Greetings, gang

AH, nostalgia, nostalgia. There is a hint of snow in the Rhineland, but I'm gazing at sun-drenched rice paddies and T-shirted cyclists who are glad for every inch of shade. It being that time of year, I'm pasting photos onto homemade Christmas cards to the Gang of 20 who got acquainted with Jiangsu Province and each other last August. Our T-shirts read, in bold Chinese characters, ``Drive carefully.'' And for the most part we did, especially over the potholes, sand, cinders, manure, and occasional steel reinforcing bars we encountered on the roads along the sixth-century Grand Canal.

Our care wasn't always sufficient to keep us upright. Eilleen took the most spectacular dive - into a roadside ditch that festooned her with watery weeds. Dave - the same Dave who, in American collegiate exuberance one 3 a.m. in Nanking, when he was passing a bicycle loaded with delicately balanced cages of 100 groggy ducks, couldn't resist quacking and waking the whole gaggle into instant chorus - that same Dave helped fish Eilleen out and restore her to vertical posture.

As she reads this Christmas card, she will be practicing at the California bar as a fresh-fledged lawyer. And as Dave reads his, he will be programming computers at an Ohio hospital.

It was and it wasn't seeing China at Chinese-eye level. One local worker at a fish farm of the sort the Chinese pioneered centuries ago did pedal alongside me for 10 minutes at the Taihu Lake, chatting in carefully pronounced English. And in cities we had the feeling that we could legitimately ride the alleyways that are everyone's front porch to participate vicariously in the laundering, carpentry, mah-jongg, grandmothering, and mini-concerts by pet cicadas - all without the intrusion that walking slowly through the same alleys would have produced.

But apart from pumping our knees and riding our bells in the same fashion, we were hardly like typical Chinese commuters and laborers. We had no wives and children piled onto the backs of our vehicles; no carts, ducks, or sofas; no huge bags of bones; no color TVs. Indeed, with a luxury that bordered on the embarrassing, we carried nothing except our water bottles and cameras. The bus hauled all our luggage and faithfully followed the ``sweep,'' the tail appointed each day to make sure no stragglers got left behind.

Tom - Dave's father, founder of his own coal company in Kentucky, a man who marveled at the loads carried on carts and mused about what kind of ball bearings could accommodate that much weight on those little axles - usually volunteered cheerfully rain or shine for the thankless post of sweep.

It did rain, of course. One of the photos on the Christmas cards shows us in front of the Shuang Men Lou Hotel, all lined up in yellow and blue ponchos and the bicycle helmets that so dumbfounded onlookers wherever we went. Helen and Anne and drummer Charlie are there, plus Henry, the Dutch-Canadian who was always cracking ``American'' jokes, and Janet, our Canadian guide, who was taking a break from studying archeology in Peking.

``Lefty,'' Janet's Chinese counterpart, is nowhere to be seen, however. He is probably off making sure we get enough box lunches from the hotel. Or he is carefully putting onto the bus the pet turtle he bought when we went to see the pandas. He is a bit too high in the China International Travel Service to travel as a guide normally, but he was assigned to our group to ascertain why CITS always has so much trouble with its unruly bicycle tourists.

CITS's frustration was understandable. After all, it informs all visitors right from the start what is expected of them. But what CITS expects doesn't always jibe with what Western cyclists expect. We didn't mind the written rules we were given about ``no towing other vehicles or being towed and no mischievous acts'' or ``no parking to chat on traffic roads.'' But we had little inclination to be ``submissively obedient'' and accept the precept that ``the riding route and directions are nonchangable.'' When we were put into the bus for a tour of a new city, we tended to ask in advance what was on the docket and, if it sounded unpromising, to abandon the bus and take to our own wheels.

With a flexibility worthy of the new China, Lefty took us all in stride. He even seemed to share our delight in serendipities. He had served his time on remote communes during the Cultural Revolution; he had been jailed for some months then when a friend who was teaching him how to drive a tractor encouraged the licenseless Lefty to cross a bridge that Lefty initially thought was too narrow, and Lefty, friend, and tractor all ended up in the stream. He understood that constraints can be excessive.

He nurtured his own fantasy by translating children's books like ``Charlotte's Web'' in the evenings. He nurtured Dave and Greg's fantasy by teaching them Chinese chess.

It was a great vacation. Merry Christmas, one and all!

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