Wuhan is a city full of windy streets, lakes and hills. The city skipped the development boom of the first part of the millennium because, well, no one is quite sure why. Local websites are full of people asking what exactly the local government has been doing for the last ten years. It’s only now they are following the example of every other major city in the country and throwing up high rises that no-one will live in and highways that go nowhere useful.
It means that it is still possible to reach the outskirts of the city in a very short time and a cyclist can explore the networks of narrow lanes leading off from the numerous lakes in the surrounding countryside. The biggest of these lakes is East Lake, which has one end in the centre of the city, but is vast enough to stretch into the undeveloped farmland. On the east side of East Lake, if you follow me, is a park called Moshan, which has the steepest and highest hills in the region. It’s a great place to ride, switchbacks snaking up the side of the hill, so last year they banned bicycles – although you can still drive a car in the park. However, it was still possible to ride out there before 7am and sneak in undetected through a side gate that was always left unlocked.
Around September last year however, some bastard put a padlock and chain around the gate and laid a lamppost across the other gate so it couldn’t be opened. I started riding around the edge of the park looking for a gap in the fence or a place where I could climb over, but to no avail.
I finally began poring over satellite images of the area (maps are bloody useless, either four years out of date, or presenting utopian Nu-Labour type visions of what it will look like in 2050) to try and figure out whether there was an alternative entrance from the west side, a Northwest passage.
I knew there was an ornate bridge that provided such access because I’d ridden across it one morning as the sun was rising over the lake, but I got so lost in the little streets on the other side it took me three hours to find a street I recognized so I could get home.
My search for the passage took on an almost romantic air as I headed east out of town past the southern tip of the lake, and then turned North up the east shore, travelling another 5 miles or so until I figured I was far enough along to start exploring the dirt roads that headed into the small villages that decorated the lakeside.
Sometimes I would be stopped by a villager who would shout “this road goes nowhere”, or would find myself traversing a dirt track above the level of the rice paddies that came to a halt in a small graveyard overlooking the lake. Once I narrowly missed a water buffalo standing in the road, although later I did wing a pigeon that flew across my path.
But finally I stumbled across a road that, after dropping into a mud filled pool several inches deep, came back up and didn’t come to a sudden stop, or turn back on itself to bring me back to where I started. There was a rising elation as I realized I was heading due west and could see water, and then I turned a corner to find myself looking at a bridge across the lake. I had discovered the Northwest passage.
And then I promptly lost it again. I suspect Frobisher or Amudsen never had to worry about large scale construction projects involving high speed railways and freeways. Basically, the road disappeared beneath a line of concrete piles, dump trucks and large cranes. Where the lane once stood was a reenactment of the Somme.
It dawned on me that I wasn’t searching for the Northwest Passage. I had stumbled across a land of lakes and hills quite by chance when I investigated an open gate. That gate was now closed. I found a second entrance but that way was now closed to me too. I even had a bloody lamppost, obstructing a third entrance. I didn’t have talking animals, but I did have large plastic ones welcoming me just inside the original entrance – a pink tiger that seems to be wearing lipstick, a yellow elephant and a oversized penguin. No doubt about it. Moshan was my Narnia; but with more dogshit.
I got to thinking about that when I went out again this morning in another futile attempt to find Aslan. What do the talking animals do when then need to take a dump? Like making babies, these sort of things are always delicately overlooked when describing fantasy kingdoms. But the mind does tend to wander when riding along a dead straight road heading out of town in the pre-dawn light. Did they have plumbing in their crib, or was it necessary to take a walk into the woods and run the risk of encountering the White Witch in the middle of your business. What about toilet paper? Did C.S. Lewis have anything in the original draft that addressed such issues?
“Mr Beaver, would you have such a thing as a plunger?”
“Oh Peter, how could you?”
“Don’t you worry yourself Queen Susan, the plumbing wasn’t designed for the likes of humans. That’s going to need more than a plunger High King Peter. Bless Me! The old stories are becoming fact. Truly you are royalty. Just look at that Mrs Beaver”
“My word Mr B, that really is something, not like the White Witch from what the stories say. “
“You’re right there Mrs B. Call herself a Queen? From what I’ve heard there’s not enough there to put a gerbil to shame after she’s done her business”
Leaving you to ponder such ruminations for yourself, I had another go this morning, following what I guessed to be the road I was looking for as it dipped under the new high speed Wuhan – Guangzhou railway into a thick goo that looked and smelled like shit. It was one of those situations where once you start there is no going back. I ended up with my lower body and bike covered in a brown liquid that rapidly solidified. I probably smelled terrible.
Before I arrived back home I stopped at a car wash and asked them how much it would cost to wash both me and the bike. I didn’t even bother negotiating and just handed over 50p and stood back while three guys spent 20 minutes washing, soaping and finally polishing the bike. Then they hosed me down. I’ll have another go tomorrow.