Monday, February 15, 2010

Tour de Zhengzhou

As I sit here in my apartment, listening to the most super-powered fireworks on the planet, I realize that I have had my bike for just over one week. Just before the beginning of Spring Festival - otherwise known as Chinese New Year.

Now some of you are asking yourselves... how on earth did that boy get from fireworks to a bicycle?!?

Let me explain...

Just over a week ago - my school started its two-week vacation for spring festival, a holiday that officially lasts for basically fifteen days and is bigger than Christmas, the Fourth of July and maybe Kwanza all rolled together. There is gift giving, fireworks, bribery, traveling and jiaozi (the boiled version of pot-stickers). In this two week timeframe, there are almost around the clock fireworks. People will wake up early enough to start the barrage at six in the morning. When I talk about a barrage, you need to understand that I am not talking about bottle rockets, screamers and your staple American classics... I am talking about full scale destruction.

The smallest fireworks I see or hear are the equivalent of a Roman Candle packed with cocaine for that added “kick”. Single firecrackers? That is for the 4-9 year old kids to throw randomly while walking down the streets! Real firecrackers are sold in folded sheets of roughly a thousand I would imagine, because they keep going for at least three minutes... not really exaggerating there. The aftermath of these firecrackers are a fifteen foot radius of eviscerated red paper. Of course there are sparklers, which i’m sure are safe enough to give to your toddlers just so they don’t get in too much trouble.

Anyhow - for those who are serious about celebrating, which is all of China, there are the real fireworks.

Everything sparkles, everything has range, and everything... goes ... boom.

All across Zhengzhou from my ivory tower on the twentieth floor, I can see the brilliant signals of Chinese fireworks. That is, until my vision is obscured by darkness, smog, or other almost 30 story buildings... Whatever.

In the category of “serious” fireworks are all sorts of artistically designed colour patterns and textures, that reach at least the twentieth story of your average Zhengzhou building. Some of them are a single signal, others have a few layers that combust shortly after the signal before it starts to fade. Beautiful, but nothing we haven’t seen before in America.

However, there is something that we haven’t seen before in America -- or heard.

Though there are the basic rockets and mortars, which are serious in their own right, there is a range in size of packaging that goes all the way up to a large box, similar to the box your desktop computer may have come in. This box roughly three feet squared, and looks like it just came from firework Valhalla where it was drinking, feasting and scaring the living hell out everyone else.

Those truly festive citizens who are willing to put down the ¥400 ($75 or so) to purchase this conquering hero then push this this box into the middle of the road, sometimes at the crosswalk if there is a median they can get to, and then light it. What follows is what I imagine WWII felt like. There is FIRE there is Destruction and I can truly say that after the next five minutes of watching the roughly 100 full sized mortars wreak their havoc on the skies, I may never feel patriotism on the Fourth of July again. Maybe thats China’s secret plan?

The light and sparkly fury of “the thousand tongues of fire” as I like to call them (stole that from Kung-Fu Panda...) are absolutely incredible, but there is another sensory dimension that is even more impacting. Sorry for the pun.

I first genuinely experienced the power behind Chinese fireworks when I was riding my bike in the first few days, and one of the “smaller” mortars went off on the sidewalk as soon as I was lined up with it on the road.

The percussion from those mortars is enough to set off a car’s alarm from a distance of up to 15 feet. I chuckle to myself every time I hear it... and it is a regular occurrence.

As I rode by on my bike and the mortar went off, I was smart. I kept me wits about me. I remembered that mistakes while biking in China can be fatal and I calmly yelled inside my head DRIVE STRAIGHT!! DRIVE STRAIGHT!!

If I didn’t know that this was Chinese new year, and was trapped inside this room, I would have no choice but to assume we were under attack. The sheer sounds from outside my window, sounds coming from over a mile a away, would be proof enough.

When I did pull back my curtains, and was quietly at work on my computer by the window, every once in a while I would be buffeted by a flash of scintillating light and the shockwave that struggled to keep up with it. The 20th floor really is a fortunate location to watch fireworks, especially if someone down below is launching them in the parking lot between your tower and the adjacent one, because they explode AT the twentieth floor. OoOOOoO aaahhh

The thirteenth was a particularly important night for the Spring Festival celebration, and in my one room bastion on the 20th floor, I got to watch as all of Zhengzhou scared off the entire quota of evil spirits for the new year at midnight. When everyone decided that their cellphone, watch or other time piece was safely at the midnight mark, they lit off as many fireworks as they could. I am convinced that not a single bird survived.

One more word about the fireworks, and then I’ll move on...ish.

I was walking around the other night, and remembered large firework displays in my childhood when we would go to the city’s display for the Fourth of July. I remember spazzing out because I thought they were going to burn me, but my mom was very certain and reassuring that they burned out before they got anywhere near the ground. Well, not in China. Though they are very powerful, some of the very large ones do not go very high... for maximum viewing pleasure im sure.

