A Land of Mist and Mountains (1)
Adventures usually strike at the most unexpected hour. I thought I would sleep fitfully in my hard bunk on the train north, and did as much until I was shaken gently awake, around 2:30 in the morning, by some insistent stranger. I did not come to full wakefulness until a few minutes later when the stranger was gone. “Where you go?” asked the fellow from the bunk below, who had earlier been doing chin-ups on the luggage rack. “Uh,” I said, “Nanchang.”
The stranger returned. He had a ticket he would show me, and he shone his cellphone on it. I thought, “What the hell is this?” and heard the bodybuilder say, “He’s a foreigner.” “This is a foreigner?” said the stranger, incredulous. “I am not a foreigner,” I groaned, able to take pride in the Chinese I had learned, even at such an unreasonable hour, when forced awake for reasons yet unknown.
The stranger went away, and I was thinking dreamily of my last cup of noodles when he came back a third time, now with a plain-faced stewardess in tow, who hissed at me and waved with a curt gesture for me to follow her. “What are you doing?” I asked, astonished and wondering, and no longer speaking Chinese. She hissed again, viciously. Following her hand I climbed down from my bed. The stranger, a young man, swarmed up into the vacated sheets. “Hey, what the hell? Get out of there!” I cried. He came down looking mean and showed me to collect my things and put on my sandals. I took my knapsack and may have glared at him in the way of a sleepless child.
On the way down the aisle I could not help but feel even more childish— “Am I in trouble?” I wondered,—“What could it be?” The stewardess took us into the conductor’s booth at the end of the car, then took my ticket and showed me in a book that we would be at Nanchang at 3:30. The clock read 2:45. “You’re waking me up now?” She spewed a whole lot of frenzied Chinese, huffing and puffing at not being understood.
I went back to my bed. There was the stranger, and he handed me my last noodles from the slat and began to climb up into it. I wrestled him away so we could argue in the hall in different languages, saying, “I still have an hour, you bastard, get out of my bed!” The man charged off down the hall, and I followed him to the plain-Jane stewardess, who in the brightly-lit conductor’s booth explained again that I had to get off in 45 minutes. She wrote down a lot of things in Chinese, and I wrote down, “I DON’T UNDERSTAND CHINESE,” which made her huff and stamp her feet like a mare, and like a toreador I wrote the characters for “beautiful girl” to calm her.
I wrote 2:45 and 3:30 and drew a picture of a man in a bed, indicated that I would like to do something similar during the interregnum. The “beautiful girl” understood, it seemed, and seemed to ask if I had all my baggage. With an unwarranted feeling of triumph I returned to my old bunk, where the stranger was bundled up nicely, having placed my things at my feet. “Bad luck,” said the bodybuilder, looking up at me. “Not bad luck,” I replied,—“no, that guy stole my bed, that bastard.” Yet he suffered no sleeplessness on my account—Queen Mab is a forgiving mistress to the Chinese!
When the plain stewardess saw me coming she turned and ran down the benighted aisle of the next car, in a weird straight-legged way, like the way you see people with prosthetic legs run. I tried to tell her to slow down, but she was already in the next car. By the time I caught up with her, she was rousing a poor old man from the bottom bunk. I begged her to stop—clemency aside, I wouldn’t be able to sleep anyway, after such bizarre events.
When I next saw the stewardess, I was in the lighted recess at the end of a car, tearing open my bowl of noodles. The stewardess tried to tell me that I would have to get off the train in 45 minutes, and I told her, “Yes, yes, that’s correct.” But she continued to explain it, huffing and puffing again, and eventually just stood back and laughed at her frustration.
“Look, what’s the big deal?” said I. “I’m just making some noodles.”
I unpacked the contents of the bowl, squeezed out the chili paste, and added hot water from the heater with a fork in my mouth—hot water is available everywhere in China, and they drink it rather than cold—and while I was so engaged, the stewardess brought a much prettier stewardess, then a conductor with epaulets on his shoulders, and finally the bodybuilder, who could speak maybe a dozen words of English. He used them all to tell me that I had to get off the train soon. “I know. Would you tell them that I know?” Instead, he called some English-speaking friend of his and handed me the phone. “He says that you must get off at the next station.” “I know!”
