A Land of Mist and Mountains (2)
Xiao Likeng was once a farming town, and retained its old form in its present role as a reliquary. The crowd of old houses remained, those great white buildings of Jiangxia, smeared gray by age, with dark tile roofs and dark wooden railings and window panes, and everywhere the red of hanging lanterns. Beyond the edge of town, past the white stone walls of the last houses, there were no suburbs nor car parks nor houses—there was nothing. A few rice fields marked two sides, verdant jade and nearly ripe, and steep hills hemmed in the rest with bamboo thickets and solitary pines.
The four principle streets were arranged like the lines connecting the Great Bear constellation, and along each of these cobbled pathways ran a sloping canal, a combination of rain gutter, sewer, garbage dump, washroom, and urban coolant. Flat bridges of stone or wood, colorful strands of drying laundry, and power lines crossed the shallow streams and the overgrown slated banks, where young willows hung down their fingers. That scraping, splashing sound was that of villagers at the bottom of the steps, washing clothes and hands, pots and vegetables, in water not quite clean enough for the purpose but cleaner by far than most water in China. A close glance into the green weeds and cobalt streams revealed small goldfish flickering among the rocks. Boatmen offered to float the unwary Chinese tourists down these stretches of canal for twenty kwai—a distance, because of the small cataracts, of about fifty feet.
Nearly half the stores fronting the streets were trinket stalls that also made a mint off the Chinese tourists, and the rest were restaurants and hotels doing the same. That tinny, droning sound was that of a tour guide with an amplifier at her belt, explicating the mysteries of village life to a battalion of urban Chinese. They roamed down the streets in their packs, in fishermen hats and safari shorts, with too-big cameras around their necks, photographing the town as if for evidence. The men set their girlfriends or daughters against the most scenic views to take their posed picture, while strange men in the background snapped surreptitious shots for their own collections.
Many of these tourists could be seen leaving Likeng loaded down with treasures, like the Achaeans leaving Troy. They had jewelry of beaded pine around their necks and wrists, wore strings of river pearls, wielded toy slingshots and crossbows, carried glossy wooden Buddhas and phoenixes and astrological creatures, or packaged bits of pottery in the imperial style of Jingdezhen, and some ambitious conquerors even bore off entire wooden chests, with delicate floral carvings, set across their shoulders.
The villagers were no worse off for the rampant pillaging: in most stores, when the artisan was not carving at a table or sawing at a comb, to make it appear as if all the crafts were handmade and not ordered from a factory in Hangzhou, the vendor could be seen watching a downloaded Chinese drama on a new computer or cooking food: leading an altogether fine life of rural mummery. “Conquered, we conquer,” as a Greek once said.
Lonely Planet calls Xiao Likeng, in its short blurb on the subject, “a delightfully picturesque village,” which ensures that every French tourist in Jiangxi heads to Likeng directly. These were a different breed of visitor: strolling the canals with a quick, arm-swinging pace and horse-blinders on to all the other tourists in town, acting as if they were alone in a private adventure, in the bitter way of a self-deceived married woman who pretends she is the only remaining member of her sex no matter where her husband may look.
The French yearn for discovery, and they follow this yearning by picking out the smallest and least likely name from Lonely Planet. That they all find the same Arcadia should not be surprising, but then the French are a ridiculous race and could not be called French if they did not act woefully astonished.
I never minded the crowds—it’s another attraction, something worth watching. I entered the town of Xiao Likeng with a Canadian couple who had been on the bus, and by their presence there was able to bargain cheap rooms in a cheap hotel next to the Shenming; and though the Canadians checked out for a nicer place the next day, I remained in my three dollar garret, looking down on the square and the canals. I sit at the little desk, and I try to remember the hustle of Guangzhou and Hong Kong.
I was only two nights in Guangzhou, but the night before I arrived blends in my memory with the adventure of getting there. After a sleepless havoc of twisting roads and velocities, the bus from Sinjiang arrived in Wuzhou so late that no cheap, respectable inn was open, and I sallied out past a mob of taxi drivers and motorcyclists, though eventually settled in at an all-night diner set up in a parking lot, to read my book and sip a beer. I will not bore the reader with more descriptions of confused travel, but several adventures found me sipping another bottle of beer in a comfortable on the steps of the Wuzhou bus station at six in the morning, and chasing a cockroach around the place with the owner of the store and the chair. I found a bus with the last of my energy, and collapsed and vanished into the seat.
