"Eddy Matzger Goes to China and Finds More Adventure Than He Bargained For"
by Eddy Matzger
A quarter of the world's population lives in a country that I'm soon to visit but
know virtually nothing about. I'm off to China to skate the Great Wall,
courtesy of 'TWINCAM bearings' Tom Lai, but reality still hasn't sunk in. Only after
passing under the sign at the airport which reads "Ticketed Passengers Only" do I
realize I'm actually going.
But on the plane I feel like I'm already there. Everything is printed in Chinese.
The food and drink -- Peking duck, sesame balls filled with bean paste, ginseng soda
-- are equally foreign to my palate.
Day 1 - A Different World
I look out my tenth-story hotel room window and confirm that I've awakened in an entirely
different world. It's 6 a.m. A group of thirty military men jog in formation down
below, belching out guttural chants in unison. An old man in a royal blue suit pauses to light his his pipe, then shuffles on. Across the way on a rooftop patio there's
a ballroom dancing class in progress. The smells also remind me that I'm elsewhere.
Everything smells different. Even the towels are perfumed, which leave my skin smelling faintly of jasmine.
As I venture out on the street I see I've landed in the land of the bicycle. There's
and unending flow of them, and no matter where you look, the streets are literally
choked with bikes. Three-wheeled rickshaws are human powered trucks which carry cargo
of every imaginable sort: eggs, vegetables, noodles, milk, toilet paper, blocks of coal,
furniture, skinned pigs, you name it. It's a blessing to have skates because they
allow me to weave in and around this staggering mass of traffic. Because it all moves
along at a relatively leisurely pace, only 8-10 miles per hour, a skater can get a
tremendous sense of achievement and progress with minimum effort. Excited, I head
toward the center of town.
Electric powered buses are packed to the gills, bursting at the seams with passengers
whose eyes bulge when they see me freely wending my way through town. Many shove
their hands out the window and give me a thumbs-up.
After suffering a fairly severe ligament strain, I am on skates for the first time
in more than two weeks. I'm approaching it very gingerly, though, because certain
movements still send shocks of pain through my body. My first order of business,
therefore, is to find an acupuncturist.
I head to to the hospital. The corridors are full of people waiting to be seen.
Three nurses giggle at my skates. A doctor investigates my ankle and renders his
prognosis within minutes. "Soft tissue damage," he says. "Acupuncture no good. Chinese
herbs no good. Rest good." And with that he excuses himself with a bow.
Meandering through a back alley, I stop to heat- mold my boots over a cauldron used
to cook street food. The coals burn hot, and after turning my skates over like marshmallows
for a just a minute, they're soft and ready to be reformed into a more comfortable configuration. A crowd has gathered and is trying to pump me for information about
my skates, but I can only tell them what I'm doing in sign language.
On the way to the Holiday Inn Crown Plaza, many people try to race me - mostly kids
on bikes and the coal-carrying, super-skinny rickshaw drivers whom I just want to
feed. Luckily, I have some PowerBars on me (I brought a suitcase full).
Skating back to the hotel to go pick up Tom Lai at the airport, I'm on a hugely wide
boulevard that runs smack dab into Tian' amen square. With lovers sitting on the
curb on a sultry evening, it's hard to imagine anybody having been crushed to death
here except by all the traffic.
Traveling on skates without a map is definitely the way to go. In fact, I like getting
lost. Off the beaten path, adventure seems to multiply.
I take a cab to the airport to meet Tom. Over a late dinner, Tom is beaming. His
dream of skating the Great Wall is beginning to materialize.
DAY 2 - COUNTERRREVOLUTIONARY BALLOON DISTRIBUTION
I expected the Chinese to be a little more reserved, but if you show them something
out of the ordinary, like skates, they'll reveal plenty of emotion.
I wander through a side shopping street and, for 25 yuan (3 US $), buy practically
a whole days worth of provisions -- steamed peanut butter swirl rolls, bean rolls,
Asian pears, oranges, bananas, and the biggest honking grapefruits you've ever seen.
Even on the busiest thoroughfares the right hand lane (which is at least 12 feet wide)
is still reserved for non-motorized traffic. As in California, right turns are permitted
at red lights, but here in China you don't have to stop first. There are so many close calls with pedestrians it's a wonder more people don't get t-boned.
Tom and I jump in a hired taxi to visit Tian'amen Square. It takes 20 minutes to
travel the few blocks that would have taken 2 minutes on skates. Tian'amen Square
is paved with square stones that have yawning gaps between them, so I skate them
diagonally. People are timid at first but then gather in droves to see what's going on. I blow
up PowerBar balloons and begin passing them out to kids and adults alike. Pretty
soon there's a huge crowd that encloses me as I skate in circles blowing up the balloons.
Expectant faces wait anxiously with outstretched arms for a balloon. Chinese tourists
timidly ask if they can have a photo taken with me. When I smile, they relax.
