30th May 2018
My brain was waking me up to something subtly, like a scent on the breeze: ‘I want you to pay attention; Something is new here’ it said to me.
Thanks brain, you caught me! – I had switched off after a boring 130km – Beijing city centre, suburb, outskirts, outskirts, suburb, Tianjin city centre – So what is it?
‘Not telling’, my brain seemed to say, ‘just know there is something I have noticed and you have not. Goodbye!’
So I was left with a feeling of novelty, a curious specific novelty even as much novelty has faded after 3 months in China. I felt it as I cycled down the one way streets, over the cobbles. And as I cycled past Marco Polo square. I felt it while beside the columned portico of a bank and as I passed the turrets of the Ritz. Probably just the thought of arriving in Tianjin, I thought – and this rather lovely riverside.
Well It doesn’t take a (concession era, European style) house to fall on me! I’ve reached the coast and with it comes an uptick of cosmopolitanism, buildings over 50 years old, European colonial influence, and certainly an affluence.
As well as the former concession era buildings that give a feeling of South Kensington, and Bank, there is Wudadao. Long time gentrified – plaques and maps indicate the houses of notables from the early 1900s – It is a place where brides pose before flower veiled walls, where through ajar gates, you see red brick detached houses with bay windows.
Atop this a modern gentrification sits. The tree dappled backstreets are full of little boutiques and craft beer bars behind renovated terrace facades. It has no edge; It feels given rather than taken. It has that Lego brick feel typical of Chinese renovation. It is touristy, and lively, and likeable.
At its heart is a small arcaded former running stadium, recently renovated. The arches now house Czech beer houses, and restaurants of the pizza-pasta-tiramisu type, coffee shops, ice cream stalls, bars, hair dressers, all new, some still opening.
The running track remains and on it, morning, noon and night, a non stop circumambulation takes place, an impromptu procession of individuals. It is almost religious! Chinese squares, parks and even pavements are ripe for people watching anywhere. Here though, sit back and the running track brings you a conveyor belt of characters. It reminds me of those old cine-reels of life in the east: slightly flickering, speeded up it always seems, capturing the activity of life. Though the activity has surely changed: it’s more cool than coolie now.
Women young and old stroll out for an evening constitutional and some chit-chat. Couples too, of course, these hand in hand, those with arms round shoulders, watching something on a phone. Most process in one direction, but not all. Nothing enforces the conformity. No-one tuts those not circulating normally.
Tall joggers, headphones swaying rhythmically, weave among the amblers. Old men jog too, shorter, much shorter, and with shorter shuffling steps. A younger woman in a floral dress power walks with swinging arms.
The conveyor belt continues – A blurry wash of individuality: tattoos, and torn pastel denim dungarees, wander past; yellow striped shoes walk on by – the 90s reprise.
A group of two men and a lady in dark blue suits follow the directions of a lively young lady in a high sleeveless black top, boxy leather satchel and just longer than short burgundy skirt.
An old lady in a wheel chair is pushed steadily by a younger man. Her gaze may be detached but ahead her old man joyfully takes photos of her in the bright sunshine.
A mother and 5 year old jog together, he ahead always just ahead, looking back, body arched, giggling – can’t catch me!
The sky shines blue. People in jeans and t-shirts, short shorts and conservative blouses lounge in stages down the ampithetre steps, boys play hide and seek breathlessly among them and a pair of young guys practise a synchronised hip hop routine under the watchful gaze of a friend who plays with the straw of her iced tea. Contentment like a London park on a sunny day.
A middle aged man raises a shopping bag to hide a quick kiss on his wife’s cheek.
Three teenage girls, young women already and all taller than me pass by discussing the best photo spots.
A boy with rollerblades and ice hockey stick faces his younger sister in goal. He controls the puck strikes it, she misses it, just. On it skids towards some locked railings and dark steps, under the railings it goes, slowing but not enough?…it teeters on the edge of the top step.
Under the arcades a crowd gather to listen to some old musicians – saxes and trumpets circle a precise gentleman guiding them with bouncing hands.
Still more. A boy lies prone in the keep-off-the-grass green lawn, a football under his chin casting a sugary smile for his mum’s camera.
Two western twentysomethings stand out only by their western mannerism: that happy reaching of bared shoulders to the kissing rays.
A girl perhaps 5 years old in a gauzy pearl white Sunday dress wobbles her scooter along the track.
A score is tied with string round one of the pillars; a young girl hunches against her violin scratching out the notes.
I sit at the edge, still in the sun, and watch, and ponder.
It’s baffling – there are 1.4 billion humans in China! I can’t even meaningfully imagine the 60 million humans in the UK. All so individual and so easily lost, unless someone is looking.
My brain interrupts. ‘Look up’, it says. I do, just in time to see my reflection, and the triple click of a camera shutter.
It’s flat here. At its best half-height green wheat stretches out in broad fields crossed with irrigating channels and disappear into an overcast sky. Mostly however It’s the featureless reality of rural sprawl.
It is densely populated but not evenly: life clusters in small cities which sprout from time to time from the same flatness.
These days are unrushed, a flat easy 80km today. I could go in any direction across this flat plain but Shanghai is south, perhaps 1000km or so south – not far.
30km in I stop for lunch – seafood or river food, It’s hard to tell – is laid out in plastic bowls on stools at the side of the room. Tasty, certainly and on I go.
25km of featurelessness later it’s time to check my bearings but my phone is playing up – my location is still frozen where I set off that morning. But at least straight roads are easy to navigate! On I go.
Further on, the classic ring roads start to intersect my straight road marking the arrival of a city. The wind is starting to pick up. it’s time to start figuring out where to stay for the night.
I must have lost my bearings slightly the signs are now showing north, I must have angled round one of the ring roads.
Better stop, don’t want to go round in circles! It’s funny how you can think you’re going straight and actually curve – they say when hikers lose themselves in a forest and try to walk straight out they in fact circle.
It really is incredible how uniform Hebei is -these cities are all so similar!
A nasty suspicion begins to dawn; This city isn’t just similar, it’s familiar!
I approach a young mechanic standing alongside a raised car, push through the surprise and the self conscious ‘I don’t speak English’ aversion of the gaze , catch his eye and with the intonation of a just arrived time traveller (“What year is this?!”) I ask where I am.
It’s official, I’m an idiot.
How should you react to spending hours cycling 60kms to get back exactly where you started? Perhaps it’s easier to take if you like cycling?
But I can’t show my feelings – how insulting to arrive unannounced, ask the poor guy where I am and then look utterly pissed off when he tells me his city name!
‘Jolly good!’ I instead try to express, as I pedal off into an increasing drizzle. Shanghai suddenly seems even further away than it did this morning.