Biking Across China, Episode 8: She’s a Boy

Cycling across China solo as a woman. Sound awful? Amazing? Terrifying? It’s all of those.

Yuzhong
榆中县
0 km // 5 days

Don’t You Have Any Friends Here?

Gone.

One of the worst case scenarios that I had tried so hard to persuade myself wouldn’t happen, had happened.

I stood there staring stupidly at the tree where I had left her, so hidden away and yet evidently not hidden away enough. I couldn’t move. All I felt was disappointment in myself, drenching me in so much shame that my legs felt heavy.

The man who had driven me here from the station had followed me over, and in the distance I heard his voice trying to console me. I was silent, wishing he wasn’t present for what felt like a moment of very private grief. What could I or he possibly say that would have any use?

“Some kids must have taken it. They’ll want to ride it for themselves, you know. It’s just been the holiday and all. They will have seen it, seen that no-one was watching it, and started to get ideas.”

Kids? I thought Chinese kids all stayed at home or went to bubble tea stores, not hung out in trash covered fields littered with bottles like this.

My lip trembled. She was probably lying in a pile, scratched and broken, in some horrible 15 year old boy’s basement. Or worse, in a random field somewhere, smashed and then given up on by someone who had no idea of the things she and I had been through, no idea of her worth. How could we have crossed hundreds of kilometres together – conquered the Minle mountains and Gansu deserts – to end like this?

My mind filled with images of a group of high schoolers bashing at her heavy red lock with metal bars, hacking her paint to pieces. They wouldn’t have been able to ride her without the axles, which I still had in my bag. What if they tried to put the wheel on and then fell as they tried to ride her?They probably would have got sick of her, and thrown her in a ditch somewhere to rot. I teared up. You were supposed to look out for her. Why did you leave her here?

“Why did you leave her here? You should have left it in a house somewhere, you could have paid someone to keep it for a few days. Or the police.” He seemed genuinely concerned. He was probably embarrassed. He had told me he was from this township, and it hardly reflected well on his hometown. “In China, it’s the places with no people that are dangerous,” he added.

I knew that he meant well, but I was sick and tired of being told what the country I had lived in for almost half my life was or wasn’t. What good did it do now to discuss what I should or shouldn’t have done? Unable to conjure a reply, I walked off. The taxi driver followed.

“What are you going to do?” 

I ignored him, looking toward the buildings of the town a few kilometres away. She had to be here somewhere. I would stay and find her.

“How many people live in this town?” I asked.

“Er…not a lot. About… four hundred thousand?” 

I sighed. That was the size of my home city in the UK. I hated myself for my negligence and ridiculous overconfidence in China’s low crime rate. How could I have been so stupid? 

“You should’ve just found somebody to look after it for you. Don’t you have any friends here?” 

“I don’t know anybody here.” I replied, my voice cracking. I wanted to be angry, but there wasn’t much space for anger amongst all the loss and shame. You could’ve left it in a bike shop, easily. My chest hurt. The greatest pain was knowing that it was my fault.

I decided I would scour the streets of Yuzhong. She had to be here. I was damned if I was going to give her up without a fight. 

The driver was trying his best to help in the helpless situation. “It was obviously taken by someone nearby. You should go and ask for the CCTV at the station. You could ask around the houses but – you know what it’s like – they probably won’t tell you.”

What it’s like. He was referring to the keep schtum policy of China’s tight knit village communities. If someone from outside came in asking about a crime – even the police – you could practically bet your life savings that nobody would say a word. 

Eventually, with nothing left to comment on and no way he could help, the kindly driver drove away. I walked around in something like a daze, looping the station three times to see if she had been dumped nearby. I even went back to the tree, wondering if I could have simply remembered the location wrong; but there was nothing.

Except…there was something! I yelped for joy as I saw something I recognised. My helmet lay upside down several metres away down the hill. I had locked it to Lan Lan’s frame when I left. The thief must have thrown it away in frustration while struggling to break the lock. I picked it up and cradled it, grateful at least for a piece of proof that I wasn’t crazy.