So the bodybuilder returned to his bunk, but the other three remained to watch me eat noodles, though I cannot say what made it so exciting. I had begun to realize that the Chinese do not get out much, so anything at all out of the ordinary is a real marvel to them. If they had had a camera between them, I think they would have asked for photographs. When I was finished eating, the conductor told me to follow him so I could get off the train, which was still rumbling at full speed. “What, now? Are we going to jump?” “Yes,” said the conductor. What else could I say? “Alright. Let’s go.”
He took me to a forward car where I waited on a fold-out bench, amused, as he and the pretty stewardess took turns peeking back from the end. With only five minutes to spare, they called me forward, so that I would be sure not to miss my stop. The conductor had gotten the number of the bodybuilder’s English-speaking friend, and he called this poor deus ex machina, who said, “He wants me to tell you that have to get off the train now.” “Look,” I said, “I’m really sorry about this.”
We were joined near the door by a middle-aged Chinese conductor with a face like raw hamburger. Emboldened by the early hour, I complimented the communist pin he wore over his heart. He said he spoke only a little English, and I called it better than my Chinese. Then he went back and grappled the elbow of the young stewardess and spoke to her in a way that showed me all that he was about and made me not like him at all.
The train squealed into the station. “Here! Here! Do you need help?” they cried.
“No,” I said,—“I’m going to Jinghdezhen.”
Though Jinghdezhen was once the site of the imperial kiln, where all that Ming porcelain was produced, and Jiangxi has always been one of China’s most beautiful lands, painted endlessly in long landscape scrolls; that day’s Jiangxi was a poorer province of China. I had a simple breakfast there: rice porridge and a few bāozi, for thirty cents, and as I was eating a prostitute offered to share a bed with me for about eight dollars. I quickly took a bus to Qinhua, a small town of staring people, unused to foreigners, in the midst of many quiet villages that are. I looked through the alleys and walked along the river, where wheat was laid out in all the courtyards to dry, and I napped in my room and thought that the next day I would go to a small village called Xiao Likeng.
The lights go out in the city outside, and I take out the netbook I'd bought in Hong Kong and see that I’m very far behind in my accounting for where I’ve been. A few choice details should do. I sit at the desk and begin to write.
I took the slow train to Guilin on a hard seat. It is unnecessary to elaborate on how I indicated to the ticket seller that I wanted a hard seat, nor how uncomfortable such a seat can be for a twenty hour train ride.
South of Guilin, on the Li River, there is a world-famed place called Yangshuo, famed for its dragon-back ridges, the impossible limestone pillars, draped in green, along flat expanses of river, that populate many dreams of China. Yangshuo was in its turn populated by throngs of tourists, mostly Chinese, who ambled down amid the shops, vendors, guesthouses, brothels, and narrow alleys of West Street, in throngs of little men with baseball caps and their curious wives, waiting for the next organized tour to begin.
Walking around Yangshuo I was quite the attraction, drawing stares and photographs, both the boldly overt and the bashfully surreptitious. I even planned to make up a sign saying, “Take a photograph with a foreigner, only five kwai!” and stand with it down by the ferry dock, shouting, “Hey, hello! Photo!” in the manner of the man in the Micky Mouse suit who stood on the main boulevard, clicking an imagined camera in front of his mask and then rubbing his gloved fingers together in a miserly way uncharacteristic of poor Micky. (Some lăowài I met actually did set up shop at the theme park of miniature wonders of the world outside Shenzhen and, after one Chinese took a photo, had tourists forming a queue.)
I did regularly catch Chinese passersby looking down at my sandaled feet and, much perplexed by this, devised two reasons for the interest. Firstly, my legs are hairy, and Chinese men are naturally bare to a degree of bareness as Western women will torture themselves with hot wax to achieve. The other reason is perhaps my particular shabby fashion, for although the Chinese have no sense for Western style, often mixing the wrong colors or wearing the lamest things, including shirts that say such obscene things as “Fuck to Love” and “Ask Me If Milk”—despite this illiteracy, the Chinese can tell the difference between expensive and cheap; and to them the former means affluence, development, and Western civilization, as the latter denotes a shameful regressive quality to the quaint and barbaric past.
