The rail journey involves one of those tortuous Chinese detours - a stretch southwest, winding northwest to Guiyang ("Although many travellers pass through here, they are not in theory permitted to leave its cavernous train station"). The terrain is so inhospitable that until quite recently the main line of communication from Southwest China to the rest of the nation actually ran through Hanoi.
The trek ends with a shallow southwesterly passage across high hills into Yunnan Province the rugged bulge, scored by jagged ranges, which arches down from neighbouring Tibet. Then you're in Kunming. It takes 35 hours.
It should be excruciating: by a small margin the longest train ride I've ever taken, through impassive winter-brown scenery. But I'm reckoning without bumping into Sjors at dinner. He and the Kiwi, Marvin, are heading my way, and we hook up.
They are two real travellers. I realize that as we're sitting in our comfortable hard-berth seats, waiting for departure, when Sjors smiles and says: "It's not like the train from Khartoum to South Sudan."
"I beg your pardon?"
He grins, but he isn't bragging. Time on the road shakes the most entrenched ego: there's always someone with a better story than yours.
"Sudanese trains are very interesting. Often there's only one a week to the south. I arrived eight hours before it was due to leave, and it was impossible to enter the station. Impossible. Two people died on our journey. It was too hot, forty-three or -four during the day; at night half the people in the train would move to the roof, because it was cooler. There'd be gambling and arguments and knife fights up there. Two dead." He smiled and glanced around the carriage. "If this were India you'd have people sleeping on the luggage racks."
Sjors has the Western European youth look: intellectual, with round steel-rimmed glasses and hair cut choppy-short, a few days' growth on his chin and lip. Tall, lanky, fit. As a Dutchman he falls prey to my pet stereotype:
DUTCHMAN. Member of national group characterised by tendency toward comfortable scruffiness and a facial expression of tense hilarity. Fond of words containing odd "oor" sound; this, when combined with muffled speech caused by ubiquitous protruding cigarette-end, adds to image of eccentric "funkiness" (cf. "funky").But Sjors doesn't smoke - "Tobacco," he emphasizes, with a quick, tensely hilarious facial expression.
He's been on the move for fourteen months: seven in Africa, then India, Nepal, Southeast Asia. Fourteen months - and here am I cursing impending burnout after a couple of weeks! When the lights go out in the compartment, he crosses his legs into a graceful full-lotus and meditates. Marvin and I call him George, and make comradely fun of his Dutch accent ("Hey, George, don't forget your yacket!"). At this Sjors smiles patiently, knowing his English is better than ours. He picked up most of it travelling. That, and French: "When you're very far from anywhere in Africa, you just to go the nearest group of huts, and you ask for the chef du village. He normally knows a few words of French or English and he will fix you up with something."
Sjors is 33, and it seems as though he could stay on the road forever. Marvin has his share of stories too, but no patience for forever. He's simply taking a roundabout route home to New Zealand. His eyes shine happily as he talks of his future: getting low-interest loans, making a stake on some land bought for a tax dodge, doing it his way and making the most of weekend recreation opportunities in that beautiful country.
It is hard to quibble with his dreams of settling down somewhere, because Marvin save for one three-month whistlestop in N.Z. has been away from home for seven years. Most of that is solid travelling. Every thread in his backpack can tell a story, and he proves more loquacious than Sjors.
In Mr. Huang's restaurant, we tiptoed around each other. I got off on the wrong foot with, "Are you from Australia?" and saw his eyes twinkle with, Who is this little shit? But I covered my tracks and eventually got him going. Now we talk earnestly, sometimes intensely, well into the carriage dark of that first night, rocking along tracks that, at this early stage of the journey, are bearing us in precisely the wrong direction.
He was born 30 years before in the once-insignificant Falkland Islands. "I didn't follow the war much. I left for New Zealand when I was nine, you know? Not many ties." He has a pleasant, slightly self-mocking way of speaking, and in the dim light he looks younger than his years. You can't see the lock of grey hair curling over his forehead, or the few strands in his neatly-trimmed beard. His eyes are still full of the mischievous high-school student who raced with the "English motorbike crowd" Down Under.
Marvin had skipped the university scene and dived straight into the construction business. That landed him a two-year stint in Papua New Guinea. "They say if you're a white in P.N.G. you're one of three things: a mercenary, a missionary, or a misfit."
"What were you?"
"Sort of a mercenary misfit."
His best stories come from five years ago, an epic overland jaunt through West Asia and Europe. First leg: Pakistan to Istanbul via Afghanistan ("After the communist coup, but before the Russians arrived") and Iran. "When I was in Pakistan I had three hundred American dollars to my name. That bought me a month in Pakistan and a ticket straight through to Turkey. I was expecting a cheque in Istanbul; when I got there I had sixty dollars left. And there was no cheque, was there? So I bought a ticket on the cheapest ferry across the Bosporus and hitched down the coast. All I bought for food was these huge loaves of bread, feta cheese and tomatoes. Dead cheap, and lovely stuff. My Feta Trek."
"Where did you sleep?"
"Olive groves. Hitched along in vegetable trucks by day - the kind with the wooden cabs? I ended up on a plateau just above Gallipoli, where the Anzacs caught the shit in the first war, thanks to the young Mr. Churchill. I was sitting in a teahouse - that's how I used to pass the hours between dusk and bedding down, you know, go to a teahouse and buy a thimble of tea, and the locals would usually stand me a couple more. This Turkish bloke asks me where I'm from. I knew the Turkish for New Zealand. A little later he took off, and I thought he was leaving for good. But half an hour later, back he comes with this little tin badge. An Anzac crest from 1915. He'd ploughed it up in his field. It had a globe turned to show Australia and New Zealand rather larger than scale, and a wreath of olive branches. I sent it back with my coin collection to N.Z. I'll never know what Anzac lad it belonged to. But after all, it got home, you know? Back home.
"I hitched from there back to Istanbul and cashed my last ten-dollar travellers' cheque, having no idea whether my money had arrived. But it had. I was rich again, and I headed to England for Christmas."
He pauses for tea. Together we eye the Chinese in the bunk opposite us. Parents and progeny: two dull, thick-faced peasants with an utter monster of a son who squirms over the bunks wearing an expression of extravagant boredom. With government pressure to limit families to one child, the lucky offspring can be shamelessly spoiled in China (or, alternatively, drowned if it's female and the family wants their sole kid to be a boy). Rosemary's Baby here obviously learned early on that shrill screams of protest, accompanied by judicious secretions from his bottomless tear-ducts, could bring him the world on a platter. He sends shivers down my spine.
"What a wingeing fucking brat," Marvin says amiably. The child looks at us with mingled mischief and suspicion: You're not going to spoil my game plan, are you? His pudgy cheeks are caked with grime and tiny pustules, but whenever Loving Father tries to clean Precious's face, Precious writhes and screams with transparent but ear-shattering hysteria, which ceases the instant the offending cloth is withdrawn. Snot trickles in a dirty stream from his nose. He chews sugar cane and spits the fibre on the floor. I find myself loathing him with exhilarating intensity.
"Monster!" pronounces Marvin emphatically. "Anyway. England. Actually, I didn't go there directly. I spent time in France picking grapes. We were right up in the Pyrenees, four of us in a little rustic old stone house. Me, two Frenchmen, and a Portuguese. We used to get up at the crack of dawn and have a big bowl - a bowl! - of coffee and some bread. All except the group's resident alcoholic, who would polish off the dregs of last night's wine. We'd pick all morning and then give one of the fulltime workers some money to go into town and buy bread and sausages. When he got back we'd set some grape vines alight and roast sossies for lunch. Then pick all afternoon, 'til five or so. A long day, but we were paid by the hour, so it was alright. In the evenings we sat around the fire and maybe a few other pickers from other farms would come over with their house wine. I did that for a month-and-a-half, and then figured, hey, I'm in the Pyrenees, might as well move around a bit. So I hitched to Andorra, and the people who picked me up -"
I stop him and say, "You little bastard, if you shit on the floor, I'm going to kick you out the window. Oh, God."
Marvin turns. Rosemary's Baby is squatting in the aisle while his parents blithely peel oranges and stare at the landscape outside the window. A stream of urine comes from between his grubby legs, through the slit in his trousers provided for this purpose. It forms a pool on the floor. The demon's face remains blank: Well, whaddya expect? When you gotta go ...
"I don't believe it," Marvin says softly, but his words turn to a yelp when the rocking of the carriage sends a river of piss flowing under our seat. Where he's stowed his backpack.
He is up in a second, and the pack, its base all damp, is pulled out. "You fucking little shit!" he bellows. Then he turns his furious glare on the bewildered parents. "Right, see how you bloody like it!" And he grinds the pack into the sheets of their lower bunk, leaving lovely spreading stains. The parents look at him with their bland peasant faces, then glance down at their sheets, still uncomprehending.
"If he wants to do that he can go to the toilet!" I say in my best angry Chinese.
Father doesn't know what to do. He picks up the little empty-bladdered troll as though holding an egg on a spoon: is he supposed to start learning how to scold, at this late stage? Heads in the carriage are turning his way. He is embarrassed and perplexed.
But Quasimodo knows what to do. He scans the two murderous white faces, one with a fearsome beard, upturned to him; and he lets out a fearsome howl, which we fuel further with angry and mocking expressions until it fills the carriage like every primal scream in Arthur Janov's casebook combined. That's something Dad can relate to. The Spawn of Satan is back in control. He burrows into the strong arms that hold him, and the air-raid siren and tear-duct faucet are turned off suddenly, simultaneously.
"He knew exactly what he was doing," Marvin fumes. "He's old enough by now."
Sjors, by the window, watches the scene. He smiles the smile of someone who's seen it all, or at least enough not to be bothered by a bit of piss.
A little later, when things have calmed down, I say: "Andorra?"
The train is moving into higher altitudes now. A fleece of dusty snow covers the hills, gleaming in the moonlight. A few bumps of winter vegetation show through.
"Yeah," says Marvin. "Well. The people who picked me up gave me a little cube of hash to keep me going. So I wandered around Andorra stoned out of me mind. Nothing doing at all, just a lot of hotels and duty-free liquor and film shops. Dead boring. So I hitched back into France the next afternoon, and got a lift out of Toulouse with some students who were headed all the way to Paris - which was perfect, 'cos I wanted to get across the Channel. We drive on and a few minutes later I hear these rustling sounds and then the car is filled with the smell of dope. This girl turns around with a huge spliff and says, 'I hope you don't mind the smell of this?,' and I pull out what's left of my chunk and say, 'Not if you don't mind the smell of this,' and away we go.
"So we rolled some cocktails, a little of each, and drove stoned to Paris - stopping to sleep for a while, 'cos it's a long ride - and on the way they did a little shoplifting, bread and candy mainly. When we pulled into Paris I told them I wanted to catch the boat-train to London, I could sleep on the boat a bit. So the girl says, 'Well, here's something to keep you going,' and hands me one of those little plastic Easter-egg things. When I cracked it open it was full of grass. There I was, leaning out the window of the train, smoking all the way to the coast, then on deck across the channel. Had to toss the rest away before we reached Dover.
"When I pulled up at customs I'd been smoking for two days straight and my eyeballs were hanging down to my shoes. I had long hair and it was a while since I'd seen a bath. So lovely England didn't want to let me in even though I had a Brit passport. Didn't like the looks of me, did they, and I had no money. I sat there spinning yarns about vast amounts of cash waiting for me in London. 'Why else do you think I would come to this bloody country??' That was something they could relate to, I guess, and they let me through. I got to London and headed straight for Halsted and kind relatives. Knocked on the neighbour's door first by mistake, and they passed me along - so when the rellies opened the door they couldn't claim to be Mr. and Mrs. Blogg who'd never set eyes on me in their lives."
I am getting dizzy. But Marvin is on a roll. More tea is poured, more nasty comments exchanged about the little abortion now asleep across the way.
"England was too bloody cold. So I split for the Mediterranean again and worked my way round to Israel, killed six months on a kibbutz. My last week in Israel, way down south in a town called Ashqelon, I was camping on a beach. I went 25 yards from my tent to wash some shorts and some guys crept up, keeping the tent between me and them, slit it open with a piece of glass and nicked my money belt. That was my passport, travellers' cheques and plane ticket to Cyprus - all gone.
"I had 40 Israeli lire in my pocket. About 40 cents. I'd bought two days' food for camping. I had to get to the embassy up in Tel Aviv. I hitched in on a Saturday - Sabbath, everything closed, and the embassy was shut Sundays too. I ended up walking the streets of Tel Aviv at night until I found a house no-one was living in - I could kip there, and there was even a cupboard with a lock where I could stow my bags. And then, wouldn't you know it, the Monday was August 1st, English Bank Holiday, and the embassy was shut tight.
"Finally. Tuesday. Slicked my hair down for the interview. Catch-22: I couldn't get traveller's cheques without a passport, and couldn't get a passport with no other identification at hand. Finally the bastards gave me one - on the basis of a bloody student card I'd bought from a crooked Chinese cop in Singapore. All 'cos it had a photo and a signature I could reproduce. That's the way people are sometimes, you know. So bloody obstinate they're just begging you to pull a fast one on them.
"It was another week before I could get money through. The bank advanced a few dollars, enough to bed down at a hostel for a couple of days, 'cos by that time I badly needed a shower. At the hostel I met this girl who was working, getting straight room-and-board for two hours of toilet-cleaning in the morning. She was quitting. I went to see the old lady in charge, and I took over. I did that for a week and a half, until my money arrived, and by that time they were asking me to stay on! But I'd had enough, went to Cyprus, stopped at Larnaca for a beer, on to Rhodes - touristy; nice castle, though - then to Marmarus, southwestern coast of Turkey, crossed to Samos and a couple of other islands also ending in 'os,' finally to Piraeus. Hitched through Greece, Yugoslavia, into Austria - bad weather there. Saw a friend in Switzerland. Shot through France, took the boat from Oostende, and caught the first direct flight back to New Zealand for my three months' break. And that was that."
He talks quietly about home. "I can settle there, I know," he says confidently. "It's the quality of life. There's plenty of fishing and sailing and shooting and diving. And skiing! You don't have to go a thousand miles to get them, like in Australia.
