Having reached the new shores of Liaoning, we make a fresh start and agree on two basic precepts: from now on the family stays and bikes together; and we take it easy, without sticking to any strict plans or maps. The last would be anyway impossible to do, because we are left without navigation. The only mobile on which it worked fall weeks ago on the road and broke; our backup – the tablet,- emerged one evening from the bag with a shattered screen; while the satellite maps downloaded on the GPS display a network of roads, but neither their names, nor the towns. Our map of Liaoning province is almost useless, as it focuses on highways and interstates. We will simply bike in general direction Beijing – that is to say, first in direction north, along the length of the Liaodong peninsular, then make an arch direction west, then bike southwards again, along the western coast of the bay. And above all, we will enjoy the rest of the trip and remain open to whatever comes along.
While strolling among the peaceful gardens in central Dalian I start to notice, however, some ominous signs. The streets here are much, much narrower than in the cities we have been passing through. This is well understandable in a town which is situated at the tip of a peninsular and is squeezed between the sea and the mountains. Not only are the streets narrow, but they also lack biking lanes. For that matter, they also lack bikes, even the elsewhere ubiquitous scooters. Instead, they are jammed with busses and cars which seem to follow no particular traffic rules.
We have been through some rough city biking in the past weeks – in downtown Shanghai during the peak hours; or in central Nanjing, where Volker had to negotiate our way through endless entanglements of scooters, pedestrians, tricycles, right-turners and cars pulling out with drivers not even casting a look behind. I have got accustomed to the first law of dynamics in a Chinese traffic system: move in a way as to create maximum impact in your environment. In practice this means: when parking or stopping a car, stop diagonally, preferably blocking two traffic lanes. Once you have overtaken another vehicle, slow down abruptly in front of it. And don’t forget to overtake from the right whenever possible! When you turn right, no need to slow down or bother to look who is beside you – the other driver has breaks too!
In case of pedestrians: move slowly in the middle of the biking lane, best in groups of 3 and 4, and don’t budge an inch when a bike tries to squeeze by. If you are on a scooter, you might consider driving against the traffic current. And never let driving impede your social activities: while pulling out in a car or on a motorbike, you could still hold a mobile to your ear and a cigarette in your mouth.
I also learned to put up with the main principle of the Chinese road – “I don’t care, – somebody else should take care!” Apparently somebody else always does, for within five weeks we have witnessed merely two minor incidents. And I have reluctantly accepted the futility of ringing the huge retro bike-bell, which would cause a milder heart attack in any tourist on Potsdamer Platz, but goes unnoticed in the cacophony of honking and shouting here.
Sure our exit from Dalian can’t be worse than this. Well, it could,- and it was.
We have agreed on the quickest possible exit out of town – even if this means taking the interstate northwards instead of the much more spectacular, but also longer coastal road. Once we turned towards the north, however, the Day of Jesus Ascension became for us the Day of Descent to Traffic Hell. Our road leads along the highway, elevated on a bridge– and empty!!! For some unfathomable reason (could it be highway toll?) all cars, city busses, overloaded trucks, cement mixers, jam on the narrow street here below. Bus after bus, heading to their stops, cut in front of us and squeeze us away from the curb, right into the middle of the heavy vehicle jumble. Our tandem suddenly feels so tiny and vulnerable here, walled between towering busses on the right and thundering trucks on the left, with cars attempting to zigzag in between. Through the roar of engines come Volker’s urgent shouts: “Don’t try to balance!” “Just don’t balance!”, while my head resounds with the mantra “Don’t Panic! Don’t Panic! ” The advice for the Hitchhiker through the Universe suddenly pops up in mind: “Keep your towel ready!” At least the towel is close by, hanging from the left bag.
I don’t dare to think how the kids fare back down in the trailer, flanked by rows of rolling tires, with each passing vehicle discarding a dose of black fumes and gravel into their faces. As in the few critical situations earlier on, the usual whimpering from behind has ceased. “Das ist aber blöd!”- is all Sarah says when we manage to stop for another dose of lollys and cookies against panic. Is this the fresh start we have envisioned?
After 25 km among roaring trucks and busses, deafened by the honking, half-choked by exhaust gases, we are finally out of the worst, and on a 10-lane interstate. It took us three hours to pass through the nine circles of hell. Or were they ten? We are in China after all, where the hells are ten in number. Truck after truck still thunder past us, cars swish by, but we are no longer squeezed among them. And from the interstate bridge there is a surreal panorama – factories, railroads, bullet-trains, multilevel intersections, distant harbour, clusters of highrises. “Have you ever been through something like this?”- I ask Volker as we catch our breaths and gulp for fresher air. “Never,”- he shakes his head – “only biking in Bangkok was comparable, but there one had scooters instead of trucks.”
Nothing during the rest of the day can spoil the elation of having come through unscathed: even when we have repeatedly to get off the tandem and push it uphill, even when we fail to find accommodation for 20 kilometres after we decided to call it a day.
Where the interstate, the highway and the railroad intersect, there is a village called Sanshili pu, the Post Station at the Thirtieth Mile. True to its name it also has a hotel for us.
In our backyard-facing room we are finally safe from the roar on the road. The only thundering now comes from the sky – there is a military airbase next to the village.