pastimes


Strange how “Blue Skies in Beijing” is not a headline. If you believe international reports, Beijing is constantly shrouded in impenetrable smog, like being inside a cigarette. To be sure, it can get pretty bad on some occasions, but it can also be clear, crisp and sunny. Like now. I’ve been outside running each day, sucking in the air with pleasure.

As I settle into Beijing for a while, with much peace and quiet and opportunities for writing (and the pleasure of being in a country where the government is mainly the Communist Party), I have been enjoying my favourite restaurant. I treat myself to a meal there once or twice a week, while mostly eating in the dining halls.

One of the pleasures at this little eatery concerns some of the dishes. These include:

Husband and wife lung slice

Thread jujube in Sydney

Boiled salt bath chap

Sneak liver pointed

Beijing heaving

Needless to say, the only way to find out is to order them – in Chinese characters, as is the custom here.

In 1929, Elena Mikulina published a work called Emulation of the Masses and Stalin provided a forward. The work was written by a young, unknown writer, and caused many among the intelligentsia to mock the work. In reply, Stalin writes (with a biblical allusion or two):

We have hundreds and thousands of young and capable people who are striving with might and main to rise to the surface and contribute their mite to the common treasury of our work of construction. But their efforts are often unavailing, because they are very often kept down by the vanity of the literary “lights,” by the bureaucracy and callousness of some of our organisations, and, lastly, by the envy (which has not yet evolved into emulation) of men and women of their own generation. One of our tasks is to break down this blank wall and to give scope to the young forces, whose name is legion. My foreword to an inconsiderable pamphlet by an author unknown in the literary world is an attempt to take a step towards-accomplishing this task. I shall in the future, too, provide forewords only to simple and unassuming pamphlets by simple and unknown authors belonging to the younger forces. It is possible that this procedure may not be to the liking of some of the snobs. But what do I care? I have no fondness for snobs anyhow . . . (Works, vol. 12, p. 120)

That was the hottest ride I have ever done: 420 km in 4 days, from Armidale (up north) to Newcastle. On the hottest day, the temperature topped 45 degrees. On the others, it hovered between the high 30s and low 40s. That’s hot enough to melt the bitumen under my tyres. Day after day, I heard the clicking sound of tyres running over globules of molten bitumen. I saw strips and spots of the shiny black stuff all over the road. And from time to time, I had to stop for a while, when my vision blurred and I became light headed – drinking copious amounts of water and getting my body temperature down to reasonable levels. Today, on the last day, it was a cool 36 degrees, but only because of the gale-force headwind.

It began with a glorious train journey to Armidale:

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More than twenty years ago I lived in this town, a university town up north. The railway line to Armidale had been reopened under a Labor government, but I never had the chance to take the train. Now I had that chance:

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Beside the glorious railway station, the Gospel Hall (Brethren) still does its thing:

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I checked out old haunts, when my kids were little. At the house where we lived, I was blown away by the fully grown pine trees. I had planted two of them 23 years ago, knowing that they were slow growing. I nurtured them as seedlings and now they are grand trees:

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After a night in my tent in Armidale (where it is cool, even in summer), I set off through through countryside I still love:

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That’s an old signalman’s cottage on the railway line. After rolling up and down through the tableland, I had the breath-taking drop down the Moonbi mountain:

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Only to come across one of the highlights of the ride: the Moonbi chook (chicken):

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I have told stories about this chook, which adorns the park in the village of Moonbi. The village, you see, is a chook growing centre. I never thought I would see the big chook again, but it has a fresh coat of paint and sits there still, sagely surveying its fellows busily popping out bumnuts. After a stop in Tamworth, which boasts guitar-shaped pools (it is the country music capital of Australia), I was able to indulge in my fascination with abandoned cottages in the midst of nowhere:

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While coming to terms with the fact that the only thing blocking the blazing sun was my body and my bicycle:

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My next stop was the magical Murrurundi, which is almost as magical as Newcastle, only smaller:

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I tend to judge a place on whether I could stay a while and write. Murrurundi is such a place:

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The next day was the real scorcher: 45 degrees over 120 km. I was busted by the end. But not before I became intrigued by the regular appearance of bottles on the side of the road, filled with bright yellow or orange liquid:

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Yes, it’s piss. Drivers – truckies or whoever – seem to enjoy pissing into a bottle and tossing it out of the window. After viewing quite a number, I came to the conclusion that they either need to drink more water or see a doctor – soon.

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On the last day, with its stiff headwind, I rode on a new section of freeway – the Hunter Expressway. While I lament the fact that the billions spent on such constructions could produce some wonderful railways, I am also fascinated by the engineering. Local Aborigines were part of the planning and construction, with place names and routes marked by song lines. The treatment of water courses means they are now cleaner than they were before. And along the route much concern was given to animals and their need to cross the road. Along here there was very little road kill, for tunnels and overhead passageways had been constructed for their passing. I was intrigued by the possum bridge at one point:

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Too soon does the ride come to an end, even if you are knackered. So I tarried long in Jesmond Brush, in Newcastle itself. I had an early dinner, lit a fire and boiled a billy for tea:

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But eventually I wound my way home.

Apparently, a potent weapon against the old bourgeois world is tractors. Here is Stalin, writing to the tractor works in Stalingrad, 1930:

Greetings and congratulations on their victory to the workers and executive personnel of the giant Red Banner Tractor Works, the first in the U.S.S.R. The 50,000 tractors which you are to produce for our country every year will be 50,000 projectiles shattering the old bourgeois world and clearing the way for the new, socialist order in the countryside (Works, vol. 12, p. 241).

No wonder ‘Tractor Drivers’ won the Stalin prize in 1939:

For some reason, strenuous exercise on a real scorcher of a day is very addictive. Each summer I feel it. The mercury climbs above 35 degrees (in the shade), the humidity weighs like a hot blanket, and the sun beats down. I have an uncontrollable desire to get out: sprint up the steep hill nearby a few times; run for an hour; push weights for an hour more. At the end I am a rag, soaked and pouring with sweat. My head feels like it is about to burst from the heat. But I love it. Afterwards I feel cool in the heat, my mind is sharp, and I feel serene with the world.

A somewhat idealistic story for the new year, over at Voyages on the Left.

Mao in the mountains 01

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