"Seven years on the road is enough. Sometimes you find yourself wondering, 'Shit, what am I doing, wasting all this time and money, sitting in this hole?' Granted, that's when you're miles from anywhere and fed up. It doesn't last."
He plans on spending just long enough in Hong Kong to load up on electrical gadgets and appliances. "Stereo unit, a pressure cooker, toaster. All the crap you probably have in your kitchen and don't think twice about. All the things you need to set up a home."
He smiles. We both grow thoughtful at the incantation of the magic word: Home.
The train has stopped at a nowhere station in the mountains; the altitude is enough to tickle my clogged sinuses. It's very dark, only a few fields visible through the ghostly pallor. But there is Home out there, too: a squat, sturdy little stone house, set back from the station shack, perhaps 50 feet from the train window. A chimney pokes through the shallow slope of its roof, and smoke curls lazily away into the evening chill. A bright light shines behind translucent window shades. No shadow of movement inside; no movement anywhere, apart from the twisting tendrils of smoke.
It's a very lovely day in Kunming; we have a room of unadulterated luxury in the city's best hotel to return to. And here we sit, Sjors, Marvin and myself. Waiting for the inevitable bad news. ("The Kunming Public Security Bureau," notes my guidebook, "has the reputation of being very helpful with travel permits and visa extensions.")
"Yes?" I leap up hopefully from the propaganda magazine I've been studying: smiling Han peasants, smiling minority peasants, smiling Han and minority peasants working together for socialist modernization.
"Jinghong and Dali are both closed. But you can go to Emei Shan and Leshan."
I begin to whine. "Why is it possible for tour groups to go to Jinghong, but not individuals?"
"Ah! You see, tourist facilities are very limited there. If we keep it to groups we can control the numbers more easily." Her tone adds, "You could have asked me something a little harder." She is a pleasant girl, with fine clipped English, and no fun at all to argue with.
I say, "Oh."
There, in one fell swoop, goes my planned detour to the tropical paradise of Xishuangbanna, nestled in the far south of Yunnan Province near the Laotian border. Jinghong is the gateway to this region, which was once the most remote, far-flung corner of the Chinese Empire a real hardship posting for hapless Han officials. "The Kunming authorities usually give permission for Jinghong routinely, but have sometimes been known to be capricious ..."
There, too, goes Dali, my backup choice: a town two days northwest of Kunming by bus. Mountainous and picturesque, it had been the capital of the independent state of Nanchao, which had crushed encroaching Han armies and sent them scurrying back to less hostile environs.
But, the girl assures me, I can still head north to the Sacred Mountain, Emei Shan, and freeze my balls off, and stare at the ice-encrusted footprints of however many "lone wayfarers" have passed the same way in the preceding hour or so.
Marvin and Sjors don't even bat .500 with their selection. They'd requested permits for cities along the approach routes to Tibet. This is rather like asking for papaya in a restaurant in Reykjavik.
"Mr. Marvin, all routes to Lhasa are closed," the officer intones. This time the tone in her voice adds, "And you jolly well know it." The closest Mr. Marvin will get to Tibet is reading the relevant section of the guidebook, which exults, "Tibet is more accessible to foreign visitors today than it has ever been."
"Xinning too," the girl adds. That's the capital of Qinghai Province, where China's hardened criminals are sent to build railroads; it has a flourishing Tibetan population. "Plus Jinghong and Dali." About four out of ten are granted Marvin. Sjors fares no better.
"Of course, I understand," Marvin tells the girl soothingly. "Those sort of places are interesting. You wouldn't want us going there."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Fucking China," Marvin mutters, outside. "It's the big-city tour. Everyone keep in line, please. Do you plan to give Dali a go anyway?" We have heard of people who take the chance on visiting off-limits sites without permits. Sometimes you get arrested. Sometimes the police only come and ask you to change hotels. You hear about people like this every so often. They're the ones who make it to Lhasa by hitching in from Liuyuan in the north or Chengdu in the east - ten days to two weeks by truck convoy. They're the ones that not only manage to get to far-flung Kashgar, nestled in Xinjiang's remote western deserts but bus their way back to the capital, Urumqi, via the southern route, counterclockwise around the Tarim Basin ... right through the area of Lop Nur, China's top-secret nuclear testing installation. That makes for a couple of weeks' thoroughly unique travel through desert wastes. It can also make for imprisonment and expulsion.
"I dunno," is my reply to Marvin's question. But I do. If it weren't for my thick sheaf of scribblings, I might risk it: foreign students are the closest thing to sacred cows in China. Maybe once I have the notes typed up and out of the country - maybe then I'll give the hitch to Lhasa a shot, just to see how far I can get. At the end of my planned summer travels, when getting expelled would just mean saving money on a train ticket out.
Still, if the bureaucratic axe has to decapitate our travel plans, it could happen in a worse place than Kunming. This is the "City of Eternal Spring," as every Chinese I've met over the last two weeks has reminded me. I'm hoping for a day's snowfall or at least a patch of dreary weather, just to puncture the cliché: it would be nice to send Kunming's 2000-year-old reputation straight to hell. No such luck. Kunming is fantastically sunny, spring-scented, with just a hint of smokestack lavender. I know I won't be able to say much against it. (After the musty refrigerator of Yangshuo and the deep freeze of a Guilin night, I would have a few good words to say about Hades, with special mention to the guy running the central heating.)
But we all need a break from cities, and the small town of Anning Hot Springs beckons. There seems good walking to be had - Sjors, fresh from a trek in Nepal, is positively rubbing his hands at the prospect - and we can perhaps return via Lake Dianchi, the sixth-largest dab of freshwater in China.
We agree on an early start, eat a huge meal down the street from the hotel, nibble some fatally grimy cheese bought at a local market, wash it down with suspiciously flat beer-on-tap, and retire early to the splendour of our room: a bath, even towels to go with it, for four Yankee dollars a night! I bed down, satiated. Around midnight I wake with a reflexive crimp in my sodden bowels. I hustle to the toilet and shudder with the first liquid convulsions of ...
When a traveller in Asia uses this phrase it is accompanied by a tone of reverential, almost superstitious awe.
By the time dawn turns the curtains grey - late, because it's officially winter, and Kunming in the distant southwest runs on the same clock as Beijing - I am feeling run over by a truck. "I think I'll give Anning a miss today," I proclaim through clenched teeth.
"Ah, come on," says Marvin.
A couple of hours later we are bouncing through pretty fields of shining green to Anning proper, where the bus stops. Marvin has come down with something nasty, too. A bacterial reaction is inflating his gut like the Hindenberg. He sits rigid, praying that the jouncing of the bus won't dislodge the iron grip of his sphincter. Sjors, healthy and cheerful as ever, looks out the window. We suffer in silence, just to spite him.
Marvin holds out, and at a noxious public toilet in Anning we find temporary relief. "Christ," Marvin groans. "When I let go I thought I was going to fly around the place like a fucking balloon." We still feel lousy. My fingers tingle and turn nearly numb for no reason whatsoever; I shiver in the morning shade of the street.
Anning is a hole, a dull dustbowl of an industrial suburb. The locals can provide us with no consensus position on how to get out of it. Up and down, hotel over there no, over there no, we don't take foreigners, workers only. Finally a group of truck drivers agrees to get us up to the hot springs a little in advance of the public bus. Sjors, full of bounce, says he'd rather walk. Off he goes.
Marvin and I sit in the cool bus station, drinking tea and hot water respectively, waiting for the truck drivers to get their act together. Bitching.
"It's bloody fatal to come here after India," Marvin rants. "There's life in that country, you know? And colour, and contrast, even if it is as poor as shit. And you can go where you want and do what you like. Free enterprise: if barriers come up, a little palm-grease straightens things out. This - China - it's just blue clothes and green clothes and brown fields, and they won't bloody let you go anywhere it isn't."
I am up to the challenge. "I'm only beginning to realize how incredibly dreary the life of the average Chinese is! No room for initiative or ideas or real fulfilment. God," I moan, "sometimes I want to grab people here by the neck and say look, you're boring, you were born boring, you live boring, you'll die dull and unremembered." I pause. "Well, there's the old western arrogance slipping in again."
Marvin nods. "Doesn't matter if anyone remembers you or not. But do you want to go through your whole life like a sheep in a flock, herded this way or that? By a herder whose right hand doesn't bleeding know what the left one is doing?"
Virulent stuff. But a cure is just seven or eight clicks up the road. We end up hitching to the hot springs, with the "truck drivers" as fellow passengers in a Toyota half-and-half (had it all been a translation error on my part?). "No-one allowed in the back," says the driver gruffly to milling, hitch-hopeful locals. Then he showers me with the rote compliments about my Chinese. I listen gladly: we're on the move again. There's sun-splashed greenery all around, and my elbow is catching a tan out the window.
There is a nice old policeman at the hot springs. He has a rifle that looks like a World War One Lee-Enfield propped in the corner of his office; he bumbles about registering us and then passes us over to the local Guest House crew. We end up with a tidy, comfortable room for two dollars - split three ways. "God," marvels Marvin. "You can keep your Hiltons."
Sjors happens along, exuding vigour from every pore. I head across the street to the springs themselves, and bathe in a private sunken cubicle, the water so hot I nearly faint. Then I sleep for three hours, eat my first food of the day as the afternoon fades, finish off Kerouac, sleep again. My bowels are blessedly quiet all night. When morning comes, bright and blue, I'm ready to explore.
Anning Hot Springs is a road in and a road out, with a guest house, a bridge where a few noodle-sellers ply their trade, a couple of shops with whimsical business hours, and the springs themselves. All these are jumbled together at a single paltry intersection. But that road out winds like a dream along a sleepy river to a quiet valley, a mile or two further on. The three of us set out, clad in wool jumpers, into the impossible blue of the day. We stroll along the banks of the river. The water glistens over shallow rapids like green jello; it seems to wobble above and foam below with no movement in between.
There are few people along this stretch. Some peasants tug produce to market, a few of them sporting the distinctive dress of Yunnan's minority population. Half of China's 55 minorities are found in this province. The largest group is the Dais, ethnically linked to the Thais. Xishuangbanna, bless its inaccessible soul, is loaded with them. There are no people in the fields, which on this day shine an almost surreal green.
At one point Marvin looks up. "I'll be damned. Eucalyptus. Australian gum trees." They grow spindly but leafy at the side of a branch road leading to a squat local school building. A group of woodcutters lounges by their freshly-hacked logs at the side of the road. They regard us with a determined lack of interest.
"The universal test for gum." Marvin pinches a leaf from a branch, rolling and crumbling it between his fingers. He sniffs, offers it to Sjors, who nods. Then he holds it under my nose. Cool and sharp and fragrant. "Nice."
"These things are everywhere in Aussie. They have a tremendous ability to store water."
"Any tree that grows in Australia had better have a tremendous ability to store water," I comment profoundly.
We walk on, and a few minutes later, Marvin says, "Buds. God. It's springtime." Delicate little trees with branches like a cypress are positively streaming with nodules. I give up and acknowledge the City of Eternal Spring - after all, we're only an hour's drive away - for what it clearly is.
Marvin decides to head back to the hot springs for lunch and a potter around some adjacent villages. Sjors, ever indefatigable, is off to try to climb the tallest mountain in the area.
"Drink a beer for me when you get back," I command Marvin, smiling. Our stomachs are now up to it. Barely.
I follow the road alone into the mouth of the valley. Tall scrubby hills like yeti scalps rise from the uneven floor. There isn't much cultivable land around here. Yunnan, three-fifths the size of neighbouring Sichuan Province, can support less than one-third the population. Even the terracing has a lopsided look to it.
I close my eyes and breathe in every farming valley I've ever hiked in springtime. The smoke of burning compost, the air that comes laden with a profusion of subtle aromas; sweet bloom and growth everywhere. Even my snotty sinuses are impressed. I cross a high railway bridge with erratically-placed concrete slats, and watch the green floor of the valley blur along with my stride. A fierce breeze gusts, and I feel a wave of vertigo ... it's a long way down. On the other side a crazy trail snakes around the valley's central ridge, through verdant fields of crabgrass.
A village of red and brown buildings skitters up the hillside ahead. Oxen grazing, ladies in very blue silk headdresses washing clothes in a massive steel tub, gossipping. On his flat concrete roof, a man catches the rays, fending off the playful pestering of his young son. (When I write that down in my notebook, it comes out as "young sun"; with a start, the day seems to come fully alive.) The man shields his eyes from the glare, not noticing me watching him from the trail above. Around the bend another man hauls a small cart of logs laboriously up the track, away from a stagnant pool.
"Need some help?" I call.
He smiles and nods. We pull together on the worn leather strap, and the rickety apparatus bumps up the slope.
"Been walking long?" he asks. He is a peasant of unguessable age: a dark lined face, sparse black bristles on his chin. "Been walking long?" not, "Where are you from?" or, "How old are you?" or, "You speak Chinese very well."
I shrug happily. "Just walking!" And off I go, turning to see him push on alone. I feel a brief twinge in my heart. I imagine helping him lug those logs all the way back to his house. Maybe I'd be invited in for tea and a smoke. I haven't had much contact with Chinese beyond the shallow bureaucratic level for some days. That can happen, when you latch onto a couple of fellow westerners going your way; when you can cut loose and gab without having to sputter monosyllabically around every topic of conversation. Well. People are people. And a good yarn well-spun is a good yarn, no matter from whose mouth it comes.
I sit down for a rest by the side of the track, careful not to sit in any freshly-deposited oxshit, and do some scribbling with the occasional jangly tones of cowbells for company. A few village youths drive a dozen powerful-looking oxen up the path to their grazing fields. Clouds bend their heads and charge along with the fresh breeze. "Birds twitter and dive" (The Rustic Life and How To Write About It, 3rd edition, p. 179). There is an invisible stream somewhere nearby, scraping rustily along at the foot of a terraced slope. Above, way above, thickly-forested hills stretch as far as the eye can see. The sun, hot on my back, sends shifting shadows of cloud flowing along the valley floor; they disappear out of sight behind the bend below.