I had a strange dream, that I was working for a photographer who had taken pictures of an Irish mafia’s fencing operation, which was going online to a new Web site for the sale of stolen goods, and my friends could not believe it. Then I’m dreaming about the slim and dark-haired girl next to me, our legs almost touching . . .
“Guangzhou, Guangzhou, Guangzhou!”
I collect my wits before I collect my baggage. Guangzhou was no provincial town: Romans traded here, and Persians and Khmer, Hindus and Mughals, and opium runners, when it was known as Canton. It was always a wealthy city, a gateway to the empire, and the suburb of Shenzhen was made a “special economic zone” by Deng Xiaoping’s modernizations in 1980. There is a saying in China: “You think you’re brave until you find Manchuria, you think you’re smart until you visit Beijing, and you think you’re rich until you see Shenzhen.” Guangdong is also known for its cuisine, the finest in China, with which the Reader may already be familiar: most Chinese expatriates are from this province.
I just had to find a place to stay, but I only knew that one hostel was near the ferry to an island called Shamian Dao, where the European traders were quartered. Asking for directions was impossible. I wandered out and found Internet in a small store—the shirtless proprietor leering over me, the girl bubbling with laughter—and took another hour to reach the Riverside Youth Hostel. By then it was four o’clock—and I had guessed as a joke that it would take that long to find a bed: how often such humor is prophecy!
There was no one but an old Croat in my dormitory, but downstairs I met a Kiwi who had just lost six hundred dollars and a credit card to a hotel thief in the neighboring inn. Peter (his name) looked like Bill Murray in Lost In Translation, but a little skinnier. I asked him to come have dinner with me, at some place recommended by the pretty girl behind the counter. We had noodles and some fish in soya, a Cantonese delicacy, in a restaurant of big round tables, crowded with diners and laughter. Peter said that he knows his mind and generally controls his emotions, but with so many things going wrong, he felt things slipping out from under him in China, like the proverbial rug: felt himself getting annoyed with the world. In my opinion, these difficulties are part of the adventure. This opinion made Peter feel old.
We crossed the Pearl River on a ferry and came to Shamian Dao, the colonial isle, now full of malls and business parks—still colonized, but by corporations rather than nations. Looking for coffee, I caught the two Flemings I’d met in Tiger Leaping Gorge: Meike and Neik, who said they also recognized me walking the riverbanks of the Li River north of Yangshuo. “You have a very distinctive walk.” “Do I?” “Yes.” We had coffee, and I a Guiness for the same price, at a riverside café among China’s bourgeoisie, looking out across the river at the neon-lit ferries and the new apartment buildings, where you must apply for a room twenty-five years in advance.
It was not yet midnight when Peter and I said farewell to the Flemings, who crossed to Hong Kong the next day, but it felt so late. The ferry was closed and so we wandered through the filthy frenzy of the nighttime fish market, where I gained an appreciation for Guangzhou: a big, filthy city. Eventually, after many miscarried plans, we took a cab back.
A typhoon lashed into Hong Kong the next day, and the deferred clouds rained on Guangzhou for the next few days. I wandered the Qingping Market and its dark alleyways: a rotten street, the smell of a pet store from all the rabbits and ducks and dogs on sale for eating, and other stalls selling mysterious things. Overhead were colored tarps and lanterns, webbed electrical wires and caged songbirds, and beyond the leaning buildings: the sight of modern apartments in sterile tyranny.
A patient rhythm guided life in Likeng, as in all the villages of China, which even the trends of tourism could not overwhelm. At night, when the day-trippers had packed their cameras and left for a nice hotel, and the shop-owners had replaced the wooden slats over the fronts of their store, and when all those villagers who worked in Wuyuan had returned from their jobs—then Likeng returned to its senses.