Walking down the street, and about to turn a corner, I noticed that one of the larger displays was lit on the sidewalk/ parking lot in front of a strip of stores. The glory of this particular display was unparalleled, which is easy to say because I haven’t experienced many fireworks from only 20 feet away from their exploding point in my life time. Needless to say, I stayed a bit around the corner from the launch box where I could enjoy the explosions, and keep a careful eye on the firebrands that were raining down around me. A good choice I decided, as I chuckled to myself once again and continued on down the road.

Intermission -- ok take a breather.

Back to the bicycle though. So right before Spring Festival, we were paid -- YAY!

With my wad of Red Renminbin (RMB - the monetary unit of mainland China) I set off home to do some damage. I knew I wanted to buy a tea set... and a bike. So I did... Hahhah. I now have both, and do not regret either, because my teaset is awsome and my bike has enabled some wonderful experiences and fringe benefit calisthenics as well.

So after asking several people where I should buy my bike... I ended up settling with the Supermarket colossus - Walmart. I went, I did my shopping, picked out the one I wanted, with all the features I though were important: a bell a basket and a rack on the back :D (all of those are more or less imperative for survival in China.) Almost all of the bikes are single gear - so I made no issue out of it.

Now if only I could have gotten pink and white streamers off the handle bars... but alas.

So I got some courage up, and found an attendant to help me get the bike down, set-up and paid for. It took a little hide and go seek, but we got it done. Basically ¥400 later (puts those fireworks in perspective eh?) and I was rocking the bike cliche like it was nobody’s business.

By the way - I haven’t really ridden a bike since I was about 12... so I was worried when I was buying it that I was gonna make myself look like a fool -- or get myself killed (or both).

Nay - Nay - The cliche is very true. Even 10 or so years later and I was off like a shot. I made sure to test out the brakes real well before I took it to the road, seeing as how that is the most important feature when doing any sort of travel in China. One must be able to stop on a dime.

And ZOOM I was off down the road, having not adjusted the seat hight.. and realizing that biking a little bit too low is a lot of work on ones thighs. Whew! it burned... but in a good way. Feel the burn! love the burn :P

Fortunately my four weeks of watching traffic patterns and participating as a pedestrian was really all the training I needed for biking effectively.
I knew ahead of time that I was going to be sore the next day, so I thought it would be best to get myself to the point where my muscles would grow and adapt faster rather than pussy footing around with it. (again... feel the burn! love the burn!) After dropping off my bag at my apartment, to avoid any unnecessary encumberment, I went exploring. There is a bike route beneath the highway (one of the nice things about having a huge biking population in the city) that is more or less empty of traffic, aside from the occasional car and other random bikers. From there, I could snake my way over to the new district known as CBD, where there is a park. At night, I found out that this park is eerily lit with tall pylons: kind of star-trekkish. I worked my way around this park, embracing the burn and finding a much more pleasant and natural environment than I was used to in Zhengzhou. Circumscribing the green patch on the bricked path, I made my way home, noticing some random people practicing kung-fu in the well lit biking area underneath the highway. Not even kidding you. I circled back a few times “just to make sure.”

In the days that followed, I continued to practice my new hobby, and learning to avoid cars, potholes, other cyclists and incredibly aggressive city busses (I guess that is why they are such an efficient mode of transportation...) as I made my way across the city.

I have felt more at home in Zhengzhou since having a bike. It has made me feel like I am owning my experience more. Cars are so expensive, that most everyone owns a bike, or an e-bike (electrical motorcycle basically or “scooter” - silent and deadly aside from their synthesizer beep-horn NEE! NEE!).

I have begun to really learn the streets of Zhengzhou, and know which roads have the deadly foot deep potholes that fill with the most repugnant slush when the “snow” melts. I know how to make a 30-40 minute journey take 15-20 now using the right roads, and fancy-pants driving.

Instead of the whole huge process I would normally take for me to get ready, catch a bus and walk the remainder of the way to my previously described sanctuary, I can hop on my bike sling my messenger bag around me - fulfilling its created purpose - and zoom down the streets dodging small children and timing traffic lights like every other Chinese person in Zhengzhou.

Green meens go. Its true. However, even on green lights you can die in Zhengzhou - because a green pedestrian light means that some lane probably has a turn light into... right where you are.

As a result - no one trusts traffic lights here, and you just go when you know that you can cross and still survive. Thus, you have a city full of fancy-pants bikers, some of which can even talk on their cell-phones and do it... but I think they’re asking for it.

This break has been wonderful.

I’ve been working hard to get myself ahead of lesson planning - as I had intended to do. I have been biking, and meeting new people. I have gotten to become closer to other people I had already sort of known from work.

And... in the dark of the night after each new experience: I unlock my bike, hop on and hasten home.

By the way - biking at five in the morning after a night of drinking, hours of dancing, hotpot, is a lot of fun. There is something very meaningful about heading down an empty road that is usually packed, still aware that other travelers could appear at any moment of course, with cold winter wind running across your face and up your sleeves: going home.

It is strange, but that is really what it feels like - to go home even though I am in a foreign city with only a string of new friends, experiences and the thoughts and love of my friends and family back in the US and Canada.

I guess that’s part of growing up.

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