Sun and oxshit and buzzing flies and twinkling butterflies. I recline for a while and let the wind rustle my grubby jeans, whistle up my nostrils; let the sun sting my face, turning it prickly and tender.
When I chance to look up, a woman in ragged clothes is picking her way gingerly up the terracing to a huge bundle of wood. It's as tall as she is, with the girth of a fair-sized California redwood. I say out loud, "No," just for effect, then watch resignedly as she ties a couple of thick pads around the load, another around her forehead, and sits back on the terrace to make necessary adjustments to the fastening. She stands shakily and trods with indomitable resolution back down the hillside. From the rear, she is just a mass of branches borne along by two feet in tattered shoes. It is rather awesome.
There are fields of long grass and green weeds with a few brilliant daises scattered in between. The old abraded path still leads me up, at a shallow grade ideal for meditation. Feel your lungs fill. Your step sure and even. A thin, deceptively fragile stick whispers at my feet: Um, I know I'm not much, but I'm just the right height for you; won't you take me on your walk? We march along together, leaning on each other. It is flexible but resilient, and it tells me its story in the scars left by a woodsman's knife that has stripped it of its bark. It leaves a dusting of yellow sap on my palm. I fall in love with it. (And a day later I leave it, propped against the wall of the bus-station noodle stand. Absent-mindedness beats mystic attachment every time.)
Near the summit - by now I am beginning to hope it's the summit - the foliage grows dense, the path strewn with chopped sticks, stripped down and discarded. Pine needles, pine cones, pine branches the whole forest reeking of pine sap. I squat in a little nook off the trail and deposit some diarrhoea, then blow my nose in classic Asian fashion: finger pressing one nostril closed, then honk onto the ground. When I break through the forest I come out onto a dirt mining road, and the rumble of a heavy truck makes the air tremble. Ahead gapes a bleached-white mineshaft sunk into jagged rock. I clamber up the stony peak and sit awhile on the sunny top of the world.
Just to my right, perched on a terraced hillside, is the village Marvin has visited the day before. It's snug and dainty-looking from a distance; poor as shit up close, according to Marvin. ("This family was eating sweetened flour balls, and the floor was just dirt.")
High in the boundless blue of the sky, a pale half-moon hangs suspended (Cosmic Clichés and How to Put Them to Work for You, p. 198). Marvin had said it that morning, grinning, raising his face to the sun or sniffing his crumbled eucalyptus leaf: "It's on days like this you think life mightn't be so bad after all." Speak on, Learned One. Usually a feeling of just right lasts a moment. But I've climbed this hills, stopping to meditate whenever I find myself huffing, moving on with the sweat cooling on my brow and tweed cap clutched in my hand, and the peace has held and held, filling me with each ungreedy breath.
I follow the mining road down, kicking pebbles, raising clouds of red grit that cake to my boots. Halfway down, a dynamite charge explodes with a roar and a bellow, shattering the calm. A miner ambles over to inspect the devastation of the still-collapsing rock face. Another group of miners sits under a straw canopy, drinking tea in the shade. A little further on is an immense ox-pie that some passerby - or, more likely, the herder himself - has thoughtfully embedded with rocks so that truck wheels can ride unsullied over it. Propaganda officials will soon get wind of this selfless action and rush to the scene. It will be immortalized in a feature film called The Ox-Turd Incident, which will be shown nationwide, and which everyone will go to see because there is absolutely nothing else to do in China.
Countryside around Anning (Photo by Adam Jones).
Down, down. Feet getting sore. I have only the vaguest idea where I am, but like magic the rutted old road takes me round a last dusty bend - and there is the bridge with the noodle-sellers, just across from the guest house. Ten minutes after I have my bearings, I also have my beer. I sit in the cool of the room, gulping Tsingtao and biting into slim bars of sweet, soul-restoring chocolate.
Marvin arrives back soon after. We sit wondering where Sjors has gotten to.
"Wonder if he climbed his mountain," Marvin muses. "Hm. It's funny. You look out your window here and say, 'Oh, there's a mountain!' - and it takes you a couple of hours to hoof it on up."
He's flattered that I like his stories, and with the sun fading into the beery haze of late afternoon there's not much I'd rather do than listen to another one. "A bit different from Nepal, eh?" I coax him.
"Nepal! Shit, Nepal. You know, it was in that country that I first saw the road to China. Not China itself, but the way in. Before they chased us away. You're allowed to go down this mountain and hang a left" - his hand swoops in illustration. "Well, we went down the mountain, stowed our gear, and went right. And there we were. And not long after that, there were people with guns all around us saying, 'Go back, please.'
"Nepal is amazing. You can stand by a creek bed at ten thousand feet and see this black pebble in the stream. It's spherical rather than flat, and kind of oily-looking. If you throw it onto the ground or crack it open with another rock, you find one of these little fossilized shells the kind with the descending spiral design embedded inside. And you know that a hell of a long time ago, before the subcontinent came charging into Asia and pushed up the Himalayas, that ten-thousand-foot creekbed was at the bottom of the sea! And then you look up, up, like this" - he raises his arm at an angle well beyond forty-five degrees - "and there's more mountain, fifteen or eighteen thousand feet more. At the very peak the air is so thin and cold, you can see little vapour trails streaming off to form clouds further on. In the blink of an eye you've got ocean-floor fossils and the highest mountains in the world."
By the time darkness falls, Sjors is back, feet covered in blisters from his new boots. But he's climbed his mountain.
That evening, over more beer, we find out he has been a member of the Dutch Communist Party for ten years. "For four or five years I have been thinking about leaving. But then I look around at the other parties, and I see it is the best one." He has a mischievous disregard for the Soviet Union, though, and especially for artistic endeavour under communist systems. Here in China he's picked up an immense and turgid tome, one of those endless, drearily-translated revolutionary Chinese epics, full of blood and steel and superhuman PLA soldiers ("You can keep your god-damned bribes, this is the People's Liberation Army, do you hear?!") He sniffs when I ask him what he thinks of it. "Not bad. For socialist realism."
The next day we're off. We catch the local bus back to Anning as the sun burns humid tendrils of mist off the river. In the growing heat of the day we trudge six or seven miles along the country road to Haikou, a tiny port at the southern tip of Lake Dianchi. Fields of green mingle with sulphurous industrial plants; chimneys cast a puce-like pall over the surrounding landscape.
It seems to be PLA convoy day. Dozens upon dozens of dull khaki trucks, thickly camouflaged, thunder past us on the narrow road. They are numbered in roughly consecutive fashion, and the highest number I see is 100.
Any troop movement of this magnitude in Yunnan likely has something to do with the tense southern border. Indeed, the China Daily is reporting mounting border violations by the unrecalcitrant Vietnamese. Every now and then the Viets decide to lob over a few shells which kill a few cattle and, occasionally, people in nearby communes.
Many of the trucks are dragging dangerous-looking artillery pieces. There are soldiers in the back, with their Chinese-made AK-47s. They eye us noncommittally or nudge each other: "Foreigners." I wave at one truckload for the hell of it, and immediately a dozen hands shoot up in response, shy grins replacing the blank look of drill-practice. It makes me feel a little strange. Thirty years ago I might have been facing those lumpy PLA uniforms in less relaxed circumstances: we Canadians had shed blood in Korea, too. A little further on we trudge past the convoy again, stopped for lunch. Hundreds of soldiers lounge placidly or horse around. This time there are officers in the vicinity, though, and nobody waves.
Another signpost: Haikou 14 km, by a few rippling fields and sidelanes where donkeys pull carts and masters along. It is too far to walk in time for the afternoon boat back to Kunming. So we flag down the next bus, Kunming-bound. It takes us five or six miles on to Shangchong, just upriver from Haikou. "How much?" I ask the driver as we step off. He smiles and shakes his head.
Asia. This mid-morning heat, the buzzing flies and small children selling bottles of warm, sickly pop outside ramshackle houses: this isn't China as such, but everything that's homogeneous in the brown-clodded, colourful continent. We plod the last couple of miles to Haikou, and I fall behind. Sjors and Marvin have both done their Himalayan trekking, and know how to keep up a brisk pace. Then - the tinkle of a bicycle bell, a young man's voice: "Hop on!" I am driven the rest of the bumpy way by a frail Kunming high-school student who wants to practise his English, and rattles off his sterling achievements and heartfelt aspirations to me. He drops me off at the little cubby-hole where boat tickets are sold and farmers haul squealing piglets aboard the nearby craft. Then my new friend pedals back through streets redolent with sun-scorched fertilizer to collect Marvin and Sjors in their turn. I lean against the grimy wall by the ticket window, returning the stares of the locals, letting Asian déjà vus carry me away for a while. Maybe there's a cranny of the globe that's truly a world apart, but I haven't found it, and I'm not holding my breath.
The boat scuds across the windy surface of Lake Dianchi. We gaze out the window at the rocky coastline. "Damn, this looks like Greece," I mumble to Marvin: that stony shore, the bursting blue of the sky, the richly-hued lake.
A forest fire crawls its way up a hillside onshore. The passengers crane for a look. The rest of the time they seem more interesting in indulging the Chinese passion for other people's footwear.
"Where did you get those boots?" asks the man across from me. He has a shrewd face, and asks searching questions about capitalism and Yugoslavia before succumbing to his footwear fetish.
"Canada," I reply.
"They were pretty cheap," I assure him. This is a mistake.
"Ah! Twenty yuan? Thirty?" He strains his guesses to the very boundaries of the conceivable, knowing something about the compulsive materialism overseas.
"Um, just over a hundred, actually." This is two months' wages for many Chinese workers. "But they're good quality," I add lamely.
We awake in the cushioned luxury of our old three-bed room in the Kunming Hotel, regained after a brief haggle. There is energy to spare as we bustle about our morning business. I'm getting the day's strolling gear ready when the door slams and Marvin enters, an aura of calm serenity surrounding him.
"Well, Bruce" - God bless Australasians, they really will call you 'Bruce' - "Well, Bruce, that was a nine out of ten, I reckon. For size, shape, smell, slump, texture and gloss."
I make him repeat the categories and I scribble them down through my giggles. "That's only six!"
"Yeah, but it's scored out of ten," Marvin continues nonchalantly. "Like, sometimes the slump is so extraordinary it's worth two. Et cetera."
We are shitting solid again, and all is well with the world.
I know what self-contempt means, or that torment of conscience which springs from the inability to use the gifts of Heaven: that is the cruellest of all.I don't feel a desperate need to get a traveller's handle on Kunming. There's something in the sunshine, the ambience, the way everyone spills onto the street or hunkers down in the somnolent teahouses. It reminds me my trip is also a holiday. So I prowl the avenues and backstreets, oblivious to the stares, doing some thinking with a furrowed brow, stopping when I feel like it to scribble down some epochal thought I know will seem dumb later.
- Diderot, Rameau's Nephew
On the outskirts of town, but before you hit the periphery of squat housing blocks and factories, the narrow lanes all seem to flow downhill. The houses wind their way down exactly like terraced fields, and in the distance the dry, barren, beautiful hills are outlined with a clarity that hurts the eyes. I retreat to a tiny teahouse, stuffed into a small pebbled clearing at the end of an alley. I sit and drink strong green tea and chat with a few of the regulars, my notebook safely stowed. Many of them are almost classically old: men with long, worn, elegant pipes which they load with chunks of moist-looking cheroot. They sit their dusty trousers down on rickety wooden stools, and one of them tells me - grudgingly, it seems - that he's been doing exactly this, in this same teahouse, for forty years straight. There are a few younger men as well. One has brought his young son, who looks shyly at the tea-lady offering him refills of hot water from the massive, cloth-wrapped kettle.
In the western sector of Kunming there's a shop selling minority artifacts, and I make my way there, still in no particular hurry. By the most circuitous route available, in fact. It is a bland enough department-store affair, with quaint, mass-produced trinkets. For sale alongside them are the more functional items to which the craftspersons' skills must be directed by their pragmatic Han supervisors.
But there - there! - under the display glass. A perfectly marvellous selection of mini hash-pipes! My God, just the thing to while away those long spring days in Shanghai when we finally make our big score, from the shady folk in the Muslim quarter who truck in brick-sized chunks of the stuff from the Western desert.
The symmetry, the artistry! The pipes are four or five inches long, slim decorated lengths of gleaming brass. They have not one but two elegant bowls of equal size, equidistant from the ends.
That throws me for a minute, those two bowls. But then the magic of their function strikes me. If you were after a really monstrous buzz, you could load both bowls with the substance of your choice. If you preferred something milder, you could fill up one only. Then, the air inhaled through the other bowl would cool the smoke to whatever extent your fingertip, pressed to the rim of the empty bowl, dictated.
The wondrous simplicity of it all! And the best part is, the Han Chinese are entirely oblivious to the true purpose of the little brass masterpieces turned out by the smiling minority artisans. After all, what else could go in there but ordinary tobacco? I allow myself an inward chuckle at their exquisite naïveté.
The pipes cost about 75 cents each, Yankee currency. Hands oily with anticipation, I call the clerk over.
"Please let me see those two trays," I say.
Slightly disconcerted - you want to see the entire trays? - she pulls them out for my inspection. All is as I expected, though I'm darned if I can find the hole in the mouthpiece for drawing through the smoke.
I look a little longer, a little closer.
I blush up at the clerk. "Door handles?"
"Door handles," she confirms - what else?
I wander along, skirting the large park in the north of Kunming where wrinkled men sit at stone tables, mumbling over cards. I'm thinking of Kerouac, my face turned now and then to the sun. Thinking especially of that astounding passage early in On the Road where Sal Paradise rhapsodizes: "... the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centrelight pop and everybody goes 'Awww!'" Thinking about how slothful, how unimaginative I am, how often; how meagre and indecisive is my art. About how marvellous and terrible it would be to live like Dean Moriarty, Kerouac's hero: to burn down so far you burn out even the capacity to communicate your visions. ...
Less scrupulous writers than your servant might fabricate a lead-in like that, to slide you smoothly into the preposterous episode they're about to relate. "I was intently pondering this mysticism that pervades all Aquinas's writings, when who should I see down the path but the erstwhile Samuel Grimsby, Professor of Medieval Literature at King's College, Cambridge ..." But this is fairdinkum, Kerouac is on my mind and anxiety in my heart, when at my elbow a voice says, "Excuse me, sorr."