The streets then filled with locals, who all knew each other, and with talk and laughter. They sat under the wooden eaves of the Shenming Pavilion at the center of town or played cards in some back alley. A puppy chased two schoolgirls screaming across a bridge, past a mother who waddles her infant around the courtyard. Fireworks go off, offerings to the ancestors, and farmers skid back into town on the backs of motor-carts, diesel engines with trailers mounted on the back, with much wailing of horns and leaping aside of pedestrians.
The canal was a black mirror, reflecting the bright flowers that sprouted from the stone bank. The white houses and their black rooftops, the cyan sky, fading to lavender in the evening, when the clouds turned pink and the schoolchildren scaled all over the Shenming Pavilion and the swallows riot in the young oak by the restaurant down the canal, where I sat on a stone stool under a trellis of loofah squashes, hanging halfway to the ground, and asked for noodle soup.
“Okay. I will tell my mom to make it. You want noodle soup, and fried egg?”
“Yeah, good. Tell your mom to make that, too.”
It was my favorite place to eat in town. I found that it helped the appetite to look the other way when they washed their greens in the canal.
I sauntered home in the twilight. By seven the whole town was dark, except for a few baijiu bars, with tapped jars of rice wine. An occasional echo of argument comes from these, and a couple walking whispers a word, the crickets sing, a child laughs, a washbasin clatters, and otherwise all is as quiet as it always was.
Hong Kong had its own rhythm.
In Kowloon, the roots of the Chinese banyans spilled out from stone planters that lined the street. We got milk teas from a stall mobbed with Muslim girls in colorful headscarves. There was a huddle of Indians out on the pavement, the men in mustaches and the women in saris, smelling of garlic and turmeric. As we walked, sucking tapioca pearls out of the bottom of the cup, Indians would cry out, “You want copy watch? No fake, copy!” The diligent cartographer could measure distances in parts of Hong Kong by these trinket touts, roughly one every half a block—go that way past four Indian watch-sellers, turn right, and after three more Indians you’ll be there.
We crossed Nathan and threaded the market lanes in the warren that exists in some form or another behind every Hong Kong thoroughfare: the neon signs, the lambent camera stores, the eateries with roast ducks hanging under the heat lamps in the window and steam geysering from the soup pot, and the Arabic stalls with flatbread and lentils and foreign aromas, always named after Ali Baba and manned by his thieves; dark stairs lead down to dungeon bars, and the American chains have all found a toe hold, 7-11 and McDonalds and even Ben & Jerry’s, as well as the European fashion brands, which do more business here than at home; but there are far more Chinese clothiers in those beaten alleys.
Old men hide themselves behind harsh words, seated and sweating around tables under the canopies, with bottles of rice beer, plates of muscles, and decks of cards. A bicycle speeds past, loaded with styrofoam crates. A Westerner shambles by, looking lost in his khaki shorts, and another is entirely fashionable, late to meet his Hong Kongese girlfriend. There is an African couple speaking in guttural hymns, and a steadfast Sikh lessoning his selectively deaf son. The packs of the turmoiled young, the exhausted adults, and the fading old are as faceless as any urban swarm, omnipresent, the sight and sound of them; their great desire is to be like the Hollywood pictures, just as the rest of China wants to be like them.
In 1997 Britain relinquished control of Hong Kong to China; yet the border stations remain, and the Hong Kongese still drive on a different side of the road, use a different currency, speak a different language, vote democratically in different elections, and for a different system of laws, and do not consider themselves Chinese. Go ahead and ask one if they are from China, and they’ll say, “No, Hong Kong!” They often ask each other, “I don’t look Chinese, do I?” Sergi once asked the proprietor of our hostel if there was a locker or somewhere he could put his valuables—“Don’t worry,” said the man, “there are no Chinese here.” The staff was in fact mostly Filipinas, as are most of the domestic servants in Hong Kong.
Yes, Sergi of Tarragona and I had crossed to Hong Kong on the same day, on different buses. We saw each other at the border station and agreed to meet at a certain hostel in Kowloon, the crowded mainland district just across Victoria Harbor from Hong Kong Island. (The British holdings here included a chunk of the mainland, along with a number of islands, granted by a forced convention in 1898. The expiry of this ninety-nine year lease marked the occasion of the island’s return to Chinese rule.)