There was nothing else to be found, though, and the station staff told me any CCTV was under the jurisdiction of the local government, not theirs.

I took a taxi to the only bike shop in town, reasoning that if I wanted to sell a bike, this was probably the first place I would go. 

“Hi. Do you sell second hand bikes here?”

“Wow! Your Chinese is really good. Uh, no, only new bikes here. Nobody really sells second hand in this town. Are you after an older bike?”

I briefly, tiredly explained the situation to the bike shop owner. He was short and quite round in the stomach, but he was kind and friendly, and clearly knew his bikes well. His hands and clothes were smudged with oil, and certificates and photos of cycling events through the years hung on the walls. Two young children milled about nearby, one girl in school uniform, one toddling around in a fluffy pink tracksuit and tiny slippers.

“What! What did you leave it there for? Some school kid will have taken it, I’m telling you. You should’ve come and left it with someone. In China, you have to leave things in the open where lots of people can see them. That’s where it’s safe. Or you could’ve left it with – ”

“I know.”I cut him off, pained. “I know. Believe me, I regret it now. But it’s already happened. What I need to focus on now is how to solve the problem.”

With effort, the bike shop owner swallowed down the multiple other things he was clearly thinking.

“Can I leave my bags here? I want to go and look by the schools,” I said quietly.

“What, just outside? Would you find it? If someone’s taken it, all they’d have to do is hide it away in their apartment complex. You’ll have no way of seeing inside.”

“I know. But I have to try.”

I walked slowly between the town’s three high schools, my head jerking suspiciously in the direction of any bike I saw, scanning every street I passed, hoping to spot some kid riding her along the street. There were a lot of bikes around, but they were all built differently from Lan Lan, with boxy aluminium frames and oldschool brakes. Most were old, and none had anything similar to her distinctive curved handlebars. She would stick out like a sore thumb. All I had to do was set eyes on her.

Once I had circled the schools to no avail, I started weaving in and out of any nearby apartment blocks I could find my way into, looking through the numerous doorways and biycle sheds. There were thousands of places Lan Lan could be hidden, if she was even in an apartment block in the school district. In the whole city, there were far too many complexes for me to even make a dent in the map; and if it were me, I wouldn’t put my brand new stolen bicycle somewhere obvious. I refused to recognise the futility of my task for hours. 

It started to get late.

There was only one hotel in Yuzhong that accepted foreigners: the inexplicably enormous Longxin International, where the room prices were triple my budget. Too numb to feel the sting of financial salt on the wound, and on some level grateful for the efficient service that always comes with an expensive hotel, I put my bags down and headed, resigned, to the police station. 

After being directed from one police station to another – the crime had happened in the rural train station district, not the city district, so I needed to report it there instead – I sat in a room busy with policemen and several buzzing flies. They had just had a power cut, so we would have to go somewhere else to look at the CCTV. I got into the back of an old black car with two officers in the front, and we drove speedily over roads that they clearly knew well, chatting about my journey, coronavirus, the complexity of the Chinese language, the inferiority of Western governments. 

Their easy manner and the by-now-predictable similarities in conversation topics reminded me of the escort I had taken with the three chatty, smoking policemen across the mountains of Minle a couple of weeks before. My new convoy assured me that if caught, my bike thief would go to prison. What? I don’t want that, I thought miserably. Why does it have to be such high stakes? I just wanted my bike back. 

We arrived at another seat of law enforcement, a large grey building with the typical stamp of Communist party insignia above its looming doorway. Inside, it was less imposing; the light grey walls were bare and most of the rooms were empty. I sat in a chair and somebody gave me a paper cup of tea. I stared at the cookie-cutter party slogan stamped onto the wall opposite in bright red plastic characters. “Remove black elements from society! Strike with a heavy hand against harmful persons and practices!” Specific.

Explaining what had happened for the fourth time, I watched a young man type up my story into an interview, inventing a dialogue between the two of us where he plugged in my answers about the crime into a neat back and forth script. Is that legal? Around me, the usual jokes were cracked about whose English was best and worst. I was too drained to care what they said, feeling wretched as I scrolled through my phone to find pictures of Lan Lan to give as evidence.

