I wrote a few weeks back about one of my favorite corners of the city for riding. The piece itself was a remark on mindfulness. Paying attention, as everything’s in transit. Life in a burgeoning Chinese city is in constant flux, so witnessing this by bike is a different experience, one I feel worth regularly writing about.
These previous weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of hosting a considerable number of outsiders. It’s a challenge, trying to distract people from the unpleasant, these growing pains of change. Some of China’s infrastructure goals are remarkable, but the immediate headaches they present can be overwhelming. People, even adventurous ones, sometimes don’t handle change so well (myself not excluded).
It’s hard to swallow sometimes. In the six years I’ve spent riding everywhere in Chengdu, to look backwards shows a bizarre landscape. To think what areas of the city I avoided, areas that have blossomed into daily thoroughfares, or sadly, the areas relegated to the “never gonna go there” bin of bunk rides. It’s an odd sensation.
Growing up, when traveling out of town to visit family or friends, I always found it fascinating how my parents could navigate strange cities. The recall of a place, and it’s layout, was a remark on its permanence. Music, clothing, trends all change. Businesses and people come and go. Buildings and roads stay, however, and ground your memory in the tangible.
That’s not quite how it works here. My secret corner? It’s on its way out. The writing has been on the wall for years that it would change. For months, signs of its immanent destruction are painted everywhere, big red 拆 characters (chai, meaning tear down), litter the surfaces of every building in the area.
Riding through has felt like standing upon a dam about to break. There’s something out there holding back a raging body of change. You never know what it is. It could be broke contractors, bureaucratic entanglement, or just a 钉子房 (dingzi fang, translates as “nail house”)—someone refusing to move house. With everything in order, the dam will break, and change will wash over the landscape and permanently alter it, transforming it into something unrecognizable. This is what makes me shudder.
Riding has given me a real close understanding of this area. I’ve learned by trial and error, riding out dead-ends, and pushing my bike through grape fields, exactly how to get around this hard-to-navigate farmland. Slowly, I’ve watched different areas get closed off, or new roads get laid down. Today, as I entered the last untouched stretch of dirt road, I discovered it’s in the process of being bulldozed, the construction barriers pushed further out, gobbling up the last little bit of wild habitation.
For me, that’s the hardest part. My memory of this place won’t be met with affirmation in the future. There will be nothing physical to revisit, to remember the roads I used to trace. There may be a beautiful new park, a development housing thousands of happy little families, or, if we’re really, lucky a 7-11 or Family Mart. Whatever becomes of it, it won’t be mine in the way it was. The only option is to ride it as much as I can before it’s gone forever. Like a surfer looking toward the ocean, part of riding here is all about the timing, and knowing exactly when to catch a wave as it comes crashing through.