Arriving in the city, I had no idea where I was, where I should go, or how I should get there. The bus had dropped me off in a park, one of those optimistic oases in the heart of urban canyons, populated by old and withered men; and after spinning with a sense of vertigo, I entered a 7-11. When I emerged, I had a clear idea of the currency (one beer was ten Hong Kong dollars), and had learned of the “MTS,” a sort of subway, and that the Hong Kongese spoke fluent English. So I took the MTS south a few stations and found the Mirador Mansion—which must wait for its portrait—right where it should be. On the thirteenth floor was the USA Hostel, previously called the Traveler’s Friendship, and Sergi was just checking in at the reception desk, which was a classroom desk in the hallway. The dormitory was spartan, but Hong Kong was expensive: it was either the Mirador or the Ritz.
Sergi and I had some cheap noodles at a narrow shop, and we asked mutually, “Well now what? Walk around?”
So we wandered the big city, fascinated by the lights and people, and the number of Burberry and Gucci and Zara stores, as there seemed to be a mall in every station of the MTS, in every pedestrian walkway, and in the entrance of every great building. Shopping for adornments seems to be the principle activity of the Hong Kongese, and the well-wrought style of this rich caste often made me feel shabby in comparison. Hong Kong is a black and white town: some are very rich, but there are a great many poor Chinese, Arab, Indian, and Filipino workers there. They live in shoebox rooms, ten of them crammed together, and send all their money home; yet they are too proud to accept tips or sympathy. There is little crime or violence in Hong Kong—the Triads keep things in order—though recently a poor laborer threw battery acid at the crowds of noble shoppers in the Ladies Market.
We stopped in the Fine Arts Museum, which overlooks the harbor, and saw two girls on the stringed errhu and zheng, or zither. They played airy summer melodies: the wine of a fly in a tent, the tinkle of a wind chime; and songs of the harvest, complex rhythms full of depth and work with a forward melancholy and a crescendo. There were no repetitions. The theme was a suggestion with as many variations as a river, or a human life.
Sergi and I wandered north to a narrowing district called Austin and stopped for dinner in a streetside dive, which invited us by its grimy charm, in character like the old men, in polished clothes and stained jerseys, who patroned it, sitting along a counter outside the lighted window with beers and shrimps and noodles. We shared their fit feast and age worn table, and their bright wisdom!
“Tsingtao, famous Chinese beer. Famous all over the world. O try these shrimp. Very famous.”
There was a German girl in our dormitory named Katharina, or Katha, and I was glad that she came to breakfast with Sergi and I the next morning, because she was very pretty. We crossed Victoria Harbor to the island where Hong Kong began, and Katha went to the hotel she had picked out—a little luxury for her final days in Asia—and I to the Chinese visa office to request another admittance into that country. In line I met a couple: a jovial Spaniard of Madrid named Joser and a pretty Russian of Ulan Bator, Mongolia, named Elena, and we chatted for a while. They had to stay to stay in Hong Kong an extra night to get new visas, not having realized that the city was separate from China—“Same country, different system,” as the border guard explained it—so I took them across to see the Mirabar Mansion, which the Russian did not like much.
The first floor of the Mirabar Mansion was a maze of bright white hallways, lined with shops selling all sorts of things, from repaired cameras to reeking Indian dishes, and manned by canny Parsees, sharp-eyed Mohammedans, coal-skinned Africans, and goliath Sikhs, all whispering and shouting at one another. It was their leering faces on the way to the elevator that inspired Katha to move out that morning, a story she later related to the trembling Elena.
“Do we really have to stay here?” she said skeptically.
“Come on, it’s okay!” said the Spaniard—who proclaimed in her absence, “Never date Russian girls.”
Well Katharina and I went to the Computer Centre, a tower of electronics just between the Ladies Market and the Sports Street in a district north of Kowloon where the pedestrian cannot see the sky for all the neon signs above; and there we haggled netbooks. Back on the island, we met Sergi and a friend of his, a French girl, at the tram station. There was an ancient tram line that ran up to the peak of that rocky and generally inhospitable isle; from the top one can see just how poor a location it is for a metropolis.
