|Travelogue - Home|
<started: 22 April, 2004>
I've had a hell of a time bringing myself to write about this trip. Something very strange infected my experience of this trip making it very difficult to write about. Mostly, as it was a shared experience, I was traveling with my mother, after all, I feel like I lived it, experienced it, discussed it, and have nothing more to say. It was an unusual moment in my life, for I've almost never traveled with another person, and hence, I guess it might be that solo travelers are more often writers for that very reason. Perhaps its the nature of traveling with others that limits ones ability to say anything about it. Furthermore, knowing that my mother will be reading anything I write, I loose all objective subjectivity (does that make any sense?) about the experience. Anything I say may alter her experience of the trip, and many things I wish to say I hesitate to, because it might affect her memories of our trip; hence I self-censor. So, into the fray, good luck to you all!
Filial duty is a funny thing. For a traveler, who's given himself over alternately to dissipation in pleasure and heartfelt, halfassed questing for absorption in meditation it takes a timbre of dissonance. But one thing was certain. I could not let my mother find fruition of her lifelong dream through a package tour. So long as there is breath in me, I OWED my mother this much. My giri, duty, obligation, indeed my very honor rested in ushering my mother safely through China, and giving her a taste of the life with which I have come to identify.
Months of planning resulted in the prepurchase of air tickets through China and a first four nights stay in a five star hotel. However, my own paranoid understanding dictated that I must arrive a solid three days prior to canvas the city, learn Chinese, and perform basic groundwork and reconnaissance. I decided on a Youth Hostel in advance, but pride dictated that I arrive in Beijing without any prior reservations (taken both ways).
My flight did not leave until Late afternoon, so I was able to wake up at Seven AM and stress for a full three hours over the minutia of leaving an apartment/base camp unattended whilst I jetted off to another corner of the globe. The gas was turned off. Every plug in the house removed from its outlet. Reserve computer shut down. Closet doors shut. Windows left cracked for ventilation, but main doors and windows locked. The refrigerator emptied of all perishables. The dishes washed. The floors swept. The shoes neatly aligned. Laundry done. Complete paranoid obsession condescended to.
So I walked to the train station, giving myself a solid thirty minutes to agonize over all the things I could possibly be forgetting. But once I boarded the train to Kyoto Station, My Home was forgotten, and my mind tuned to a single channel which would guide me to Beijing, noting every smell, every color, every bauble that could possibly be a clue to something. I checked my email at Kyoto station, being very judicious of my battery use (after all, there was no prima facia evidence my laptop charger would operate in China). Train to bus, Bus to Kansai International Airport; double checking Airport name on ticket with bus destination about three times. One final check of passport, visa, dates of expiry, etc. Checking in at the earliest possible time, passing through customs with a brief moment of panic, for I had forgotten to note my "gaijin card" Certificate of Alien Registration number, planning for contingencies should my reentry permit come into question, phone number in hand of the travel agent who had a photocopy of said information, but no question was asked. And I was cleared for takeoff. The international departure lounge at KIX actually had a free wireless access point, and a little desk with an outlet. Battery brought to 100 percent, email brought up-to-date. And I boarded the plane. China Airlines boards free-for-all style. A melee of people crowding for the gate was my initial taste of China.
Flight from Osaka to Dailin. The city which was the capital of Japanese Manchuria. The man in the seat beside me was a Chinese-Japanese who was studying economics. We engaged in a discussion of externality in economic systems, the study of the monetary value of public amenities like cultural artifacts, interspersed with translations between Japanese, English and Chinese of various critical expressions like "where's the bathroom," "please," "thank you," "I'm sorry" (for which there's no chinese equivalent), and most essentially, "Beer" and "one more beer, please."
The flight from Dailin to Beijing was short and uneventful.
I exited the plane. This is the moment of truth, the most stressful moment for me of any international travel. Will the powers that be let me into the country, and with all my belongings. Is all my paperwork in order? Yes. Curiously, since the connecting flight to Beijing was domestic, I was able to bypass customs. My backpack was one of the very first off the plane (I was among the very first to check in after all) and I was one of the first to hit the mob awaiting arrivals outside baggage claim. Head down, walking quickly, ignoring all offers out-of-hand, I walked purposefully until I was in the clear. Then turned back. Found the currency exchange window, cashed my first traveler's check. Turned again, enquired about the cost of a taxi from the Tourist information window verses the cost of a bus. Walked out the door, and before I knew what had happened had bought a ticket and boarded a bus. I took up two seats between my backpack and me, not willing to let it out of my sights until I'd fully assessed the situation on the ground, I pulled out my map, and reconnoitered. I turned to the couple in the seats across from me, and pointed at my map, at tien'amen square, at the floor of the bus, and grunted in broken English something to the effect of "this bus, here (pointing to map?)" He discussed it with his girlfriend and they pointed to a destination acceptably close to where I estimated my Youth Hostel to be. So I sat back and relaxed as the bus pulled away from the curb. My heart beat for the first time since leaving my house, and I took my first full breath.
As I attempted to follow the path of the bus (wholly unsuccessfully) on my map, I gathered my first impression of China. The girls sat arms akimbo, legs comfortably spread; boys and girls nuzzled and cuddled in the seat with impudence. Girls wore Jeans and tennis shoes. Everyone looked, confident, disdainful, even saucy. I don't know how it happened, but I had somehow left Japan and returned to America.
The bus cruised down what I would later learn was the flagship street of Chinese Urban Architecture, Jiangoumennei Dajie. It looks like a Los Vegas imitation of China. Pagoda roofs atop skyscrapers and curvaceous modern architecture. The road is twelve lanes wide, with two lanes for bikes and turning vehicles separated by medians from through traffic. There was no mistaking when we passed through even the darkened Tien'amen square, immediately in front of the main gates to the imperial palace, with a monumental portrait of Chairman Mao looking over all who should pass the epicenter of Beijing. Another long city block, and the bus stopped. Everyone stood up at once; I took this to be a sign that I should do the same, and we all piled off the bus into the loving arms of a half dozen taxi drivers and touts. Reflex kicked in, and very briskly, head down, I stepped off the bus, hands on my pockets sixth sense in overdrive, eyes looking behind my back and taking in full peripheral, I walked with confidence and determination away from everyone and everything to the most well lit area I could find. I walked until the crowd changed from travelers to locals going about their late evening business, and stopped by a well lit bench, away from passing traffic, in front of a massive building which turned out to be a bookstore with a stunning bell tower chime. I plopped down, hands shaking, giggling and swearing like a carnie with Tourette's, And looked around. I'd made it. I was now in China. One more face in the crowd. And it was cold.
And two women were selling ice cream. Nonsequiturs like these get filed away for later behind more pressing business. I broke out the fresh pack of tobacco I'd procured for the trip cracked it open and realized in my paranoia I'd not brought a lighter. Cursing myself, I pulled out my jacket, told myself to settle down, took my second breath, and bundled up against the cold. Rolled a cigarette and flagged down the first smoker to pass using the universal gesture for "can I bum a light?" (for nonsmokers: cigarette in one hand, imaginary lighter in the other, wearing an imploring, almost pathetic expression). Then I returned to my bench, my new home, and settled in for a much needed smoke.
Interestingly, when I wandered off to find a light, I noticed that I was completely comfortable turning my back on my backpack. My instincts were telling me that the city was completely safe, and there was no longer anything to fear. That China was just another place, just another city, full of people who wake up in the morning, take a piss, drink a caffeinated beverage, go about a day working a bullshit job that they hate, return home at night and imbibe an alcoholic beverage and pass every moment of leisure wondering about the opposite sex. And hence, that there was nothing to fear. When you find yourself to be in a place where this does not hold true, a place like Utah or Afghanistan, then worry.
But my months of anxiety leading up to this moment were cultivated. I drew my courage for this plunge from the fact that the day after arrival is always a letdown when everything has gone smoothly. Thus, in the event of drama, one just has a story to tell. Otherwise, count yourself lucky that your tale to tell is as dry as the one just related.