Oh no. Oh, Jesus.
"Please let me introduce myself. I am a student at Kunming Teacher's College, majoring in English. Where please are you from?"
I scream inwardly. But he gets an answer.
"Oh! Canada. Oh. Are you presently going to visit the temple near here?"
"No," I reply more firmly. "I'm walking back to my hotel." Take the hint.
"Oh, walking. I like walking. It is - good exercise! Which hotel?"
But I can't believe he likes anything. His voice is sullen and vapid and empty, not a breath of the usual I-study-English chirpiness which would be irritating, but at least familiar. If a piece of driftwood stranded on a flotsam-littered shore could speak, it would be with a voice like his. The face holds no surprises sunken, dark, lifeless. Lifeless.
"Ah, the Kunming Fandian. So you are passing your vacation in China."
"No, I'm studying in Shanghai," God damn it! He looks at me, puzzled - I don't seem to be studying; I seem to be vacationing in Kunming. Which, in fact, I am. But he lets it slide.
"Would you object if I accompaniment you." There is only a marginal difference in intonation when Driftwood asks a question. "I would like to practise my English."
I turn to him and say politely, "As a matter of fact, I would. You see, I have been meeting many people recently who only want to practise their English. I find it very dull."
"Ah. You are - 'tired of it.'"
I smile with grateful relief. "Yes. I'm sorry. You understand - I would just like to walk by myself for a while." In the drowsy heat of the day, with grandmothers on tiny bamboo chairs in secret doorways.
He nods, and I walk on.
He keeps pace. "Your country is very lucky. It has many forests. From those forests you may extract wood pulp and from mountain rivers get hydroelectric power - electricity."
I look at him and say with considerable restraint, "You don't need to practise your English. It is very good."
"Thank you. Also you have many planes."
"Many plains. Where you grow weed."
"Oh. Oh, crumbs." I quicken my step. Driftwood follows along, a level above me on the raised sidewalk. There is a milling market crowd ahead. Maybe -
"Maple leaf trees," Driftwood interjects suddenly.
"You also have maple leaf trees and the maple leaf is on your flag. Every autumn the country is full of maple leaf flags."
I stare resolutely at my boots. It makes me less likely to try to bite his eyes out.
"From the trees you extract sugar. Maple sugar." In his rote incantation, his voice has become nearly toneless.
"How do you know all this?"
Glumly: "I read books."
We walk on. Rather, I walk off, or attempt to. He sticks doggedly to the sidewalk. I don't see him whenever he zeroes in: my boots are altogether too fascinating.
"Excuse me. What job do you want to do when you have graduated."
I say hopelessly, "I don't know."
"Oh. I want to be an English teacher - a qualified English teacher." He waits for my approval, walking beside me on the road now. I notice that he comes up to my shoulder, and the way he carries himself makes him seem even smaller. Grudgingly I ask, "How old are you?"
"Thirty. Certainly older than you." He is content with that. "Do you know the Chinese characters on the sign?" My question has perked him up in a vague sort of way: Now we're rolling! And now his inquiries are more than statements.
I know three of four.
"I am very impressed with your master of Chinese," he says dutifully. "After only three months."
"Six in China, actually," I shoot back spitefully. "Plus a year in Canada."
"Oh. Excuse me, do you know why these houses all have mirrors above the doors?"
I look up. The houses all have mirrors above the doors. "Why?"
"It is a Chinese superstition. No! A Kunming superstition!" He laughs with awful hollow jocularity. "They think if the mirrors are there they will keep away - evvil."
And then, a couple of minutes later, he gives up. "I go then."
I feel a mild pang. "Yes. Look, I'm sorry. I just don't want to -"
"I know. Goodbye." He shakes my hand. Empty eyes.
I cross the street to buy a notebook. A minute later there comes a sullen tap on my shoulder. Driftwood. "You will find a better selection over there," he says, pointing at a large shop. And then he is gone.
Sjors in the Stone Forest (Shilin)(Photo by Adam Jones).
I split my time in Kunming with the obligatory side trip to the famous (and hence hectically-touristed) Stone Forest: Shilin, three hours way by bus. Marvin, Sjors and I share a room there with an Alaskan, Richard - huskily-built and with an impossibly luxuriant beard that has me rubbing the carefully-nurtured scruff on my face self-consciously. ("Don't worry, mate," Marvin chips in. "Before he went to Alaska his was probably just like yours.")
Richard likes to view the hundreds of bizarrely-eroded stone pillars by eerie moonlight. After a bottle of Chinese vodka, he orders us out into the bright silhouette-laden night. We clamber over boulders, through caves carved into or between the pillars, over miniature precipices, until we reach a vantage point and stand there, breathing heavily. The forest lies below, jagged and silent. Marvin tries to take a photo with the available light, but his prognosis is pessimistic. Then we follow the road that links the small villages in the area. It returns us to the little town, now all but deserted of tourists.
Vodka and moonlight flow through my system. I think I feel From the void we come; through emptiness we pass to nothingness. I repeat it like a mantra, hoofing along the rocky path, well behind the others. I fiddle with the mantra's syntax. Sweet despair fills me to the brim. I want to sit down on one of those boulders and write - something to Lindsey, with the lunar glow lighting my page. But the only suitable medium seems to be poetry. And haven't I already tried to write that poem?
Dark - I breathe, and feel the pinprick glowBesides, I can't see any way of working "void," "emptiness," "love" and all the rest into verse without sounding like Sartre after at least one bottle too many. I go back to the hotel and sleep.
Of icy fibre, taut as life
The desert chill. When empty, I am full.
When full, your touch unsettles.
Life trembles, giddy as
A starhaze flicker.
Looking beyond Kunming, I realize I have a problem.
Question: What's the one thing a weary student vows not to think about during his break?
But school and Shanghai are still there, and will loom ever more insistently from now on. Winter holidays are officially over. Classes for foreign students won't be underway, I know, for another week or so - none of us is that dedicated. But most everyone will be back and in a studious frame of mind by the 20th, which is four days away. At that point questions will be asked about my absence, and it's a matter of gauging the point at which irritation turns to anger or punishment.
I have no intention of getting back before the end of the month. But even that gives me just two weeks - and here I am in Kunming, at the farthest point of my travels, Shanghai a thousand miles and a world away. Ahead, to the north, lies the Sacred Mountain: Emei Shan. Beyond that is Chengdu - and Chongqing, nestled in southeast Sichuan Province at the confluence of the Yangtze and Jialing rivers. From Chongqing the Yangtze Gorges cruise is unavoidable. I can take the boat all the way to Wuhan, China's "Big Red Steeltown." But Wuhan to Shanghai by boat is another four days, which sounds a tad excruciating: I'm running low on reading matter. What's more, all train routes from Wuhan take huge detours north (to connect with the Shanghai-Urumqi line), or southwest to Changsha in Hunan Province; only then do they deign to move east to Shanghai.
I can shave a bit here and there. From Emei Town, base camp for those attempting the ascent of Emei, three or four hours short of Chengdu, a bus runs to Leshan a few miles away. Another rattles on to Neijiang which is a stop on the Chengdu-Chongqing rail line. That would cut out Chengdu, whose spicy dofu could wait for summer travels. And glancing at the map, I see there's no need to take the Yangtze boat all the way to Wuhan. At the bottom of the loop which the river takes after Shashi - after the Gorges - lies the town of Yueyang, halfway down the Wuhan-Changsha line. Bye-bye, Wuhan, and good riddance.
But it's still pushing it. What nags is four days: the time required to jog up the Sacred Mountain and back down again. But the only alternative to the rail journey north is to head straight east from Kunming - through the heartland of the south, to be sure, but retracing my steps as far as Guiyang, and there doesn't seem to be much of interest between Kunming and Changsha. It would be redundant and aesthetically displeasing: a crooked crescent instead of a nice wide loop. But I could hardly go through Emei Town - could hardly stop there, which would be necessary in order to lop Chengdu off the itinerary with a cross-country bus ride - without climbing the Sacred Mountain.
I mean, everybody climbs Emei Shan. I've even decided to call this section of the book "The Sacred Mountain." A couple of pages of dazzling descriptions of the view from the peak; the usual references to the pilgrims so inspired by the sight that they leap into the magical sunrise to their deaths ... a couple of pages and I could take it easy for the rest of the trip, the climax behind me, running downhill in more ways that one. There's simply no way around it. If I pass through Emei, I have to skiffle on up the mountain.
I decide to pass through Emei and give the mountain a miss.
Once I make the decision I feel good about it. My mind thrums like an efficiently functioning machine, a bothersome glob of detritus wiped from its works. One look at the grey skies of Sichuan Province, when I pull myself to the train window, adds to my new conviction.
"Look, ahead," Sjors says ironically, Marvin still asleep in his bunk ("Piss off, I'm a late riser"). He points to the sky. "This must be the border between Yunnan and Sichuan!" Brilliant morning blue is fleeing before the advance of ugly brown tufts of cloud. Ahead lies impenetrable grey.
I smirk. We'd actually passed the border during the night, at a point along the stalactite of Sichuan which pushes it way far south into Yunnan Province. But I say a sad, silent farewell anyway to lovely Yunnan, which has reddened my forearms and peeled my sensitive nose so delightfully. It is time for The Real China again.
The guidebook burbles that the Kunming-Chengdu ride is one of the most beautiful in China. There are, it's true, deep vistas of mountain; blunt valleys choked with fertile sediment; winter-shrivelled rivers hundreds of feet below. There are also about eight thousand tunnels. You have about four seconds to enjoy each moderately attractive view before the next tunnel cuts it off with a leaden whoosh. Marvin, finally roused, joins me at the Walkman, plugging in a spare pair of earphones, and we spent an hour listening to top-volume Stones. We chew the remnants of bread and cheese purchased in Kunming, look out the window, tap our feet with mounting frustration and eventually go back to sleep. We awake for Emei Town. Sjors, who has sat implacably by the window for the duration, says, "You missed some nice scenery."
The train chugs to a halt and we dismount. Outside, some chic Hong Kong Chinese are taking a giggly picture under the station signpost for Emei. We watch the obsessive shutterbugs with horror. Marvin blurts out, "Here we are, 'Me at Emei'. Christ, what was the first picture ever taken of them? 'Me Coming Out of My Dad's Dick'?"
We see Emei, walking, hunting for a hotel, and pronounce Pythonesque judgment on it: "This is not a town for visiting. This is a town for laying down and avoiding." It is a main street. Perhaps no more drab than a dozen other Chinese small towns I've seen. But this one comes after Yunnan and colour and sunshine. I blink. "Ouch."
I don't want to linger. Marvin and Sjors are bickering energetically over routes up the mountain, and they glance up with the odd look: "You sure you don't want to come with us?" But I've burned my bridge; now I have to lie in it. We have one last raveup dinner too much beer, and spices that leave us breathless and the next morning I say goodbye to the two of them.
"It's been a real pleasure trucking with you guys," I stammer. Awkwardly. Because what do you say to people you've lived with and bitched to and drunk with and lent money to and burdened with your life story, over a week-and-a-half on the road? Fine, fine people. May their journeys treat them kindly.
I've been describing the skies of China's February as grey, endlessly grey, but that isn't quite right. Three-quarters of any rural view is simply blank. The eye searches in vain for some definition in the heavens, some outline of cloud, some vague tint. Nothing. The Chinese sky seeps into the earth on days like this, it is foggy enough that the delineation between the two genuinely blurs; it envelops the dreary, formless houses, makes a bustling, animated market scene look worn and bone-weary. I think: if that sky can drag my soul down in a month of travelling (a month of motion, of contrast), what must it do to someone born under it, descended from people who've lived and toiled under it for millennia, who could almost pass it on in their genes? What must it be to turn your eyes to heaven, and for months on end every year see nothing but void?
I remember a passage in a book I've been plowing through in fits and starts on the trip: Suzuki's enigmatic selected writings, Zen Buddhism. Suzuki speaks of the transformation Buddhism underwent when it made its way into the Chinese heartland from the flourishing Indian subcontinent. He jumps from there to compare the two peoples, the two minds, the two souls. Zen, he argues, is "a most natural product of the Chinese soil":
... the Chinese are above all a most practical people, while the Indians are visionary and highly speculative. We cannot perhaps just the Chinese as unimaginative and lacking in the dramatic sense, but when they are compared with the inhabitants of the Buddha's native land they look so grey, so sombre.
The geographical features of each country are singularly reflected in the people. The tropical luxuriance of imagination so strikingly contrasts with the wintry dreariness of common practicalness. The Indians are subtle in analysis and dazzling in poetic flight; the Chinese are children of earthly life, they plod, they never soar away in the air. Their daily life consists in tilling the soil, gathering dry leaves, drawing water, buying and selling, being filial, observing social duties, and developing the most elaborate system of etiquette.Hence the methodical Chinese obsession with painstaking historical records - the need to carve deeds into stone, to etch them against the ages.
When Buddhism with all its characteristically Indian dialectics and imageries was first introduced into China, it must have staggered the Chinese mind. Look at its gods with many heads and arms something that has never entered into their heads, in fact into no other nation's than the Indian's. Think of the wealth of symbolism with which every being in Buddhist literature seems to be endowed. The mathematical conception of infinities, the Bodhisattva's plan of world-salvation, the wonderful stage-setting before the Buddha begins his sermons, not only in their general outlines but in their details bold, yet accurate, soaring in flight, yet sure of every step these and many other features must have been things of wonderment to the practical and earth-plodding people of China."Earth-plodders. Yeah, I like that." Marvin had been searching for a way to articulate what rankled him about China, what nagged him to compare this country with the India where he'd passed seven months. This sky, and Suzuki's words on the wintry Way of Zen "When hungry, I eat; when tired, I sleep," says the master matter-of-factly seems to explain a lot. I think of those magnificent Sung and Ming Dynasty landscape watercolours. You have to look a long time before you see that the clouds enveloping those craggy peaks are not painted on, but simply left blank; that the vast lake over which the helmsman steers his tiny boat is just emptiness. The Chinese had spent over two thousand years paring down life and thought to their unfathomable essentials, and when all was stripped away they found only nothingness remained. And so they gave it supreme meaning. Impenetrable, like that sky.
