Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Bike Prep

Saturday November 21st.

Jeff Fang came by at 9am to help us communicate with the internet monkey. Our internet had been flaky ever since the provider did some "upgrades" (eg turned off the service without warning for two days). Google search and gmail would load but almost no other sites would respond. The internet repairman showed up and started poking at our computer. This was hard for him as he didn't read English with any degree of competence. After ten or fifteen minutes of poking through router and computer settings he announced all was well without fixing anything and made as if to leave. Rod expressed dissatisfaction and Jeff tried to communicate to him that we needed a fix. The repairman then announced that he might be able to fix things by calling the service provider and having them change some settings in a way that is usually not permitted that might help. However, if this fixed our problems he wanted a ¥50 fee! After much grumbling we said OK, extort away, and he made his call. Miraculously the internet resumed functioning! Jeff started asking him for assurances that it wouldn't simply turn off again followed by further extortion. After being pestered for a while longer the guy finally said screw it, told us he'd done us a favor, and stormed out without his extorted earnings. We were a bit concerned he'd call and have it turned off on us but so far it's still working fine.

While Jeff was admiring the view from our apartment we got to asking about how much the construction workers that have been workiing 18 hours per day seven days per week make. He figured for two to three hundred hours per month they might be earning ~¥1500 (~$235). A software engineer might earn ¥2000/month when they were very junior, moving up to ¥5000 per month over a few years and up to maybe ¥8000 after five years if they were paid well. The salary would be double in Beijing but the housing prices are triple. People working in Nán Yáo Tóu as waiters and the like would earn even less than the constructions workers. It is quite remarkable how wide the salary gap in China is. It's hard to imagine earning five times what a construction worker would make working crazy hours at home.

Next Rod and Jeff set out to rent some bikes for a proposed bike trip the following day. The first stop was a gear store reputed to have good cheap gear. Pavan came along for the cab ride but continued on past the gear store to buy western style groceries. On the way to the gear store we sampled spicy duck neck from a street vendor. Spicy duck-neck is good but at the end of it you have a spicy hand and a chunk of duck neck with the meat gnawed off. This situation is further complicated by the lack of a reasonable garbage cans per square mile in Xi'an. After a short search it was deemed acceptable to fling the duck-neck-remnant into a sort of street garbage dump that seemed to be accumulating a short distance down the street from the gear store. The gear store is within the city walls, just inside the west gate on a small side-street leading south off west street.

The tiny door and grubby staircase leading upstairs didn't look impressive but at the top was a store with some pretty decent gear for relatively cheap. A decent fleece cost ¥200 (a cheaper one was available complete with fleece pants for ¥120) and a set of seemingly decent full-size Bushnell binoculars were ¥120.

We also picked up a pair of bike gloves (¥30) and a couple of scarf/balaclava/ninja mask devices. These are basically a tube that you fit around your neck like a scarf and can pull up to cover your face or to be a headband or to wrap around your head in a variety of ways. In our case it was to be a ninja mask while biking to avoid breathing too many of the lovely Xi'an air particles.

After buying gear we headed out to find the bike rental shop.  We walked out the west gate and headed out down the street to the specified intersection. There was a street-side bike repair shop and not a rental site to be seen. Jeff phoned the vendor and a few minutes later he showed up riding one bike and pushing the other. He brought two rather small mountain bikes that appeared in dubious repair. After some hemming and hawing we decided to decline these, figuring that Jeff would use his own bike (we had expected the rental ones to be nicer) and Rod would borrow a co-workers. This meant there was no need to bike home from downtown so some time was freed up.

We were near Jeff's school, North-West Polytechnic, so we wandered through. It looked much like a North American school that decided to abandon upkeep several years earlier. The dorms look border-line condemned and are apparently not heated. Jeff mentioned that as a student he spent a great deal of time in classrooms - to the point of sleeping there - and so on to avoid being back in the frigid dorm rooms. After we left the campus it also came up that apparently North West Polytechnic students have been blacklisted en masse from US immigration because the school does some research projects on behalf of the Chinese military. The black list apparently even extends to Dell support: if they identify a customer as blacklisted they won't help you!

Over a fast-food meal of dumplings and soup dumplings (literally dumplings with soup plus the normal meat or whatever inside) we agreed to meet the following morning at the Active office, borrow a bike from Nemo, and ride out 20-30km towards Chang'an (former name of Xi'an as capital, now just a ... district/municipality/area south of the main Xi'an) to a spot where we could fish, grab lunch, and generally chill out in the country.

Next it dawned on us we were near the Small Wild Goose Pagoda so we grabbed a quick cab over to it. It rapidly became apparent that "little" is not entirely accurate.

The "little" pagoda is 43m tall and has survived a series of earthquakes that knocked off the top two tiers and then split it essentially in half! The split-in-half aspect was repaired when the Communist party restored it sometime in the mid-60's (if memory of the plaque serves). We were able to climb it. Jeff turned out to be proportioned rather better for this than Rod; some spots were rather tight. The other Chinese visitors to the pagoda often expressed some form of surprise at seeing Rod coming up the stairs.

From the top we were able to see out over the grounds and look down at the museum. Admission is included in the price so after clambering down - a rather harder enterprise than going up - we wandered off in that general direction.

The best thing we found on the grounds was a ringable bell (the best type of bell!). For ¥5 three wacks with the log hanging near it were permitted so we paused to make a considerable amount of noise.

The museum was small but quite nice. Nothing much different than what we'd seen in other places except for a couple of wooden models of Xi'an at various points in it's history. They also had a rather nice collection of Buddha statues from various dynasties. A couple of pictures of their stuff are posted at http://picasaweb.google.com/rod.sheeter/SmallWildGoosePagodaMuseum.

After this we headed home. After a fair bit of difficulty with finding a taxi we got one who wanted to play the multiple-passengers game. We said OK and headed off.

For dinner we went over to Christina`s (lady Pavan met in our building complex) apartment for a mixed western/eastern meal. Christina made dumplings, pork, and a kind of salad made by frying oil with peppers in a wok then pouring it over cucumber (delicious). Pavan brought crackers and a couple of cheeses and meats and made what our hosts termed "Italian Noodles". Aside from Rod's production of two or three dumplings, Rod and Christina`s husband contributed primarily on the consumer side of the equation.

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