Nov. 18, 2004
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Further Adventures of Strange Vehicles in China
by LINDA MITCHELL
If you'll recall from last week
("Art Beat," Nov. 11), Bill and I went to China at
the end of October to see the First International Strange Vehicles
Games, a competition promoted by the sponsors as "the ultimate
test of man and machine." We traveled with a group of 11
others, including the two Humboldt County teams representing
the United States in the Games. Team "Rabid Transit"
featured Duane Flatmo, Scott Cocking and Jerry Kunkel, and Team
"Ramshackle" was piloted by Ken Beidleman, June Moxon
and Stock Schlueter.
"A good traveler has
no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving."
IT'S BEEN WELL OVER A WEEK SINCE
OUR STRANGE VEHICLES ENTOURAGE RETURNED from Beijing, yet I still
can't say whether I loved or hated China, let alone whether or
not I'd ever go back. "If you'd known in advance what you
know now, would you still have gone on the trip?" my sister
asked the other day, after hearing tales of suffocating pollution,
unrecognizable food and dismal toilets. "Absolutely not,"
I answered, then quickly changed my mind. "Well, maybe."
In spite of the cultural challenges, it's pretty hard to hate
a country when the people treat you like a rock star.
Our role as "honored guests"
began shortly after our group reached Beijing Airport. Our hosts,
Mr. and Mrs. Zhongqi Sun, and their assistant, the delightful
Vanko Lee, arrived 30 minutes behind schedule, but greeted us
with outstretched arms and beaming smiles. We were hugged and
kissed on both cheeks, posed for photographs, then checked into
a luxury hotel and taken out to dinner, where our presence in
China was extensively toasted.
doing the bowling challenge.
Photo by Bill Cody.]
The following morning, our group
was ushered onto a southbound bus for the five-hour journey to
Dezhou ("doe-joe") City. Vanko, an announcer and program
host for Dezhou Radio, entertained us en route with jokes and
songs, helping to keep our minds off the horrific smog and terrifying
traffic, which appeared to follow no rules at all. Vanko interpreted
our observations on the road to Mr. and Mrs. Sun, who smiled
happily at everything we said.
Our exalted status continued
when we reached Dezhou, where we were warmly greeted by local
media and the hotel staff. "Hel-lo! China welcomes you!"
we were told in uncertain English, over and over again. People
posed for photographs with us, smiling broadly and forming peace
signs with their fingers.
Mr. Sun, who, as Vanko explained,
"wanted only our happiness," had evidently chosen the
hotel because of its amenities. There was a heated pool, massage
room, table tennis and billiards, and even a small bowling alley.
An extensive (if largely inedible) buffet was laid out three
times a day in the massive dining room, and prostitutes were
rumored to be available at a discotheque on the second floor.
Sixteen teams (of
three people each) were scheduled to compete in the Strange Vehicle
Games -- seven from China and Hong Kong and nine from Western
countries. The United States, Australia and Britain had all sent
two teams, while Wales, Slovenia and New Zealand were represented
by one each. Since most team members brought along spouses and
friends, 50 or so Westerners had made the journey, most of whom
appeared to be experiencing varying degrees of culture shock.
The most popular area in the hotel became the bar, where Westerners
gathered around oversized bottles of Tsing Tao to complain about
the food, the less than clean rooms, and particularly about the
organization of the Games.
team performs repairs. Photo by Stock Schlueter.]
Things were done at a different
pace in Dezhou, and arranged in inexplicably roundabout ways.
"Change of schedule" became the operative phrase, and
nothing appeared to go according to plan. The "challenges"
the teams were expected to perform appeared to be either suicidal
or more appropriate for tricycles than "vehicles that can
climb any slope, ford any river and maintain grip on any surface."
Safety checks and insurance coverage weren't addressed until
someone from a Chinese team got hurt, the "20,000 seat,
purpose-built arena" the teams had been promised was little
more than a dirt track with cement bleachers, and there were
no tools. "I asked for a hammer and they handed me a brick!"
one of the Aussies complained. "Ahb-so-lute lunacy, mate."
And then there was the incident
in which the brick building where the teams worked on their vehicles
was deemed "unlucky" after a Chinese team caught the
seats of their vehicle on fire while raising their roll bar.
One of our interpreters explained that the building was now "unusable"
and would have to be destroyed.
More interpreters seemed to
appear each day. These charming young people, who were either
teaching or studying English at the local university, smoothed
things over between the teams and organizers, arranged outings
for non-team members, and explained local customs. They refused
payment and thanked us profusely for giving them an opportunity
to practice their English. Thanks to their intervention, by the
time the Games commenced, most people had recovered their senses
of humor and were learning to "go with the flow" of
[Duane Flatmo signs
The Games took place over a
two-day period, and from the standpoint of a spectator, the events
were less than dazzling. First of all, the organizers appeared
to be working out the details as they went along, making for
a long, drawn-out process with limited payoff. Also, everything
was announced in Chinese, which made it hard to follow along.
"What's the object of this challenge?" I asked one
of the British wives when the teams were knocking a giant red
ball into a group of striped balls with their bumpers. "Not
really sure," she shrugged, yawning.
The competitors, on the other
hand, appeared to be having a grand old time. "It's a blast!"
Stock Schlueter said, managing to keep his spirits up throughout
the adventure in spite of the fact that Ramshackle, the vehicle
his team had created out of an old Mazda truck, was broken down
for all but the last day of the race. "Everything went wrong
with the damned thing," Stock noted later.
Ramshackle's thermostat stuck
shut during the parade of vehicles through Dezhou on our first
day in town, overheated, and had to be towed. "We fixed
that problem, but when I tried it out on the obstacle course,
I came off a big ol' hump and only had three wheels," Stock
said. Apparently, the ball joint had pulled out of the wishbone
suspension (or something to that effect). "Toby and Simon
[from one of the British teams] helped us fix that, but then
we broke the carrier housing in our transmission."
The Brits and Kiwis helped Team
Ramshackle turn the vehicle up on its side (there were no jacks
or hoists available) and joined in on the repairs. When I later
commended Simon on their team's benevolence, he shrugged it off.
"We're all in it together, right? Besides, they're not really
mechanics, are they? They're artists."
Team Rabid Transit fared better
in the competition, taking fifth in the overall standings, behind
three Chinese teams and the Kiwis. Rabid Transit also took the
"art award," which wasn't surprising since it was clearly
the most popular vehicle at the Games. Whenever there was a break
in the action, the spectators (predominantly high school students
in black and white uniforms) mobbed Duane, the leader of the
team, begging for autographs and pictures.
Of course, all the Westerners,
even non-team members like me, were asked to sign our name in
autograph books and pose for pictures, but Duane seemed to have
a special connection with people. He was always entertaining,
sketching cartoons and performing magic tricks, and left Dezhou
with the e-mail addresses of several new pen pals.
When the Games were over, the
trophies were awarded and our participation was once again extensively
toasted. The Western teams were all bused back to Beijing and
cut loose for a few more days of sightseeing, sans our hosts
and interpreters, whose eyes were moist when they said goodbye.
Mr. Sun took a long time to say farewell (via an interpreter)
to June Moxon, who was clearly one of his favorites. When he
finally departed, I asked what he had said.
"He told me our time together
was short, but our friendship is forever," said June, mopping
her eyes. l
Linda Mitchell can be reached
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