It takes, as it turns out, a scant 36 hours for my careful plans to be derailed.
"The road to Neijiang is closed to foreigners," the lady behind the Leshan ticket counter tells me. I've stowed my bags and booked a room just up from the station: all set for some sightseeing today and the onward bus tomorrow.
"Look, I don't want to go to Neijiang. I want to go to Chongqing. Neijiang just happens to be where I can pick up the train. I don't want to spend the night there. Look, I'll keep my eyes closed the whole time."
She is unimpressed by my feeble attempt at humour. "I'm sorry. You have to take the bus straight through to Chongqing."
I pause. "There's a bus to Chongqing?"
"And you can sell me a ticket?"
There is no-one in line at the next window. "I'd like to buy a ticket to Chongqing," I announce confidently.
"We cannot sell you a ticket to Chongqing."
"Are you telling me there's no bus?"
I leap on it. "But your partner said there was a bus."
Blushes and embarrassed chatter all round. Much face lost. "Foreigners are not allowed to take the bus. You must go to Chengdu, then take the train." Which is exactly what I've come to Leshan to avoid.
"God damn it," I say, nodding agreeably. They smile back, relieved.
I set an emphatic pace to the police station, which fortunately is far enough away to give me time to cool off. On the way, I decide I rather like Leshan. It is bigger than I expected, and full of late-morning bustle.
I spend a good hour with the good people of Chinese Public Security. "Look, it's crazy that I should have to go all the way north just to catch a train going south. Why the trouble? Why can't I just hope a bus to Neijiang?"
"It's off-limits. Regulations," shrugs the boyish, crew-cut cop apologetically. The Foreign Affairs Office has a staff of about five, and I strongly suspect I'm their first visitor for a while. One of them is female and very dark-eyed pretty, which detracts somewhat from the force of my argument.
"Well, to Chongqing then."
"But the whole road is closed, not just Neijiang. And besides, the bus to Chongqing takes two days - very slow, and passengers spend the night in Neijiang, which is -"
"Off-limits to foreigners. So I have to go all the way to Chengdu."
"There's a bus at one in the afternoon," the cop says, deferentially but with finality. "You'll be in Chengdu by five or so, and you can catch the evening train to Chongqing."
I puff intently on a cigarette, dragging out the drama as long as I can. "Will you call my hotel here and explain the situation, and ask them to refund the money I've paid for my room?"
Saving face is a custom not limited to orientals.
"No problem. No problem at all," says Crewcut, and he leaves the office. I turn to the pretty girl and say, "While I'm here, will you give me a permit for Yueyang and Shaoshan?"
Everyone grins in a friendly sort of way. The foreigner isn't going to be a bad sport after all! The permit is finished and stamped in record time. Crewcut returns with a businesslike expression that tells me all is arranged, and I head out for a cheap and tasty noodle lunch across the street: a team of proprietors fusses over me and chats solicitously; they beam when I order another serving.
Somewhere nearby is Dafu: Leshan's Big Buddha, the largest stone carving in China. Twelve hundred years old, or thereabouts. But I have a bus to catch.
Six hours of bone-jarring country road later and I am wandering up a gracious, tree-lined avenue in Chengdu, my head pounding from the bus driver's World War Two-issue air-raid siren. That's all I see of Chengdu. I have to stand crumpled up against the roof on the crowded bus to the train station, where I continue gathering data for my Master's thesis on Scalp Conditions in New China. From occasional glimpses out the window, Chengdu looks spacious. They are building an impressive new station complex, complete with escalators; meanwhile, wayfarers are shunted to chilly benches outside the construction site. I find my train, pay extra for a sleeper, play idly with a presumptuous little urchin in the opposite berth who invites me to his house in Chongqing to continue the fun and games. By the time I realize how exhausted I am, I'm asleep. I wake to grating loudspeakers as the train moves through the tangled, smoke-belching suburbs of industrial Chongqing.
Chongqing Cityscape (Photo by Adam Jones).
Chongqing is an elephant hit in the haunches by the howitzer of time. It topples majestically, eternally - What, me? It is the most sulphurous, chaotic, grimy city I've seen in China, and perhaps the only irredeemably ugly one. No parks, no pagodas, no scenery apart from the two muddy rivers below. Not even the most humble attempt at municipal beautification even bland, broad-avenued socialist beautification. I see just one "sports field" my entire time in the city, and it's a barren industrial plot fallen into disuse, with a couple of makeshift goals and a dozen ardent players screaming "Huaqiao!" - "Good ball!" - and bickering over the rules. The nearest thing my imagination comes up with for Chongqing is Jack the Ripper's Whitechapel - minus the pea-soup fogs, but with an added dose of soot for good measure.
I fall in love with Chongqing immediately, and I end up spending three days there.
When the sun comes out and tries to liven things up a bit, the city's expression changes. It becomes a faded but once-lovely film star who's just seen the first flashbulb in years go off in her direction: You've got to be kidding. Chongqing: seat of the Nationalist government after the Rape of Nanking, devastated by Japanese bombs, scene of communist intrigue, of co-operation pacts forged and broken. Recent history coats the crumbling city like a layer of dust: Zhou Enlai's wartime office is just across the street from my hotel. Chongqing has never bothered to recover from those trying times by any index save that of industrial output. Even in that sense, there's something sarcastic about the way the city spews its awful chemical foam from countless sluices into the two great rivers that flow around it. Life here is as gritty as the air that stings your sinuses. I treasure that above all else.
I find a bed at the Chongqing Guest House, a peeling, gloomy monolith built by the Russians. (The toilet doors still have Cyrillic above the English.) Al and Brian are already inside, fresh from their sojourn to Xishuangbanna and a trot up Emei Shan, which they describe in bedazzled superlatives even before I mention I've had to give it a miss.
"How the hell did you get permission for Xishuangbanna?"
"Oh, we had to sign up with a guided tour, just for formality's sake," Brain explains. He's a red-haired Canadian with a neat beard who looks very much like a bartender. He works as a bartender on the grand old Princess Marguerite, the steamship that runs [1998 Note: No longer] between Vancouver Island and Seattle so that tourists can ooh and ahh at the boat's stately brass furnishings and real-teak decks. Brian lives in Victoria, which means we'd been to the same university. His work is seasonal and profitable. In the winter months, he travels.
"It was pretty funny in Chengdu," he relates, beaming. "We went to Public Security to get permits for a few places, and the guy kept saying, 'Jinghong? You want to go to Jinghong too?' We had to make him understand that we'd already been, but he still practically forced it down our throats."
Jinghong. In Kunming you got a blank stare and a mumbled "Closed" that was as good as a brick wall. Take a train north to Chengdu and they all but begged you to take the permit. Fuck.
"You had pretty good weather on Emei Shan, huh?" Spare me not.
"Awesome," says Al shortly. He's an Alaskan park ranger - an off-season traveller like Brian, with sharp features and a head-cold which he's convinced feeds off the Tetracycline tablets he pops daily. "From the peak you could see Gungka Shan. Tallest mountain entirely within China. Seventy miles away. Seventy-five-ninety metres."
"All by itself, poking through the clouds," Brian chips in. "Got lost trying to find its way to the Himalayas."
I drop my bags on the bed, excuse myself, and head off to buy a boat ticket to Yueyang.
Chongqing is one city whose maps should always be drawn in relief. It reminds me of the three-dimensional chess Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock used to play on Star Trek. City life goes on at various levels, interconnected but distinct. Imagine the head and bill of a mallard duck poking into the junction of the rivers. Keep the three dimensions, and you have an idea of the city's topography. The eye of the duck is the People's Hotel. It's from there that I head out, strolling down from the top of the hill to the level just above the Jiali River's high-water mark, past the dusty, patchwork shantytowns that cling to the hillside. Many dwellings here still lack running water.
The sounds of the city fill the air as I walk. There's the rumble of articulated buses (few bikes here, owing to the steep gradients), the squeak of scissors cutting into sheet-metal in dozens of tiny factories, the zither-like music of the cotton-fleecers who still work with primitive shoulder bows. The people are shorter, it seems, than those of other regions, and huskier.
Damn it - that modernized name, Chongqing, is all wrong, with its delicate latter syllable (pronounced "tching," but ever so lightly). This is Chungking, this is what Chiang Kai-shek had known, what Patrick Hurley and all the other American advisors and representatives to the Nationalist government had seen during the war. You need that initial expulsion, Chunnggg, like a length of iron slamming into a ton of brick. And you need the aural connections and connotations. Chungking, Chungkee it's the chunkiest-feeling city in the world.
The China International Travel Service office is housed in a dank concrete side building off the grand façade of the People's Hotel. The hotel itself is little more than its façade: a spectacular central tower modelled on Beijing's majestic Temple of Heaven; sprawling, regal wings on either side. It's the city's sole recognizable landmark, which means it shows up in the background of local propaganda billboards, and has endless throngs of Chinese outside the gates, gawking or lining up to have their picture taken by local entrepreneurs. But all the budget has been poured into that beautiful exterior. Inside it is utterly empty, on the ground floor at least. The hallways are gloomy, the carpets damp. The paint on the walls is cracked and peeled. I think of a few seedy Paris pensions I know, and the resemblance grows and grows: it takes a good ten minutes standing at the desk, and another five impatiently searching and calling, before I can find a receptionist.
The pert, saucy CITS lass doesn't even blink when I ask for a fourth-class ticket. "Thirty-two yuan."
I brighten and go for broke. "I've also heard it's possible to sleep on the boat the night before departure."
"No, that's not allowed."
"How should I know?" She smiles blithely, and then adds, just to rub it in: "Chinese can. Foreigners can't."
"What about foreign students in China?" I try gamely.
"Nope. Because all you foreigners bring too many things on board and crowd up the space."
I stare at her in disbelief. Images are dancing through my head of weaving round waist-high baskets of squawking chickens, tripping over huge sacks of personal belongings the epic quantity of baggage which Chinese carry aboard every form of transportation I've ever shared with them.
"It seems to me," I suggest earnestly, "that a Chinese going all the way from Chongqing to Wuhan would be carrying quite a lot of stuff. More than I am, anyway."
She shoots me a frank look. "Be serious. Pick up your ticket tomorrow afternoon." Then she stifles a yawn and heads back to her interrupted noon siesta. I like her. I think I want to pinch her ass and see what kind of reaction I get. [1998 Note: This was 1984!]
This sprawling metropolis ... two million in the central core, the duck's head and its immediate environs, but that's just for starters. The suburbs bring the total well over five million. The Suburbs. With the constraints imposed by geography on Chongqing's central core, the 'burbs have something of the sprawl and relative importance of New York's. There's nothing else like them in China, I think, and the next day Al, Brian and I bus out to them.
We are hunting for the U.S.-Chiang Kai-shek Criminal Acts Exhibition Hall, with its nearby prison-museum complex. It's the only era of local history I know anything about, and I am interested to see what vibrations I can pick up.
Not many from the attractions itself, it turns out. The Exhibition Hall has a lot of blurry photographs of martyrs, a few gory snaps of families massacred by the Nationalists. Sitting mute under glass are weatherbeaten monacles and switches, used in the torture chambers. Chongqing was liberated late, in 1950, some months after the declaration of the People's Republic in Beijing. Apparently the Nationalist squads had plenty of time to tie up loose ends before high-tailing it ignominiously south.
I feel sympathy for all those fresh, impassive faces on the walls, done to death so brutally. I might feel more even meditate awhile were it not for the atrocious paintings that assault the visitor: the fiery-eyed revolutionaries striking heroic, inhuman poses on burning hillsides, mocking the same honest sacrifices they're meant to exalt.
We walk from the museum up a hillside lane, past the gate of the large Sichuan Foreign Languages Institute. It's an evil day, bleak and blustery, and all around factories cough rust-coloured chemical fumes into the sky. Al has been hacking away and blasting his nostrils clear all morning. "Can't wait to get back to some clean air. Don't get much cleaner than Alaska and Oregon."
We pick up a young, soft-spoken student. Simon, let's call him: He'd taken an English name that wasn't far different. Simon speaks fair English not great, but then do I know the Chinese for "torture chamber"? He has alert, intelligent eyes, and he is knowledgable company.
"Are you now going to the prison?" Simon asks.
Baigongguan Prison was once the summer home (gongguan) of a certain Mr. Bai. An ironic touch: it was converted to less savory uses by the Guomindang, with the tacit approval if not outright co-operation of the muddled American advisors stationed in Chongqing. Simon leads us across a shortcut: a knobbly, rutted little knoll. Halfway across, we pass an old, old man, sitting on dusty ground behind a tattered piece of corrugated cardboard. Four or five other men, middle-aged or geriatric, cluster around him, squatting.
"A fortune-teller," Simon says in an offhand way.
"A what?" That perks me up, all right.
"He tells fortunes."
We meet the main path again. I think for a minute.
"If I get him to tell mine, will you help translate?"
Simon's brow furrows. He looks at me uncertainly from beneath a wayward cowlick.
"You see, that would be difficult. If I am seen leading foreigners to a fortune-teller, I could have problems with police."
I understand. We walk on and up, and spend half an hour looking into the cells where communist activists and sympathizers were imprisoned, tortured, and killed. Crumpled flowers of white tissue-paper are strewn on the packed-earth floors behind the bars. They are the symbol of the prison museum: Mr. Bai's name means "white." One larger room is a cave, damp and squalid, where a stagnant pool of water trembles under the irregular assault of drops from the ceiling.
"The torture chamber," Simon intones quietly.
We'd seen pictures in the Exhibition Hall of that cave, with the ragged wicker chair in the middle where the prisoners were tied up. Seen the instrument. I make a wish for the day to turn less grey.
When we trudge back down the hill, I say to Simon, now puffing lazily on a cigarette: "Look, you go on ahead. I think I want to try this fortune-telling business anyway."
He shrugs. "Okay. I'll translate."