After two hours or so, office hours were over. They asked me where I was staying, raising their eyebrows at the mention of the expensive Longxin.

“Wow. Nice place.” I hummed my agreement. Not like I had a choice.

Too Depressed to Move

When I woke up the next day in my ridiculously oversized and expensive bed, I felt too depressed to move. Why bother getting up? I was on a bike trip, and I had lost my bike. Not just any bike, the voice in my head reminded me, and a fresh load of self-loathing washed over me.

I shuffled over to the other side of my hotel room – no small feat in this palatial residence – and stared out of the window at the small, bland buildings of the town below. There was a square ideal for shadowboxing just across the road, I noticed, unable to summon the will to actually go there. I stood like this for some time, leaning against the window, holding a cup of tea until it went cold and thinking about nothing.

Eventually, my phone rang. Mr Li from the final police building I had been in told me he was on his way, and he and one other officer arrived several minutes later to dust my helmet for fingerprints. Fingerprints? I was impressed. If you asked for fingerprints to be taken for a stolen bike case in the UK, the police would laugh in your face. If I had known they’d do that, I wouldn’t have touched it.

We returned to the scene of the crime, seeming to absorb more people into our troupe as we went. They must not get a lot of crime in this town, I thought as I led what had become a team of 7 men, two police trucks and a sniffer dog through the nondescript trash heap by Yuzhong station where I had locked Lan Lan a week before.

7 men, two trucks and a dog

“You put it all the way back here? It’s so far away from the road,” one officer exclaimed as he walked unsteadily over bits of rock and broken glass.

“Yeah. I thought so too,” I said glumly. This, at least, made a few of them laugh.

An older man I hadn’t seen before held the excited sniffer dog on a taut leash, and asked me a rapid string of questions in dialect. I looked blankly at the other officers. I guessed he was their superior, as nobody seemed willing to imply his Chinese was poor by providing me with a translation. We all looked at each other in a bizarre standoff for a few seconds, before I apologised for not having understood the question, providing an opening for another officer to speak.

“Has anyone else touched the helmet? How long ago did you leave it here? Are you sure it was that tree?”

The questions did nothing in the end. The hyperactive dog ran around in circles, stopping twice to urinate, finding nothing. I hadn’t expected it to. It could easily have been a week or more since the thief had been here.

Mr. Li and his team of other officers wandered around the trash heap, nosing at bits of rubbish. It was very touching to feel like a priority, but even I could see that without direct CCTV, the chances of finding anything were slim.

One noticed that a pile of rubble not far from the tree was relatively fresh, and put forward the theory that made most sense to me: a construction worker had come here to dump a truckload of building site waste, caught a glimpse of the bike, and used cutter tools already with him to take the bike. Closed up in the back of a truck, even CCTV couldn’t spot her.

Jacky

I stayed in the Yuzhong hotel for four days, pacing around my enormous hotel room and soaking in the bathtub that was far too big for one person.

I wanted to stay here and pressure the police until the bike was found, but that was not a short term project, and staying in this hotel would raze through my savings in matter of weeks. Not to mention the fact that it was only getting colder, and I was now two weeks behind schedule, far further north than I wanted to be at this time of year.

With a heavy heart, I realised that if I wanted to continue my journey, I would have to buy a new bike.

Feeling like I was betraying a lover, I tried out several bikes at the bike shop in town. Their wheels were thick, and their frames were light but wide, supported by extensive suspension. Everything looked ugly, though I knew this was an emotional aversion to anything too different from Lan Lan’s familiar, graceful steel. Grudgingly, I admitted that the top-of-the-range bike on offer was impressively light, and I liked that it used a single speed chainset. One less thing to go wrong.

We agreed on a price, and I sat on a stool playing with the bike shop owner’s daughters as he fitted my new purchase with a pannier rack, better pedals and bottle holders.

“Why can you speak such good Chinese?” The older daughter asked.

“I studied it at school for a long time,” I said, making her little sister laugh with a funny face as she climbed on my knee.

