At the Crook of the Yellow River

by Carla King

16 May 98

The left side of the motorcycle blew out in Inner Mongolia after passing the large town of Baotau. I was rescued by a guy in one of those little blue diesel trucks, he towed me to his friend the motorcycle mechanic down the road and I stayed with the family for three days. No phone, no running water, and so backwards that I was afraid the computer would scare them half to death. Had a blast, taught them to say "cheers" when we toasted glasses of beer. It comes out "chews" when they say it and then they laugh hysterically. If this becomes a Chinese tradition you know who to blame.

The bike fixed, we loaded it with the family: mechanic, wife, and their two-year-old girl (who took my presence right in stride) to the nearby mountains, stark beautiful mountains that rise straight up from the flats flecked with horned white sheep and cut by a river awash with gently clattering stones under a hot desert sun. We walked past herds of wild ponies and an old Mongolian ranch woman let me ride hers for a few feet down the trail.

The next morning, after a fond farewell I was on my way to Yinchuan when, just before I crossed the border out of Inner Mongolia, the left side blew again! It was dark but it turned out there was a mechanic just 1 kilometer down the road next to a dorm-style motel for travelers, so I was in luck, as usual. Sort of. Got a few tools "lost" and the mechanic went back on his price in the end and caused a little scene. Kept insisting that I should pay more because I'm American. Was trying to get the hotel to up their bill, too, even after I had already paid them. This guy was just too much. Young, handsome, and charming, and hating being stuck in this tiny town. But China has have just dissolved the 2-price system (foreigner price has traditionally, and officially, been double the regular price) thanks to the new president. And I am also allowed to stay anywhere I like, instead of in designated tourist hotels. This is a brand new policy and I have appreciated it very much. Otherwise I'd be broke,and I certainly wouldn't be allowed to stay in people's homes without alerting the local authorities first. In this town (near Linhe) the little place cost 5 yuan for the room, 2 yuan for the shower, and 3 yuan for the beer. But I paid dearly in lack of privacy. They dragged the English teacher out of bed at 9:30 pm to translate for them. I had just showered and had just dressed for bed (t-shirt) when 20 people literally barged into my room so they could find out a) how old I was, b) if I was married and c) how much money did I make. My hair dripping, I answered. Since I have figured out that these are always the three questions. I have no idea what people are asking me but I figure by now it's that and say those three things. I must be right, because they are completely satisfied then.

The (Chinese) English teacher works at an agricultural college in this town and the next day she took me away from the motel where I was constantly surrounded by the entire population who watched me work on the bike, eat, comb my hair, shower, poop, brush my teeth and mutter to myself in English that I wished I could just be alone for ONE SINGLE MINUTE! No one here has ever, ever seen a foreigner. I could just as well be green and purple and have landed in a spaceship. When they get past their initial astonishment they are quite nice, but most of them just stand there and gape with their mouths hanging open. It seems funny at some times but horribly irritating at others... when I'm in a bad mood. Which I can't be too often because there is always someone who jumps in and saves me.

The English teacher and her Mongolian husband (the sports teacher) and their 3 year old son live in a mud and straw house in the village. There's a patio-style brick floor and no running water. She reads and writes English fluently but speaks hesitantly. We had a wonderful time together. She let me help her cook and clean house, I've learned to make noodles, and then I visited the college where I had to entertain about a hundred college students one evening in different dormitory rooms. They wanted me to sing. I just don't sing because I sing horribly but they insisted so I sang the only song that came to me which was "Home on the Range" with as much aplomb as I could muster. I messed up the words (... and the clouds are not sky-dy all day!) but they'll never know it, and they were absolutely and sincerely delighted. In return one of the girls sang to me, a traditional Chinese folk song in a beautiful high voice. Then they made me sign their school books, about 50 of them I think, and begged me to stay for just a week or two, or even three months. I was very sad to leave, but leave I did, even raining as it was. Then I hit a windstorm on a long empty stretch of road at the edge of a desert that reminded me of West Texas, that shot sand across the road in front of me, even hiding it in certain places. There was a long time with no traffic which had me absolutely panicked that I had entered this place when there was some sort of travelers warning to avoid it, I had to really struggle to keep the bike on the road because the wind was blowing so hard, but finally I saw trucks again just about the time I hit the Yellow River, an awesome power lined with farms and factories.

Out of Wuhai, which is a big-looking town on the map but is really quite small with a huge factory of some sort, and nuclear power plant, I picked up a hitchhiker. It was because I had to ask directions (which I often do) because the road ended and my presence caused a little crowd to gather. When this guy heard where I was going he became very excited, patted the motorcycle back seat and his chest and made all kinds of sign language that he wanted to go. HAD to go. The guy was a nervous wreck. He showed me his drivers card, and pointed to a truck that went by so I discerned that he had left his truck in Yinchuan and had to go there now! Was nice, insistent, but an absolute mess. We stopped by his apartment to get his coat (it's just freezing here) and he ran around like a maniac, pressing things into my arms: fleece lined leather gloves, Tiger Balm, and a vile perfume I suppose must keep you awake. A leather key ring, and a magic marker made in Japan, he said. He ran in once with a race car model and started babbling something and smiling in ecsatsy, a litany of some sort. ...boshe, fellali... Fellali! He was reciting a list of race cars. Geez! This guy was a trucker? No wonder Chinese roads are so dangerous. The only thing he didn't offer me was the amphetimines I'm sure he was on. He drives the circle route I'm doing, except he includes Lhasa! No wonder he's on drugs.