There is no-one around the old man now. He seems perplexed by the arrival of the three foreigners, and raises his face guardedly to us: an ancient visage, drooping fleshy jowls and tremulous eyelids. There are patches of leathery, birthmarked skin below his ears. Only two or three stumpy teeth still cling to his gums.
I squat in front of him, nodding hello. He sizes me up. Then he launches into his spiel, glancing around every so often, gesticulating with frail but visibly sensitive hands. He has freckled, nicotine-stained fingers with long orange-black nails.
Simon interrupts. "He says he can tell you your family history for three generations - your grandfather, your father and you. Thirty fen for hand examinations, fifty for head-to-toe."
That latter one sounds intriguing. "But I thought he told fortunes, not histories." It strikes me later that this is his little dodge: guessing at details of the past is a whole lot less likely to arouse righteous Marxist indignation than giving loaded visions of the near future.
"He won't take any money from you if he speaks wrong," Simon claims. But the old man, sensing my indecision, prefers a more vigorous demonstration of his talents. He reaches up and grabs Brian's hand, kneading it expertly, running a long, timeworn thumbnail over the minute creases in the Mount of Venus. Eyes searching. Brian smiles indulgently, his red beard flaming. Finally, satisfied, the old man announces his verdict to Simon.
"You have two wives," Simon relays firmly.
Brian laughs uncertainly. "Uh, I'm single."
"No wives?" Simon presses, slightly incredulous.
It is translated. The old man appears dissatisfied, a little doubtful. "Must be those tricky Caucasian palms," Brian volunteers helpfully.
By now, the inevitable crowd of a dozen or so passersby has gathered to watch the spectacle. I say to Simon, "Will he have a go at mine?"
Translation. The old man nods imperiously. "He will."
I proffer my palm. The old man clutches it with extraordinary delicacy, turns it appraisingly, caresses it like a lover. Lays bare its secrets. His nail digs into the skin below my little finger; ticks up one, twice, three times, four. Serene certainty dawns on his trembling features. He stuffs a cigarette between his lips, lights it, and mumbles something to Simon, squinting at us through a haze of smoke.
"Do you have four brothers or sisters?" Simon translates.
"Um, one brother. Yige didi," I say apologetically, directly to the old man.
Disbelief. The man murmurs something more to Simon.
"The man is very sorry to have to ask, but did any of your brothers or sisters die?"
"No," I reply helplessly. Again directly to the old man. He shakes his head, frowning. For my part, I can't understand why any self-proclaimed palmist would venture such specific information, and then refuse to accept money if he was wrong. Two wives? Four brothers or sisters? It's fantastic.
"Maybe there's something my father didn't tell me," I offer lamely, in Chinese, with a wheezy giggle. The crowd, jostling, joins in the laughter a little. I turn back to Simon.
"Can he tell me how old I'll be when I get married?"
Simon and the old man exchange words. "Does this mean you wish to continue with the reading?"
I think a moment. "Yes."
It's the right move. The old man feels vindicated; he's back in control. Who knows what dark secrets I am wilfully concealing from him? And yet, mesmerized by his skill, I must know more ...!
"Please then pay him now. Fifty fen." I hand it over. The old man tucks it away. Then he points at my shoes.
"Please turn off your shoes," Simon translates.
I shrug that's the head-to-toe treatment, alright and slip off my left boot. I peel down my sock. The old man pounces immediately. He examines me intently: turning, tracing. The crowd moves in closer, nudging and smiling.
And then, suddenly, there is a chill of silence in the air.
A voice, sharply berating, drifts in from behind the throng. I am on the ground and can see only shins and kneecaps, but I know with a lurch in my stomach what's happening. I glance up quickly at Simon. His eyes are aimed straight ahead, his face is frozen. He doesn't know us. Just watching, officer.
The old man fumbles with his things: the pathetic cardboard sign, a small wicker box. I pull on my sock hurriedly, lace up my boot, and stand shakily. An arrogant-looking young man in green with a taut-skinned face has barged through to harangue the assembly. I look at the new arrival, glare at him, irrationally glad that I stand a head taller. "Who are you?"
He turns to me, a proud gleam in his eye. "Police! Public Security!"
"Where's your uniform?"
He fumbles for his ID, then gives up the search. "I wear the clothes of a worker."
"Well, what gives?"
"This is buxing. Forbidden."
"This? What? What regulation? Government regulation?" I bark the foreign words as rapidly as I can wrap my tongue around them.
"Yes! Government regulation."
"I've never seen this regulation."
Tartly he says: "You speak very good Chinese."
Tartly I shoot back: "Thank you very much."
But it is a face-saving exchange, nothing more. Another cop has arrived, this one definitely in uniform, and it's time to leave before we get anyone into real trouble. I motion to Brian and Al.
But the wolf in worker's clothing isn't done yet. He snaps at the old man, "Give him back his money."
"I didn't give him any money!" I protest.
He ignores it; perhaps he's seen the transaction. "Give it back."
The old man searches his clothes with trembling hands and pulls out my fifty fen. I don't look at him as I take it. We split.
I turn back a few steps away to see the old man being shooed away not escorted, thank God by the police. He disappears over the barren knoll, basket in hand. The crowd streams off, the main event over. We head back to the main road to catch our bus, my heart still pounding.
Brian says softly, "So that's the way it is, huh?"
"That's the way it is." I look over my shoulder once more to see whether Simon has followed. He has, but at a distance: he's smiling, embarrassed. We pass the gates of the Foreign Language Institute, and when I turn back he's made himself anonymous, swallowed up by the institution. Hard to get used to a country where a goodbye can be dangerous.
I walk east toward the cablecar that connects the central city with its northern suburbs across the Jiali River. The Yangtze, on the other side of the hill, is a furious turmoil even in winter: a shallow, dangerously fast-flowing torrent. But the Jiali is dormant, winter-shrunken. I stand below the shivering cable wires and watch for a while. On flats laid bare by the river, work is going on: smaller wooden ships raised on logs for repair work, trucks kicking up dust along newly carved-tracks, temporary siesta-and-storage huts erected. What the nature of the toil might be, I can't guess. A few women bend over their washing at lethargic water's edge. Occasionally I spy cargo being rafted gingerly up the muddy stretch of river.
On the far side of the Jiali, away in the suburbs, smoke blooms grey or chemical-red from half a dozen smoking chimneys. Mixed with winter fog, it blankets the city in a noxious haze. Even the massive People's Hotel, barely half an hour's walk away, is but a dim shadow on the skyline. Far below my vantage point, a grim little stream on the city side vomits foam into the river. Everywhere tenements cling precipitously, haphazardly - or was there a curious kind of order there? - to the hillside. A few blank-faced modern flats poke their snouts above the tangle.
Christ, why do I like this city?
My answer lies on the opposite bank. To get there I pay ten fen for a cablecar ticket. I zoom over the chasm, munching on a big bar of chocolate, getting some good old traveller's energy back into a system weighted down by exhaust fumes and fog and soot.
Dismount. Trip up some sidestreets, clenching my innards against the stares. Find a grotty trail running along a bank of unhappy grass. Squat down for a few minutes, and there - there. On the rooftop of a squat official-looking building, below and some way away. A PLA man leaps, whirling his way through a jujitsu routine, so taut and kinetic it makes me shiver. I imagine I can see strength and fierceness on his face. He walks a few confident steps, tensed and rippling, then leaps and spins and kicks out in the air. Here, sitting on a bank of withered grass above rambling suburban roofs, I can look almost anywhere and ponder how dreary the city looks ... but there is that green blur, punching and kicking his way across my field of vision. Dazzling in the surroundings.
Life, that's Chongqing. It pulses. It can't help it. It insinuates itself into the unconscious impressions I form, only occasionally emerging to let me put my finger on it. Life in the mysterious early evening: the air mild and cool, the sound of stir-frying crackling in my ears. Life in the aroma of the markets. In the packed buses. In the eyes.
Eventually Chongqing polarizes in my mind, black and white, with everything invisible in between. On one corner stand two men, fitted with the antique contraptions they use for fleecing fluffy table-loads of raw cotton. (They are everywhere in the city. "Haven't used that in the American South since the cotton gin was invented," Al tells me.) These men are fairly young apprentices, perhaps and if they continue to ignore the simple precaution of asbestos masks, they may not live much past the end of their apprenticeships. They twang inexpertly, laughing. Tufts of cotton catch in their hair or float away, ever so white, into the gloomy day.
Cotton Spinners, Chongqing (Photo by Adam Jones).
Just down the road - I say the road; it could have been any one of half a dozen - five or six strapping workers, men and women alike, shovel furiously. Sleeves rolled up, bent to their task, they haul heaps of glistening coal dust onto a conveyor belt. It disappears into the dark bowels of a concrete factory building. Some time later, apparently, it emerges as briquets: opposite the workers sit older men surrounding by buckets of the product. A hundred metres or so further along, a frowsy middle-aged woman is making the briquets by hand, laboriously fashioning them from long, wet cylinders of coal-mush that look like diseased dog turds. Her hands are vile with the stuff, and the water in the gutters flows black as tar.
"Buxing!" yelps the ticket collector as we try to traverse the rattly gangplank to the boat.
I smile brightly. "Ah, I see. Regulations. Well, I'm sure if you'll give your leader a telephone call we can work something out." We sit down on our bags at the water's edge: the sand is just as unyielding.
The ticket collector follows us. "Look, why can't you sleep at the guest house?"
"Too expensive," I shrug. "Besides, it's a lot of trouble getting up at five a.m. to catch a bus down here. We pay the same as the Chinese. Why don't we have the same privileges?"
Always leave them a way out. "I know it's not your problem. Please just give your leader a call, and we'll see what he says."
A crowd gathers. I've expected it, and I'm glad. I banter with them awhile. One girl near the front asks, "But how do you think you can get on if there's a regulation?"
"I've heard this regulation isn't too strong. How old are you?" Heaven help me, she's lovely: a face that could have been a model's, high cheekbones, a strong, haughty jaw whose resolve falters a little at my question. Her eyes flicker, and with a sudden, off-guard shyness that takes my breath away, she replies: "Twenty-one."
I nod and watch her eyes for a few seconds. It's damned unhealthy, the impact these little things have on me after six months of deprivation. I feel very Victorian sometimes. My dear, do you fancy an evening promenade?
Half an hour later, we are shown to our cabins on board (a cursory examination of my student card; apologies for the lack of attendants to cater to our every need this evening - and I have a fourth-class ticket!). Al and Brian have splurged on third-class: four berths to a cabin. They share with a short German man wearing fiercely-strong spectacles. The last bunk is empty.
Perhaps as revenge for the complications I've introduced, the other beds in my eight-berth cabin are soon filled with a group of young Hong Kong Chinese. They look me over, drawl a lazy "Yaaaaa" at the end of every phrase, laugh shriekingly and often, goose each other regularly, and (I'm certain) have pillow fights when I go to the toilet. I say they're young, but four of the six seem to be married couples, and one of the women has doubtless seen 30 come and go. She's the one with the Walkman and a cassette of "The Best of Folk Vol. 3." She sits and sings along with "500 Miles."
Predictably, I end up spending most of my time in the third-class cabin with Brian and Al. There are no first-class berths on these boats (it wouldn't do: what would Uncle Marx say?), but second class holds all the rich westerners, mainly Frenchmen. They enjoy a bay window and private showers and bowl toilets and luxury two-bed cabins. This bourgeois contingent disembarks at the Yichang locks, after the Three Gorges are done with. From then on, we sneak in and use their showers or sit on their toilets, strolling in and out of the gate that reads "No Admittance Except on Business" with our best I'm-a-foreigner-watch-what-you-say jaunt. In this manner I go, in a little over two days, from a beleaguered waiguo ren on a beach clutching a fourth-class ticket, to an almost-second-class luxury cruiser. Social Mobility and Socialism, or: How to Succeed in Travelling without Really Trying.
We pull away from Chongqing early in the morning. The Yangtze is fast and narrow, murky water rushing between tall, noncommittal hills. I go below and buy the official Hence-the-Name Guide to the Three Gorges from a booth in the cafeteria.
"The Three Gorges," it informs me as I sprawl in my misappropriated third-class splendour, "attract tourists all over the world. Not only because of their beautiful scenic spots, but also because of the many historical sites with legendary tales."
I look up and out of the foam-flecked window. Outside, it is blank and very bleak indeed. Wan, struggling hills sail past. Fine. I'll stick to my booklet. In the photos, it's always a bright sunny day flowing toward a spectacular sunset. Those legendary tales sound at least as colourful.
And so it is, next morning, that we come to Baidicheng, at the beginning of the famed gorges.
I sleep through it, and through most of the gorge that follows. But my guide tells me all I need to know. "Baidicheng (White King Town) ... During 9-23 AD, Wang Mang usurped the state power of the Western Han Dynasty. Gongsun Shu (a local high-ranking official) proclaimed himself king. Later, he moved the capital to Yufu County (original name of Baidicheng). As the legend goes, Gongsun Shu found a well in the White King Town. This well often emitted white vapour, which struck him as so auspicious an omen that he renamed himself the White King and renamed the town 'White King Town.'
"According to another legendary tale ..."
Qutang Gorge is the one I slept through completely. "It is the shortest, the narrowest and also the most magnificent of the Three Gorges." Naturally. "Pretty magnificent, all right," Brian agrees, needling me. He'd woken up in time. But that's OK: I have a gorgeous picture of "Morning in the Qutang Gorge": sunlight slanting through puffs of mist, looming mountains, green translucent water. Besides, I know something Brian doesn't:
At the entrance, the two cloud-piercing mountains - Red Armour Mountain and White Salt Mountain - stand opposite to each other with a pathway in between as narrow as a gate. It has been called 'Guei Men Gate' where the river is rolling through with a mighty roar. In ancient times, it was said that if the gate were locked by an iron chain, none boat could pass. So, it got another name 'Qutang Pass.'I'm thinking there are probably a few other gorges where none boat could pass if the entrance were locked with an iron chain. But my guide is off and roaring on its hence-the-name spree.
"Bellows Gorge. There was said to be a rock coffin between two rocks on the sheer cliff. The coffin looked just like bellows, hence the name."
"Scissors Peak. The peak was just like a pair of scissors. Hence the name."