So after assessing the faces of every person who walked by, looking for desperation, despair, oppression and finding none, I set out upon the next mission: crossing the street. You have to understand Xichang'an Jie (same road, but the name changes several times depending on where it is in relation to the center of the city. Its complicated) is about as wide as a football field is long, with hectic, unpredictable traffic and a fence in the middle. Crossing isn't an obvious thing to do. But as I wandered back the direction from whence I'd come, a short distance to the other side of the bus stop was an underpass. Crossing the road, map in hand, I tried to match street signs with street names. The English didn't match up exactly, nor did the Chinese Characters. The fuckers. My map had the old Hanzhi, and the street signs were in the modern script. So I gave up on the map, and went to dead reckoning. Which proved to be curiously accurate. I had committed the map of central Beijing to memory before arrival, and was able to feel my way to the guest house without any problem. (An especial innate quality that makes up for otherwise being a Hudson). It was close to ten at this point, and the city was closing up shop for the night. I managed to find a steamed dumpling restaurant that was still open (though I was the last customer) and managed to fill my belly after China Airlines thoroughly sub-par "meal" which consisted of sandwiches... though they did get me a vegetarian meal on both flights, so no complaints. After dinner, I oriented myself and was right where I thought I was, got my bearings before plunging headlong into the darkened hutong, and managed to find my way to the lit sign of the Zhaolong Youth Hostel. After figuring out the check-in procedure, paying for two nights (hedging on finding another place for the last day before mom's arrival), I found my next requisite, the Youth Hostel Bar, and ordered a final beer for the night. (I was drinking on the flight and with dinner, but it wasn't taking hold.) Instantly, I made friends with the youth hostel staff (a luxury one does not enjoy at a proper hotel). One young woman hailing from outside Shanghai, and a young man from I forget where. Both spoke passable English and would answer all my questions in days to come. We chatted, and I had my final piece to the puzzle of confidence for involved in foreign travel: reliable, disinterested informants. We would become better acquainted over the remaining nights of my stay, and I would come to know enough about China to confidently usher my mother through the country with no problems at all.
After a long, long, long day, I retired to my four-bunk room, met my roommates, one of whom was Japanese, another was heading to Japan, having just arrived from Moscow via the Fabled Orient Express. As much as I wanted to pick his brain about that adventure, I could only lay my head to the bed and pass out cold.
I awoke about six hours later, early in the morning, like 7am early, for no good reason. Fully rested, I emerged into the courtyard of the hostel in search of tea, if not coffee, and the breakfast included in the cost of the bed (60 Chinese yuan < 600 Japanese yen < 6 US Dollars). Breakfast was sub-par, white bread, fried eggs, and something vaguely resembling hashbrowns; there were potatoes involved, but the resemblance sorta ended there. After chatting up the cute girl, Luo Yin Fen who works all day, from breakfast until late night in the bar (which functions as hers and her coworker's living room; they both live in residence), I set out in search of the hotel my mother had insisted, for the sake of emotional comfort, in booking through the travel agent. Now it was up to me to find the damned thing, without any directions and only an address written in Roman letters. The hotel, unfortunately, was only a year old, so nobody had ever heard of it. I got the basic region it most likely was in, and had collected a handful of maps, each with a distinct set of information, and set out in the early morning chill upon a "bicycle."
I use the term "bicycle" loosely. Besides meeting the basic requirements of the term bi- (two) cycle (wheels), little about this bicycle inspired confidence that its designer was anything but drunk. Having ridden for more than 25 years every variety of bicycle known to western engineering, I was now introduced to the chinese version of the same. Each part seemed unrelated to the other. For while it looked like a mountain bike, its front fork was wholly unlikely to survive jumping a curb. While the tires were studded, the rims were made of aluminum foil. And while there were gears and grip shifters, they were more for decorative purposes; a post-post-modern interpretation of shifting apparatti intended to evoke the futilities of human effort. But what was most profound in this rendition of "bicycle" was the frame geometry.
For those unfamiliar with the exacting science (including the Chinese Engineer responsible for this monstrosity) of Frame geometry, there is a precise relationship between the three angles of a bicycle frame's central triangle, which, actually, is a quadrangle when you factor in the head tube, which determines its performance characteristics. A steep head tube will give you a nimble bicycle, and a shallow angle will make the vehicle more stable. A seat tube angled too far forward will make you feel like you are falling over the handlebars, and one to far backward will make the bike seem like a plow. Half a degree difference in angle has made and broken entire companies of Italian racing frame designers, won races, lost fortunes, and resulted in the very death and dismemberment of riders, professional and amateur. Unaware of the gravity, nay, sanctity of frame geometry, this frame was apparently the ward of an apprentice welder of a factory in Inner Mongolia who had never seen a bicycle before and had as his only model to work from, besides the vague description given over an intermittent phone connection, a stray neighborhood yak.
But I exaggerate. Despite, or perhaps because of the occasionally dysfunctional brakes, the bike was exciting to ride. It was the only 'mountain bike" I've ever ridden that had a basket, and not one, but two bells (presumably to compensate for the absence of brakes). I set out on this paragon of interpretive design in search of the five-star Beijing Renaissance, by Marriott. But before I left, I studied the extensive wall map on the wall of the Bicycle rental "shop" ('closet' would be more appropriate as there was scarcely room for all seven of Dr. Frankenstein's bicycles in the place at the same time). I had a strangely involved conversation with the gentleman, who spoke perhaps five words of English about my day's itinerary, and whither and wherefore I was bound. He, too, had no idea whither my hotel was located, but we were in agreement that the northwest quadrant of this city of several million was a good place to start.
Taking one last look at my maps, I plotted a course that would take me through the majority of the right hand side of the city, familiarize me with the local topography, and leave me furthest from civilization when my "bicycle" inevitably disintegrated into the abstract sculpture it was initially intended to become. But first, I would have to navigate the narrow arteries of the hutong, teeming with locals, and strangely few stray animals. Past charcoal vendors on three wheeled bicycles, bundled up elderly, public urinals already reeking in the winter air, vendors selling all things deep fried, into the tourist area still yet to emerge from the night's slumber, and onto the main streets of Beijing. I began my dead reckoning and set my rum-line--sailor's parlance for the shortest distance between a ship tacking and jibing sea and rum in the harbor taverns--upon the northwest corner and began to zigzag through the streets of Beijing, the Tokyo of China. (literally. To-kyo means Eastern Capital, Bei-Jing means North Capital; jing and kyo are the same Kanji; Kyo-to means like capital-capital somehow).
As I passed the remnants of the old city walls of Beijing, mostly cleared away in the locust-like march of bulldozers across the urban landscape of modernizing China, I noticed old women performing a Tai Chi sword routine, the one in a pink track suit instructing the other two. She kept moving through her kata as she chatted with a passing elderly gentleman; and stopped only when she noticed that the others had become inextricably tangled in the web of movements. I turned off what was merely a six lane road with bicycle lanes separated by medians onto the inner belt road (chaoyangmen dajie) which I crossed on the obligatory pedestrian overpass. I paused to check my location against the map. The street signs were useless, correlating with none of my four maps. But I could see just ahead of me a medieval Observatory atop another remnant of the city wall. This allowed me to figure out that I'd covered about half the distance between my hotel and where I needed to start hunting for my hotel.
As I wandered the city on my trusty steed I began to notice the peculiar characteristic of Beijing that sets it apart from every city in the world. If one stays to the main roads, one is struck by how modern and cosmopolitan the city seems. However, a quick turn off the main road and the facade is stripped away. Monumental modern architecture gives way instantly to poverty and destitution. Immediately behind hypermodern ultra-highrise apartment blocks are single story hovels and litter-strewn vacant lots. A street facade of modernity is only a facade, and the squalor of the third world lurks in the back alley. A disoriented sense of vertigo overwhelms the careful observer, and one seems to be standing on the cusp of what it means to be a developing nation. This became my game. A few blocks along the main road, and a quick segue to the ancient. For the rest of my solo travel in Beijing I would explore the skin of modernity and quickly pierce into its subcutaneous culture, never knowing whence I dwelt.
Eventually I found the Beijing Renaissance, a five star hotel that could exist anywhere in the world without any modification except for the removal of the sign beside the bathroom sink warning that the tap water was non-potable. I pulled into the hotel roundabout and gestured meaningfully at my bicycle to the team of doormen. They indicated the bicycle parking lot behind the building, there I saw that my bike was at the upper end of sophistication compared to the transport used by the rest of the service industry employed by the hotel. Entering the hotel I became very conscious that I was underdressed, bedraggled after a four hour bike ride, yet suddenly greeted with a courtesy I had yet to witness in China. Passing through the automated revolving door, adorned with human-sized plastic flower arrangements I left the third world and abruptly entered the second. No less than six people bowed, scraped and welcomed me to the hotel. I enquired if anyone at the front desk spoke English, and began to explain why I was there. I had a reservation, well, actually it was my mother who had the reservation. They asked her name. The computer couldn't pull it up. She asked for the travel agency voucher. Oops, don't have that. They asked for the name of the travel agency. Couldn't help them there either. Hmmm. I gave my name. No luck there either. I handed them my passport. By some fluke, the reservation was recorded under surname"Palmer," my middle name, and My mother's first name. They gave me the name of the travel agency, and I ventured a "yes, that's it." They asked how many days we'd be staying. Hmmm... Not one hundred percent on that either. I began mentally berating myself for my lack of preparation, behind a plastered on bemused smile of self-assurance. Nevertheless, I was able to provide enough information for them to correct and confirm our reservation. Now the next trick. Would they let me check in, without any paperwork to confirm my identity, the afternoon before I met my mother at the airport. "No problem." And while we're at it, could they cash a traveler's check for me? That they couldn't do. Oh well. Off to find a bank.