Eventually, 200 or so people have gathered - smiles lighting their once- stoic faces
- when three cops arrive to break up the crowd. They seem unnerved by the number
of people that have gathered. They take as many balloons as possible from the little
kids, some of whom are now crying, while other people take their balloons and high-tail
it out of there. Rather than pop the balloons, each cop stands around with about
10 balloons in hand, looking pretty comical. We wonder if we're going to get arrested
for counterrevolutionary balloon distribution.
At lunch, I discover pretty quickly that in China it's okay to slurp, grab food out
of your mouth with hands, raise plate or bowl to mouth, spit unwanted food out onto
the table etc. All the manners mom taught can go out the window.
Mid-way through meal, I return to my hotel to get a skate to show the man from the
factory that produces TWINCAM bearings. His face is somber as he studies the skate,
but lights up like a searchlight when he spins the wheels and sees the practical
application of his product. "This looks like fun!" he beams.
Day 3 - SKATING THE GREAT WALL
This is the big day, the one for which Tom Lai has been waiting eight years. It seemed
like such a strange proposition - to come to the Great Wall to skate it - but I was
happy to oblige. Now it's going the happen for real! I hope the Chinese don't think
it's disrespectful to skate on one of the Wonders of the World.
As we approach the Great Wall, the mountains loom out of the plains with a jaggedness
that reminds me of a heartbeat on an EKG graph.
I'm thinking more clearly now. The air is noticeably fresher here in the mountains.
From afar, I spot the first little bit of the Great Wall, and my heart begins to
flutter. The stones of the wall are a pleasant pinkish color. On the hillsides, the
blossoms on the trees are an intense white. I look at the locals: In contrast to the plump,
brightly dressed city folk, the country folk are plainer; they're sinewy, dark-skinned
and dressed in drab colors.
We arrive just before 7am. It's cold and the wind is whipping. Everybody's shivering,
but I don't care -- the wall is skateable! The giant cobbles are fairly well fitted,
and I can cut small slalom turns down the walkway. With such staggeringly beautiful scenery, it's hard to keep my mind on skating.
On one small flat stretch, I put on my skinsuit and have to keep moving to stay warm.
The wall follows the ridge line of incredibly precipitous mountains. In ancient Chinese
art the mountains look way too steep and highly stylized but now that I'm here, I
realize the depictions aren't exaggerated. Only a very small percentage of the Wall
is actually flat surface; most of the skateable stuff is broken up by steep steps
that even the most radical aggressive skater would think twice about attempting.
Day 4 - 50K IN 1.5 HOURS
Tom leaves today. We've had fun the last couple of days, packing a week's worth of
adventure into 48 hours. I'm bringing him to the airport, and then I'm off on more
adventures with the same driver who took us to the Great Wall.
The road we take to the Wall today winds gradually for 50K and passes a big reservoir.
The asphalt is heaven, the road incredibly wide, and the traffic very light. Sumatai
is most impressive because it is virtually devoid of tourists, and the wall is crumbling and in disrepair, not restored like at Badaling. It has a much a much more authentic
feel. To access the Sumatai section of the wall, you must park at the bottom of
a steep footpath and walk up - there are very few flat sections.
My driver has stayed in the car so I go exploring alone. I'm toting a backpack loaded
with 2 pairs of skates for the photos, hats, Powerbars, postcards, and two cameras.
It's hard to resist the urge to just snap away at every turn, because it's so picturesque. The wall drops down a gorge, disappears into a small reservoir, pops out the
other side and just snakes its way through the landscape as far as the eye can see.
I take off up the wall and head for one tower, then the next, and the next, and the
next, traversing each intervening stretch with greater and greater awe as I ascend.
The views grow more breathtaking with each increase in elevation. Next thing I know
it's four hours later and the wall has become so steep it's almost unscalable. I
find I'm favoring my bum left leg - otherwise I'd be totally game for continuing.
Even though my thighs are shot from a full day of climbing, I put on my skates, crawl
into my skinsuit and boogey down the mountain. I cover the 50K in a little under
1.5 hours. I get the now- usual stares of amazement and thumbs-up form passing drivers,
cyclists, and field laborers. Never mind my hurt tendons and ligaments - I'm enjoying
the ride. It's got to be one of the best days of my life. I crawl back into the car
exhausted and sore but extremely content.
At about 9:30 p.m., I stop in the little alley next to the hotel for food and boot-molding
session number two. All the cooks wear white aprons, white shirts and white hats.
As thanks I give away T-shirts and ask if anyone wants to try skating. Only one
cook is courageous enough. He stumbles around while everybody gets a good belly laugh,
myself included. The already pronounced lines on the old ones' faces deepen as they
Day 5 - LURED BY THE MASSEURS
At 5:30am the sun is already shining. I decide to go for an early morning skate; I'll
skate out the route to the Summer Palace, which I'll visit later on in the day. By
6:30am I'm on the road and I cast a long shadow over the tank tread tracks left
in the asphalt from the Tianamen Square uprising. It's an eerie feeling. The traffic is
light this early in the morning, but people are already up and about, some sitting
outside at tables eating the traditional fare of tofu soup and deep fried pancakes.