"Temple Gorge. At the top of the Mountain, there were two ancient temples, hence the name."
Then we enter Wu Gorge, 44 kilometres long, "famed for its elegant beauty of forest-covered peaks." I stand outside for a while, a strong, freezing gale gusting around, making my cap ripple and threaten to break free of its moorings. It is a gorge, alright. There are high hills - forested, some with dustings of grey snow near the summit. The wind and cold are relentless, the sky impenetrable. I go back inside, ears tingling.
Somewhere around here is The Fairy Peak. There's a lovely picture of it in the Hence-the-Name Guide: tufted with cloud, mysterious and inaccessible. The tale is even lovelier. "A legend says that the peak was the incarnation of Yao Ji (the youngest daughter of the Western Queen Mother of Heaven). She came down and stayed at the bank to direct the plying boats. As years passed by she gradually turned into a peak."
Ah, and can't you see those boatsmen? Poling sinewily down-river toward the rapids, looking to the dim fog-shrouded heights of Fairy Peak? Drawing some strength from their guardian angel, daughter of the Western Queen? For we are nearing that treacherous stretch of tows and undercurrents and unforgiving shoals that have turned a goodly portion of 2500 years' river-traffic into driftwood, and the pilots into ghosts. It is Xiling Gorge: fifty miles long, with a slew of once-deadly secondary gorges. There is even one named Kongling Empty Boat Gorge. "It was said that if any boat intended to pass through the gorge, it should throw overboard all the cargoes it carried, because of the shoals and rapids."
The guide boasts a picture of one of the Yangtze cruise boats "Sailing into torrents," with shallow rushing water in the foreground. But tons of post-revolutionary dynamite have long since blasted away the danger; the passage is placid. When we break through to the smooth, nearly still waters that mark the end of the gorges and the widening of the Yangtze, there is no collective sigh of relief. No prayers of thanks for safe passage from pilots who've seen comrades go down who've maybe come close once or twice themselves. The gorges are a little like life: bland once you take away all the adventure.
The end is Yichang, where we slide through locks at a massive power dam. "After Yichang," warns my guidebook, "The majesty of the gorges gives way to the monotony of the plains."
Following the Hence-the-Name booklet has put me in a reading mood. I scour a couple of back-issues of the China Daily.
There are miles of smiles plastered across the front page of Saturday's edition. A little poofter in a white smock prances about a field, while a soldier brandishes a tambourine and another hoists what look like ears of corn. A dozen peasants grin ferociously in the background. "Smiles all round ... A team of army performers from the PLA Beijing unit doing a Uighur dance in praise of the responsibility system to entertain peasants working in the fields near Huai'an County, Hebei Province. Photo by Gao Changyue."
That's not the boat engines; it's the sound of my stomach turning. Next... Someone named Cai Rong has written a letter to the editor, lauding the return of dancing. "During the 'cultural revolution,' almost all hobbies were forbidden ... People, especially the young, felt that life was dull. They needed films, TV programmes and dancing. Since the Gang of Four was smashed, dancing has returned to become young people's favourite pastime."
Rock on, Cai. Toe that line. Those with tired feet can always crash out in front of the aforementioned TV programmes. On this particular day, they can watch a popular science film, "Advantages of Sheep-Raising," on Channel 8, or on Channel 6 "Across Our Motherland: A Library in the Countryside." If that doesn't appeal, they can look forward to fifteen minutes on "Food Therapy for Anaemic Patients," to be screened the next day. (Worth watching, perhaps. When it comes to anaemia, Chinese TV really knows its stuff.)
Over the page, a headline tells of "Enjoying New Lives in Tibet." Who, specifically? The Han Chinese who've been posted there. Yuan Jie, 27, and Xiao Yu, 26, graduates from Beijing Broadcasting College (those magic initials!), are recently hitched. They find the going tough but rewarding. Comments the wife: "We have to do some farming Thank God I learned something about it when I was in the countryside after middle school, and I'm able to do it." No, dear: thank Mao, who sent you to the countryside in the first place. Xiao, the husband, has just finished playing the hero's role in the first-ever radio play broadcast by the region's new station. "It tells of a geologist who devoted all his life to discovering Tibetan resources," he testifies.
"The most important thing is that you feel you are needed," the couple hymn, apparently in unison. "What is more inviting than that for us of the younger generation?"
More news. Another giant panda has been saved from starving to death in Sichuan. In Canton - who would have guessed it! - the outside world is all the rage. "Western-style clothes have become so popular that the Nanfang Mansion Department Store in Guangzhou sold 13,000 neckties in the first 12 days this month ... most of the buyers were young people and many were rural areas."
And somewhere in the background, usually eluding the journalistic searchlight, what goes on, goes on. In China people are getting down to brass tacks and producing a replacement generation. Qian Xinzhong, the country's United Nations "population laureate," has announced at an international conference in New Delhi that education is "the key to controlling population." China's aim, he says, is "to limit our population to within 1.2 billion by the end of this century." This, he admits, will be "a Herculean task."
One-point-two billion. Never mind grasping the Chinese essence. You're kept busy enough comprehending the scale.
There is another item, tucked into a corner of the front page. "China on Monday opened Xianyang in Shaanxi Province, Dali in Yunnan Province, and some other cities and counties to foreigners, bringing the total to 148, according to the Ministry of Public Security." My emphasis, of course. I'd missed my permit for Xishuangbanna by a few miles, and now Dali has eluded me by a few days. God damn.
I put my paper down. Outside, the Yangtze has indeed widened. Stodgy little banks are visible, and that's all. No hills, no trees; just limitless nonexistent sky. I sigh and pick up a terrifying book by John Fowles, The Collector. My heart pounds all the way to Yueyang.
Well, hello, Changsha. My last stop. Changsha, in the middle of the densely-populated Hunan plains. Two hours by train from Yueyang, separated from it by miles of serene winter fields. Strange, delicately-hued fields, their green so light and fragile it might just float away into the hazy half-sunshine. Workers ploughing and hoeing, the land beginning to come alive again.
But the "Hello!" comes from behind me. I'm walking down the street back to the hotel, watching my shadow in the late afternoon light, and a wiry old codger on a woman's bicycle has just breezed past. It is incongruous enough to deserve a response. "Hi!"
The cyclist hesitates, slows to a halt. Wonderful. Here comes another ten-minute, what's-your-name-where-are-you-from conversation in rusty English and faltering Chinese. But it's a nice day, sun-suffused; I can afford to stroll, to make the rote responses, to let my mind wander where it chooses.
The man waits for me to draw alongside, then begins walking his bike beside me. "Where are you from?" he asks, looking up. He stands to my shoulder: a lively, sunken face, teeth stained but strong. And there's something in his eyes which it takes me a few minutes to notice. I'm watching the afternoon crowds on this Changsha main street: there's some real hustle, with little of the rush-hour world weariness of a western crowd.
I say something.
"Canada! Ah, I use to know people from Canada. They were Christians! Are you a Christian?"
The eyes. I smile uncertainly and tip my hand in the air, like a plane waggling its wings. "Mama huhu" - comme çi, comme ça. "Are you?"
"Yes! Oh, I believe in Lord Jesus Chrise."
That makes him the first Christian I've met knowingly, at least in China. "A practising Christian?"
"Yes, I go to church every week. Yesterday I go." There is no need to slow my usual long-legged amble; he's fit and spry.
"Your English is very good," I say, not out of obligation.
"Oh, no! I learn by self-study. The Voice of A-mer-i-ca, sometimes the BBC. Also, before Liberation, I learn how to read Bi-ble in English. The pastor, he also ran an English news-paper class, but I could not go."
We stroll along, the air cloyingly sweet with traffic fumes. Mr. Chun ("It means Spring!") tells his story. Or rather, Peter tells his story.
"Where did you get your English name?"
"From an English pastor. The same one who told me about Jesus. One day it was during the Second World War, I was studying physical education in Chongqing. My English teacher, his name was An-tho-ny, one day he took me to this church to hear the pastor speak. I became Christian."
He speaks volubly, with a tremendous suppressed excitement. Peter is 64. He teaches physical education at the Changsha No. 3 Middle School. I express suitable amazement at his stamina.
"Some of my students!" he says proudly, as a group of giggly girls go past, shooting us quick, surprised glances. "But I cannot talk to them," he says, and shakes his head to banish any creeping self-pity. "I am not allowed to talk of Jesus in my class. Only in church."
"What about at home? Do you have any children?"
"I have one daughter. She in Upper Middle School."
"Are you allowed to talk to her about Christianity?"
"She is a Christian," Peter says genially. He looks up again. "You know, I love countries like Canada, English, America. Because many people there believe in the Lord Jesus." He pauses reflectively and adds, "New Zealand."
"How many people are there in your church?"
"In this city there are - twenty thousand Christians."
"But many of those are still secret Christians." He makes the word sound like "cigarette." "Every Sunday they have a 'home service,' yes? Pray to God."
I want to collect my thoughts. What has happened to my rote encounter? So Peter and I discuss some of the Christian terminology in Chinese translation. God is Shangdi, "Heavenly King," as I expected. The various permutations of "Lord Jesus Christ" seem essentially phonetic approximations.
Peter pops into a store to buy a tracksuit. He comes out muttering. "It's too big. I am 105, this is 115." We walk on together.
"How did you feel after 1949 when the Communist Party took over and began cracking down on religion?"
"Uh. Sad," he says softly. "We all knew no real freedom. We would have no real freedom. You must always use English," he cautions suddenly. "You see, over there is a po-lice-man," sitting indifferently on the pavement. "If he hears English he won't listen. But if he hears you say 'Communist Party' in Chinese, he may stop me." I'd used the Chinese phrase, unsure whether he would know the English, but it is definitely unwise, and I nod apologetically.
Peter spits pensively, and then says with measured defiance: "But I don't afaird. I don't afaird because I believe in Lord Jesus Chrise. Do not," he adds emphatically. Then, "Do you like to eat Chinese food?"
"I've just eaten."
"Ah, I thought you might like. Now is just finish winter holiday, still much food - you see?" He points to rows of vegetables slumping on rickety sidewalk stands.
"What happened to your church during the Cultural Revolution?"
"Closed. Of course." He wrestles with something, then grabs at the orthodox. "The Gang of Four criticized many Christians, sent some to the country-side. The church was closed ten years. But it continue - in cigarette. Services, prayer meetings, three or five people. And then three years ago - Christmas Day, the church was open again."
"How wonderful," I say, moved. "Where is your church?"
"About two hundred metres from here." He points, but doesn't offer to take me to see it. He is quiet for a while, and then: "I am very glad to talk to you."
The Chinese burden: so much that must go unspoken; so many fundamentals that cannot easily be shared. "I am glad to talk to you, Peter."
"You must please never tell about this. Is our dialogue. Do not tell anyone in China. In your own country you may please tell."
"Would you get in trouble?"
"Because I work. A teacher." It's a sensitive occupation in New China, as in Old.
"How do you feel about Chinese young people? When they grow up to be adults, and never hear about Jesus, only about communism and the socialist spirit?" That's a question I've been waiting to ask someone for a long time. Peter gathers his thoughts before answering.
"After eighteen," he asserts finally, brow wrinkling. "Then we are allowed to tell them of the gospels."
I say nothing. I've seen what eighteen-year-old zombies this system can put on life's conveyor belt when it has a mind to. We have zombies in abundance where I come from, too. The difference is that in China they seem so often to be the best and the brightest so often it could break your heart.
"Peter, I won't tell anyone in China about this. But in my own country I do some writing, and I would like to write about you. Only, I won't say your real name, or which city you're from, alright?"
He smiles thinly, a weight gone. He trusts me. We have arrived at the gates of the school where he teaches.
"I would like to show you my school," Peter says. "But each school has one or two policemen, and twenty or forty people who are in the Communist Party ..."
"I understand. I don't want to give you trouble."
Still we stand by the gates, and a curious group of students gathers round. Some are Peter's. He points at one, a girl, and jokes loudly: "Hey! You're getting fat. We'll have to work on that!" The girl and her peers explode in giggles. "Fat!" they scream with delight and indignation, and hurry away.
"You can write to me here," Peter says, turning back, his eyes meeting mine briefly and then shifting nervously away. "Will you write to me from your country a letter?"
"Or telephone before you leave here. Yes, you can now write." I am pulling out my notebook to scribble his address. "If you have trouble," he adds.
What kind of trouble, practical or spiritual? Perhaps I could go to him with either.
I touch his sleeve lightly. "I will tell people in my country that there are still many people in China who believe in Jesus Christ," I say, feeling the inexplicable blush that comes whenever I take the Lord's name not in vain.
He looks at the pavement. "Thank you." Then he shakes my hand. "I say - God bless you!"
"Good-bye, Peter. My friend." Our eyes meet and then he looks away, real turmoil there.
We've walked for perhaps three-quarters of an hour, through strange areas of the city, but by chance I recognize where I am. There's a teahouse nearby, and I can write down our talk while it's still fresh in my mind.
I head off without looking back. It isn't until I turn the corner that I notice the broad grin creeping across my face. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He's sixty-four this year, and in a city that is not Changsha, he's putting groups of chubby middle-schoolers through their paces.
The bookstore has Mao's picture, of course.
It shares wallspace with about fifty other posters: famous actresses, vibrant flowers, smiling children with beachballs and a curious silver tint to their skin. I expect the Great Helmsman's Collected Works are on the shelves somewhere, but as usual the largest and most popular display is the foreign language dictionaries. It's the same all over China. I rub my hands against the chill - we're south of the Yangtze; why bother to heat a building? - and wonder whether, in the Maoist heyday, the Handbook of Current Americanisms would find a niche, would be pored over by avid throngs of second-language students.
For this is Shaoshan, and very near here, in 1893, an addition to the local Mao clan came into the world. To this site in the late 1960s came millions of the faithful, filing dutifully through the house where He was born, queuing for their look at the Mao museum (to this day the museum has two identical display rooms, all the better to process the masses, my dear). I'm here because I'm curious, and I've heard that the countryside in these parts is some of the more attractive and accessible in China.