All the skyscrapers of Hong Kong are packed into a thumbnail of land on the western side, just across the straits of the harbor, so packed with ships that you might cross it from bow to bow as Darius did the Hellespont, from Kowloon, and more urban sprawl. What makes Hong Kong an ideal spot for a harbor was the very mountain from which we observed it: the rock shields the boats from the typhoons that bash into the southern coast of China every monsoon season.
And I was looking east, onto the South China Sea, which here flowed right out into the Pacific. I’d reached the Ocean, which even Alexander never could, and from that peak there were only a few scattered isles and atolls between me and the Pacific Coast of America.
But the journey is not over yet, and the strangest things always happen at this latter end. On returning to the hostel in Mirabar Mansion, a strange scene:
I had just sent some emails and returned to the dormitory room when Joser and Elena entered. The Russian clearly was not used to these spartan dorms, but he wanted to save money. They were arguing in a quiet way, suggestive of buried embers, and Joser was standing up with his coat on.
“I’m going to get something.”
“Are you scared?”
“Just stay. Come on.”
Joser left, and Elena began to pace the room.
“Just a few more days. Then goodbye. If it doesn’t work when you travel, there’s no future, right?”
She confessed to me and the Brazilian windsurfer on the bunk below me all of her boyfriend’s faults. He was an alcoholic, out getting drunk that very moment, always losing money and begging his rich father for more, though she had been paying his way for the last month. Once he came back drunk with a Chinese whore, and then passed out on the bed. The whore refused to leave and was thrown out screaming by a footman. And Elena wanted confirmation.
“I should leave him, right?”
Joser came back with two tall cans of Heineken, sort of slinking in, and Elena asked, “Did you lose anything?”
“No. Well, maybe I lost something.”
Elena left for the shower, as Joser sat down and cracked his second beer. He had apparently drained the first in the elevator.
“Never date a Russian girl. It’s too hard. It’s like she’s with a whip. Driving me all day.”
He complained and told his version of how they met at a party in Miami, through a mutual friend. When Elena was back and up in her bunk, he had finished his second.
“. . . and I came out, into the middle of fucking nowhere.”
“Hey watch it man, that’s my country.”
“Sorry, ha ha.”
I found all this set-piece drama bizarre. The next morning the Brazilian remarked to Sergi, “Man, it was fucking crazy. She talked and talked, and when she went out he came in and did the same thing. It was like a play.”
I spent the next day on Lanmu Island: a long squiggle off Hong Kong, full to sinking on weekends, and on a hot day of early autumn like the present occasion, as pleasantly deserted as a county fair when finished. The shut stalls, the biking locals, the lanky trees and lackadaisical construction, all gave the impression of solitude and Caribbean peace. Old men drank beer and played cards, and I looked at the real estate postings on the way to the beach of soft and golden sand. A swim in the cool green water and a nap in the shade of the palm trees, next to gold-skinned and “romantically savage” Katha. There were four lifeguards on duty, although Katha, Sergi and I were the only sunbathers, and three of these guards were employed in sweeping the tideline with nets to pick up garbage that had been blown in by the recent typhoon.
Also marring the tropical idyll was the Hong Kong power plant, a vast industrial place on the end of a promontory, all smokestacks and pipelines—though why it was built here, and not on some rocky waste in the archipelago, is as much a mystery as its first owner. Mr. Kodori, an Iranian Jew, once boasted of owning ten per cent of Hong Kong because he owned that Lanmu plant. These days his dynasty runs the Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon.
We hiked down to the southern tip and haggled at the fish market for a good meal: boiled shrimp with soya and chili, fried spring rolls, battered calamari, huge clam medallions served in the shell with rice noodles and spring onions, with rice beer and jasmine tea to complete the picture.
Katha had to leave, but Sergi and I went to another beach before the last ferry back to the mainland. Sergi received a text message from a Hong Kong girl he had met on a ferry, when he was in the disarming company of his French friend; it said: “I’m taking tomorrow off. Let’s go to the museum, then I’ll take you to Cheung Chau Island.” Sergi laughed and shook his head, then looked back at his phone. Quoth the Catalonian, “I’ll have to sleep with her.” He wrote in reply: “Museum, island, with you, sounds perfect.”
