The China Stories (Or How I Didn’t Learn To Speak Chinese In 1008 Hours)
"They're pig feet!" I stared in disbelief at the two bowls of boiling broth, the platter of rubberized seaweed, and thin slices of — processed ham? A waitress yelled over my head. I slurped a noodle. Five seconds later I was still slurping.
It refused to end. When it finally did it flung oily splatters all over my shirt. The chopsticks became so greasy I could barely hold them and the pork foot or whatever it was squirted across the table instead of into my mouth. As it turned out
that was okay. Everyone was stacking their bones on the table anyway.
Worse yet I’d ordered the things. Pointed right at them in the glass case outside. Oh yes a half a dozen. Why not? My bowl started sliding off the table. I lunged for it and eyed Yaa’s plate maliciously. “What is it?” This would become a common utterance thru out the trip.
“I-I-,” she screwed up her face. “Not sure.”
“I’ll tell you what it is. It’s guts. You’ve got a plate full of guts.”
She considered the fact. “You want try?”
Across The Bridge Noodles. Famous thru out Yunnan Province. A sort of cook your own hot pot that most likely did taste good if you had the slightest idea of what to put in it. Pork feet not being high on the list. But of course we never found out how you really do it. After smearing grease across my shirt and glasses, the pork bones finally congealed. My fingers became so sticky the chopsticks were now permanent attachments. We gave up and vacated. Still hungry I might add.
Not that walking the streets was much help. Nobody speaks English. In fact they’re astonished you don’t speak Chinese, a small detail easily overlooked as they chatter on endlessly expressing their surprise at your impropriety or more likely ignorance. Actually it’s not really a chattering sound. More like a loud bark. So that was it. For better or worse we were barked thru China. With gusto I might add.
It was deceiving at the airport. A ploy to get us off-guard I suppose. Rosie found us right away. With due diligence she flashed her official airport tourist badge, spoke excellent English, and was all too happy to escort us to appropriate lodging in the heart of Kunming. It was right behind the Holiday Inn. How could we miss? I blessed our good fortune, she having confirmed my suspicions that, in fact, China was well along the tourist trail these days. All those stories of struggling travelers daft enough not to have booked a tour were old news.
We jumped in the cab, Rosie in tow, and what’s playing on the radio? Old MacDonald had a farm. A sure sign from the heavens. I leaned back looking forward to enjoying the new China and a lively country swing version of Hickory Dickory Dock came on. Somewhere inside a small alarm went off but I completely ignored it.
We were still smiling when Rosie led us up to the ninth floor of an office building tucked back on a side street somewhere downtown. A lobby of international clocks reassured us, we found a suitable room, and she coaxed two nights payment out of us. The girl at the desk smiled but had she spoken any English?
Back outside Rosie helped us buy a couple things then quickly said goodbye. Time to collect her commission. I looked down the street. All Chinese. I looked at the signs. All Chinese. I grabbed a menu on display. All Chinese. Oh-oh. I hollered after her.
“But-but-do they speak any English?”
She stopped and there was that telltale Chinese laugh which was not a laugh at all. "Ha ha ha. No."
“What about the menus?”
“But how do we eat?”
“Point. Go to the kitchen.” She waved her hand at the air and disappeared.
I had a rudimentary map. We headed off for our first adventure. Within a half an hour we were completely lost and three days later we were completely hungry.
Kunming is a modern city and by just about any standard a very pleasant one. Dubbed the city of eternal spring at over six thousand feet elevation it’s graced with warm days and cool nights. Unlike many of China’s sprawling urban centers it’s not submerged in a grey layer of smog. Its wide boulevards are divided so cars don’t mix with motorbikes or bicycles. The architecture is appealing and at night the town lights up like Las Vegas. Whole sides of buildings undulate in rainbow colors with fish swimming amongst flashing lotus plants, stars sparkling, and golden spires crowning their tops.
There was an eerie calm about the town that I chalked up to coming from the chaos of Bangkok. But in fact all the motorcycles were battery powered. No noise, no pollution. It was wonderful. They were less expensive than their gasoline counterparts so what was wrong with the rest of Asia? If there was any caveat it was only that you didn’t know when they were coming. Especially at night as they rarely turned on their headlights to conserve power. It was all too enticing. We rented bicycles and joined the flow.
Funny, we should have crossed the river a hour ago. I couldn’t make heads or tails of the map. Yaa flagged down someone wearing a bright orange official looking vest. He flipped the map right side up then pointed down one of the streets. No no that can't be right. I pointed the other way. Someone else offered their opinion. Now we were having fun. I was so adamant about being lost I argued profusely with the poor fellow till he was forced to regroup. He marched out to the street sign, shook his head in disgust, and verbally beat us in the opposite direction.
At least we found the river, which meant we might get back to the hotel that night. We plopped down onto a park bench and Yaa dove into her bag of roasted chicken feet. Well I wasn’t that hungry. I fished in my pack and found the mini Chinese English Topical Dictionary we'd bought earlier. Hmmm. Maybe I'd find something here to help. Like how to order higher up on the anatomy chart.
Wow. It was amazingly thorough. Sections on nutrition, law, education, real estate, human organs. There was even stuff on the zodiac wheel and birth stones of westerners. Not that any of this was going to help much. Common Diseases. Huh. Might as well find out what we were in for besides starvation. I haphazardly thumbed thru the pages and there on page 448 my worst suspicions were confirmed. The sixth listing down right after cancer, aids, euthanasia, and scar, was IDIOT. Unbelievable. That explained it of course. Every foreigner landing in China came down with a severe case of it. As chicken cartilage crunched away in my ear, I wondered feebly if I would ever recover.
