Xenna Goh '13: Taigu on a Bike

Xenna Goh was one of the 2013-2015 Shansi Fellows at Shanxi Agricultural University. This is her second year narrative.

Before starting my final narrative, I would like to first introduce the inspiration of its title and theme: Girl on a Bike.

On August 25, 2013 I arrived in Taigu sweating and dusty after a long day of travel from Hong Kong. I rushed inside a clearly marked “Foreign Expert Apartment No. 11” to use the bathroom and was greeted by an old member of the house, framed in glass waiting for me perched on the rusting radiator: Girl on a Bike. For the past two years of my fellowship, this picture has remained in the house, moving from the bathroom to the living room and then back to the bathroom for whenever someone important comes in the house.

Girl on a Bike features a magazine cutout of a long-haired woman riding away from the viewer. Her skirt flies up in the imaginary wind and she glances back seductively. The cutout reads:

She came from nowhere
and nobody knew her name.
She looked back
just once,
and then she was gone.
She was
GIRL ON A BICYCLE
Look out, because very soon
she’ll be coming near you.

As Taigu legend has it, Girl on a Bike has lived in the Shansi houses for generations, untouched and unbothered by past fellows or the undoubtedly puzzled Foreign Affairs Office. Last year, Girl on a Bike sadly fell victim to my old house’s rats. One night, a curious rat crept down into the bathroom from its hideaway in the attic and climbed up onto the radiator. I woke up to a loud crash that night, but thought little of it. “It’s probably just some railway construction,” I remember myself thinking before I snuggled back into bed. The next morning I opened up my bathroom door and found Girl on a Bike resting face-down on the floor covered in broken glass. I nearly cried with shame; I didn’t want to be the Shansi fellow that deliberately oversaw the demise of Girl on a Bike. Luckily the frame was not broken, but water from the floor had seeped into the front and slightly distorted the picture. Nevertheless, Girl on a Bike still remains an integral part of the Taigu Shansi experience.

TAIGU ON A BIKE
Step 1: Acquire a Bicycle
Transportation options are somewhat limited in Taigu: buses stop running at 7pm, taxis oftentimes require haggling, and walking takes too long. This is why I tell anyone who wants to visit Taigu that the best way to see Taigu (or any part of China, for that matter) is by bicycle. Long gone are the days in Beijing where bicycles dominated its ringed roads but in Taigu, bicycles remain the number one choice of transportation for students and townspeople alike. Hundreds to thousands of bicycles line the entrances to each teaching building and dormitory. I have witnessed more bicycle accidents on Nongda’s campus than car accidents in all of China. Asking students and storekeepers where I could purchase a used bicycle on campus, I was usually greeted with “oh, somewhere over there” and a floppy wave directed at no place in particular. Thus, my journey to find a solid, second-hand bicycle with little rust took me on a winding tour of Taigu that eventually led me deep into the bowels of Shanxi Agricultural University’s Dormitory No. 9.

 

Outside the basement a torn paper sign read, “Rent Bikes Here. We Have Tandem Bikes Too 19303991302.” The door was locked, leaving me no choice but to call the telephone number scribbled on the sign. I left a message with a groggy-sounding man that I would return at 4, hopefully giving him enough time to recover from Taigu’s prolonged mid-day siesta.

When I returned, someone had unlocked the basement door and left it wide open. I crept in and walked towards a dimly-lit cellar chamber where hundreds of bikes stood covered in dust and cobwebs–I had struck gold. An old man sat reclined in a low-seated beach chair, eyes closed and snoring deeply. I coughed nervously to make my presence known. The old man did not flinch. I cleared my throat, stomped on the ground and snapped my fingers close to his ears. The old man continued to snore peacefully. It wasn’t until I mustered up a very loud “NI HAO” that he finally jolted into consciousness by rolling open his eyes and shooting me an inquisitive stare. “Ah,” he croaked with recognition after some time, “foreign teacher!” He loosely gestured at the room that was his bicycle kingdom, indicating that I could select whichever one I desired. I randomly picked out a gray husky bike with a basket, paid the man 150yuan, and sped off. I would be back later during my two years in Taigu: first to oil the tires, then to rent a tandem, and finally to purchase another bicycle after my first was inevitably stolen outside of Taigu’s JiaJiaLi Supermarket.

