2wheelin' into Jingdezhen, China's 'Capital of Porcelain' - in which I become, by turns, a Russian, a Japanese, and a Muslim

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Edward Genochio

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Sep 19, 2005, 12:32:20 AM9/19/05
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Well, after a short delay which I'll put down to a nasty case of
astrorash (the clinical term for what happens when you dive
full-length to catch a frisbee on a AstroTurf pitch and remove all the
skin from your knees and elbows), I'm back on the road.

Sorry, I've just had a note from my lawyer: I'm not supposed to call
it a Frisbee, because it wasn't a Frisbee, in much the same way that
your vacuum cleaner may not be a Hoover. It's a flying disc,
apparently. And the game I was attempting to play is not under any
circumstances to be called "Ultimate Frisbee", just "Ultimate", OK?

Right.

Anyway, cyclists will know the sort of thing I mean. It's like road
rash, but without the embedded gravel. Rarely fatal, but when combined
with the aching limbs that result from exerting parts of the body that
are rarely called upon during a quiet 6-month's R&R in Shanghai,
excuse enough to delay the Moment of Truth for a few days.

When I finally did swing my leg back over the saddle and begin to
wobble my way westward, things were by no means as bad as I expected
after six virtually bike-free months. The tailwind and the dead-flat
road probably helped.

Leaving Shanghai by road is rarely a joy. In a bus you are stuck in
traffic; on a bike can duck and weave a bit, but with 35 kg strapped
to the back I'm not as nimble as your average roadster.

At the end of day 1, I had reached the town of Jin Ze - the same
place, in fact, that I reached at the end of my first day out of
Shanghai last December, on my way down south to Hong Kong. I went to
seek out lodgings in the same hotel I had stayed in last year - and
not only did they remember me from 9 months previously, they still had
my registration form hanging around on the front desk. This cut out
the usual rigmarole of trying to complete the (Chinese) registration
form from my (English) passport, a process that in dopier backwaters
can take the greater part of the evening, and often involves the
participation of the entire hotel staff, most of the other guests, and
a good number of outsiders as well.

The receptionist even asked what had happened to my beard. Last
December, it was at its Karl Marxian best. This September, I was
clean-shaven. I told her I had sent it to the cleaners.

Day 2 took me round the southern shore of Lake Taihu. That's a
tautology, I know, and I apologise to Chinese speakers among you. Hu
means Lake, so saying Lake Taihu is like saying Mount Mont Blanc, but
I think Taihu sounds better. However you want to call it, it's a
pretty place to cycle, traffic-free and flat as a platypus' nose. Do
platypuses have flat noses? It's the sort of thing you always imagine
them to have, but I have to admit, I've never actually seen a real
live platypus.

The Antipodean subject of platypuses brings me neatly to cricket. I
don't know how many Australians subscribe to this list, but as a
public service to those that do, I thought I should let you know, in
case the news hasn't yet reached the remoter parts of the Outback,
that something happened in London last week which you may find
interesting. Now, how can I put this delicately?

ENGLAND WON THE ASHES.

Right, back to your kangaroos.

What else can I tell you?

After Taihu (yes, the lake), the road goes up and up and up like...
like a koala up a eucalyptus tree, mate (did I mention that England
won the Ashes?), up into the mountains around Moganshan, and then up
some more into Anhui and Jiangxi provinces.

Jiangxi province boasts the hometown of Jiang Ze Min, a man with large
spectacles and a silly grin, who used to be president of China. His
hometown, Jiangwan, has been tarted up and you can now pay 50 yuan, if
you like, to wander down an "old" reconstructed street to experience
what life used to be like in the Old Days when little Jiang was just a
tiddler, except that in those days presumably they didn't have
souvenir sellers hawking Jiang Ze Min keyrings.

Much better is to go to Jingdezhen, from where I am writing to you.
Here you can get Jiang Ze Min's head on a platter, for less than a
pound. Now that is a bargain. They're selling like hot-cakes, too;
better, in fact - the local hot-cake has packed it in and gone home
early.

It's only painted heads, of course, not the real thing, but it's
something at least. You can get Hu Jin Tao too, if you prefer, or buy
two and get Mao free. This is a great place for Maoerabilia, actually
- anyone for a life-sized Mao statue in porcelain?

Everything here is in porcelain, it's been the city's economic
foundation for nearly 2000 years. They're so keen on the stuff that
even the lamp posts are made of it (I kid you not).

Did you know (impress your friends with this trivia morsel) that the
English word 'China' probably derives from Jingdezhen's former name,
Changnan?

Changnan used to export a lot of porcelain to Europe, and a slip of
the tongue turned 'Changnan' into 'China' - you can see how it could
happen - so now we have china, the stuff our teapots are made of, and
China, the place it comes from.

How else can I astonish you?