The streets in China are clean. Every sidewalk, overpass, and parking lot has its own personal caretaker wielding an oversized bamboo broom. Shops mop their floors midday and water is sprinkled outside to keep the dust down. Porters on trains repeated this performance dragging brooms and mops down the aisles. The train windows were sparkling clean. Public garbage cans were often disguised as miniature pagodas. You had to convince yourself to use them. Much too nice for such things. There was even a stab at recycling with green and orange containers in the parks labeled 'recovery' and 'unrecovery'. Both filled with garbage I might add.
As our overheated taxi stopped alongside the road for the umpteenth time, I noticed our young guide slinging empty bottles into the bushes. With my usual indignation I browbeat the poor fellow unmercifully. He looked at me in confusion. ‘But if we leave them here the children will come along and take them for money.’ Oh.
Lying in our hotel room early one morning the song ‘It’s a Small World’ came tinkling down the street. Must be an ice cream truck. But no, it was a flatbed garbage cart making the rounds. People emerged with endless small bags of neatly tied garbage that were heaped on the back. All very tidy indeed. One might be lured into a false sense of security until Mother Nature calls.
Actually there were plenty of public restrooms. No complaints there. It wasn’t difficult finding them. Just walk a few city blocks and your nose will do the rest. How a country so obsessed with sweeping and mopping can be so unpossessed with public restrooms is hard to fathom. The reality is China has some of the stinkiest in the world. It doesn’t matter if you are walking down the street or riding on the train. They rarely failed to burn the olfactory glands.
Alas if you managed to plug your nose and venture in privacy was a premium. Often there was only a single trough in the floor which may or may not have running water thru it and an ‘L’ shaped wall basically defining your working space. Otherwise you were in full view of any newcomers. No wonder these places were loaded at night, the only guiding lights the long row of burning cigarettes. Needless to say I reserved my more ambitious endeavors for the hotel room.
Privacy was definitely not a premium. Dental clinics filled store front windows. We thought they were medical supply stores until someone sat down and the drills started rolling. Clinics were the same featuring patients on gurneys, IV's dripping into arms, bandaged limbs, the sick and infirm all on display. No one paid attention except us of course.
Ah, the sounds of 'Scarborough Fair' wafting thru the hotel lobby. Simon and Garfunkle would be proud of their listening audience, their songs echoing across the country. Soft pop is king. No heavy metal on that MTV style station, it was all young men and women crooning out wonderfully romantic love songs, the melodies rivaling the Beatles in their heyday. TV channels were devoted exclusively to music featuring native instruments and full orchestras. The soothing sounds of flutes and string instruments accompanied you everywhere in China.
The soloists were usually women. Not surprising considering their dominant roles here. Our cab driver was a woman. The bus drivers were women. Most of the guides were women. They starred in the comedies, the men treated like imbecilic fools crawling on all fours, pulled by the ears, with the audience roaring in appreciation. And how many times did we see the male kowtowing to a browbeating female out on the street?
The men were also the underdogs in fashion wearing drab colored polo shirts and drab colored slacks. Evening merely repeated the pattern. The woman though had a half century of fashion at their disposal. You’d see anything from fifties style polka dot dresses and lace brimmed hats to low slung hip hugging mini skirts and designer blouses. Slurping noodles one day two women caught our eye. They were walking arm in arm, one sporting a three-tiered ribbon festooned hat, a cape style thigh length flaming red plastic raincoat, and six-inch heels. Her friend looked right out of the class of ‘55, a billowy sundress dancing in the wind. They were the exception though. On whole the Chinese weren’t nearly so colorful.
Nor were their cities. Kunming aside and perhaps a handful of others, the urban centers are vast sprawling utilitarian testimonies to the bad usage of concrete. A shroud of smog adds to the dreariness of a skyline dominated by endless block buildings. This in itself is not so unique. Bangkok, after all, looks as though it could use a year of pressure washing, but at least down on the streets life is colorful.
Not so in China. Other than in certain designated areas, all those vendors, hockers, soup kitchens, and handicraft sellers are for the most part non-existent here. There are no houses either, a fact easily overlooked when you're staying in the center of the city. But travel to the outskirts. Still no houses. It's remarkable until you realize the average Chinese city counts in the millions. There's simply no room. So everyone stays in blockhouse apartments. Even in Beijing the handful of remaining houses all had historical plaques on them, reminders of days gone by.
The historical sections of the cities have also fallen prey to the so-called Chinese juggernaut of progress, often disappearing altogether. Quaintness and charm weren't an essential part of the equation and after a while those smoggy grey streets get monotonous and depressing. Fortunately there's an escape, an oasis in that huge monolithic desert that’s as remarkable for its diversion as it is for its celebration of life.
The parks. The People's Parks as a matter of fact. Never was a name so aptly spoken. They are wonderful. If one ever imagined what a park should truly represent as a full manifestation of the human spirit the Chinese have got it down like no other. Nobody gets the usage out of a park like they do. They milk their parks for every yuan they lose gambling on mahjong, every song book they hand out to the crowd singing nationalistic songs, and every Chinese opera being acted out with musicians banging away on accordions, trumpets, flutes, and cymbals. Lovers smooch beneath palms beside little lakes. Jugglers toss ceramic bottles trying to catch them in cups. The strains of 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star' and 'London Bridge Is Falling Down' are heard in the bonsai garden, a mother, daughter, and grandmother taking turns with the verses, now in garbled English, now in Chinese. Here two women are ballroom dancing, an old phonograph creaking out the melody. There someone is knitting, playing cards, or performing tai chi.
