The Wild Wild West

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The Wild Wild West

河北省

May 5: Lost, then Jinning and Hohhot

It's the wild wild west of old American television, except the hero is a Chinese guy riding a motorcycle up to bust the Ma Jong game and the saloon gal is dealing cards on an upside-down crate at the noodle stand. It's lunchtime, and everyone's just hanging out watching the traffic splash by. This town is full of farm folk. Ma and Pa ride in to sell cabbages and cucumbers piled up neatly in their donkey cart with narrow wheels that dig the ruts in the road even deeper. Adolescent boys loiter around a blind curve by a huge mud hole. I see the boys before I see the mud hole and apply the brakes in a panic, realizing too late why they're there. The sidecar wheel falls into the hole, mud flies and the hole yanks the whole bike to the right. I overcompensate and the bike is yanked left and the wheels scoop up the puddle of mud and splashes it up onto my leg. It's all I can do to regain control of the 800-pound motorcycle, but I manage to get myself running straight down the road again. The boys clap and shout after me as I ride on, swearing into my helmet, but more slowly now, having learned this same lesson the hard way, one more time.

Cowboy truckers take that mud hole like it's nothing, hauling-ass through town with loads of sheepskins and hay where the road is squeezed like a corseted waist. Their wheels spatter mud on the people and the carts and onto the dirty little storefronts. There's not even room for a sidewalk.

Just before the middle of town I get stuck behind a truck hogging the entire street. It is his right as the biggest thing on it. There is no way to pass as he keeps swerving erratically to avoid the deep potholes on the dirt road. The load is extremely heavy, a neat rectangle of boxes roped down tightly with cheap plastic tarps in various shades of blue. Most trucks are loaded casually, to put it mildly, leaving a trail of coal, bricks, chickens, propane tanks, whatever, in the road behind them. Not this one.

The road narrows and potholes increase. We make our way slowly, the truck swaying right and left like a tipsy dancer, causing bicyclists and pedestrians to duck and huddle into doorways as he waltzes drunkenly through town. The road narrows even more as storefronts squeeze the road ever tighter and then another big blue truck comes tearing at us from the other direction. At the very last minute he slows, seeing the dangerous swaying of the tall load, but he doesn't quite stop. Pedestrians dive into doorways and bicyclists flatten themselves against walls as traffic comes to a complete standstill. The trucks, neither of them willing to stop completely, inch past each other. I see the driver's hand, clutching a cigarette, in his large, side view mirror, and part of his face as the first half of their truck beds pass with only a breath between them. But the left front wheel hits a pothole and the whole thing swings over into the other guy's truck bed. Their metal mesh sides smack together and mate.

The drivers, who were coolly smoking cigarettes with their elbows out the windows now jerk their arms in and clench their teeth around their cigarette butts. As in a synchronized ballet, they stretch their necks outside the cab windows and turn their heads to look behind them. As if on a cue, every onlooker shouts instructions. I shut off the ignition as it's clear that this is going to take a while, and there is no question of going anywhere, movement through town is completely stopped, with no room for even a pedestrian to pass, and I am hemmed in by a dozen cyclists.

With their truck beds practically welded together you'd think they'd stop to discuss the situation, but the drivers do not speak to each other. Instead, both simply shove their transmissions into reverse and shove their gas pedals to the floor. Startled, I start the CJ as fast as I can and shove it into reverse, ignoring the fact that bicyclists surround me. Survival of the biggest is my right, too, and the bicyclists scramble in retreat, some using the sidecar as a launching pad. We are all in motion but the trucks' engines just screech and their wheels spin, sending mud flying. The truck beds shudder and bang and rattle and, as I've only cleared the area by about 10 feet, I'm calculating plan B – looking at the sidewalk and the nearest open doorway to launch myself into when I have to sacrifice the CJ and run for my life. 

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