It was the first time I'd driven any distance at all after dark and it was a nightmare, so I was glad to have him no matter how nutsy he was. The left side was heating up again and I think the engine was very happy with the almost freezing cold (desert climate), and the slow, potholed roads full of drivers who believe that headlights waste gas so they don't use them. Other obstacles are bicycles, tractors, dropped wood, bricks, and big white plastic sacks of things, plus tadpoles eerily emerging from the Yellow River, China's number two river, an absolute monster that irrigates the many fields here. I guess this area is what you'd call China's Breadbasket.

Yinchuan was three hours away and this guy was helping me navigate, probably saving me about an hour because I would have had to stop and ask directions about 5 times, but he was also yelling "oohWHAAAH!" in my ear when we had a close call (which was often) and "YES!" and "NO!" and pointing past my helmet in crisp commands. He weighed about 90 pounds and his hands were absolutely blue. I was wearing four shirts, a sweater, a wool scarf, my leather jacket, gloves, rainsuit, plus motorcycle helmet, and I was freezing. He was wearing slacks and a white shirt with jacket and a windbreaker. But he refused to wear the gloves he'd given me. They were a gift, he said, and he wouldn't touch them. Every once in a while when I would not use my headlights properly and we'd get the brights from a trucker he would shout "I'M SORRY!" and then beat his hands on my back and massage me (through all those layers) which actually helped a lot. Cripes. I can just see him in the truck cab with his partner, equally amped, yelling and hitting each other all the way from Beijing to Lhasa and back.

Though I was riding at 40 km/hr the engine began to overheat 18 kilometers from Yinchuan so I insisted we stop for a while. He babbled about this and that, (boshe, fellali, new yok) smoked, shook his head, paced, and occasionally shouted in glee, "YINCHUAN - ONE - EIGHT - YES!" Thumbs up. When arrived in Yinchuan at 11 pm, he helped me find my hotel, get the motorcycle safely parked, locked, and covered, ran ahead of me to open the door, helped fill out the check-in form, all accompanied by a non-stop dialog to the confused reception clerk. Then he brought my bags to my room, barked at the floor girl, washed his face, made sure I had hot water in the thermos, told me his name, left, came back again, let me take his photo, asked me the time, turned on the TV, and then he was gone. I will never know really what was going on with him. I don't care. I obviously saved his butt and I was glad for the help but now I was glad for the privacy and the flush toilet and even the loud Chinese TV blaring in the next room.

This morning Yinchuan seems like the Emerald city. A beautiful clean city. Clean streets, clean air, light traffic. Heaven. I walked to the department store and then to the shopping street and ate noodles at a canvas covered food market with 50 woks all going at once under canvas roofs, pots bubbling with meats and seafoods, and squewers of quail eggs and triangles of marinated tofu. I sat in the shade and drank sugared yogurt cream from a straw stuck into a ceramic pot covered with tissue paper rubber-banded over the top, then had a cup of the region's special tea with dried dates and apples and a lump of rock sugar. I have listened to the theme of "Titanic" on loudspeakers coming from clothes shops record shops video store, and I have not been crowded around even one time. There is only the occasional "hello" and a giggle in passing. It is sunny. There is a park where old people sit in the shade and children play in the fountain. It looks a little like Italy. I go back to my hotel room with a bathtub and toilet and the requisite slegehammer and pick axe team outside the window and witness again that China is a developing country. It is developing right before my eyes. When I return to Beijing I am sure there will be five new highrises visible from Teresa's 45th floor view.

So, dear friends, that has been what has been going on with me this past week. And to answer your questions -- I am in good health, in fact I think I have rarely eaten so well. All my travel disasters have given me the opportunity to meet people and see life here as I would never have witnessed had I not given others the opportunity to help me. I am tired and I miss home, though, and now I wish for company to share the burden of being different. I am a little worried about being able to keep the bike running all the way back to Beijing, but there are many other options. It is very safe here, nobody hassels me, there is no danger and I will not ride at night any more. On Monday I will get my visa extended and then I ride to the small villages of Zongwei and Shapoto (at the edge of the Tenger Desert) to see water wheels and leather rafts, and then it is Lanzhou, Xi'an, and Beijing, and then home sweet home.

I have enough to write about for about a year, and much to research. I apologize for the quickness of my reports, the possible inaccuracies and spelling and grammatical errors. I've been exhausted every time I get to the writing... this is a difficult country to travel through, but there are many rewards. When I get home there will be many many photos to sort through. The Chinese are not shy about being in photos and I owe many copies to families everywhere I've been.

Thank you so much for your kind letters and I look forward to hearing from you whenever I find a hotel with a business center, even though they still can't understand why I have to use their fax line and their normal phone line won't work just as well. It's okay. I'm a foreigner, a Laowai, which means "old outside person," and they indulge me.

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