The past was the cormorant fisherman, down on the ferry docks, his wizened face shaded by a wide-brimmed hat, who sent out his two birds to catch up fish and then dragged them back to the shore by the strings attached to their feet, and tourists might take pictures with him for a few kwai or even wield his birds for a few more. I was not interested! I was crossing China in $2 rubber sandals from a Burmese market, and I did not have money for any of that.
I stumbled down a side-street on a place called the Bamboo Inn, and two Dutch girls called me in by name. It was Ilsa and Sarah of Utrecht, whom I had met some time before in Lijiang. They were bicycling off imminently to some rural house that was apparently full of Dutch people, but we arranged to meet the following evening, when they planned to “go out.” That first night I went out with some people from the dormitory, the young and ebullient Jan-Jack of Holland and several Israelis.
We ate at a place called King Dumpling, which served fine pan-fried jāozi, and I wondered at the number of Israelis present—before Yangshuo I had not met one of them in China. There are certain places in the world, such as Goa and TK, so packed with Israelis that the menus appear in Hebrew, and Yangshuo was apparently one such hot-spot. Quoth one of the Jews, “Yes we all go to the same place, because that’s where there are things to do. We know where the good places are, and that’s where we go.”
Herein lies the lesson: the Chinese all go to the touristy places for the status of a photo there, the Israelis because they know they’ll get a good bargain. The ridiculous French all go to the place of which the guidebook says, “there’s not much to see here, but . . .” in hopes of finding somewhere undiscovered; the neurotic Americans to wherever sounds safest, where they still worry about pickpockets, rapists, and tuberculosis; and the nihilistic English to the beach that has the cheapest beer and most unscrupulous women—somewhere like Home, but with more sun.
Also present at King Dumpling was a Canadian, though by her slight accent, her blonde hair and Slavic phrenology, and her name, Natalia, I knew she must be Russian. Cleverly I asked if she spoke any other languages, so that she bashfully admitted, “I speak Russian.”
“You know,” I said later, when we sat on the rooftop of Monkey Jane’s, drinking beers and talking over the noise of a game of beer pong across the terrace—I said, “if I could read in a language, I’d like to read Russian. I’d like to read Russian novels in the original language—Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, these are the best in the world.”
“I read War and Peace. It is a national epic. We have to read them in school. I think that’s why I don’t like them.”
“It’s the same with me and Dickens. It’s a tragedy.”
Ah, the Russian novelists, with their fatalistic plots, as vast and hard and wonderful as the steppe! This is how the world really is, sad and beautiful, and I like those things that show the sorrow of life in all its strained beauty; who look on the world’s nightmares as bittersweet, rather than causing our hearts to expect the romance of song and soap opera. So I study the ancient Greeks, listen to Tom Waits, and read Russian literature.
I was back on the rooftop the following night, having done little of interest in the interregnum, and this time with the Dutch girls and Jan-Jack, also of Holland, all practicing their fine English on my account—though I cannot help but feel sorry when this happens. Luckily a dashing and awkward Mormon showed up, to talk about ’Merica, and later, when we were drinking at a bar down by one of the canals, I met a girl who had gone to Santa Clara and knew many of the people I knew.
An Israeli in the dormitory pulled me aside the next day and said that I was seen with two blonde girls the night before. He was leaving Yangshuo that day. “I just get up late and do nothing all day,” he said.
The most beautiful place on earth, according to the Chinese, and here I am, drinking and talking to girls! What would my mother say? I did something else, fortunate Reader, which, as some time has passed since the incident, I feel comfortable relating without worrying what my mother might say—I went to the hospital!
My foot, injured by rusty nails in rural Laos a month before, had swollen up again to a worrying degree. The Chinese treat this, as they treat everything else, from a persistent cough to a sick infant, with massive doses of antibiotics delivered intravenously. I received three treatments of it over three days. The nurses would lance a vein on the top of one of my hands, and then lead me by the big bottle of saline solution and penicillin that was attached to my bloodstream by a long plastic tube, over to the rows of seats, where perhaps a dozen Chinese sat under the same medicinal drip, and would hang my bottle from one of the hooks on the ceiling. It took an hour to take it all in, and I watched Chinese cartoons in great wonderment while I waited, then stumbled home, lightheaded.
