There and Back Again

Sharp wind, towering sky, apes howling mournfully;
Untouched island, white sand, birds flying in circles.
Infinite forest, bleakly shedding leaf after leaf;
Inexhaustible river, rolling on wave after wave.
Through a thousand miles of melancholy autumn, I travel;
Carrying a hundred years of sickness, I climb to this terrace.
Hardship and bitter regret have frosted my temples—
And what torments me most? Giving up wine!
—Dou Fu (712-700), “View From A Height”


It was far too early
for such effort, but Mama Naxi was screaming about the seven o’clock departure time, which did not leave much time to spare. Our bags packed and in the foyer, Sergi bought the bus tickets while I went out to get bāozi and yak’s milk from down the lane. Ana of Bogotá was also attached to our unit, but she could manage herself and did not think much of Chinese breakfast.

Of Mama’s three servants, Number Three was a young man from Japan, always in an apron, who spoke with a Sibylline twist of accent, a voice of an old kung-fu master, halfway between wisdom and insanity, with a nonchalance that made him the Stubb of Mama’s three mates. He was the house cook, and Mama Naxi was always berating him over some matter or another. Presently, in the midst of hugging her departing guests, she shouted at him to get going, and Number Three shepherded the dozen travelers gathered in the entrance out toward the southern bus station. Normally Mama arranged a minibus to take her lodgers along, but there was a strike going on and the strikers had attacked a few drivers who continued to run tourists around.

As the bus took about an hour to arrive, I have some time to introduce the destination: Tiger Leaping Gorge lay in the mountains just north of Lijiang, along the first stirrings of the Yangtze River, the longest river in Asia, which runs parallel with the Irrawaddy and Mekong until a miraculous 180 degree bend around a lucky mound of rock just south of here, from whence it curves off towards the East China Sea. The river, at the entrance to the gorge, was a snaking, muddy current between high slopes, narrowing upstream until it cut like a knife through the granite substrata of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and Haba Snow Mountain, their misty citadels high above. The locals called the Yangtze the Jīnshā Jiāng, the Golden Sands River, and they call the gorge after a legend of a tiger who leaped across the gorge at its narrowest point to escape from a pursuant hunter.

The high path traversing the gorge began in sleepy Qiao Tou, and most people take a minibus back from the end along a low road at the base to Qiao Tou, and from there back to Lijiang or on north to Shangri-la; but Sergi had arrayed around him several other hikers—Anna, myself, a Polish couple, Michal and Paulina, and two Flemish girls named Meike and Neik—who wanted to hire a van to take the back roads, the old winding highways, directly from the end of the trail and all the way to Shangri-la, after spending a night at a hostelry up on the mountain. The more people involved the longer it takes to negotiate a fair deal, even if the price ends up being lower in the end, and our diplomacy dragged on and on: Ana arguing in Chinese with the girl at Jane’s Guesthouse over the price of the van and the transport of our seven bags. At one point I suggested, “We could hitchhike to Shangri-la,” and laughed aloud at what circumstances had allowed me to say it.

Eventually we agreed on a price and paid it, packed day bags and bought water for the trip, and set off eagerly down the road and up the high path along Haba Snow Mountain on the west side of the gorge. At most intersections and turns there was an old Chinese gentleman sitting under a tree who would point one way or another to tell us where to go, though we never paid anyone for this service. (Actually the park was supposed to be closed at that time of year, but some locals kept the trail up and the old woman they set at the entrance to ask for ten kwai was too adorable to refuse. Some American had taught her to say, “Dangerous,” which she cried at us when we got too close to the edge.) There was also a horseman who followed us and would point the way when we looked back to him, and offer occasionally the use of his horse.

This became more and more appealing with each switchback, as the high path went winding and rising above and along the Yangtze, a brown ribbon in a deep valley of green slopes, roads on either side. Soon the far road left off, and the far hill became an imposing cliff face, crenelated ridges buttressed by blade-edged formations and rife with green and cloaked in mist.