On the way back, I found a bank, and tried to cash a traveler's check. Eventually finding my way to the appropriate window on the third try, I handed my traveler's check to the cashier. He looked at it like it was printed in sanskrit, discussed it with the other cashier and began filling out papers and stamping with a half dozen rubber stamps. He thrust a form ungraced by English through the opening in the bulletproof glass and said, "sign." I pleaded "where?" and he looked at me as if I were a fool, gesturing for 'anywhere'. So anywhere I signed the blank form, and, more stamping, then the man presumably the manager came around to his side. The two, in a well synchronized ballet of movement typed codes into two separate computers, one counted the money, passed it through a automated bill counter, passed it to the other, who again counted it, and finally passed the money to me. No please, no thank you, not even a fuck off. Both just turned away, ignored me and waited for me to go away. Confused (bemused smile still plastered across my lips), I turned away and went to find lunch. Home sweet home, I was back in the third world.
And on the way back to the Youth Hostel, noticing a scraping sound getting worse, I noticed that the chainrings on my chariot were rubbing away the rear triangle of the bicycle. I figured out that if I kicked it in a certain way it would stop rubbing, but that did nothing to change the fact that over the years, half the tubing connecting the rear wheel to the frame had been eroded. I could actually see the inside of the tubing. Putting my knowledge of structural mechanics aside, I basked in the ignorance of faith that that which had borne me thus far would bear me home, and pedaled on...
The next two days came and went, more bicycle exploration (using a different bike), a visit to the major shopping districts, discovery of the "Silk Market." Haggling has become an artform for me, and something I rarely tire doing. The more frivolous the item, the more brutal my tactics become. I will carry on negotiations for several days and in the end walk away over the difference of a dollar. I will laugh in a person's face that an alarm clock featuring the waving hand of Chairman Mao could possibly be worth more than three dollars. I will arrive fifteen minutes before closing time and dangle cash amounting to half her final offer before a saleswoman's eyes, half turned aside and edging away, with one hand on the imitation Louis Vuitton handbag, waiting for her to blink. The silk market was just one of those places in the world which brings out the incorrigible in the best of us all. My first time through I accidentally bought a knife because I countered 280 yen with 40 yen, and then stuck to it to the end, forgetting that it was actually worth 30.
For dinner one night I stopped in a restaurant that had an 'english menu' where items are translated 'fish' or 'pork intestines' or 'frog.' I was not daunted, picked a couple dishes and did alright. But as I was leaving to pay the check, I noticed three big glass vats on the counter, containing herbs, presumably vodka, and unspeakable things. Well, not unspeakable. One contained snakes. The next frogs, and the third was a mystery. I started to put two and two together and realized that, yes, these were for drinking. Two or three people discussed amongst themselves what the third might translate as. Eventually the struck upon, 'deer penis.' And whilst I'm no expert on deer anatomy, it did fit the bill. I nodded knowledgeably, bemused smile intact, but I don't think they believed me. The owner of the restaurant ladled me out a shot, and well, what's a man to do? Tastes like just what you'd imagine penis flavored vodka would taste like...
Anyway, I visited the Ancient Observatory at one point, the likes of which I visit at every opportunity and take careful notes for when I finally get around to building my wizard's tower, and finally, the day came to meet my mother at the airport. I knew the corridor between central Beijing and the Renaissance better than the locals, every restaurant, every pothole, and every shopping district. I knew the most important Chinese phrases of all, "Pi Jiao (beer), "Xie Xie" (thanks), and "Tai gue luh (too expensive)." I was ready to be a tour guide.
This day goes down as one of the most anxiously awaited and stressful in my life. I had been bluffing utter confidence that China would be no different than any other third world country and that a nearly sixty year old woman traveling with her nearly thirty year old son would have no difficulty finding their way in a strange and exotic land. I had been bluffing. Deep down inside me a terror of having no reasonable assurance that this would be the case had nagged me since I had first proposed our journey. She had accepted my bluff, and boarded a plane against her better judgment, putting her trust in me to guide her safely through what we both assumed would be The Heart of Darkness. But I, insisting "I know what I'm doing" bore unimaginable culpability should anything go wrong. Still, the conflict of honor and duty within me insisted that I assume the risk, and that I bear on my shoulders the heaviest burden of my life. For I, a traveler by archetype, I who have staked my honor and reputation, I who has thrown away a respectable life, a secure future, hopes and dreams of career and family, the I who has abandoned dreams of a comfortable life of organic farming in an intentional community of like-minded souls, who has gambled all on a turn of the roulette wheel of fate, abandoning everything to the possibility of a life of adventure, pleasure, dissipation on the one hand--or insight, enlightenment, and wisdom earned by loneliness suffering on the other--this "I" could not sit idly by whilst my mother actualized her childhood dream, the dreams of all her youth, middle age, and dawning twilight on a mere package tour of China.
It must be done. And now, I was to meet my mother at the airport, and the eyes of my ancestors were upon me to not fuck up.
I woke up, again unnecessarily early, and in order to allow for the most redundancy of options, set out walking for the Renaissance, a good 4 miles away. Stopping for lunch at a pizza place around noon and about a third of the way, I had my first beer for the day. On my back was my pack, more than half of whose contents were a laptop and camera equipment. And at a good pace I walked through the modernizing city of Beijing.
I passed what appeared to be the gates of a temple, but a temple in serious disrepair. I started. I recognized the form but something seemed amiss. Old timbers of monumental dimension, and craftsmanship designed to withstand the test of time stood in sharp relief against hastily constructed low-temperature fired brick shanties. I stepped inside what should have been the entry courtyard to a monastic compound and was met by an impromptu beer distribution center to my right, an ill-conceived traffic roundabout in the middle, and infill slums through the gates to both right and left. Broken asphalt, tiles, and brick, the detritus of tenements. And in front, a perfectly proportioned, taller than wide Temple gate. As I stepped inside and looked above, the remnants of mandalas could be seen on the ceiling. The twenty foot tall, foot thick door before me was ajar, slightly aslant, and visibly unhasped. Something felt terribly wrong. But unable to resist, I pushed the heavy door forward enough to pass through, and the corpse I saw inside chilled me to the bone.
Buildings, like bodies, have a life for a time, and die--often die--a natural death in time. Some buildings are mummified, preserved to become museum pieces of past glorious ages. Kyoto is a city of mummified remains of temples, some even still perform the functions of a temple, but much as a senile old servant continues to mimic the functions of their youth long after their services reach obsolescence. Occasionally a building finds new life in a new function, is born again so to speak, Churches become trendy restaurants or nightclubs which pay dissonant homage to the glory of their youth. But passing through the doors of this corpse a cold breeze blew through my soul and I could not move. Plastered over the front of the main Temple was a plastic sign proclaiming something I wanted to believe was religious, but to my right was a sign saying such and such publishing company. The courtyard had basketball hoops, a bench, a table. The building was a rotting corpse picked over by vultures. Nauseous, I couldn't go further.
In a daze, I left as I had come, not having the heart to take a picture. Once again on the street, I climbed an impressive overpass that ran diagonally from all four corners of a wide intersection, which afforded a somewhat aerial view of the architectural cemetery. Shops were carved into the outer walls of the compound. Ancient trees were still towering over the now sprawling infill hutong tenements. Tears burst from my eyes and I cried. The age of the Buddha Dharma passed nearly five hundred years ago, and I mourned its passing. Yet, a corpse provides fertile ground for new growth, and I let the tears flow to water that soil.
Returning to street level, the haphazardness of the modernization became apparent. Here and there the sidewalk was pinched to a narrow passage, the front steps for adjacent buildings rarely lined up, and the hastily constructed 'new' created a staccato rhythm with disheveled 'old'. And then in an instant an entire city block was gone, fenced, barren in preparation of new developments. Triads of skyscraper apartment blocks rose from the ashes, and in the midst of this another temple. New gray stone block, immaculate; venturing in, I found it was a mosque. Old men kneeling in afternoon prayer. White caps. concrete sidewalks. Traditional chinese design rendering indistinguishable at a glance whether Buddhist, Christian, or Muslim.