Many an old man flashes me a toothless grin with a thumbs-up to boot. After an hour's skate
at a pretty good clip I, come upon the Summer Place. At 7:30 a.m., tour buses are
already disgorging their passengers, all Chinese, no foreigners this early.
The Summer Palace covers 290 acres. It served as the royal garden, and royal it is.
Because of its varied architecture and classical landscape gardening, the Summer
Palace is called an "earthly paradise". The names of the buildings are awesome -
Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, Pavilion for the Perceiving of Spring, Hall of Joyful
Longevity, Studio of Everlasting Life, Cloud Dispelling Hall, Pagoda of Buddhist
Fragrance, Garden of Harmonious Delights, Sea of Wisdom Temple.
I am lured by the masseurs at the flea market in town. Where on earth can you get
your legs lovingly kneaded for 45 minutes for only $1.25 (10 yuan)? I give the usual
T-shirt and PowerBars and practically have to stuff money in the guy's pocket because
he doesn't want me to pay. Many people stop and stare and say, "Welcome to China."
I feel welcome, and my legs feel like a million bucks again, reminding me I need
massages far more often than I actually get them.
Day 6 - RUN-IN WITH THE LAW
Went out for a training skate but had to abort it because practically every inch of
the pavement was occupied by cars and bicycle commuters. Mind boggling numbers of
people coming and going in every possible direction and not enough room to move.
It doesn't seem to matter what direction you go - into town or out, there's an endless
stream of bicycles with bells jingling. Where there's cross traffic you'd think there'd
be tons of accidents, but somehow everything sorts itself out. The only accidents I've seen are people crashing because they're looking at me, not where they're going!
An old man carrying pigeons crashed into the curb because he was ogling me. One staring
woman, ran into the tire in front of her.
On a small side street, I spot a sporting goods store and go inside. BiNGO! There
are skates on the wall! Not just cheap imitation skates, but the real things - albeit
Bauer and Rollerblade models from a few years ago. I have a million questions,
but the salesman doesn't speak English, and I don't speak Chinese. Like people at the bakery,
post office, jewelry store and clothing store, the employees run out into the street
as I leave to watch how it's done.
My search for in-lines is over. Now it's just a question of introducing the Chinese
people en masse to these skates. The mountain bike craze already seems to have caught
on , despite Beijing's flatness.
Ten minutes later I have my first run-in with the law. At a busy intersection I feel
a hand suddenly grab me by the elbow and pull me off to the side. The policeman
asks in English if I speak Chinese. I say no, and he goes on to say that skating
is not allowed in the streets. I don't argue or tell him I've gotten nothing but smiles and
waves from every other police officer I've seen. I just say I'm on my way to the
hotel. Slightly intimidated, I return to my room through back alleys.
Day 7 - NOT JUST A DREAM
I wake up at 6 a.m. intending to skate, but I don't feel quite right. All the excitement
of my first days here has finally caught up to me, so I close the shades and sleep
for another few hours, until hunger pangs force me out of bed.
For 1.5 hours I skate in a state of euphoria; I think to myself, "I'm in China, and
I've skated the Great Wall." It's not just a dream. The people's smiles, stares,
waves and thumbs-up signals are truly energizing. A motorcycle with a sidecar follows
me for about five miles. The driver keeps yelling, "Beautiful", and his wife simply
smiles my way.
Day 8 - OUR LITTLE SECRET
I go for a crack-of-dawn skate, to the Shao-bing (sesame cake filled with sugar)
vendor by the Marco Polo Bridge. On the way out I soak in everything, fully aware
that this is my last day here. I skate practically the whole way covered in goose
bumps, but the softly lit early morning sights indelibly etch themselves in my mind: Red flags
blowing lazily in the wind at Tian'amen Square; old people doing group calisthenics;
guys selling kites; people ballroom dancing under the freeway.
The rickshaw drivers here are forever struggling under their loads, especially up
slight grades, so I try to help out as many as I can. All of them are happy to have
help and seem encouraged to work harder when they know they're being helped. A common
sight is a rickshaw loaded down with goods and a person riding on top who hops off to
help push the rig uphill.
Today I help one person who hops off. Together we push, unbeknownst to the old man
driving, who thinks he's doing pretty darned good. The boy and I look at each other
and smile to ourselves, reveling in our little secret.
My driver comes to the hotel early and helps me pack. I can't help but get choked
up as we drive through the crowded streets towards the airport. I'm going to miss
the crazy busyness of Beijing. The energy is intense and after a while you begin
feeding off of it - dust, fumes, noise and all. Huge buildings are going up everywhere, in
around the clock shifts. This city never stops. Imagine the hustle and bustle of
New York City, and then multiply it 100 times. Skating here is the ultimate high.
If you haven't skated Beijing, I hate to say, you ain't skated nothing yet.
The excitement of the trip keeps my mind's wheels spinning in high gear. Thanks Mr.
TWINCAM, for a head full of memories.