The gusto is catching. The enthusiasm overwhelming. The singing reaching an earth shattering crescendo of a hundred strong heart felt voices. You'd swear the country had just won the war. As the song finishes everyone claps and waits expectantly for the next singer to take the reins. Kids dart in and out of the crowd chasing one another and a stone's throw away is another huge gathering, a Chinese 'Elvis' crooning popular songs, complete with amplifier and microphone. Now a woman jumps out and starts gyrating dance steps. Now a man joins her. The crowd is ecstatic. There's no stopping these people.
Yet on the street they are dour and in the shops too serious. It's misleading.
At nighttime the parks transform into fairylands. Everything is lit up. Weeping willows undulate in brilliant blue greens. Pagodas and temples glow with tiny light globes. Arched bridges are washed in color the water shimmering below. Paper lanterns light up the pathways your footsteps casting shadows.
This penchant for lighting revealed itself thru out China. In Lijiang, a world heritage town at the base of the Himalaya, the same pattern was repeated on a grand scale. Thus as darkness descended the hillside temple turned to gold and eventually floated on a heavenly white cloud. Directly opposite the radio tower streaked into the sky, a fiery blaze of blue orange piercing the stars. Down below the old section of town was a maze of shadows and highlights, glowing reds and blues and washes of brilliant white gold. It was magic walking those cobbled lanes, willows caressing your shoulders, small bridges leading you astray, the sing sound melodies of rushing waters soothing your soul. At night we would lean over our balcony and watch the illuminated waters of the crystal clear stream, schools of golden fish rippling beneath the surface.
Home of the Naxi people Lijiang is one of those cultural highlights the world has yet to destroy. In spite of the hoards of tourists the Naxi proudly go about their business, wear their native clothes, dance in the squares, and maintain their wonderful brick and wooden architecture. Every night the Naxi orchestra performs on all native instruments, the average player well over eighty. When the Cultural Revolution struck they buried these in the ground to keep them from being destroyed. Each year one or two pass away and sometimes their musical secrets pass away with them.
X'ian. Home of the Terra-cotta Warriors. Discovered little more than thirty years ago by a farmer digging a well. He unearthed a few shards and an army of thousands came to life consisting of soldiers, chariots, horses, and weapons still sharp after two thousand years. Enormous hangers have been built over the site. Inside are the excavations, many still in the beginning stages. While part of the clay army stands guard pieces of the rest litter the ground. Arms stick out of the dirt. Part of a horse’s head is discernible. An imprint of a wheel is seen. Weapons lay about. The imagination runs rampant with the mysteries buried here.
It must have been a shock for any marauding intruder suddenly confronted with this life-size clay army. Static to be sure but no less threatening. I imagine that first wanton blow was carried out none too easily for who knew what demons lurked in that band of soldier men. Yet the loyal clay figures were eventually cut down. Whether by men or Mother Nature is for the historians to decide. If nothing else the invaders came away with an amazing story to tell.
In reality the site is conjectured to be just a small part of the enormous tomb of China's first emperor. Symbolically the warriors are guarding the eastern gate entrance and it’s quite possible the other gates are guarded also. In some respects the tomb itself is more fascinating although it has never been opened. Infrared and other techniques have been used to recreate a giant Disneyland style replica giving visitors a lifelike feel for what it's like inside. All the engineers, architects, builders, and slaves who worked on the project were either killed or buried alive at its completion. The same fate awaited the emperor’s household along with his stables and a zoo of rare birds and animals. It is reputed anyone ill fated enough to enter the tomb will be greeted by poisonous fumes causing instant death. There are rivers of mercury inside which will react with the air.
Coffee drinkers take note. Starbucks isn't about to make any headway here soon. It's almost a sacrilege to get off that plane hankering for anything else. It's not cheap either. Whereas you could get a beer for a dollar or two the tea could get upwards of five and this was for a thermos of hot water and one refillable cup. Entire stores were devoted to dozens of varieties from small bags to huge stamped out blocks. The aged ones could run into the hundreds of dollars, not unlike buying a good cabernet. Fascinating unless you were tea impaired which pretty much fit our description.
Yaa tried though. She dove right in starting with the thermos waiting patiently outside our hotel room door at seven o'clock every morning. Then there would be numerous cups at the noodle shop just around the corner when lunchtime arrived. By late afternoon, ensconced on a balcony overlooking one of the delightful parks, we hungrily asked for the menu. It featured fifty different teas. But what about food? 'Ha ha ha.' She drank more.
On the third day she started swooning. Nothing big. A quick dizzy spell. But it was starting to occur more often she explained over yet another cup of tea. I was mildly alarmed. It was the beginning of the trip and this was not what you wanted to hear. We were in Kunming and the altitude was higher. Perhaps that was the explanation but there had never been a problem in other places like Nepal. Hmmm, Chinese medical care. I didn't relish the idea of having to sample it. I wandered into a western medical pharmacy only to find it was entirely herbal.