One day I ventured out with Florian of Dresden and Genevieve of Quebec—what romantic names! Much better than their abbreviated titles, Flo and Gen. I’d met both by inviting them to come to Northeast Dumplings with me, on different nights. Florian was a stern east German who took an interest in politics, as a founding member of the Pirate Party in Germany. Genevieve was on her first trip out of Canada, choosing China because of a childhood interest stirred when she was a slanty-eyed little girl, when her family would call her le petit chinois. She was a healthy Quebecois, who did not much like working in insurance, she told me in her strange, neutral tone, and she had a boyfriend who made her happy, and whose favorite pastime was to shred guitar and watch old Simpsons episodes on his computer.
Anyway, we knights-errant would take a bus north to Yángdi on the Li River, a town full of old women selling Chinese “yellow fruit” and ferrymen who screamed, “Hell-o! Bamboo boat!” We crossed here on the main ferry, to the great exasperation of the many bamboo boaters that had attached themselves to we three, and who had, as we bought tickets and up until the very moment we boarded the boat, not ceased to tell us that such a boat could not exist, and that the only way across the river was by the contrivance of their own vehicle.
It was a long and beautiful walk down through that fairyland of karst pillars. The long valley reminded me of Wadi Rum: a long straight valley between the cliffs “towering gradually till their parallel parapets must have been a thousand feet above us. . . . They were not unbroken walls of rock, but were built sectionally, in crags like gigantic buildings, along the two sides of their street,” excepting of course the presence of sprawling green and the wide rush of river. It reminded me also of the Battle of Dunkirk, for the multitudes of Chinese tourists and the fleet of vessels, great and small, that bore them downstream amazed and defied logic.
I rented a bike the following day, along with Florian, Elisabetta the Roman, and Kim of Australia, and rode out into the wide green fields that span between the limestone pillars. We saw Moon Rock, an impossible arch of stone, and a dozen others beside, then retreated from the heat to a place in the shade near the river. There were two-dozen platforms floating there, each with a roof and a picnic table, and we chose one to rest and talk.
After some time an old man, who had been sleeping in one of the houses across the moored fleet, began to shoot at us with a water gun and laugh crazily. It was one of those long, needle-nosed plungers that you normally fill in a bucket, but he was loading it from the river and letting loose with practiced accuracy. I found several weapons in a rack over our picnic table, though only Elisabetta and I employed them, jumping from raft to raft and running up on the bank as we tried to outshoot the guffawing old man. Florian was happy to take pictures, setting up a shot like the beginning of Once Upon A Time in the West, and a group of men in a neighboring raft shouted at us when our crossfire got too close to their card game. The Italian fought with a childish love of fun, and I soon tired of it and retreated to observe. Eventually the battle ended in a draw, though we continued to conjure ways that we might get back at the old man for his preemptive attack, perhaps by swimming under his raft and coming up from the river to renew the war, and the Elisabetta glared at me for my betrayal.
Elisabetta was a teacher of Italian and Spanish at a girl’s school in London and had an almost reverent appreciation for the differences in language and culture. She was at the end of her holiday in China.
“I took the train everywhere. I think I spent ten per cent of my trip on a train. It was nice though. You meet real people.”
“I prefer the train. It’s absurd to walk into one airport and out of another, on the other side of the world. There’s no concept of distance.”
On the ride back Florian talked about returning to Yangshuo to start a climbing camp amid the rocks, “out away from all this bullshit.” We were watching a Chinese girl scale the lower wall of one of the great plinths. There were three lines, and at the top of each there were stuffed bears and monkeys lashed to the stone as prizes. “This is not climbing,” said the German.
We dined once more at Northeast Dumplings—vegetable and pan-fried chicken jāozi, sautéed eggplant, a dish called “Knife Pats the Cucumber,” minced pork with chilies, and green vegetables. Genevieve came with us. Down by the river we watched the Chinese take pictures of each other, and we answered questions for some enterprising high school students, making things up as we went. I used the old story about being a bear trapper, and received many “oohs” and gasps of astonishment.
When it was well dark, we went down to a place on the river that Florian and I had uncovered a few nights before, when trying to walk out to some midnight beach party advertised by many posters. We ended up on a long stone stair above the river, mysterious and reminiscent of Tomb Raider, where the boisterous light and noise of the party carried across the water, as we talked about what idiots they all were. We drank and raved and acted like fools and wandered home very late.