The Jade Dragon Snow Mountain grew more and more scenic as we went along, though we were often looking down at the ground up which we trudged, for from the Nuoyu Village we began the Twenty Eight Bends, and its endurance test of steep climbs and rocky stairs, winding back and forth above the treeline, in numbers sure to exceed eight-and-twenty. Legs tired, our lively conversation dimmed, and we took far fewer pictures. We stopped part of the way up at a hut selling cold drinks, snacks, satchets of ganja and baskets of mushrooms, which the woman would scream about. “I think she’s a cousin of Mama Naxi,” I said. Near the top there was a panoramic promontory, standing there before revetments of stone a mile high, curtained in cloud, with the Yangzi invisible below us—what a sight!

There were some more steps to climb, and after we had passed the peak of our exhaustion, we climbed back down from it. We sat down, Sergi and Ana and I, and waited for the others to catch up. Sergi had a GPS that declared that we were at 2662 meters, the highest the trail went, to our great rejoicing. (The device also told our walking speed and rest time, announced to significantly less excitement.) Ana was trekking with a purse full of things, and Michal the Pole took a beer out of his and cracked it for the top of the world. We all passed around what we had, including the beer.

It was two hours from there through a forested strand of mountain to the Tea-Horse Inn, where we had a lunch of noodles and beer. The hour trek from there to the Halfway Guesthouse (which, in conversation, I could not help but call the Halfway House) was the most awe-inspiring in the scenic trip. The trail was an even shelf, a yard across, winding along the cliff face, with steep slopes below and that great wall across the gorge, far to wide here for any to leap.

The Halfway House was set above a tile-roofed village and was a square hall, a few stories high, with a rooftop terrace and a good kitchen. It was a little more than halfway along our route, with only a few hours left to hike the next day, and most of that downhill; but we wanted to stay in the gorge because it was beautiful. Our dormitories were on a lower floor, set in the cliff, and the most interesting feature was the toilets—“scenic” stalls with a door and two walls and one open space, looking out on the vastness of the gorge to the greatness of nature. What better time is there to contemplate empty spaces?

There was a crowd of people on the terrace, when I went up there after taking a shower and getting a bottle of rice beer. Twenty-four people were staying that night in the Halfway House (there had been 64 the night before and 78 the night before that), and most of them came up to the roof. There was a Dutch family, sitting around a stump table, with two German girls and two Polish ones, whom I had met on the road. The half-Venezuelan father of the clan was a businessman with Shell, who had been working in Beijing for over a year on an environmental project. He laughed when I asked about working with the Chinese, as did his son and daughter, who I expect have heard the complaints before.

“It’s two steps forward, three steps back with the Chinese. It’s always very difficult. The system here is very hierarchic, very bureaucratic. Sometimes a Chinese comes to me, ‘My boss says we cannot do it,’ and I say, ‘Well tell him why we have to do it.’ He gets this look and says, ‘But the boss said—it’s already decided.’ ”

“The emperor speaks, the minister obeys,” I said, quoting an old dynastic saying.

The Dutchman said that everything in China is someone else’s problem, especially with the environment. The Chinese want and appreciate a clean environment, but they expect someone else to clean, care, and pay for it—the people and the companies look to the government, the government to the international agencies.

I told him a story I had heard, “This Western girl was walking in a nature park with a Chinese guy, and he was saying, ‘Don’t go to such-and-such a place, it is so dirty, garbage everywhere,’ and as he said this he was unwrapping a candy bar and throwing the wrapper into the bushes. They don’t consider an individual impact.”

He agreed and added that there is no independence among the Chinese, and quite a lot of face-saving sweet talk that confuses formal business. “They’re very shrewd businessmen,” he concluded.

Now Ana studied business in Hong Kong University, where her experience was much different—residing with a local family or in the campus dormitories, she played witness to Chinese relationships and personalities. “People say the Chinese are cold,” she said, “but they are not cold. They just don’t show their affection so publicly. But they are very close, and friendships and relationships are very important to them.” In the dorms, she said, best friends would sleep five to a room in a row of mattresses and slumber party giggles, rather than alone in their own bed. Boyfriends and girlfriends did everything together.