After it happened again walking back to the hotel I racked my brain for an explanation. I hadn't indulged in the tea phenomenon, clinging as it were to my western barbarisms of coffee and beer. Right.
"I think you should stop drinking the tea."
She hesitated, contemplating her cup. "Maybe–"
The spells quickly disappeared and now there were two people clinging to those savage western ways. After all it's strong stuff. Many of the teas have medicinal qualities and I think it accounts for the tenacity of the Chinese. They're literally pickled with it. No wonder they can face all manner of deprivation and hardship and come back for more. One had to look no further than the man on the street. What were all those jars sticking out of their pockets? You guessed it. Their personal stash to get thru the day.
Fortunately the Chinese beer was good if not downright delicious. Light to be sure but thirst quenching and cheap which is unusual for Asia. A twenty two-ounce bottle could be found for a mere twenty-five cents if the shop owner was caught off guard. Not likely to happen on the tourist circuit which was no surprise. Where the language barrier is prohibitive you always ask the price first. That didn't always work in China though. Restaurant bills would still arrive grossly inflated. So I took to writing the quoted amounts down in my trusty note pad. This way the wayward proprietor and I could both peruse my numbers as I crossed out theirs.
They were never embarrassed about this. It wasn't limited to restaurants either. Standard items at the store were fair game. You'd get a once over from the cashier and they'd blurt out the inflated price. Your job was to correct them. Difficult to do if you were a first time shopper. We tried to do our homework and tell them what were willing to pay. Usually another person would be consulted to see if you were a preferred customer. And sometimes you weren't.
Inevitably you found yourself being irritated by this but it didn't actually stop there. It turns out that nothing is really free in China. What appeared to be public domain often wasn't. Standing alongside the raging Yangtze River we took a picture of the rapids. A large stone was in the foreground with some Chinese writing on it. This was bankable as we soon found out when an aggressive old tout insisted we pay for the privilege. This happened to us over and over again near any place considered an attraction.
When we hiked thru Tiger Leaping Gorge, carved by the Yangtze River, we were in for more surprises. Having already paid a park entrance fee, another surcharge was tacked on at the beginning of the trail. An hour later we passed a small guesthouse and were quickly reined in. Not possible to pass unless we paid another fee. For what? No explanation was forthcoming but the result was the same. It wasn't so much the money; it was all inexpensive by western standards. It was the hounding factor that drove you nuts and eventually you were forced to cringe every time you brought out your camera or dared to look at something fearing the telltale tapping hand of greed.
Perhaps this was why the tiger had been leaping across the gorge!
In true Chinese form it was a spectacular hike with trails blasted into the sides of death defying thousand foot sheer cliffs. One slip and it would be your last, a common occurrence across China. A sacred temple wasn't one unless you took your life into your hands to get there. Solid stone? Straight up? Sheer cliff? Slippery? Perfect. A true test of your devotion and if you happened to plunge into the abyss you were probably lacking in spirituality. They were exhilarating to say the least and it was no small physical feat getting there.
But wait a minute. What's that going up the side of the mountain? Well, so much for the endurance part of the formula. As we soon discovered the Chinese love their chair lifts. They’re everywhere and most of those temples perched in the heavens are an easy ride up now. In fact the highest lift in Asia is here, dropping you in a field of glaciers at a breath robbing fifteen thousand feet. Convenience has its price though. We arrived in a sweaty lather at the final temple of the Dragon Gate above Kunming only to find a balloon arcade game, popguns echoing across the mountaintop, and yakking Chinese swinging off the chairs. As we fled up the hill we were greeted by an empress and emperor, two Chinese playing dress up as the photographer clicked away.
If these appeared a little out of place one had to get used to it. Our arrival at the Great Wall was graced by a Disneyland conveyor belt ride that lugged us up the hillside. There was a path but it wasn't on the itinerary. A melodramatic welcome to say the least. Those dress up emperors were walking around there also along with dancing bears, more arcade games, and even a mini petting zoo. Well, with half of Beijing out there who could blame people for wanting to make a little money?
Actually half of Beijing was everywhere. The crowds are endemic. The government encourages the people to travel and see their country. They haven’t wasted any time heeding the call, large groups being the preferred method.
We were seated in a picturesque lane in Old Dali, an historical small town in Yunnan Province that had somehow escaped the Chinese capitalistic cleaver. In a half hour seven different tour groups paraded by, one every four and half minutes. The guidebook described this town as laid back, undiscovered, a place you could easily stay for weeks on end. There were thirty tourist buses at the South Gate entrance when we arrived.
“Can you believe these crowds?” I exclaimed. Miraculously our waiter answered me.
“No no. Not busy. Low season now. High season two months. Everyone come then.” Another pied piper tour guide came flouncing down the lane waving her red marker flag and chattering into a megaphone. Thirty Chinese scurried to keep up.
How was this possible? But I already knew. All those cities. All those people. Crammed into all those buildings. Elbow to elbow would be no problem. It would be comforting. The aesthetic of solitary enjoyment would be unknown to them. Those special moments of pretended first discovery when the world's wonders reveal themselves to you would have no basis here. It was one big party and we would be forced to join in.
Old Dali is located on the side of a mountain sweeping down to a large lake. There were a number of boat trips to be made to temples, islands, and markets, all sounding vaguely interesting. I had my doubts but we rented bicycles and it was a pleasant enough trip riding thru the huge fields of vegetables that ringed the lake. Plants were being hand watered, a task that would take days to complete, and I marveled at the lack of machinery seen so far. The only tools were shovels and spades. Not even any buffalo or oxen. As the world implodes with their addiction to petroleum much of China will not blink an eye.
