At -21°C, snow doesn’t melt. It gets packed down into a lethal sheet of ice with a density roughly equivalent to that of neutronium, stained shiny black by the pollution that settles gently out of the skies like fine rain. No gritter lorries here in NW China – just workgangs of poor, dishevelled bastards in padded cotton jackets, chipping away at the road with dinged up shovels. Welcome to the daily commute in downtown Urumqi.
There are big mountains out there. I know this is true. I saw them with my own eyes, red in the sunset just before the plane dipped into the smog bubble that hangs permanently over the city at this time of year. I haven’t seen them since I landed, but when things warm up I will get out into them. I mutter this to myself as I ride to work each day.
Eastern China is a couple of international time zones behind Beijing, but monolithic communist states are not known for their laissez affair approach to decentralised government. Result: the sun rises through the haze at about 09:30, and that’s when the day creaks into action. I typically carry the bike down six flights of stairs from where I am living, pause to throw my rubbish into the communal midden, then pick up a bag of hot breakfast dumplings from the stall in the alley. 30p gets you a feast of spicy meat that sets you up for the day, then it’s time to hit the ice.
I try and vary the route when I can. The backstreets are more interesting, markets and temples tucked away between the crumbling concrete beloved of all commie countries. However, they’re also the most icy, so increasingly I find myself duelling with the maniacs on Urumqi’s main thoroughfares. This takes me through Peoples’ Square past the ice sculptures illuminated by their internal fairy lights. Vendors sell ice creams from carts, just what you need at -20C. Apparently, they don’t sell ice cream during the summer when deprived of nature’s refrigerator – makes me wonder whether they’ve really quite got the hang of this ‘market economy’ thing yet after all. When I buy my beers for 20p a litre on the way home, the quickest way to cool them down is to open the window and pop them on the ledge for 10 minutes.
Can you see the theme that’s developing here…?
The main roads in Chinese cities usually have wide cycle lanes down each side, often wider than the actual roads and separated from them by lines of trees. When I first came to China 12 years ago, these lanes were packed with cyclists madly ringing their bells at each other. However, modern China has little use for bikes, and today’s cyclists are the poor and dispossessed, cringing along on the pavement while taxis and buses roar at will along the cycle lanes. I don’t subscribe to this point of view. Unwilling to risk the uncleared ice of the pavements and cycle lanes, I am also the traffic. Oddly enough, the taxis and buses don’t seem too keen on this. I console myself with the thought that at least I’m putting more work the way of Urumqi’s panel beaters and bodywork shops.
This evening’s commute back home was particularly cold. A poor choice of glove had me dancing round the flat half an hour ago, yelping and cursing as the blood flowed back into my dead, bone white fingertips. It’s Buffalo mitt time tomorrow, all praise the mighty thumbshifter that makes this possible. The bike is coping OK, although the freewheel seemed to be sticking yesterday. I think it may be the grease within the pawls freezing up, or maybe freezing chain links. It’s not really an issue. I’m too busy concentrating on keeping the bike upright when I go round corners, spinning in a low gear on the flat and gingerly squeezing the brake levers only when absolutely necessary. What I need is a trike, like the old bicycle carts that weave through the taxis and buses. Many of them have been retrofitted with puttering old engines, leaving their riders free to huddle up on the seats in their Army surplus kit. I hitched a ride off one yesterday on the way home, hanging onto the rear rail and getting towed along in his wake.
Another couple of months and I’ll have more to report – big plans for a trip south and west across the Tien Shan mountains in April/May. Only problem is, by then I may have the wasted chicken leg muscles of a southerner. Puk-awk!