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Riding the Red Dragon

I’ll be the first to admit: riding the Dragon’s back hasn’t exactly been a cakewalk. I’m not sure what I expected, having signed up to cycle across a country notoriously recognized for its uncanny ability to baffle and befuddle even the most seasoned of travelers.

How could I expect anything less from a place that brings us the Three Gorges Dam and donkey-drawn carts, Mao and McDonald’s, Starbucks and squatters? Not to mention the glitter and gloss of an uptown mall, where giant posters of stylish models bedecked in the latest fashions throw sidelong smiles and come-hither stares towards streets dripping with shoddy street vendors, stray dogs, and more knockoffs and knickknacks than a caffeine-crazed package-tourist could possibly purchase in a lifetime.

At times, it seems entirely plausible that China offers more anachronistic adventures than the language has characters. And this, I’ve discovered, is what drives travelers to endure the constant bumps and bruises of culture-clashing through modern China. Like a splash of ice-cold water on the face, China is continually at the ready to enliven your senses with double take moments of harebrained hilarity and eye-brow raising ridiculousness.

And the key to surviving (and albeit, cynically, enjoying) the Great China Adventure, as I have been painfully slow to learn, is to stoically accept, and maybe in hindsight chuckle about over a cold beer with fellow survivors, those icy sneak attacks from China’s stockpile of the strange and unexpected.

I’m slowly warming up to the idea that ‘why’ is seldom a clarifying question in this place. I would like to blame my atrocious lack of finesse with the language, but I’m beginning to think that’s only half the story. Consider the following:

Having survived a day of cycling through all the dust and dirt China’s illustrious oil refineries had on tap, we found ourselves trudging up the stairs of a small-town, but curiously four star, hotel in desperate need of a hot shower. (Side-note: one of the plastic pentagrams on the reception wall hung slightly askew, perhaps a sign we should have taken less lightly).

Upon careful inspection (turning on the hot water tap) my roommate and I quickly realized that a hot shower was not, to our great chagrin, on the menu. Tails between our legs, we made the long trek two doors down to our other teammates, hoping to share our miserable story and take comfort in their similar sadness. We were more than a little bit miffed when we showed up and noticed steam wasn’t just coming from between our ears, it was billowing forth from beneath the bathroom door!

“Are you kidding me?!” I sob-screamed. “What’s up with that? You guys have hot water, and we don’t? [Insert four letter word] this is ridiculous, I’m going to talk to the manager!”

I’m not sure what I thought I would accomplish by ‘talking’ to the manager, but anger and utter exhaustion propelled me to believe I could scale the barrier of communication armed with little other than hand gestures and dirty looks. And if things got really bad, I could always muster up a few tears.

But, when I sauntered up to the desk of this three and a half star hotel, the manager, a rather young but remarkably dour looking creature, seemed unperturbed by the daggers I was throwing in her direction.

“Hot water mei you. Friends hot water. Okay?” she smiled excitedly, happy she’d resolved the situation so tactfully.

On principle, I decided to take a hard line with her. Of course it wasn’t okay. We were paying the same amount for each room. If we weren’t going to get hot water, then shouldn’t we pay less?

My feeble attempt to tell her what’s what quickly crumbled, rapidly descending into arm waving, more daggers, and eventually, sadly, silence. I gave up and stormed off to begrudgingly enjoy my cold shower.

I can’t say I was particularly delighted at dinner, when the inhabitants of the hot water room spent the better half of the meal extolling the life enhancing properties of hot water and soap. I was, however, ever so slightly amused when I awoke the next morning to a fully functional hot water shower. Apparently we did have hot water; it just happened to work at the convenience of penny-pinching proprietors rather than tight-fisted, but paying, travelers.

I was over the moon when I emerged from the steam and soap to find two slightly downtrodden blokes draped on the beds bemoaning the fact that their shower no longer offered the luxurious hot water they’d so enjoyed the night before. I guess what goes around comes around when you’re subject to the whims of Chinese customer service.

At the risk of repeating myself, I’ll say it again: Why is not a clarifying question in China.

If you don’t leave a bit more confused than when you arrived, then you haven’t tasted all the wildly different flavors of peculiarity this country has to offer. China is undeniably the Baskin Robins of cultural conundrums.

Little illustrates this observation better than the bewildering English translations that accompany many Chinese road signs. What’s the meaning of, “Refuse to forget fatigue driving,” or “Motor vehicles will be super strong”?

Perhaps, for anyone looking to maintain a shred of sanity in this land of perpetual perplexity, it’s best to just go with the flow. I haven’t even made it halfway across this country, but I’m quickly learning to acknowledge and adapt, to extend the parameters I’ve put around my understanding of ‘normal’. China is a beast that plays by its own rules. And, as one road sign so eloquently explains, we travelers should simply:

Follow these rules from time to time.

And maybe make up a few of our own along the way.

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