Walking on, Worker's Stadium. Passing from the 80's into the 70's. Tenements in an almost New York timbre. Close together, five stories, with bustling street-level shopping and restaurants. Now bordering the Embassy district. Walking up Sanlitung, the Foreigner's bar district, all the bars on the same side of the street, with such inspired names as "Number 58," and ""Number 47." Walled or fenced compounds of the Embassies themselves guarded by Chinese military. Unlike the majority of Beijing Security officers, these were armed. A wall, surrounded by a fence, surrounded by trees, but with a very clear and distinct 'gun-line' a clear line of sight from end to end which none shall cross in comfort. In this neighborhood, everything is clean, and modern, circa the 60's or seventies. Gridded streets are blocked from through traffic by movable fences, with guards monitoring access.
And finally, across the third belt road, and the growing pains of the 1990's era development. The sidewalks still under construction I passed the Microsoft tower. The Hilton, the Sheraton. You could be in any city in the world, except the sidewalk construction areas are not fenced, and there are too many workers, and as you pass, you walk amongst them.
I check into the hotel, and assess the internet situation. The room looks like any Marriott anywhere in the world. There are two beds (they thought Kathy was my wife and offered me a king; I politely declined mentioning that while my mother and I are close, we're not THAT close). Down comforters, really high thread-count sheets, a minibar with everything priced the same as it would be in Los Angeles, London, or Paris. And the in-room Internet is only available at the equivalent of ten dollars a day. I balk. Try half-heartedly to hack the system, but they've got a Cisco Router, and I'm sure they're keeping logs. I'd a couple hours to kill, so I explored the weight room, the sauna, the swimming pool (I don't trust swimming pools on the 15th floor. Just seems like bad feng shui) all top-notch. I lift some pointlessly heavy objects and steam out my bedraggled soul, enjoying the bourgeois luxuries that would have Chairman Mao turning in his sarcophagus.
Finally, to meet my mother at the airport. I take a taxi, meet her at the gate, turn around, we get in a taxi, and twenty minutes later walk into the hotel. She presents the voucher. Upstairs. She's clearly not at all aware of what's going on. Delirium of a 36 hour saga that started with an unseasonable February blizzard in North Carolina that forced her to drive to Washington D.C., to catch her connecting flight. A fourteen hour flight from D.C. and now, a five star hotel that would be more believable were it actually back on the D.C. Beltway. I can see in her eyes that this is not what she was expected, Nothing she's seen yet in any way suggests China, and so I know its time to act. Though she's not hungry, I'm famished, having forgotten to eat since noon; we cross the street for dinner. I order Jellyfish and Seaweed. She orders fried dumplings. We both order a Qing Dao beer. Tall ones. The jellyfish does nothing for her.
The first day, we visit The Forbidden City, truly one of the greatest Architectural expressions in the world. built in the something century by some emperor, with this and that building having been rebuilt by this and that emperor after thus and such innumerable fires (read a history book), this area was off-limits to the general public until Chairman Mao liberated it from the tyranny and extravagance of the Imperial court. Today restoration work is well underway sponsored by UNESCO and a number of other concerned entities. However, the work done is only a drop in the bucket. The maintenance was neglected for a number of years, and in the last hundred or two the Imperial family has been a bit strapped for cash. So only a small fraction of the complex is actually open to the public, and certain sections of it are awe-inspiringly disheveled. Most notably mind-numbing was the "Crown Jewels" collection. My mom and I calculated that this one musical instrument, something like a xylophone, but of gold bells totally 28 kilograms was sitting, dusty, in a dimly lit and filthy dirty display case, in a very cold, unheated hall. Diamond encrusted scabbards, solid gold Buddhas more than a meter tall were given similar treatment. The collection would foster the creation of museums in any other country, but here, grungy was the operative word.
Nevertheless, the architectural spaces will blow even the most jaded mind. Indeed, in terms of a progression of spaces, I've never seen, and doubt I will ever see its equal. Poetry more eloquent I have never read. As you walk in along the main road, you pass through Chairman Mao's gate, down a long promenade into the gates to the inner palace. After paying admission, you pass into a courtyard of monumental proportions, across a (second) moat, spanned by three bridges. Up a huge flight of stairs is the third gate, and now you're into the palace proper. This second courtyard is scaled down from the first, and finally it begins to approach livable space. Atop a long series of steps sits the main ceremonial temple. Around back of this, you enter a second, more intimate space, where there are two other pavilions used for preparation for the ceremonies, and more private affairs. All three of these pavilions are raised a good five meters from the ground level and the whole composition is facetted across an expansive courtyard paved with cut stone. Finally, behind this is the inner sanctum, the private residence of the Imperial harem. Entering this space, all the sense of monumentalness evaporates, and everything is finally human-scale. Gardens, flowers, ancient trees, and the only living building in the entire complex, a Taoist temple, sealed off from the public. The energy emanating is palpable, and gave me flashbacks.
We spent several hours wandering around until we were completely exhausted and overwhelmed. Flanking this central procession are wings upon wings of sub-building, other residences, museums of brass work, pottery and so forth. So much to see it would take a week to really absorb everything. The funniest moment of the whole day was while I was standing atop the platform for the three central temple pavilions. I was looking through the camera lens at maximum zoom scanning for artistic compositions when from afar I spotted this and nearly choked on tears and laughter.
After returning to the hotel for a rest (mom) and a sauna (me), we went out for dinner. What else do you eat in Beijing, except Peking Duck. Now, when they say 'duck,' they don't mean a piece of duck, they mean a whole damn duck. Brazed and oven roasted. We made the mistake of going to the most famous and eldest Peking Duck restaurant, predating even the Boxer Rebellion. For an appetizer we had the "Five Treasures of a Duck Soup." I couldn't get parallel to the "Eight Treasures of a Wheel-Turning Monarch" of Buddhist lore out of my mind, and giggled all the way through the course, pondering what treasure I was partaking of with every bite. After the soup, We ate duck number 3,546,478 or something. Like McDonalds used to, they keep track of each duck to leave the kitchen since 1850, and at the end of dinner present you with a serialized gift card, and the opportunity to have your photograph taken beneath the sign. A piece of advice. If you find yourself with a single other person going out for Peking duck, ask for half a duck and don't be modest on the side dishes. Duck is greasy, and alone it doesn't sit well with the metabolism. The best option is to go with a group of four or more. And skip the serialized duck restaurants, no matter how old and famous. That said, the duck was delicious. Peking duck is served with hoisin sauce, and wrapped mushu-style with pancakes. And if you're really slick you should be able to roll your pancakes using chopsticks. And despite a year of eating exclusively with chopsticks (even spaghetti!) I'm still not that elite.
Perhaps the most famous of Chinese attractions is the Great Wall (or, in Japanese, the 10,000 Li of road-castle; Banrinochojo; 10,000 li = 40,000 Km. Actual length was a mere 2,500 km). Before embarking on our greater China excursions, we set out to explore this most quintessential of Chinese tourist traps.
We decided against the hotel-organized tours, and tried to simply take a bus to the Great Wall. No such luck. Any visit to the wall is going to involve a package tour. We at least had the most local package tour. Gotta take what you can get, I guess. We went to where the local busses depart at the aft of Tien'amin square and waited with the proletariat.
The Great Wall is to the Northwest of Beijing, and was built in such n' such year by so n' so. It was intended to thwart the advances of the Mongol hoards, but was never particularly effective. A case in point was that we ended up spending the day atop the wall with our very own Mongolian, Ulzii, who was on her way home after spending a couple years studying in Singapore.
First thing I noticed about Ulzii was that, strangely, she was fluent in English. After teaching for nearly a year and living in Japan, I'd come to assume that fluency in English was simply impossible for Asians. In fact I can count on one hand the Asians I've met who have been fluent in English without actually living in an English speaking country upwards of five years. Yet, here was a girl a mere lass of 19 who could not only understand everything I said, but even got 99% of her prepositions right, and 90% of her articles. It begs the question of why it is so difficult for Japanese speakers to learn English; especially considering Mongolian and Japanese are in the same language family (with Korean and Turkish for some reason). But that's subject for another rant.
The Great Wall is just that. Richard Nixon said it best in 1972 while visiting, "It sure is a great wall." There's not a lot more to say. Its massive, it consists of steep steps and precipitous drops, strategic outposts on the outside of the wall, and affords commanding views. The section we visited was the Most restored of the official visitation points. Badaling Pass. Here one can see the wall as it was 400 years ago. The original wall was a simple affair of rammed earth with presumably brick facing. But it was built and rebuilt and rebuilt over the years. So its best not to think about it as being ever fully operational, but rather a construction project lingering over a thousand years. THe most recent full restoration being at Badaling. There are a few other places where one can see the wall in its less touristy, more ruinous form, but we didn't have the time to explore. Besides, it was friggin' cold and mountainous.