We arrived at the dock and for lack of any alternative booked in with a Chinese tour. After a half hour of undefined waiting our pagoda roofed barge chugged across the lake. The first stop was a series of temples winding up the hillside. The captain rattled off an announcement and pointed at his watch: twelve thirty, forty-five minutes for our little tour. We trotted off in a hurry, paid the ten yuan entrance fee (about a dollar twenty five) and clambered up the stairs.
As temples went this one wasn't bad. A multi-floored pagoda housing a huge sitting Buddha topped the hill and for once the walls inside weren't littered with photos of all the famous Chinese dignitaries who had visited there. Most temples in China had burnt to the ground numerous times over the centuries, resulting in newer ones masquerading in their place. The end result was a boring sterility. But here there was a semblance of antiquity. Black soot and wax drippings encrusted the wooden floorboards and bug eaten demon carvings lurked about.
After twenty minutes Yaa tugged my shirttails. Time to go back. When I didn't respond she quickly trotted off. I continued to poke my head into nooks and crannies enjoying the peaceful tranquility and then realized it was just a little too peaceful. Our group hadn't materialized. Any other thoughts were quickly scattered.
A loud howling bark reverberated up the hillside. How did I know it was for me? Hopping down the stairs I made a beeline for the dock. Another howl greeted me as I spotted the boat. Out of breath I slowed my pace and the bark grew louder if that was possible. Now wait a minute. This was not my fault. I thrust my watch into the captain's face and held up my fingers. Ten minutes. I still have ten minutes left. By now everyone was enjoying the show so he let go with another outburst and I'd swear there was just the trace of a small grin underneath that bushy mustache. As it turned out none of our fellow passengers had been willing to part with the entry fee. They were as bored with the temples as we were and had sat waiting for us.
Off we chugged, Yaa scowling at my impertinence. The guidebook had described traditional Chinese junks plying the lake with their fishing nets but they seemed to have taken the day off. The surrounding hills were arid and dry and the island we were approaching looked much the same. I thought of the word pleasant, not a positive term in the traveler's dictionary, and couldn't make up my mind if this trip even fell into that category.
As we approached the dock I could see there was a small outdoor market and what looked to be restaurants lining the shore. The captain barked out the tour de jour and this time we made sure everyone else disembarked first. I wasn't taking any chances. We compared watches again. An hour and half. I scribbled it on a scrap of paper as evidence but he waved me away with indifference. To our dismay everyone headed for the restaurants. Lunchtime. We came all the way over here just to eat?
There was a narrow walkway in front of us skirting the water. One end was blocked and the other led to the market entrance that was now jammed with a swarming mass of hill-tribe garbed hockers, hands madly waving trinkets and souvenirs. No wonder everybody escaped into the restaurants. We definitely weren't hungry. A wailing erupted from our welcoming committee.
"You come. Buy. Give money." A dried fish skewered on a bamboo pole flew by. Something vaguely resembling a crudely carved totem pole momentarily blocked my path. Ignoring the morass of poking hands I tried forcing my way thru. The natives started barking. What a surprise.
"Not buying today. No thanks. Already got one of those. Yes hello. No we don't want. Bye bye. Bye bye." It was the one term everyone seemed to understand but it didn't work. The barks grew louder. Someone thrust tickets in front of my nose.
"You buy ticket."
"You’re kidding me!"
"This Bai Island."
"Have what? Island have what?" A dumb question of course.
Unaccustomed yet to the pay as you go policy we stubbornly held our ground. Then someone spilled juice down my leg and the skewered fish brushed the back of my head. We forked over the entry fee figuring to be rid of them but they were on us like vampires.
I adopted the staccato negative, "No no no no no no," and looked around for a way out. We were hemmed in on both sides by tables heaped with rubbery edibles. Then a godsend. Another tourist boat chock full of new victims appeared. In the bedlam of first pounce we were instantly deserted. Off we ran in the opposite direction.
A nice walk. That's all we needed. A nice walk on— What was the name of this silly place?
"Bai Island. Hello. You come here first time?" A scratchy high-pitched voice grated our ears. My god now they were reading my mind. I looked around. The small girl with dirty hands and unkempt hair had unshakeable tour guide written all over her. Oh boy. I pretended not to hear and walked off towards some dilapidated fishing boats.
"Cannot. Cannot go there," the voice grated. I stayed the course but curse my luck she was right. The walkway dead-ended into the water.
"You go here. Go Bai temple. Verrry old. Bai people go there pray. Pray to Bai god." It sounded like a loop recording and I was convinced she had a pull cord hidden somewhere. We had no choice. The only way out was to follow her.
Sure enough in three minutes we were at the temple, a plain wooden affair with several rooms housing Buddhas and small shrines. Some other poor souls were being herded about.
"This bai temple. Verry old. Bai people come–"
I cut her off. Not interested. Maybe a walk up the hill?
"Yes, Bai Island have many hill. You look. Verrry beautiful. Many tree. Big tree. Bai people go hill get wood. Make fire. Cook. I take you Bai hill. Now you pray."
The other tourists were digging into their handbags for yuan to 'donate'. We'd been thru this routine many times. It was a famed tactic in Bali where they would even try to shame you into giving more by indicating your measly prayer donation would anger the gods. She tried to shoo us up the stairs of the main temple but we hustled for the exit and raced towards the water.