A lot of us moved downstairs when it began to drizzle, to a big-windowed hall; and as Constance of Germany told of her childhood, raised in Argentina, and the orphanage she missed in Bolivia, and Kasia of Poland described the friends from Shanghai she had made during an exchange program to a Finnish school, and Michal told of cheap drinks and long nights in Granada, and Ana of her small French town where it all closed at seven, before turning to speak Japanese with the man from Chiba—as these topics went round, I had to lean back and think, “I’ll miss this.” Home suddenly seemed so provincial, next to these wilds of Yunnan that managed to gather such diverse folk.

And oh, how great the wider world! In the morning I could look out the window on ribbons and curtains of clouds crossing the jagged cliff face of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain on the far side of the gorge. More clouds billowed up out of the canyon, and the river was louder than the soft rainfall, which had ceased by the time we finished our breakfast and packed our things. The trail was incredible—atemberaubend, to borrow a German phrase—here a cut shelf again, weaving back and forth around the headlands that ran out towards the far wall, and beneath rock faces and across streaming waterfalls. Clouds from below washed over us like waves, then cleared the way for pristine views down and across the gorge.

After some time the way sloped up, then down on more switchbacks, wet with streaming rainfall. And it was after two hours, covering ten kilometers, that we came down a last stretch of gravel road to Tina’s Guesthouse, where waited our bags, our van, and the impatient driver. The latter had sent Ana a text message at eight that morning, “I am here,” but we left the Halfway House at nine. At Tina’s, some wanted to hike down into the gorge to see the pools and waterfalls, a two hour venture; and as the Germans and Poles did this, the Belgians, Catalan, Colombian, and I stayed, preferring, if we had to make a choice, to eat lunch. There was a big group of Spaniards there, eating buckets of rice with their shirts off, who squawked and chicken-winged their elbows. “I like chicken. You better watch out.” They went on joking and laughing about one thing or another as we talked of Chinese bigotry and other serious matters.

It is an insult to tell a Hong Kongese, “You are very beautiful, like a Filipina,” because “they are the servants.” One would also do well to avoid saying they look Chinese, for they despise the mainlanders. They also think very highly of light skin.

“Once I came back from the beach,” said Ana, in her measured and accented English, “and I was very tan. I had turned black. In Colombia everyone is like this, but in China it is not done. When I came home, my host mother was so upset. She was like, ‘Oh Ana, what have you done! You are so dark! Why would you do this?’ They try to keep their skin as white as possible.”

We talked and talked, and Sergi was saying that he had to call home for some festival, which caused me think of something.

“Oh . . . I forgot my mom’s birthday.”

“When was it?”

“You did?”

“July.”

“Oh that’s bad! Your mother!”

“Yes, this is bad.”

“I forgot my mother’s birthday,” said Ana, “in July as well. She did not speak to me for a week. She is very sensitive.”

“You’re in trouble!”

“Have you talked to her since her birthday?” someone asked me.

“Yeah, she didn’t say anything. She’s too nice to. Man, I feel bad.”

For the next several days those girls in the group would remind me, “Have you called your mother yet?”

Anyway, when the seven of us—that is, Sergi, Ana, Neik and Meike of Belgium, Michal and Paulina of Poland, and myself—finally got into the van, the driver was in such a mood to blast off down the brain-jostling dirt road, sometimes paved and sometimes not. He ignored us entirely for the Chinese pop songs on the radio, incongruous with his gruff appearance, which reminded me of a recovering alcoholic. He stopped to buy water and Chinese Red Bull, a variant that would be illegal in America and Europe for all its extra caffeine, and then continued through the wide valley at the end of Tiger Leaping Gorge and up into the hills beyond.