As we were on a package tour, the next stop was the Ming tombs. These are a really impressive sepulchers, as far as tombs go, if you're into that sorta thing. I dig tombs (hehe), but mom was a bit put off that we were roped into it. Nevertheless, we enjoyed ourselves, all the more for being accompanied by the charming Ulzii. She gave an interesting counter-narrative, a window into the opposite side of Chinese history. She told us such things as that the Mongols are a little bitter at Kublai Khan for putting his capital in Beijing. But, considering that there are just over a million and a half people in Mongolia, it appears people have been looking for an excuse to leave for centuries. Another famous Mongol who left was Jalailudin Rumi, the Sufi Poet most people associate with Konya, Turkey. He was a sixteenth century Mongol expat. Again, another story.
There's so much to tell, but this is becoming a book that I don't want to write... Let's move on to
I've never been fond of the disconnect caused by air travel. Flying always leaves me slightly dissatisfied, for although my nose is invariably plastered to the window, I have only the faintest idea of what's transpiring below me. I much prefer to be down in the dirt, to experience the dust and grime, to travel as closely as possible to street level. Walking is preferred, but time constraints often require more expedient means.
Since walking to Xi'an was unpracticable, we opted for air travel. Leaving Beijing at a reasonable hour, and arriving an hour and a half later; the airplane flew threw clear skies, but descended through a palpable haze that was the wrong color to be moisture. The beige air formed a strata as we dropped below perhaps a thousand meters and in all directions to the horizon a distinct line could be seen between upper and lower atmosphere. Xi'an is on the edge of the desert that rises up to the Tibetan Plateau to the southeast and Inner Mongolia to the northeast.
The old capital, Xi'an, bears the same relationship to Beijing as Kyoto to Tokyo. Xi'an is the seat of the Chin dynasty of 200 BC from which China derives its English name. For all their recorded history, they lost one of the most unusual and idiosyncratic of artistic expressions of the Orient for several thousand years. This is in part due to the fact that it was buried, and presumably most of the people connected with its construction were buried with it. But the Imperial Tombs of Xi'an are stunning for their lack of precedent and antecedent. Its as if someone came up with a great idea, who was completely out of touch with the greater forces of history which surrounded him. My completely unfounded and unresearched opinion, or rather instinct, says that someone took a walk to Greece (not as far as it seems) and came back with the idea of figure sculpture. This idea was implemented for the purpose of burying an Emperor or two, and then the idea was committed to a tomb, never again to reemerge in this part of Asia.
You can see the reconstructed remains here: >.<
Anyway, one day some farmers set out to dig a well, and came up with a head or two, and after the obligatory looting, notified the officials that something strange and unusual lurking beneath their fields. This was 30 years ago. Thankfully slowly, in order to allow Chinese Archaeology to catch up with the 21st century, they have been excavating the site. The tell is beautiful in its exhumation. The wooden timbers which supported the roof did not snap and collapse at some point, but rather, gracefully bent, slowly crushing the underlying (understanding?) figurines. The resulting waveform is lyrical and sabishi beyond belief. To imagine the forces that constructed this ruins, the thousands of years required, the intermittent burning and looting of the ages, and then to see them slowly emerging from the dust... It is a counterpoint to my Beijing Bicycle regarding the efforts of humankind. The phoenix is, after all, originally a Chinese bird.
Anyway, my mother and I stepped off the plane into a peculiarly small regional airport which bore the label "International Airport" much as I bear the label "English Teacher." I had found new confidence in the fact that my mother had not been killed, mugged, or kidnapped during our stay in Beijing. We approached the "tourist information desk" at the airport so I could indulge in some gratuitous reconnaissance. By asking leading questions and lowering baited hooks, it is possible to derive free advice from even the most reticent money grubbing "tourist information" counters. My first question is usually, "do you have a map?" And from there it leads into an unfair exchange where I illicit information in English which would not be given in Chinese. Its hard to explain, but counterintelligence is a big part of the game of Third World Travel. By what information is offered freely, and what is withheld I have found that entire regions of the world can be sized up in fifteen short minutes. Such was my agenda, and yet, I made the curious decision, instincts aflair, to fall in with the sales pitch instead of going it alone. To myself I rationalized that this was to appease my mother and to deflect culpability should I be wrong. But we boarded a bus, and I did not run when approached by an agent upon debarkment. Instead, I let them take me into their lair, and Mom let me do all the talking. And the fun began. I fired questions at the agent and did not give her pour soul the breathing room necessary for her canned spiel. Instead, I fed her by the spoonful the information she needed to provide us with the information we required. I deliberately quoted her figures a solid half of what I was prepared to (have my mom) pay, just to unsettle her, and make her feel better when she doubled us on the figure I'd given her. It is always a dance, and if one keeps hold of the lead, it can be quite entertaining.
Although we got a good room at a good price, there was a catch. Now a travel agency knew where we lived!!! This has the immediate disadvantage of opening the door to phone solicitation. In my previous travel in the third world I'd never paid for the luxury of a phone in my room. In fact, this will in the future be the cutoff point of luxury for me. If the room includes a phone, I'm not interested. The first night we were in the hotel, we received a phonecall. It was from a taxi driver cum tour guide who was offering to take us to see the terra cotta soldiers. Never one to pass up free information, I turned the tables and picked his brain for the tidbits of interest to me; how long it took to get there and to see everything, where the tombs were located, and of course, how much a round trip taxi would cost. Then I told him thanks, we would not require his services and could he kindly fuck off. Or something to the effect. A stranger in a strange land cannot afford to make enemies, Though I ran that risk twice this trip. This was the first time. Anyway, the next morning when the phone rang again, I unplugged it. And the third time it rang I realized there was a phone still connected in the bathroom, which I also unplugged. The next day housekeeping reconnected the phones. These are luxuries the backpacker never has to reckon with...
The hotel we found ourselves in was an authentic Chinese-style Hotel (which is to say a curious Chinese interpretation of Western hotels). This tier of hotel design would remain our standard for the rest of the trip. Between overly firm double beds stood a nightstand console that controls all the electronics of the room. There's usually even a switch intended to be wired to the TV to switch between the four channels available in a previous generation. But among the most interesting of accoutrements in the hotel room was optional pay-per-use male and female genital sanitizer packets. These were extensions of the hand-i-wipe concept (balls-i-wipe?) Yes, D'an, someone beat you to the Male Douche. My mom and I had a hearty laugh together, and private reservations about the clientele of the hotel.
As we were only in Xi'an for three days and two nights, Our only full day was of course spent at the Tomb of the Terra Cotta Soldiers. This was built by some guy, or possibly a team of guys, many years ago for some reason God only knows. We might have known more, or at least had a pseudo-intellectual answer to the whys and wherefores, but my arrogance and conceit refuses to allow me to listen to anyone, especially tour guides. The third world, as you might know, has no shortage of tour guides. And they have all, at some point in the past propositioned me. And I have universally told each and every one of them to fuck off, even when I've been completely perplexed and desperate to know the inside scoop. I think maybe there's something wrong with me. But after some good natured haggling for a cab ride (I knew the mid-range price at this point), negotiating for a non-smoking driver, and finally an exciting Cab ride through rural China from the present-day location of Xi'an to the outskirts where the (presumably) Imperial tombs are located, we debarked and were immediately marked as prey by all the tourguides and touts in the area. As it was off-season, tourguides outnumbered tourists by a ratio of at least two to one, and I was close to procuring a stick for the purpose of tour-extrication. But with mom following my lead, we alternately ignored and confronted would-be guides, and parried tour offers from young, old, and beautiful alike. When we finally made it inside the Museum compound, I made the mistake of asking a tourguide where the bathroom was. He started to give me a tour. I just about slapped him.
Once inside the museum proper the guides were no longer permitted to solicit, so we were at peace to piece together the exhibition. This is when I can indulge in my favorite tourist-destination hobby: mooching off other peoples' tours. The way this works is you take out your tripod which your loving father gave you for christmas and set it up pretending to be a serious photographer. Then you stand before something that looks quintessential to the construction of a museum, doing whatever it is that photographers do that causes it to take an hour photograph a rock, or pile of rocks, or landscape of rocks. Mostly this involves staring through the lens purposefully and alternately walking around the camera meaningfully. Eventually, a tour group will approach the pile of rocks in question, and the tour guide will go on his or her spiel about how this particular pile of rocks was stacked by Such and Such emperor in So and So year, and how it is a miracle that it has survived the vicissitudes of time given such and such an invasion and so and so on. All those dates and times and names intended to make you feel more knowledgeable but which get filed in the same mental cabinet as all the facts from highschool history. Right beside your knowledge of trigonometry. Anyway, tours illicitly procured like this are so much more interesting because they take on the quality of uninformed hearsay, and leave you feeling if not factually informed, at least gossip-tudinally "in the know."