I had to persuade Florian to accept the peasant woman’s offer. She was a woman in orange, with a basket for a backpack, who approached the two of us in the Longsheng bus station and invited us to her guesthouse in Jinkeng, at the far edge of the Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces, one of those mystical sights nurtured by China. Florian’s Lonely Planet had nothing about this town—God willing it never will!—and only mentioned an old tourist town called Ping’an. I thought this a great way to get away from Lonely Planet’s many acolytes, but the German hated and mistrusted all touts.
Come now, opportunity knocks! As Melville said, “To reach fairyland it must be voyaged to, and with faith.” My argument was far simpler: “Let’s go! I’ve got a good feeling about it,” I said.
“Alright. If you have a good feeling. I’ll ignore the bad feeling of my pride.”
Florian was on his way north to the isolated towns around Kali in Guizhou, and I would head east to Guangzhou once we had explored these terraced valleys, toward which end we followed the woman in orange. The bus that she chose was long and crammed with peasants and their baskets and boxes of goods, but the scenery was alpine and beautiful. Tall trees rode up the slopes and down the dales of a winding valley, formed by a clear and shallow stream. The women all had long hair, but only a few still wore it to their ankles and tied it up around their heads, thick as a turban, in the traditional way. The sun was setting and all was green and gold.
The bus stopped in front of a high gate at the end of the valley. The woman in orange led Florian and I through and on down a stone-cobbled path. A flock of old women followed us, offering to carry our bags or sell postcards. There were no cars, only scaffolded horses and porters with bent backs. The footpath led out into a valley like a funnel in the hills, all striated with rice lines. There was a village in the basin, Jinkeng, blocks of wooden mountain houses divided by streams and canals. Men strolled along the banks, and there were dogs gnawing at their hindquarters and children running this way and that, a crisp evening breeze and a pleasant scent of woods and flowers. The woman in orange pointed at one great mansion at the top of the far hill, where the sun still slanted down and turned the homes to gold.
This was the Tian Ti Hotel, and it was a long climb to reach it, up and down the vales on a narrow stone path, but well worth the effort: the hills were fantastically beautiful. There were only a few houses up there in the village of Tiantoo. They rested on stilts against the slope, great three-storied structures with tiled roofs. We had tea on the terrace, and an old man plucked pears out of a tree with a claw at the end of a bamboo pole and handed them down to us and up to children peering out of the windows; and we packed our things to the creaking bedroom on the third floor before ordering dinner: ginger duck, braised pork in brown sauce, bowls of rice and bottles of rice beer. While we ate we watched the pack horses stumble up the stone steps, and the light dim on and over the hills. We bundled up and carried two bottles of beer to a clearing up the hill, where we could see all the stars for once.
I went out at seven the next morning, out along the stone tracks to look down into the valleys. It was too late for the mist and the mirrors of standing water, but I still found the countryside beautiful. At the top of Tiantoo I found the three god trees, one an oak and two furs, planted by the Yao King Panwang to protect the village from evil. Some children were named Shubao, “Protected by the God of Trees,” on their account. The houses were all sited according to Feng Shui geomancy to bring good fortune to the families.
I was out on the Tian Ti patio when Florian came out. We had banana pancakes, and I ate extra portions of rice with soya and pickled chilis to last me the trek. We would march around, with all our bags, from the Jinkeng terrace to the Longji one and the town of Ping’an, just over ten miles to the southwest.
The stone-block trail climbed up and around a wide valley, where steps of green rice led up from the valley floor. The terraces were no longer the sun-silvered mirrors of early summer: rice shoots sprouted high from the stagnant pools, pods nearly ripe to harvest, around the scatterings of thatch huts, bamboo aqueducts, and tufts of wild brush. Forests grew in the dales and rode across the vertebrae of the dragonbacked ridges, which served this way and that, mingling and receding into the blue distance, as if there were a nest of great wyrms there. Only a few clouds marked the blue sky, and they were far off.
With a “Yah!” and a lash and a clatter of hooves to break the summer orchestra of insects, farmers led their pack horses down the narrow stone trails, which were lined with a clean green idyll of ferns and grass and stately violet wildflowers. There were tombs set in the steep hill like gateways to the deep: short stone doors with wings at the corners and a lion guarding the center, and offerings set on the threshold. Women in costume and long hair went down the trail with tools over their shoulder.
