No matter how big the enthusiasm within is and no matter how many times one has gone through this process, leaving the place where you settled down for a fair amount of time, is never easy. The comfort of a place called home, the friendships that one has sowed at work, in the neighborhood, in life in general, the habits and customs; every single one of those little everyday life things, they are all hard to leave behind. It's this subtle mix of emotions between the huge excitement of the adventure to come and the sadness that comes with a new detachment from the people and things that were part of one's life.
The night before the day I took off I was incredibly nervous and it was almost impossible to sleep. Caught between the practical decisions that needed to be taken, like packing in the most efficient way and the myriad of emotions involved in being at the verge of taking such a big step in life almost the whole night passed by in no time. It was at 5.30am that I was finally able to lie down. It wasn't really sleeping but more likely a very light rest. It didn't take long for the alarm to ring at 8 am. It was time to take a shower and shave for the last time in who knows how many days, have some coffee and take a few minutes of silence to look around home and contemplate to give the heart the last look at that small world I had built in the last few years of my life in China. The time to leave had come once again, to leave not in the sense of abandonment and forget but to leave carrying with oneself all those things that one has gone through in life, the friends, the experiences, the affection that one has harvested with time and love throughout time. Leaving ain't about leaving behind but to keep going with so much more inside, so much more. Some of the best friends that have accompanied me almost from the very first days I was in town were waiting for me downstairs. They gave me warm smiles for the road and encouraging words for the trip I was about to embark on.
As I slowly started riding away from home I couldn't help but look back every few meters. I was filled with great joy and excitement but I had a lump in my throat and the tears were too hard to hold back between the eyelids. I started riding along the very same roads that I had ridden dozens, if not hundreds of times in the last 4 years, except that this time I knew I wasn't coming back, at least that wasn't in my plans for anytime soon. It was Friday. November the 30th and Chengdu 成都was grey as usual and already cold, about 8 C. I was heading south-east along the mountainous road of Longquan 龙泉, a road that I had ridden both alone and with friends more times that I was able to remember. The road is the most common weekend getaway for the locals who are into cycling.
I was all moved inside but my mind was already set on the way out. It was hard for me not to push hard on the pedals to speed up and get away from what was already well-known to me. I was anxiously looking forward finding the new. Three full days and almost 400km had to go by for me to start entering unknown areas. Traveling around the country where one lives in and knows quite well has its advantages, like being able to communicate in the local language and dialect, knowing the local customs, knowing where one is going to or not having any trouble in asking anybody for help. On the other hand, it also has a big drawback which is losing the ability to be surprised. It all seems too easy and familiar. I have ridden and also traveled for work thousands of miles within Sichuan四川so it was hard for me to find something really unknown along the gray and mostly industrial way from Chengdu 成都 to Luzhou泸州. It was only a few miles after I left the city of Neijiang 内江that I took a detour to a secondary road, as I usually do in order to avoid high traffic, that I got to a particularly impressive place. A village of people literally living in and off piles of junk. I rode for about 10 km along this underworld where junk of all imaginable kinds is brought from all over the city, using whatever transport that can carry stuff. Trucks, rusty bicycles, motorbikes, or even carts pulled by hand loaded until what's attainable without falling off. Once in the village, every single piece of junk is manually separated to later find its place within the same family of junk where it belongs to. They are selected, folded, piled, packed and finally stored to ultimately be taken probably to some recycling plant somewhere. There is a whole industry around the junk and of the richest women in China has made its fortune selling it. The road along this village is flanked to both sides by countless piles of junk, it is truly impressive. There are plastics, bottles, glasses, televisions, toys, hair-dryers, tapes, door frames, windows, wheels of all sizes, chairs, etc, you name it and it is there, every imaginable thing. Every thing that comes from the trash we produce and get rid off every day in our world of consumerism with no limits find its place at the end of the line here. But maybe, the most unreal type of junk that I ran into along this way was hair. Protected behind his face mask and flanked by a huge pile of hair brought all the way from the beauty parlors of Neijiang 内江, Mr. Li, 49, spends mostly every day of his life sitting around trillions of hairs that he skillfully and patiently separates and groups into groups of colors and lengths.
Chinese growth is like this huge mechanical system made of gears that need to work in perfect synchronicity to move ahead, each gear doing its task to make the growth happen without stopping. Likewise, people who fit into this system are there to do their jobs and make it all happen. On the other hand, people who doesn't fit try to scrape a living feeding off its residues, almost like those fishes that travel along sucking off the skin of a huge whale and feeding off it. The junk pickers are those who stand at the end of the line of the absurd world of insane consumerism where we live in, where everything manufactured is deliberately designed to fail and break after a short period of time to force us to keep consuming. In every city in China, from the biggest to the smallest ones, there's this bubble going on where people from the upper classes to people of the ever-growing middle class consume as much as they can while leaving piles of trash behind to others to deal with them.
Finally, after 4 days of cycling in perpetually gray and cold weather, with lots of traffic along polluted roads linking major cities where small hotels are the only option for accomodation, I finally reached the long awaited detour to the rural areas. The change is radical. The transition from industrial China to rural China is abrupt and immediate. The road turned narrow and had little to no signs at all. Villages became more and more precarious and modest. I went from a world of modern industries to a world of plowing where peasants were sunk in the cold mud up their thighs and were helped by oxes to work the land. The signs of a harsh life start to show in the faces of apathy of the peasants. In every stop I did, even though some people smiled at me and would approach to me for a quick chat to satisfy their curiosity, in general people stayed more or less indifferent and their looks were cold and dim.
It is not only out of the industries where massive production comes from. Along a series of villages and already zig-zagging through the first rice terraces, I found myself cycling past sidewalks full of Kuaizi 筷子, or what in the western world is known as “ chopsticks”.
There are workshops inside each of the houses in these villages, where women of ages ranging 30 to 60 sit all day long packing the chopsticks that will find their place in the millions of restaurants and canteen spread all over China. The chopstick is made out of the bamboo cane, a tree that grows in abundance all along the south of China and is well-known for its fast growth. Even though a bamboo tree needs about 7 years to root, once that part is done it grows at a pace of one meter per day. The bamboo cane is a prodigy product of nature and in its different species is used in a wide range of markets. It is used to make the traditional sichuanese chairs and furniture in general, it is used as the structure of the scaffoldings used to build skyscrapers in cities like Hong Kong, it is used to build river rafts, rows, decorative objects. It is widely used for garden design and it is even an ingredient in some various types of local soups, aside from being the main staple of the panda bears.
It was only half a day earlier that I was riding in the 21st century and now, except for a few signs here and there, I was riding back in time in a pre-industrial era. Until today, around half of China remains poor and rural and the contrasts with the China that is currently developing to become a futuristic country are massive. This was only the beginning since I would soon be leaving Sichuan 四川 to cross into Guizhou 贵州province.