A final word about this. Whilst the statues all start out like this, they are meticulously reassembled in a staging area like this and ultimately put back in the pits from whence they came like this. Suddenly 30 years doesn't seem so long for the project, does it? They are only about a quarter of the way through the pits so far discovered, and these probably aren't the only pits in the area to contain Terra Cotta soldiers...
Besides the obvious tourist attractions of Xi'an, the drum and bell towers and the sundry ruins surrounding the city, the muslim quarter is definitely a real-world experience. A traditional market-street oriented neighborhood, the main street of which is accessed by a passageway under the drum tower, which functions as the neighborhood's gate. Xi'an, a fortified city on the edge of the desert, is surrounded by a huge city wall and the old muslim quarter follows a classical defensible city design, Though not apparent to the untrained eye, access to the neighborhood, which lies squarely within the city walls, is also restricted to a very few passageways. This is not an objectively gridded neighborhood, but a carefully planned enclave.
Walking down the streets one could easily be anywhere in the third world. Butcher shops with halved cattle hanging from meathooks line the sidewalk. Piles of bones spill out of open shopfronts. Spices and unidentifiabledried fruits adorn pushcarts lining the main thoroughfare. And the obligatory 'mystery snacks' tempt the bravehearted. Old people sit purposefully loitering on their front stoops, and children returning from school kick frolic and play. Family, tradition, and civic unity pervade. Middle aged men wearing white muslim kufi hats. What distinguishes this market from others I've visited are the birds. Imprisoned songbirds sing plaintively of freedom lost and their inability to find a mate. They add a certain sabishi quality to the whole scene, which is quite poetic. They were (are?) everywhere throughout the Muslim Quarter.
The highpoint of our trip in Xi'an was the dumpling dinner. In this picture, our hotel is in the background, and the restaurant is the first two floors of the building in the fore. This dinner was definitely in the top ten dinners in terms of preparation, presentation, exoticness and downright oishi-ness (delicious-ness) of all the dinners I've ever had anywhere. Okay, I don't really have such a list, but if I did, it would have been up there... Each diner is served 18 dumplings, give or take, in settings of threes. They range from sweet to savory and the ingredients run the gamut from bean paste and pumpkin to frog and squid. You name it, they put it in a dumpling, steam, and serve. The dinner was finished by a soup containing mini-dumplings (sans filling): the quantity contained in a single ladle-full, when properly interpreted would divine one's future. But, having forgotten to take notes, I can't recall the system. If anyone goes to Xi'an and eats at the dumpling restaurant there, please remind me!
My mother and I, being on the same page, were at the airport maybe two hours early, even though earliest check-in was an hour and a half before departure (Chinese airports are really really small; from the check-in counter in Xi'an you can practically see your plane just behind the security checkpoint). The flight to guilin was uneventful, giving me plenty of time to obsess over what was to come. I had read my Lonely Planet, and it had braced me for the worst in Guilin. Guilin is to China as, maybe, New Orleans is to America, except more people go to Guilin. In fact, the majestic scenery has been drawing tourists to the area for thousands of years. However, in the current wave of modernization following the decision that the cultural revolution was just a BAD idea, They have been endeavoring to turn Guilin into a Daytona Beach meets Orlando. Half Disney World, half whatever's worse than Disney World, Guilin is doing its best to make a truly tasteless and tacky, culturally void tourist resort. Currently the project is in midstream, so it is actually quite nice. The park in the center of town has two semi-authentic looking pagodas and offers dinner cruises around a series of artificial ponds where every tree is illuminated with malibu floodlamps and they are slowly tinselifying the town to catch the illumination. It will be truly hideous in ten years, but today its almost worth a visit, except for one thing.
The same darkness that creates these hells-on-earth, dens of iniquity, pleasure domes, also attracts parasitic minions that endeavor to attach themselves to you and leach from you your sustenance; these parasites feed on commissions obtained by sidling in between you and whatever place or service you may try to engage. Thus, it is practically impossible to do anything or go anywhere without the interference of a would-be-go-between. These parasites--I think William S. Burroughs called them mugwumps--make even the shortest stay intolerable. But, having braced myself, having been adequately prepared by The Good Book, I put on a happy face and prepared to steer my mother through the gates of hell.
Debarking the plane was drama-free, the visit to the tourist desk at the airport this time was much briefer, for I wasn't going to contract with them ever again. I reconnoitered the price of a taxi, ("oh, how much is a taxi? how much is your bus? Oh wow, a taxi's expensive, huh. Well, we'll think about it...") And then to the taxi stand. Guide book in hand (mistake number one) I pointed to the hotel's name in Chinese Characters to which we wanted to go. There was too much discussion among all the taxi drivers, we got into the car and off we went, a bit unnerved at how much discussion had just taken place. It was dark when we arrived, and one always feels more vulnerable at night. One feels even more vulnerable when one has an older woman as one's ward (I loose the option of running). So when the phone rings, and its for me, I was at full alert. My voice was butter, I was beyond polite, I was ingratiating. I discussed where we were heading with the "man on the phone" who introduced himself by a western name. An alias, though understandable in China where names are unpronounceable on the first go by even the most careful westerner, is a really bad sign. He was telling me how he had this other hotel which offered a better view, was cheaper, and (between the lines, for which he would get a commission) which was rather close to the hotel we were heading to. So, again, engaging him for several minutes to assess prices of this and that hotel, studying the map I had procured from the tourist office for 50 yuan, I eventually worked around to tell him, ever so politely that we would not require his services and that as grateful as we were, I bade him a good night. My heart restarted beating, and I breathed deeply after a very very difficult act.
But when I stepped out of the taxi, in front of the hotel, under the lights, in a crowd of people, and who should present his card to me but--David was his name--the man on the phone, I went for blood. I think the first words out of my mouth after he said "we talked on the phone" were ice cold and full of menace, "what the fuck are you doing here, huh?" I stepped out of the cab, measuring the distance between myself and everyone else, and also everyone who was near my mother, in an glance assessing friend or foe--there are no innocent bystanders in moments like this--like a streetfighter I stepped straight into David's face and repeated my question, just what the FUCK was he doing here. I let loose fully fluent English for the first and only time on the trip because only in my native tongue, the tongue that has guided me safely through the underworld all these years, the tongue that knows no innocence, the tongue even few of my friends have ever heard could I successfully explain to David across the linguistic divide that he was in danger [honestly, how many of you have ever seen, or could even imagine me as 'menacing'. Not me!] Nevertheless, watching his hands like a knifefighter waiting for the draw, watching the corner of his lip and the glint in his eye, I proceeded to unleash a torrent of abuse and overtly hostile verbiage atop alpha-male posturing. Okay, I took it too far. But I knew we were not out of the woods yet. My mother was petrified. The taxi driver was sure he wasn't getting paid for the ride. The bellman was staying way way way the fuck out of it. I was saying police about every fifth word, And was desperately close to touching him, pushing him, punching him, but really was just trying to draw a punch from him, which would have been so much more effective. But the stalemate ended when I saw the street shine in his eyes. I saw that this was his home and that I was the stranger here. I read in his eyes the story of his friends, his connections, and the distance between me, my mother and our next of kin. He was emissary to that darkness, and I was merely posturing in its face; furthermore, I was threatening his livelihood. So he moved away from the door of the hotel, I ushered my mother inside with my eyes, never losing consciousness of her for a moment in the whole encounter, and moved on to the second stage. David was history; we never saw him again. As I approached the front desk, the attendant was white as a sheet. I forced a smile onto my lips, downshifted into second from fifth, and rapidly decelerated to a polite demeanor. My blood pressure dropped back to a non-combatant level, and I began negotiating for the price of a room. I successfully dropped the price to a round 300 per night from the list price of 480, an additional 20 yen from where it should be. I was not going to leave the hotel immediately with David lurking in the night. I did have the presence of mind to keep his business card, of course. At this point another man, standing on the same side of the counter as me approached. He was not wearing a hotel uniform, but obviously had insider status with the hotel. The third world is a web of alliances and allegiances, and while David did not step through the door of the hotel without a customer in toe, this man was closer to the hotel, But he made a mistake of his own. He began by asking me what happened at the door. I shifted into third and explained to him, allowing myself to get worked up, how it feels to be in a taxi, at night, in a country you are unfamiliar with and no ability to communicate with your driver beyond pointing to a map and to receive a phonecall. I then lectured him on how unacceptable it was for someone to whom I'd already said no to show up on the doorstep and try again. Here comes his mistake... he said, "but David is a friend of mine..." Pedal to the floor, speedshift to fourth. Now its time to extend the lesson. So you KNOW him, he's your FRIEND. He backpedaled... "not a friend, but sometimes he brings 'us' business." It was not lost on me that he attached himself to the hotel with that 'us'. I had now a thread running from a legal contract with a hotel, a paper trail, a tour guide, and then to David. I was beginning to have some semblance of protection from my imagination's worst connotation of David and was beginning to knit myself into the web of relationships. Despite his back-pedaling, I jumped down his throat, as he was being professional, about unethical business practices. But he, sensing fear in my voice, insisted that David was not a threat (I had seen his eyes, I knew different), I told him, Last burst of speed in fifth on a homestretch straightaway, "I'm not worried about my safety, I'm worried about his." And it was over. I got my point across. And I made it crystal clear to all within earshot that we were not to be harassed by any more touts or tour offers. Indeed, he gave me his card and went away. The staff tiptoed around me for the rest of our stay. It was funny. When we were finally safely in our room, I had to explain to my mother everything that had transpired, and apologize for overreacting. But, sometimes, you know, the pressure builds, and well... you know...
