Sometimes the smile was more of a grin-and-bear-it nature as the situation got more intensely surreal. One day we found the source of the loaded coal trucks in the form of continuous roadside coal processing and storage piles. Each gust of wind would send clouds of black dust across the road. Just when we had thought we had witnessed the most scruffiness out there, we rolled into yet another chaotic town, but this one with piles of garbage burning in the middle of the street.
Sometimes we were able to find refuge from the truck roads on backroads where only the occasional truck would still pass by. We would cherish every quiet moment as we rode by endless fields of corn, even it they were punctuated by a smokestack here and there. Before our agricultural diversions from the main roads, we had no idea so much corn is grown here, but we became convinced that China must put the Midwest to shame. As it turns out, a quick Google search revealed that we were wrong: China is still second to the US as the top corn producer in the world.
Our cheap hotel rooms were another important escape from the coal belt, where a simple lukewarm shower to wash off the day's dirtiness felt equivalent to the most rejuvenating and cleansing spa treatments imaginable. Getting to that shower was often a real process though. Since we were mostly traveling "off-book," meaning cities that our guidebook doesn't even mention or put on their map, we would attract a lot of attention just by cycling down the street. If we were moving, it was generally limited to stares with craned necks and mouths agape, kind of like how I might look if my cat started walking on his hind legs and talking to me. Our presence has nearly caused several accidents as people driving mopeds swerve into oncoming traffic while rubbernecking us, or cars will almost get rear ended as they slow without warning to snap a photo on their phone. If we stopped riding to look around, a crowd tended to gather from a hesitant distance. If we pulled out the iPad to get oriented, a brave and bold soul would use that as an opportunity to approach us, usually an older gentleman who would stick his face right up to the screen. That would be the signal for everyone on the periphery to also approach closer, which would of course draw even more people over, which would then catch the attention of even more passersby. It was not unusual to be surrounded by twenty five or more strangers on a street corner in some of the towns.
When we were lucky, a young person who has had the opportunity to study English in school, compulsory since the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1979, would usually push through the crowd and lead us to a place to stay, sometimes with a few extra curious and/or enthusiastic members of our fan club trailing behind. The first few times we unintentionally gathered a crowd, it was a bit unnerving, especially as the iPad further demonstrated that we were on the "have" side of the have-have not equation. Once again, a smile went a long way and was easier to make genuinely once we gained confidence that folks were just downright curious about us as something they would never expect to see in their ordinary day.
In addition to the nightly showers, sunflowers got me through Heibei province. While we would see fields of them cultivated alongside the corn, they also grow like weeds in the most inhospitable places. Often, a single rogue plant would be popping out of a pile of discarded building materials or a litter-lined drainage ditch. Their droopy yellow heads stood out to me like a beacon of hope against the backdrop of dingy coal-encrusted buildings. If they could survive here, even begrudgingly, then I could too.
Without being able to have a conversation with the people we met, or stay in one place for any length of time, I'm not sure that biking through Heibei gave us a deeper understanding of China. However, it definitely led to a more balanced perspective than we had before heading west. The coal piles are the literal fuel of the glitzy lights brightening the sky in Shanghai. The sunflower seeds are chewed and spat on the ground as people wait on the street to get in to their favorite restaurant on Ghost Street in Beijing, perhaps their dishes being cooked in sunflower oil. And the corn, who knows what happens with the corn? I haven't had too many dishes featuring corn here in China. I suspect a lot of it goes to feeding farm animals and getting processed in to corn syrup and such, but I'll leave that Google search for another time. I think it is not only valuable, but also fascinating, to see the support system partially sustaining famous and attractive places like the cities where we began. To do it by bike, one feels the consequences of the demands of those cities as well.