Riding in China is an active choice to face change. The seemingly permanent things in life, roads, buildings, and our environment, are constantly being uprooted, bulldozed, and hillocked. Nothing stays the same. The rides I took five years ago have faced constant modification and adaptation, correcting themselves to readily guide me through the ever-changing landscape. Some beloved routes are lost entirely to the press of progress. I’ve written about this before, but it adds an extra layer to the sport of cycling. If you’re neither a navigator nor adventurer, capable of facing What The Fuck moments with a degree of delight, then riding here is easily described as miserable.
Yesterday, I read an article that gave a cursory history of the first Tour of China. It was both fascinating and, for me at least, blasé. All of the excitement and unpredictability of the race seemed tacit realities of riding where I ride. The exposure to both high and low, of being able to pace a Ferrari and a 50-year-old, 3-cylinder tractor all in the course of an hour’s ride. But it’s really not the type of vehicle, coughing smoke in your face, that makes riding here so intriguing. It’s the idea of seeking out and finding a moment of solace. It’s not only a mental pause, from whichever of life’s What The Fuck moments are shaking me by the shoulders, but also a physical pause, finding those spaces where all the progress and development are amiss. Such as discovering naturally-occurring mud.
I like mud. It’s something I never grew out of as a barefoot, dirt-slinging, mudpie-eating animal of a kid. Mud is something you find yourself lacking, living on a concrete island. Well, you have mud. It’s just the grimy coal and concrete dust mixture typical to living in a Chinese city. That stuff sucks. To find the real raw dirt, you’ve got to know where to go. As the city pushes outward, however, access to primo dirt is increasingly rare. But I’ve got my go-to mud puddles.
Just east of town, the city has a huge, long-cordoned-off area. It’s been spared development, in lieu of grander plans to convert it into a wetland park. A piece of the park has been renovated with smooth pedestrian pathways twisting through it. Riding that part is not worth the snot my tree-pollen allergies give me. The real dirt is across the canal. It’s been left untouched, and it’s muddy, and overgrown, and perfect.
Years ago, when I first discovered the roads that criss-cross the area, I was amazed how a whole region with farmers actively working the earth could be cut off from development. The amazement has worn, and in its stead, my appreciation has grown. Chengdu, referred to as the land of milk and honey, is a wild, untamable place. Any space, left outside of the constant attention of pruning human hands, quickly becomes overgrown, naturalized. It’s a beautiful sight, seeing the Earth so eagerly overtake hasty human constructs. It also makes for some awesome riding.
Fortunately for Chengdu, these pockets still exist in areas within the city. You haven’t got far to go to find a place, where instead of human progress, you find Mother Nature pressing itself forward, reclaiming. On my ride today, I had a chat with a lady, roadside, turning a plot of land. I needed to confirm I had, indeed, chosen a route that would eventually get through the thicket. She affirmed, but then deferred me to return the way I’d come, to the recently re-paved path across the canal. I brushed off her suggestion, “I like it over here,” I told her and she agreed, “It’s much more peaceful.”
It’s a rapid change, and this space won’t remain this way for long. It’s quickly getting overgrown, and reasonably, I imagine, there’s some fat cat out there looking to make his millions turning this unused area into prime real estate. That’s part of the excitement though, knowing that my ride is limited to the time, like squeezing through a closing door, that will lock shut and never open again.