Monday, November 16, 2009

Ride Report: Yao wenge lu!!!!

He saw me in his rear-view mirror and his leathery moon face lit up. He threw open the door to the cab of his banged-up blue flatbed truck and scrambled down to the ground. "Yao wenge lu! Yao wenge lu!" ("I need to ask for directions!") he yelled in a frantic voice with a thick northern accent.

It was 6:30 a.m. and a freezing blustery wind was blowing off the Pearl River. I was halfway into my training ride on an empty frontage road near Guangzhou's sprawling convention center, which looks like a curled up lasagne noodle made of steel. I'm not sure how long the truck driver and his partner in the passenger seat were parked there waiting for help. He was hauling this massive hulk of steel - some sort of pylon - covered in brown rust. I imagine they had been driving all night.

They were so desperate that they were seeking help from a foreign devil reeking of wintergreen-scented embrocation and wearing red booties, white Belgian kneewarmers and a funky Ommegang Brewery jersey with black, gold and brown diagonal stripes. I must have looked like an extraterrestrial to them or some sort of crazy clown on a bike with ridiculously skinny tires. But it didn't seem to phase them. They didn't even bother to ask if I could speak Chinese. There they were in my face yelling, "Yao wenge lu! Yao wenge lu!"

The funny thing about this part of southern China is that it's harder than hell to get accurate directions from anyone on the street. That's because most of the people you run into are migrants who only know the way from their room in the factory dormitory to the assembly line. The locals who really know the city are the ones zooming past you in shiny new cars.

Like a typical migrant, I couldn't tell the truck driver where to go. His sidekick had a rumpled piece of paper with directions on it, and their destination was supposed to be the intersection of Binjiang Road and Yiyuan Road. "Wo bu qingchu," I said ("Duh, I dunno."). Then, a street sweeper walked by and they pounced on the guy, and he began giving them directions. I was quickly forgotten.

Another funny thing about China is that most people don't seem to use maps. I've hired so many drivers who don't have a single map in their glove compartment and show no interest in consulting the ones I often carry in my bag. They usually say, "Well, we'll drive to the general area, then we'll ask for directions."

It could be that most of the drivers are working-class folks who are semi-literate and aren't comfortable getting information from pieces of paper. They prefer word of mouth. Another theory I have is that China has been changing so rapidly in recent years that most maps are outdated as soon as they're printed. I've seen so many roads appear and disappear or get blocked or rerouted in the past couple years. With so much change, the best strategy is to ask around. Just deal with it when you get there. That's problably the best strategy for life in general in China.

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