The Chinese drive recklessly, inattentively, even incompetently—going too slow or far too fast, always weaving about and driving in the wrong lane, passing on blind corners, and they are unable to make a U-turn, to park, or even to pull into a driveway without first stalling at an awkward angle in the middle of the road. They seem to follow the lack of personal responsibility even on the highway, for they do as they please and anticipate that everyone else, be they pedestrians or semi-trucks, will make way; and as pedestrians and semi-truck drivers follow this credo of nonchalance just as much as the average driver, I am amazed that there are not more fatalities on Chinese highways. Our driver was merely speeding, though as our road followed cliff faces this made for a harrowing ride. We had only one close call, coming down from the mountains on a narrow road, when a big truck confronted us after we rounded a bend in the wrong lane, nearly running us off the road, through the line of trees, and down into a precipice. I could only stare at the driver after the wheels grazed the dirt (I was in the passenger seat, on account of my height), but he looked entirely unfazed and unimpressed by our narrow survival.

At long last the van came into a wide, green valley, with black pigs and cattle and stout brown horses. The sparse houses were constructed in a style I had never seen before: each two-story building had three stone walls, slightly-slanted like a fortress, and one wooden facade, opening onto a courtyard framed by mud-brick walls with grass growing on the top. Out there amid the highland plains life seemed the same as it had always been. The town of Zhongdian, at the center of the valley, had changed appreciably ever since its name was changed to Shangri-La to attract tourists and adventurers: from a small Tibetan border town to a broad expanse of new malls and hotels, vaguely Tibetan in certain aspects, in the way that Caesar’s Palace in Vegas is vaguely Roman.

All this sprawl encroaches, like leprosy, on a methodically manicured Old Town of cobbled streets, queerly named stores, and warm wooden inns. The proprietor of one of them, the Harmony Inn, met us at the entrance to the Old Town, beyond which no cars were permitted. She was a slim, serious, dark-skinned young Tibetan woman, in jeans and a plaid shirt, trailed closely by her golden-furred dog Fei-Fei (Fei means "fat" or perhaps "husky" in Chinese), a huge and gentle beast, descendant of the man-eaters bred by Tibetan mountaineers in darker days.

Her inn, just up the hill from the market square, on a wonderful street of lanterns and wooden eaves, began in a wide common room of dark wood. There were red couches and tables and a bookshelf and a wooden bar, arranged around a long wood-burning stove set on a hearth of bricks. There was always a pot of water set there, and the woman often fried mushrooms on it and later dried them and put them in alcohol. Fei-Fei sprawled next to the door, and a majestic white cat occupied his own chair near the fire. The lights hung low, cased in yellow shades, and the whole room was warm and adventurous—and if this has failed to evoke anything in you Reader, simply imagine that Nepali bar from Raiders of the Lost Ark, and you won’t be far off. Up the narrow wooden stair was a dormitory of beds lined up against a window over the street. Loud Irish drinking music poured incessantly from a pub across that street, where three or, at the most, four men sat drinking.

After claiming a bed, I met some travelers downstairs and asked them about the local restaurants, especially about where I could find Tibetan momos, or dumplings, and noodle soup. Two Hollanders, Belle and Ruben, who had been acquaintances through a friend before taking this trip together and were now entirely sick of one another, and an English fellow named Evan accepted an invitation to join we seven for dinner, but ten is such an ungainly number.

With no clear leader, there was much prevarication in front of each and every restaurant, as we toiled for a lengthy time to decide on one. I wondered if we would check every place in town. Eventually, out of mutual frustration, we settled on a restaurant and Ana helped everyone to order a number of dishes to share, including momos. It was an hour before we saw any trace of them, as the one young woman working there bustled around the place. In the meantime, Ana led the conversation with a well-mannered hand, effortlessly drawing stories and dialogs out of her guests, forgetting none of them and exercising her wonderful memory on each, and speaking in such a way, with her Colombian accent and cosmopolitan cool, that it was impossible not to listen. I was very impressed, because Americans, though familiar with the barbecue, have no idea of how to run a dinner party.

