Regular contributor Matt Bowen recounts his stories on his motor bike around China
Part 1: Leaving
Baotou, Inner Mongolia is a city in northern China on the eastern edge of the Gobi desert. In the spring time intense sand storms sweep across the city, sometimes with very little notice. The sandstorms abate around May/June and the summers are dry and warm.With a population of over 2 million people Baotou is not a small city.
[Sara Johnston] – singing
But we did nothing, absolutely nothing that day
And I say, what the hell am I doing drinking in (Baotou) at 26?
I got the fever for the flavour
Know the payback will be later
Still I need a fix
It was in May when I bought my bike, June when I left. A Zhongshen 125. Red. Beautiful. The first bike I’ve ever owned. A classically styled dirt-bike, capable of pumping out nearly 25 horse power and topping out at nearly 70kms/h. I was 23 years old and in love.
Though I need to start earlier… I was teaching at Number 9 Middle School and for the first 3 months or so in Baotou I had no “foreign” friends. I spent most of my free time wandering around the dusty streets just absorbing the city and making friends with locals. I arrived in Baotou in March, right in the middle of a sand storm. For the locals, the sandstorms were a serious nuisance, for me it was amazing.
I absorbed everything with optimism and enthusiasm and through the ever present sand and dust, the air in Baotou smelled fresh and new. It was a combination of sand, iron and concrete dust and the ever present smell of coal burning. To me though, it smelled bright and alive. It smelled like freedom, and I was instantly addicted. I don’t think I stopped smiling the first year I was there.
I lived in the teachers compound, which was a section of apartment buildings that were owned by the school and where many of the teachers and school administrators lived. It was a utilitarian concrete affair, a 5 story walk up in 1950’s communist style. Outside the compound gate and up the street from my apartment was a small shop. The owner was the same age as me, and we fast became friends. He had a wife and young son who both lived with him in the tiny room in the back of his small shop. He sold candy, watery ice-cream, beer and cigarettes. Most important though, he was open 24/7.
Beside my apartment building there was a brothel that was poorly disguised as a KTV. On weekends I would often head there after class to play cards and get drunk with the girls in the lobby. It was a great way to practice Chinese. The lobby had that classically 1980’s Chinese feel: sticky tables littered with little plastic dixie cups for hot water, tea and beer, an over sized jade dragon boat on a small bar with a bottles of baijiu behind it and cigarette butts and mellon seeds littering the floor. The brothel felt unloved and temporary, and I can’t recall any decorations or paintings on the walls and the lobby was lit with unadorned bare fluorescent lights.
The brothel sold beer to me though usually when most of the customers started coming in, around 11pm the Madam, a large and quite brusque woman would politely make me leave. I had an annoying habit of wanting to make conversation with the besuited and drunken customers, I also tended towards laughing at the absurdity of the whole place.
I would then often wander down the street to my good friend the shop keeper. There we would drink beer and play super Mario on an old pirate Nintendo system. We never attempted any other game, only Mario, seeing who could beat the game several times in a row without losing a man. Some nights depending on how much beer we drank, we could go up to 6 or 7 times. Diagonally opposite the shop was one of Baotou’s more upscale clubs, inside they had live music and ktv. Nights when they had live music I would sometimes go there, but I much preferred playing Mario with my friend.
One reason it appealed to me was the steady flow of customers who I could talk to and practice my limited Chinese. Most of the customers were middle class middle age men buying cartons of overpriced Zhonghua cigarettes to impress their friends. But also the girls from the brothel would come over during their break and buy sweets and smokes. Some nights other neighbours would join us in drinking and chatting.
It was from his shop that I left on my adventure.