A Country Market

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河北省

May 3: A Country Market

The sun burns away the satiny morning haze and a landscape of jagged mountain peaks bite into the skyline like a line of pointy crooked teeth. Down another set of switchbacks they fall from view and then the crazy mountain peaks appear again, then there's another valley, and another roller-coaster rise with a view of the peaks, and so on, for forty kilometers. The air-cooled motorcycle purrs in the morning chill and I'm so intrigued by the landscape that all my worries of yesterday simply melt away.

On a downhill switchback I overtake a man holding a wooden cart ahead of him, but just barely. The cart is filled with straw to cushion two long tree trunks which are bouncing and sliding. He man's hands so tightly grip the handles that his knuckles are white. He looks up when he hears me decelerate and I hope that I haven't surprised him so much that he dumps the cart, or falls over the cliff.

The man returns to my thoughts every time I reach the bottom or the top of another hill. I wonder how he's going to manage pushing and pulling his heavy load up and down this one, and the next. There is no obvious destination until finally, after a few more sets of switchbacks I emerge into a wide valley and a beehive of human activity. On the banks at the curve of a wide, dry riverbed a farmer's market is in full swing. Riding across a massive concrete bridge I get a bird's-eye view of the rows and rows of tables full of fruits and vegetables, cooking fires, and a colorful jumble of plastic goods. The scent of sweet dough mingles with the smell of animal manure and dust.

I park between a dilapidated three-wheeled diesel truck and a donkey cart under the shade of a cluster of trees. The donkey high-steps and rolls its eyes at me, then brays and bucks, stepping backwards which knocks the cart into a tree and suddenly I am surrounded by a crowd of people and then more people surging in waves, hemming me in so tightly that there's no room to dismount.

After taking my helmet off and removing the key I just step down, despite the crowd, and space magically appears. Nobody returns my greeting, it's the bike they're looking at. Even though it's Chinese, it attracts attention because it's a big antique motorcycle with a powerful 750cc motor and a sidecar, and it's absolutely enormous in comparison to the little 125cc bikes they putt around on.

I leave them with a sigh, knowing that they'll squeeze the brake and clutch levers, maybe even fiddle with the idle screw, tap the odometer glass, and they'll certainly peek under the sidecar cover, maybe try on my helmet. I'm attempting to learn to live with it.

The marketplace is a big mess of tables and piles of goods overlooking the dry riverbed, stacked wherever there's a flat piece of ground. There are food stalls, fruit and vegetable vendors, stacks of twigs, plastic goods in primary colors, and baby animals in cardboard boxes. People stare at me but they're also busy buying and selling. Its likely that most have traveled very far on foot, bicycle, or donkey cart in the pitch black morning to get here.

To orient myself I walk down the bank to the river, stumbling over sharp white rocks to find a spot where I can scan the landscape. This must be an awesome river in rainy season, I think, with the bridge I crossed curving over it so high. In contrast to the trees I parked under on higher ground, all of the vegetation on the banks is young. It must flood regularly, and spectacularly. 

 I pull my binoculars out of my inner pocket but fail to find any villages or signs of human activity anywhere, not even a trail of smoke from a cooking fire. But there aren't enough vehicles parked here to have carried so many people and I haven't seen any buses on the road so I wonder how often this happens. Clearly this market is an important event. Maybe there are marriages being arranged. Certainly there are flirtations. A teenage boy and girl stroll out to get some alone time and stare a moment, surprised when they realize I'm not Chinese. Then the boy pushes the girl toward me. She stumbles and screams, then turns and hits him and runs away, laughing. Clearly, a match in the making.

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