"No, no. You go wrong way. This right way. You go this way." We paid no attention and for our efforts were treated to a non stop monologue pointing out Bai houses and Bai boats and Bai birds flying over what else — Bai hills and Bai water. And what did we like best about Bai Island?
It was maddening. At the Bai schoolyard there were two rusting metal poles with the remains of metal rings. Bai basketball no doubt now out of favor. And there was the Bai tunnel. A very big tunnel into the middle of Bai Island. But it was closed now and we never did find out what it was for. Maybe they made Bai sacrifices in there I thought malevolently.
She forced turned us back up the hill. I scanned the surrounding areas for possible trails but saw none. The landscape was scrubby and unyielding. No way out. We followed the treadmill.
"Now we go Bai tea house. Verry verry old. Verry verry famous. Verry verry beautiful. Make tea. Have ceremony. No pay."
Tea? Ceremony? We groaned. The entire village had been run down and ramshackle. Surprisingly though the teahouse had been restored. A brass heritage plaque adorned the side of the intricately carved entry door. The wood planks of the floor and shuttered windows had a honeyed glow. The stone paved inner courtyard had a serene setting of bamboo and bonsai trees, the faint sound of dripping water lulling the senses. Along the perimeter were cushions surrounding the elaborate tea services. The words 'verry verry beautiful' echoed in my brain. I found myself weakening, suddenly thirsty, wanting to relax. Something nudged me from behind. I took a tentative step forward. It couldn't hurt. Just a few sips of tea. Just to sit and relax a little. Then I saw them.
Bais. Willowy wraiths floating in the air. Hundreds of them, their gnarled wrinkled hands beseeching me to…..? Aghast I recoiled and almost tripped over our guide who had firmly planted herself in the doorway.
"You drink tea!" It was Rangda incarnate.
"No, I-I-," I retorted catching my breath, "I-I-have to—." I pushed her out of the way almost tripping down the stairs and retreated up a small alley towards the hillside.
"Stop!" That barking command grasping at my brain. "Cannot! Cannot go there."
"Why?" I barked back.
Desperate now, for one small split second she wavered, then made a miraculous recovery. "D–dog," she blurted, "b-big dog. Big BAD dog!"
I stared down the alley. There were no yards, no open doorways, no windows, no nothing. It was dead silent. A big bad dog. Barkless no less. And then it came to me. Of course. This was the highlight, the real reason everyone came to this island. It had nothing to do with tea ceremonies or run down Bai schools. It wasn't the bamboo skewered flying fish. It wasn't even the mysterious Bai tunnel. No no the real attraction was right here, right now, in this alleyway: the Big Bad Barkless Bai dog. We hadn't even had to pay for the privilege. I pondered. Should I tell her? But her sour expression convinced me not to. Perhaps barkless dogs are better left lying.
So I ran, fleeing towards the dock, howling about mad beasts, conjuring wings for our barkless dog. In the end it wasn't necessary. She'd given up. The tea ceremony had been her ace in the hole and after that all bets were off. From the safety of the boat we checked our watches. Night of the living Bais and it was only two thirty in the afternoon. Now it was our turn to wait.
You might not know this but China is the center of the universe. It's not only the center but pretty much the whole shebang. The world's flat? Who cares? Geography is limited to their borders with the rest of the world a fuzzy morass. Even Thailand was a mystery. People wanted to know if it was part of Asia or not, amazing considering the proximity of the two countries. To be fair the Chinese have their own names for these places but world geography is not high on the list in school curriculums, a fact reiterated by a university student we met.
He was perusing a map at the guesthouse we were staying at above Tiger Leaping Gorge so I took the opportunity to broach the southern borders. There was the usual confusion but his command of English was fairly good. He immediately wanted to know where these places were. So I drew a rudimentary map with the English names.
Ah, yes, he and our guide were familiar with Laos and Burma, which bordered southern China. But Thailand and Bangkok? They shook their heads no. What about geography? Didn't they study that in school? Very little was the answer, an inherently decisive factor in defining the Chinese character. No wonder they're surprised when you don't speak the language!
True you're bucking a couple thousand years of history not to mention recent events such as the Cultural Revolution. Those backward years heralded by Chairman Mao saw much of China's cultural heritage either destroyed or disgraced. Yet even when most of the country was forced to toil under the most primitive of conditions and millions died of malnutrition and starvation, people were still convinced things were much worse in America. The Chinese were the lucky ones. It’s not surprising they are ambivalent about the rest of the world.
How much of this has dissipated in the last twenty years is anyone's guess. Yet the pace of progress is mind-boggling. The country is under siege. The guidebooks can't keep up as the old comes crashing down. Economic prosperity rules the day and Mao has been buried by the same western motivated ideals he so bitterly denounced. Possibly the real reason most Chinese are still unfamiliar with the much of the world is rooted in more practical considerations. Otherwise the government might find it has a small revolution on its hands as everyone starts demanding cars and stereos at the same time. Thus the media and the classrooms and political institutions are still under state control. All those hamburgers, coffees, and deep fried chickens so prevalent across the rest of the globe have barely made inroads here.
