Cycling Yunan with Doctor No

Excerpt from Bombay to Beijing by Bicycle

By Russell McGilton

After a day of hard cycling in China’s south-west province Russell McGilton finds out that being offered a bed for the night in a Chinese home doesn’t exactly mean sleep.

Cycling north out of the small picturesque town of Yangshou, it is hot, steamy. Karst mountains peep through the monsoonal mist while farmers are bent over in their paddy fields, burning the remnants of corn husks.

By dusk I’m climbing up a road that disappears behind brown hills. Below is a lake and a small a-typical Chinese village – sweeping roofs and tiled beams. I head back down, bouncing on the gravel road, past a square looking school and several houses.

I follow a track and end up at a double storey house with an old man standing out the front. I get out my pocket dictionary and point to ‘hotel’ in English with Chinese characters next to it. The old man looks over then waves his hand.

‘Mayou! (don’t have).’

He cannot read.

He motions to me to go into his house where another man – round, grey, slurping rice – sits on a couch in a large living room.

‘Chifan! Chifan!’ the old man orders, handing me a bowl. I shovel the Chinese cabbage and pork into my mouth. He hands me a glass of ‘something’.

‘Compai!’ We clink glasses and I down the foul smelling liquid. It is strong on the throat and I wince. They both laugh.

‘Ah, good ol’ rice wine.’

This ritual continues – drinking quickly, eating quickly, the old man shouting and spitting rice until the three of us are singing some garbled mush.

His friend departs and the old man and myself are left staring at each other. He continues to shout and spit rice at me. He must be at least sixty-five and a face that could gently be described as ‘mashed’. It has been browned and bent by the sun, weathered with anxiety from the torments of the Red Guard, I imagine. He has an uncanny likeness to James Bond’s arch nemesis, Dr No, or, as I look at him again in the fading light, a giant raisin in a NASA speed vacuum.

In amongst the farming squalor – a hoe, buckets, baskets, boots, bags of rice and sheets of tarpaulin stretched across the walls, lies technological incongruity – a widescreen TV with a DVD player.

He points to the TV, pokes the remote indicating that it doesn’t work and that perhaps could I have a go at fixing it. Or so I think that’s what he means. I get up, look behind the television and see the problem. And I can hardly believe my eyes. It has not been plugged in! I hesitate for a second and wonder that if I plug it in it might blow the TV up and then god knows what.

I do it anyway. The TV instantly flicks to life. He’s eyes burst wide and he embraces me with a big laugh.

With the sound of the TV barking his relatives and friends pile into the house, stare at me for a brief while but then fixate on the TV.

I yawn. The old man shows me to my room which is large and has a double bed. I fall asleep instantly until some time later I’m awakened by the door exploding open. The old man charges in shouting and then sits at the edge of the bed in his white boxer shorts. He leans over me.

‘What exactly does he…want?’

I curl further up the bed and pretend to sleep. He yawns loudly before eventually leaving. I get up and shut the door behind him. Two hours later…BOOM! He’s at the edge of my bed again, leaning and yawning over me. I snore back in defence. He leaves.

‘What indeed will he do next?’ and sure enough I hear the sound of knives being sharpened.

‘HAAANGG YOUUUU!’ a voice booms.

Terrified, I get up, get dressed, jump on my bike and do not look around until I am almost out of the village.

When I turn around I see a butcher hacking into the carcass of a pig, its legs indecently wide open in a wheel barrow.

The old man stands nearby smoking a short rolled cigarette befuddled at my hasty departure. I wave meekly, apologetically even, before heading up into the high mountains that had delivered me here into a strange and sleepless night.