The next day, the old band of seven rented bicycles and pedaled north to Shangri-La’s principle attraction, the Ganden Sumtseling Gompa, or Monastery. The three mile ride there, due to Chinese driving skills, which remind me constantly of that screaming truck driver in Raising Arizona, and also of my father’s hurried manner of driving when he has to go to the bathroom, though when the Chinese are in a hurry they drive far more frantically—those driving skills made our ride a thrilling one. From the main gate we rode up over a hill, then down into a grassy valley and around the manicured swamp called Lamuyancuo Lake, on a roughly cobbled road that led to the high hill where the monastery had stood for 300 years. It was shelled by the People’s Liberation Army during the reign of Mao (I think Americans should be familiar with that manner of delivering freedom to a people), and under Deng Xiaoping was reopened as a tourist attraction, though perhaps “Tibetan zoo” would be a more fitting term. Most of the monks moved out to smaller cloisters, and now there are as many soldiers in Songzanlin as Buddhists.

The Chinese were, when I visited, rebuilding the main hall, which peaks the steep hill between two lesser temples. Residences and other shrines ran down the hill to the wall that ringed the base. We parked our bikes outside this and entered the gate, viewing temples on our way up the central stair, wondering at the indecipherable Tibetan pantheon, with all its demons and symbols, and marveling at the fortress-like architecture. By the time we neared the top, we were entirely exhausted by the thin mountain air, and we bought drinks from a Tibetan cantina before moving on to the platforms, stone passageways, and great temples atop the hill.

The few monks I saw either helped with construction or, if they were older, napped in the temples next to cardboard boxes filled with money thrown in by Chinese tourists, who treat the monks as part of the exhibit and photograph them extensively. All the statues of deities and lamas were covered in yuan banknotes, and there were more stuffed into the mouths of dragons or behind the picture frame of the Wheel of Life. Some Chinese tourists prayed before them, and then stuffed their pockets with alms.

When we had explored all the upper temples, we collapsed back down the stairs and unlocked our bikes. We took them around the lake and back up the hill, then coasted down into town. A funny thing happened when we went to eat. Starving, we stopped in the first place we saw, which was a small café, and Ana ordered seven bowls of whatever the guy in the corner was having. The old Chinese woman who owned the place stood petrified for half a minute, staring at these seven lăowài as if at as many monsters, then fled to the kitchen to get her daughter, who took our order with much confusion.

There was more confusion at dinner time, where the waiters argued endlessly with poor Ana about how quickly it would take them to make our dumplings, and the drunk Chinese at the table nearby had something to say, as well. I turned to Sergi and said, “How is it that we, knowing no Chinese, can order easier than Ana, who is fluent?” It was true—I might go into any restaurant, point at a few things, say the word for pork and rice, and then say, “Correct, correct, correct,” and eat whatever came out from the kitchen; while Ana would have to endure an endless series of protests and explanations and offers of drinks and all sorts of things before finally receiving her food. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.

Back at the inn, I was looking in my journal and realized that I had only been in China ten days. I told this to Sergi, who said, “No way man, it’s impossible,” for with all that had happened, all the people we had met, and all we had learned, it seemed as if a month had gone by. There were fireworks that same night. We watched them from the porch and the street, and the innkeeper told us that they were for Chinese Valentine’s Day. The booming show went on and on, until the colored phosphorescence was blooming ghostly through the smoke of all of ten minutes’ barrage. “Imagine what it is like in Beijing or Shanghai,” said Michal. Sergi joked, “They have fireworks because we are leaving tomorrow.”

I mentioned before in this chronicle that I have been in the habit of concealing the length of my trip from other travelers—when asked, “How long are you traveling?” I say how much more I have to go. Sometimes I say one year, which does not cover it all, for when I was in Shangri-La it had been one year, seven months, and two weeks since I waved goodbye and boarded a plane to London. But that is an absurd length of time to be traveling, to live out of a backpack off the cheap greasy fare of quick diners, with fleeting friendships and too many farewells.

Realizing this, not with the revelation of the mystic but in the slow humbling of some belligerent who sees that all his arguing is only making an ass of himself, I had cut Cambodia and Vietnam out from the itinerary, and when called to make further excursions here in China, I refused them. All my friends would go north into the mountains, a four-day journey by bus along precipitous tracks overlooking the great peaks of eastern Tibet, stopping for the night in towns with Tibetan names and ways, all the way to Sichuan, a land of four rivers, famed for spicy food and beautiful girls. I waited outside the bus station with the bikes as they purchased their tickets. I would go back south through Yunnan to Kunming, and from there to the dragon-back hills of Guanxi. I waited without sadness: to see it all is impossible, and you must tear up all the roots even to try.