“Do people ride bikes a lot in your country?”

“Yes, people love riding bikes in the UK. Especially people’s Dads.”

“How many bicycles are there in the UK?”

“I don’t know. At least a few tens of thousands,” I said, genuinely stumped. “You can ride a bike too, right? What colour’s your bike?”

“Pink.”

“What colour is your helmet?”

“Pink.”

“Is pink your favourite colour?” I laughed. The tiny girl on my knee laughed too, making me miss the classes of 5 year olds I had taught English too last year.

“Yes,” she said seriously. “Isn’t pink your favourite colour?”

“No. I don’t really like pink,” I said honestly. Am I really going to get into a discussion with a 6 year old about how I think girls are told to like pink because its feminine?

“Why are your shoes pink, then?” I looked down. She was right. Beneath the grime, the shoes I had bought in a random shop to replace by battered Asics were indeed a pastel grey-pink.

“Maybe I like pink more than I thought. You’ve got sharp eyes. I bet you do do well at school.” The girl smiled shyly, hiding her face behind her forearm.

By the time the bike was ready to go, I had decided her black and neon green patterns were far more masculine than Lan Lan’s. She’s a boy, I thought. A tomboy, just like me. I cast about for a male name; Jack was the first one that came to mind.

Come on, then, Jacky. Nothing else for it. It was time to get back on the road.

Jacky with Yuzhong in the background

Really Bloody Cold

The roads were steep, but it felt good to be using my legs again. Jacky didn’t ride as smoothly as Lan Lan, I found to my dismay. My movements felt slow and clumsy, like something was missing. It hurt to move further and further away from the town where I strongly suspected Lan Lan still was, but there was no other option.

Eager to sleep in my tent again to dispel the ostentatious luxury of the Longxin hotel and it’s bathtub, I set up camp on a flat, grassy portion of a steep hillside, overlooking two train tracks.

As night fell, it started to get cold. Really, really cold. So cold that it took me a long time to fall asleep, because I was shivering and had to clamber out of my sleeping bag to put on another layer of clothes. Again I cursed the person who had stolen Lan Lan, angry now that they had made me miss the last leg of summer, before correcting my thoughts. The whole thing was my fault, and I had to take responsibility for it whether I liked it or not. Surprisingly, that did not make me feel better. 

As the night dragged on, numbing my feet, I wondered whether was going to have strength to brave this cold for another 900 kilometres to Chengdu. People told me that it would be warmer there, but the journey would take me 14 days at least, and I wasn’t sure how long I could go on if every night was going to be like this. What if I froze to death in my sleep?

I googled symptoms of hypothermia, somewhat comforted by the number one symptom of “uncontrollable shivering”. I wasn’t shivering uncontrollably. I’d be fine.

The two train tracks near me served both the high-speed trains and regular ones, and both rushed by at regular intervals through the night. I’ve always been an easy sleeper, so the sound didn’t bother me; but out in the cold of the night, the yellow warmth on the other side of the windows looked cruelly inviting.

You might not be having fun now, but this is temporary, I told myself. It was always going to be hard. I refused to give up, so my only choice was to keep going. It’s going to be alright.

The Most Beautiful Road in the World

One of the most breathtaking roads I had ever seen

When dawn finally broke, the next stretch of road towards Dingxi took me up a daunting climb. I followed a fairly busy roads until my map told me to turn right into an alleyway so nondescript I missed it twice.

With some trepidation, I followed the map’s directions, and the road snaked out of the small town, taking me though a patch of fields and then straight up into the hills behind them. An incline so sharp that I had to get off and walk led, after half an hour or so, to one of the most breathtaking roads I had ever seen.

A single, well-paved road glided along the long ridge of the hill I had just climbed, surrounded on both sides by miles of terraced mountain fields and bursting with autumn orange. A car passed once every ten minutes or so, and it was blissfully quiet.

Bursting with autumn orange

I paused to take photos and breathe in the fresh, leafy air, feeling lucky to be alive and humbled to be here, doing something I loved in such a beautiful place.

It was all going to be alright.

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