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Art Beat

Nov. 18, 2004


The Further Adventures of Strange Vehicles in China


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." --Lao Tzu

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.Photo of "Rabid Transit"

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.

["Rabid Transit" 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.

Photo of "Ramshackle" repairsSixteen 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.

["Ramshackle" 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

after 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.Photo of Duane Flatmo signing autographs

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 China.

[Duane Flatmo signs autographs.]

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 via



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