My choice required many farewells, taken in the hall of the guesthouse at an early hour. While we waited for the others, Neik explained the strange dream she had had: “I dreamed you all came to my village in Belgium, to visit, and my mother made spaghetti, but it was not spicy. It was very plain. So I added tons of Tabasco, because that’s what we are used to.”

“I dreamed a funny thing,” said Ana,—“I went to a big party in a house between Colombia and Venezuela. The house was underground. There were many people there, but it was secret, because Chavez does not allow this kind of thing. Everyone was having a good time, and then, all of a sudden, Chavez came. People were like, ‘Oh no! Chavez!’ But Chavez started to sing and he joined the party. Then the Chinese police came to break it up. People were running everywhere and hiding in cabinets. Chavez had disappeared. The police started saying, ‘Who speaks Chinese?’ and I was like, ‘Oh no!’ It was a very funny dream.”

I laughed and said goodbye to them all, kissed the girls on the cheek, shared with Sergi a heterosexual embrace, and went back to bed. I was alone once more.

Looking south from the Harmony Inn there rose a steep hill, topped with a chörten or Tibetan stupa. In the mornings a monk sat under the great Buddha statue within, wrapped up in a maroon blanket and chanting mantras from deep in his throat. The old faithful of Zhongdian prayed before the statue and circled round the building. The men walked with dignity, and the woman wore traditional Tibetan garb: a maroon vest and blue apron worn over black smock with white cuffs, with a magenta turban, open over the skull in the Chinese style.

At night, in the square beneath the stupa, women in the same attire, as well as girls in Western dress and men and children, would gather to dance in a great circle, which shimmered with their waving arms and spun as they walked or twisted this way and that in unison. The movements repeated, though the song made them faster and faster up till the end, and each person danced alone—an American square dance made round. A handful of maniacs around the edges danced wildly, but in the center they were all skilled, for they did this every evening. There must have been five hundred people in the circle on the nights when I saw it.

I went with Ruben the Dutchman, Evan the Englishman, and Dave, once an Islander but now an Australian, and an enthusiast of cameras and cycling, and we danced at least one dance in that great circle of Tibetans. We found the rhythm and learned the steps by watching the locals, and at the end at least looked no more foolish than when we had begun. Dave had a peculiar story: he was on a cycling trip measured in years, crossing the entire Himalayas from Yunnan through Tibet, Burma, Assam, Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal, Kashmir, and Pakistan, asking locals and scholars what they knew of Shambhalah, the Himalayan paradise of Tibetan legend—as opposed to the fictive Shangri-La of 1933’s bestselling novel, Lost Horizon. Having reviewed cameras for an Australian magazine, both Canon and Ricoh sent Dave new models to try in his trip, and he was looking for good newsstand stories along the way, such as the new solar farm outside Kunming, though the money never interested him.

“For a while I wanted to buy land in Australia,” he told me as we had Western breakfast at Noah’s one morning, “but how stupid is that? How can you just say, ‘I own this,’ when anyone can walk on it or look at it. Now I think I’ll get a caravan, just to live where I want.”

And I thought I had known adventure!

I left Shangri-La by bus, and though on that day I got no further than Lijiang, on the next I arrived in the rural town of Shaxi, which I had wanted to visit. Like Lijiang, Shaxi’s old architecture was preserved, though by a European agency rather than some Chinese tourism bureau, so that in Shaxi one could see an old village without the souvenir stalls and hassling crowds that normally accompany Chinese antiquities. The Chinese tourists did not care for Shaxi, where there were no stores to shop or nightclubs to be seen drinking beer in, and the villagers were quite happy to go on living as they always had.