“This is really amazing,” said Florian. “I’m glad we did this. It’s really nice.”
“I’m glad it worked out,” I said, for I was the one who had led us there.
Soon we climbed another ridge and came upon Dazhai in a stream-cooled vale, where many travelers were following the Lonely Planet advice on escaping from the beaten path by trekking out from Ping’an. People said hello, and old women with turbans of hair followed us wanting money to expose it. There was a steep climb up from Dazhai, and I jested with some ladies in the shaded pavilion at the top and traded one dollar, seven jiao, and an empty water bottle for a can of Coca-Cola. (I had had two dollars in my wallet, and the other I traded with a Chinese kid in Qufu for ten kwai, which was three more than it was worth.) There were more ups and downs and inquiries for directions, and eventually we stood overlooking the town of Ping’an: wood mountain houses, tile roofs, narrow streets, drying chilies, and gangs of local men and women gambling over cards in the alleys.
Florian and I had lunch there after climbing down, then made for Longsheng, intending on taking a bus out to Sanjiang. We asked in the parking lot outside the gate of Ping’an, but all the drivers were either asleep or at cards; so we went out wondering what to do. Somehow we met a Chinese tourist, whose English name was Tom, and he invited us to come with him and the rest of the tourists to the crossroads, where we would easily find a bus. He envied us our long vacations and wondered if all Americans get such long holidays. Americans tend to admire the weeks and months that Europeans can take off of work, but the Chinese can only look west to our pitiful one or two weeks of escape: most of the Chinese get only four days off work.
We sat in the back, all the other tourists looking uneasy at our presence, though Tom’s wife smiled and his son stared. Tom had fine English and worked in a power plant in Hangzhou—“Do you know it?”
“Yes, near Shanghai. I’ll go there in a few weeks, I think.”
“Oh! Really? When will you go? Tell me when you go and I can show you around. There is a saying, from Marco Polo: ‘In the sky there is Paradise, on ground—dirt—earth, there are Hangzhou and Suzhou.’ Have you heard it.”
“Yeah, I heard that. I know another: ‘It is best in life to be born and marry in Suzhou, to live in Hangzhou, the most beautiful city, to eat in Guangzhou, where there is the best food, and to die in Lizhou.’ ”
“Yes, yes, in Lizhou. Best wood—boxes.”
“Oh yes!” Tom sighed appreciatively. “In Chinese, we say you are Zhongguotong. You know much of China.”
I beamed, and had I been given a gold medal I could not have felt more honored.
Well Florian and I took a bus to Sanjiang, which was nearby the Chengyang Qiao, the “Wind and Rain Bridge,” a famous old site, and also near the border with Guizhou where Florian was headed, and had buses to Wuzhou where I wanted to go, but we arrived too late for any of that. It was a big wasted concrete town, not really a place for tourists, and a girl named Chingying found us in the street and showed us to a hotel, where she helped us get a good price on a room.
She knocked on the door twenty minutes later, when I was in the shower, which made for some comedy; but I asked her to come to dinner with us at some place around the corner. She spoke a strange English where she spelled out some of the words she wanted to say—“I stay at place just across R—O—A—D— do you know it?” Many Chinese study the language by memorizing word spelling and even whole pages of text, in a way that does not help with conversation.
“The H—O—T—E—L— they want to charge you much money, but I talk. . . . You understand? I get good . . . price!”
She tried to tell us where she worked, and at first I thought she was saying that she was an underwear model and all my face lit up; but she only meant that she worked in a store. Chingying’s English was not very good.
Florian saw the eighty-year-old Wind and Rain bridge the next morning, before we took our separate trails. Over the river there were five columns of stone and five towers of wood: squat pagodas with four tiered rooftops and corners like tusks. Between ran spans of covered walkways, colorful about the railings with blankets and trinkets for sale, and with the arguing chatter of the women. Small fish were posted in statues atop the steep tiled roofs. Below the walkway, massive logs spanned the pylons, mahogany in color. On either side of this bridge stood a forest-capped hill, and the stone walls of the terraced riverbanks spawned ivy and wildflowers. On the banks grew rice, and in the pleasant stream the skeletal water wheels turned with a creak.
There was a heavy fee to cross the bridge, and we said no to the trolls enforcing it; so of this bridge I can say no more.