When I bought a copy of the China Daily, the national English language newspaper, it had a whopping twelve pages. With two pages dedicated to sports that left ten for 'worldly' news, a pretty good indication of the orientation here. Yet change is on the horizon. Slowly but surely the universities are churning out English speakers and many of these students are applying to become licensed foreign guides. In another five years traveling solo in China will be far easier as the communication channels open up. Then that window on the west will lend far more than just a reflection of government propaganda.
It would take months if not years to see all of China. The country is huge with vastly different typographies, peoples, and climates. In the far west you’ve got the Himalayas, deserts, and below sea level salt lakes. In the south the hill-tribes who have migrated to many parts of Asia. The eastern shores are anchored by Beijing, Shanghai, Macao, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. In the end you pick your points and make stabs at seeing them. Flying was dirt cheap with prices changing daily offering discounts of up to fifty percent. An hour or two’s flight might be only thirty or forty dollars, often cheaper than taking the train. You could hop around the country if you wanted. So that’s what we did.
Most of our guides spoke good English as long as it pertained to the tour. Get off the subject and you were usually in uncharted waters. I soon realized it was a mistake sitting near the front of the tour bus as you would invariably go deaf listening to the over zealous guide screaming out the day's itinerary. Not quiet those Chinese.
Every night before the tour you were guaranteed a call. It might be seven o'clock, it might be ten o'clock, and Susie or Jack or Linda would be on the phone introducing themselves. All had American names. 'I'll meet you in the hotel lobby at seven fifty.' Seven fifty? I would stare at the phone wondering if I'd heard this right. 'Yes yes, don't be late.' They meant it. Arrive at a temple or summer palace and you had one hour and twenty minutes. Not one hour and half. It was never rounded off. 'Be back at one twenty five.' Show up at one thirty and they would be grumbling. I always found myself disconcerted by this scrimping on time.
Unless you were on the unannounced part of the tour. There was no escaping this even when everybody swore up and down it wouldn't happen. Oh yes, you were going there. Your presence had been respectfully requested at the jade factory, silk factory, wood carving factory, or the pearl factory. And God forbid you actually had shoppers on your tour — the lovely couple who found every overpriced item a bargain and decided to do all their Christmas shopping not only for themselves but half the family back home who wouldn't have time. The precious clock went out with the bath water and you'd be forced to wait until all purchases were completed.
That's not to say the silks weren't beautiful or the jades impressive. There would even be educational tours. Most of the time you couldn't understand a word but gleaning is everything. Yaa got a special treat at the silk factory. As the woman showed us how the threads are wound off the boiled silk cocoons, the worms inside were discarded into a nearby tray. Her eyes lit up like a jack o’lantern. A mid morning treat to be sure. She discreetly snagged a handful as we walked by. Nice to see that mysterious country to the south well represented.
Jady bags. There was a whole display of them in the bathroom. Usually the hotel items had been confined to men's underwear and socks (though never any women's), foam pads to stick on the toilet seats for softening the impact, or compact sized magic towels — 'just add water and watch them grow'. Jade was China's claim to fame, its hardness and color dictating the quality and white jade was in high demand. True to the Asian nature so was white skin. Thus the jady display in the bathroom where every item was for sale for the 'uncomplimentary' price of twelve yuan (about a dollar fifty) did just about everything from skin softening to offering a white jade glow to your cheeks. Besides the obvious health benefits of this ground jade powder it also brought you good luck.
Maybe I could use the stuff on the carpet. The inexpensive hotels across China were amazingly homogeneous. This was good and bad as you knew what to expect for the price and generally they were comfortable. All had twin beds, bathtub, TV, desk, small table with thermos of tea and cups, a center nightstand with lighting switches, and most wonderfully reading lamps over each bed with dimmer switches. What they didn't have were clean carpets. A history of tea drinking in China could be extracted by those so enthused. The fibers I'm sure were preserved by the dirt embedded in them. No wonder everybody traveling in China invariably ended up with coughs and bronchitis and the Chinese always left their hotel room doors wide open. Everyone was starving for a breath of fresh air.
Judging by its street food China's cuisine is hurting. Exotic yes. Tasty? Well, I suppose that's a matter of personal preference. Still if you've just finished a mouth watering plate of tacos, stir fried vegetables, or chicken curry from the little cart down the street, you stand a pretty good chance the rest of the country's cuisine will follow suit. In China's case you were stuck with guts and rubbery unknowns.
Eating was always a challenge. Burning hot, stubbornly tough. At a stand in Sichuan province we ordered skewered meat and vegetables cooked in hot chili oil. Barely palatable the only discernible flavor the chili and oil. The woman at our hostel highly recommended a local hot pot restaurant. We would love it. Guaranteed. Everybody in Chengdu ate there. No English but don't worry.
The place was five floors high. We paid on the top floor, were escorted to the third, and had to go back to the top to order drinks. That accomplished we tried to flag someone down. It wasn’t uncommon for foreigners to be the last one served in China but with due diligence the hot pot finally arrived. It was a yin yang design with two spicy broths. A little bit of an ordeal but at least we were ready to eat. Hungry after an unsatisfying lunch we grabbed our plates and headed to the counter.
I walked the entire length of offerings. I walked it again. There must have been at least fifty different items and other than a handful of greens nothing was recognizable or if they were you wished they weren't. Demoralized I returned with a plate of greens and something I thought was meat but which turned out to be another manifestation of rubber gone awry.