Shaxi was a small town in a wide, green valley. The new buildings were constructed in the old style, the old buildings maintained by new techniques. By the river the walls were low and tiled along the top, and in a quadrangle of a courtyard two wood-carved demons sat in scowling sentinel outside the wide front of the temple. Narrow and romantic lanes led off in all directions, and round openings led to rock gardens with a sparse aesthetic largely lost to the rest of crowded China.

The day I arrived happened to be the day of the market. Nearby farms brought in their goods—fresh-picked oranges, apples, pears, grapes, pomegranates, and watermelon; green onions, winter peas, fat tomatoes, and long, skinny eggplants and radishes; spicy chili peppers and mouth-numbing Sichuan ones; pork heads and haunches and pan-fried sausages; and buckets and jugs of peanut and sunflower oil—and the traders had their stalls with knock-off clothes, plastic jewelry, cowboy hats and fedoras, plastic containers, soap and cosmetics, and cheap Chinese factory shoes. The street between was crowded as it could be. Women wore baskets on their heads, and mothers treated their children to toys and snacks. The children who were not walking back from school with a few books embraced were chasing dogs down the street. Old musicians roamed the street with their instruments in cloth sacks, making for a funeral, and peasant women in bright costume led donkeys back out into the country with market goods and gas cannisters lashed onto the beasts’ backs. The women pursed their lips and wore sneakers under their gypsy skirts. Motorbikes, too, rolled through the crowd, and tuk-tuks roared off from the perimeter, and there was a sound of hammering and music and haggling. Sunglasses were cheap, umbrellas expensive, in those days preceding autumn.

The cookhouses steamed with custom, and there were buckets of dirty dishes in dirty water out front. Teens smoked sullenly under a brick wall. One child squatted with her pants down in front of her mother’s stall, obedient to nature if disobedient to her screaming parent. A boy showed an old grandmother the plastic watch he had received. A mother and son took off laughing from the cantankerous old popcorn vendor, who scowled after them. Another old woman, wet-voiced with one tooth and a blue shawl, sold fake banknotes with the faces of Qing emperors on them, and cardboard shoes and paper suits, to be burned for the ancestors; and she had joss sticks of all sizes, from pencil-thin to big as your arm. A clothes merchant in mismatched Western formal wear announced prices over a headset and speaker that he wore, before dropping his umbrella and packing up the store.

By five, everything was gone.

I wandered the town and entered a gathering in a courtyard off a back alley, where all sorts of people were gathered around makeshift tables with bowls of food and bottles of báijiǔ rice wine, as the old musicians I had seen in the street were up playing the wining peasant tunes of rural China. I soon found myself, by virtue of Chinese hospitality, with a bench, a cigarette, a cup of tea and a glass of báijiǔ, and I refused offers for dinner. Some women were wearing white turbans and string belts, some men chef hats and the same. I asked the drunk who had served me wine about these, through hand signs, and he indicated that they were children of the man who had died, drawing my attention to the coffin in a recess in the wall, which I had not noticed before. There was a picture of an old man, and several old women knelt on the floor, rocking with grief. Everyone else was in excellent spirits.

I spoke with one of the dead man’s daughters, who was an art teacher in a nearby village and spoke some English. I asked about the old men playing the old instruments, and she said, “Only old men can play. No young people learn this. It is not good anymore.”

The next morning, two dozen white-turbaned women went wailing down the street, dangling all over each other in the midst of their histrionics. Then came the troupe of musicians, fiddlers with their instruments on their waist and some finger-pickers and a flutist. The sons in their hats bore out a sort of effigy and more carried the coffin, caparisoned in streamers. Why does a coffin look so much smaller than a man? Children threw crackling ribbons of fireworks, and there was great noise and tumult until the thing had passed.

It was a suitably gray day, though I thought the rain would hold off for whatever ceremony the mourners had planned. I ate noodle soup for breakfast and then strolled around the river and the old courtyards and considered my options. To get to Guilin I had to go through Kunming, a long way away, and thought the best way was to go through Dali. To get there, I packed my bag and walked out of town to the road, checked my compass, then walked along in the direction I thought proper. O great highway, open thy arms to receive me!

Comments

  1. I, for one, am very happy you have not torn out all your roots.

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