Lost in the Heibi Province Mountains

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 河北省

May 2: Heibi Province Mountains

I ride alone with a knot in my stomach trying to enjoy the first few hours of my solo journey but am completely cowed by the wildness of Northern Heibi province. I'd had the vague impression that all of China was densely populated, but this lonely country backwater is riddled with potholed roads among jagged mountains covered in soft brushy bushes and trees. The air is fresh and cool in the late afternoon, and the green mountains gives the atmosphere a healthy glow. I never imagined that China had such wide-open spaces, and then the road forks into three with no signs to mark the way. I switch the engine off and, for the first time since I arrived in the country, experience absolute silence.

I pull the map from the sidecar to consider it for the first time and to search, unsuccessfully, for my three-pronged crossroads. A shirtless peasant wearing ragged cotton pants and a peaked cap trods along, pulling a jumble of tree branches behind him in a wooden handcart. The sinewy muscles in his arms and shoulders strain against the slight decline of the road.

"Nee how ma," I say. He stopped and I shove up the visor of my helmet, to be better understood. "Nee how ma," I repeat carefully, intoning as properly as I can in the basic Mandarin I studied so fervently for several months before I left. "Wah may loo la," I say again, more slowly. "I'm lost."

He stares as if he understands, so I continue, "Liajang way, please?"

The man is tiny, a miniature. He might be eighty but probably is only sixty, badly bent from work and nutritional deficiencies, I surmise, from surviving the Cultural Revolution. His face is tan and flat, lightly wrinkled, and his eyes, though bright, are sunken deeply, as I see when he steps closer to peer up into my helmet.

"Liajang way?" I repeat, rattling my map, pointing out out the town with my finger. Its name is clearly printed in Pinyin, the Roman characters that appear under the Chinese pictograms, but I really can't pronounce it correctly and now I realize that it is very possible the man can't read. The paper rustles, but he doesn't even look at it, clearly more interested in studying me. The trouble is that he stares so plainly, with the bald curiosity of a child, yet without any seeming desire for interaction. It's unnerving.

I'd been stared at in Beijing but this is absurd. The man acts as if I am a statue in a wax museum. After peering into my helmet, he studies my jacket, then bends down to study my jeans and my boots, and rises again to examine my gloves. When he finishes this inspection, he strolls around the motorcycle.

At least it gives me time to stare back. So this is the peasant so reviled and dismissed, usually with a disgusted sneer, by the Chinese middle class. In his peaked cap with his wrinkled old face he is a museum piece, a caricature of the Chinese peasant in his rags, pulling his battered wheelbarrow. I ask him one more time to show me the road to Liajang, but he just continues to stare, slack jawed and glassy-eyed.

About now I would have taken comfort in having a companion to laugh with about this. Teresa Howes, the Agricultural Attaché at the American embassy, and one of the Chang Jiang Gang in Beijing, had wanted to join me, but was forbidden by her employer because, to put it simply, my trip is illegal. It would be a different trip with her along, but I liked her and she was easy to travel with, as I'd discovered during my exploratory visit the previous fall. Raised in Minnesota, she escaped to the Peace Corps after college and was fluent in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Thai, and Mandarin, and could get along in a handful of other languages. I stayed in her large 38th floor apartment in downtown Beijing. It was furnished with Balinese treasures and fabrics from around the world and, during my stay, two or three others stopped in to spend a night or two, people she'd met in her travels. She took me along on rides to the countryside to do "field research." This meant that we'd ride around until we saw some farmers sitting at the side of the road shucking corn. Then we'd stop and she'd sit down with them, shuck corn and chat with them. They would tell her how the government was paying for their crops - in money or in IOUs. More and more often it was IOUs, she said.

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