So our immunity from package tour offers lasted until morning. I picked up and slammed the phone down on whomever might have been calling, as my mother and I went in search of a light western breakfast. Which, I figured would be a challenge, but one I was up for. Instinctively I realized my insistence on avoiding tours was bordering on quixotic, but heck, Quixote is my middle name. So, I took the biggest risk of the whole trip, and trusted my intuition to lead not just me, but my mother as well. We spent an hour in an unsuccessful search for breakfast (breakfast in China is noodles; and Starbucks has not found Guilin yet... WiL; is there someone you can talk to about that?). The only restaurant serving Western breakfast was a five-star hotel, charging an 'exorbitant' ten dollars for an all-you-can-eat buffet. When mom balked, I sacrificed what I guessed would be our only chance for breakfast for the novelty of seeing my mother begin to think like a backpacker. It was a precious moment for me, well worth the hunger pangs and lack of coffee it might bring. Anyway, we found something resembling a bakery, managed to piece together some biscuits and fruit, headed back to the hotel and made tea in our room. Once supped, we set out in search of a boat to take us down the river.
Now, checking out of a hotel with no definite plan for the next leg is second nature for me, but for my mom, this was a leap of faith, faith in me, her son, which is a burden I am loath to bear. I no longer trusted any of my sources of information, and merely had a mark on a map indicating "tourist wharf" to go by. To talk to a travel agent and arrange a boat trip at this point would be to admit defeat, and I was not yet beaten. That would come shortly.
Our hotel was a short distance from the "tourist wharf," but in cities of this nature, short distances are like short distances in minefields; proof that not only time, but space is relative to perception. We walked, mom rolling her suitcase, my pack firmly on my back, in the direction indicated by the map. We made it perhaps a hundred yard before the first man "practicing his english" arrived. He was an English teacher, was his story, and he taught school in this region, in fact he was born in the provence and was an honest hard working man, who just happened to know the only way down the river was not where we were heading, for he knew also where we were heading, but rather was a short distance away whence he would be happy to guide us. I steered mom through a crowd practicing Tai Chi and Ballroom dance, successfully shaking him from our tail for a short distance, but not before he had teamed up with another tout, a woman, who even claimed to "have a boat" for us to use to travel down the river... I dispatched him roughly at this point, assuring my mother that all the information he had given us was probably correct, but that I just wanted to set my mind at ease, and get to the 'tourist wharf to see it with my own eyes.
Sure enough, all the boats had already left. In fact, March being the off-season, and the river being low, the tour boats didn't even come to this part of the river (again, we would learn why shortly. The beauty of backpacking is that without a plan, the narrative unfolds much like in a novel; reading writing about backpacking is actually rather close to the experience of actually being a backpacker: things unfold unpredictably). Having arrived at the wharf we could see it was unlikely that boats would be landing there; further, I could sense from the energy of the place that it was dormant, in hibernation, and that no boats had left there recently. Which begged the question of from where they did leave. My mom looked up at me, her trusting eyes never wavering, but simply pensive about what was to come. This being the first setback of our trip, and the first time I'd apparently misguided her, she didn't know what to think. I could tell she was nervous, anxious, and forcing herself to be calm and go with the flow. So, I began lecturing on contingency plans. The hotel David wanted us to stay at was, conveniently, across the street from us at that point. We knew their rates, and we knew that there were vacancies. Worst case, we'd stay another night in Guilin, and take a boat tour the following morning. But that was still a plan "B". It was not yet patently clear that boats would not be departing from where we were sitting. So I advised the wisest course of action was to sit down, and for me to smoke a cigarette, and to just let things sort themselves out. Sure enough, after a few minutes, we were approached by another tout. This man seemed very friendly, polite, he didn't have a lead in story, he didn't set out to deceive, he realized that none of that was necessary, for here were two tourists with all their luggage sitting in a place where a boat would not arrive for several months. Our intention was clear, and the necessary connections were quite easy. Together we did the math. One (foreign) person on the tour boat costs 450 Chinese Yuan (about fifty bucks) which includes lunch. Therefore for the two of us, it would cost 900 yuan. Furthermore, this boat doesn't travel the whole river, but instead a bus takes you several kilometers down the river first. Now, the alternative, which nobody really seemed eager to sell us (I still can't imagine why) was to charter our own small motor boat to take us down the river. Now I couldn't help but notice the hesitation in the voice of all three people who had, at this point suggested to us to rent a private motorboat. From this I could surmise the condition of the boat we'd be chartering; which is to say I knew it would float, and, failing that, that my mother could swim.
Our tourguide took us to the wharf where small motorboats departed, and we boarded a really sketchy looking craft with a friendly looking driver who spoke no English. The nice thing about river travel being that its pretty difficult to get lost, and so our necessary communication would be restricted to stop and go, easily gestured. Next thing we knew we were heading down the river in an aluminum hulled motor boat, in a river so shallow that in many places the pilot had to lift the engine from the water for fear of damaging the propeller on the shallow bottom. The advantage of this vantage was that we were extremely up close and personal with the locals. Water could splash over the bow, and we could weave in between the tour boats. I was in heaven. This boat ride was my portion of this trip to China. Everything else was for my mom, but this was what I had coveted in my heart as the one thing I insisted upon in China. I wanted to take photographs that looked like Sumi paintings. For thousands of years people have painted these ethereal mountains, and I could not go to my grave happily without joining their numbers. I got one or two good shots I think
These hills are all karst cliffs, limestone intrusions in a softer stone that were exposed as the surrounding media washed away as the sea level receded, or the seabed was pushed up by tectonic activity, which amounts to the same thing. In any case, at some point it was all a big, flat, level, sea bed, and that's why the peaks are all actually about the same height. These formations are quite unique in the world, the only possible parallel being the mesas of Arizona and New Mexico, except there its all sandstone; but same idea, an old seabed gone dry. The fundamental difference here being that this region is sub-tropical and lush.
Truly one of the natural wonders of the world, and all the better for the effort to get there.
We made our way down the river at a quick pace and eventually began overtaking the other boats whose departure we had fortuitously missed. . As we wove through the tour boats at high speed when the river was deep enough to pass with the agility of a taxi amongst city busses. Every time we'd pass boat, mom would wave to the tourists like a debutante. She seemed so young, younger than I could ever remember, and for a moment our roles were reversed and I was watching her with the proud eyes of a parent, vicariously enjoying her pleasure from the jagged jaded pinnacle of age and experience. Toward Yangshou the mountains level out little, the valley opens up, and the river deepens. Our driver picked up speed and we were now flying over wakes and cutting in and out like bandits. The way beamed joy she reminded me of myself as a child.