I quickly discovered one side of the hot pot was so blistering spicy it didn't matter what you were eating anyway. Sichuan was famous for this after all. Retreating to the other side I tried some of the vegetables. What was that flavor? Something odd. I forked a few more greens onto my plate trying to make the best of it but after five minutes my mouth felt funny. Cripes it was going numb. No I wasn't losing my mind. Yaa's was too.
We dug around in the broth. These tiny pine cone things. We'd had them in Nepal. I never identified them but the effect had been the same. I suppose it was a blessing in disguise as before long that broth was blistering your tongue also. In the end we sat defeated surrounded by Chinese bedlam our stomachs growling their displeasure.
Not to be outdone our flight the next day to X'ian sported a box lunch labeled 'aviation food', the contents as inspired as the name. We finally got a break though. Our hotel there had a large fast food cafeteria with English menus. I could get fried rice. I could get fried eggs. I could get fried chicken. You could see the stuff right on the counter. Mouths watering, we dove right in.
Later on I sat down to read the menu. Hard to say if something was lost in translation. The headliner was nutritious beef penis in pot. Hmmm. Then there was sesame gizzard. I began wondering if I'd been eating these out on the street. You could get a side of kelp shreds and wash it down with fermented glutinous wine. Just in case the entrails side of the menu didn't do it for you, there was spiced horse face carp and fried sea loges which we never deciphered. Rounding it out was Chinese date powder porridge and decocted dumplings. I helped myself to another fried egg.
At a night market in southern China the fare had been equally ambitious. Every afternoon vendors set up their outdoor barbecues and tables lined with the day's catch as it were. Every wok had chilies wafting thru the air and even the most hardened customers sneezed and coughed as their lungs exploded from the spicy fumes. Live fish were kept in plastic tubs with ribbons tied to their dorsal fins so they could be lifted out for inspection and weighing on mini scales. A few minutes later you might be treated to a hot and sour fish head on your plate. There were buckets of stuffed snails and the menu listed such things as hare meat dry pot, dog meat dry pot, fried or steamed frog, and deep fried with field mouse.
One night as we were perusing the tables I came across a splayed beast with a ghastly expression on its face. It had already been barbecued and resembled a cross between a huge rabid bat and perhaps a gopher. I pointed at it numerous times trying to get the cook to identify it but he wouldn't answer me, instead trying to sell us pork ribs and fried lotus root which we finally agreed upon. The beast in question was most likely a dog and the poor fellow had been trying to be tactful.
There were bright spots on the culinary trail though. Beijing was mouth watering. We had wonderful salads of fresh seaweeds and fantastic mushrooms, oxtail soups, and curried vegetables. Duck was delicious all over China, freshly barbecued for two or three dollars, and served with spring onions and chilies. Noodles are the mainstay of the Chinese diet and rice is considered the poor man's food and usually shunned. There were noodle shops on every corner. Pick your sauce and you've got a very inexpensive meal. Usually too spicy for us though.
Two days into the trip Yaa was wearing sunglasses at night. In restaurants no less. She looked like an Asian drug dealer and I demanded she take them off but she insisted the light was bothering her eyes. I didn't believe her until a few weeks later and I was also squinting against the brightness. Invariably after every meal we'd find ourselves dying of thirst, a liter of water in tow. The meals were often salty but that hardly seemed to justify the severity of the reaction. There was also an uneasiness or tightness felt in the gut usually forty-five minutes after eating.
When we returned to Bangkok all this cleared up almost instantly. I looked up MSG on the internet and one of the first side effects listed was sensitivity to light. It's a common ingredient in Thailand. They must have been using it by the shovel full in China. It was only a guess though.
The sights of China. Where does one begin and end? If you started at the Wall you’d still be walking after a few thousand miles. That’s if you survived the eighty-degree inclines cresting the tops of the mountains. Thank god our section had a handrail! If this feat of engineering seemed to defy Mother Nature she just popped up elsewhere. All those classic Chinese scroll paintings of bamboo junks floating winding rivers amidst fog enshrouded cliffs are merely her daily canvas in southern China. The countryside surrounding Yangshou is filled with those same breathtaking brushstrokes. We biked there for days.
What about all those hockers and spitters? Word has it the government went on a cleanup campaign and the latter ones appear on the way to extinction. Not going without a fight though. A good throat hock can still be heard a block away.
We’ve all heard the phraseology about China dolls. They’re alive and well here. Not the store bought kind either. No wonder they’re so famous. I’ve never seen such translucent white porcelain skin in all my life. Absolutely radiant. Maybe there is something to those jady bags afterall.
Still the real show stoppers were the fuzzy kind. Those roly-poly pandas. Lovable, hilarious, endearing, no trip to China is complete without them. We arrived early one morning at the huge reserve/breeding center outside of Chengdu just in time for breakfast. It rivaled a Roman orgy, the bears sprawled out on their backs lazily hand feeding themselves, munching on their one and only fare of young bamboo shoots. If they moved it was only to get more comfortable, legs splayed out, heads lolling. They held their court with big smiles of indifference, the day’s business no further than that next tasty limb.
The young ones were even more ridiculous, walking backwards, bumping into trees, and falling off limbs. Two wrestled each other into a big furry ball and rolled down the hill. I’m pretty sure they weren’t real though. They’re just giant squeeze toys. The keeper came out and snatched one off a tree and it let out a squeak that rivaled the best rubber duck I’ve got back home. I told the fellow I wanted one.
“Ha ha ha.”
Guess I’ll have to look in the catalogues.
Wow, what a way to start your career as a submission writer, just great!