard it was to find decent frontline workers for the coffee shops. He shared the popular view that Chinese kids don’t understand service because they are the product of the one-child birth policy, which restricts most families to having only one child. The kids turn out to be little emperors and empresses, who grew up being waited on. They really don’t know how to serve. They don’t know how to do things on their own. I grew up with three siblings and often had to fend for myself or pitch in to keep the house running.
I hope my next posting will be about what a great job they did on my bike. When I find something I love about this country, I do like to talk about it.