STEP 2: Safety Precautions
1. The Bell
Riding a bike without a bell in China is a bit like riding a bike without a helmet in the United States: it may very well be illegal for safety reasons. In China, my bell became my voice. Before I purchased my bell I had to resort to shouting, “let me through!” which after some time left me hoarse and coughing up more dust than usual. A bell is an essential tool on the road in China–do not forget it.

2. All Creatures on the Road
There is a special clairvoyance that is nourished by riding a bike in busy traffic. On Taigu roads, cars shoot out at every direction, cement mixers whiz by with no intention of braking, and every once in awhile a donkey-pulled cart slowly bulldozes through the median. Pedestrians are an entirely different factor; on roads in China, they are oftentimes regarded as pigeons in the sense that if you drive towards them, they’ll flutter towards the safest area. Riding a bike is just like playing an intense non-shooter video game, like Frogger or Mario Kart. All of elements of the road provide distractions and obstacles for the biker, but who wants to play a game with no surprises?

3. Do Not Make Eye Contact with other Bicyclers
Whenever I’m on my bike and someone riding a bicycle or a motorbike is headed in my direction, I tend to look them in the eye as if to say “I’m on the right side of the road, you should be yielding to me.” Very few times to other bicyclers seem to understand my message. To be fair, I’m not using any words, only cautionary glares. Most fellow bicyclers continue to stare back, not so much as challenging me as much as thinking, “who on earth is that? What is that person doing here? Is she…is she…?” all the while slowly drifting closer and closer to me until our front tires brush up against each other. To avoid such mishaps, I continue to stare in front of me in the direction I intend to go and give them an affirmative nod.

4. Don’t Be Shy!
In China, cars yield to neither pedestrians nor bikers. The more weight you carry on the road, the more power you have. I remember when I first tried crossing the road at an awkward roundabout near the Stinky Tunnel in Taigu. As I exited the tunnel holding my breath, I teetered towards a stop at the left side of the road, ready to cross. I must have waited fifteen minutes, because no one would let me through. Finally I saw my chance to go, but right as I got on my bike a bus hurdled out of the roundabout at breakneck speed spouting puffs of exhaust with no hope of braking. “LLAMA!” I shouted angrily in toneless Chinese to no one in particular. I furiously pedaled across the street, stopping cars along the way. Maybe I lied when I said cars do not yield to pedestrians or bikers–they will yield to you if you are assertive. Pick a weak-looking car and bully them by putting your body or bike in front of them and they will most likely let you through.

Graffiti

STEP 3: GO!
Biking in China gives you a fantastic opportunity to witness some of absurdities and daily phenomena first-hand that would be more difficult to see on a bus or as a pedestrian. For an example, one day when I was biking back from the grocery store a truck swerved in front of me. In its bed were two full-grown, live tigers. There are no zoos in Taigu, and the county is not exactly known for its location as a crossroads in China. It’s difficult to say what larger trend that event was a part of–one can only speculate where those tigers came from, and where they were going.

ON THE OUTSKIRTS
Late last year while my friend Karl was visiting from Indonesia, we decided to rent a tandem bike and take a trip into the mountains. Taigu–or 太谷–lives up to its Chinese name meaning “Great Valley.” The entire county is surrounded by mountains of stacked loess and rock. Few plants are capable of growing in such nutrient-poor soil, so most of the mountains are bare and imposing, giving the county a Mars-like appearance. On the road from Dormitory No. 9’s basement to the mountains, Karl and I quickly realized that the tandem bike falls within the top 5 least-efficient methods of travel. The person in the front does most of the pedaling while second person spins the back pedals loosely, contributing in no way whatsoever. Dormitory No. 9‘s tandem bikes are not equipped with gears or with different heights, so to accommodate everyone the seat height is set low, forcing its riders to pedal even more furiously with little progress. It took us about 2 hours to get to the mountains on our flimsy little bike. The road to the mountains is long and straight, so to avoid boredom I veered the bike onto a small path and followed it until we reached a village.