Ah, yes: Yesterday, not one, not two, but no less than 3 (three)
people, independently and of their own accord accused me of being
Japanese. Now I have been accused of a number of things in my time -
being Russian is a particular favourite, an epithet slung out quite
loosely by many Chinese at anybody who is moderately tall and more or
less bearded. But Japanese? That's a new one on me. I'm beginning to
wonder whether Prince Philip wasn't right after all when he speculated
on the consequences of staying too long in the East. I must get hold
of a mirror.

Complaints are trickling in already from various readers, mainly
French and Chinese: what is all this stuff about Ashes? Let me see if
I can explain. In a nutshell: a cricket [small chirping creature]
match [small wooden device for setting fire to things] ended in a
draw, which meant that England won. If Australia had won, it would
have been a draw, so England would have lost.

I hope that clarifies the situation.

As I wandered the narrow lanes of this fair city yesterday, an old man
with a big bare buddha-belly appeared in a doorway and indicated, by
flapping and waving his arms, that I should follow him. To judge by
the flapping and the waving, it was a matter of some urgency.

And so I followed the man, to the left, to the right, down this little
alley and that little lane, until after some minutes we turned into a
courtyard, whereat the buddha-man called out for whoever it was
upstairs to come down.

Down came the upstairs man. Buddha-man spoke to him animatedly,
pointing and jabbing at me from time to time - I did not follow what
was being said. Upstairs man smiled and invited me to sit down for
tea. Buddha man went away, looking pleased with a job well done.

Over the next 20 minutes or so, the nuances of what had happened were
gradually revealed to me. The courtyard was the courtyard of a mosque;
upstairs man was the Imam. Buddha-man had seen me and my beard
wandering a little aimlessly, put two and two together and come up
with nine and three-quarters: clearly I was a Muslim looking for a
place of prayer. All this he had communicated to the Imam with such
confidence that little space was left for doubt.

And so the Imam, whose name was Mr Mo, set to inviting me to Friday
prayers, and said that as a travelling Muslim I could of course stay
at the Mosque for as long as I wanted, and that he hoped that this
evening we could eat noodles together, inshallah, and so on.

All of which was very nice. But somehow, in my play-school Chinese, I
had to explain that I was not, in fact, a Muslim. The question was,
though: if I was not a Muslim, why had I told Buddha-man that I was?
(I had told him no such thing, but how was Mr Mo the Imam to know
that?) If I was not a Muslim, what was I doing in Mr Mo's mosque,
drinking Mr Mo's tea?

I scrambled in my phrasebook. Stupidly, in an effort to save weight, I
had torn out all the pages which covered the less-essential aspects of
the language, including the one which gives the Chinese for that
well-worn traveller's stand-by: "I'm so sorry, there has been a slight
misunderstanding as to my religious affiliation, as a result of which,
through no fault of my own, I am here under rather false pretences. I
hope you'll not be offended, and thank you very much for the tea,
which was lovely, but, despite what you may have been told to the
contrary, I am not, in fact, a Muslim."

So I had to get by in pidgin. After a dozen false starts, much
correcting of tones, and a fair amount of vaguely ambiguous miming, I
managed to convey, by the end of our third cup of tea, the Chinese
equivalent of "Fat man see me. Fat man think me Islam man. Fat man
here bring me. Fat man me to you give me. Fat man no tell me he think
me Islam man. Me actually no Islam man. Sorry to have troubled you old
chap."

Mr Mo thought the whole thing was very funny, and poured me a fourth
cup of tea. He said that it didn't matter, Christians and Jews were
welcome too.

Later, back at my hotel, the key to my roomlet snapped off in the
lock. The front desk sent for a Man, who arrived with an enormous
Hatchet, with which he proceeded to Smash the Living Daylights out of
the doorknob, eventually overcoming its resistance and leaving it a
pile of wrenched metal and mangled springs on the floor. The door
opened.

This morning, the management have presented me with a bill for damage
to said doorknob.

My room is furnished with a bed, a plastic stool, an electric fan, and
a red box which contains a gas mask. Instructions, in English, are
printed on the box; I reproduce them here in the hope that familiarity
with the procedure may save lives.

----
1. Open box cover and take the respirator out.
2. Pull vacuum packing bag apart and pull rubber closure plug inside
snoot cover.
3. Put helmet on one's and take long breathes for 2-3times from snoot
cover to oxygen bag.
4. Match snoot cover put on the elastic fixing ring on the snoot cover
and adjust the snoot cover.
5. Tie pulling rope under the helmet with rope clamp to make the lower
edges of helmet closely contact on person's neck.
6. Then run quickly towards exit for escaping from fire zone.
----

I think, if my hotel burns down tonight, I may skip steps 1-5 and just
take my chances with number 6.

Tomorrow I must leave this town. Next stop: somewhere in Guizhou province.


Thanks for reading. If you know anyone else who might like to join the
2wheels list, please point them in the direction of
www.2wheels.org.uk/updates.


Edward Genochio
Jingdezhen, China


www.2wheels.org.uk: bicycling from England to China and back again

Daily updates on www.2wheels.org.uk/blog


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Thanks to my sponsors:
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