We ran to catch a late boat back.
The following day was a Tuesday, and because all the museums were free I went to see a great number of them with Katha, while Sergi was off with his Hong Kong mistress. The German and I had Hong Kong dim sum, fulfilling a dream of mine; and I said goodbye, as this was her last night in Asia. Sergi returned to the Mansion so late that I wondered if he ever would. The girl who had taken a day off work for him had also bought him lunch and dinner.
“She started to speak Chinese really quickly and I just couldn’t do anything. Man. She paid for everything, and we had a big dinner, with beer. She said, ‘If I ever come to Spain . . .” like she ever will.”
That night there were two pretty Norwegian girls in the room, and we stayed up until two, playing some loud combination of Egyptian Ratscrew and a game the Brazilian windsurfer knew, as a wild-haired Italian tried to sleep.
All my days in Hong Kong and Guangzhou were crowded from dawn to dusk with activity, because those lands are expensive and I wanted to see it all in great haste; and the next day, after this card party, I could do nothing but slink around Hong Kong island with Sergi. I said to Sergi, “I’m going to sleep tonight. Really sleep. Unless there are more Scandinavian girls in there who want to party all night.”
“Yes,” said the Catalonian, who flew to Tokyo the next day, and his excitement for Japan peered out from his exhaustion like a child through the bedsheets of a fort,—“I am tired, but if there are Scandinavian girls we will stay up. Play some music, light some candles, put, you know, a color on the light.”
“Yes. Mood lighting. We will stay up all night.”
“We can teach them some card games.”
“If there are Scandinavian girls I will stay up. If there are any girls.”
But there was only the wild-haired Italian, who slept all that day.
And then I returned to China: to Guangzhou, where I stayed a night in the vacant apartment of a CouchSurfer, who was out of town but left her key in a secret place. It was a normal Chinese apartment: there was one room, with steep red stairs leading up to a private loft, and a bathroom tucked away to one side of the kitchen, which consisted, like most Asian kitchens, of a rice cooker and a sink. There was also a bookshelf, an old TV, and cute knickknacks that issued a homey feel. Goldfish shared a glass bowl with a plant on the windowsill. Strange art had been printed and posted on the walls, and on the stairway and ceiling, too. In one corner a yellow armchair held my prepared bedding. On top of the pile: a copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, bookmarked by a Starbucks receipt, with a Keats verse handwritten in the back:
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”―that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
I spent the night on the floor, and in the morning folded the sheets, hid the key, and departed without ever seeing my beneficent hostess, back into the wild streets of Guangzhou: to shuffle among the hoi polloi of the sidewalk, race in and out of the open subway doors, weave through traffic, fight for restaurant seats, and to show no mercy in such matters.
Boarding the train out of Guangzhou, on my way north to Jiangxi and this garret in Xiao Likeng, I became conscious of the reason for all this human frenzy. There were four sections of the warehouse where the throngs waited for long distance trains, and each had four rows of seats with four doors at the end. These were opened one at a time, and the people rushed forward, crowding in on each other, filling every available gap with themselves, their children, and their toe-crushing roller-bags; and then the gate would be closed and the next row allowed to charge into the breach.
I was watching this at my ease when the guard came over, hurrying me forward with waving hands. “Train, train,” he said, and I replied, “Don’t worry.” I hate waiting in lines, so I went forward late and found my gate had already been sealed. A sweeper lady considered me dispassionately over the padlock as I hopped over the row of seats and entered the parallel row, where the masses were then filing through the door.
Part of that mob, one molecule in its compactness, I saw how imperative it was to move that way. There were too many people around China for organized queues and leisurely boarding. There would be no movement without this rude and wild way, this herd migration. The organized chaos of the East Guangzhou Railway Station resembled those close-ups of molecular activity and blood veins that we see in biology, and it was not even the most crowded railway station in the city, nor comparable to the greatest one in Asia―the Victoria Terminus of Bombay, which could be, in retrospect, considered an English expression of the end of the world.