Cycling for a Better World

In western China there aren't many cars – yet. This is good, because the shiny new road system is usually very quiet, outside of the towns.  But, in Western China there often isn't much in the way of vegetation either. This is bad, because the wind can sweep across the landscape without impediment and this usually means that it blows in the face of any cyclist it can find. After half a day cycling into a strong headwind anything that will lessen its impact starts to look like a very good idea.

I should say right now that drafting vehicles is wrong. It's a risky business, mainly because the driver of the vehicle in front may not have heard of 'mirror, signal, manoeuvre '. In fact they may not get to the mirror part (what mirror?) before hauling on the brakes or hanging a sharp right that leaves you with nowhere to go except the hospital (what hospital?).  Even if the driver is one of China's finest, most skilled driving instructors, with awards to prove it, the bulk of the vehicle will hide any potholes ahead. This could result in you leaving the bike at speed, perhaps using a triple somersault, pike and tuck, before face-planting onto the tarmac. If this happens the best you can hope for is a 9.9 from the schoolchildren judges.

In Western China there may not be many cars on the road but there are a LOT of tractors. Usually small ones, sometimes just little three wheelers, they are owned by family farms. These slow but sturdy vehicles are just as likely to pull a trailer as a plough. And they are used for everything    a mobile fruit and veg store;  as a taxi to take the family to market all dressed up in their smartest cloths; or for carrying bales of cotton so big it looks like the tractor is lost and inside a low flying cloud. Puttering along on the hard shoulder they can seem homely and unthreatening. So, one breezy day when a trailer of parsnips cruised past me as I peddled in slow motion, it looked very tempting…

Catching up wasn't too difficult. It wasn't going very fast and as I got closer I could feel the bike becoming cocooned in its slipstream. A little pocket of calm away from the torment of the wind. Almost as if I could take my feet off the pedals and the parsnip tractor would draw me along in its wake. I relaxed & started to look around, just making a token effort at peddling – for appearances sake.

On the tractor sat a husband and wife with their pile of parsnips. The wife was driving, huddled like some Chinese babushka inside layers of padding and scarves, protection against the crisp autumn chill. The husband was on the trailer, dressed in an old dark suit & battered hat, sitting on top of the parsnips with a fine view of the road and surrounding countryside. At first neither one noticed me. No problem. I assumed they were off to make a local delivery & this would only be a brief encounter.

At the next village the tractor was slowed by the local traffic and I pulled ahead, refreshed & ready to tackle the wind again. But on the road out of town I heard the asthmatic chug of the engine as it approached and I was soon back in the calm cocoon, waving nonchalantly at my fellow cyclists as I passed. This time the man recognised me and gave a reserved wave. I waved back, grinning inanely and grateful for the help. He nudged his wife who was clearly not impressed by the idiot westerner and went back to her driving.

The undertake, overtake, wave and grin manoeuvre was repeated with each town for maybe an hour and a half. More time and distance than I could have hoped for and by this time I was very happy indeed and wanted to say thanks. But how? My Chinese vocabulary focused mainly on beer, food & internet cafes.

Acting on instinct I pulled out when the road cleared and cycled furiously to get alongside the trailer. Once there I held out the only possible thank you gift I had – a cereal bar.  It seemed a pretty uninspired gift but the man on top of the parsnips reached down, caught the bar and started to study it as I retreated, panting, into the slipstream. Next he turned to his wife and they discussed the cereal bar for some time. I'm not sure what they made of the gift but after a while he reached down, selected a vegetable from the pile and offered it to me in return. It was the only present he had available.

There was more waving and grinning, then shortly afterwards the tractor turned off down a side road and I was left battling with the headwind. It didn't matter. Life was good and by then I was almost home. I kept the parsnip for a couple of days but it was never going to be a family heirloom and got lost somewhere along the way. The memory has lasted a lot longer and is one of the clearest recollections I have from the Silk Route. Funny how the world always seems better when I'm cycling.  

    — Clive Carnighan (Silk Route 2008)

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