There is only one way to get to Shaoshan short of joining an official tour. It's the commuter train, a jerky but amusing contraption that stops for a breather whenever it threatens to build up a head of steam. I'm one of two foreigners on the train this day; the attendants bring me tea. Most of the somnolent peasant crowd gets off before Shaoshan. The countryside does, indeed, look nice.
It is cold. Once out of the cavernous train station, with its immense portrait of Mao (one of just two left in China - the other hangs over the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Beijing), and a sign written in the Helmsman's chaotic calligraphy, I head across the street for a bowl of spicy noodles. Mao once claimed that the chili peppers in the food were responsible for Hunan's producing so many ardent revolutionaries: Zhou Enlai hailed from this province, I think, and one or two others, buffeted over the years by exaltation and disgrace. The peppers set up their own revolution in my stomach, and numb my lips. I order another bowl, slurping hungrily, conscious of stares.
The owner watches me - a short, lively woman in a dirty off-white smock. When I finish slurping, I ask her: "Can you tell me how to get to the house where Chairman Mao was born?"
Her brow crinkles, and she thinks for a while. Exchanges words with the woman minding the next stall. "Mao's house ..."
Her thoughts turn to the best way of squirming out of this one. Finally, she says, "I'm really not too clear on that."
Three little children down the dusty main road aren't too clear either, but they have a good time plumbing the familiar words for primary-school nostalgia. "Mao Zhuxi! Mao Zhuxi! Chairman Mao! No, we don't know."
Finally I end up at the bus station, and ticket lady points brusquely across the road, the public bus that plies the route. In the waiting hall there's a Mao statue, rigid and shining like cheap plastic in the subdued light. The Chairman's eyes are strangely sunken; he looks a little like a raccoon.
I take the bus through half an hour of still-wintry scenery. It stops outside the Shaoshan Guest House - a squat, comfortable-looking complex, almost empty of guests. Mao's house is down a path. Inside is Mao's bed. Or is it his brother's? A young lady is showing a group of Chinese around the dim interior. I can't read the expression on their faces, but I think it's closer to mild interest than reverence: Is this what all the fuss was about? The museum curators have preserved hoes and oil-lamps used by the Mao family. On the walls hang portraits of Mao's mother and father, as well as one of the brothers who died in the Civil War.
After a few minutes I head off by myself, walking a country lane into some quiet, fragrant countryside. A few of the houses still have faded, peeling slogans from the Sixties: "Long Live Chairman Mao!" A dog barks. The loudest sound is the twittering of the birds. I feel a little weary.
The bus back to the train station is one of those astounding sardine-tin affairs - I am actually awed enough to take a photo of the crush at the front door, before wading in to fight my way on. I wander up the same road where, earlier, the three kids had tried to aid me in my quest for His house. Two girls, eight or nine years old, gaily dressed, skip toward me. They eye the foreigner carefully. As they pass, I say, "Ni hao."
They stop dead and stare in disbelief. "Ni hao!"
I have a picture I want you to see in your mind. It was taken in a hillside park topped by another towering statue of Mao. On the left, grinning, stands little Tan Xia, all chubby cheeks and big childish teeth. She's wearing my tweed cap lopsided on her head. A violent orange scarf hangs round her neck, over her brown corduroy greatcoat, down to her knees.
The arm around her belongs to Mao Hua. The arm says: Whatever happens, this is my pal. Mao Hua has an appraising smirk. A mischievous glint is visible through her slitted eyelids. A bright-red Young Pioneer scarf is knotted, Girl Scout-style, around her collar. Her other arm hangs loosely, and her outside leg is twisted jauntily around as though she were about to execute a sweeping pivot. She has an ineffable air of confidence, of spontaneity, of knowing where it's at. Of the duo, she's perhaps the senior partner but too young to know it, or to care. And somewhere in Shaoshan's tangled thicket of second cousins thrice-removed, Mao Hua is one of the Chairman's relatives.
In an instant, Tan Xia and Mao Hua have grabbed my hands and are leading me on a tour of their environs. "You're so tall!" screeches Tan, leaping up when I'm not looking to pull on my scruffy beard.
"No!" Mao interjects. "Not up this way. It's a police academy." I drag them along for a look anyway. It is. We are shooed away by a guard whose vague suspicion melts to fatherly affection at the sight of my two escorts.
The children tell me a bit about themselves and what they're learning in school. I tell them where I'm from.
Mao perks up. "Your country is the second largest in the world!"
"Is Canada a socialist country?"
"Um, no," I confess.
"What is it, then?"
I let Tan Xia pull me on energetically at something just short of a gallop. "God, I forget the name in Chinese. Help me out. What's the opposite of socialism, of communism?"
"Ah! Zibenzhuyi. Capitalism."
"Yeah, that's the one. Well, we do have certain things that are socialist."
"Is Canada a better place than China?" Tan Xia chips in, fawning irresistibly.
"Well, our lives are better. More comfortable, I mean. But there are still many people who are not happy."
Mao Hua absorbs that information and says decisively, "Poor, you mean. They have no money."
"No, if they have no money the government usually gives them some." Not that kind of unhappiness, little ladies. Different. Am I getting the words for "happy" and "wealthy" mixed up? In the Chinese language, as in the old mentality, the two are so closely connected as to be inseparable.
Mao Hua says, "There is a student from this town who's studying in Canada. One in England, too. In London."
We skitter along the dirt roads of the countryside, never very far from the small town and my return train. Then the girls drag me to the local department store. I'm thinking they just want to see a foreigner's reaction to the goodies on display - but up on the dingy third floor works Mao's mother, and they want to show off their catch. I shrug my shoulders in mock distress at the smiling shopgirls; Tan and Mao collapse in giggles. Then I'm dragged out again, down the road to a local playground where some of their pals hang out. "You just don't worry, we'll get you to your train in time, our friends want to meet you!"
By the time we trot back into the town proper, I have an anarchic entourage of at least a dozen motley tykes. There is one little demon with a PLA fur cap and star; another similarly attired, but without the star; a tiny waif who clings to a branch three times his height and is watched over by a grinning but vigilant older sister. I feel dizzy - or giddy: the energy of it has overwhelmed me. They take turns hanging onto my hands, running a few feet ahead. The two budding PLA soldiers play sporadic war games with finger pistols.
"Do you know any Chinese songs?" I shout to Mao Hua, over the hubbub. "Like Da Hai?"
She and Tan began to sing it, and their faces register pleasure when I join in on the chorus. "Great sea, oh, great sea ..." We finish it with a flourish, I jump an octave on the last note, and then they implore me: "Now sing a Canadian song."
I know only about three, and they're all pretty trite: canoes and Indians and backpack-on-my-back. But I can give them a mean "Blowing in the Wind."
The whole maelstrom flows inexorably toward the train station to help me buy my ticket. We are, needless to say, attracting attention. Oh yes: everyone on Main Street is nudging each other, staring at the cluster around the foreigner's kneecaps. Do I care? I start in on the Beatles' "If I Fell." It sounds strange, haunting in the surroundings. 'Cos I couldn't stand the pain, and I / Would be sad if our new love was in vain ... The children manage a respectful near-hush until I finish, then they whoop it up gleefully.
The station attendant sternly bars the entrance to the merry horde while I go in to buy my ticket. She tries to give the kids a few severe words, but they come out sounding hollow. Soon she shakes her head and tries to hide the smile creeping across her features. When I exit, ticket in hand, the retinue picks me up again, carries me off to Mao Park. There my camera suddenly becomes the centre of attention. Not once but three times, they insist on grouping for a portrait despite my warnings that the contraption wasn't one of those new-fangled instant-picture jobs that every Chinese has heard rumours of.
Whenever I submit and begin unhooking my camera strap, a dozen war-cries fly heavenward, the disparate ingredients miraculously coalesce, becoming the most natural and disciplined subjects a snapshooter could hope for. At the base of the Mao statue. Back on the road to the station. At the station itself. I beg them to stay out of camera range while I take a shot of the building with its rare Mao portrait: the famous half-wry, half-glum visage. But it's no use. They swarm around me and pull together into a ragtag group, and when I look at the picture much later I see that everything is just right, everyone hanging onto everyone else and giggling, the sprite with the outsized branch seeming to enter from the left of the frame with an expression of 'Ello 'ello, wot's going on 'ere then? In the background Mao, his features now set in a mask of forced benevolence: "All right, children, you've had your bit of fun. Run along now; it's my picture he's really after."
After that, everyone disperses as magically as they'd drawn themselves together. I am left with the original Dynamic Duo, Tan Xia and Mao Hua, who scribble their names in my notebook for fun or posterity, whichever comes first. They see me off at the station. "You come again," Mao orders me.
"Yeah." I shake their hands and find my seat on the train. As we pull away, the Chinese gentleman across from me catches my attention. He points out the window to where Mao and Tan have dared to follow me. They're waving excitedly as the train moves off, and then I see them skipping back down the platform, nattering and beaming.
I sit back and light a cigarette, one of the Chinese brands; I'm getting used to them. Thinking. No doubt Tan Xia and Mao Hua will grow up to be good citizens. Mao is proud of her Young Pioneer scarf, she is alert and aware and intelligent - well on her way to becoming a good Party member, perhaps. More important, they might be terrific human beings, too. If they can keep a little of that rambunctiousness, that easy affection, the child's mischief and curiosity ...
A thousand miles north and a world away, Mao Hua's namesake lies in his cold granite mausoleum in Tian'anmen Square. Three days a week, thousands of Chinese queue for a chance to file past the crystal sarcophagus and gaze at Mao's stuffed, shrunken corpse, waxen head poking out from a blazing red flag. A month or so after my day in Shaoshan, in Beijing for a flying visit, I join the throngs. Several sentries enforce a religious hush as the masses shuffle in and out. Who would have thought a couple of hundred Chinese could refrain from smoking, coughing, or hoiking mucus noisily onto the floor for a full thirty seconds? There's a persistent rumour floating around Beijing's foreign community to the effect that Mao's left ear is falling off, despite the best restorative efforts of the nation's taxidermists. I make sure to hang a right inside the mausoleum and check the veracity of the tale myself. No: the ear seems attached firmly enough. But it isn't a lot of fun to look at flared, flattened, with a dull and nasty pallor to it. Mao himself looks like one of the shrivelled, mummified apples that grace Shanghai fruit stands in the off-season. The glare of overhead lighting doesn't quite disguise the brownish tint to the long-stilled features. When the corpse was first put on show, the artists responsible spoke of a special chemical process that would preserve the late Chairman for a thousand years.
Upstairs in the mausoleum is a room where you can still buy the good old cult-of-personality memorabilia. Mao chopsticks. Mao badges. Mao thermometers. But it's closed for the day.
The group shot in Shaoshan: Mao
Hua and Tan Xia at the left
(I can't remember which was which!)
The late-morning train to Shanghai was a through train, which meant you had to try your luck at getting a sleeping berth on board. For a couple of hours there didn't seem to be any. I sat morosely in a dense, smoky hard-seat section, where people sprawled in the aisles or threaded their way up and down the carriage. They were checking where people planned to get off, and would lounge by a seat if its occupant's destination was near.
Finally word was passed that the honoured foreign guest needed a nap. I made my way gratefully to the sleeper carriage. It was nearly empty.
I sat by the window for a couple of hours, watching the familiar but winter-dreary scenery stream past. The Changsha-Shanghai line was also the upper half of the popular Canton-Shanghai run, which I'd travelled when China was blinding green and the padis full of warm water; when the peasants squatted under fronded roofs in the field, seeking protection from the summer sun. I studied some Chinese, smoked some cigarettes, chatted idly with my bunkmates. Slept.
I was in a room. Somewhere I felt secure and at ease. Across from me, in a chair against the wall, was Lindsey. She was smiling, animated. We talked in an offhand humorous way about the trials of being apart for a year. All at once, but without any added intensity to the glow, I got up and went over to her. Sank in a mellow sort of way to my knees. Put my head in her lap, hugged her hips, and said: "It was so hard, you know." She knew. She said so and touched my hand. I started to cry peacefully: home.
The endless solid rocking of the carriage along night rails.
Shanghai, the familiar dormitory, and five weeks' worth of mail waiting. There was lots from Lindsey and I was glad. And one from Ole G., doing his national service with the Norwegian Navy.
And even if we are never to climb through that last layer of clouds and see the world from the top, we should be allowed to hope, hope until it is too late. Even if we are not to swim to the greatest depths and see the most profoundly absurd creatures in the creation, let us look for truth in the shallow pool left in our glass at the party's end without crying. And even if we should never find release from the torment in life, let us never look for freedom in death. And even if we should wrong those we love, let us never find edification in it ...
The poet composes prayers when he knows that his past is not even of interest to himself any more. Looking for something that will make the fear of the future less severe, he lets his mind create his own gods ... Still afraid of turning religious, he refuses to address his prayers to anything in specific.
Pretending to be honest he even tells the recipient of his rattlings how he made them, faking it even more, not disclosing the poseur hiding at the very centre of all his actions.
In the beginning there was man and man was alone. Feeling naked, a creature without fur, man created language, and as time passed the words hid not only the naked ape but his existence as well. Standing there, no longer naked, but not existing, man let language grow until in it, it held new and unknown pseudo-existence. And this is how the end began, not with bangs or whimpers but with an ease of speech that had nothing to do with an ease of thought.
In the end they saw the beginning coming back. The effort of it all had grown too great and there was nothing left but silence and the recreation of language. And the same circle yet again, over and over until the whole damn thing stopped from pollution or some stellar collision or something like that.
Okay, I have now taken the liberty of pouring some of my pessimism over you. But remember these are Western attitudes and do not let yourself be disconcerted. In the Middle-Kingdom-which-is-no-longer-a-kingdom, things and thoughts are different. I am just a symptom of how deep we have sunk and how little blessing there was in gaining greater wealth and complete material security for any part of the population.
Live well and enjoy the things that are offered thee!I smiled, remembering. There was a knock at the door. Ardis poked her head into the room. "Hui lai le! You're back!"
"Sure am," I said lamely, still smiling.
Created by Adam Jones, 1998. Photographs copyright 1998.
No copyright claimed for non-commercial use of text or images if author
is credited and notified.
Last updated: 12 October 2000.