–by Richard Smith
Mornings in Qingdao, I ride my bicycle to work.
I wear a balaclava under my helmet because the days are very cold here. My wife likes to kiss me goodbye at the door. I play this game where I try to kiss her goodbye through the balaclava, and she lifts it up like Mary Jane kissing Spiderman; I don’t hang upside down or nothing. I get to the little foyer at the bottom of the stairs and unlock my bike from the sewer pipe. I wrap the chain around the seat-post like a snake wrapped around a wizard’s staff, and I slither out the narrow glass apartment-block door. I schlepp the bike up some stone steps to the street. My breathing picks up a bit and I mount up. I bike through several archways, like guiding a witch’s broom through a labyrinth .
The first bit is uphill; I grunt my way over the shoulder of the mountain; I gulp huge draughts of the creosote laden air. The coal heating plants are in every neighborhood. Think of it – thousands of these across China belching CO2 into the air. A lot of greenhouse gas, but it is cold in china. Think, ‘Siberia is right next door,’ and you get the picture.
I go hard up the hill. Every gasping breath feels like my last and I think, ‘there is nothing so precious in this world as our last breath, eh?’ I try to go as fast as I can. I gasp and I hurt; I chant in my mind, ‘be patient, relax, pace yourself, hold the pace, drive on!’
Over the mountain and I plunge into the heart of Tsingtao, like a river raft going through endless canyons of high rise apartment and office buildings, and they do look endless. The icy humidity here penetrates every pore of my body as I rush headlong into a steaming cauldron of car exhaust and heavy morning commuter traffic, a world of angry honking dragons. Big dragon buses, their breaks farting, warn me of their approach from behind.
I am all tingling senses and coordination, alert, my head on a swivel. This is the best part of my day. I weave past the side mirrors of the cars. I am as invisible to them as a mouse is to an elephant. They cut me off, and pedestrians step right in front of me. I am a ghost from the time when thousands biked these roads to work, a mere apparition to the more alert. Not many bikes any more. Buses and cars have taken their place and made things easier.
The distance between cars and people is smaller here than in other places. Like machinery with tighter precision tolerances, everything is close together and everyone plays this game of brinkmanship, whether walking or driving. It is a world of very narrow misses, everyone rushing . In a country of more than a billion, hungry for centuries, the rule is whoever gets there first, gets the most. People push and they jostle and they cut each other off in traffic, they run stop signs, turn right on red without looking or stopping,and change lanes without signaling. And they honk. I have begun to take detours down less trafficked side streets.
Older buildings older people, poorer run-down places waiting to be bulldozed over by the new and shiny and modern as China leaves the past behind. I belong here, in the shabby run-down past. I like old stuff. The incredible shrinking China. Few people out, the street sweepers mindful of every candy wrapper and cigarette butt, the trash recycler cart dudes, the cardboard cart recycler dudes, weathered ruddy faces pushing and collecting, commuters, joggers and people at carts making food. Old Terra cotta-topped awnings, cracked sidewalks and dingy dirty cement buildings. I take it all in, I explore, my heart is a shining star still bright at sunrise. I am in China, when the world is turning in her direction. I am seeing it all.