Arriving in Yangshou, we were dropped off just to the edge of the wharf We had to scramble over rocks to get to the dock. And then from there we joined the hoard of arriving tourists. Yangshou was one of the backpacker enclaves in China. For the majority of tourists, Yangshou is a daytrip from Guilin. Hence, waves of tourists arrive at the wharf in Guilin in the afternoon, and leave in the evening. This defines the daily rhythm of the town. On the western side of town is "West Street" which is usually referred to as "Westerner's Street." This is where the backpackers congregate on their way to and from Vietnam and Laos, via Kunming and Nanning. Its a bastion of omelets, pizza and coffee in the otherwise uninterrupted fare of Chinese food. Proper western breakfasts can be had, as well as strange parodies of ethnic dishes of all stripes. Westerner's street is not so much a part of China as it is part of the Backpacker's International circuit. It compares to Goa, Kao San Road, Katmandu, and a dozen other cities in the Asian backpackers circuit which have more in common with each other than with their respective immediate surroundings.
We stayed our first night at a "resort hotel" that claimed to have beautiful gardens and 3ish star accommodation. But after the first night, we were disappointed with the billing and set out to find a more homey feeling hotel. Walking into town we had spotted a hotel that had balconies overlooking the river, and made reservations there for the following night. We were not disappointed. For eight dollars we had the best hotel room of our stay in China. We had a personal relationship with the owner and all the other perks of true backpacker travel. There was a telephone, but nobody called us to try and solicit a tour. There was a TV and we could occasionally find an English program. But most importantly, there was a balcony that afforded excellent people-watching.
We didn't do much in Yangshou. That was my intention. I knew that by this point we would want a vacation within our vacations, so for six days we wandered around town buying silly trinkets and haggling for days on end. When we did venture out, we didn't go far. Everything to see was in walking or biking distance. Now, bicycling distance for me is nothing special. But it'd been a while since mom had ridden a bicycle. In fact, dad was none to pleased to learn that I had put her on a bicycle at all. However, we had quite an adventure on two proper full suspension mountain bikes, riding through the rice paddies and on two lane highways in search of moon hill.
Moon hill is so named because its a karst cliff with a hole in the top, said to look like a moon. Its interesting enough, but lining the road to moon hill is an impressive selection of roadside attractions. From caves to explore to hot-air balloon rides. We forewent all the attractions, settling on a leisurely stroll through rural China On several occasions we had to fend off overzealous touts selling postcards and film, but it was all part of the game. I just resorted to extreme closeup counter-pest photography.
We managed to get lost a few times on the way back, and by the end of the ride we were both pretty exhausted. In the middle of a roundabout, mom got distracted by the noise and confusion of traffic and bumped into my back tire. She dumped her bike and nearly hit her head on the curb. Disaster nearly struck, but she's still nimble and we managed to return to our hotel safely. The only casualty was her bum was sore for about three days after.
Most of the rest of our time was spent eating, sleeping, shopping, and wandering through the city parks of Yangshou. After some recuperation, and a first glimmering of understanding of Chinese rural life, we prepared for the denouement to our trip. We took a taxi to the airport, and boarded a plane to Beijing. Before we'd left the first time I had scouted out a more centrally located hotel, and we'd made reservations. All we had left to do in Beijing was souvenir shopping and a few spurious tourist destinations.
We spent our last three days together in Beijing. The other must-see in Beijing being The Summer Palace, a sprawling complex of temples, pavilions, giftshops, and boat-rentals. I'll spare you the picturesque descriptions. We were both somewhat worn out at this point, but despite that, its lovely.
For a little local culture, we decided on nearly our last night to see a show which the add assured us was "Very Cirque du Solei." At first I had misread this to mean Cirque du Solei was in town... The woman in the ticket office was nice enough to correct my misperception. China, as you are undoubtedly aware is famous for its acrobatics, and there are many troupes around the country. They go to great lengths to distinguish themselves... This act went to far as to wear colorful costumes, employ sparkly stage sets and employ two Russians. But as impressive as the feats may have been, there was very little Cirque du Solei about it.
Before mom left, we visited the infamous Silk Market, and bought Silk carpets for her and my sister. This was a great thrill to me, for in more than two years of third world travel I have inspected several thousand silk carpets. I have honed my bargaining skills from India to Turkey and of course, Morocco--where it is physically impossible to enter the country without visiting a carpet shop; its practically a visa requirement. Now, I had the blessing of somebody else's money to spend, and dispassionate haggling. We took this into three days of bargaining, visited five shops to assure ourselves of what we were getting, and squeezed the last drop of blood from the stone. It was a pleasure and a delight, and mom and Suzanne both got carpets that they love.
Finally, the day came when Mom departed. She accompanied me to the youth hostel where I would stay for the remainder of my trip (so she would know where I was if for some reason her plane didn't leave China). Then I went with her to the airport where I kept my eyes on her until the last possible minute. There was a moment of tension when her seat turned out to not be reserved on the plane. I watched her sweat from the other side of the 'ticketed passengers only' gate for about fifteen minutes before I implored the guard to let me through to see what was the matter. (Imploring is fun when two people share not a language). Eventually, her seat was confirmed and the flush left her face. I escorted her clear through to passport control this time and sent her on her way home...
My last three days in Beijing were spent on a battleship of a bicycle. Where the first bike I had in Beijing was abstract art, there was nothing conceptual about this bike. Manufactured out of solid steal bars, with rims and a seat of concrete, this bike was designed to withstand the apocalypse. However, it had the added perk of a swivel seat; wrench the seat bolt until the metal bent, and still it twisted. I guess I could have adapted its design, but I kind of just enjoyed the added challenge. This was a serious bike, with serious brakes, a serious basket and a lock that would thwart even a New York City thief. Considering you only lock a bike to itself in Asia, this was gratuitous, but amusing. I loved this bike. I had to rent it from a different Youth Hostel than the one I was staying in (which isn't worth mentioning); This bike lives in the Worker's Stadium, and a workhorse it is. I swear it weighed upwards of 35 pounds without exaggeration. When you wanted to start moving you had one of two options: lash it to the back of a motorized vehicle, or stand up in the saddle, putting all your weight onto the upturned pedal and weight for the inevitable pull of gravity. Eventually potential energy would relent to kinetic, and no further exertion would be needed. Once this vessel reached its cruising velocity, it stayed there; headwinds, typhoons, tsunamis be damned. It was a fine piece of machinery.
Three days alone in Beijing.
My dutch roommate in the youth hostel was sick with dysentery when I arrived. He'd just returned from his third bicycle tour of Tibet, assuring me that its totally doable and worthwhile, and proving that no matter how experienced you gullet, you can still get sick. He ended up missing his flight, however, proving my deepest paranoia. Five years of travel has taught me that its not what you don't know that bites you in the ass. Its what you THINK you know that gets you every time. The false sense of security of knowing is the devil. Better to remain perpetually ignorant, and to constantly recheck even the most trivial details, such as departure times. He arrived for his "3 o'clock flight" precisely two hours after the plane had taken off. Thus, he was stuck with four extra days to kill in Beijing. I tried to convince him it could be worse. But then, Beijing isn't really the most exciting of places in the world once you've been there five or six times.
My last days were spent haggling. Haggling for Louis Vuitton-- even doing internet research thereon. I haggled so much I had to haggle for an extra suitcase to bring everything back in. The suitcase I bought almost made it all the way to my house before disintegrating. I was able to repair the wheel that jammed, and carry it in such a way that the seams that broke were inconsequential, so everything worked out. But boy did I get a good deal on that suitcase!!! Three days haggling over that one... And jeans, a three days haggle for a pair of "Diesel" jeans, and I, after a three days battle with a girl I really liked, was still too fucking cheap to come down the last dollar,but found someone even more shameless who would.
And then there's my favorite neighborhood, the Russian neighborhood, which seems to cater exclusively to organized crime. Besides the outdoor poolhalls, there's this really creepy upmarket shopping center surrounded by moneychangers who lurk outside this particular Bank of China as they do nowhere else in Beijing. The scent of organized crime lends a heady mystique. There were too many women who were too beautiful and too well dressed darting about too purposefully to even be whores. But the shopping mall I can't even begin to describe. Seven floors, and every shop had a tiny window display, and closed or curtained doors. None of the merchandise had prices on it, when you eventually built up the courage to walk in and be so bold as to actually shop in them. The stores all felt like fronts, selling stupidly high end Italian merchandise to... I can't imagine whom. Everyone in the building looked at me like I was the shabbiest thing they'd had the misfortune to lay eyes on, and none of the clerks deigned to talk to me, but kept an eye on me in case I might try to actually touch anything.
And finally, finally, we come to the end, and I returned home to Japan. Stepping off the plane, breathing the familiar air, Seeing the familiar signs, that even though I still couldn't read were at least written in a familiar unfamiliar language. Being greeted with the apogee of politeness by uniformed, total strangers. Waved through customs as if I were a local. Being confident using the twelve words of the language that I do know by heart without having to think them in English first. Back into the surreality that is my home; Japan.
<finished: 10 June, 2004>
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