Empty Village Road

For me, entering a village on the outskirts of Taigu is always a little intimidating. The villages are tight-knit communities of a few hundred family members who are always very aware of outsiders, and I hate the feeling of intruding. When Karl and I tumbled into the village on our tiny, squeaky tandem bike, we received more than a few stares, but not necessarily because we were out-of-towners. We had nearly crashed into a funeral procession. The village’s main street was lined with people dressed in all white, cheering and raising home-made flags in celebration. Men with cloth strips wrapped around their heads held various instruments: drums, 葫芦丝 (a traditional Chinese gourd flute), and bells. With all of the commotion, I thought I had missed a major nation-wide holiday and it wasn’t until later that I realized what we were witnessing. I had always assumed that funerals were somber events, but the village’s live, loud procession proved that in this area, funerals are celebrated with exhilaration.

DOWNTOWN TAIGU
The bus route to Taigu’s JiaJiaLi supermarket is quite simple: hop on the bus at Nongda’s West Gate, drive through the stinky tunnel, pass the train station, take a right onto the city’s major road, and get off. On a bike, the route is much more scenic. After crossing the awkward roundabout intersection I mentioned earlier, a biker can turn off into a quiet alley lined with brick-built houses. The noise of traffic from the bigger street fades away and the only obstacles are the occasional car or dog. After several turns, the alleys open up into a big outdoor market called 东海市场. Fellows in the past have simply referred to it as “the pifa,” or 批发, meaning wholesale. Here, one can find anything from a brand new blender to wedding decorations and vegetables–all at a discounted price. From dawn til dusk the market is lively: older folks dance and sing in one corner of the market, traffic passes through noisily, and a big screen with various advertisements blares above it all. The market ends at a large gate next to a traditional Chinese hospital where the old town begins.

Downtown Taigu

 

Taigu’s old town consists of a few wide alleys lined with old brick, straw and clay-built houses. In the winter, black smoke puffs from long pipes attached to each house and piles of coal lay in the streets as insurance for warmth. A few shops sell stationery, dog food, imprinted stamps, and fabric. Child’s graffiti on the city walls features helicopters and turtles. Near the drum tower, a couple of kind tailors set up a shop fixing clothes and making dresses or suits. During the past few months, I’ve stopped by several times with my basket full of fabrics from Beijing to Bali ready to be turned into dresses and robes. Inside their shop, there are a few tables with stacked clothes and manual-powered sewing machines. A bunk bed sits in the far corner and from the back of the shop, there’s a great view of Taigu’s 1,700 year old White Tower. I’m picking up last weeks dresses and we start chatting. While trying on one of the dresses, one of the ladies, named Mrs. Li, holds up a modesty curtain.

“So you’re leaving soon Little Wu?” she asks.


“Yes, I leave on Friday,” I reply. “I’m not ready at all, even though I’ve been thinking about it for a long time.”


“I see.” I look at the dress in the mirror and take it off, satisfied after a few weeks of alterations. She helps me take it off and delicately place it in a JiaJiaLi shopping bag. I thank her, leave the shop and mount my bike, suddenly realizing that it will be my last time coming to her shop. While I’m mulling in nostalgia she pops her head out of the door and calls, “Don’t ever forget us!” I sort of smile and bike away. That was my last bike ride in Taigu. I’m still biking through those streets in my mind, smelling burnt coal and narrowly missing dog-sized potholes.

Maybe Girl on a Bike is an allegory for any fellow in Taigu: to any passerby, it’s not very clear where we came from. After two years, we’re gone. To any new-coming fellow, two years feels like an eternity but to me, on the other side of the fellowship, it feels as though it passed by as quickly as the glance of Girl on a Bike.

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